Focus Changes Your Brain


You might have heard the expression, “you get what you focus on.” But, have you heard that what you focus on actually reshapes your brain? The act of paying attention creates chemical and physical changes in your brain. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz write about how focused attention can physically change the structure of your brain in their article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”, in “strategy+business” magazine.

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Paying attention reshapes your brain.  Concentrated attention over time keeps relevant circuitry open.  Eventually these circuits become physical changes in your brain’s structure.  Attention continuously reshapes the patterns of your brain.
  • People in different functions see the world in different ways.  People who work in different specialties develop different physiological patterns that cause them to see the world in different ways.

This makes a lot of sense.  I think this is just like any habit.  You first think your way through something intellectually.  Next, you start to develop emotional connections to something based on your experience.  Finally, you burn it into your body, in terms of your muscle memory and basal ganglia.  It makes sense that you would reshape your brain over time through consistent thought patterns.

Reshaping the Patterns of Your Brain
Rock and Schwartz write the following”

Concentrating attention on your mental experience, whether a thought, an insight, a picture in your mind’s eye, or a fear, maintains the brain state arising in association with that experience. Over time, paying enough attention to any specific brain connections keeps the relevant circuitry open and dynamically alive. These circuits can then eventually become not just chemical links but stable, physical changes in the brain’s structure.

Attention continually reshapes the patterns of the brain. Among the implications: People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than do people who don’t practice the specialty. In business, professionals in different functions – finance, operations, legal, research, and development, marketing, design and human resources – have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.


I know I think differently based on the job I do everyday, if I compare how I solved problems in the past. Building prescriptive guidance forces me to be a continuous student of principles, patterns, and practices.

I never thought about whether my daily job created structural changes in my brain. However, now that I think about it, I remember that a colleague told me long ago that if you measure the brain activity between an expert and novice, that the expert would traverse way more connections, and it could actually take the expert longer to solve problems (more paths to check.)  

I’ve also noticed the opposite though which is faster problem solving through intuition.  Basically, when you fill your head with patterns and experience you can draw from your intuition.  Your intuition can then make better, faster decisions through pattern matching plus mental simulation.  This is how fire fighters, doctors, … etc. are able to make the right split-second decisions under the gun.  They have a large body of patterns and experience to draw from.  I think that’s the key distinction … if an expert uses logic, it takes them longer to think through the problem because of more paths to traverse, but if they use their intuition they are faster because they are simply doing rapid pattern matching against mental simulation.

The real question now is, am I missing out on any key thought patterns or capabilities because of the way my brain gets trained?

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  1. I guess it comes down to whether a gut feeling really is a gut feeling or experience talking?

    If you get to the right answer (if there even is something like the one true answer to anything) does it matter how you got to it, or how long it took to get there? Maybe you could have saved time and hassle getting to it sooner, but maybe by doing that you would have missed out on an amazing and life changing experience along the longer way.

    Never mind me, I’m feeling a bit philosophical tonight…

  2. Hi J.D.

    Great post as always, I agreed with you on we get what you focus on.

    Have you heard of Dr. Joe Dispenza? I think you will find his work interesting.

    Thank you for writing a great post.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  3. “Life is what you make it”, “It’s all in your head”, “We don’t see the things the way they are. We see things the way WE are.” etc, etc, etc…
    I found solving problems or reacting or acting based on the patterns created in my mind/brain very efficient – “Trust your hunches…. Hunches are usually based on facts filed away just below the conscious level.”
    The interesting thing that sometimes a guy can argue with my solution based on the pattern, when all my pro’s are exhausted and defeated i switch to the “mindful” mode and revise the pattern, then either adopt another one or improve the current. It helps developing very fast problem solving techniques. The “down” side is that consultants usually charge hourly rates, so the faster i solve problems the angrier my manager are when he sends the bill to the customer ;)… the faster i solve problems the slimmer the bill 😉

  4. Hi JD
    Currently I am reading the “Now discover your strengths”. The authors have described the “synapse” which is a connection between two brain cells for communication.
    In their article Rock and Schwartz have mentioned about the circuitry in the brain. Is their commonality between the two?

