25 Jun 2018

How to tame the wandering mind

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 25 June 2018

Multi-tasking is a myth, according to neuroscientist Amishi Jha.

She says we need to pay more attention to our attention because stress and mind wandering diminish the power of our brains to work at peak performance.

Distracted man

Photo: 123RF

Dr Jha, who is a professor at Miami University’s department of psychology, says it’s human nature to be distracted.

“The notion of spontaneous thought is just part of what it means to be human. Our minds are constantly producing all kinds of internal activity...but now we have an added problem of extreme external distraction,” she says.

Dr Jha compares attention to a flashlight, or torch, which narrows our focus.

“Just like a flashlight in a darkened room, wherever your attention will have privileged processing – more will get in so you can fully look at it.”

Her biggest pet peeve was the term ‘multi-tasking’, which she says is a myth.

“The brain is just not designed to do multiple things simultaneously that are attentionally demanding,” she says.

Instead, people do something called ‘task-switching’: “Where we engage our attention and then when it is time to switch over, something else grabs us, we disengage it and engage it again in the other thing.”

That process is “extremely taxing” for attention and gets people off track.

Daydreaming, however is very useful, and should not be confused to mind wandering, she says.

‘Mental time travel’

“Our mind is very good at mental time travel...We do this with so much ease, we fast forward, we rewind,” she says.

“In certain kinds of challenging situations, in certain kinds of disorders actually, sometimes we can get into trouble with this fast forward and rewind kind of function.”

She gives the example of depression.

“It ends up that that seems to be some kind of attentional rubbernecking to past rumination. There are thoughts that are problematic, depressogenic, and the mind just continues to rewind back to those experiences.”

So, how do we keep the button on play and keep our attention on the present?

That leads us to mindfulness.

“If you’ve got a body and breath, you can absolutely do this…I always like to say that it’s a low cost, lost tech, mental push up you can do.”

One common exercise she gives people is called “mindfulness of breathing”.

“The instruction there is simply to sit in a quiet, comfortable position and for some dedicated period of time, I would recommend 10 to 15 minutes, set your attention to focus all of your sensations to those sensations tied to breathing,” Dr Jha says.

The could be the coolness of air moving in and out of your nostrils, or your stomach moving up and down.

“While you’re doing your best to pay attention to your breathing, the mind will wander. And the instruction at that point is to simply notice that it has happened and return your attention back to the breath-related sensations.”

That awareness, engaging and re-engaging, is the mental push-up.

“The intention is not so much about controlling the breath, it’s about observing what’s happening on its own accord – to really become an exquisite observer of one’s life, and really in that moment one’s mind, and one’s breath.”

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)