“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 compos sui 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.” —William James (1890)
While I’ve encountered this classic excerpt1 from William James numerous times, I can still recall reading it for the first time decades ago in an introductory textbook as an undergraduate student. Many questions bubbled up. What makes attention powerful enough to influence things like our judgment, character, and will? What degrades attention, so that we suffer if we have it not? How can attention be trained to improve this faculty? As I pored over my textbook, confident that the answers must be within its pages, I recall feeling disappointed. It came up short.
But then I had a game changing thought that ultimately led me to a research career studying the human brain’s attention system: More research is needed!
Over the past 20 years, my lab has been pursuing answers to these questions. Using cognitive neuroscience tools, such as brain imaging, and cognitive tasks, we’ve learned a great deal about attention’s influence on many facets of brain functioning. We’ve also gleaned insights into key factors that diminish attention, leading to performance errors and psychological health challenges. Yet, when we pursued solutions on how to protect attention and strengthen it, most of our attempts failed. And we weren’t alone. In the early 2000s, cognitive training studies using brain training games, for example, proliferated in the literature. But the results suggested that attentional benefits were not generalizable. In other words, participants got better at playing the games, but not much else. I began to see James’ words as prophetic. While the goal of improving attention was clear, practical directions for bringing this (improvement) about remained elusive. My field was coming up short.
Through a series of fortuitous events, I began practicing mindfulness meditation in 2005. While my motivation was for personal stress reduction, I was struck by how I seemed to have greater ownership over my attention after just a few months of practicing. It made me very curious. Could mindfulness meditation and other forms of contemplative training strengthen attention? At that time, virtually nothing was known about this topic, so I set out to explore it. In 2007, my lab published one of the very first studies2 investigating the influence of mindfulness training on the brain systems of attention. Fast-forward to today and studies in the nascent-yet-growing field of contemplative neuroscience are finding that attention is not only powerful and vulnerable, but—in line with our initial findings—trainable.3
Fast-forward to today and studies in the nascent-yet-growing field of contemplative neuroscience are finding that attention is not only powerful and vulnerable… but trainable.
Attention is Powerful
Attention is thought to have evolved to solve one of the brain’s biggest challenges: There is far more information in our environment than the brain can fully process. Without a way to filter, the relentless sensory input we receive would leave us overloaded, incapable of functioning effectively. One way to think about attention is that it’s like a flashlight.4 It allows us to select and direct our brain’s computational resources to a smaller subset of information. We can narrow our sights onto a portion of the page while reading to ensure that the letters and our comprehension remain crisp and clear; or we can direct our attentional flashlight to a conversation partner to key in on her voice in a crowded room. At the brain level, attention works by selectively biasing sensory neural activity so that information that is attended vs. unattended shows a greater neural response.
In addition to their influence on our perceptual experience of sensory input, attention and affiliated executive control processes (such as working memory) are closely related to successful social abilities, emotion regulation, memory, decision making, and performance. Attention determines the moment-to-moment experience of our lives—how we interact, feel, remember, think, and perform. Its influence on all of these functions is why attention is powerful.
At the 2009 Mind & Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Amishi shares results from her research exploring how mindfulness training can influence attention.
Attention is Vulnerable
While it provides us with a strong evolutionary advantage for maneuvering around in the world, there is one big downside to attention’s powerful influence over so many information processing domains. If attention becomes compromised, so too will our ability to perceive, interact, feel, remember, and so on. This, not surprisingly, can cause problems in many areas of our lives.
My lab has pursued two research approaches to understanding what compromises attention. One approach involves tightly controlled laboratory studies in which we, as the experimenters, set up contexts to challenge participants’ ability to keep attention directed toward the task-at-hand. For example, in one study,5 we asked participants to pay attention to faces that appeared on the screen one-by-one, and press a button to make categorical judgments about each face. As they performed the task, we recorded their ongoing brain activity. Every now and then, we’d present distracting images that weren’t relevant to the task, which could be negative (e.g., scenes of human suffering) or neutral (scenes of everyday innocuous events, e.g., sitting on a bus reading a book). We wanted to know if there were differences in performance and brain activity around the times that negative images appeared, compared to neutral images. Not only was task performance worse around negative (versus neutral) images, but brain activity related to perceiving faces was reduced. It was as if the attentional flashlight was compromised in its ability to focus on the faces when there were distracting negative images. This was striking because the distracting images appeared only before or after the faces, suggesting that even the memory or anticipation of negative images was potent enough to hijack attention away from the perception of faces as they appeared. While distraction was triggered by experimentally presented images, this result motivated another related question—can internally generated distraction compromise attentional performance and brain activity?
