Your Brain on Food

How chemicals control your thoughts and feelings.

Why Is Mindfulness so Hard to Achieve?

Blame your brain and evolution.

My wife Jane recently introduced me to mindfulness meditation.  I have come to realize the importance of being mindful, living in the moment and enjoying the here-and-now.  I  listen to mindfulness meditation tapes and constantly fail to become mindful.  My mind wanders to distracting thoughts from the day or to potential conversations I want to have tomorrow.  Why can’t my brain just lie still?  Simply stated, our brains did not evolve in a world that rewarded us for being still while ignoring our external environment.  Any organism with a brain that disengaged itself regularly would soon find itself being digested by a bigger organism totally lacking in any resemblance of mindfulness.  I could be wrong but I doubt that T. rex was a very pensive creature. 

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So why does our mind constantly wander?  Surprisingly, the answer has everything to do with why we enjoy ingesting coffee and cocaine – our brains really like the stimulation.  When we do not provide our brains with input from the external world, such as TV or music or exploring social media sites, our brain actively disengages and goes into what neuroscientists call “default mode.”  The rest of us call this state “daydreaming.”  So when you’re sitting through a boring lecture or listening for the hundredth time to your uncle tell that story about the big fish that got away your mind has a tendency to go offline and entertain itself with other thoughts that it finds more interesting.  Such as, what will we have for dinner tonight or when did my uncle grow a mustache.  Neuroscientists have now identified the brain regions that selectively turn on and those that turn off when people are daydreaming in the default mode.  Please keep in mind that daydreaming is an important defense mechanism and there is nothing wrong with daydreaming because it helps you to sort out important thoughts and discard nonsense and worries.  Recently, scientists have estimated that while we are awake we spend approximate 60 to 70 percent of the time we are awake daydreaming!  Why do we devote so much time to daydreaming?

Our brain evolved in a sensory rich world and rewards us for exposing it to ever more complex sensory experiences.  Every time we experience something new our brains releases a jolt of dopamine in the frontal lobe; dopamine is the major reward neurotransmitter in the brain.  We can artificially stimulate the release of dopamine by ingesting coffee and cocaine or we can turn on the TV, listen to music or communicate to someone. The brain rewards us for obtaining new information and having lots of thoughts because doing so might have survival value.  After all, everyone knows that knowledge is power.  The more you know, the more likely you are to survive and pass on your inquisitive genes to the next generation. 

Thus we are all burdened with a brain that demands constant entertainment and that powerfully rewards us for providing it.  When we do not provide adequate amusement our brain goes into default mode and daydreams, i.e. it generates its own entertainment.  Clearly, mindfulness, although wonderfully peaceful and restorative for the body, is not something that our brain evolved to accomplish.  Realizing this will make my next meditation experience easier to endure. 

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford Univ Press)

Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University.

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