The human brain hums with constant “chatter.” For about half of our awake time, the mind wanders. Rather than honing in on the present, it ruminates on the past or tries to predict the future — often, it spends its time on these erroneous thought patterns while we’re consciously trying to concentrate on what is actually going on. Helpful.
Add in push notifications, media alerts, emails, and social media pings, and you can understand why some experts say we are living in an “age of distraction.” These constant lures gunning for our attention can keep us from pursuing our goals, maintaining meaningful relationships, and performing our best at work. No matter how hard we try, we simply can’t win the battle for the brain’s attention. Or can we?
There is an antidote to distracted living: Pay attention like your life depends on it — because it does.
That’s the science-backed strategy Amishi Jha, director of contemplative neuroscience and professor of psychology at the University of Miami, suggests. Jha recently outlined the ways we can harness the brain’s attention system to live better in her book, Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.
“Your life is what you pay attention to,” Jha tells Inverse. That’s because attention fuels cognitive operations like learning, thinking, deliberating, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as emotion regulation and social connection, Jha adds.
She continues: “All these fundamental building blocks of what it means to live a life require attention.”
According to Jha, the path to paying better attention isn’t about clearing the mind. Instead, with simple and consistent mindfulness training, it’s possible to bring awareness to how you’re paying attention. In doing so, you can temporarily lift the fog of distraction and zero in on the joys and challenges around you.
The Attention System — Early in her career, Jha wasn’t set on studying the brain’s attention system or even the brain at all; She wanted to be a physician. After a stint volunteering at an inpatient brain injury unit at a local hospital, Jha became fascinated by the ways we can not only heal a damaged or dysfunctional brain, but optimize a healthy one to operate more efficiently. Later, as a cognitive neuroscientist, Jha wondered, can the brain work better?
The answer to that question, Jha theorizes, lies in the brain’s attention system, which Jha calls “the brain’s boss.”
The brain constantly cycles attention, consciously and subconsciously shifting focus millisecond by millisecond. This ever-shifting mindscape can feel maddening at times, but attention cycling is a core design feature of the human brain, enabling us to rapidly adapt to feedback in our environment.
“The constant flow of attending to the external environment and internal environment — these are all really beneficial things to be able to not just survive in a complex environment, but use this mental time-traveling ability to reflect on the past and plan for the future,” Jha says.
“It feels terrible because there’s a constant pull on our attention.”
If attention doesn't have an “intrinsic desire to move,” Jha explains, you can become hyper-fixated. This can prove problematic, especially for our ancestors, who, without attention cycling, may have gotten so wrapped up in hunting a particular animal of interest or tracking down a certain berry that they become prey themselves, she says.
In modern times, attention cycling has been commodified by the tech industry. Now, attention cycling is used to “mine our attention for profit,” Jha says. Social media, apps, and even the way phones are designed are all a ploy to capture our attention. If you have ever gotten sucked into the vortex of social media or lost hours in your email inbox, then you know what I mean.
“Our attention isn’t functioning differently, or in a problematic manner,” Jha says. “It’s functioning as it was designed to, but it feels terrible because there’s a constant pull on our attention.”
Jha describes this common feeling as “hazy autopilot mode,” where your attention is just being pulled from place to place without conscious control.
“It feels like a blur where you don't really know what you just did,” Jha says. “Because you weren't really there.”
“This very ancient practice is being brought into the modern world.”
Cultivating a Peak Mind — The costs of distracted living may seem small — a subtle misunderstanding, or missing out on a joke. But over a lifetime, these lapses in attention can add up and become gravely serious — even potentially fatal, Jha says.
This is especially true for many of the populations Jha studies including the military and first responders. For the rest of us, lapses can feel as consequential, even when they’re not potentially mortal, Jha says.
“When our reputation, sense of justice, sense of purpose, or ethical code get violated, it feels very consequential,” Jha says.
For twenty years, Jha has studied the brain’s attention system and sought methods to help people find the signal through the noise and avoid such lapses. By analyzing a variety of populations in high-stress scenarios, Jha discovered a simple, ancient practice that can increase focus: mindfulness training.
Jha defines mindfulness as “a mental mode characterized by attention to present-moment experience without judgment, elaboration, or emotional reactivity.” Mindfulness training includes breathing and focus exercises similar to those used in meditation.
In a variety of experimental contexts, mindfulness training has been shown to improve people’s self-reported resilience, working memory capabilities, mood, ability to focus, and decrease mind wandering. It can also help alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
“You don’t need special equipment. You just need your own mind.”
While scientists have made strides in clinically validating these benefits in the lab only in the past few decades, mindfulness training has been around for millennia.
“Right now, this very ancient practice is being brought into the modern world,” Jha says. “It’s low cost, low tech; you don't need special equipment. You just need your own mind.”
In Jha’s lab, they have shown that practicing mindfulness and focusing on the breath for as little as 12 minutes daily for at least four weeks significantly and objectively strengthens and protects attention.
Even though it’s relatively easy and ultimately beneficial, practicing mindfulness isn’t always comfortable, and it doesn’t instantaneously guarantee peace of mind.
“When you wake up to the reality of what your attention and mind are experiencing, it doesn’t necessarily have to be positive,” Jha explains.
“There’s no special state of bliss, peace, or unending happiness that you’re attempting to achieve when you engage in a mindfulness practice,” Jha says. “It’s to get the raw data of what's going on. Only then can you take action in your life to move you toward happier days.”
Try Jha’s three mini-mindfulness strategies:
1. Start STOPping:
Throughout the day, use cues in the environment — a stoplight, a line at the grocery store, waiting for an elevator — as a trigger to show up in a mindful way.
S: When you’re physically stopped, try to mentally stop.
T: Take a breath. Focus on the sensory experience of breathing and become aware of your breath.
O: Observe. Notice what's happening both within you and around you.
P: Proceed. Move on with your life.
“Multitasking is a myth,” Jha explains.
“What we do instead is task-switching, where we're putting our attention on something, and then we’re having to disengage and move it to put it on something else, and then return it back over and over again.” Task-switching is extremely exhausting. To protect attention, try to do one thing at a time.
3. Thoughts aren’t facts:
Remembering this principle can cut through spirals of rumination or catastrophizing. Remind yourself, “That’s just a thought my mind generated, it may or may not be tied to reality.”
“Know that your mind will constantly be generating all kinds of ideas,” Jha says. “It’s your job to watch for their arising and then not just take the bait every time.”