How Can We Pay Better Attention To Our Attention?

Neuroscientist Amishi Jha explains why overloading our attention can harm us, and how practicing mindfulness provides us with the space we need to find focus.

How many times have you sat down to read an email, then become lost in thought about a work project or family drama, and realize you’ve made it to the end of the page without taking any of it in? Going through a mental check-list of tasks may seem productive, but it turns out all those thoughts competing for your attention may actually be hurting it.

In this TED radio hour podcast, Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on attention, working memory, and mindfulness, says multitasking can harm people’s ability to focus.

“Deciding to pick up your phone to see who just texted you, or looking at that website just because you wanted to see if you want to buy those new pair of shoes, whatever it is, it’s pulling your attention away, and now you have to expend even more capacity to get it back on track,” Jha explains.

Jha is trying to understand the reason it becomes more difficult for people to pay attention to a task the longer they have to do it for.

In one study, she told participants to press a button each time a number appeared on the screen in front of them, but not to press the button if that number was three. Despite the simplicity of this task, people would press the button at the wrong time within two minutes. Jha points to this as an example of the wandering mind at work.

Mind-wandering vs. Daydreaming

If you’re someone who spends a lot of free time with your head in the clouds, don’t be discouraged. Jha explains there is a difference between daydreaming and mind-wandering. Daydreaming, she says, happens without negative cost. But mind-wandering happens when you don’t want it to, and can detract from your ability to engage in spontaneous thought.

Mind-wandering happens when you don’t want it to, and can detract from your ability to engage in spontaneous thought.

“That capacity to let the mind engage in spontaneous thought is so generative. Positive mood increases. Creativity increases. And the key is that we have the space to do that,” Jha says. “So if every moment the attention system is being occupied by some other demand, there are fewer opportunities to let that spontaneous thought arise.”

The role of mindfulness

Jha says people need to set themselves up with daily practices that give them space for their thoughts.

She says your attention works like a flashlight: whatever you direct it toward, you will be able to see and understand better. Now, with so many things to distract us, she says meditation is more popular—and necessary—than ever before.

She reflects on her first visit to a meditation retreat, which she sought out after feeling overwhelmed by work and family life. Afterwards, she found she had a renewed sense of balance.

“It was kind of like a boot camp for attention,” Jha says.

Her team has been studying the link between meditation and attention in order to understand what happens to the brain when people practice mindfulness, and demystify the science behind it. They’ve found that brain networks responsible for functions such as focus grow strong when mindfulness is practiced.

“So we see that as the mental push up — focus, notice, reengage,” she says.

To read more on how mindfulness can protect attention and working memory, check out Mindful’s Q&A with Amishi Jha and Cliff Saron.

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