Emotions, meditation and the choice of attention

To whom or what do we or even animal pay attention? Are there different types of attention and what does it have to do with meditation or even emotions?


Attention is defined as the extent to which a person is able to pay attention to and process things. This can involve few stimuli if the focus of attention is narrow. However, attention can also be widely focused and concern different objects. Accordingly, we can roughly distinguish between focused attention, i.e. narrow attention, and open attention, i.e. wide attention.


Our attention seems to be naturally attracted to emotionally significant objects in our environment. A hissing snake in the grass and the angry facial expression of a colleague immediately attract our attention. However, not only do external emotional cues have the power to grab our attention, but internal affective cues, such as moods and emotions, can also draw our attention to certain types of objects. When we are anxious, we quickly focus on negative or threatening stimuli, and when we are happy, we are quick to pick up rewarding and positive stimuli. A particular emotion influences not only what we pay attention to, but also how we pay attention to the world. Attention is thus dependent on external stimuli but also on internal feelings. Both influence whether we take something into our conscious perception or not, which evaluated meaning this gets and also whether we direct the focus of attention rather narrowly or rather broadly. 


However, one cannot directly infer from narrow or broad focus certain conclusions about internal emotional states or about the importance of an external stimulus. Although previous research seemed to suggest that positive feelings directly produce global or widened focus and negative feelings produce local or narrowed focus, recent research suggests that this relationship may be flexible rather than rigid. Whether one pays attention to the environment in the broadest or narrowest sense actually depends on how one is feeling at the time. When a broad focus is accessible, as is usually the case, happy people focus broadly and sad people focus narrowly. However, when a narrow focus is accessible, happy people now focus narrowly and sad people focus broadly. A global or extended attentional focus is often the default setting. Affective states with high motivational intensity (e.g., disgust, enthusiasm) are associated with active goal pursuit and therefore theoretically lead to a narrow attentional focus that should help individuals achieve their goals. In contrast, states of low motivational intensity (e.g., satisfaction, sadness) are associated with goal attainment and therefore theoretically lead to attentional scope that should allow individuals to be receptive to new opportunities. Furthermore, it was found that performing approach motor actions (e.g., arm flexion) and the color blue, broaden attention, and performing avoidant motor actions (e.g., arm

Arm extension) and the color red, narrow attention. Thus, whether we focus narrowly or broadly and the meaning of this chosen focus depends on various factors. However, it seems important to be able to switch flexibly between the states in order to be able to adapt sufficiently to different situations. 


Although it is not possible to draw conclusions about emotions, feelings, or evaluations strictly from a narrow or wide focus, it can be argued that the choice of focus or a change of focus from narrow to wide or vice versa influences emotions and emotional states. Thus, variability of attention plays a significant role in the ability to regulate emotions. One speaks of emotion dysregulation when a person is not able to regulate his or her affects appropriately. This can be significant in cases of depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior, among others. From a developmental psychology perspective, emotion regulation is a rapidly and constantly developing process. In the first years of life, children usually rely on their primary caregivers to externally regulate their emotions. Over time, as cognitive and emotional functioning matures, children begin to regulate themselves and independently (e.g., reappraisal or acceptance of the situation). Although the development of emotion regulation appears to be linear from this perspective, research shows a maladaptive shift during adolescence due to the increased emotional reactivity and various stressors that characterize this developmental phase. Thus, the ability to regulate emotions seemingly declines again in adulthood, or at least that is the assumption of some researchers. 


Emotions and attention thus seem to be closely connected. Outside of experiments, in the natural environment, many things attract our attention because of their emotional significance. Thus, negatively valued objects are fixated and attention is held on the anxiety-provoking object as long as it poses a threat. During this time, there is often a narrowing of attention, a fixed focus. However, not only in humans, but also in mammals such as dogs, emotional states can lead to a widening or narrowing of the field of attention. To look at this more closely, scientists exposed dogs to various situations that were supposed to lead to four putative emotional states. They interpreted these in terms of valence (positive, negative) and arousal (high, low). They provoked the emotions by food reward and by social reward. In addition to measuring the attentional range, heart rate variability was added as an additional indicator. In one experiment, the dogs showed a narrowing of the attentional range after the induction of two positively valenced emotional states. That the dogs were in a positive state was also confirmed by the very low heart rate variabilities. In the social reward experiments, a slightly narrower attentional range was seen in response to the elicitation of negative emotional states. Overall, the study provided the first evidence that emotional states can also alter attentional scope in dogs and very likely in other animals as well.


