Consider the following statement:
human beings only use 10 percent
of their brain capacity.
Well, as a neuroscientist, I can tell you
that while Morgan Freeman
delivered this line
with the gravitas
that makes him a great actor,
this statement is entirely false.
The truth is, human beings use 100 percent
of their brain capacity.
The brain is a highly efficient,
that gets fully utilized
and even though it is
at full capacity being used,
it suffers from a problem
of information overload.
There's far too much in the environment
than it can fully process.
So to solve this problem of overload,
evolution devised a solution,
which is the brain's attention system.
Attention allows us
to notice, select and direct
the brain's computational resources
to a subset of all that's available.
We can think of attention
as the leader of the brain.
Wherever attention goes,
the rest of the brain follows.
In some sense, it's your brain's boss.
And over the last 15 years,
I've been studying
the human brain's attention system.
In all of our studies,
I've been very interested in one question.
If it is indeed the case
that our attention is the brain's boss,
is it a good boss?
Does it actually guide us well?
And to dig in on this big question,
I wanted to know three things.
First, how does attention
control our perception?
Second, why does it fail us,
often leaving us feeling
foggy and distracted?
And third, can we do anything
about this fogginess,
can we train our brain
to pay better attention?
To have more strong and stable attention
in the work that we do in our lives.
So I wanted to give you a brief glimpse
into how we're going to look at this.
A very poignant example
of how our attention
ends up getting utilized.
And I want to do it using the example
of somebody that I know quite well.
He ends up being part of a very large
group of people that we work with,
for whom attention
is a matter of life and death.
Think of medical professionals
or soldiers or marines.
This is the story of a marine captain,
Captain Jeff Davis.
And the scene that I'm going to share
with you, as you can see,
is not about his time in the battlefield.
He was actually on a bridge, in Florida.
But instead of looking
at the scenery around him,
seeing the beautiful vistas
and noticing the cool ocean breezes,
he was driving fast and contemplating
driving off that bridge.
And he would later tell me that it took
all of everything he had not to do so.
You see, he'd just returned from Iraq.
And while his body was on that bridge,
his mind, his attention,
was thousands of miles away.
He was gripped with suffering.
His mind was worried and preoccupied
and had stressful memories
and, really, dread for his future.
And I'm really glad
that he didn't take his life.
Because he, as a leader,
knew that he wasn't the only one
that was probably suffering;
many of his fellow marines
probably were, too.
And in the year 2008, he partnered with me
in the first-of-its-kind project
that actually allowed us to test and offer
something called mindfulness training
to active-duty military personnel.
But before I tell you about
what mindfulness training is,
or the results of that study,
I think it's important to understand
how attention works in the brain.
So what we do in the laboratory
is that many of our studies of attention
involve brain-wave recordings.
In these brain wave recordings,
people wear funny-looking caps
that are sort of like swimming caps,
that have electrodes embedded in them.
These electrodes pick up
the ongoing brain electrical activity.
And they do it with millisecond
So we can see these small yet detectable
voltage fluctuations over time.
And doing this, we can very precisely
plot the timing of the brain's activity.
About 170 milliseconds
after we show our research participants
a face on the screen,
we see a very reliable,
detectable brain signature.
It happens right at the back of the scalp,
above the regions of the brain
that are involved in face processing.
Now, this happens so reliably
and so on cue,
as the brain's face detector,
that we've even given
this brain-wave component a name.
We call it the N170 component.
And we use this component
in many of our studies.
It allows us to see the impact
that attention may have on our perception.
I'm going to give you a sense
of the kind of experiments
that we actually do in the lab.
We would show participants
images like this one.
You should see a face and a scene
overlaid on each other.
And what we do is we ask our participants
as they're viewing a series
of these types of overlaid images,
to do something with their attention.
On some trials, we'll ask them
to pay attention to the face.
And to make sure they're doing that,
we ask them to tell us,
by pressing a button,
if the face appeared to be male or female.
On other trials,
we ask them to tell what the scene was --
was it indoor or outdoor?
And in this way,
we can manipulate attention
and confirm that the participants
were actually doing what we said.
Our hypotheses about attention
were as follows:
if attention is indeed doing its job
and affecting perception,
maybe it works like an amplifier.
And what I mean by this
is that when we direct
attention to the face,
it becomes clearer and more salient,
it's easier to see.
But when we direct it to the scene,
the face becomes barely perceptible
as we process the scene information.
So what we wanted to do
is look at this brain-wave component
of face detection, the N170,
and see if it changed at all
as a function of where our participants
were paying attention --
to the scene or the face.
And here's what we found.
We found that when they paid
attention to the face,
the N170 was larger.
