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Mindful : August 2019
they manufacture what seem like critical insights. “That’s the beauty of the system: You treat any thought, no matter the content, the same way. You notice it, let it pass, return to breath.” Many of these cadets will join the armed forces: VMI says 50 to 60 percent of its graduates take military commissions, and almost one-fifth make it their careers. They will enter the Army, Nav y, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard at a time when researchers are recommending that mindfulness become as integral a part of training as physical fitness. As evi- dence mounts that practices like med- itation could cultivate a better-skilled fighting force, the military is still deciding whether to heed the advice. The United States has been send- ing troops into conflict zones for most of the past two decades, and the stresses faced by fighting forces can be crushing. Army Lieutenant Gen- eral Walt Piatt discovered in the years following the September 11 attacks how those stresses bleed over into life back home. At the time, Piatt was a brigade commander with the 25th Infan- try Division at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He had deployed to Iraq every other year and watched some of his soldiers melt down whenever they returned Stateside. They drank too much, beat their spouses, and drove their motorcycles dangerously fast. “It’s like getting off a freeway and getting into an elevator,” he says of those homecomings. “ Everything slows down, but our mind was still in that combat zone, operating at that level of alertness that was no longer required.” The Army’s reintegration training, designed to ease soldiers back into family life, couldn’t keep pace with that depressurization. “ We were des- perate,” says Piatt, who now serves as director of the Army Staff. “ What we had been doing had not been working.” Through a colleague, Piatt met one of the country’s top scientists in the mindfulness arena: Amishi Jha, an associate professor of psy- chology at the University of Miami. Jha and Elizabeth Stanley, an asso- ciate professor of security studies at Georgetown University, had earlier conducted a pilot study with Marine reservists preparing to deploy to Iraq. That study, first published in 2010, tested how mindfulness training affected “working memory capacity,” the ability to retain and use relevant information over short periods of time without being distracted. “I describe working memory as the mind’s whiteboard, with disappearing ink,” says Jha, a cognitive neurosci- entist. “ What we put up there, and write over and over again, moment by moment, makes up our current con- scious experience. If your whiteboard is filled with preoccupations, worries, random distracting thoughts, and whatever your technology is throwing at you, there’s not going to be a lot of room left for you to have access to the information you need to make import- ant decisions.” It will also be harder, she says, to regulate your emotions. Before shipping overseas, troops undergo training that includes “stress inoculation,” designed to prepare them for the intensity of combat. High stress, however, often depletes working memory. The researchers → A PILOT STUDY FOUND THAT AMONG MARINES WHO PRACTICED MINDFULNESS AT LEAST TWELVE MINUTES A DAY, THEY DIDN’T JUST PRESERVE WORKING MEMORY CAPACITY. THEY ACTUALLY IMPROVED. General Piatt kept inspi- rational books, including poetry by the Sufi mystic Rumi, in his office in Fort Drum, New York, where he served before becoming Director of the Army Staff. On the wall is “Pando Commando,” the unofficial insignia of several battalions, combining to form what would become the 10th Mountain Division, that defeated Nazi forces in the Alps during the Second World War. 52 mindful August 2019 neuroscience