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Can ‘Mindfulness’ Help You Focus?

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  • medit8ionsociety
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 28, 2013
      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
      their thoughts.

      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
      second time.

      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
      under pressure.

      Annie Murphy Paul is the author of Origins and the forthcoming
      book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart.
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