Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist specializing in the brain mechanisms of attention, has been researching mindfulness techniques to optimize focus, even under high stress. Over the last 15 years, she has been has been studying the human brain's attention system.
Consider the following statement:
"Human beings only use 10 percent of their brain capacity".
Well, as a neuroscientist, I can tell you that while Morgan Freeman delivered this line with the gravitas that makes him a great actor, this statement is entirely false.(Amishi Jha. TED Talk. 2018)
Amishi maintains, "human beings use 100 percent of their brain capacity and the brain is a highly efficient, energy-demanding organ that gets fully utilized." Although the brain is working at full capacity, "the brain suffers from a problem of information overload."
There is far too much in the environment for the brain to fully process, "so to solve this problem of overload, evolution devised a solution, which is the brain's attention system."
Amishi suggests that attention allows us to notice, select and direct the brain's computational resources to a subset of all that's available.
"We can think of attention as the leader of the brain. Wherever attention goes, the rest of the brain follows. In some sense, it's your brain's boss. I've been very interested in one question. Is it a good boss? Does it actually guide us well?"
As a focus in her research, Amishi is interested in three things:
She observed that attention is very powerful in terms of affecting our perception, "yet even though it's powerful, it's also fragile and vulnerable. Things like mind-wandering diminish its power."
"Our mind is an exquisite time-traveling master."
"[Our mind] can actually time travel very easily...We can rewind the mind to the past to reflect on events that have already happened... Or we can go and fast-future, to plan for the next thing that we want to do. And we land in this mental time-travel mode of the past or the future very frequently. And we land there often without our awareness, most times without our awareness, even if we want to be paying attention."Amishi Jha. How to tame your wandering mind. TEDxCoconutGrove. March 2017
For example, remember the last time you were reading a book and got to the bottom of the page with no idea of what you had just read.
"When this happens, when we mind-wander without an awareness that we're doing it, there are consequences. We make errors. We miss critical information, sometimes. And we have difficulty making decisions."
"When we experience stress, we don't just reflect on the past when we rewind, we end up being in the past ruminating, reliving or regretting events that have already happened. "
Amishi claims the opposite of a stressed and wandering mind is a mindful one.
Amishi gives participants in her research a suite of exercises that they should do daily to cultivate more moments of mindfulness in their life, so as to embody a mindful mode of being for it to have any benefits.
"Mindfulness is not just a concept. It's more like practice".
"pay attention to your attention"https://www.ted.com/talks/amishi_jha_how_to_tame_your_wandering_mind
Mindfulness is paying full attention to what is going on in you and outside you, moment by moment, without judgment. It means you observe your thoughts, feelings, and the sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. You are also fully aware of your surroundings.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist meditation principles. However, anyone can practise mindfulness to improve their self-awareness and wellbeing.
Since the 1970s, clinical psychology and psychiatry have developed a number of therapeutic applications based on mindfulness for helping people experiencing a variety of psychological conditions. Mindfulness practice has been employed to reduce symptoms of depression to reduce stress, anxiety and in the treatment of drug addiction.
Programs based on mindfulness models have been adopted in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans' centres and other environments. Mindfulness programs have also been used in programs for healthy aging, weight management, athletic performance and assisting children with special needs.
(from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/ )
Formal practice is mindfulness meditation where participants sit (usually with eyes closed) and focus attention on one thing, usually either breathing or the sensations experienced within the body.
Informal practice may bring the same kind of improved attention to everyday situations that one might get from formal practice. This involves directing full and non-judgemental attention to the activity being undertaken at a particular moment – it might be washing the dishes, brushing teeth, chatting with a friend or studying.
(adapted from https://www.smilingmind.com.au/mindfulness)
Mindfulness is not a temporary state of mind that is present during meditation and then vanishes for the rest of the day. At its most effective mindfulness is a way of living.
Mindfulness meditation not only has the potential to change our mindset and perspective, it can also change the shape of our brains, rewiring them towards more positive thoughts and emotions, a process known as neuro-plasticity.
Meditation allows us to move from high-frequency brain waves (Beta) to a lower frequency (Alpha, Theta), which activates (and, potentially even more importantly, deactivates) certain areas of the brain.
A good example of how transition though these different states of consciousness can be viewed in the way we finish our day. When we go to bed and read for a few minutes before attempting sleep, we are likely to be in low beta. When we put the book down, turn off the lights and close our eyes, our brainwaves will descend from beta, to alpha, to theta and finally, when we fall asleep, to delta. In the morning we transition in the other direction as our brainwaves gradually speed up to mange the responsibilities of another day.https://meditationaustralia.org.au/content/brainwaves-science-meditation/
Meditation can decrease neurological connections to the medial prefrontal cortex, or the "me centre", diminishing traits such as fear, stress, and anxiety. In turn, meditation can also build new pathways to the parts of the brain responsible for traits like focus and decision-making.
