With the demands of school, work, and the rest of life creeping up all at once, multitasking can easily become a way of life. However, in an earlier post, we looked at research that tells us multitasking harms our learning, memory, and productivity. So how can we retrain our brains to stay more focused in our studies and work? Enter: mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness is pretty simple: paying attention to the present moment, with an attitude of openness and curiosity. What it means in practice is far more complex. Paying attention to the present moment means training yourself to be more aware of what you are thinking about or focusing on; a sort of alertness to the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. It means gaining just enough perspective to see them more clearly and gain insight into yourself. It also means training yourself to think in the present moment, even when it is uncomfortable, overcoming our reflexive response to push away unpleasant experiences and chase after what feels good instead. Maintaining an attitude of openness and curiosity allows us to relax this instinctive response to unpleasantness, so that we can instead choose how to respond.
Of course, this is easier said than done. The first step is to become aware of how much we rely on autopilot. For example, when walking somewhere on an ordinary day, how much attention are you giving to this experience? If you are like most of us, your thoughts are on your to-do list, wondering what to have for dinner, feeling guilty about not getting to the gym, fiddling with your phone, and so on. Distraction and multitasking are deeply ingrained habits for most of us. However, if you were to do that same walk mindfully, perhaps you would notice how good the fresh air feels, that gorgeous shade of blue in the sky, and a small flower off to the side. Or, perhaps you might notice that your thoughts keep drifting away from the walk and to that one conversation that you had with your advisor yesterday, leading you to realize that it caused more anxiety than you might have guessed, and perhaps it would be helpful to have a follow-up meeting and clarify a few things. In this way, mindfulness can be a very powerful tool.
Mindfulness vs. Simply Relaxing
It’s important to clarify that mindfulness is more than just relaxation. It can change our brains physically, and in the way they function in response to experiences—a fascinating phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Research has shown different patterns of activity in the brain when participants engaged in mindfulness, compared to other forms of meditation or sitting calmly and relaxing. It has also been linked with increased grey matter in the brain, as well as gene expression impacting inflammation and the immune system. In other words, even though it may not feel like you are doing much, merely the act of paying attention to the present moment in an open and non-judgmental way changes both the form and function of the brain.
A Delicious Example
So what’s a good way to start practicing mindfulness? One of my favorite ways to introduce someone to the concept is through a guided eating exercise. It only takes a minute, and it’s especially great for the foods that we tend to eat without thinking or paying attention. Give yourself a full minute to appreciate the experience of eating chocolate using all of your senses:
- The weight and feeling of the chocolate in your hand
- The way the foil wrapper reflects light
- The crinkle sound of the foil as you peel it back
- The different shades of brown in the light and shadow on the chocolate
- The smell of the chocolate (and how your body responds – does your mouth begin to water?)
- When you place the chocolate on your tongue, notice the how texture changes as it begins to melt
- The way that the flavor develops, and perhaps an automatic urge to chew and swallow – resist it.
- After several seconds, begin to chew slowly, noticing the texture of the chocolate on your teeth, the flavor as it spreads through your mouth
- When you are ready, swallow, feeling it travel down to your stomach and the lingering taste of chocolate in your mouth.
This exercise takes only 60 seconds, but can completely change your experience of eating a piece of chocolate. You can also try this with other foods, perhaps even a whole meal. Mindful eating tends to result in better choices, both in health and taste, because we are far more attuned to the experience. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of practicing mindfulness. So how can it help you in your daily life as a student, employee, and family member?
A Way to Improve Focus
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara compared students undergoing a two-week training program on either mindfulness or nutrition. To test the impact of the two programs, they looked for differences in how much the students’ minds wandered, the capacity of their working memory, and scores on the verbal section of the GRE. The students who studied nutrition showed no improvements across any of the tests, while those who studied mindfulness showed significant improvements across all measures. Their scores on the verbal portion of the GRE improved by an equivalent 16 percentile points, and the benefits all appeared to be related to reduced mind-wandering. These sorts of cognitive gains have been validated by other experiments as well. Research has also tied it with children performing better in school.
An Antidote to Stress
One of the biggest benefits consistently reported in the literature is stress reduction. Stress and other unpleasant experiences hang overhead, casting a shadow on all aspects of our lives. Mindfulness, in contrast, helps us stay out of those mental ruts. Tuning into life more fully means noticing not just the thousand little frustrations and indignities that may plague us, but also the little moments of beauty, connection, and insight that are all too easy to miss. These are the moments that can provide little breaks, mini breathers, leaving us feeling more calm, relaxed, and clear-sighted.
Extensive research has verified the role of mindfulness in reducing stress. For example, it has been linked with lower biological indications of stress, including cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate variance coherence. Other measures, such as the stress response in skin, have shown that those who practice mindfulness meditation experience less distress at negative or upsetting stimuli. In turn, reduced stress can lead to better health outcomes, such as better quality sleep. Stress reduction has been shown across groups such as employees to medical and psychology students.
Reduced Depression/Anxiety, Greater Happiness
When there is something bothering us, we have a tendency to get stuck in our thinking. Have you ever found yourself going over a problem over and over again, without making progress, but unable to let it go? This mental rumination on a problem is a common behavior but is linked with depression and anxiety. Mindfulness, in contrast, breaks this loop or broken record of thought by having us focus on the present moment instead. Research has shown that it is effective in improving feelings of depression and anxiety, especially for those who have the tendency to ruminate or have a history of clinical depression and anxiety. It also reduces unhelpful emotional over-reactivity, meaning we have greater control over how we feel as opposed to being highly influenced by positive or negative events or images.
Fascinatingly, research from the University of Wisconsin at Madison has linked activity in certain parts of our brains with feelings of unhappiness, and activity in a different, corresponding area, with happiness. After eight weeks of intense training in mindfulness meditation, a group of healthy employees showed greater activity in the area associated with happiness, which corresponded to their reports of feeling better.
Greater Relationship Satisfaction
Mindfulness is also linked with greater relationships satisfaction. When we are more attuned to the present moment, we are more likely to notice the little qualities or actions that we appreciate in our friends, family members, and romantic partners. Mindfulness is also associated with less stressful parenting and better relationships between parents and their kids. In fact, one of my favorite sayings is about this very subject:
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Hopefully, this evidence encourages you to try taking a more mindful approach to your work, studies, and other elements of daily life. In my next post, we will look at some practical ways you can do this. In the meantime, try the eating exercise and notice the difference in the experience.
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