How we determine what to pay attention to is a complex process. Retaining focus can be challenging over the course of a day, let alone during times of high stress or when important information is being relayed.
In a recent TED Talk, neuroscientist Amishi Jha shed light on how the brain’s attention system operates. According to Jha, we are all dealing with a constant stream of external information, causing our brains to “suffer[s] from a problem of information overload”.
“There’s far too much in the environment than it can fully process,” she says.
“So to solve this problem of overload, evolution devised a solution, which is the brain’s attention system.
“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.”
How does attention guide your brain?
Jha’s studies have focused on how attention controls perception, why it fails us and how we can train our brains to pay better attention.
She says about 170 milliseconds after showing research participants a face on a screen, “a very reliable, detectable brain signature” is detected. The signature, called the N170 component, is used in many studies and provides insight into the impact attention may have on perception.
Studies have found that attention is affected by external distractions, or when people are placed in stressful situations; Jha wanted to explore the role played by internal distractions, or ‘mind-wandering’.
“What we found was that, very similar to external stress and external distraction in the environment, internal distraction, our own mind-wandering, also shrinks the gap of attention. It diminishes attention’s power.”
She observes “a growing body of literature suggests that we mind-wander, we take our mind away from the task at hand, about 50% of our waking moments”, with the mind prone to reflect on the past or contemplate the future.
“These might be small, little trips that we take away, private thoughts that we have,” she says.
“And when this mind-wandering happens, it can be problematic”.
How to cultivate “moments of mindfulness”?
Mindfulness can be encouraged and actively cultivated, and Jha details programs that give “participants a suite of exercises that they should do daily in order to cultivate more moments of mindfulness in their life”.
“From our work, we’re learning that the opposite of a stressed and wandering mind is a mindful one,” she says.
“Mindfulness has to do with paying attention to our present-moment experience with awareness, and without any kind of emotional reactivity of what’s happening.
“It’s about keeping that button right on play to experience the moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives. And mindfulness is not just a concept — it’s more like practice, you have to embody this mindful mode of being to have any benefits.”