Peak Mind (2021) provides a cutting-edge overview of the science of attention – looking at the various ways your mind focuses and pays attention, as well as the factors that cause our mental vigilance to lapse and weaken over time. What’s more, it lays out a simple, easy-to-follow regimen to keep your mind in tip-top shape – even as you deal with the ups and downs of life.
What’s in it for you? Get your attention into peak shape.
Stress, threat, and poor mood degrade your attention.
Making memories require rehearsal, elaboration, and consolidation.
Practicing mindfulness strengthens attention.
Improve attention by meditating for 12 minutes, five days per week.
Mindfulness meditation exercise
About the author
Table of Contents
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
Video and Podcast
Science, Productivity, Mindfulness, Happiness, New Age Meditation, Cognitive Psychology, Personal Success in Business, Self Help, Personal Growth, Personal Development, Leadership, Business, Health
What’s in it for you? Get your attention into peak shape.
Imagine this: you’re a firefighter – and not just any firefighter, either. You’re a specially trained emergency responder in the Australian bush. Your job is controlling the blazes that regularly break out in the country’s scrubland.
It’s not an easy job. The bush is inaccessible by land, so you and your team rappel into the area from a helicopter and then fan out, each of you carrying a big bag of tools and specialized equipment. Each firefighter takes their own section, where they’ll aim to contain the rapid spread of the fire.
You know that before long, a support helicopter will drop foam and water on the blaze. But for now, you’re on your own. So you get to work. Sweat pours down your face as the sound of an inferno rages in your ears. As you tackle the intensity of the fire roaring in front of you, you lose yourself in the work, focusing on the urgent task at hand.
After a while, though, something suddenly grabs your attention: a huge whooshing noise. It’s the sound of a gigantic amount of air being sucked up by the flames, and it means that while you were honing in on the fire in front of you, a wall of fire crept up the other side.
So what happened? Basically, your attention failed you – not because you couldn’t focus, but because you focused too much. When your mind zeroed in on one small patch of flames, your awareness of the broader situation became hazy and unclear. In this case, a lapse of attention endangered your life.
Now, forget the flames for just a second. Let’s say you survived. There are two things you can learn from your close brush with death. Number one is this: issues of attention can be life threatening.
Sure, you might not be a firefighter or a soldier. But do you drive? Are you a pedestrian who needs to cross roads on foot? Do you take any medications? All of these things require your attention, and messing them up can be fatal.
Point number two? Attention is misunderstood. When people talk about it, their thinking is often confused and imprecise, and based on a big misconception: that attention describes a single phenomenon. That simply isn’t true. Attention is actually three subsystems, each of which does something distinct. We’ll call these subsystems the flashlight, the floodlight, and the juggler.
Human beings are sensitive creatures. We have a number of finely tuned sensory organs. We have memories. And we have the ability to contemplate, imagine, and predict.
But to do any of these things well – to pay attention to a sound, predict someone’s reaction to your behavior, or remember the events of last week – you need to be able to control your attention. That is, to highlight what’s relevant and dampen what’s unimportant.
So, really, the ability to bring certain things into focus and clarity while leaving others vague and obscure is what attention’s all about. And the three subsystems of attention, the flashlight, the floodlight, and the juggler, are all vital to that ability.
Of these three, the most familiar is probably the flashlight—a handy name for what attention researchers call your orienting system. The flashlight allows you to select certain kinds of information and orient yourself toward it – whether that’s a friend’s facial expressions, your own inner monologue, or a particularly delicious taste. It’s the type of attention you exercise when you focus on something, making it brighter, more detailed, and more clearly defined; the things around it, by contrast, recede into the background, becoming dim and out of focus.
For example, your flashlight is pointed at this text right now. But what about your surroundings? Chances are, whatever’s going on behind you, above you, or across the street is dim and out of focus. Here’s another example: think about how it feels to bite into a warm, crumbly spoonful of raspberry pie, the slightly tart berries perfectly balanced by cool whipped cream and an overall sweetness that melts across your tongue . . .
So are you paying attention right now? Or are you wondering how long it would take to get your hands on a slice of raspberry pie? In other words, is your flashlight pointing toward these blinks – or straight at the nearest bakery? It just goes to show that while the flashlight can be a powerful tool, it’s only effective if you can keep it pointed in the right direction.
If you’ve ever lived alone, you’ve probably experienced something like this: You come home at night and notice that the front door – the one you always make sure is definitely, completely, 100-percent locked – is sitting wide open.
All of a sudden, you’re on high alert: you’re living in your nerve endings. You shout out a tentative “Hello?” and then listen very, very carefully to the sounds beyond the doorway. No response.
You step in, monitoring the shadows on the floor and listening for any movement. Again, nothing. What on earth could be going on?
Emboldened now, you move from room to room, listening and looking around with complete attention. And . . . it’s all clear. You must have simply forgotten to close the door all the way when you left earlier. From now on, you’ll be more careful.
