Can `Mindfulness' Help You Focus?
By Annie Murphy Paul
If there's any time when we should be paying close attention
to what we're doing, it's when we're under pressure to perform whether taking a test like the SAT or on a deadline at work. But
too often, our minds wander even in these crucial moments distracted by a ticking clock or consumed with worries about how
well we're doing or how much time we have left.
Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University
of California, Santa Barbara, wondered if instruction in
mindfulness the capacity to focus on the here and now could
help. In a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science,
he and his co-authors describe an experiment in which 48 undergraduates were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness
class or a nutrition class. Both classes met for 45 minutes,
four times a week, for two weeks. During the mindfulness class, participants sat on cushions in a circle; they were asked to
pay focused attention to some aspect of sensory experience, like
the sounds of their own breathing. They practiced distinguishing between the simple thoughts that naturally arise in our minds
(I have a test tomorrow) and the thoughts that become "elaborated" with emotion (I'm really worried that I won't do well, and if I
fail it, I'll have to take the class over, and then I won't
graduate on time). The undergrads enrolled in the mindfulness
class were taught how to reframe these more emotional concerns
as mere "mental projections," and how to allow their minds to
rest naturally, rather than trying to suppress or get rid of
All of the participants, who had completed a measure of working memory and a verbal-reasoning section from the GRE (an exam for
grad school) before the classes started, took these tests again
after the classes were over. Researchers also checked how
frequently the students' minds wandered while working on the
tests. Schooler and his colleagues found that participants who
had received the mindfulness training improved their GRE reading- comprehension scores and working-memory capacity, and experienced fewer distracting thoughts while completing the measures the
Schooler notes that findings of his study are in line with other research showing that mindfulness training leads to reduced activation of the "default network," a collection of regions in
the brain that tend to become more active when our minds are at
rest than when we're focused on a mentally challenging task.
People who have been practicing meditation for many years and
even those who have undergone mindfulness training for just a
couple of weeks show reduced activation on brain scans of this network, which has been associated with mind wandering. It may be
the case, Schooler theorizes, that mindfulness training reduces
mind wandering by "dampening" the activation of the default
network, preventing our thoughts from straying.
And this research carries an even more exciting implication,
Schooler observes: "Counter to the long-standing assumption
that mental aptitude is largely fixed across the life span,"
he writes, a number of recent studies have indicated that IQ
can be increased through targeted interventions like this one.
"The present demonstration that mindfulness training improves cognitive function and minimizes mind wandering suggests that enhanced attentional focus may be key to unlocking skills that
were, until recently, viewed as immutable." Something to think
about or, actually, not think about the next time you're
Annie Murphy Paul is the author of Origins and the forthcoming
book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.
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