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The Mindfulness Brain Hack

Guest post by Fernando Romero, Psychology Faculty

Our brains evolved and survived through millennia by avoiding threats and seeking rewards; subcortical regions of the brain were primarily wired for those basic functions. A “good day” in the lives of our ancestors consisted of not getting eaten by the same food they were trying to hunt. A “great day” might have involved sweet and delicious wild berries. In modern times, the human brain that sits atop those subcortical regions is still struggling to figure out the best way to handle the need to avoid threats and seek rewards. The problem is that we are frequently pretty irrational: what we consider “threats” and “rewards” may not always be a realistic representation of what is actually happening to us. Examples of irrational threat avoidance include fears or phobias such as those associated with public speaking or germs. Examples of irrational reward seeking include our obsession with fast food and impulsive consumerism.

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Mindfulness can be an effective brain hack that can help us realize the delusional and maladaptive patterns in our lives. Mindfulness is the ability to use our attention to observe the present moment in a more open and objective way. We all have the ability to ground ourselves in the present moment in a way that gives us insight into automatic conditioned beliefs, emotions, and behaviors that result in maladaptive avoidance or seeking efforts. There are many ways to use this mindful brain hack. All those different ways involve monotasking: the opposite of multitasking. Meditation is a great way to exercise your brain so that you can practice the moment-to-moment awareness that characterizes mindfulness. However, meditation is not the only way to practice mindfulness. If you brush your teeth or wash the dishes while observing your present experience in an open, non-judgmental way; then, you are practicing mindfulness. If you take a deep breath and relax your body in the middle of a meeting to help you focus and center your attention, you are practicing mindfulness. These skills will enhance tastes as you eat, and colors as you observe a landscape. You might actually learn to be a better listener and a more empathetic and compassionate parent, partner, teacher. The neurophysiology of monotasking involves the regulation of thoughts, emotions, and movement in a way that exercises top-down self-regulation. This means, your cortex regulates the lower regions of the brain that misbehave when we mindlessly avoid or seek rewards. Little by little your nervous system learns to be more responsive as opposed to just reacting. Finally, the benefits of mindfulness have been extensively documented and involve physical, emotional, cognitive, and social outcomes that promote health and well-being.

Would you like to increase your mindfulness? Meditation is one method of doing so.

Students, staff, faculty and community members are welcome to join our Meditation Practice. Meditation trains your attention and produces benefits that include:

Monday-Thursday, 1:30 – 1:50 p.m.

LS-275 (in the Life Sciences Building)

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