Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. Oh my God, you’re going to love this conversation today. I want you to pay attention. I’d like your flashlight directed right to this podcast. You’ll understand what that means after you listen to this podcast. I’m talking to Dr. Amishi Jha. She’s a neuroscientist and author of the bestseller Peak Mind, and we are talking about attention, focus, concentration. We’re talking about three parts of our mind that work together to direct our focus, to widen and make us receptive to incoming information. We’re talking about the juggler, the person that keeps our behaviors and thoughts all aligned toward a goal, and we’re talking about most importantly, I think it’s like, Freudian that I forgot, mindfulness and how a mindfulness practice can literally change our levels of attention. This is an incredible conversation. I’m so glad you’re here for it, it’s a game changer for me.
BB: Before we get started on our conversation, let me tell you a little bit about Amishi. Dr. Amishi Jha is author of the bestseller Peak Mind, and she’s a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. She serves as the director of contemplative neuroscience for the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative. Okay, I’ve never heard of two words that I love better than these two together, contemplative neuroscience. She co-founded this center, this initiative in 2010. She received her PhD from the University of California Davis and post-doctoral training at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center at Duke. Dr. Jha’s work has been featured at NATO, the World Economic Forum, the Pentagon. You may have read some of her stuff in the New York Times or heard her on NPR. Read about her work in Time Magazine, Forbes. This is like a research-driven, healing conversation. Let’s go.
BB: Amishi, welcome to Dare to Lead.
Amishi Jha: So great to be here.
BB: I need you, I need you in my life.
BB: We all need you, but I feel like I… P.S., like, I really need you.
AJ: I’m here for you, Brené.
BB: Good. Okay. Let’s start with this question. I always like to start here. Tell us your story. Where are you from? How’d you end up doing what you’re doing? Tell us your story.
AJ: Yeah, sure. So, I… You can see me, others may not be able to see me that are listening to our voices, but I am an Indian woman, and I was born in India, I was actually born in the town that Gandhi’s ashram is in, so it’s a very sort of…
AJ: Peaceful special place. Yes. Town, I call it, but it’s actually quite a large number of people there. And I moved to the United States when I was one. My parents came here, my dad came here to study and he was getting master’s degrees here, so we moved to Chicago, the summers of Chicago. I grew up in Chicago. And fast forward… Now the goal is to tell you how I got to what I’m studying now, so just to fast forward a bit…
BB: Oh, but don’t fast forward through any of like the, what were you like? Were you like a curious kid? [chuckle] What were you…
AJ: Yeah. I would say I was a very curious kid. My idea of fun was like, reading text books.
BB: What kind of… Wait, wait, wait, I’ve got to ask, what kind of textbooks?
AJ: You know, at that point it was things like psychology, I didn’t know what I was going to study then, but I…
BB: Love it.
AJ: I just thought it was kind of cool stuff, my mom had studied psychology, so there was an interest there, but I always thought, and I don’t know how much of this is just brainwashing from my fellow Indian culture people in the area, but I thought, okay, got to grow up and be an MD. And so, my whole life was geared toward that, and I was a good student and all that stuff, and started volunteering in hospitals and realized very quickly that this is so not for me. I just couldn’t stand it. And that calling a lot of my friends seemed to have in the context of healing and treating…
BB: Yeah, yeah.
AJ: I was just like, “No, I don’t want to do that.” But I still was kind of committed to at least giving it a try. So, even as an undergrad, I continued volunteering, and I really lucked out. Right before undergrad, I lucked out because one of the volunteer cycles, they have candy stripers is what we were called back then…
BB: Oh yeah, yeah, oh yeah.
AJ: And then as a candy striper one of the gigs I got was working in the brain injury unit. And to me, this was incredible, because not only was I able to see people that were in there for longer, because they had traumatic injuries and they had to have long-term care in terms of their recovery. So, I got to know some of the people and people that I thought were there because they were quadriplegics, actually ended up through the course of their therapies recovering in many ways. And I remember this one patient in particular that I got to know pretty well, he was one of the same ones that I thought was a quadriplegic, but at some point, all of a sudden, he was in a different kind of wheelchair, and he could kind of move the tip of his finger to be able to move his own wheelchair. My job typically was just take them outside for some fresh air, etcetera. I was amazed. And what he told me was obviously that all day long therapies he was getting, but at night, he said he would fall asleep by visualizing and practicing and rehearsing the movement of that part of his arm, so that he could move the lever on his wheelchair.