So what was going on in your mind when you arrived home and saw the door? Where was your attention? Well, in a word: everywhere. And that’s because you were using your alerting system – also known as the floodlight.
When you stepped through the open doorway, your attention was broad, receptive, and flexible. It was ready to dart out and seize on any relevant stimulus: a voice, a footprint, a shadow down the hall. You didn’t know exactly what you were looking out for, but you were sure there was something.
The alerting system – the floodlight – is associated with states of vigilance. And not just vigilance to threats out in the world, such as doors sitting open or things that go bump in the night. The floodlight also helps you keep an eye out inside yourself, looking out for thoughts and feelings that you ought to pay attention to.
Of course, you can’t always be looking for threats. At some point, you need to shut off the floodlight and calm down. So with the front door locked again and the house safe and sound, relax: it’s time to meet the juggler.
In the business world, you probably know what a chief executive does: she sets goals, supervises, and makes decisions. She ensures things are running smoothly, and keeps everything on track.
In your mind, the central executive – also known as the juggler – plays a similar role. It doesn’t carry out every small task, but instead oversees and manages the whole process. That means overriding automatic impulses, like the knee-jerk desire to pick up your phone every time it beeps. And it also means matching goals with the actions you’ll need to take to reach them. Whether your goal is short-term and simple or long-term and more complex, you’ll rely on the juggler to help you navigate the demands it presents. That’s why the central executive is called the juggler: whatever challenges you’re facing, it has to try to keep all the balls in the air.
So that’s the spotlight, the floodlight, and the juggler – all powerful subsystems of attention. But as impressive as they are, there is a catch: these functions tend to operate solo, one at a time, rather than in tandem. For example, you can’t really have the spotlight and the floodlight on at the same time. Your stint in the Australian scrubland taught you that.
Stress, threat, and poor mood degrade your attention.
So you’ve discovered the way attention works, and the various forms it comes in – the flashlight, the spotlight, and the juggler. But what about when attention doesn’t work? When things go wrong and your power of attention is weak or misdirected. Exactly what is happening then?
Well, there are three main things that can damage your attention system and wreak havoc on your power of attention. The first is stress. Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed by professional worries, relationship issues, or financial woes, feeling stressed out can drastically interfere with your ability to marshal your attention.
Why? Well, stress hijacks your mind’s cognitive resources, directing them toward imagined catastrophes and remembered mistakes. In other words, it directs your attention away from the here and now, forcing you to engage in “mental time travel.” With your mind locked in bitter ruminations and dark imaginings, there’s naturally less attention at your disposal for other tasks.
The second thing that can mess with your attention is threat. Imagine trying to take a driving test with a wild animal in the back of your car. How much attention would you be able to devote to your three-point turn with a raccoon breathing down your neck? Probably not a lot. You see, threats magnetize your attention like little else, and disengaging your mind from them can seem all but impossible.
That brings us to the third and final thing that degrades attention: poor mood. Anything from a passing bout of the blues to chronic depression can interfere with your attention system. In fact, the author and her research team found that people’s attention and working memory decline significantly after seeing upsetting images.
That’s a serious problem because, as you’re about to discover, a weakened attention system doesn’t just cause issues in the present. By interfering with the way you create memories, it also leads to problems down the line.
Making memories require rehearsal, elaboration, and consolidation.
Did you know that making a memory involves three steps? Rehearsal, elaboration, and consolidation – that’s all it takes. But if the attention system isn’t working properly, a lot can go wrong with this seemingly simple process.
Now, the word “rehearsal” might call to mind images of orchestras and theaters, but in this context it means something much more mundane. When you hear a phone number and repeat it aloud, you’re rehearsing it; when you meet a new coworker and say his name three times in your head, you’re rehearsing that too. Rehearsal, in other words, is the act of tracing over information, reminding yourself of it in order to help lodge it in your memory for good.
When that’s done, step two begins. That’s elaboration, which simply means connecting new information with your existing memories. In other words, integrating the new input with the old.
Finally, there’s consolidation, the process by which new neural pathways are created, strengthened, and stored. It occurs at the same time as rehearsal and elaboration. Thanks to consolidation, information passes from your ephemeral working memory into your more enduring long-term memory. In everyday terms, think of it like taking a receipt out of your wallet and tucking it into a folder for safekeeping.
Rehearsal, elaboration, and consolidation. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, it generally is. But degraded attention can easily mess the process up. One reason for this is that consolidation normally takes place during mental downtime, when attention is flexible and unconstrained and the mind can roam freely.
But if you’re undergoing stress, experiencing poor mood, or constantly fending off threats, you don’t get mental downtime. Your attention gets hijacked, and the mind never really has the chance to wander in the way that memory-making requires.
There’s also another, more fundamental reason that you can’t make memories when your attention is occupied, and it’s a simple one, too: you can only remember what you focus on. If you’re not mentally present at your child’s birthday party, then you’re barely going to remember it, even if you were there the entire time.
Practicing mindfulness strengthens attention.
