What Stephen Covey taught us about the neuroscience of focus

I was saddened to hear of the death of Stephen Covey yesterday. He was a truly inspirational figure who studied human behaviour and drew up a set of simple instructions for human happiness – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

One of these habits was –‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’

Covey proposed that happiness in life depends not only in having a focus or goal (i.e. the main thing) but in having the discipline to stay focused on that goal (i.e. keeping the main thing the main thing). He contended that one reason why people fail to achieve their full potential was in not staying focused on that goal.

Where in the brain do we create focus and how can we strengthen it?

There are two types of focused attention in two separate regions of the brain. The prefrontal lobes are in charge of goal setting and willful concentration; if you are studying for a test or writing a novel, the impetus and the orders come from there. But if there is a sudden, riveting event – the attack of a tiger or the scream of a child – it is the parietal lobes behind each ear that are activated. Neuroscientists have learned that these two brain regions sustain concentration when neurons emit pulses of electricity at specific rates – faster frequencies for the automatic processing of the parietal cortex, slower frequencies for the deliberate, intentional work of the prefrontal.

Furthermore, studies of seasoned meditators – Tibetan Buddhist monks show that regular meditation – i.e. paying attention on purpose – generates brain wave patterns which synchronise neuronal firing in both the frontal and parietal lobes – a phenomenon which is thought to underlie the sustained concentration involved in focused attention i.e. in keeping the main thing the main thing.  In fact, the ability of mediation to strengthen the connection between these two key brain regions involved in sustained concentration explains the ability of seasoned meditators to stay calm and focused.

These finding on attention in the brain may also radically alter our understanding of attention disorders and provide new opportunities to learn how brains pay attention in real world settings and acquire healthy habits to stay focused and prevent distraction.

The Empathic Brain

Empathy is a powerful interpersonal tool which is under-valued in our society.  Ineed it is a skill that is frequently underutilised. Perhaps this is in part due to the misconception that em-pathetic somehow implies pathetic? It is often confused with sympathetic, but while empathy denotes a deep emotional understanding of another’s feelings or problems, sympathy is more general and can apply to small annoyances or setbacks.

In Deep Brain Learning: Pathways to Potential with Challenging Youth, Brendtro, Mitchell, and McCall summarize empathy as follows:

Empathy is the foundation of moral development and pro-social behavior. The original word began in the German language as Einfuhlung which is literally translated as feeling into. Empathy taps the ability of mirror neurons to display in our own brain the emotions, thoughts, and motives of another. Empathy allows us to share anothers joy and pain and motivates care and concern.

Stephen Covey writes in his book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Empathetic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with.  Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you are dealing with the reality inside the other person’s head.

Empathy allows us to not only  interact with each other effectively, but
also to predict the actions, intentions, and feelings of others. A useful trait indeed. But is empathy something that we can cultivate or is it more innate? Are we hard wired for empathy?

Despite the advances in our understanding of neuroplasticity, research on the empathic brain is still in its early stages. In recent years, the field of social neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural underpinnings of empathy.

In an interesting review paper,”The Social Neuroscience of Empathy“, Tania Singer and Claus Lamm of the University of Zurich,  give an overview of this research, and provide recommendations for future research. If you are interested in learning more, you can download a pdf copy by clicking here.

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