And when they paid attention to the scene,
as you can see in red, it was smaller.
And that gap you see
between the blue and red lines
is pretty powerful.
What it tells us is that attention,
which is really the only
thing that changed,
since the images they viewed
were identical in both cases --
attention changes perception.
And it does so very fast.
Within 170 milliseconds
of actually seeing a face.
In our follow-up studies,
we wanted to see what would happen,
how could we perturb
or diminish this effect.
And our hunch was that if you put people
in a very stressful environment,
if you distract them with disturbing,
images of suffering and violence --
sort of like what you might see
on the news, unfortunately --
that doing this might
actually affect their attention.
And that's indeed what we found.
If we present stressful images
while they're doing this experiment,
this gap of attention shrinks,
its power diminishes.
So in some of our other studies,
we wanted to see, OK, great --
not great, actually, bad news
that stress does this to the brain --
but if it is the case that stress
has this powerful influence on attention
through external distraction,
what if we don't need
what if we distract ourselves?
And to do this,
we had to basically come up
with an experiment
in which we could have people
generate their own mind-wandering.
This is having off-task thoughts
while we're engaged
in an ongoing task of some sort.
And the trick to mind-wandering
is that essentially, you bore people.
So hopefully there's not a lot
of mind-wandering happening right now.
When we bore people,
people happily generate all kinds
of internal content to occupy themselves.
So we devised what might be considered
one of the world's
most boring experiments.
All the participants saw
were a series of faces on the screen,
one after another.
They pressed the button
every time they saw the face.
That was pretty much it.
Well, one trick was that sometimes,
the face would be upside down,
and it would happen very infrequently.
On those trials they were told
just to withhold the response.
Pretty soon, we could tell that
they were successfully mind-wandering,
because they pressed the button
when that face was upside down.
Even though it's quite plain to see
that it was upside down.
So we wanted to know what happens
when people have mind-wandering.
And what we found was that,
very similar to external stress
and external distraction
in the environment,
our own mind wandering,
also shrinks the gap of attention.
It diminishes attention's power.
So what do all of these studies tell us?
They tell us that attention
is very powerful
in terms of affecting our perception.
Even though it's so powerful,
it's also fragile and vulnerable.
And things like stress
and mind-wandering diminish its power.
But that's all in the context of these
very controlled laboratory settings.
What about in the real world?
What about in our actual day-to-day life?
What about now?
Where is your attention right now?
To kind of bring it back,
I'd like to make a prediction
about your attention
for the remainder of my talk.
Are you up for it?
Here's the prediction.
You will be unaware of what I'm saying
for four out of the next eight minutes.
It's a challenge,
so pay attention, please.
Now, why am I saying this?
I'm surely going to assume
that you're going to remain seated
and, you know, graciously keep
your eyes on me as I speak.
But a growing body of literature suggests
that we mind-wander,
we take our mind away
from the task at hand,
about 50 percent of our waking moments.
These might be small,
little trips that we take away,
private thoughts that we have.
And when this mind-wandering happens,
it can be problematic.
Now I don't think there will be
any dire consequences
with you all sitting here today,
but imagine a military leader missing
four minutes of a military briefing,
or a judge missing
four minutes of testimony.
Or a surgeon or firefighter
missing any time.
in those cases could be dire.
So we might ask why do we do this?
Why do we mind-wander so much?
Well, part of the answer is that our mind
is an exquisite time-traveling master.
It can actually time travel very easily.
If we think of the mind as the metaphor
of the music player, we see this.
We can rewind the mind to the past
to reflect on events
that have already happened, right?
Or we can go and fast-future, to plan
for the next thing that we want to do.
And we land in this mental
time-travel mode of the past or the future
And we land there often
without our awareness,
most times without our awareness,
even if we want to be paying attention.
Think of just the last time
you were trying to read a book,
got to the bottom of the page
with no idea what the words were saying.
This happens to us.
And when this happens, when we mind-wander
without an awareness that we're doing it,
there are consequences.
We make errors.
We miss critical information, sometimes.
And we have difficulty making decisions.
What's worse is when we experience stress.
When we're in a moment of overwhelm.
We don't just reflect
on the past when we rewind,
we end up being in the past
ruminating, reliving or regretting
events that have already happened.
Or under stress, we fast-forward the mind.
Not just to productively plan.
But we end up catastrophizing or worrying
about events that haven't happened yet
and frankly may never happen.
So at this point, you might be
thinking to yourself, OK,
mind-wandering's happening a lot.
Often, it happens without our awareness.
And under stress, it's even worse --
we mind-wander more powerfully
and more often.
Is there anything
we can possibly do about this?