Imagine if a friend asked you to come over and help move a heavy sofa. You wouldn’t drop to the floor in preparation and knock out a couple of push ups, would you? Of course not. Building strength takes time – a few exercises shortly before you need to exert yourself is only going to tire you out, not strengthen you.
So why is it that you do the mental equivalent of those push ups whenever you’re facing a difficult scenario? During a job interview, you try to calm yourself with a few deep breaths; before the big game, you try to center yourself and focus.
Just like the last-minute workout, these interventions are too little too late. What’s more, they can even leave you feeling more depleted by draining your cognitive resources. The solution isn’t emergency mental push ups, then: it’s gradual training. And the exercise in question is mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness was the one thing the author and her team found useful, time and again, in helping to improve participants’ attention systems. During times of stress, mindfulness meditation helped to defend attention – and, practiced enough, it actually improved it.
In other words, poor mood, threat, and stress are all handled better when you regularly meditate – keeping the attention trio of spotlight, floodlight, and juggler in peak condition.
Improve attention by meditating for 12 minutes, five days per week.
When the author brings research participants into her lab, she’s able to track the effects of mindfulness meditation on both their minds and their lives. Improvements in attention and working memory crop up again and again. People’s minds wander less. They’re more aware of where their attention is. Their sense of wellbeing rises, and even their relationships improve.
But that’s not all. The author and her team can see actual physical changes in the brain that correspond to these improvements. For example, the brain’s cortex thickens in sections that are linked to attention – in much the same way that your biceps would grow if you practiced hammer curls in the gym.
So, what exactly do you need to do if you want to reap the rewards of mindfulness meditation? How do you use it to train your attention, and how long do you need to practice for?
The last thing we’ll do in this Blink is a meditation exercise – a type of meditation called breath awareness. For now, though, let’s keep things practical. How frequently should you practice, and how long should each session last?
Well, once again it’s like physical exercise. The more time you spend practicing, the greater the benefits you’ll see. In scientific terms, then, mindfulness training has a dose-response effect: the greater the input, the greater the output.
But there’s a more precise answer to these questions. If you want to benefit from your practice, aim to meditate for twelve minutes, five days a week. That’s right: just one hour in total each week is enough to start seeing results.
So why not start now? Next up, we’ll show you how to begin.
Mindfulness meditation exercise
If you’re driving or walking, or in a loud and distracting environment, then feel free to skip this exercise for now and revisit it later. If you’re somewhere quiet, though, and ideally somewhere you can sit, then now might be the right time to start your meditation practice.
Ready? Sit comfortably to begin, upright but not rigid. Put your shoulders back, close your eyes, and breathe.
Don’t try to control your breath. Just follow it, breathing at a normal pace.
Now, take a second to notice the way breathing feels. Pay close attention to the sensations, but don’t think about them: just sense them. Choose one area of your body, wherever the breath is most noticeable, and focus your attention there. Maybe it’s the rise and fall of your diaphragm. Maybe it’s the movement of air in and out of your nose. Choose just one location and sense your breath there: following it in and out, in and out, over and over again.
If you find that your attention has drifted, don’t get frustrated. Simply redirect it to the sensation of the breath. Once again, you don’t need to think: just sense.
Sense the breath. Give it your full attention, feeling its minute, second-by-second alterations. If your mind wanders, simply notice it and redirect your attention.
Still there? Well done. You spent the last minutes meditating. And remember: twelve minutes, five times a week is all it takes.
About the author
Dr. Amishi P. Jha is professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She serves as the Director of Contemplative Neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, which she co-founded in 2010. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California–Davis and postdoctoral training at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke University. Dr. Jha’s work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum, and The Pentagon. She has received coverage for The New York Times, NPR, TIME, Forbes and more. Watch her TED Talk on “How to Tame Your Wandering Mind” with 5 million+ views here:
Table of Contents
Introduction: “May I Have Your Attention, Please?”
Chapter 1: Attention Is Your Superpower
A user’s guide to the powerful attention system and how it defines your life
Chapter 2: . . . But There’s Kryptonite
The vulnerabilities of the mind and the failed strategies that make things worse
Chapter 3: Push-ups for the Mind
The new science behind the ancient solution that works to train attention
Chapter 4: Find Your Focus
Keep your “flashlight” where you need it in a distracting world
Chapter 5: Stay in Play
Use attention powerfully in the here and now
Chapter 6: Press Record
What you pay attention to is what you experience . . . and what you remember
Chapter 7: Drop the Story
Stop “biased thinking” from affecting your attention and clarity
Chapter 8: Go Big
Use meta-awareness to unlock your attentional powers
Chapter 9: Get Connected
Revolutionize your interactions and relationships
Chapter 10: Feel the Burn
Get the “minimum required dose” to transform your mind
Conclusion: The Peak Mind in Action
The Peak Mind Practice Guide: Core Training for the Brain
Weeks Five Through Forever
About the Author
About the Publisher
STOP FOR A MOMENT.
Are you here right now?
Is your focus on this page? Or is it roaming elsewhere, to the past or future, to a worry, to your to-do list, or to your phone?
