Being truly, entirely present is a challenge for many people. We can blame our iPhones, but we know the problem runs deeper. It’s just too easy to think about what’s next than to simply consider where you are. But if we were to practice being more present, research indicates we'd be better off.
Evan Forman, a psychology professor at Drexel University, tells me that the practice of “present-moment awareness” has been linked to a number of positive effects, including stress and chronic pain reduction, as well as providing a boost to overall well-being. There’s also some evidence that present-moment awareness helps regulate appetite in a healthy way, and has been used alongside other techniques to reduce alcohol use and smoking.
“Present-moment awareness,” Forman explains, generally refers to a “state of sustained attention to and awareness of the present moment, which includes being fully aware of one’s internal experiences.” In this case, internal experiences include factors like sounds, smells, and sensations, as well as thoughts and emotions.
Consider what you typically do when you wash the dishes: Maybe your mind wanders while you scrub, and you think about your bummer of a commute or how you really should call your grandma. But if you are experiencing present-moment awareness while washing the dishes, you’d notice the feel of sponges on your hands, the sensation of warm water, and the sound of plates settling into the sink. A thought might flutter in about some person who’s wronged you, sure, but then you’d return your attention to the present moment — the sponge, the water, the sound, and the sensation.
Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, tells me that if one wants to be more present, the process involves more than putting away your phone.
“Once we know how our minds work, we can work with them.”
Putting away distractions, he explains, helps us not be triggered in the moment, but it doesn’t help us learn how best to be present. That, Brewer explains, “requires knowing how our minds work.”
“Once we know how our minds work, we can work with them by hacking into the very brain learning machinery that distracts us in the first place,” Brewer says.
Brains repeat behaviors that are rewarding. If a brain is given a choice between two behaviors — one rewarding and one not — it’s going to pick the rewarding one. In turn, if we pay attention to what it feels like when we’re distracted and compare that to what it feels like when we’re present, our brains can be trained to see the relative reward of each.
In time, comparing the downsides of being distracted — feeling restless and less connected with others — to how nice it feels to listen deeply and connect, will show your brain the reward value of being present. (His team has also put together an animated video explaining the brain science behind this process.)
In a 2010 study in the journal Science, the authors write that “a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” The ability to think about objects and events that are not immediately in front of you is one of the unique abilities that makes us human. But it’s also a heavy load — and one that, sometimes, is healthy to put on pause.