Training the Brains of Warriors

Neuroscientist Amishi Jha explores how the military is using mindfulness to tap into calm and focussed attention under extreme stress.

The bell rings, and the 21 cadets in Major Matt Jarman’s leadership class at Virginia Military Institute stand at attention as their highest-ranking classmate salutes the professor. Though the weather outside is mild, the cadets are dressed in their winter uniforms. Black neckties are tied in Windsor knots and tucked between the second and third buttons of their black long-sleeved shirts. Woolen garrison hats sit on the classroom tables next to open laptops.

“Today we’re going to do a little introduction to meditation,” says Jarman, an assistant professor of psychology. This is not what future military officers usually hear, so he cautiously probes their receptiveness. “When you hear mindfulness meditation, what do you think?”

The cadets call out free-association words: purposeful, tranquility, recalibrating. One attempts a longer definition. “It’s almost like slow motion,” he says. “You know the next move you’ve got to make. You have to do it quickly. But in your mind, you slow everything around you, so that you can make that decision as efficiently as possible.”

“How often are you guys distracted or daydreaming?” Jarman asks. “How often are you stressed?” All the time, the class responds in various forms. Days are regimented at VMI, a…

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About the author

Barry Yeoman

Barry Yeoman is an award-winning magazine journalist who specializes in narratives about complex social issues. He has written for Parade, The Saturday Evening Post, The New New South, Sunset, and The Nation, among many others.

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