Why attention matters – musings on investigating meditation with musicians

A couple of years ago, I received an invitation to present on the topic of music and mindfulness for a symposium featuring some preeminent researchers. One of these scholars was none other than Richard Davidson, author of The Emotional Life of the Brain, and head of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Richardson’s work touches on a number of fascinating subjects, but he is perhaps best know for his studies on meditation and its relationship to wellbeing. I could go on and on about Dr. Davidson’s contributions to the field of neuroscience, meditation research, and more, but suffice it to say that this is someone whose work has had a significant impact on how we think about the brain, emotions, wellbeing, along with a range of other topics.

I was – not surprisingly, incredibly honored and more than a little bit anxious about the prospect of speaking at the same venue as an academic superstar. Additionally, the venue itself proposed interesting challenges, being structured as a symposium about mindfulness that was open to everyone from academics to the general public. In preparing for this talk, I wondered what to say about my work that might be compelling for this type of audience. Specifically, I asked myself what fundamental questions or curiosities drive my scholarship, hoping to discover something salient to base an engaging narrative upon. While it was difficult to come up with a definitive “why”, I think presenting brought me much closer to identifying what it is that fascinates me, and perhaps, by fleshing out some of these thoughts and questions, it might help explain why I believe this line of inquiry is so interesting and engaging for me.

When I tell people that I do research on attention, more often that not, I receive quizzical, indifferent, or even moderately contemptuous looks. This is understandable. We take attention for granted, since from the moment we wake up, our experience is nearly instantly and automatically populated by perceptions, thoughts, sensations, emotions, and a host of other “stuff” that helps us feel like an “I” with a sense of time and psychological continuity. Sometimes, we choose to relegate some of this content to the foreground of our experience, using it as a means for rumination, meaningful action, emotional regulation, or simply exploration. Other times, the content chooses us. Either way, this experience of focusing on something at the exclusion of other things – whether chosen or not, is what we commonly refer to as “paying attention.”

This experience is so ubiquitous that for many people, it warrants nothing further than the recognition that it exists. However, when this capacity leads us into unexpected territory, such as when we are surprised by the content of our focus, or as is often the case, unable to summon it at will, we are reminded of how much power this particular faculty has over the quality of our everyday experience. When the object or subject of our attention is something that we respond to with pleasure, joy, or curiosity – whether we chose it or not, then we are happy to sustain it there for as long as possible. However, when the opposite happens, and we are unable to purposefully move away from negatively colored or distracting thoughts, then the quality of our experience suffers, perhaps leading us to wonder if we are truly at the mercy of our inability to attend, or if there might be something that we can do to help promote a better outcome.

To add to this dilemma, the nature of attention is surprisingly complex. From a neuroscientific perspective, focus, or what we commonly refer to as “paying attention”, is only one of many ways in which attention functions. According to the work of neuroscientists Michael Posner and Steven Petersen, the human attention system can be divided into three functional subsystems; orienting, conflict monitoring, and alertness. In Posner and Petersen’s model, orienting describes attention to a specific target or set of targets at the expense of others, conflict monitoring is what occurs when we prioritize among competing tasks or stimuli, and alerting consists of our ability to maintain a state of vigilance. If you’re wondering how all of this relates to music, then perhaps a little detour might be in order. For the sake of illustration, let’s examine what a musician might experience during the course of a typical ensemble rehearsal.

As a musician rehearses, her awareness is flooded with an ongoing and varying stream of musically and non-musically related thoughts, perceptions, and experiences. Either by choice, chance, or conditioning, this stream is often further divided into a hierarchy consisting of percepts that require focused and immediate attention, as well as percepts that don’t. For example, it might be necessary for a musician to focus singularly on matching pitch during a particular passage, causing them to purposefully ignore or at the very least suppress other important musical cues and processes that may be happening at the same time. In other contexts, musicians may need to switch between a number of equally important and competing processes, such as attending to a conductor, monitoring the quality and volume of their own sound, listening for stylistic nuances, and looking ahead in preparation for a difficult passage. Finally, there are just times when a musician simply needs to be vigilant, allowing the ebb and flow of what occurs in their environment to dictate what is necessary in each particular moment.

While it is obvious to me that attention plays a significant role in how we process all of this, I am more compelled by examining how the relative quality of our attention, including our ability to control it, affects our overall appraisal of these experiences, both in time and after the fact. This fundamental curiosity about the role of attention in musical processing is perhaps one of the main reasons I became interested in mindfulness and its relationship to music. We know, for example, that mindfulness helps to modify attention, and in turn, improves not only the efficacy of specific cognitive functions, but also the subjective quality of everyday experiences. Often, the two go hand in hand, in that a specific cognitive improvement leads to a heightened sense of subjective wellbeing, perhaps because like many thinkers have already alluded to, the parsing of the cognitive and emotional domains of life are more of a convenient semantic tool than an accurate description of reality – if such a thing exists!

If this is the case, it leads me to wonder how enhancing these attentional faculties might affect our ability to perform, experience, think about, and otherwise interact with music. Even more importantly, would these enhancements matter, and if so, to whom and in what context? This relationship between mindfulness, music listening, attention, and flow was the topic of one of my initial investigations as a researcher in the field of music education, and while I would describe the results of this particular study as highly speculative and in need of replication, the results did hint at some kind of change in both the focus and subjective quality of musicians’ listening experiences due to mindfulness.

While none of my studies about music and mindfulness have left me with definitive conclusions, they have provided me with a number of new questions, and what I believe are worthwhile avenues of exploration. Years later, these questions continue to fascinate me as I explore new avenues of research, along with new ways of working with this information as a teacher and musician.

References

Diaz, F. M. (2013). Mindfulness, attention, and flow during music listening: An empirical investigation. Psychology of Music, 41(1), 42-58.

Petersen, S. E., & Posner, M. I. (2012). The attention system of the human brain: 20 years after. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 73.

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