Don't Believe the Multi-tasking Hype: Train Your Brain to Focus Better

Your mind doesn't run parallel tasks, it has to trade off one focus for another. The good news is that mindfulness meditation can hone your attention span, and reduce stress and anxiety.

Daniel Goleman: What’s surprising, at least to scientists, is that the benefits from meditation show up right from the beginning. You can do, for example, mindfulness—that’s a very popular meditation—if you do mindfulness practice ten minutes a day or ten minutes three times over the course of a day something remarkable happens to your attention, and it has to do with the fact that we’re all multitasking these days. People on average look at their email about 50 times a day, they look at their Facebook 20-something times a day and that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's Instagram, there's your phone calls, there’s whatever it is you have to do. And what this means for attention is that we’re challenged. Focused attention is an endangered species, however, we need that focus to get work done well. So it’s a real problem and meditation, it turns out, even at the beginning, has some of the answers.

It goes like this: when you’re really intensely focused on that one thing you have to do or you want to do—the paper you’re writing or the project you’re working on—then you think, 'Oh, I better check my email,' and then that leads to your Facebook and that leads to the phone call, it leads to—we call this multitasking. The brain actually does not do multitasking, it doesn’t do several things at once in parallel, rather it works in serial and it switches very rapidly from one thing to the next. Then when you go back to that project or whatever it was you were so focused on, your concentration had been at a very high level before you started doing the other things, now it’s much lower and it takes a while to ramp up to that same level, unless—and this is so interesting—unless you’ve done that ten minutes of mindfulness; focused on your breath, for example, just watched it in and out, noticed when your mind wandered, brought it back. That’s the basic move in meditation. And if you do that it turns out just ten minutes of practice nullifies that loss of concentration. And this works, for example, for people who might do mindfulness in the morning, it will wane during the course of the day, but if you do ten more minutes at lunch, ten more minutes at break in the mid-afternoon, it helps you stay concentrated through the day. So that is a very palpable, concrete pay off from daily meditation that works for beginners.

There are many others too. For example, in terms of handling stress—I mean we’re all stressed out these days—and beginners in mindfulness or other meditations, it turns out right from the get-go, they have a better reaction to stress. We see this in brain function; the area of the brain which reacts to stress is called the amygdala—it’s the trigger point for the fight or flight or freeze response, it’s what makes us angry all of a sudden or anxious all of a sudden—the amygdala is quieter, it’s calmer in the face of stress and this lets us be calmer in the face of the stress. And this is another benefit that we see right from the beginning. 

Because meditation has been found to work so well with anxiety and depression and possibly PTSD, where that’s being looked into, one of the areas that seems promising is meditation with Attention Deficit Disorder. In a way this is a no-brainer because at base, in essence, every kind of meditation retrains attention and what Attention Deficit Disorder is is a problem with attention. So there’s now a whole host of studies underway, mainly with kids because it’s where ADD tends to show up first, where they’re helping them strengthen the muscle of attention. I was in a classroom of seven year olds in Spanish Harlem, this is a very impoverished area of New York City, and those kids live in housing projects, they have very troubled lives and some of them had ADD—in fact half the kids in that classroom had what are called special needs, ranging from ADD to autism. I thought the classroom would be totally chaotic, but actually the kids were calm and focused and the teacher said: "Here’s why," and then they did their daily ritual of what they called Belly Buddies. Each child, one by one, went to their cubby, got a favorite little stuffed animal, found a place to lie down on a rug, put that animal on their belly and then they listened to a tape that guided them through watching their belly rise on the in-breath and fall on the out-breath. One, two, three on the in-breath, one, two, three on the out-breath. This is basically the beginning of mindfulness or meditation for kids. Cognitive science would say this is the training of attention.

So you can do it with very young kids and this helps them get stronger in their ability to concentrate. Attention Deficit Disorder is basically not being able to control your mind wandering off from what you’re paying attention to. Every time you watch your belly rise and then your mind wanders off and you bring it back to your belly, you’re strengthening the neural circuitry for focus and countering mind-wandering. So this seems very promising, and early studies, early pilots, show that this may well counter the problems kids face in ADD and I’m very happy to say that major studies are underway. We’re waiting for those results, but I think they’re promising. 

By now, everyone knows that mindfulness meditation is good for you—but what's still surprising scientists is just how quickly it works. Ten minutes of meditation won't make you a better mutlitasker—there's no such thing, as psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman explains—but it will make you more adept at switching tasks and returning to a deep level of concentration more quickly after a distraction. Every time you practice meditation, you’re strengthening the neural circuitry for focus and training your brain away from mind-wandering. Beyond the need to concentrate for work, pleasure, or to overcome negative emotion, mindfulness meditation can also help to manage disorders like PTSD, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). This last one particularly has shown incredible results, and Goleman cites one exercise a teacher in a rough neighborhood of New York City practices routinely with their class of seven-year-old kids, over half of which have special needs like ADD and autism. That daily ritual keeps the class environment calm and constructive, and is empowering the children with self-control strategies early on. The scientific research evidence on the benefits of meditation is already compelling, and there are major studies underway, which Goleman expects will reveal many more insights that can be used to instruct creative, educational, and mental health practices. Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson are the authors of Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.