Whether you’re simply browsing, talking to friends, or trying to stay focused in an important meeting, you can’t seem to manage to hang on to your attention. No matter how hard you try, you’re somewhere else. The consequence is that you miss out on 50 percent of your life—including the most important moments.
The good news: There’s nothing wrong with you—your brain isn’t broken. The human brain was built to be distractible.
The even better news: You can train your brain to pay attention more effectively.
Stay with me a little longer and soon you will be able to:
- Focus without all the struggle.
- Take back your attention from the pull of distraction.
- And function at your peak, for all that truly matters in your life.
Research shows we are missing 50 percent of our lives. Why? Because we aren’t paying attention.
From the constant buzz of your phone and the lure of your media feed to your unrelenting, all-encompassing, and evergrowing mental to-do list—the demands on your attention have never been so severe. The result is an escalating crisis, where we feel mentally foggy, scattered, and overwhelmed. Remarkably, the solution to our attention crisis has been right here in front of us the entire time. Acclaimed neuroscientist Amishi P. Jha, PhD, has dedicated her life’s work to understanding the science of attention at every level—from brain-imaging studies in the lab to field-testing soldiers, firefighters, athletes, healthcare and business professionals, and students. Her mission has been to scientifically determine how we can harness the full power of our attention to better meet all that life demands. Dr. Jha expertly guides readers through fascinating research, debunking common assumptions and offering stunning new insights into where presence and purpose really come from. Peak Mind reveals remarkably easy to adapt, flexible, 12-minute-a-day exercises to lift the mental fog, declutter the mind, and strengthen focus so that you can experience more of your life.
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
You are missing 50 percent of your life. And you’re not alone: everyone is.
Take a minute to picture it—your life, I mean. Scroll through the individual events, interactions, and instances that come together over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime. Think of it like a quilt, each square a small block of time: Here, pouring yourself a cup of coffee. Over there, reading a book to your child. Celebrating a success at work. Taking a walk in your neighborhood, climbing a mountain, diving with sharks. The mundane and the extraordinary woven together and working together, forming the story of your life.
Now, take half those quilt squares and rip them out. The irregular patchwork that’s left—a cold, drafty blanket full of holes—is the part of your life for which you’re mentally present. The rest is gone. You didn’t truly experience it. And chances are, you won’t remember it.
Why? Because you weren’t paying attention.
Do I have your attention right now? I hope so—the idea that we’re missing so much of our own lives is pretty alarming. But now that I have it, I won’t be able to keep it for very long. As you read this chapter, it’s likely that you’ll miss up to half of what I say. And on top of that, you’ll finish reading these pages convinced that you didn’t miss a thing.
I say this confidently, even without knowing who you are, or how your brain might be different from the last one we tested in my lab at the University of Miami, where I research the science of attention and teach cognitive neuroscience courses. That’s because over the course of my career as a brain scientist, I’ve seen certain universal patterns in the way all of our brains function—both how powerfully they can focus, and how extraordinarily vulnerable they are to distraction—no matter who you are or what you do. I’ve had the opportunity to peek inside the living human brain using the most advanced brain imaging technologies available, and I know that at any given moment, there’s a high probability that your mind just isn’t here. Instead, you’re planning for the next item on your to-do list. You’re ruminating on something that’s been bothering you, a worry or a regret. You’re thinking about something that could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Any way you slice it, you’re not here, experiencing your life. You’re somewhere else.
Is this just part of being alive? A side effect of the human condition, something we all just have to live with? Is it really that big of a deal?
After twenty-five years of studying the science of attention, I can answer these questions. Yes, it is part of being alive—in many ways, because our brain’s evolution was driven by specific survival pressures, our attention waxes and wanes, making us prone to being distractible. Our distractibility served us well when predators lurked around every corner. However, in today’s technologically saturated, fast-paced, and rapidly shifting world, we’re feeling that distractibility more than ever, and we face new predators that rely on and exploit our distractibility. But no, it’s not something we have to just live with—we can train our brains to pay attention differently. And finally, and most importantly: yes, it is that big of a deal.
The Extraordinary Impact of Attention
Tell me if this ever describes you: At times, it feels like a struggle to stay focused. Your mind toggles between boredom and overwhelm. You feel foggy—as if the crisp thinking you need to rely on is simply not there. You have a short fuse. You’re irritable. Stressed. You notice mistakes you’ve made: typos, skipped words, or or repeated ones. (Did you catch that?) Deadlines loom but you find it difficult to pull yourself away from your news and social media feeds. You cruise through your phone, opening app after app—then you look up, some amount of time later, wondering what you were even looking for in the first place. You’re spending a lot of time in your head, out of sync with the flow of all that is happening around you. You find yourself spinning on interactions—something you wish you had said, something you shouldn’t have said, something you should have done better.
You may be surprised to know that all of this ultimately comes down to one thing: your attention.
- If you’re feeling that you’re in a cognitive fog: depleted attention.
