When it comes to sharpening your mind’s ability to focus, the least expensive option seems to be the best.
“To retain your focus, we can do so by training it—with mindfulness,” neuroscientist Amishi Jha explained during a session at NCSL Base Camp. Jha is the author of “Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.”
Growing up in Indian family, Jha heard about meditation her entire life. “I was quite a skeptic that meditation would enter the laboratory of a serious scientist,” she says. “It ended up being the only thing that was effective.”
Studies consistently show that people pay attention just 50% of the time to any task. —Amishi Jha, neuroscientist
Studies consistently show that people pay attention just 50% of the time to any task, Jha says. “It’s the nature of the brain to do this, but it has consequences.”
Attention is an extremely powerful system that is also very vulnerable—and trainable, she says. Attention breaks down into three distinct brain systems: focus; broadening; and the executive. They tend to be antagonistic, so if one is functioning, the others are suppressed.
“When we think about attention and its utility in thinking, that focusing aspect is what we talk about. When we say we have a ‘train of thought,’ what does that actually mean? That means that flashlight of attention is serving as a kind of glue that hyperlinks idea, after idea, after idea,” Jha says.
But another key aspect of attention is the ability to think more expansively. “Let’s say you’re in a situation where a problem needs to be solved, and you need to brainstorm a possible solution,” she says. “That’s when thinking has to be broad and receptive.”
The third system, executive functioning, is critical when it comes to decision-making, Jha says. The ability to determine a course of action with the proper emotional response is key to effective leadership, she says.
The Attention Fuel Tank
Attention works like a fuel for multiple functions that we do to be successful: thinking, connecting, feeling. A fueled-up individual is focused, clear-thinking and emotionally balanced, Jha says.
“How much of this fuel is available to us really determines the success and nature of how attention gets utilized,” she says. “That fuel can become used up to the point where you are teetering on empty. We’re irrational, illogical, disconnected.”
Stress can empty the attention gas tank—when we need our attention most. Jha summed it up with the acronym VUCA, a business managerial term that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
“VUCA circumstances demand attention, but they can also deplete it,” she says, leading to “mind wandering,” where the task at hand is overshadowed by ruminating about the past or catastrophizing about the future.
The answer: Building mindfulness by staying in the moment with mental pushups, such as simple breathing exercises, Jha says. Research shows that as little as 12-15 minutes a day can make a significant difference, and can be as effective at alleviating anxiety as medication.
“With that capacity built up by doing those mental pushups, we can devote our attentional energy to anything that requires us to focus, notice and redirect,” she says. “And the more time people devote to practicing, the more they benefit.”
Lisa Ryckman is an associate director in NCSL’s Communications Division.
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