To explore this topic, we conducted a study6 on the brain bases of mind-wandering—having ‘off-task’ thoughts during an ongoing task or activity. We probed participants to find out when they experienced ‘off-task’ episodes during an attention-to-faces task similar to that described above. Participants made more errors and their brain activity related to perceiving faces was diminished when they were off- vs. on-task. One explanation for this result is that their internally generated mental content may have grabbed their attentional flashlight, leaving the task-relevant faces in the dark, so to speak. There is growing evidence that episodes of mind wandering can have negative effects. Specifically, when attention is hijacked by internal distraction,7 it can worsen perception, decision-making, and task performance.
…when attention is hijacked by internal distraction, it can worsen perception, decision-making, and task performance.
A second research approach in my lab aims to understand what compromises attention in naturalistic settings. We partner with ‘tactical professionals’—people who encounter intensive challenges as part of their day-to-day jobs for intervals lasting weeks or months. Think of a soldier engaged in active field training preparing to be deployed to a disaster zone, or a firefighter battling blazes during fire season, or healthcare professionals over the pandemic.
We had previously found in laboratory studies that many conditions (e.g., threat, social stress, time pressure) could significantly compromise attention, working memory, and related functions. We predicted that in the “real world,” tactical professionals would similarly demonstrate compromised attention over periods of time that demanded intense activity and focus that include negative, threatening, and stressful circumstances. Participants were asked to complete sustained attention and working memory tasks at the beginning of a high demand interval and again up to 8 weeks later. In line with our predictions,8 we found that task performance degraded over time, and mind-wandering increased.
The very brain resources they needed to meet challenges successfully were being depleted by the demanding real-life circumstances they experienced while doing their jobs. Together these studies suggested that in both laboratory and naturalistic settings, attention is vulnerable.
Attention is Trainable
Given attention’s fragile nature, especially under intervals rife with external and internal distraction, what can we do to prevent costly attentional lapses? The simple answer: Stay focused on the task-at-hand and don’t get hijacked away by distraction. But this is not a useful mandate for two reasons, as I explain in my recent book (Peak Mind).9 First, human minds wander between 30 to 50% of our waking moments. Second, when we wander, we are often unaware of it. Thus, since we are prone to wander without awareness, and even more so under high demand intervals, perhaps a more reasonable approach is to do what James suggested, bring back a wandering attention over and over again.
When I first began practicing mindfulness meditation I learned, first-hand, that focused attention and open monitoring practices aim to do just that. This led me to ask, from a research perspective, how mindfulness training programs comprising such practices might benefit high demand groups over intensive and protracted intervals.
Our initial studies offered a program that was modeled after Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), with 24 hours of course time with an instructor over 8 weeks. We asked participants to practice mindful exercises outside of course meetings for 30 minutes a day. In one study, we contextualized mindfulness for US Marines and tested the effects on attention and working memory tasks over an 8-week pre-deployment interval. We found that Marines who did not receive the training degraded in their task performance over time. In contrast, those who received mindfulness training—and practiced 12 or more minutes a day—were able to maintain or improve attention and working memory over time. These results suggested that attention was trainable, and mindfulness training was a promising route by which to train it.
…my lab has been investigating the minimum effective dose for offering mindfulness training to protect and strengthen attention.
But soon we learned that the program’s time requirements—8 weeks of training—posed a substantial hurdle for these time-pressured groups. Leaders from partnering organizations asked us if our mindfulness training could be offered in less time. To answer this question, my lab has been investigating the minimum effective dose for offering mindfulness training to protect and strengthen attention.
Across multiple studies, we systematically reduced the number of hours over which mindfulness training was delivered (i.e., from 24, to 16, to 8 hours). Lowering time demands meant making informed decisions regarding which program elements were essential to include (versus those that could be removed). For instance, in one study10 we found that while guided practice and practice-related discussion were essential, teaching participants about stress was not. We also investigated the minimum number of weeks11 over which the program could be delivered without becoming ineffective. We found that we could reduce delivery of 8 hours of course contents from 8 to 4 weeks and maintain promising results, but that condensing down further to 2 weeks proved ineffective.
In our more recent efforts, we have gone on to investigate if an 8-hour, 4-week program called mindfulness-based attention training (MBAT)12 can be successfully offered via train-the-trainer delivery to bolster attention. We trained members of specific organizations to become mindfulness trainers, by first learning about and practicing mindfulness for themselves, and then learning how to deliver the program to others within their organization. The MBAT program was designed to be suitable for train-the-trainer delivery and contextualization for various professional settings. Initial results are encouraging. We’ve found beneficial effects when military trainers13 offer MBAT to soldiers, when medical faculty14 offer it to medical students, and when human resources professionals15 offer it to employees within their company. Through this line of work, we are making headway regarding best practices on how to train attention via mindfulness for various time-pressured groups.