- If you’re feeling anxious, worried, or overwhelmed by your emotions: hijacked attention.
- If you can’t seem to focus so you can take action or dive into urgent work: fragmented attention.
- If you feel out of step and detached from others: disconnected attention.
In my research lab at the University of Miami, my team and I study and train people in some of the most extreme, high-stress, high-demand professions. We study medical and business professionals, firefighters, soldiers, and elite athletes, among others. They need to deploy their attention—and do it well—through extraordinarily high-stakes circumstances where their decisions could affect many people. As in critical surgeries. Deadly wildfires. Rescue operations. Active war zones. A single moment when performance can make or break a career, end or save a life. For some of these folks, if and how they pay attention is literally a matter of life and death. For all of us, it’s a powerful force that shapes our lives far more than we realize.
Your attention determines:
- what you perceive, learn, and remember;
- how steady or how reactive you feel;
- which decisions you make and actions you take;
- how you interact with others; and
- ultimately, your sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
On a certain level, we all sense this already—consider the language we use when we talk about attention. Pay attention, we say. We ask, May I have your attention? We see and hear information that is attention-grabbing. These common phrases illuminate what we already know instinctively: that, like currency, attention can be paid, given, or stolen; that it is extremely valuable, and also finite.
Recently, the commercial value of attention has taken center stage. As the saying goes for social media apps, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” More precisely, your attention is the product—a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder. We now have attention merchants and attention markets. All this forecasts a brave new dystopia involving trading in human “attention futures” alongside cattle, oil, and silver. Yet attention is not something that can be banked or borrowed. It cannot be saved to use later. We can only use our attention in the here and now—in this moment.
What Is Attention, Exactly?
The attention system exists to solve one of your brain’s biggest problems: there is far too much information in the environment for your brain to fully process. To avoid getting overloaded, your brain uses attention to filter out both the unnecessary noise and chatter around you, and the background thoughts and distractions that constantly bubble up to the surface of your mind.
All day, every day, your attention system is in action: In a crowded coffee shop, you zero in on your computer screen and your work, while the conversation at the table next to you or the hissing of the espresso machine seem muffled. At the playground, you scan all the kids in their colorful clothing on the slides and swings but can quickly pick out your own. During a conversation with your co-worker, you hold a point you want to make in your mind, even while listening and absorbing what she’s saying. As you cross a busy street, you notice a car moving too fast toward you, even as a hundred other distractions exist—people flowing down the sidewalk, a blinking crosswalk sign, horns honking.
Without attention, you would be completely at sea in the world. You’d either be blank, unaware and unresponsive to events happening around you, or you’d be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer, incoherent mass of information assaulting you. Add to that the relentless flow of thoughts generated by your own mind, and it would all be incapacitating.
To study how the human brain pays attention, my research team uses a range of techniques—functional MRI, electrophysiological recordings, behavioral tasks, and more. We bring people into the lab and follow them out into their world—what we call going “in the field.” We’ve conducted dozens of large-scale studies and published numerous peer-reviewed articles in professional journals about our findings. We’ve learned three major things:
First, attention is powerful. I refer to it as the “brain’s boss,” because attention guides how information processing happens in the brain. Whatever we pay attention to is amplified. It feels brighter, louder, crisper than everything else. What you focus on becomes most prominent in your present-moment reality: you feel the corresponding emotions; you view the world through that lens.
Second, attention is fragile. It can be rapidly depleted under certain circumstances—circumstances that turn out, unfortunately, to be the ones that pervade our lives. When we experience stress, threat, or poor mood—the three main things I call “kryptonite” for attention—this valuable resource is drained.
And third, attention is trainable. It is possible to change the way our attention systems operate. This is a critical new discovery, not only because we are missing half our lives, but because the half we’re here for can feel like a constant struggle. With training, however, we can strengthen our capacity to fully experience and enjoy the moments we are in, to embark on new adventures, and to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.
We’re in a Crisis of Attention . . . but It’s Not What You Think
We’re in a crisis of attention. We are exhausted and depleted, cognitively fuzzy, less effective, and less fulfilled in our lives. This crisis is partly systemic, driven by the attention economy, where inviting and highly addictive content-delivery vehicles that take the form of news, entertainment, and social media apps keep us scrolling and scrolling. Driven by predatory practices and a lack of regulation, our attention is lured and mined. And then, like mortgages and other financial products, our individual attention is pooled, repackaged, and sold for big profit.
If attention evolved because there was too much information for us to process, then right now there’s really too much. The content stream is too loud, too fast, too intense, too interesting, too unrelenting. And we are not only recipients of this information explosion, but also willing participants in it. We’re going full throttle to keep up and not miss out, because we or others expect that of us.
