In the Mental Gym

"Think of attention as a mental muscle that we can strengthen by a workout. Memorization works that muscle, as does concentration. The mental analog of lifting a free weight over and over is noticing when our mind wanders and bringing it back to target.

"That happens to be the essence of one-pointed focus in meditation, which, seen through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, typically involves attention training. You're told to keep your focus on one thing, such as a mantra or your breath. Try it for a while and inevitably your mind wanders off.

"So the universal instructions are these: when your mind wanders — and you notice that it has wandered — bring it back to your point of focus and sustain your attention there. And when your mind wanders off again, do the same. And again. And again. And again.

"Neuroscientists at Emory University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of meditators going through this simple movement of mind. There are four steps in this cognitive cycle: the mind wanders, you notice it's wandering, you shift your attention to your breath, and you keep it there.

"During mind wandering the brain activates the usual medial circuitry. At the moment you notice your mind has wandered, another attention network, this one for salience, perks up. And as you shift focus back to your breath and keep it there, prefrontal cognitive control circuits take over.

"As in any workout, the more reps the stronger the muscle becomes. More-experienced meditators, one study found, were able to deactivate their medial strip more rapidly after noticing mind wandering; as their thoughts become less 'sticky' with practice, it becomes easier to drop thoughts and return to the breath. There was more neural connectivity between the region for mind wandering and those that disengage attention. The increased connectivity in the brains of the long-term meditators, this study suggests, are analogous to those competitive weight lifters with the perfect pecs.

"Muscle builders know you won't get a six-pack belly by lifting free weights — you need to do a particular set of crunches that work the relevant muscles. Specific muscles respond to particular training regimens. So it is with attention training. Concentration on one point of focus is the basic attention builder, but that strength can be applied in many different ways.

"In the mental gym, as in any fitness training, the specifics of practice make all the difference."