This week’s conversation is with Dr. Amishi Jha, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. 

She serves as the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. 

Amishi received her Ph.D. from the University of California–Davis and postdoctoral training at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke University. 

Her work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum, and The Pentagon. 

Amishi has received coverage in The New York Times, NPR, TIME, Forbes, and more. 

Her TED Talk on “How to Tame Your Wandering Mind” has over 5 million views and she is the author of Peak Mind, which came out on October 19th. 

You can probably guess where this conversation is headed – it’s all about awareness, focus, and how you can train your brain to pay attention more effectively.

“You’d think if you want to train for better focus, you’d practice focusing. But the reality is, if you want to train for better focus, practice noticing.”

In This Episode:

How one patient inspired her to study psychology

There was this one particular patient I remember, when I came in, he was, I thought, a quadriplegic. And what I realized is that actually he wasn’t a quadriplegic, he did have some movement in his arm. And over the weeks that went by, he was actually, he went from not being able to move at all, to actually being able to guide his own wheelchair. And he would tell me that in the evenings, when he was trying to fall asleep, he’d actually rehears the movements of moving his chair with part of his hand. And I was so like, “That is amazing. He’s literally changing the way his brain functions by just training it.”

The flashlight metaphor

When I think of the superordinate category, it would be the term attention. And within that focus is a particular type of attention, something we’d formally call the brain’s orienting system. And the metaphor I like to use for that system, just based on what we know it does to brain function, is a flashlight. So wherever we direct that computational resource, the ability to focus, we get more crisp, clear, granular information. We select for it. Everything else that is not within the flashlight’s focus is dulled down. Concentration is related to that. It’s in my mind, the ability to sustain that level of focus over time.

“Our attention is the success story of our evolution”

Our attention is the success story of our evolution. And that’s true for everything about the brain right now, that whatever we are right now, no matter how annoying some of the qualities of our mind may be, they were selected for, they were advantaged. And they probably have a use in our lives. So just to keep that in mind. But attention in particular, we think evolved to solve a very big problem that the brain had, which is that there’s just so much information out there, that this limited thing called the human brain could not possibly analyze and understand at all.

The floodlight metaphor

The second system, this floodlight metaphor, is really around broadening our focus and being receptive. So you’re turning down the gain on the signal to noise distinction. And it can be within the external environment and the internal environment. So it’s a very different model. And from the brain science point of view, we know that these are different and distinct brain circuits that allow selection to happen, and then this vigilant, receptive mode to happen.

Attention is vulnerable

The three different systems of attention, don’t work independently, they’re constantly holding hands and coordinating with each other. But it ends up that they’re all vulnerable to the same things. They’re all vulnerable to what we might even call kryptonite in the mind. And they’re all limited in capacity, and they’re all trainable. So there’s certain themes that go across all of them, but that’s really where my mind is right now – understanding from a broad brain basis perspective, how are these things instantiated in the brain? How do they start falling apart, and what can I do to protect them and train them?

Coordination between the mind and the brain

The mind is all these things, but they’re not all happening at the same time. And the way in which they relate to each other, we may be able to learn about that by seeing how the brain actually implements them. And I just gave one example, that you can’t both be broad and narrow simultaneously, just based on what we see in terms of the way the brain operates. In the same way you just described, we can’t be both internal and external typically simultaneously, it’ll cause a conflict. So we’ve got to figure out a way if we want to be able to do these things, that typically are antagonistic, we might want to really train for that specifically, so there’s better or smoother coordination.

The value of training your attention

We absolutely should dial into the way that we train attention. And the way in which a decision is made to focus on something, that’s its own landscape. Is it contingent? Is it emergent? Is it based on your framework? Whatever it is, let’s just take that as a given. Some decision has been made of where to focus. That’s what we’d call now, instantiating the flashlight voluntarily pointing towards something, internal or external, right? So you’ve got voluntary focus going on. It’s absolutely the case, and we know this because we live in a modern world with tons of external distractions, that we can have this willful decision made to focus. And then we don’t necessarily know in the next moment where the flashlight is pointing. Oftentimes it is getting pulled, because it can be pushed and pulled to something that seems like it just drew us to it.

The trap of narrow focus

We can train for better focus voluntarily. We can practice over and over again, to actually view certain aspects of a scene or keep certain ideas in mind, and be very clear about what the focus should be on, with precision. We can train for doing that better and better. The thing that we probably don’t do by default, all that often, is trained to be broadly receptive and aware in an unconstrained fashion. And that’s when this flashlight that is going toward the thing you’ve dedicated yourself in a voluntary manner to direct your mind toward, when it gets pulled away, you’re unaware of it because you’re not looking for where the flashlight is, you’re in the immersive experience of where the flashlight went.

The 3 main detractors of focus

The three things we’re seeing, at least in my work are, threatening information, stress inducing information, where there’s a sense of overwhelm that I don’t have the capacity to meet this challenge, and negative mood. Those are three biggies that we see consistently degrade attentional capacity. And in particular, it seems to be because the flashlight gets yanked away, and you aren’t able to hold the focus where you want it to be.

“Mental time travel” and how it affects our focus

All three of these are tied to something we might call mental time travel. So you’ve got a task in the moment, right? You’ve got a thing you’re trying to do, there is a demand that you’re trying to engage in, but now the mind is not necessarily in that moment, it’s decoupled from it. And it is in the past or the future. And when that past or future content is negative, it will tend to gravitate, the flashlight will be magnetically drawn to it. So now there’s less resources available for me to direct right now. So things like rumination, worrying, catastrophizing, would all go into that transdiagnostic category of negative mental content.

How the pandemic is lessening our ability to focus intently

We’ve got a threefer, we’ve got a situation in which stress, threat, poor mood, all are at play. And what we’re seeing is that it’s protracted, it’s not a week or two, it’s not the daily ups and downs of life, you might have a good week or bad week. But there’s this ongoing aspect to it, so that even our normal ability to bounce back if there was some challenge is not happening, because of the circumstances. What we’re seeing is what you expect to see, there’s going to be a decline in all of those psychological health variables, but also attention. And I never thought that when we see this pattern of degradation and attention over high-stress intervals, like in elite athletes like we just talked about, or service members, or even firefighters during intensive fire season, it’s almost like all of us are in that same interval now. And that flashlight that we talked about, when you want to direct it toward the email or report you’ve got to write, is now all of a sudden getting yanked around by this other content. And if you’re not checking in with regularity and training yourself to do so, the chances of you being able to even notice that you’re off task to get it back, it’s going to be less and less. And soon enough your performance has been compromised.

Focusing is a decision, refocusing is a skill

 Focusing is the goal, that’s the set point… And yes, it’s a skill to refocus. And what that skill requires is an awareness of what is happening. And you can train to have that awareness be stronger and more available to you on demand.

The STOP Practice – Stop, Take a breath, Observe, Proceed

This captures all of these aspects of our attention. So… Stop, literally what you’re doing. Stop. Sometimes we’re forced to stop, so it’s easy. Stop sign for example. Take a breath, just one conscious breath, allowing it to happen at it’s natural pacing. Observe, at least allowing whatever’s happening in the inner or outer landscape to just be there. And then proceed. And I think of it as just a simple brain break to check in. And now all of a sudden, no matter where that flashlight was pointed, you got it in your hand again, and you can move forward with your life.

 

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Professor of Psychology at |

Dr. Amishi Jha is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami whose research on attention, working memory, and mindfulness has investigated the neural bases of executive functioning and mental training using various cognitive neuroscience techniques.