AJ: And to me that was like, that was it. I was like, “I don’t want to do medicine, I want to study the brain. That’s what I want to study. That’s what I’m excited about.” And I lucked out because the very first year that I was at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, they had just allowed psychology majors to have biological psychology, which is essentially neuroscience. So I was very, very happy. But that episode with the patient at the hospital really got me kind of on this extreme curiosity mission to see, how is it that we can take this thing called the human brain, the most complex organ that we know exists, and re-wire it through something we do ourselves? That part was the thing that really hooked me. I was like, we can do something ourselves and it’s going to help us be able to actually function?
AJ: And of course, fast forward to… Not too much fast-forwarding, but fast forwarding to kind of where I ended up, I went to grad school in this area, I ended up doing my post-doc in brain imaging, and then I went on to have my own lab at the University of Pennsylvania, and set up a lab to study, a very important brain system that actually powerfully recalibrates the way the brain functions. Because it was that same sort of thing, like, if you want to change something, maybe study the thing that really can impact the way it functions and see what you can do about understanding it and potentially improving it.
AJ: So, this brain system of attention is so good at… And so necessary for us to be able to kind of re-jigger, re-prioritize everything else that the brain does, and sometimes I’ll talk about it as the brain’s boss, because literally wherever it is that we pay attention, will recalibrate the way the brain functions. So that’s what I was doing in my own lab, I was excited about it, was happy about my work, but as I had moved to the University of Pennsylvania, I started my lab, I was also pregnant. And my husband and I bought a 100-year-old fixer upper, I’m pregnant, I’m moving to a new city, doing all these things at once, and it was intense. [chuckle] It was pretty intense.
BB: That’s intense, yeah.
AJ: Yeah, it’s like, don’t do 10 things at once that are all new when you’re trying to get… At least moving alone can be stressful. So anyway, we ended up having our son is about maybe two, almost three years old, and the pace of my life was just going, going, going, going, and what was important to me… Because I was extremely busy, was every night, I’m going to spend time with him and read to him. And that was just a priority of my life. And I remember at some point, and this was sort of my red flag moment, where I’m reading this book to him that I probably have read it, I don’t know, a hundred times, and he puts his little hand onto the book and he kind of stops and looks up at me and he asked me a question about, what’s on the page? And I had no idea what he was talking about. Like, no idea.
BB: Oh God. I know this moment. Argh…
AJ: And I was like, “Okay, this is bad.” In my… All of the things I do, this is one of the most important things that I do. This is really important to me that I’m paying attention to my child and my spouse, and that I honor and really enjoy this part of what we have in our lives. Anyway, the ironic thing is, I’ve realized I was having my own massive crisis of attention, everything was just slipping away from my mind. And the other big red flag was that I had lost feeling in my front teeth from grinding. [laughter] So I was like, I’m pretty checked out with regard to what’s going on and in some kind of denial regarding the level of intensity and pace that I’m experiencing.
AJ: So, at that point, I was on a mission to try to figure it out, and it was like, I study attention. I should just be able to… You’re an academic, you know how this goes, I’m just going to go online and just [laughter] look at every database, “How do I fix my attention?” And by the end of the week, I should have figured it out and everything will be…
BB: Oh yeah.
AJ: Everything will be great. And could find nothing, nothing with regard to what people can do themselves to retrain attention, to bring it back when it’s sort of lost. And that bugged me, it bugged me that there was nothing available. I totally lucked out, because within that same period of time, a dear colleague of mine, somebody you’re probably familiar with, Richie Davidson, who runs a wonderful center that focuses on meditation right now, but anyway, at that point, he was not out, it is the early 2000s, out about studying meditation.
BB: Right, right, right.
AJ: It was not something accepted in the field. And he gave this talk, and I remember thinking, “This is my chance if I want to find out from him what he thinks about this.” So anyway, what he did is he showed these brain images. One of a brain induced to be in a negative mood. Think of the worst memory you’ve ever had, play sad music, get this mind to feel bad and then he was showing that the nature of the brain activity that happens there. And then he induced people to be in a positive mood and he showed the brain activity that happens there. And his point was simply that these are quite different from each other, these are brains in different states, and we can track from the neuroscience perspective what those emotions do to the brain. Of course, my response and my feeling was like, “Oh God, okay, that’s me right now, and I need to be there.”
AJ: So, I asked him, I just raised my hand from the back of the room, it was sort of the end of the question and answer period…
AJ: And I was like, “How do I get that brain to look like that brain?” Which was such a deep question actually and such an indication of the level of pain I was experiencing, but of course, it was just a question, so he shouts out like, “Meditation.” And I was kind of like, “Huh?” [chuckle] Like, “What? We don’t… What? We don’t use that word here.”
