Mindfulness is a word used to describe being present in the moment, and often used in context of meditation to improve mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at our neighboring UMASS Medical School. Mindfulness exercises have been associated with stress reduction, increases in psychological hardiness, and a greater sense of coherence, along with reductions in pain and anxiety. New research now demonstrates structural changes in the brains of people who go through an 8-week training program, with increases in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking. This is amazing!
So I am interested in reconciling this body of research with the research on multitasking and being “wired.” How many of you are guilty of replying to e-mail on your smartphone while at a meeting? Recent research using functional MRI shows that humans really cannot do more than one thing at a time. Rather, we are just really good at switching from one task to another. But while doing the “other” we are not doing the first thing at all. As one researcher said: “Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not.”
This is why it's so dangerous to text while driving. During the 4 or 5 seconds it takes to read or write a text, the car is moving several football fields in distance, and the driver is actually not attending to the driving at all. So why do we do these crazy things? Thank your brain, and the dopamine system. Researchers have demonstrated that the process of “seeking” when one is stimulated by incoming information, such as texts and e-mails, produces a small squirt of dopamine. This induces a sense of pleasure. Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines stimulate the same neurochemical response. So the label “Crackberry,” is actually not that far off … neurochemically.
So what’s the connection between these two concepts? Well, in my own experience, and now in research experiments, mindfulness actually reduces the urge to multitask, allowing people to stay on task longer and improve memory, in contrast to the destructive consequences of multitasking: People lose the skill and the will to maintain concentration.
So how do I translate this for myself? Meditate more, e-mail less. Get out in the woods or on my bike- and leave the iPhone at home….
Ellen Kaufman, MD, Director of Medical Education at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction locally. Find out more.