  5. Hi J.D. – I find it fascinating how you said, “People in different functions see the world in different ways.” That is what makes each of us so unique. isn’t it? When I look at my siblings, I can see the differences, even though we were all raised the “same”. Although we basically have the same values and ethics, our thinking patterns differ immensely. I’ve learned to say, “that’s just they way they are”, and accept that, but after reading your post, I see the real reason we’re so different. Hmmmmm. This one has me thinking.

  6. I’ve encountered a number of scientists that talk about the brain reconfiguring itself literally through rewiring of neurons. I always tend to think of the brain as “firmware” (from a software engineering point of view). From a pattern standpoint, it’s like mud. It’ll hold it’s shape for a bit, but it flows over time.

    I think this goes further though to your cells as well. Some of the courses I’ve taken attempt to explain how certain proteins and DNA actually change depending on what you are thinking about. Certainly the link between Type A personality and heart disease points to this fact. I’ve certainly had this experience personally in the negative where my body chemistry and experience changed as a result of my focus.

    I did like the video from dr joe dispenza showing brain cells joining and separating. It’s easy to forget that this is actually happening vs just some concept. Can you sum up his findings and point of view in a paragraph? Looks like he is specializing on how this rewiring process works.


  7. I think we are always missing out on some key thought patterns. We may try to open ourselves up to many skills, but the ones we stop using eventually fade. The ones we currently use get stronger.

    The best we can do is know our strengths and weaknesses and try to maximize and minimize both.

  8. @ Louisa

    Good point. I’ve learned to trust my gut when it’s either from experience or something feels funny that I haven’t yet put my finger on. I test it against some critical thinking though to help balance it out. I also try to find a sounding board for more perspective.

    For some things, aboslutely, a better decision that takes longer is great. In a lot of scenarios (i.e. work) we don’t get to determine how long it takes and it’s often a game of survival of the fittest (er, fastest).

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. I haven’t heard of Dr. Dispenza, but I’ll check him out.

    @ Alik

    I agree – our hunches usually mean something. The trick is to find out what they mean. Sometimes a hunch means there’s a problem or scenario I’ve overlooked. sometimes it just means I’m hungry.

    Yeah, sometimes it pays to be slow. It’s good that you have more than one-speed.

    @ Akshay

    There is but it’s different perspectives. Now Discover Your Strengths is about leveraging your existing synapses / pathways that are already strong. Rock and Schwartz are pointing out that these can change over time depending on your focus.

    @ Barbara

    It sure is. I think the internal “software” makes a huge difference. It’s why two people with the same external experience can have completely different outcomes. Now that I know how focus shapes the brain, it really got me thinking how my engineer mind sees the world, and how I might add a marketing mind to it, to round things out.

    @ Rob

    I like your firmware metaphor. Muds a good way to put it. Some days are more muddy than others 😉

    It reminds me of Deepak’s point that thoughts are things and that the thought is the molecule.

    @ Karl

    Well put. I’m a fan of playing to strengths and limiting liabilities.

  9. I can feel the changes in my brain lately from focused guitar work. I swear! Last timw this year I was waking up sluggish and slow, but now I veritably pop out of bed whistling and alert.

    Could it be my hours of intentioned work are sharpening me in general?

    I think so!

  10. Hi JD,

    This was an excellent post. I am a student of how the brain works and love posts like this. I knew focus was important, but being able to explain it the way you did – based on actual chemical changes and synapses forming – is an entirely different level of understanding.

    Thanks for this. I’m subscribed and looking forward to your future posts!

  11. @ Daphne

    Thank you. I’m a fan of results. I like knowing how things work because I think it improves effectiveness. I find myself paying more attention to what I focus on, now that I know I’m always reshaping my brain.

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