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The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Anyone can develop mindfulness by focusing on direct sensory experiences.

Mindfulness is an idea that’s been around for thousands of years, originally emerging from Buddhist traditions. In modern times, researchers are doing interesting studies showing that mindfulness impacts many facets of the human experience.

However, convincing busy people who run companies and institutions that mindfulness is useful can be challenging. That’s because these people tend to spend less time thinking about themselves and other people and more time thinking about strategy, data, and systems. In general, they focus less on people and more on big-picture goals.

Therefore, speaking to an executive about mindfulness can be a bit like speaking to a classical musician about jazz: It might look like they could play a little Coltrane because they deal in sounds, but they haven’t developed the appropriate circuits for it.

I’ve taught mindfulness to deans of medical schools, senior executives at major technology firms, and business school students from dozens of countries. When you explain step by step how it works and how it affects your brain, and then give people a chance to experience it, even the most cynical, anti-self-awareness agitator can’t help but see the benefits. The key to getting them to try is to first explain the neuroscience involved. Here are some highlights of how mindfulness impacts the brain.

Mindfulness and the brain

A 2007 study by Norman Farb and colleagues at the University of Toronto broke new ground in our understanding of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective. Farb and his co-workers discovered people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of neural networks.

One is called the narrative network, which includes self-referential brain regions, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, and memory regions, such as the hippocampus — all part of what’s called the default mode network. A narrative is a story line with characters that interact with each other over time. This network earns its name because it’s active when you’re not focused on the external world and your mind is wandering, or when you’re thinking about yourself or others. For example, if you’re sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing through your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day, you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner that night and whether you’ll make a mess of the meal. This is your narrative network in action. It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming, and ruminating.

The brain holds vast amounts of information about your own and other people’s histories. When the narrative network is active, you’re thinking about the history and future of yourself and all the people you know, and how this giant tapestry of information weaves together. When you experience the world using this network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze — it’s a sign that summer will be over soon, which gets you thinking about where to go skiing and whether your ski suit needs cleaning.

The narrative network is active for most of your waking moments and doesn’t take much effort to operate. There’s nothing wrong with engaging this network, and in fact, it can help us solve problems via insight, which can drive innovation. The point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this lens.

The second network the Farb study explored is an entirely different way of self-referential thought that focuses on the current moment. At NLI, we call this “direct experience.” Several brain regions become more active during direct experience, including the insula and somatosensory areas, all regions involved in perceiving our current bodily sensations, both internal and from our surroundings. So when this direct experience network is activated, you’re not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or yourself — or considering much at all. Rather, you’re experiencing direct sensory information in real time. Sitting on the jetty, your attention is on the warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze in your hair, and the cold beer in your hand.

Other studies have found that these two circuits, narrative and direct experience, are inversely correlated. In other words, if you think about an upcoming meeting while you wash dishes, you’re more likely to overlook a broken glass and cut your hand because the brain network involved in visual perception is less active. When the narrative experience is activated, you don’t see as much (or hear, feel, or sense anything as much) because you’re lost in thought. Sadly, even a beer doesn’t taste as good in this state.

Fortunately, this scenario works both ways. When you focus your attention on incoming data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash up, activation of the narrative circuitry is reduced. This explains why, for example, if your narrative circuitry is going crazy worrying about an upcoming stressful event, it helps to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. All your senses “come alive” at that moment.

Let’s recap these ideas. You can experience the world through your narrative circuitry, which is useful for planning, goal setting, and strategizing. You can also experience the world more directly, which enables increased perception of sensory information. Experiencing the world through the direct experience network allows you to get closer to the reality of any event. You perceive more — and more accurate — information about events occurring around you. Noticing more real-time details makes you more flexible in how you respond to the world. You also become less imprisoned by the past, your habits, expectations, or assumptions and are better equipped to respond to events as they unfold.

In the Farb experiment, people who meditated regularly — and thus practiced noticing the narrative and direct experience paths — had stronger differentiation between the two paths. They knew which path they were on at any time and could switch between them more fluidly. In contrast, people who had not practiced noticing these paths were more likely to automatically take the narrative path.

Similarly, a study by researchers Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan found that people who scored high on a mindfulness scale were more aware of their unconscious processes. They also had more cognitive control, and a greater ability to shape what they do and say, than people lower on the mindfulness scale.

So why should you care? If you’re on the jetty in the breeze, and you’re someone with a good level of mindfulness, you’re more likely to notice that you’re missing a lovely day worrying about tonight’s dinner and turn your focus on the warm sun instead. When you shift your attention in this way, you change the way your brain interacts with all of the information it’s processing.

You don't have to sit still, but you do need to practice

Leading mindfulness researcher John Teasdale once explained, “Mindfulness is a habit; it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort ... It’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” I love this last statement. Mindfulness isn’t difficult: The hard part is remembering to do it.

The key is to practice focusing your attention on a direct sensation, and do so often. It helps to use a rich stream of data. For example, you can hold your attention to the feeling of your foot on the floor easier than the feeling of your little toe on the floor: There’s more data to tap into. You can practice mindfulness while you’re eating, walking, talking, or doing just about anything.

Building mindfulness doesn't mean you have to sit still and observe your breath. You can find a way that suits your lifestyle. Years ago, my wife and I built a 10-second ritual into the evening meal with our kids, which involves stopping and noticing three small breaths together before we eat. An added bonus: It makes a great dinner taste even better.

Whatever ritual you develop, practice it. The more mindful you become, the better decisions you’ll make, and the more you’ll achieve your goals.

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