BB: Yeah. We don’t use that word here.
AJ: Do you know where we are right now? I mean, have you lost your mind sir, what’s going on? Anyway, later on, I was able to speak to him about this and he was telling me about some of the work they were doing, and his collaboration with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and actually looking at monastics to see the impact of their long-term meditation practice on brain function, and they were learning all these cool things, and I was like, “This is annoying that he is saying meditation to me.” [laughter] But I trust him, I respect him as a colleague, and part of the reason it was so annoying goes back to the fact that I grew up with an Indian family and was born in the town that Gandhi’s ashram is in. Because meditation is a word I’d heard since I was a child. In fact…
BB: I’m sure.
AJ: Some of my earliest memories are my dad meditating, right? But I had a real thing about it because I also felt that there were aspects of Indian culture that was so sexist, and that really prevented women from being able to partake in some of the practices that I was like, “Yeah, that’s not for me. No, thank you. And no, thank you.” But now I had this kind of conflict moment where on the one hand, there’s this thing that this respected colleague is saying, there’s a real chip on my shoulder I already have about it. Anyway, I decided to just go to the Penn book store and give it a try. I just walked literally to the aisle that said meditation, just picked out a book and I super lucked out, because that book was by somebody who’s now a very dear colleague and teacher, Jack Kornfield, and it was called… [laughter] It was called Meditation for Beginners, it came with a tiny little CD and a tiny little book. And I just said, “You know what, I don’t know what this is about, let’s see.”
AJ: I know what it’s about, what I think it is about from my family experience, and I just committed to following the recordings he had. And it was actually recordings from a retreat that he had led. So, there’s extreme silence in the room, but you hear kind of people stretching or whatever. And I just followed along, and it was probably about, I don’t know, four to five, six weeks after doing this, that I realized I can feel my teeth again, I’m more present to my life, I am more embodied in my being. And I could see the expression on my spouse’s face, I could see what was going on in my child’s eyes, the curiosity or the concern or whatever it is, I just felt more awake to my life, and then finally realized, oh, [chuckle] this thing I’ve been doing, following him along is entirely about attention, and it actually addresses that search I was on to find something that can actually strengthen attention.
AJ: And at that point, I just made a commitment to myself that I will study this, I will understand what this is about. Because at that point, really, there were no studies being done on the relationship between attention and mindfulness meditation, which was what that CD was all about. So, that got me to the point where I started studying it. Wrote my first grant within six months of that episode and have not turned back since.
BB: Wow. When did you make the move from University of Pennsylvania to Miami?
AJ: About 10, 11 years ago.
BB: Wow. This is one of the best stories ever. [laughter] It is, because I can totally relate to that moment where I remember the first time I came across the word meditation or mindfulness or gratitude, I’m like,” Oh shit, y’all, we don’t talk about that here.” Like this is… They’re going to laugh you right out of the ivory tower with that one.
BB: But then thanks to people like you, this is empirically-based practice now, this is data. Alright, let me start with some terms.
BB: Can you help me understand what is attention, what is focus, and what is concentration?
AJ: Ooh, great question.
AJ: So, attention is sort of the umbrella term and…
AJ: The other terms kind of fall underneath that. Attention in the broadest sense is the brain’s capacity to prioritize some information over other information.
AJ: And we really owe it to our evolutionary ancestors that we inherited this thing. It obviously was something that helped their survival, so we have a brain that has this system, and it ends up that the way in which we can prioritize some information over other information has different flavors. So, there’s this umbrella term attention, but there’s actually identifiable sub-systems of attention and sub-processes that we can talk about. So, the first one you already hit on, focus. So, what do we actually mean when we say focus? What we’re talking about is, prioritizing some things over other things, but based on the content of the thing. So, for example, right now, my focus is on seeing your face, seeing the expressions on your face, hearing your words, understanding them, and your beautiful background is a little bit fuzzed out, and my cell phone pinging, or people walking in my home, outside, I’m ignoring, and I’m privileging you over everything else.
AJ: And when we do that, when we focus in that way, we actually get neurally speaking in the brain, crisper, clearer, higher integrity information regarding the thing that has that quality of attention devoted to it versus everything else. So…
BB: So, the data on the privileged thing is stronger and better?
AJ: The data on the privilege thing is stronger and better, higher quality.
