We generally think of mindfulness as an idea that has been around for thousands of years, originally emerging out of Buddhist traditions. Many Buddhist researchers are doing great studies showing that mindfulness has an impact on many aspects of human experience. When you understand the underlying physiology of mindfulness, you begin to see that any discussion about human change, learning, education, even politics and social issues, ends up being about mindfulness. That is because mindfulness, in some ways, is simply the opposite of mindlessness, and mindlessness is the cause of a tremendous amount of human suffering.
Deep thinking being linked to any religion is problematic; because it is hard getting across the idea that being mindful is useful, without activating a threat response from the billions of Non-Buddhists who could benefit from it. Why mindfulness is difficult to talk about with the busy people who run companies and institutions, is that these people tend to spend little time thinking about themselves and other people, but spend a lot of time thinking about strategy, data, and systems. As a result, the circuits involved in thinking about oneself and other people, the medial prefrontal cortex, tend to be not too well developed.
Speaking to an executive about mindfulness therefore can be a bit like speaking to a classical musician about jazz. It might look like they could play a little Coltrane, because they deal in sounds, but they don’t really have the circuits for it. We don’t take well to learning new skills, especially in later life, and any reason to not focus on a new skill, like it being linked to a religion other than yours, doesn’t help.
When you explain step by step, how mindfulness works and how it affects brain, and give people a chance to experience it, even the most cynical, anti-self-awareness agitator can’t help but see that they will be better off practicing this skill. The key is to be able to explain the actual neuroscience involved. Here are some of the highlights of how mindfulness impacts the brain, from “Your Brain at Work.”
A 2007 study called "Mindfulness Meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference" by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto, along with six other scientists, broke new ground in the understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective.
Farb and his colleagues worked out a way to study how human beings experience their own moment-to-moment experience. They discovered that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of networks. One network for experiencing your experience involves what is called the "default network", which includes regions of the medial prefrontal cortex, along with memory regions such as the hippocampus. This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a quayside in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is our default network in action. It is the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.
The default network also become active when you think about yourself or other people, it holds together a "narrative". A narrative is a story line with characters interacting with each other over time. The brain holds vast stores of information about your own and other people’s history. When the default network is active, you are thinking about your history and future and all the people you know, including yourself, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together. In the Farb study, they like to call the default network the ‘narrative’ circuitry. The ‘narrative circuit’ term for every-day usage is easier to remember and a bit more elegant than ‘default’ when talking about mindfulness.
When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze is not a cool breeze, it is a sign that summer will be over soon, which makes you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.
The default network is active for most of our waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. There is nothing wrong with this network. The point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.
The Farb study shows there is a whole other way of experiencing experience. Scientists call this type of experience one of direct experience. When the direct experience network is active, several different brain regions become more active. This includes the insula, a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations. The anterior cingulate cortex is also activated, which is a region central to switching your attention. When this direct experience network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself, or considering much at all. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.
Other studies have found that these two circuits, narrative and direct experience, are inversely correlated. In other words, if you think about an upcoming meeting while you wash dishes, you are more likely to overlook a broken glass and cut your hand, because the brain map involved in visual perception is less active when the narrative map is activated. You don’t see as much or hear as much, or feel as much, or sense anything as much, when you are lost in thought. Sadly, even a beer doesn’t taste as good in this state.
Fortunately, this scenario works both ways. When you focus your attention on incoming data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash up, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry. This explains why, for example, if your narrative circuitry is going crazy worrying about an upcoming stressful event, it helps to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. All your senses come alive at that moment.
Let’s recap these ideas. You can experience the world through your narrative circuitry, which will be useful for planning, goal setting, and strategizing. You can also experience the world more directly, which enables more sensory information to be perceived. Experiencing the world through the direct experience network allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. You perceive more information about events occurring around you, as well as more accurate information about these events. Noticing more real-time information makes you more flexible in how you respond to the world. You also become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations or assumptions, and more able to respond to events as they unfold.
People who regularly practice noticing the narrative and direct experience paths, such as regular meditators, have stronger differentiation between the two paths. They know which path they are on at any time, and are able to switch between them more easily. Whereas people who have not practiced noticing these paths are more likely to automatically take the narrative path.
A study by Kirk Brown found that people high on a mindfulness scale are more aware of their unconscious processes. Additionally these people have more cognitive control, and a greater ability to shape what they do and what they say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale. If you are on the jetty in the breeze and you are someone with a good level or mindfulness, you are more likely to notice that you are missing a lovely day worrying about tonight’s dinner, and focus your attention onto the warm sun instead. When you make this change in your attention, you change the functioning of your brain, and this can have a long-term impact on how your brain works too.
John Teasdale is one of the leading mindfulness researchers. Teasdale explains, "Mindfulness is a habit, it is something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort. It is a skill that can be learned. It is accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What is difficult is to remember to be mindful."
Practicing mindfulness is important, as you are more likely to then remember to do it. The key to practicing mindfulness is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct sense, and to do so often. It helps to use a rich stream of data. You can hold your attention to the feeling of your foot on the floor easier than the feeling of your little toe on the floor: there’s more data to tap into. You can practice mindfulness while you are eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything, with the exception of drinking a beer in the sun, which works for only a limited time before your attention leaves to go and party; the neuroscience of all that will have to wait for another book.
Building mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to sit still and watch your breath. You can find a way that suits your lifestyle. Just build a 10-second ritual into the evening meal, which involves just stopping and noticing three small breaths before one eats. The added bonus is it makes a great dinner taste even better.
What ever practice you do develop, practice it. The more mindful you become, the better decisions you will make, and the more you will achieve your own goals, rather than other people’s goals for you.
- Mind Wandering: A New Personal Intelligence Perspective (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- A Brief introduction to the “Default Mode Network”, what happens when your mind wanders, and refocusing. (mcauliffeschool.wordpress.com)
- The Real Neuroscience of Creativity (creativitypost.com)
- Structural Interactions within the Default Mode Network Identified by Bayesian Network Analysis in Alzheimer’s Disease (plosone.org)
- Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.: The REAL Neuroscience of Creativity (huffingtonpost.com)