Amir Raz gets some funny looks when he talks about using hypnosis and meditation techniques to build attention spans in a hyperactive MTV world.
“Mention contemplation to a lot of people, and all they think of is some kind of (wacky) spiritualism, people sitting around a darkened room with candles, chanting,” says Raz, a McGill University professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention.
“Our ideas are shaped by Hollywood movies. So you talk about hypnosis, and people see something out of a Woody Allen movie, a guy in a turban with bushy eyebrows who wants to put you to sleep.”
But “trim away the folkloric fat,” and Raz, a cognitive psychologist who worked his way through graduate school doing magic tricks, sees mindfulness training as a valuable, drug-free tool in the struggle to foster attention skills, with positive spinoffs for controlling our emotions and even making us smarter.
“We live in a time when modern medicine is weighted heavily toward…
“Everyone wants a magic bullet that will help them lose 40 pounds, or a surgical procedure that will cure all our ills,” says Raz, who will be speaking Wednesday about the chemical benefits of brain science and chicken soup as part of McGill’s Mini-Science lecture series.
“We live in an impatient society, and we want results immediately. But that’s not realistic, and without behavioural modification, likely to provide only temporary relief.”
In his lab at McGill, Raz explores ways meditation and braintraining exercises can be used to help people pay more attention to what’s happening around them, skills which will come in handy in sharpening the mind, controlling emotions and blocking out distractions.
“We live in a high-speed world, where events change rapidly, but our bodies may not be biologically crafted for that,” said Raz, whose especially curious about the effects attention training can have on children.
“We need to train ourselves to prioritize and manage what gets our attention. It’s like learning to control our email. Otherwise, life becomes one big interruption.”
He cites studies in which young children age 4 to 7 were asked to play computer games expressly designed to stretch the parts of their brains that regulate attention. Researchers found that non-verbal aspects of the intelligence quotients went up and the youngsters were better able to focus. But they also noticed other changes, with participants exhibiting “brain signatures” more like those of adults, reflected in improved mental processing and greater control of emotions.
“We’re not elated, we don’t win a trophy every day. We need to build resilience,” said Raz, who would like to see some form of attention training built into the school curriculum to help children focus, ignore distractions and learn social cues they won’t pick up sending text messages.
“With quality stimulation, people are better able to regulate emotions, prevent depression and obsessive behaviours. We’re less likely to explode when someone disagrees with you or shatter when things don’t go your way.”
Lately, he’s begun to worry about the potential impact of global positioning systems and other devices on spatial memory. “Attention systems expand based on usage.”
Raz sees behavioural modification techniques used in concert with medications, “some of which are over-hyped or at large cost in side effects.”
“Too often, drugs become the default and people discount other options.
“There are attentional ways to regulate. Some prefer the drug route. It’s a question of whether you want to regulate or self-regulate.”
Amir Raz is speaking Wednesday at 6 p.m. in McGill’s Bronfman building, 1001 Sherbrooke St. W. as part of McGill’s Mini-Science series. For information on fees and registration, visit www.mcgill.ca/science/mini