How the Mind Can Be ‘Trained Like a Muscle’ to Focus Through A Simple Change of Outlook
When people say “I get distracted easily,” what they’re really saying is, “I receive less of the absolute miracle that is “focus” than other people,” because when we consider the 10 million bytes of imagery data the eyes give the brain each second or the 6,000 spontaneous thoughts we have each day, it truly seems like a miracle we can focus on anything at all.
As it turns out, far from being a miracle, focus can actually be trained and developed, just like a human bicep after months of pumping iron.
A professor of behavioral neuroscience named Dr. Amishi Jha has written a book called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention.
Her research shows that when people in high-demand jobs like soldiers, elite athletes, or emergency personnel invest 12 minutes a day for four-weeks doing simple mindfulness exercises, many aspects of cognitive and emotional health, including attention, are improved.
“The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention,” says Jha in a book review piece for The Guardian.
A lot of western ideas about mindfulness are drawn from eastern religious mediation practices.
Certain Buddhist meditation, for example, involves focusing on nothing—the supreme emptiness that pervades all other things, while Zen mediation focuses on thinking about nothing, but being aware of all things happening around you. Some Zen practitioners will even keep their eyes open.
That’s not the kind of thing most people are able, or willing, to do. Yet Jha explains that attention can be trained through simple exercises.
Specifically, they involve daily steps “that exercise the brain in ways that it is prone to being weakened,” such as when we are brushing our teeth and immediately turn our attention to thinking about other things. One can develop the mental muscle to observe the present, instead of becoming lost in a reverie.
Jha’s book contains a lot of brain workouts, all centered around this sort of wisdom.
1: Paying attention to your breath and where in your body you feel it passing the most. Use your focus like a flashlight (a physical challenge of hers).
2: Don’t think of these exercises as peaceful reflection or time to say “Om,” but rather a rigorous mental workout.
3: Don’t think of being calm, and instead try and imagine the goal of being alone in the middle of a four way intersection, watching people (your thoughts) pass along the crosswalks under each set of lights.
4: As with the breathing focus, spend three minutes a day focusing on the sensation of doing exactly what it is you are doing. If that’s showering, focus on that experience alone.