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Mindful : December 2013
December 2013 mindful 59 performance prescriptions for stimulants, a chemical route to attentiveness. The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voice mails, skimming messages and memos. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean. All of this was foreseen way back in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writ- ing about the coming information-rich world, he wa rned that what information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of infor- mation creates a poverty of attention.” Meditation and Attention The good news on at tention comes from neurosci- ence labs and school classrooms, where the findings point to ways we can strengthen this vital muscle of the mind. Attention works much like a muscle: use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows. Practices—such as memorization, sustained concen- tration, one-pointed focus in meditation, smart use of gaming technology—ca n further develop and re- fine the muscle of our attention, even provide rehab for focus-star ved brains. Mindfulness meditation is one of the more sig nif- icant of the tools currently being worked with as a way to enha nce attention. The scientific literature on the effects of meditation amounts to a hodge- podge of bad, good, and remarkable results in a mix of questionable methodologies, so-so designs, and gold-sta nda rd studies. So, I asked Richard David- son, founder and chairman of the Center for In- vestigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin–Madison, to sort through it all and summarize the clear benefits for our atten- tion that come from practicing mindfulness. “Mindfulness boosts the classic attention network in the brain’s frontoparietal system that works together to allocate attention,” Davidson said. “These circuits are fundamental in the basic movement of attention: disengaging your focus from one thing, moving it to another, and staying with the new object of attention.” Another key improvement he points to is in selec- tive attention, inhibiting the pull of distracters. This lets us focus on what’s important rather than be dis- tracted by what’s going on around us—you can keep your focus on the meaning of these words instead of having it pulled away by, say, skipping to another page. This is the essence of cognitive control. Though so fa r there are just a few well-desig ned studies of mindfulness in children, “in adults there seems to be strong data on mindfulness and at tention networks,” according to Mark Greenberg, professor of human development at Pennsylva nia State University. Greenberg, who himself is leading studies of mindfulness in young people, is cautious but optimistic. One of the bigger benefits for students is in in- creasing their ability to understand what they study. Wandering minds punch holes in comprehension. The a ntidote for mind wandering is meta-awa re- ness, attention to attention itself, as in the ability to notice that you are not noticing what you should and correcting your focus. Mindfulness makes this crucial attention muscle stronger. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel of the University of California, Los Angeles, describes the wiring that links both attuning to ourselves and to others as a “resonance circuit” that mindfulness practice streng thens. Mindfulness streng thens connections between the prefrontal executive zones and the amygdala, particularly the circuits that can say “no” to impulse. Enhanced executive function widens the gap between impulse and action, in pa rt by building meta-awa reness, the capacity to obser ve our mental processes rather than just be swept away by them. This creates decision points we did not have before: we can squelch troublesome impulses that we usually would act upon. ● The antidote for mind wandering is attention to attention itself: noticing that you’re not noticing what you should, then correcting your focus. Mindfulness makes this crucial attention muscle stronger. Watch our interview with Daniel Goleman at mindful.org/focus From the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Goleman. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.