Our attention gets hijacked by everything from the stress in our lives to the ding of our phones. Neuroscientist Amishi Jha shows how we can cultivate the ability to focus on what really matters.
“I think, therefore I am distracted.”
If Descartes were writing today, this is what his famous aphorism might have become. We’re living in an age of distraction, battered by our own customized waterfall of notifications, alerts, texts, videos, bingeable TV, and more. It’s not surprising our minds often feel like a jumble.
But it turns out we’re not at the mercy of our runaway minds. Amishi Jha (TED Talk: How to tame your wandering mind), an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami and the director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness Initiative, studies the brain’s attention mechanisms, and she’s found there are specific exercises we can do to strengthen our ability to pay attention. Here, she explains how you can get your wandering mind back under control.
Our attention is fragile. Jha likens our attention to a “a flashlight you can direct to whatever you choose.” Since research indicates our mind wanders 50 percent of our waking hours, it means most of us are walking around with darting, flickering flashlights. Internal distractions — everything from job stress to a craving for alcohol — and external distractions — like a thunderstorm weather alert on our phone screen — easily disrupt our attention. Whether the interruptions are significant or silly, they are “a basic hijacking of our attentional resources away from the task at hand,” she says. This lack of attention has serious consequences for all of us, but especially for people in high-stakes fields like medicine, the military and criminal justice.
So, how do we gain control of those flickering flashlights and achieve focus? “That’s where mindfulness training comes in,” says Jha. She describes this training as a “portable brain fitness routine to keep our attention strong.” She has tested the effects of such training on subjects in high-stress groups, like athletes and military personnel. Her research has found that the attention of someone who hasn’t had mindfulness training declines when they’re under intense stress, but in people who’ve had training, their attention remains stable. What’s more, in people who regularly do mindfulness exercises, their attention actually gets better over time — even when they’re under stress. According to Jha, researchers have started to uncover other benefits associated with mindfulness, including reduced anxiety, protection from depression relapse, and improved working memory.
What is mindfulness? It’s about paying attention to the present moment with awareness and without emotional reactivity. “It doesn’t require any particular worldview or spiritual or religious belief system,” says Jha. Mindfulness training can be broken down into two major categories: focused attention and open monitoring. They’re very different, yet complementary, practices.
Focused attention exercises cultivate your brain’s ability to focus on one single object, like one’s breath. To do mindful breathing, sit in a comfortable, upright position and focus all your attention on the sensation of breathing — “for example, the coolness of air moving in and out of your nostrils or your abdomen moving in and out,” says Jha. “Focus on something that is tied to your sensory experience. When your mind wanders away from that sensation to internal mental content or an external distraction, gently return it to the breath-related object.” Don’t be surprised or disappointed if you find yourself retrieving your mind hundreds of times during a 15-minute session. Think of your brain like a puppy you’re training to walk on a leash. Gently redirect it every time it darts away.
Another focused-attention exercise is mindful walking. Notice the sensations of walking — “your feet on the ground, the wind caressing your skin, sounds in the air,” says Jha. Walking can take place either indoors or outdoors. You might find this activity easier than mindful breathing; go with whatever exercise works best for you.
One final focused-attention exercise is the body scan. Remember the idea of your attention being like a flashlight? “A body scan is essentially taking that flashlight and directing it systematically through the entire body,” Jha says. Start by focusing your attention on your toes, taking note of whatever sensations might be there. Tightness? Tingling? Warmth? Cold? Next, you can move on to the soles of the feet and the heels, then the legs, stomach, and so on, slowly moving your flashlight up your body. After you have a good grounding in focused attention practice and can keep your attention on a particular object or set of sensations for a period of time, you can move on to open monitoring.
Open monitoring helps you learn to pay attention to what’s happening around you without becoming attached to it. This practice is not about paying attention to a particular object or objects. Instead, it’s about remaining open to any experience — internal or external — that arises, and allowing it to wash over you. “You don’t process it, you don’t think about it,” Jha says. “You just notice its occurrence and allow it to dissipate.” To do this, sit in a comfortable, upright position and try to be aware of any sensations, thoughts or emotions that emerge, without holding on to them. It might help you to label what comes up by using words like “planning,” “worrying,” “judging,” “remembering.” You can do this silently or out loud. After you name it, let it go. Think of what you’re doing as like watching clouds move in the sky and observing the different shapes they make — but in this practice, you’re watching your thoughts travel through your mind. And yes, there will be times when you feel like you keep getting hooked on a particular thought or sensation and can’t seem to drop it. Says Jha, “If you find you’re so lost in thought that you can’t do the open monitoring practice, go back to doing a focused attention exercise to steady yourself again.”
People generally start to see benefits when they practice for about 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for around 4 weeks. “If you do more, you benefit more,” she says, “but if you do less than 12 minutes a day, we don’t really see any benefits.” If you try any of these exercises and have trouble keeping your mind still, know that that’s a common experience. Jha urges people not to feel discouraged — as with any new activity or sport, you need to practice. “The mind will wander, and that’s completely fine. It’s not about not letting the mind wander; it’s when the mind wanders, to gently return your attention,” she says.
Start small. “Begin with whatever you consider a reasonable goal and cut it in half, and make a commitment for some period of time,” says Jha. Your goal might be as simple as vowing to stop every day and take the posture of one of the practices, says Jha. Chances are, once you sit (or walk), you’ll decide to stay for a while. Whatever your initial goal, commit to that for a month — and congratulate yourself for making it! — and then gradually increase your practice time until you’re doing it for 15 minutes, 5 days a week. Finding a mindfulness community, whether virtual or in person, can help you stick to the activity. What’s most important, says Jha, is to make sure “you really support yourself to create the habit of practicing,” whether that means setting multiple reminders for yourself or finding a quiet spot and time at your home or workplace to sit.
Jha has seen the positive impact of mindfulness training on the many people she’s worked with over the years. One thing that struck her is how much the military personnel say it has improved not just their ability to work under pressure but also their home lives. Many told her that they’d struggled to be present with their families after returning from deployment. But after mindfulness training, they found they were better able to be present with their loved ones — which is something most of us would like to do, too. “This idea of being present to the people around us when we really want to be present — it often escapes us how to do this,” says Jha. By reclaiming our own attention, we can more fully connect with the people who matter to us.
To see a list of mindfulness resources from Jha, go here. To help you get started, she suggests trying the apps Insight Timer, Headspace and 10% happier. Additional resources for online and in-person mindfulness courses can be found at the Center for Healthy Minds, the Penn Program for Mindfulness, the Contemplative Sciences Center, Duke Integrative Medicine, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF, the UCSD Center for Mindfulness, the UMass Center for Mindfulness, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt.