Training the Brain with Mindfulness Meditation

Discover how to use mental exercise to stay psychologically fit and cognitively capable.

I’d like to offer you a bit of an historical perspective on the brain science of attention and the role that mindfulness has to play. Picture in your mind a scene from 100 years ago. Imagine yourself walking down the street—remembering that this is a time when there were very few cars and lots of bicycles and people walking and moving around. For someone from 1919, the idea of getting on a bicycle that’s without a back wheel and be asked to pedal as hard and fast as possible, for, say, 30 minutes, getting absolutely nowhere, would seem preposterous. Similarly, if you saw someone running down the street in 1919, you might be concerned: Are they being chased by a bear? Running from a fire? The point is that seeing people jogging or taking a spinning class 100 years ago would have been completely out of the ordinary. It’s a great reminder just how new these activities are. And it leads me to this question for all of us tuned into Mindful30 right now: Does physical activity improve physical well-being?

I suspect each of you listening may agree this is a strange question. It’s obvious that physical activity is necessary for physical fitness and for our overall physical health. All right, but we didn’t always subscribe to this view—even just 100 years ago, it might have seemed strange. So what’s led us to this very common cultural understanding?

As a scientist, I’m very proud to say that it’s research. And there’s been dedicated research over decades on this—in fact since just 1980, there have been 300,000 articles published on the relationship between physical exercise, physical activity and physical health. And one way this literature has been generated is from bringing people like athletes into the lab and examining their physiology while exercising. A scientist might look at an athlete’s heart rate or respiration rate to get a sense of how their physiology compares to people who are sedentary. On the basis of this research, we might notice differences that suggest there are markers for good health. 

Based on this sort of research, we now have public health officials and policymakers who can give us precise, evidence-based guidance on what to do daily to stay physically active and physically fit. For example, 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day for five days a week is one way to stay physically fit. While knowing this doesn’t guarantee we always do it, at least we have an idea of how to maximize the chances for our physical well-being. 

Boosting Mental Well-being

So now let’s shift gears to consider the mind. I have a similar question: Does mental activity help our psychological well-being? I think if you’re tuned into this right now, you probably would say “yes” to that question. I’m likely not saying something that you wouldn’t already agree with. But if I probed a little deeper and asked what we should do specifically to boost our psychological well-being, we may find a greater diversity of opinion.

These are questions worth asking in order to gauge our awareness of the importance of physical fitness for physical health, and the parallel importance of mental exercise for psychological well-being. The work we pursue in our laboratory is built around the notion that mindfulness training is a form of cognitive training. In fact, we see it as a very useful tool by which to build our own psychological capacities, our well being, our resilience, as well as our ability to perform and engage with the challenges that we experience in our day to day lives. 

So I want you to keep in mind that there’s a very strong parallel between the mind and the body. We do need daily mental exercise to stay psychologically fit and cognitively capable. The question is, what that exercise routine should be. And this is where mindfulness training is really entering the landscape with a lot of force and a lot of promise. 

The Brain’s Orienting System

Let’s now return to the foundational topic we’re talking about in this series: Attention. We first need to understand how attention works so we can begin exploring it’s trainability. This very powerful and complex brain system does a lot of different things we need in order to be successful in our behavior in the world. It’s made up of three main subsystems, and to aid our understanding, I like to apply a metaphor to each of them: The first subsystem of attention is something we formally call the brain’s orienting system—let’s refer to this as the brain’s flashlight. So if you’re in a darkened room and you want to make your way across it, a flashlight can be the guide you need: you’re gathering whatever information the flashlight is illuminating—this is exactly the way the brain’s orienting system works. Wherever the brain’s orienting system points, you gain more information from that source. For example, whatever’s derived from your visual environment. 

And, of course, that “attentional” flashlight is not limited to the visual world. We can listen for sounds to orient to as well, for example. We can also attune beyond our physical environment, perhaps pointing that flashlight to our internal environment—taking into account our thoughts, experiences, memories. Let’s look at how that works: Watch what your brain does when I ask you to remember what you had for your last meal. You actually took that flashlight of attention and directed it to your long-term memory, and you brought forward all the information tied to the last meal you can recall: what it tasted like, if you enjoyed it or not. All that came about because you directed that internal flashlight to memory. So this gives us a sense of the importance of the brain’s orienting system: we sometimes need to select information not only from the environment we’re in, but from our own mind. 

Your Brain on “Alert”

So that’s the orienting system, let’s now consider the brain’s alerting system: It’s sort of like a yellow traffic light. So, if we’re driving and we see a flashing yellow light, we know that signals a need to be cautious, alert, aware, but it’s not providing us with specific information on what it is we should be looking for. It could be children playing in the street, animals crossing, a strange traffic pattern. What we do know is that our attention needs to be at the ready for deployment as soon as a need arises. But it’s very non-specific regarding what it is we pay attention to. So, whereas the flashlight allowed us to narrow the alerting system, this yellow traffic light is actually encouraging our attention to be very broad and receptive to all that might be happening. 

The Brain’s CEO

There is yet a third way in which attention works, and the metaphor I like to use for this one is that of a juggler. This is the brain’s executive system, and like that of a CEO of a company, the job here is to ensure all of the behaviors of different employees, for example, align with the overall goals of the business. And a CEO achieves her aims not unlike a juggler does: it’s more about keeping all the balls in the air than attending to individual tasks; more about overseeing and ensuring there’s alignment between goals and actions. So the activity of the brain’s executive attention system, or the juggler, is very different from what the flashlight or the yellow traffic light do. But these are, essentially, our different attention systems—they are different from but complement one another, and we need them all in order to work in coordination for complex behavior. 

What Challenges our Attention?

So what happens when these attention systems become compromised? Let’s talk first about the orienting system: One very common and unfortunately prevalent psychological disorder tied to dysfunction of the orienting system is depression. We can think of depression as essentially the brain’s flashlight getting stuck on depressive or negative thoughts. And in some ways, this can become problematic for our ongoing mood and our capacity to function. If that’s the limit to what happens to our attention system, it can be described as attentional rubber-necking: that is, while we know there are other materials and other experiences to focus on, we keep getting yanked back to the negative. 

As for our brain’s alerting system and that yellow flashing traffic light, we can see disorders related to anxiety and PTSD. In these cases, everything can feel drenched in amber light: everything leaves us on alert and makes us hyper-vigilant about what’s happening. When this happens it can compromise our ability to function in the world. 

And finally, when it comes to our executive attention system—we’re talking about a juggler who keeps dropping the ball—disorders could include attention deficit disorder, ADD or ADHD. In those cases, we might imagine an overly rambunctious juggler so that goals and behavior are not aligned. 

Looking at these three disorders—depression, anxiety and PTSD, and ADHD—can shed light on how our psychological health and the cognitive functioning of our attention system are completely intertwined. Many may argue the heart and mind are distinct from one another, but I hope you’re getting the sense these are incredibly integrated and interrelated. This also means, then, if we can train our attention system to be more focused, more responsive, to come online when we want or need it to be, we will not only improve our ability to perform in the world, we have an opportunity to improve our psychological well-being. 

Mind Traveling

As I mentioned during our first session, stress, poor mood, and threat are the top three challenges to our attention system. I’ve got another metaphor for you: Imagine an MP3 player. On it, we’ve got play and pause, fast forward and reverse. So, using this metaphor, the mind has fantastic potential for mental time travel. We know we can very easily rewind the mind. We can reflect on past experiences; we can think productively about what we’ve done in the past in order to plan for the future. We also know our mind can very easily fast forward to future events to plan for the next thing we may want to do. We can also seamlessly go back and forth: we can rewind and then fast-forward and rewind again. Sometimes we might even do this without being aware we’ve landed in the past, or we’re on to the future. 

Now, in those moments we’re actually using our attention productively—putting to good use the rewinding or the fast-forwarding we’re doing. It’s when we’re under high stress, however, that we tend to do this kind of mental time-travelling much more frequently. And when we do it under those circumstances, it’s not productive. Under high stress, when we rewind the mind, it’s not just to productively reflect—instead, we end up ruminating and reliving over and over again the events that have already happened. Similarly, when we fast-forward under these conditions, we’re not productively planning so much as we’re catastrophizing or worrying about events that haven’t even happened yet, and, indeed, may never happen. 

Everyone’s a Mind Wanderer

This is an example of when our attention gets hijacked by mental time-travel, and I’m mentioning it here because it can be a major challenge to our attention, and by extension, essentially reduce our ability to be present in our lives. “Mind-wandering” might not sound like a very technical term, but actually in my field as a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, it refers to having off-task thoughts during an ongoing task or activity. For example, you have a task at hand, something you want to do, but the mind is not aligned with that goal—it’s actually somewhere else. That’s attention that’s been hijacked away from the task at hand. This is problematic because we need our attention to do the job at hand—whether it’s to read a book, have a conversation, whatever you need your attention for. But if it’s hijacked, you’re left with fewer cognitive resources available to engage productively in the task. 

When we’ve studied mind-wandering in simple experiments in the laboratory, we’ve learned a lot about the costs of this particular type of mental activity: it compromises performance on the task; and the mind suffers from something called “perceptual decoupling.” That is, your ability to perceive information is compromised. Think of it this way: with attention hijacked in this manner, you’re just not hearing sounds as clearly or seeing visual information as predominantly. You’re compromised in your ability to gain access to your environment. 

Now imagine that for somebody like a firefighter, first responder, police officer, military service member, or someone screening baggage at an airport: if they’re mind-wandering they’re not able to perceive what’s in front of them. In those cases, that could have life or death consequences. But mind-wandering is not just a concern for people in those types of jobs, it’s important for all of us who want to be able to engage productively with our world. 

How Mind Wandering Affects Your Mood

There’s another consequence of mind-wandering that’s worth mentioning, too: it can bring about a poor mood. In fact, one of the most popular papers on this topic is titled, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” and it’s written by some of my colleagues at Harvard. The gist of it is: if you mind-wander, the chances of your mood being poor in the next moment are greater. So, not only do we find ourselves suffering from the bad performance that’s a by-product of mind-wandering, our mood may also become compromised as well. 

Let me make an important distinction here: I have some my best, most creative thoughts when I let my mind wander. But if you recall our earlier definition of mind-wandering, this doesn’t fit it: When we’re being creative, are we having off-task thoughts during an ongoing task or activity? Quite the opposite. We’re talking instead here about the free flow of conscious thought bubbling up, as it does, spontaneously. In psychology speak, we call this “conscious internal reflection.” An example would be when you go for a walk and just let your mind drift where it will—another word for this being “daydreaming.” This can help us enhance our creativity and even generate a more positive mood. It helps us problem solve with greater ease, and it benefits our sense of satisfaction and fullness in our lives. We don’t want to miss our opportunities to daydream.

And this leads me to something I’d like you to focus on for this session: in our 24/7 technology-driven world, we seem to be compromising our moments of daydreaming or spontaneous internal reflection. We saturate our attention with, for example, the next thing on our screen, rarely allowing our mind to wander freely anymore. So, I want you to pay attention to, again, where your attention goes—and this time, be conscious of giving back to yourself more of these free-flowing, generative, positive moments. Be aware of ways in which we can coax our attention into being more productive and beneficial by allowing time and space for our thoughts to wander where they will.

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About the author

Amishi Jha

Amishi Jha is a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Miami and author of a forthcoming book Peak Mind (2021, Harper One) on the science of attention. Her research focuses on the brain bases of attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training. With grants from the US Department of Defense and several private foundations, her current projects investigate how to best promote resilience in high stress cohorts using contemplative/mind training techniques that strengthen the brain’s attention networks. She was selected as a Science and Public Leadership Fellow by PopTech, and serves on editorial review boards of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Frontiers in Cognitive Science, and Frontiers in Psychology.