AJ: It’s almost… At the neural level, it’s like we turned up the volume. If I was listening to your voice and I was paying attention to it, the brain cells would show firing that suggests, “Oh, that’s a louder input.” The input is the same. It’s just that this process of attention amplifies.
BB: Wow. You are so good at the metaphors and analogies. [laughter] This is why I love your work. Okay. So, focus is under the attention umbrella, and it’s when we really get sharply tuned in. Okay.
AJ: Yeah, yeah. And the metaphor we can use to help kind of guide this, and I just find it helpful to use some of these metaphors, a flashlight. So, if you were in a darkened room and you had a flashlight, wherever it is that you shine that flashlight, you get better access to the information to which it’s pointing. Everything else is fuzzed out.
AJ: So, I really like to refer to it as an attentional flashlight, because it has a lot of those same features. With focus, we can dedicate and direct our focus, but our focus can get yanked as well. So, if we were in that same darkened room and we heard a strange sound, boom, the flashlight is going to go to wherever we heard the sound come from. So, it has these features of the narrowing, but also this willful ability to direct, but also be yanked around. And the other cool thing about the system, it’s formally called the attentional orienting system, is that it can be directed externally, like we’ve been talking about, or internally. So if I say to you…
BB: Wow. So, the world outside of me and within me.
AJ: Exactly. Within you. So, if I say, Brené, can you remember what you had for lunch yesterday? You don’t have to tell me, but can you just for a second think about it and kind of remember?
BB: Okay. Hold on just a sec. Yes, I can tell you.
BB: Yeah, eggs on toast.
AJ: Oh, okay, great. You even reported it. Awesome. So, before I asked you that, my hunch is you were not thinking about what you had for lunch and the amount of time it took you to respond suggests you were not, so what happened in that moment? So, essentially the information is there from our long-term memory, and my request pulled it up from long-term memory, and then you were shining the flashlight of your attention on it, so that you got privileged access to that information and could report it back to me.
BB: Oh my God, this is like, Sherlock Holmes in his memory palace. [laughter] This is exactly what this is like, I love this. Okay.
BB: Okay. So, I put the flashlight inside, but we can also do it externally, right?
AJ: Exactly. And this is important because they are the same resource, so if you’re devoting it externally, you’re not going to have as much internally, and vice versa.
BB: Wait, it’s finite?
AJ: It’s definitely finite. Yeah. So, you think about the last time you were really immersed in either thinking about something, or maybe even reading something and you were kind of internal, you were really focused on it, and somebody walked into the room and said something to you. It would take you a beat before you could say, “Wait. What?” Right? Or maybe it could take…
BB: For sure. Yeah.
AJ: The person saying, “Hello?” to break you out it.
BB: Yeah. For sure.
AJ: So, in that sense, what happened was, the amount of attention devoted to that thing you were reading or thinking about, let’s just say you were thinking about it, really took up potential bandwidth and suppressed everything else, including input from the external environment.
BB: This is a scary question, I’m asking for a friend.
BB: I have a friend who told me that sometimes when she’s driving to work and really concentrating or focusing on something, she doesn’t even remember driving there.
AJ: Absolutely. 100%.
BB: What’s happening in that case?
AJ: I’m so glad you asked that. First of all, if you got there safely, good, no problem. Typically, there’s no cost to that because you’re assessing what’s going on in your environment. If all of a sudden there was a heavy rainstorm or massive fog, I’m sure that friend of yours would have devoted their attention back to the road and not to whatever was going on in their own mind. So, we can go back and forth too as we need to.
AJ: But what happens is that what we pay attention to is the doorway, it’s like the conduit by which we remember information. So, if you were not attending to your environment, you were not encoding it to get into your long-term memory.
BB: You have to say that part again. The thing we pay attention to…
AJ: Let me put it this way. In order to remember something, you have to have paid attention to it.
BB: Oh my God.
AJ: You will not hold anything in memory unless you were attending to it as it was occurring, for example.
AJ: Yeah, it’s the first step to memory is attention. So, in my book, I have this whole chapter called “Press record,” and this idea is that we need to pay attention in order to have it go into long-term memory, and oftentimes what we think of as a memory problem is actually an attention problem.
BB: Oh my God, say that again.
AJ: What we often think is a memory problem is actually an attention problem.
BB: So, my friend has another question.
BB: I asked her before we started.
BB: My sister’s in the room laughing at me right now, she’s being…
AJ: I was going to say, I’m hearing somebody else right now.
BB: Yeah. She’s being a real asshole.