If we now know about the connection between emotions and attention, then it is very interesting that in mindfulness procedures and meditations it is above all attention that is important. Accordingly, both must inevitably have an effect either on the inner emotional life or on the reactions to external stimuli and on the emotional experience. According to one study, mindfulness meditation can help chronic pain patients, for example. Here, an open focus seems more likely to lead to meditative analgesia, as opposed to focused attention. The extent to which the choice of attention can regulate emotions is still being researched in studies.


If the choice of attention has an influence on emotion regulation, meditation also has an effect on this. Because here is practiced specifically with the attention. 

Regarding the forms of meditation, three types of attention are described, the focused, the open and the automatic self-transcendence. Automatic self-transcendence involves techniques aimed at transcending one's own activity. This is in contrast to focused attention, in which attention remains focused on an object, and open awareness, in which attention remains engaged on nothing in particular in open focus. The category of automatic self-transcendence is characterized by the absence of both focus and individual control or effort. The focus on a single object of experience and the focus on observing changing objects of experience keeps the meditator entangled in the processes of the technique - these practices are not designed to transcend one's own activity. Focusing and observation of experience are active mental processes that engage the brain in specific processing - individual activity keeps the mind from transcending. Thus, automatic self-transcendence seems to define a class of meditations that is distinct from both focused attention and open observation.


Meditations with different levels of attention are reflected in brain wave patterns, which is reproducible to measure. EEG bands were assigned to each category based on reported brain patterns during mental tasks, and meditations were categorized based on their reported EEG. Focused attention, characterized by beta/gamma activity, included meditations from Tibetan Buddhist, Buddhist, and Chinese traditions. Open observation, characterized by theta activity, included meditations from Buddhist, Chinese, and Vedic traditions. Automatic self-transcendence, characterized by alpha1 activity, included meditations from Vedic and Chinese traditions. Emotional experience is thought to correlate mainly with theta but also with selective alpha, with internalized attention correlating mainly with synchronous activity of theta and alpha. 

Between the categories, the meditations included differed in terms of focus, subject/object relationship, and procedures. These results illustrate that one cannot speak of meditation in general terms, but must consider what type of meditation is involved. Each of the three meditation categories-focused attention, open observation, and automatic self-transcendence-included different meditation practices with different degrees of attentional control, different degrees of subject-object relationship, and different procedures. Each category seems orthogonal to the others, and together they seem to reflect the wide range of possible meditation practices. These explicit differences among meditation techniques need to be noted by research projects.



In addition to attention, there is also what is known as emotional attentional blink (EAB), also known as emotion-induced blindness. This refers to a phenomenon in which the brief appearance of a task-irrelevant but emotionally arousing image captures attention to such an extent that individuals cannot perceive target stimuli until several hundred milliseconds after the emotional stimulus. Accordingly, a strongly distracting emotional stimulus leads to a delay in reacting to other objects. After a strongly captivating emotional stimulus, one is therefore briefly "blind" to other things. This stimulus-driven attention must first be released in order to be able to refocus. Rapid recognition of emotionally significant events is essential for survival. However, given the limited capacity of attention and consciousness, this ability comes at a price. Namely, when attentional resources are directed to an emotional stimulus, less processing capacity is available for other stimuli. Current evidence suggests that the ventral frontoparietal attentional network, which is involved in stimulus-driven attention, plays a critical role in processes that can consciously disengage and direct attention. 

