Stress in our lives and the sound of our phones take over our attention. Neuroscientist Amishi Jha explains how we can focus on what is essential.
"I think, so I get distracted."
Descartes might have changed his famous aphorism to say something like this if she were writing today instead. We are all so busy in today's world that we do not have time to think about anything else. We are bombarded with notifications, alerts, texts, videos, TV, and more. So you can understand why our minds sometimes feel like a mess.
There is a good chance that our minds will run away. Amishi Jha is an associate professor of psychology and the director of contemplative neuroscience for UMindfulness Initiative, and she studies how the brain pays attention. She found that there are specific exercises we can do to improve our ability to pay attention. Here, she tells you how to get your mind back under control.
Our concentration is very fragile, and we need to pay attention to each other. This is how Jha thinks our attention is like a "flashlight." Because research shows that our minds wander 50 percent of the time, it means that most of us are walking around with flashlights that move and flicker. Everything from job stress to a craving for alcohol can quickly get in the way of our paying attention. Even if the interruptions are big or small, they are "a basic hijacking of our attentional resources away from the task at hand," said the author. The people who work in high-stakes fields like medicine and the military are especially at risk because they ignore what is happening around them.
In other words, how do we stay focused?
"That is where mindfulness training comes in," she says. Jha calls this "brain fitness" a "portable" way to keep our attention strong. She has tried out this training on people who work in high-stress jobs, like athletes and people in the military. Her research shows that people who have not had mindfulness training lose their attention when under a lot of stress. People who have had training, on the other hand, keep their attention stable. In addition, people who do mindfulness exercises often improve their attention over time, even when stressed. According to Jha, research shows other benefits to being mindful, like less anxiety, better working memory, and minor depression relapse.
To answer this question, we need to know more about mindfulness. People who are aware and do not get angry when they pay attention to the present moment are called "paying attention." "It does not need any kind of worldview or spiritual or religious beliefs," says Jha. Mindfulness training can be broken down into two main groups: focused attention and open observation. They are very different, but they work well together.
Focused attention exercises help you improve your brain's ability to focus on one thing, like your breath. Lie down in a comfortable, upright position and pay attention to how your body moves when you breathe. "For example, how the air moves in and out of your nostrils," says Jha. "Find something that is linked to your senses." When your mind drifts away from that sensation to internal mental content or an outside distraction, gently bring it back. Keep in mind that you might have to get your mind back hundreds of times in just 15 minutes. Suppose you are training a puppy to walk on a leash. You can think of your brain as that puppy. Every time it runs away, gently guides it back toward you.
Another way to pay attention is to walk mindfully. "Your feet on the ground, the wind on your skin, the sounds in the air," says Jha. It is possible to walk inside or outside. You might find this activity easier than mindful breathing, so choose the one that works best for you.
The body scan is the last thing you can do to pay attention. The idea of your attention being like a flashlight is still around. "A body scan is taking that flashlight and moving it around your body in a very systematic way," Jha says. To start, pay attention to what is going on with your feet. Take note of any sensations that might be there. Tightness? Tingling? Warmth? Cold? In the next step, you can look at the soles of both feet and the heels. Then you can look at your legs, stomach, and so on. Following a good foundation in focused attention practice, you can move on to open monitoring. You can keep your attention on a specific object or set of sensations for a while.
Open monitoring helps you learn how to pay attention to what is going on around you without becoming attached to it, so you can keep an open mind. This practice is not about paying attention to a specific thing. Instead, it is about being open to any experience, internal or external, that comes up and let it wash over you. "You do not think about it, and you do not process it." "All you have to do is notice it and let it go away." To do this, try to be aware of any feelings, thoughts, or sensations that come up, but do not hold on to them. Putting words like "planning," "worrying, judging, remembering," and "thinking" in front of what comes up might help. You can do this in your head or out loud. After you name it, you can let it go. The best way to think about what you are doing is to think of it as watching clouds move in the sky and seeing the different shapes they make. In this case, you are watching your thoughts move through your mind. There will be times when you feel like you can not get rid of a particular idea or feeling. she says, "If you get so lost in thought that you can not do open monitoring, go back to a focused attention exercise to get yourself back on track."
Practice for about 15 minutes a day, five days a week, four weeks. As long as you do more, you get more benefits, she says. If you do less than 12 minutes a day, we do not see any help at all. These exercises can be hard to keep your mind still, but that is not a bad thing to know. With any new thing or sport, you need to practice. "The mind will go off on its own, and that is fine." You do not have to be strict about not letting your mind wander. "When your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back," she says.
Start small. "Start with what you think is a reasonable goal, cut it in half, and make a promise for a certain amount of time," says Jha. As Jha says, your goal could be to stop and do one of the practices every day. People are likely to stay for a while after they sit down (or walk). For a month, do what you set out to do. Then, gradually increase the amount of time you spend practicing until you are doing it for 15 minutes, five days a week. There are many ways to find a group of people who are interested in mindfulness. You can find them online or in person. Jha says that the most important thing is to make sure "you really support yourself to build the habit of practicing." This could mean setting multiple reminders for yourself or finding a quiet spot and time at home or work where you can sit down and do your job.
Jha has seen how mindfulness training has helped many people she is worked with over the years. When she saw how much the military personnel said it had helped them perform under pressure and in their homes, she thought it was fascinating. Many people told her that they had trouble being present with their families when they returned from deployment. Afterward, they learned how to be more present with their loved ones, which most of us want to do. "We often do not know how to be present to the people around us when we want to be present," says Jha. We can better connect with the people who matter to us with our attention. @via Dr. Amishi Jha.