Reducing Stress by Opening Your Attention
By Dr. Les Fehmi
Modern neuroscience has taught us three important facts:
- By paying attention to space we can change our brain waves.
- By increasing the amount of synchronous alpha brain waves that our brain produces, we can balance the various aspects of our nervous system.
- By balancing our nervous system, we can reduce our fight, flight or freeze responses and shorten the time it takes us to recover from stress situations.
Open Focus™ training teaches us how to pay attention to space, increase alpha synchrony in the brain and reduce the fight, flight or freeze response in the autonomic nervous system. These Open Focus™ techniques comes out of forty years of research in Dr. Les Fehmi’s neurofeedback labs and can be learned quickly and easily by anyone.
At Dr. Fehmi’s clinic in Princeton, as well as in their workshops, he and his partner, Susan Shor Fehmi, teach people these techniques to reduce stress, eliminate pain, encourage peak performance, and bring about a sense of flow. They utilize equipment designed by Dr. Fehmi for neurofeedback training. This equipment tells the user when they are successfully producing increases in desired synchronous brainwaves. Two books, “The Open-Focus Brain,” and “Dissolving Pain” describe the Open Focus method in more detail.
SPACE, THE BRAIN, ATTENTION AND CONSCIOUSNESS
“In reality our bodies are space in which particles exist. There is a continuity of space through our bodies and between the particles inside and outside our bodies. Space is the absence of matter. It is the fundamental container of matter, the universal solvent of objective experience.” (Les Fehmi, Ph.D.)
When we direct our attention to the experience of space, which is everywhere and runs through everything, we change the most basic behavior we engage in. That is, we change how we pay attention. By paying attention to space inside and outside us, including the space in, around and through all the objects of all our senses, as well as the space that all the objects of our senses occupy, a profound change occurs to our attention. Our attention becomes more inclusive, more diffused.
A more inclusive and diffused attention, through the awareness of space, actually changes our brain. We begin to produce more brain waves associated with a relaxed alertness, an effortless attention, an ease and flow of experience. Our brain waves move to the mid-range frequencies of alpha and become more rhythmic, moving toward whole-head, phase synchronous, alpha brain waves.
As our brain produces higher amplitudes of whole head synchronous alpha, by attending in a more diffuse way to the experience of space, we remarkably change our whole nervous system, balancing the over-arousal of our sympathetic autonomic nervous system, with a more normalizing activation of parasympathetic arousal.
So by simply attending to space in and around us, in and around everything, and including the space that everything occupies, our brain waves change, our central nervous system balances, as do all the peripheral systems such as the muscular, vascular and endocrine systems, and our whole experience of ourselves and the world around us changes. All this is accomplished by simply invoking attention to space. For most of us, it represents an uncharted realm.
Attention to Attention
There is nothing that better defines the difference between human beings and other animals than the fact that humans can attend to how they attend. The simplest members of our animal world, like single-celled organisms, have the simplest form of attention, attending only to the presence of food.
The more complex the animal, the more the cortex develops, and it is through the richness of the cortex that humans develop the complex ability to be aware that we are aware. Through the evolution of the cerebral cortex, the human brain has become sophisticated enough so that we can attend to how we are attending. This ability allows us to recognize if our attention is one style or another, and equally importantly allows us to flexibly change our attention style at will, as situations might demand.
How to Begin with Open Focus
We will begin with space, the attention to which opens the doorway to a different world. How we will begin is by encouraging you to attend to some very small spaces, spaces we are going to ask you feel. Even though space is experienced through all our senses, we will begin by directing you to “feel” space, the space inside and around your thumbs and index fingers, the space between your thumbs and index fingers, as well as the space that your thumbs and index fingers occupy.
Why the thumbs and index fingers, you might ask? We have more cells in the sensory motor cortex, the part of the brain that orchestrates feeling and movement, than we have cells in our whole back. If our plan is to gradually encourage you to feel space, what better place to start than by feeling space in the body parts that our brain allows us to feel with great ease and sensitivity — the thumbs and index fingers.
So we will begin with a very simple exercise, asking you to imagine feeling various spaces in, around, and through these fingers, as well as the space that they occupy. And we will ask you to do these things with a minimum of effort. By asking you “to imagine” space, we are evoking the effortlessness that imagining encourages. So think of imagining as effortless, the way we attend when we are allowing ourselves to imagine. And by closing your eyes, you will be more easily drawn into feeling.
Sit as still as you can, and with eyes closed, sit comfortably upright in a chair. Do not be driving when you do this.
Can you imagine feeling the three dimensional presence of both your thumbs?
Can you imagine feeling the space around your thumbs?
Can you imagine feeling the space that your thumbs occupy?
Can you imagine that the boundaries of your thumbs are dissolving.
As you continue to feel the space that surrounds your thumbs, as well as the space they occupy, can you now imagine feeling the three-dimensional presence of your index fingers?
Can you imagine feeling the space around your index fingers?
Can you imagine feeling the space that your index fingers occupy?
Can you imagine that the boundaries of your index fingers are dissolving?
As you continue to feel both your thumbs and index fingers surrounded by space, permeated by space, and occupying space, can you now imagine feeling the space between your thumbs and index fingers?
This is a very special space, so much so that this space is even named in unabridged dictionaries as the “perlique.”
Is it possible for you now to feel this space, the space between your thumbs and index fingers?
Can you now repeatedly move your thumbs and index fingers toward each other and then away from each other until you can imagine feeling the space that the fingers move through. Can you imagine that, as you slow down the movement of your fingers through space, you can imagine still feeling the space they are moving through, even after your fingers slow their movement and then cease to move.
Take as long as you need to become adept at feeling these spaces as your first exercise toward a new way of paying attention. Usually we attend to objects. Here we are asking you to attend to the space in which objects exist.
As you open your eyes, note how you feel. Are you lighter, brighter, clearer, more relaxed? Or was it hard for you? Was it difficult to feel space as opposed to thinking or seeing or hearing space? Did spending a few minutes with feeling space make you feel relaxed or tense? Whatever your reaction, this is the first step to learning to enter into and open up to a feeling sense of the presence of space and a new way of paying attention.
Over time, you will learn to attend to larger spaces, first in your body, then through and around your body, and finally space through and around you and the objects around you. In time, you will be able to attend to space in every sense. By making this paradigm shift, making space foreground in your experience, you are changing your experience of yourself and the universe around you.