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The benefits of training attention

Universities need to take an active role in cultivating this fundamental tool for student learning.


What is the fundamental tool students rely on to learn and study? Attention.

We all know what attention is but it’s difficult to precisely define. A metaphor is helpful. Attention is like light: whatever it focuses on, it makes visible. This light can be broad and encompass many things. Or it can be narrow, like a laser, and encompass one thing. When the light of attention makes something visible, functionally, that thing becomes our reality.

Attention can focus on three things: thoughts, sensations, or emotions. These categories can blend together but distinctions are useful. If a thought about the past or future comes up, such as a past trauma, that thought becomes our reality for the moment(s), our attention is focused on that thought. If it’s a sensation, such as an itchy nose, that itchyness functionally becomes our reality so long as our attention is directed on the itch. If someone says something hurtful and anger arises in you, you’re swept away by the emotion as long as your attention is focused on it. Anger, then, becomes your reality.

We can actively choose where to direct our attention or passively let our attention be guided. Let’s call this active attention and passive attention. Neither is intrinsically bad. Both have their place. Active attention can be good because it allows us to focus on what we truly want to. Passive attention can also be good since it can allow for creativity to flourish. The importance lies in having both in their proper place.

A student can be in class but not in class

Just because a student is physically in class does not mean they’re actually in class. As we all know, students can be on their phones, laptops, doodling, chatting with their friends, etc. Functionally, this means the student isn’t in class. Their attention is somewhere else so they are somewhere else.

Moreover, just because a student is looking at the professor does not mean they’re actually attending to what the professor is saying (not to mention understanding, but that’s a different issue). A student could be looking at the professor and be drifting off into some thought about the past or the future. Instead of attending to what the professor is saying, they could be thinking about some assignment for another class. Or they could be attending to an ache in their left knee. Or they could be attending to some past trauma or future anxiety with the powerful emotions sweeping them away.

This isn’t to blame students or moralize against them. Even “good student” types engage in these acts. It’s to acknowledge fact in order to improve student experience.

How attention can be trained

Thankfully, we’re not doomed to be victims of unhelpful passive attention. We can train and cultivate active attention.

Meditation is a powerful, useful, and secular way to train attention. Mindfulness meditation is a great example of this. It is derived from Buddhism but can be practiced in a perfectly secular context. Mindfulness meditation is essentially about cultivating active attention. When attention focuses on one thing, such as the breath, attention is calm and focused.

We have all had moments where attention is like this, whether we meditate or not. Some people call this a “flow state”. During a “flow state” attention is focused on one thing, such as writing, reading, listening, or doing some other activity. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations still arise, but they seamlessly pass through attention.

Why universities should train attention

If students are taught how to train attention, this drastically increases the chance of students actually being in class while also physically being in class. It increases the chance of the professors’ words hitting the mark. After all, if no one is focusing on what the professor is saying, the professor is lecturing into the abyss. It also increases the chance of students being able to focus on their readings, projects, and work when outside of class. Lastly, it can improve students’ mental health. There are numerous studies which link meditation to positive mental health. -In an increasingly fast-paced world with endless opportunities to grab our attention, the ability to regain control over our attention grows in importance.

There are multiple ways this could be implemented. There could be a mandatory introductory meditation class, meditation electives, and workshops provided and promoted by the university. There are lots of different ways and some universities are already doing it. My point is that all universities should integrate formal opportunities to train attention. To have the best learning environment, the fundamental tool which we use to learn must be honed.

Tejas Pandya is a master’s student studying philosophy at Dalhousie University.

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