This doesn’t feel good. So why is it so hard to fix? We’re told to “unplug.” To “break up” with our phones. To work in shorter, more focused bursts. But our brains don’t stand a fighting chance. We can’t outsmart the algorithms designed by an army of software engineers and psychologists. The power of this artificial intelligence lies in its adaptability—constantly learning from us how to best grab our attention, and keep us locked in. It uses the same type of reinforcement that keeps people sitting in front of slot machines in smoky casinos for hours on end, with a dazed look on their faces and a bucket of coins in their laps. But it’s not a slot machine in front of us, it’s an app. And it’s not coins we’re feeding, it’s our attention.
I want to make one thing crystal clear: there is nothing wrong with your attention. In fact, it’s working so well, and so on cue, that computer programs can predict how it will respond. We’re in a crisis because our attention works so well. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: respond powerfully to certain stimuli. You can’t defeat algorithms on social media websites, the Pavlovian pull of your phone’s dings and bings, the blaring red notification bubble of your inbox, or the desire to complete one more quest so you can up-level. Yet, we aren’t helpless. We can solve this attention crisis.
The Art of War, traditionally accredited to Sun Tzu in the fifth century BCE, offers advice on what we should do when we are not in a fair fight—when we are plainly overpowered and outmaneuvered:
To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
In other words: Don’t waste your energy trying to get better at fighting the pull on your attention. You cannot win that fight. Instead, cultivate the capacity and skill to position your mind so you don’t have to fight.
That’s the problem with existing solutions—they are instructing us to go to war against the forces that pull on our attention. Like swimming against a riptide, it’s exhausting and ineffective. Instead, we need to move away from that mode of struggling with our attention. Like a skilled swimmer who recognizes the ocean’s pull and swims sideways to safety, we need to be able to spot the cues.
Pay Attention to Your Attention
Think about the things that suddenly clue you in that your attention is off-track. You might get to the bottom of a page you’re reading and realize you’ve absorbed none of it—it’s the physical turning of the page (or scrolling to the next screen) that cues you. You’re deep in thought when you hear the sound of your name and an irritated “Hello? Are you listening?” and you realize that you departed from the conversation quite a while ago—it’s the person’s voice that cues you. You block websites or limit your access by loading an app that times you out; it’s the “Time’s up!” notification that cues you. But by the time these external cues catch you, over and over again all day, you’ve already spent far too much time in a brain state that has depleted and degraded your attention, leaving you with declining cognitive resources and increasingly less capable of catching yourself—it’s an exponential downward spiral.
We think of this as an exclusively contemporary problem—a crisis born out of our high-tech era. Yes, it’s true that we are living in a period of unprecedented targeting of our attention. But we don’t need external stimuli to have a crisis of attention—this has always been a challenge for humans. We have records of medieval monks in the year 420 fretting that they could not keep their thoughts on God as they were supposed to—they complained they were constantly thinking about lunch, or sex. They felt overwhelmed with information, frustrated that the minute they sat down to read something, their restless minds wanted to read something else instead. Why could they not just focus? Why did the mind disobey? They went so far as to cut off relationships with family and give up all their possessions—the idea being that if they had fewer earthly entanglements to think about, they’d be less distracted. Did it work? No.
Over a thousand years later, in 1890, the psychologist and philosopher William James expressed the attention struggle, and the persistent lack of a solution:
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.
Even if we could—with the swish of a magic wand—wipe away all our technology, our glowing late-night laptops and buzzing phones, it wouldn’t work. The mind’s nature is to forage for information and engage with it—whether it’s the phone in your pocket or the bubbling thoughts in your mind. You don’t need to be immersed in this digital ocean we all live in today to feel the pain of restless, depleted attention, and to suffer from it. We can look back a thousand years and see that our fellow humans were experiencing the same.
Our problem is not the phone, nor is it our rapidly filling inbox. It’s not that we are surrounded by attention-grabbing news and information at all times. It’s not the team of software engineers working on new and better ways to trap your attention with that buzzing and beeping rectangle tethered to you day and night. The problem is that we often don’t know what’s happening in our own minds. We lack internal cues about where our attention is moment to moment. And for this, there is a solution: pay attention to your attention.
You Can’t Just Decide to Do This—the Brain Doesn’t Work That Way
If you were to participate in one of our lab’s studies, here’s what would happen: We’d fit you with a funny little hat that looks like a swim cap, elastic and snug, covered in electrodes designed to pick up your brain’s electrical activity. When enough of your neurons fire together in response to something we show you on a computer monitor, the electrodes detect tiny voltage jolts, which are transmitted to an amplifier, and passed forward to another computer to record and process. While all this is transpiring, there we sit, the research team, monitoring a screen full of jagged squiggles that shows us, in real time, millisecond by millisecond, what’s happening inside your skull. At the same time, we give you computer-based tests to probe attention-related behavior.
In study after study, we looked for circumstances in which people could pay attention without getting distracted. And here’s what we found: there are none. Across our increasingly targeted experiments, there were zero circumstances in which participants maintained their focus 100 percent of the time. And a growing body of research now finds that this isn’t unique to our research participants—studies from all over the globe find the same pattern. Research participants couldn’t continuously pay attention when they were instructed to. They couldn’t do it when the stakes were high or when they were motivated to. They couldn’t do it even when they were paid to!