BB: I’m asking for her. These are her questions. No. Why… This really is for a friend, [laughter] because it’s so… Why if I’m driving and everything… Oh shit, I revealed myself, but… Okay. Why when I’m driving and everything is going okay, but then all of a sudden the traffic is bad or it starts pouring down rain, do I have to turn down the music in my car so that I can see better? I don’t understand.
AJ: Yeah. So that’s the thing about attention, it’s limited, we only have so much of it, but it gets fully utilized at any moment.
BB: What do you mean?
AJ: Well, what I mean by that is, it’s going to be there. When you say you’re not paying attention, what you really are saying is, “My attention is not on the thing you want me to have it on. I am paying attention, I’m just not paying attention to that thing, I’m paying attention to something else.” So, in some sense, our sensory environment, our internal environment, they will be the milieu in which our attention is going to get saturated. So, it’s a very good strategy because when the radio is on and when you’re thinking, these are ways in which your attention is getting utilized, and if everything’s going fine, you don’t need a lot to be devoted to the moment-by-moment, external environment as you drive your car. But now when you know, “I need more toward the external environment, I’d better quiet down all these other sources in which my attention has been engaged.” So, you aren’t going to think those internal thoughts anymore, you’re focused externally. You might have felt that the radio might be pulling you in, so you turn it down, so now all of that attentional resource can go toward driving because it’s needed there. And I bet that if you do that and you maneuver yourself through that, whatever the treacherous situation is, and as things start… Now all of a sudden it’s sunny again, well, you turn the music back on, you go back to thinking about what you were thinking.
BB: I do.
AJ: Yeah. And that’s the beauty of attention is that it’s limited, but we can flexibly use it. But all of those ways we’ve just described, by the way, are all in this focusing system. But there’s two other ways that we actually pay attention, which would be fun to talk about too.
BB: Let’s do it, I’m riveted.
AJ: Okay. So, focus, we already talked about narrowing, selecting, whether it’s your own thoughts, the external environment, whatever it is. The next system is actually the exact opposite, it’s not about narrowing and selecting, it’s about broadening and being receptive.
BB: Like letting stuff come in?
AJ: Letting stuff come in. So, if you think about… Let’s go back to the driving example. So, you’re driving down the road and you see a flashing yellow light, maybe in your school zone or a construction site, the way your attention is in that moment is the system I’m talking about, the alerting system as it’s formally called. So, what happens when you see that flashing light, it’s like, “I don’t know what’s happening here, but I better pay attention.” That’s a very different way of paying attention, than focusing and narrowing. Now I’m broad receptive, I’m ready. If anything happens, I can use that focus to do something I might need to do, but I don’t know what it’s going to be, children running across the street, construction equipment, whatever it is, strange traffic pattern, I’m ready for it, I’m on the lookout for it.
BB: Okay. So, focus is narrowing, alert is widening the receivers? Is it widening…
AJ: It’s wider for sure, but there’s a different quality because you can take your focus and you can expand it.
AJ: It has an aperture, just like an actual flashlight.
BB: Oh, it has an aperture?
AJ: It definitely does. So, we can actually broaden our focus, it’s still our focus, it’s just a little bit broader. This is a different kind of system. This is when you don’t know what you should be focusing on. There’s an uncertainty, so you’re holding your attention in the most receptive state.
BB: Okay, receptive. Okay. Does that include scanning? Are you scanning a little bit in the receptive?
AJ: In some sense, scanning is like taking that flashlight and moving it around.
BB: Oh, okay. So, I’m really wanting to go back to that, but I’m really like, you’re really having me drag me into…
AJ: But you’ll see, because it’ll go toward our topic of meditation. So anyway, go back to your question. What were you saying?
BB: So let’s say, I see the flashing… I’m driving.
BB: The music’s on, I’m thinking about work, and I see the flashing yellow light ahead. I’m not sure what’s going on, I turn down the music, I asked my kids, “Okay, be quiet for just a second, let me figure out what’s going on.”
BB: Now I’m in alert.
AJ: You’re right, alert, you’re alert, you’re receptive. If something does happen, you can take action fast because you’re ready for it, you’re in a readied state. The other thing that’s very important about this system is if the definition of attention is prioritizing some information over other information, focusing is about prioritizing some content over other content. Alerting is about focusing the present moment now. What is important is right now.
BB: Ooh. Ooh.
AJ: So, when you see a flashing yellow light you’re like, “Oh, I’ll think about that tomorrow.” It’s like right now, keep my attention ready for anything. So, it’s… Both is not biasing toward a narrow content space, but also what’s happening right now is really important for that system.