In this podcast episode, Amishi elaborates on the use of mindfulness to help improve attention, and its usefulness, particularly in high stress situations.
As I reflect on what the field of attention research has learned since my early days as an undergraduate, including the work my own efforts have contributed, I appreciate that many of my questions have been successfully answered. Progress has been made in our understanding of how attention works, why it sometimes fails us, and how we can make it work better. Yet, as I consider the challenges and uncertainties that the undergraduates I currently teach will face—a future where the forces of digital distraction, the attention economy, the prevalence of false narratives and misinformation campaigns, social and economic injustices, and the existential threat to our planet posed by the climate crisis—I realize that we have a long way to go. My deep hope is that the nascent-yet-growing field of contemplative neuroscience will continue to provide compelling, actionable answers on how to best protect and strengthen attention to fuel our collective judgment, character, and will.
And finally, given his insights into the phenomenology of mind, my hunch is that William James would have found a true kinship with contemplative scholars and practitioners. As I learned in conversations with Tibetan monks while attending dialogues between scientists and contemplatives hosted by the Mind & Life Institute in India at the Dalai Lama’s monastery, monastic training is an education in attention, awareness, and compassion. At the meeting I attended in 2018, after my presentation of our research on mindfulness training with soldiers and other groups, I handed the Dalai Lama a gift sent for him. It was a book of poems written by one of my lab’s military collaborators, Lieutenant General Walter Piatt. The dedication note to His Holiness said, “In my time as a soldier, I have come to learn that compassion is more powerful than bullets.” Upon seeing this, His Holiness shook his fist in the air. He encouraged me to remain dedicated to this work. I was struck by how he put it—that by training the mind in this way, soldiers will be empowered to break down the walls around their hearts that a military life often builds. He ended by poetically saying, “With these walls removed, warriors can become soldiers for peace.” Perhaps if James had learned about contemplative training, he would have recognized it as precisely the education of the mind he had in mind.
James, W. (1890). Principles of psychology (Vols.1-2). NewYork:Holt. Page 424.
Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 7, 109-119. https://doi.org/10.3758/cabn.7.2.109
Verhaeghen, P. (2021). Mindfulness as attention training: Meta-Analyses on the links between attention performance and mindfulness interventions, long-term meditation practice, and trait mindfulness. Mindfulness 12, 564–581. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01532-1
Sumantry, D., Stewart, K.E. (2021). Meditation, mindfulness, and attention: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness 12, 1332–1349. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-021-01593-w
Jha, A.P. (2021). Peak Mind. Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Paczynski, M., Burton, A., & Jha, A. P. (2015). Brief exposure to aversive stimuli impairs visual selective attention. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27(6), 1172–1179. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_00768
Denkova, E., Brudner, E. G., Zayan, K., Dunn, J., & Jha, A. P. (2018). Attenuated face processing during mind wandering. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 30(11), 1691-1703. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01312
Hawkins, G.E., Mittner, M., Forstmann, B.U., & Heathcote, A. (2022). Self-reported mind wandering reflects executive control and selective attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-022-02110-3
Jha, A. P., Morrison, A. B., Dainer-Best, J., Parker, S., Rostrup, N., & Stanley, E. (2016). Minds “at attention”: Mindfulness training curbs attentional lapses in military cohorts. PLoS ONE, 10(2), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0116889
Jha, A.P. (2021). Peak Mind. Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Jha, A. P., Witkin, J. E., Morrison, A. B., Rostrup, N., & Stanley, E. (2017). Short-form mindfulness training protects against working memory degradation over high-demand intervals. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 1, 154-171. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-017-0035-2
Zanesco, A. P., Denkova, E., Rogers, S. L., MacNulty, W. K., & Jha, A. P. (2019). Mindfulness training as cognitive training in high-demand cohorts: An initial study in elite military servicemembers. Progress in Brain Research, 244, 323-354. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.001
Disclosure: Amishi Jha is a co-author and co-copyright holder of the MBAT Program
Jha, A. P., Zanesco, A. P., Denkova, E., Morrison, A. B., Ramos, N., Chichester, K., Gaddy, J., & Rogers, S. (2020). Bolstering cognitive resilience via train-the-trainer delivery of mindfulness training in applied high-demand settings. Mindfulness, 11, 683–697. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01284-7
Zimmerman, C. S., Price, M. M., Rogers, S. L., Flynn, E., & Jha, A. P. (In Preparation). Training future attending physicians: Mindfulness-based attention training as a feasible and relevant medical education program.
Denkova, E., Alessio, C., Barry, J., Zanesco, A. P., Rogers., S. L., Matusevich, K., & Jha A. P. (2022). Mindfulness training in organizational settings: An empirical look at the research. Handbook of Organizational Conflict Management, 57. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110746365-005