Let’s pause and take a quick pulse. In the very first sentence of this book, I told you that you might miss up to 50 percent of what I was about to say. You may have taken that as a challenge to pay extra-close attention. So how’d you do? Think back and see if you can take a mental inventory of all the other things you thought about (or even stopped reading to do) since you started reading these pages. You might even want to jot them down so you can see how many tasks and thoughts and to-do’s your highly active mind is trying to hold all at once. Did you pause to send emails or texts? Did your attention turn to concerns about looming deadlines, worries about your kids or parents, plans to see friends, or thoughts about your finances? Did you give your dog a quick pat on the head or realize she needs a walk, or food, or a bath? Did you stop reading completely to check your news feed?
We all do it. You cannot simply decide to pay attention “better.” No matter how much I tell you about how attention works and why, and no matter how motivated you are, the way your brain pays attention cannot be fundamentally altered by sheer force of will. I don’t care if you’re the most disciplined person alive: it will not work. Instead, we need to train our brains to work differently. And the exciting news is: at long last, we’ve actually figured out how.
The New Science of Attention
Scientists, scholars, and philosophers have long been focused on some key questions: What is attention? How does it work? Why does it work that way? I spent a long time early in my career exploring those questions. But I knew we needed to ask the next question: How can we make it work better?
I started searching for ways that attention could be strengthened. We’d tried all kinds of techniques in the lab, from apps offering brain exercises to mood-boosting music and even high-tech light-and-sound headsets. Yet, nothing had been consistently successful. To make matters worse, we started noticing a troubling pattern in our research with high-demand individuals in the field: soldiers, firefighters, and others who operate in high-stakes emergency situations. People in these professions often go through intense periods of preparation for what they are about to do: Soldiers go through months of intense training before they deploy to war zones; firefighters endure rigorous training before facing unpredictable and life-threatening situations. Think of anyone preparing for something important. A student studying for her exams. A lawyer preparing for trial. A football player in preseason, twice-a-day practices. We found that these individuals became attentionally depleted during that preparation period. Their attentional capacity took a nose dive. And this was happening right before they had to go out and perform at their peak.
These folks are not unique—a period of protracted stress or continuous demand is going to deplete you, leaving you with fewer resources when you actually need them most. But before we could devise a fix, we needed to figure out what, exactly, was degrading attention.
One of the biggest culprits? Mental time travel.
We do it all the time. We do it seamlessly. And we do it even more under stress. Under stress, our attention gets yanked into the past by a memory, where we get stuck in a ruminative loop. Or we may get launched into the future by a worry, leading us to catastrophize on an endless number of doomsday scenarios. The common denominator is that stressful intervals hijack attention away from the present moment.
This is how mindfulness first entered my lab as a possible “brain-training tool.” I wanted to know whether training our participants in mindfulness exercises could help them be more effective in high-pressure situations. Our basic definition of mindfulness was this: paying attention to present-moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity. I wondered if training people to keep attention in the here and now without editorializing or reacting, could serve as a kind of “mental armor.” Could it protect and strengthen their attention for when they most needed it?
We worked with mindfulness teachers and Buddhist scholars to identify the core mind-training practices that had persevered through the centuries. We offered these practices to hundreds of participants, exploring their effects in the lab, in the classroom, on the sports field, and on the battlefield. This work led to some exciting moments of discovery, and I’ll highlight several of these studies and stories throughout this book. But for now, I’ll skip to the end, to the zillion-dollar question: Did it work? Could mindfulness training protect and strengthen attention?
The answer was a resounding yes. In fact, mindfulness training was the only brain-training tool that consistently worked to strengthen attention across our studies.
Our crisis of attention is fundamentally an ancient problem, not a modern one. And an ancient solution—with some very modern updates—is the promising, science-based way out of it.
New Science, Ancient Solutions
As a researcher, my mission has been to bring the lens of brain science to the millennia-old practice of mindfulness meditation to explore if and how it can train the brain. What we’ve uncovered is new evidence that, with training, mindfulness can change the way the brain works by default so that our attention—that precious resource—is protected and readily available, even in the face of high stress and high demand.
We are living in a time of uncertainty and change. Many of us are experiencing an atmosphere of stress and threat that constantly activates our minds’ tendency to mentally travel to an alternate reality. The more stress and uncertainty we face, the more our minds journey to a desired or dystopic mental destination. Often we are in fast-forward mode. We’re trying to puzzle through all the uncertainty. We’re mentally planning for events that aren’t plannable. We’re gaming out scenarios that may never come to pass.
Sometimes we mentally travel out of the present moment because it’s tough to be in it. Military service members tell me, “I don’t want to be in this situation. Why should I stay in the present?” We all want to escape sometimes. But as we’ll see in the coming chapters, escapism and other mental coping tactics, like positive thinking and suppression (Just don’t think about it!), don’t help us under high-stress circumstances. In fact, they make things worse.
