This week, we’re learning how to find our focus and fight our distractions with help from neuroscientist Dr. Amishi Jha. Listen to hear Dr. Jha break down the evolutionary reason behind why we are so distractible, the benefits of learning how to pay better attention, and what we can do to better focus our attention.
Dr. Jha is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. She’s also the author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.
Highlights from this week’s episode
Dr. Jha on why we shouldn’t feel bad about feeling distracted or unable to pay attention for extended periods:
From the brain science point of view, I think we should definitely all feel better…It may feel like we’re in a crisis moment, but our brains are actually functioning exactly as they were sort of designed through the course of human evolution to function. It’s doing exactly as it should be. So in terms of what is the amount of time that we are able to stay on task or frequency with which we might wander away, the humbling number is about 50 per cent of our waking moments.
Dr. Jha on why, when possible, we should avoid multitasking:
[E]ven the term multitasking is a myth. We’re actually never multitasking when we’re trying to do more than one attentionally demanding thing at one time. So if it’s not attentionally demanding like you’re on a walk and you happen to be expert at walking, you know, you’re not a toddler just learning…Of course, you can walk and think at the same time. But as soon as that secondary task becomes more and more attentionally demanding, you’re in a minefield, literally. Now all of a sudden, no, you cannot both think of other thoughts and walk at the same time. Both are attentionally demanding. So what we do in that moment is not multi-tasking. It’s task switching. So we are devoting our attention to one task, disengaging it, moving to the other task, coming back, engaging it again. And that switch time is both costly for time, but mentally very, very costly…Is it ever a good idea? It may never be a good idea, but we’re human beings and we’re going have lots of demands on us… And I guess my message is essentially know that when you can, you should really try to mono-task. It’ll help you. And when you can’t, be aware of the consequences of doing that. You’re going to be slower to switch back and forth. You’re going to get more tired, you’re going to get exhausted in some sense if you keep doing this and you’re likely to make mistakes.
Dr. Jha on the myriad benefits of learning how to pay better attention:
I describe it as a fuel for our performance success, so it drives our capacity to think like we were saying, follow a train of thought to deliberate decisions, to learn new information, just not just in the cognitive realm. It’s also necessary for our ability to regulate our emotions and frankly experience our emotions. If you think of a joyful moment, if you’re distracted [by something else] you missed it. Right. So we need it for thinking, we need it for feeling, and we frankly need it for connecting with other people. So in some sense, because it’s so foundational to everything we do, having our attention declined or diminished will affect our not only our ability to feel successful, but our sense of fulfillment…And then I can go on and on about the benefits because it’s really amazing how this field of mindfulness research has proliferated to look at all kinds of things. So even more recently, my colleagues have looked at things like the cellular longevity that you have of cells in your body, something called telomerase, which is this reparative enzyme that builds back the end of your chromosomes for cellular regeneration. There’s more telomerase with more mindfulness practice, so literally your lifespan is impacted by how often you can practice these things.
To hear more of the science behind attention and Dr. Jha’s advice for how to start improving your focus, listen to the full episode.