The Four Phases of Focus

What happens to the brain during meditation?

When researcher Wendy Hasenkamp was at Emory University, she and her team ran experiments on focused meditation aided by the fMRI[1]. In the end, the researchers came to recognize a distinct pattern among their subjects, a four-phase process involving four distinct brain areas.

When subjects entered the fMRI scanner, they were told to focus on the sensation of their own breathing. The subject’s insula (related to a person’s focus, or lack thereof) would default towards mind wandering. When that happened and the subject became aware of the fact that they were no longer concentrating on their breathing, they were instructed to press a button.

When the subjects tried to refocus on their breathing, their salience network would take over. This is the part of the brain that registers sudden attention shifts, alerting you to nearby distractions. Your salience network might be more aptly named your distraction network, and for many of us, this network is frequently on high alert. Just attempting to concentrate on your own breaths, something you don’t regularly do, becomes a challenge—especially when you’re crammed inside an fMRI as the subject of an experiment.

In the third phase, the test subject would attempt to decouple their salience network and wrestle back focus from distraction in order to renew their concentration.

Finally, in the last stage, the prefrontal cortex’s executive control center would reestablish its dominance and restore focus on the subject’s breath, moving that focused breathing back into awareness.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about an experiment on breath concentration or just living our daily lives, this four-stage process of focusing, mind wandering, decoupling and reestablishing focus is a ritual that we practice over and over all day long. The speed at which you can regain and hold focus has enormous implications for everything you do.

The good news is anyone can learn to meditate. Practicing daily breath-focused meditation, even for just five minutes a day, has been demonstrated to improve willpower, which is a prerequisite for flow and happiness.

Meditation also has an interesting side effect: many people who meditate experience up to an additional hour of sleep at night. This additional hour of rest has all kinds of health benefits, including lowering your general level of anxiety. Besides, who couldn’t use an extra hour of sleep?


[1] Mind of the Meditator, by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson, Nov 12014 Scientific American