Find Your Focus: A Conversation with Amishi Jha

Managing editor Stephanie Domet and neuroscientist Amishi Jha in conversation about the brain science of attention.

Find Your Focus: Own Your Attention in 12 Minutes a Day

Neuroscientist and author of the new book Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, Amishi Jha and Mindful managing editor Stephanie Domet discuss the brain science of attention, how mindfulness meditation helps hone focus, and why our brains are so distractable in the first place.

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A Q&A with Amishi Jha

Is there a connection between distractibility and mental health or anxiety?

AJ: Oftentimes when people think about psychological health and attention, it’s sort of like, “Yeah, you’ve got this cognitive system and then you’ve got the emotional system and they’re just separate from each other.” Not true at all. We know that that kind of siloing of the mind is usually not correct. It ends up that often what are perceived as solely psychological disorders having to do with mood are tied to disorders of attention. So in some sense, we can think of something like depression, where it’s a flashlight that is overly prioritizing and kind of yanked by depressogenic thought. It’s like you can’t pull it away and you end up in these ruminative loops. So the more we can train individuals that suffer from depression to notice those tendencies of mind, to be able to kind of broaden out and see that negative content doesn’t need to yank the flashlight but can be experienced and it will fade away. It can really help because now the flashlight isn’t so prone to privileging that kind of mental content. Same thing with with anxiety.

So absolutely, for the clinical level, this matters. Distractibility matters. But the solutions seem to be those that all of us, even if we don’t have a clinical level disorder, can benefit from to improve our well-being and better manage the distractions that compel our mind to behave in ways that are not supporting us.

Can speak to any new research projects or findings that are coming out related to mindfulness and attention?

Amishi Jha: The good news is now we’re at the point where we’re not doing a single study or a couple of studies. We’re taking a look at the research that’s occurred already and we’re doing what’s called meta analysis, an aggregate of all the studies and then an analysis of meta analyzes. So the rigor with which we’re able to evaluate and interrogate research findings is growing. And even in those meta analyzes of meta analyzes, we’re finding that yes, indeed, attention does seem to be something that has benefited from my lab. The things that are exciting from my lab are not only related to how attention is benefited, but strategies that are scalable and accessible to allow people better access to a lot of these practices.

There’s a proliferation of apps that are available for mindfulness. So what is known about the benefits of engaging in practice with a trained mindfulness teacher, without a trained mindfulness teacher, on your own? I think that’s the next generation of questions that we’re asking and that we we will be getting answers to shortly.

An example from my own lab is a paper that we published recently exploring scalability. So we trained a group of military spouses. And the reason we did this, frankly, was because every time we train service members, the first thing they said is, “Get this to my spouse. I’m about to be deployed. My spouse is going to be here holding down the fort, working a full-time job, guarding the family.” And so we offered mindfulness training to spouses. And one of the things that the spouses said is, “It’s great. It’s helpful. I learned the practices, but you just don’t know the challenges of my life. And it would help me to actually be able to have somebody who knew what the circumstances were to train other people.” And so we trained a group of spouses to deliver it to other spouses. Now these are not professional trainers. These spouses didn’t know anything about mindfulness before they started. In a 10-week period of time we were able to ramp them up to deliver the training to other spouses, and the paper that just came out looks at the results. We found that indeed, their psychological health was improved, their self-reported stress levels were reduced, and for those that practiced reliably, they saw benefits to their attention. So that’s sort of where our energy is right now. We’re offering it to different kinds of groups, we’re looking at a train-the-trainer modalities, and then looking at how this affects performance and well-being.

How has your own practice changed through your research and through the writing Peak Mind?

AJ: I would say the way my practice has changed is the same way I hope it will for everybody, so it’s been fun for me in the journey of writing the book. The first thing I’ll say is I would have never encountered mindfulness training or decided to practice it if it weren’t for a dear colleague, Richie Davidson, who mentioned it at a symposium that I was attending. I was a real skeptic. Thankfully, I was open enough (because I respected him greatly) to give it a try, and it changed everything about my life and frankly pivoted my research program in this direction.

The reason I wanted to write the book in the first place was because I felt that we were at the point where we’d amassed enough evidence that we could actually offer it to not just these certain kinds of professions, but all of us. I wanted to make it accessible for people that maybe had never heard about mindfulness. But the happy surprise for me has been that: yes, I think people that had never heard of mindfulness or considered it are becoming more curious and are understanding the value of training our attention. Another surprise for me has been working with and hearing from people that are long-term practitioners that feel like hearing about this perspective of attention, attention training, and the relationship to our emotions is really beneficial.

So for my practice it’s like a daily reminder when I hear from other people that this is beneficial for the everyone who decides to engage in it and that it can benefit me as well. And I should do it because talking about it and doing it are two different things. So just get on the mat. Close your eyes, practice.

Find Your Focus

For more insight from Amishi Jha, check out her course Find Your Focus and learn more about how you can harness your attention in just 12 minutes a day. Sign up before November 30 and receive a copy of her book Peak Mind

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Mindful Staff

Mindful Staff editors work on behalf of Mindful magazine and to write, edit and curate the best insights, information, and inspiration to help us all live more mindfully.