Taming Your Wandering Mind: Amishi Jha at TEDxCoconutGrove (Transcript)

Amishi Jha at TEDxCoconutGrove

Here is the full transcript of researcher and neuroscientist Amishi Jha’s TEDx Talk: Taming Your Wandering Mind at TEDxCoconutGrove conference.

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Consider the following statement: Human beings only use ten 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, energy-demanding organ 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?

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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 firefighters, 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 brainwave recordings. In these brainwave 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 temporal precision. So we can see these small yet detectable voltage fluctuations over time.

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