This is an excerpt from Muscle Intelligence podcast episode 74: understand how your brain works with Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman. This excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Andrew Huberman: You’ve got this point of attention on the inside and then you got this point of attention that you can put anywhere else. I can put on a book. I can put it on Instagram. The weight that I’m going to move in the weight room. The distance I’m going to run up a mountain. I can focus on a tree and run towards it.
Those points of attention are under our deliberate control. This is something that we don’t really appreciate, but it’s under our deliberate control in the same way that voluntary motor action is under deliberate control. I can pick up my mug of tea here and take a sip if I want to or not. Learning to control these points of attention is something that we do, because we’re told in school, “Okay, look at this book and read.” Or you see something that you want to do, like I’m going to go lift that weight, or I’m going to focus on this particular movie or podcast.
It’s really the ability to link those two, to tether them. This tether is a fundamental aspect of our consciousness and here’s why. These two spheres of attention can be brought solely within the body, so meditation and concentrating allows me to bring my attention into my own body, my own self, and now it’s fully within the realm of what we call interoception. That’s very different than exteroception, where I’m looking at the outside world. Now how is it different?
It turns out that when we focus on things outside of our body, it engages a couple of different neuromodulators that are very important. A neuromodulator is something that changes the activity of nerve transmission. It either increases or decreases the volume of the conversation, or the speed of the conversation between neurons.
When I focus outside myself and I become goal-driven, there’s an engagement of the dopamine circuit. Nature evolved to this, okay? I’m recognizing that I’m this body over here and that’s something over there and I want it. Now that could be the cup of tea across the room, or it could be an Olympia title. It could be right, it could be purely conceptual, it can be a person that you want to get to know and perhaps mate with, it could be a person that you want to avoid.
This goal-driven behavior engages this dopamine circuit. By goal-driven, it’s necessarily outside your internal real-estate. It becomes exteroception. Nature evolved this for very particular reasons to get animals to move toward things that they need; food, warmth, sex, etc,. in order to reproduce and to continue their species. It’s operating at a very low level, and so we don’t think about it. We think about dopamine more as reward.
People think, “Oh, I get the thing and then I feel the reward,” but actually that’s not the way dopamine works. It drives us to want things that are outside our current experience.
Now meditation, yoga nidra and focusing, taking that second sphere of attention and bringing it inward, now our focus of attention becomes our internal real estate. What very likely happens over time is that now we’re able to access a sense of goal-directed behavior and reward simply by our own internal experience.
When we say, well, you don’t need things from the outside, you’re not being driven in an outside-in way, that’s actually a neurochemical phenomenon that occurs when people meditate over periods of time.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are a form of learning to derive reward from focusing attention inward, where the goal directed behavior is about a recognition of the self, about understanding how your internal landscape is working. This is watching the thoughts go by. This is “mindfulness.” Then it becomes a pleasurable activity.
Now, it takes some time to learn to bring this process inward. A key aspect to these two points of attention thing that we all have innately is tht once you realize that you can direct that second sphere of attention wherever you want, it becomes very powerful.
I like to think of these two spheres of attention as tethered together by a pole. You imagine a sphere of attention that’s on you. Let’s say we’re having a conversation. I’m paying very close attention to you. Every once in a while, I’m paying attention to how I feel internally, because I’m registering what you’re saying. Now if I suddenly want to move my attention to another location and deliberately set it on a book and focus on that, that movement, that resetting of our attention is require some energy. Over time, it becomes exhausting. This is why hard work like writing, or a really hard workout isn’t just physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting.
Once you realize you have these two points of attention and that deep sleep and non-sleep deep relaxation are where you reset the ability to set your attention, I’m hoping that a light goes off and they think, “Ah! Now I understand that my ability to really focus and drive and work hard and really build things is directly proportional to my ability to deliberately disengage.”
This is why you find athletes who are really extremely good performers, or people who work in the elite military who are super high performers, are excellent at deliberate disengagement.