And I'm happy to say the answer is yes.
From our work, we're learning
that the opposite of a stressed
and wandering mind is a mindful one.
Mindfulness has to do
with paying attention
to our present-moment experience
And without any kind of emotional
reactivity of what's happening.
It's about keeping
that button right on play
to experience the moment-to-moment
unfolding of our lives.
And mindfulness is not just a concept.
It's more like practice,
you have to embody this mindful
mode of being to have any benefits.
And a lot of the work that we're doing,
we're offering people programs
that give our participants
a suite of exercises
that they should do daily
in order to cultivate more moments
of mindfulness in their life.
And for many of the groups
that we work with, high-stress groups,
like I said -- soldiers,
medical professionals --
for them, as we know,
mind-wandering can be really dire.
So we want to make sure
we offer them very accessible,
low time constraints
to optimize the training,
so they can benefit from it.
And when we do this, what we can do
is track to see what happens,
not just in their regular lives
but in the most demanding
circumstances that they may have.
Why do we want to do this?
Well, we want to, for example, give it
to students right around finals season.
Or we want to give the training
to accountants during tax season.
Or soldiers and marines
while they're deploying.
Why is that?
Because those are the moments
in which their attention
is most likely to be vulnerable,
because of stress and mind-wandering.
And those are also the moments
in which we want their attention
to be in peak shape
so they can perform well.
So what we do in our research
is we have them take
a series of attention tests.
We track their attention at the beginning
of some kind of high-stress interval,
and then two months later,
we track them again,
and we want to see
if there's a difference.
Is there any benefit of offering them
Can we protect against
the lapses in attention
that might arise over high stress?
So here's what we find.
Over a high-stress interval,
unfortunately, the reality is
if we don't do anything at all,
people are worse at the end
of this high-stress interval than before.
But if we offer mindfulness training,
we can protect against this.
They stay stable, even though
just like the other groups,
they were experiencing high stress.
And perhaps even more impressive
is that if people
take our training programs
over, let's say, eight weeks,
and they fully commit
to doing the daily mindfulness exercises
that allow them to learn
how to be in the present moment,
well, they actually get better over time,
even though they're in high stress.
And this last point
is actually important to realize,
because of what it suggests to us
is that mindfulness exercises
are very much like physical exercise:
if you don't do it, you don't benefit.
But if you do engage
in mindfulness practice,
the more you do, the more you benefit.
And I want to just bring it back
to Captain Jeff Davis.
As I mentioned to you at the beginning,
his marines were involved
in the very first project
that we ever did,
offering mindfulness training.
And they showed this exact pattern,
which was very heartening.
We had offered them
the mindfulness training
right before they were deployed to Iraq.
And upon their return,
Captain Davis shared with us
what he was feeling
was the benefit of this program.
He said that unlike last time,
after this deployment,
they were much more present.
They were discerning.
They were not as reactive.
And in some cases,
they were really more compassionate
with the people they were
engaging with and each other.
He said in many ways,
he felt that the mindfulness
training program we offered
gave them a really important tool
to protect against developing
post-traumatic stress disorder
and even allowing it to turn
into post-traumatic growth.
To us, this was very compelling.
And it ended up
that Captain Davis and I --
you know, this was about
a decade ago, in 2008 --
we've kept in touch all these years.
And he himself has gone on
to continue practicing mindfulness
in a daily way.
He was promoted to major,
he actually then ended up retiring
from the Marine Corps.
He went on to get a divorce,
to get remarried,
to have a child, to get an MBA.
And through all of these challenges
and transitions and joys of his life,
he kept up with his mindfulness practice.
And as fate would have it,
just a few months ago,
Captain Davis suffered a massive
heart attack, at the age of 46.
And he ended up calling me
a few weeks ago.
And he said, "I want
to tell you something.
I know that the doctors
who worked on me, they saved my heart,
but mindfulness saved my life.
The presence of mind I had
to stop the ambulance
that ended up taking me
to the hospital," -- himself,
the clarity of mind he had to notice
when there was fear and anxiety happening
but not be gripped by it --
he said, "For me, these
were the gifts of mindfulness."
And I was so relieved
to hear that he was OK.
But really heartened to see
that he had transformed his own attention.
He went from having a really bad boss --
an attention system
that nearly drove him off a bridge --
to one that was an exquisite
leader and guide,
and saved his life.
So I want to actually end by sharing
my call to action to all of you.
And here it is.
Pay attention to your attention.
Pay attention to your attention
and incorporate mindfulness training
as part of your daily wellness toolkit,
in order to tame your own wandering mind
and to allow your attention
to be a trusted guide in your own life.