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A Neuroscientist Worked With The Military To Find Out How Stress Affects Attention

Amishi Jha, Ph.D.
Neuroscientist By Amishi Jha, Ph.D.
Neuroscientist
Amishi Jha, Ph.D. is an acclaimed neuroscientist and 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.
Man In Meditation

In the lab, when we started to consider how kryptonite conditions like stress affect attention, it seemed that there were many different ways. But one common factor was this: stress hijacks your attention away from the present moment

Mental time travel takes us out of the current moment in time and, while doing so, monopolizes all our attention. The prevalence of attentional hijacking suggested to me that training the mind to stay in the present could be an important missing piece in attention training—a catalytic ingredient that the gadgets, brain-training apps, and other approaches we had tried were missing. To find out if I was on to something, we set our sights on one of the most high-stress, high-demand populations: the military. 

What I learned about attention degradation in a military setting.

I gripped my armrests as the plane circled above West Palm Beach, waiting to land. I was nervous, but it wasn't fear of flying: I was there to meet the leadership of a Marine Reserve unit. My colleague and I were pitching a pilot study on mindfulness training specifically for the military, and I had no idea if they would accept it. Our liaisons, two captains in the Marine Reserves who'd tentatively agreed to let us on base, had gone out on a limb in allowing us to come out to run a mindfulness meditation program with their Marines. These were warriors. Mindfulness meditation was not exactly their thing. 

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The study at the retreat center in Colorado had yielded promising results. Those participants had improved, indicating that mindfulness could boost attention under ideal circumstances. But what about less-than-ideal circumstances? What about less than a full month of intensive, continuous meditation in a placid, remote place? Sounds great to be in an idyllic mountain retreat—but most of us need help with our attention while we're in the midst of our day-to-day lives, under pressure, juggling a million things. And further, meditating 12 hours a day is hardly realistic for the vast majority of people. Could mindfulness help the rest of us? 

We'd been mulling over these questions at the lab when I got a phone call from a security studies professor from another university. A veteran who had turned to mindfulness after experiencing firsthand the difficulties associated with deployment, she was interested in offering it to other military service members. Since she didn't have a background in neuroscience or experimental research, she was looking for a research collaborator. Richie Davidson, who I had stayed in touch with since his lecture at Penn, suggested she try me. 

I was intrigued and got to work poring over existing research on attention and military deployment. I was immediately engrossed and, frankly, quite concerned. The military represented a population that had to deal with extremely high-demand situations all the time, and it clearly took a toll. During pre-deployment, service members trained intensively, simulating scenarios in which lives were at stake all day, every day. Then they deployed into scenarios where lives were actually at stake.

Those potent forces we've been discussing that degrade attention are a constant way of life for military service members. Add to that other factors that degrade attention, like sleep disturbances, uncertainty, extreme temperatures, and mortality salience (thinking about your own death). And to punch things up even further, this was in the post-9/11 era of the military surge in Iraq. The year was 2007 and, as a nation, the United States had been at war abroad for six years. Units were going out on back-to-back deployments. Rates of suicide and PTSD among service members were climbing. Not only was high stress causing warriors to spiral into psychological disorders, but many were suffering from moral injury, struggling with regret, remorse, and guilt when their own reactivity led to behavior that violated their ethical code. 

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Could mindfulness help the attention of people in high-stress scenarios?

Did I have any hesitations about working with the military? Sure. I thought long and hard about it. A lot of the problems that these warriors were suffering from stem from having to go to war. Wouldn't it be better not to have war? 

Well, of course—wouldn't that be great? But that question is fundamentally similar to the questions of what the rest of us should do about stressors in our own lives: Should we change our lives, or our minds? I can't personally change the world and end war. But maybe I could help those serving in the military function better through incredible stress, protect their attention from degrading, regulate their emotions more effectively, and hold their own ethical code at the forefront of their minds even through the fog of war. 

And finally, there was much to learn from this demographic. Could mindfulness help the attention of those under the most high-stress, high-pressure, and time-pressure situations imaginable? Could it give a boost to those who are compromised because of the job they have been asked to do, at the request of a nation? If so, it could probably help the rest of us, too. It was time to see if we could bring mindfulness down from the mountain and into the trenches. 

Excerpted from PEAK MIND by Amishi P. Jha. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021.

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