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Brain functions: Attention

7 min. reading time

This week is a special blog week that focuses on three "functions" of our brain. Our brains all have habits that guide us through life in simple ways. While these features often have many advantages, they also have, of course.... Disadvantages. This week, read about which features of our brain can cause pain - and what you can do about it.

Feature 1: Anything you pay attention to grows

You may be familiar with the saying, "Everything you pay attention to grows." It's a statement by Aristotle - one of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers. Nowadays, it mainly means that the things you pay attention to will take a bigger and bigger place in your life and thoughts.

This place is also "taken" in your brain! Brain researchers have found that more areas in your brain are occupied when you get better at something. For example, an experienced violinist has much more brain activity when listening to a classical concert than someone who doesn't play an instrument! 

So when we pay attention to something and repeat it often, it 'grows'. In other words, you get 'better' at it. But, this doesn't just apply to the good, fun or meaningful things in life. 

brain attention

When attention works against us

When your pain gets a lot of attention, it "grows." The brain becomes more active, and the pain may even increase - without anything having changed in your body! This is why many people with long-lasting pain feel more and more pain - the brain gets 'better' at pain. 

We also see this on brain scans. Someone with long-lasting pain has a much more active brain in pain than someone with little 'pain experience'. Their brain has gotten better at pain.... 

So the trick is to pay less attention to anything related to pain. These are thoughts about the pain, behaviors that can increase the pain, but also the pain itself or other negative feelings. 

Train your attention

is what I call the path that lends itself the most: Mindfulness. Mindfulness is primarily a way to train the "muscle" of attention. To become more aware of when attention is being sucked back into pain, and to free yourself from it. I write regularly about mindfulness on this blog, but if you want to learn more about it right now, visit headspace, calm oder tenpercent (all English!). 

Next time there will be a blog about function 2: The automatic brain 

Brain functions: Attention

More guidance on how to decrease your pain