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

Our ability to pay attention is unreliable when we’re under stress. In her new book Peak Mind, neuroscientist Amishi Jha explores cutting-edge research on elite soldiers revealing how mindfulness training protects our attentional resources, even in the most high-stress scenarios imaginable.

Illustrations by Roy Scott

You are missing 50% of your life. And you’re not alone: Everyone is. I say this confidently, even without knowing who you are, or how your brain might be different from the last one we tested in my lab at the University of Miami, where I research the science of attention and teach cognitive neuroscience courses.

Over the course of my career as a brain scientist, I’ve seen certain universal patterns in the way all of our brains function—both how powerfully they can focus, and how extraordinarily vulnerable they are to distraction—no matter who you are or what you do. I’ve had the opportunity to peek inside the living human brain, and I know that at any given moment, there’s a high probability that your mind just isn’t here. Instead, you’re planning for the next item on your to-do list. You’re ruminating on something that’s been bothering you, a worry or a regret. You’re thinking about something that could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Any way you slice it, you’re not here, experiencing your life. You’re somewhere else.

Mental time travel is one of the biggest culprits degrading our attention. We do it all the time. We do it seamlessly. And we do it even more under stress. Under stress, our attention gets yanked into the past by a memory, where we get stuck in a ruminative loop. Or we may get launched into the future by a worry, leading us to catastrophize on an endless number of doomsday scenarios. The common denominator is that stressful intervals hijack attention away from the present moment.

Mental time travel is one of the biggest culprits degrading our attention. We do it all the time. We do it seamlessly. And we do it even more under stress.

This is how mindfulness first entered my lab as a possible “brain-training tool.” I wanted to know whether training people in mindfulness exercises could help them be more effective in high-pressure situations. Our basic definition of mindfulness was this: paying attention to present-moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity. 

I wondered if training people to keep attention in the here and now, without editorializing or reacting, could serve as a kind of “mental armor.” I wanted to answer this question: Could mindfulness training protect and strengthen attention? 

To find out, we set our sights on one of the most high-stress, high-demand populations: the military.

Can Mindfulness Stabilize Attention?

mindful meditation

“This is never going to work.” That’s what then-captain Jason Spitaletta said to me as we walked onto the Marine Corps Reserve Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. He sounded good-natured about it. He smiled when he shook my hand and cheerfully told me our study was probably doomed. Marines, he said, were just not going to go for it. Mindfulness wasn’t something they’d invest in—it was too “soft” sounding. (This was 2007—it was very new to everybody back then.) Nevertheless, Captain Spitaletta and his co-leader Captain Jeff Davis had agreed to host our study on mindfulness and attention. When we’d spoken to Davis on the phone a few months before, he’d seemed skeptical yet open, acknowledging that they needed to try something new.

Spitaletta and Davis appeared exactly the way I figured Marines would look: jarheads. I admit that I had a moment of cognitive dissonance. It was hard to picture these two—stoic, brawny guys in desert camo—sitting and meditating. And if even I had trouble picturing it, military leadership would likely have its own doubts. At this early point in our research, there was no precedent for mindfulness meditation as “cognitive training.” We were going to put this to the test and see what the data revealed. My main goal was to set the conditions for a strong experiment: asking the right questions and selecting evaluation metrics that would be sensitive enough to detect even small changes in attention. With thoughtful planning and luck on our side, we’d get a clear answer, one way or another.

My team and I set up our computers and gave the Marines various cognitive tasks. We also looked at their mood and stress levels. And then, for the eight weeks of pre-deployment training that followed, they were offered a 24-hour program modeled off of the well-established, mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques that had been tested in medical settings, but contextualized for a military cohort. They were introduced to a foundational set of practices: attention to the breath, body scans—practices that entail bringing attention into the present moment, in a “non-editorializing” way. We knew we needed to deliver these practices in a way that would make sense to this demographic so that it would be accessible to them. Their homework: 30 minutes of mindfulness practice every day.

Eight weeks later, we were back to test them again. Some had done the assigned 30 minutes daily on several days, but most did far less. They were all over the place. This was what data from the field can often look like: lots of variability across participants. To plot the results, we split the group in two, based on how much they practiced. Here’s what we saw: While the low-practice group got progressively worse in terms of attention, working memory, and mood over the eight weeks, the high-practice group remained stable. At the end of the training, the high-practice group performed better and reported feeling better than the low-practice group and a no-training control group. What we found echoed some of our earlier studies, except this time under even higher demand: Mindfulness could indeed stabilize attention.

After this phase of our study, the Marines were deployed. When they came back, we retested them. And again, the results were initially a mixed bag—nothing was reaching statistical significance. The group was small; some members had dropped out of the study, left the military, or moved on to a new post. Many had stopped doing the training practices during deployment. 

What we found echoed some of our earlier studies, except this time under even higher demand: Mindfulness could indeed stabilize attention.

Still, one pattern stood out. When we looked at those who had been in our low-practice group at pre-deployment, a subset of participants actually performed better than before they left. This result contradicted the earlier data and made no sense—why were they performing so well? After all, even before they were deployed, they’d done minimal practice compared to the others.

Basically, this low-practice group had turned themselves into a high-practice group on their own. Mid-deployment in Iraq, with what I can only imagine were unpredictable schedules and very demanding circumstances, they’d taken it upon themselves to do more mindfulness practice, because it was blatantly apparent to them what a difference it made.

Now, it’s important to note that this study—our first trial run of delivering mindfulness training in a military setting—was promising. Still, it didn’t produce stunning results—it was small, and the data were variable. But even though the results were modest, the implications were huge. First: Mindfulness-based training could be introduced to high-demand groups to protect attention. And second: It wasn’t a situation where you could say “any exposure to training is helpful.” It required regular practice to benefit.

We had right in front of us living, breathing proof that mindfulness training created a kind of “mental armor” that could effectively protect individuals’ attentional resources, even in the most high-stress scenarios imaginable.

The Minimum Effective Dose of Mindfulness Meditation