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Sep 09

The Science of Taming the Wandering Mind

by

Wherever attention goes the rest of the brain follows—in some sense, attention is your brain’s boss. But is it a good boss and can we train it?

Consider the following statement: Human beings only use 10 percent of their brain capacity. Well, as a neuroscientist I can tell you that, while Morgan Freeman delivered this line with the gravitas that makes him a great actor, this statement is entirely false. The truth is human beings use 100% of their brain capacity.

The brain is a highly efficient energy demanding organ that gets fully utilized and, even though it is at full capacity being used, it suffers from a problem of information overload. There’s far too much in the environment than it can fully process. 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.

Over the last 15 years I’ve been studying the human brain’s attention system. In all of our studies I’ve been very interested in one question: If it is indeed the case that our attention is the brain’s boss, is it a good boss? Does it actually guide us well? And to dig in on this big question, I wanted to know three things: First how does attention control our perception? Second, why does it fail us, often leaving us feeling foggy and distracted? And third, can we do anything about this fogginess? Can we train our brain to pay better attention, to have more strong and stable attention in the work that we do in our lives?

How does attention control perception?

This is the story of a Marine captain, Captain Jeff Davis. And this is not a story about his time and on the battlefield, he was actually on a bridge in Florida. And instead of looking at the scenery around him, seeing the beautiful vistas and noticing the cool ocean breezes, he was driving fast and contemplating driving off that bridge. He would later tell me that it took all of everything he had not to do so.

He just returned from Iraq and while his body was on that bridge, his mind, his attention, was thousands of miles away. He was gripped with suffering. His mind was worried and preoccupied and had stressful memories and dread for his future. But he, as a leader, also knew that he wasn’t the only one who was probably suffering—Many of his fellow Marines probably were too. And in the year 2008 he partnered with me on a first-of-its-kind project that actually allowed us to test and offer mindfulness training to active duty military personnel.

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