Recently, I have come across a book with the above written title. We are probably all familiar with the so called mind wandering. Mind wandering is that constant inner chatter with yourself: all the many things I have to do today; the wrong thing I said to a certain person; what should I say instead; when do I have to pay my bills. What happens when our mind wanders? Our sensory system shuts down and we are not aware of here and now. On the other hand, when we focus on the here and now, neural circuits for mind wandering go dim. Our focus is “situated” in our prefrontal cortex and it is an important executive function for wich we have to try for. Whenever we find ourself in a mind wandering position, it is cruical to bring our attention back to what we are doing. As we practice, we will get stronger and stronger and the first results will come within a week. Our inner chatter rising from our amygdala will get weaker and weaker and our prefrontal cortex will be able to say a clear “yes” or “no” to the inner impulses. Here is a few fact:
- The most preponderant daily routine to practice in your focus and mindfullnes is meditation. It can only take a few minutes per day.There is a story about a lawyer whose mind was filled with tasks, he was relentless in pursuing his cases, often he would lie awake much of the night thinking about the next strategy for his clients. Then, on a vacation, he met a woman who taught meditation. She led him through the steps in eating one of the raisins slowly and with full focus, savoring the richness of every moment in that process: the sensation as he lifted it into his mouth and chewed, the burst of flavors as he bit into it, the sounds of eating. When we turn such full attention to our senses, the brain quiets its default chatter. Powerful focus brings a sense of peace, and with it, joy.
- There is a famous “marshmallow test” in a legendary study by psychologist Walter Mischel to test the child”s self-awareness and focus. He invited four-year-olds one by one into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus. In a room the child was shown a tray with marshmallows or other treats and told to pick one, Then came the hard part, The experimenter told the child, “You can have your treat now, if you want. But if you do not eat it until I come back from running an errand, you can have two then.” The room was sanitized of distractions: no toys, no books, not even a picture. Self-control was a major feat for a four-year-old under such dire conditions. About a third grabbed the marshmallow on the spot, while another third waited the endless fifteen minutes until they were rewarded with two (the other third fell somewhere in the middle). After two decades, the kids who were better in their self-control in childhood, had less health problems, had not been convicetd of a crime and were financially stable. Bottom line: do not underestimate the value of regular practicing the quitar for your child or keeping the promise to clean and feed the guinea pig and its cage.
- Good executive functions and emotional intelligence (as cognitive control is sometimes called) predict good math and reading scores throughout school much better than a child”s IQ.
- The correlation between attention and relative social power shows a simple metric: how long does it take for a person A to respond on an email from a person B? The longer someone ignores an email before finally responding, the more relatie social power that person has. Map these response times across an entire organization and you get a remarkably acccurate chart of the actual social standing. The boss leaves emails unanswered for hours or days; those lower down respond within minutes. There is an algorithm for this, a data mining method called “automated social hierarchy detection” developed at Columbia University. Intelligence agencies have been applying the same metric to suspected terrorist gangs, piecing together the chain of influence to spot the central figures.
- In countries like USA and Singapore children in second and third grade undergo a specific training included in their school programme. It is called “social and emotional learning” or SEL. This programme boosts their self-awarenees and cognitive control by practicing on child”s focus and mindfulness. Here is a practical example of SEL in schools. When a teacher strikes a melodious chime, the kids silently gather on a large rug, sitting in rows, cross-leged. One girl goes over to the classroom door, puts a DO NOT DISTURB sign on th eoutside knob, and closes it. Boys and girls then find a spot on the floor to lie down, put their stuffed animal buddy (a pink pig, a yellow puppy, a purple donkey, etc.)on their belly and wait, hands to their sides. Then they follow the directions of a friendly voice leading them through some deep belly breathing, as they count to themselves “one, two, three” while they take a long exhalation and inhalation. After a few minutes it end with a voice saying “now sit up and feel relaxed”, and as they do, they all seem to be just that. This exercise in the SEL programme has a name “Breathing Buddies”. There are also many other techniques, like the stoplight. When second and third graders in a Seattle school are getting upset, they are told to think of a traffic signal. Red light means stop-calm down. Take a long, deep breath and as you calm down a bit, tell yourself what the problem is and how you feel. The yellow light reminds them to slow down and think of several possibilities that might solve the problem, then choose which is best. The green light signals them to try out the plan and see how it works. The stoplight rehearses the shift from bottom up, amygdala-driven impulse, to top down, prefrontal executive-driven attention. You can find more about SEL and books about this topic here:http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/ Well, it is worth mentioning that Singapore has become the first country in the world to require every one of its students go through an SEL programme. The tiny city-state represents one of the great economic success stories of the last fifty years. Singapore has no natural resources, no great army, no special political sway. It secrets lie in its people – an outstanding workforce with an eye towards the future. Also the safest country in the world with lowest criminal rates. I have been there in 2014 and I can tell what discipline and self-control means. It would most surely be worth to bring SEL techniques into Slovenian kindergartens and primary schools.
So the universal instructions are these: when your mind wanders – and you notice that it has wandered – bring it back to your point of focus and sustain your attention there. And when your mind wanders off again, do the same. And again. And again. And again. During mind wandering the brain activates the usual medial circuitry. At the moment you notice your mind has wandered, another attention network perks up. And as you shift focus back ( to your breathe for example, if you are doing a meditation concentrated on your breathing a few minutes a day), prefrontal cognitive control takes over. As in any workout, the more repetitions the stronger the muscle becomes. That is the mental gym. You can find more about emotional intelligence on the author”s blog (Daniel Goleman).