Attention or meditation training could thus be used to be less involuntarily influenced by emotional stimuli or to more consciously decide which stimuli to respond to. But this can also be helpful for processing traumatic stress. For example, one study showed that active training in meditation-based practices allowed people with traumatic stress to develop a stronger mind-body connection by expanding their somatic awareness and focusing on the present moment, which they found therapeutic. Focusing on the lived present rather than traumatic memories, accepting pain, "opening" one's heart, and using silence rather than speech as a healing method were found to be therapeutic. Further research regarding the long-lasting effect would certainly be helpful here to gain further insights. 


But it is not only the emotional experience that benefits from the choice of attention. The flexible change between open and focused attention plays a role in creative processes and in divergent thinking. Art therefore lives from a flexible mind. We can train this flexibility by meditation in rest or movement, just everything that connects body and mind. This seems to have been scientifically investigated for humans, in some parts also for animals and finally reflects the flexibility and movement of life, which is characterized by inhaling and exhaling, collapsing and expanding, by focusing and openness. Let us not forget the third form, the transcendence, which connects both with each other. 





1) - Sci Rep. 2022; 12: 17452. Investigating attentional scope as a novel indicator of emotional state in animals. Anne Hamlaoui,1 Linda Keeling,1 Oliver Burman,2 and Else Verbeek

2) https://dictionary.apa.org/scope-of-attention


3) Front Psychol. 2021 Dec 9;12:637436. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.637436. eCollection 2021.

Are Emotion Regulation Strategies Associated With Visual Attentional Breadth for Emotional Information in Youth?

Elisa Boelens 1, Marie-Lotte Van Beveren 1, Rudi De Raedt 2, Sandra Verbeken 1, Caroline Braet 1

Affiliations expand

PMID: 34955938 PMCID: PMC8696011 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.637436


4) Open Access

Published: 17 September 2022

Emotion and attention

Jonathan Mitchell

Philosophical Studies (2022)



5) Does Emotion Directly Tune the Scope of Attention? Jeffrey R. Huntsinger, Current Directions in Psychological Science 22(4) 265–270


6) Front Hum Neurosci

. 2013 Apr 23;7:151. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00151. eCollection 2013.

The emotional attentional blink: what we know so far

Maureen McHugo 1, Bunmi O Olatunji, David H Zald

Affiliations expand

PMID: 23630482 PMCID: PMC3632779 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00151


7) Ann N Y Acad Sci

. 2014 Jan;1307:55-63. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12282. Epub 2013 Nov 8.

Meditative analgesia: the current state of the field

Joshua A Grant 1

Affiliations expand

PMID: 24673150 DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12282


8) Conscious Cogn

. 2010 Dec;19(4):1110-8. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.01.007. Epub 2010 Feb 18.

Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from Vedic, Buddhist and Chinese traditions

Fred Travis 1, Jonathan Shear


9) Int J Environ Res Public Health

. 2020 Dec 21;17(24):9567. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17249567.

Changes in the Electrical Activity of the Brain in the Alpha and Theta Bands during Prayer and Meditation

Paweł Dobrakowski 1, Michal Blaszkiewicz 1, Sebastian Skalski 2

Affiliations expand

PMID: 33371283 PMCID: PMC7766487 DOI: 10.3390/ijerph17249567


10) Explore (NY)

. 2022 Sep-Oct;18(5):515-516. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2021.06.003. Epub 2021 Jun 23.

The emancipation of mindfulness from its religious context

Lars-Gunnar Lundh 1

Affiliations expand

PMID: 34215529 DOI: 10.1016/j.explore.2021.06.003


11) Cult Med Psychiatry

. 2015 Sep;39(3):487-504. doi: 10.1007/s11013-014-9424-5.

Open Mind, Open Heart: An Anthropological Study of the Therapeutics of Meditation Practice in the US

Neely Myers 1, Sara Lewis, Mary Ann Dutton

Affiliations expand

PMID: 25613595 PMCID: PMC4745885 DOI: 10.1007/s11013-014-9424-5



12) Markus Thaler Kognitive Kontrolle, Nutzung peripherer Reize und Kreativität Masterarbeit zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades eines Master of Science an der Naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät der Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, 2017