We’re missing out on what’s happening right here, right now, right in front of us. And not only do we want to experience the moments of our lives, we need to be able to gather information from the present moment, to observe and absorb what’s happening in the here and now, so that we can navigate the actual future that unfolds, meet challenges as they arise, and be fully present when it matters most.
A Mental Workout That Works
At the beginning of this chapter, I told you that your mind would wander, that you wouldn’t be able to keep your attention steady all the way through—that you’d miss half of what I said. It was, admittedly, meant as a bit of a challenge for you to try. But it wasn’t really fair. Imagine that, instead, I’d asked you to pick up the heaviest ball you can lift and then hold it in your hands the entire time you were reading, with no warning or preparation. Of course, you couldn’t do it for very long without training for this task first—by practicing holding up that weight for longer and longer stretches of time.
We tend to accept that, to improve our physical health, we need to engage in physical exercise. Somehow, we just don’t think the same way about psychological health or cognitive capacity. But we should! Just as specific types of physical training can strengthen certain muscle groups, this type of mental training can strengthen attention—if you do it. Lieutenant General Walter (Walt) Piatt—one of the many people you’ll meet in these pages who has transformed his life and leadership style through mindfulness practice—immediately saw the parallel between physical training and mental training when I started working with his troops. He said, “Mindfulness training gave our soldiers push-ups for the mind.”
I wish I could just tell you how to reclaim your attention, and you could go off and do it. I wish that reading this introduction was all you needed to do. But as we’ve seen over and over again, knowledge isn’t enough. Wanting it to be different isn’t enough. Trying isn’t enough. You actually have to train in a particular way. Our evolutionary history has primed our minds to work a certain way by default—we can’t simply stop it. Instead, we can train the brain to shift away from specific default tendencies that aren’t serving us. We can train our attention to better serve us when we need it most.
And here’s the good news you may have been waiting for: you can do this in as little as twelve minutes a day.
The precise science of how much and what kind of mindfulness practice is most beneficial is a rapidly developing field. But as of this moment, our research and best understanding of how to train the brain indicates that if you engage in regular mindfulness practice, for as little as twelve minutes per day, you can protect against that stress- and overwhelm-related decline in attention. If you can do more than twelve minutes? Great! The more you do, the more you benefit.
This book will take you deep into your brain’s attention system: how it works, why it’s so critical for everything you do, how and why it gets depleted, and what kind of consequences you suffer when it does. Then—like the finely tuned exercises that a personal trainer gives you—I’ll take you through specific exercises that target, train, and optimize the brain networks of your attention system. By the end, you’ll understand the vulnerabilities of attention, and know how to overcome them by training the brain. We’ll start with a “push-up,” and build up to a full workout.
Mindfulness training is a form of brain training. This ancient but enduring mental practice isn’t an abstract or exclusively philosophical endeavor. It’s a battle for the resources to live your life.
Video and Podcast
“How easy it is to lose your mind just in those critical moments when you need it most. Here is a friendly and compelling way to not only get it back but to optimize it for life—your own and those with whom you share this world. Suffused with Amishi’s rare talent for making rigorous science commonsensical, her exquisite clarity as both a researcher and teacher, her own experiences with life’s sometimes rending challenges, and her personal meditation practice, this book can catapult you into living fully the life that is yours to live while you have the chance.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), author of Full Catastrophe Living and Mindfulness for All
“Dr. Jha brilliantly blends cutting-edge science, compelling stories, and strong practical instructions–the perfect antidote for our distracted over-busy times.” – Jack Kornfield, bestselling author of The Wise Heart
“Proven practices to take control of our focus and become our best selves. A must read for our distracted times.” – Daniel Goleman, author of #1 NYTimes Bestseller Emotional Intelligence
“For a while now I’ve thought of experiences we long for, like love and connection, as emergent properties of how we pay attention. Attention is the key factor in moving beyond just living mechanically into a life of clarity and joy.Dr. Jha brilliantly shows us how that can be so, offering a clear and useful path to paying attention differently.” – Sharon Salzberg, author of New York Times Bestseller, Real Happiness
“Thriving starts with our attention and what we do with it. In Peak Mind, Amishi Jha combines the science of attention with compelling stories from those in high stakes professions to show us all how to be more present in our lives so that we can unlock our full potential.” – Arianna Huffington, author of #1 New York Times Bestseller Thrive
“Peak Mind delivers crucial insights about the human mind along with practical, accessible tools to enhance it. With clarity and skill, Amishi Jha brings you into the lab to learn how attention works, why it’s essential for well-being, and how it can be trained to reach your greatest potential. Required reading for our modern world!” – Wendy Hasenkamp, PhD, Science Director, Mind & Life Institute
In Peak Mind, Amishi Jha offers a brilliant guide for training our attention with mindful awareness and maximizing our human potential. You will learn the science behind mindfulness, and well-researched strategies that promote resilience against stress, and increased mental focus, creativity, clarity and strength. The true gift is the capacity to be fully here—present and engaged in your relationships and your life. – Tara Brach, author of Radical Acceptance