Research shows that grey matter - the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, planning and problem-solving - as well as the cortical thickness - responsible for learning and memory - both increase with regular meditation practice. Alternatively, the amygdala, which regulates how we feel stress, fear and anxiety, decreases in size.
Many people have routines in their daily lives, such as waking up and going to work or school. If we are doing something familiar in customary surroundings, we may operate on autopilot and not notice what's actually going on; for instance, eating a whole packet of chips in front of the TV without actually noticing the taste.
Some people spend a lot of time thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Being too caught up in your thoughts may even make it hard to fall asleep at night.
Mindfulness may help to manage negative thoughts and feelings in a more positive way.
In 2016, Dawn Foster of The Guardian wrote:
Mindfulness has surged in popularity over the last few years, with a boom in apps, online courses, books and articles extolling its virtues. It can be done alone or with a guide (digital or human), and with so much hand-wringing about our frenetic, time-poor lifestyles and information overload, it seems to offer a wholesome solution: a quiet port in the storm and an opportunity for self-examination.
Large organisations such as Google, Apple, Sony, IKEA, the Department of Health and Transport for London have adopted mindfulness or meditation as part of their employee packages, claiming it leads to a happier workforce, increased productivity and fewer sick days.
"But could such a one-size-fits-all solution backfire in unexpected ways?
Dawn Foster. Is mindfulness making us ill? The Guardian. 23 January 2016.
Internet forums abound with people seeking advice after experiencing panic attacks, hearing voices or finding that meditation has deepened their depression after some initial respite.
Of course, people may not know they have a bipolar vulnerability until they try mindfulness. Or they might have repressed the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, only for these to emerge after trying the practice.
A 2011 study by Duke University in North Carolina has raised concerns at the lack of quality research on the impact of mindfulness, specifically the lack of controlled studies.
There is currently no professionally accredited training for mindfulness teachers, and nothing to stop anyone calling themselves a mindfulness coach, though advocates are calling for that to change.
Finding an experienced teacher who comes recommended, and not being afraid to discuss negative side-effects with your teacher or GP, means you're far more likely to enjoy and benefit from the experience.
The fight or flight response in humans is a reaction to stress. At one point it kept our species alive. It increased chemicals in the body that allowed for greater speed and strength. But today stress is less about running away or fighting and more about how well your boss likes your latest project or other non-life threatening issues.
In today's society we are exposed to long term stress...Prolonged exposure to the fight or flight chemicals creates inflammation and deteriorates parts of the body. It is no surprise that this stress has an effect on the delicate parts within the ears.
The overproduction of adrenaline can reduce blood circulation in the inner ear or even stop it completely. Not only can this cause hearing loss over time, it can cause sudden hearing loss when circulation stops completely.
It's understandable therefore that meditation, which reduces this stress response, also decreases these deteriorating effects, but it turns out meditation goes a step further and actually improves hearing.
Meditating increases an individual's ability to perceive sounds at different auditory thresholds and increases the way the brain codes and stores this auditory information.
Meditation has also been shown to increase the flow of blood within the ears. And that blood flow is essential to keeping hearing health.
The very parts of the brain that are strengthened and eased by meditation practice are the same parts implicated in tinnitus relief.
New UK research has found that a mindfulness based approach to tinnitus could transform the treatment of the condition.
Tinnitus is described as a sensation or awareness of sound that is not caused by an external sound source. Prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus.
Up to 90% of people with tinnitus have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. The noise causes permanent damage to the sound-sensitive cells of the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ in the inner ear.
About 1 in 3 people in Australia suffer from tinnitus at some point in their life. About 1 in 6 have constant tinnitus symptoms.
Tinnitus is associated with complaints of emotional stress, insomnia, auditory perceptual problems and concentration problems.
As yet there is no treatment to stop the tinnitus noise but research, funded by the British Tinnitus Association (BTA), shows clearly that treatment can make it less severe, intrusive and bothersome.
Practicing mindfulness meditation can cultivate a more helpful way of responding to tinnitus. People learn how to 'allow' and 'accept' tinnitus, rather than having to 'fight it' or 'push it away'.
Mindfulness does not aim to change the nature or sound of the tinnitus, but the therapy can lead to tinnitus becoming less intrusive to a point where it is no longer a problem for people.
Mindfulness sessions are not available in all audiology departments or private audiologists, so a referral to a specialist tinnitus centre may be required if this therapy is recommended for you.
If you can't access mindfulness as part of a tinnitus management programme, you may find local classes, books, apps and online resources helpful.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement. The formal and informal practice of mindfulness may result in your capacity to:
Amishi Jha. How to tame your wandering mind. TEDxCoconutGrove. March 2017.
Dawn Foster. Is mindfulness making us ill? The Guardian. 23 January 2016.
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