BB: Okay. What’s the third system?
AJ: The third system is prioritizing, so not content, time. And then the third system, something called “executive control,” is basing prioritization on our goals. So, what is important to me right now, so my goals, and we call it executive control because it is like an executive of a company. The executive’s job is not to go in and do every task, but to oversee. It’s like a management capacity, oversee, what are the goals that should be at play right now? Are actions corresponding to those goals, and if not, that system also course-corrects. So, the executive control maintains the goal, it manipulates information in the service of that goal, it’ll update the goal, if there’s some new information that says, “That’s old goal, let’s get to the real goal right now,” it’ll inhibit things when you’re not supposed to do it because it doesn’t align with the goal, so it’s all about aligning goals and behavior.
AJ: And I like to use the metaphor of a juggler for that system, because it’s like, keep all the balls in the air, you’re not going to go and focus on any particular thing, you’re coordinating, you’re managing, you’re ensuring, that everything is happening as it should. And as you can imagine, that juggler system, executive control, directs these other two systems. When you saw the flashing yellow light and you said, “Okay, kids, you’ve got to be quiet for a moment, I’ve got to turn on the… ” All the things you did is you realize, “The goal is right now, pay attention to what’s happening, there may be some uncertainty I’ve got to deal with.” So, then it directs those other systems appropriately. It said, “Alerting system, come on, check in right now, get broad and expansive.” These systems are different from each other in what they do, but they’re highly interrelated, and they kind of do a delicate dance as we function in our days.
BB: My juggler is so tired.
AJ: Aww. [laughter]
BB: My juggler is so tired. My juggler doesn’t want to keep all the balls in the air anymore. Do our jugglers get tired?
AJ: Very easily. In fact, that’s the system that is most prone to this experience of fatigue. And we do things in our lives, and I’m not saying that you or your friend, if we’re talking about her again, [laughter] is using her executive control in the wrong way, but what makes this system really tired, really fatigued. I’ll give you one thing that does it a lot, multitasking.
BB: Shut up. Let’s go…
BB: You’re breaking up, I’ve got to go now.
BB: Oh my God. You’re just being mean now. Okay, go ahead.
AJ: Aww. No, not at all. You’re the one who said you were tired, we got to fix it, right?
AJ: So, what happens when we multitask? And I put that in quotes, because actually, the brain does not multitask. Multitasking is not a thing. What we actually do in the brain is something called “task-switching.” Now, let me explain what I mean.
BB: You’re freaking me out. Go ahead.
AJ: Remember we talked about focus, and a flashlight. We don’t have flashlights, we have a flashlight. And what you say when you say multitasking it’s like, I got four flashlights, I got them pointing in all these different directions at once. Not how it works. So, anything that is attentionally demanding requires our singular focus, and you can do two things at once, but one of them is not going to be attentionally demanding. You can walk and talk at the same time, if you’re having a deep conversation with somebody, walking doesn’t take any attention because you’re practiced at walking, you’re an expert walker. So, you can talk with ease or think with ease because you’re not trying to figure out how to walk too. But now if I put you on a ledge or a cliff, and I said, “Go ahead, walk and talk,” all of a sudden you’re in a different situation, because now, that very automatic act of walking requires your attention and it becomes more difficult to juggle both. So multi-tasking is a myth because what we actually do, when we think we’re doing multiple things at once, is we engage in a task, and then we disengage in the task, we move into the other task, and then we disengage, and then we move it again, so we’re doing task switches over and over again.
BB: Okay. Wait, I got to stop you here. [laughter] I have to ask you a question.
BB: Are some of us better at this than others? And is there a gender difference in the research? [laughter]
AJ: Oh my gosh. For sure, there are people that are super taskers, by the way, that actually can do this exquisite facility with switching. Most of us are not super taskers.
AJ: And even the reason it may feel like it… I’m just thinking from my own experience, so…
BB: Yeah, yeah.
AJ: I’ll just tell you this crazy story. I was in India once, this is an example of gender differences and how we’re able to pay attention. I was in India, because I got invited to go to India to speak to someone that’s the Dalai Lama, and my wonderful husband was going to hold down the fort with both kids, they were not even 10 years old at that point, my son and I had a daughter a few years later. And so I’m in India, it’s the morning of my presentation, so I’m already kind of ready to go. I get a call from the front of the hotel, so I’m preparing my presentation, and I get this call that says, “Please, you have a call from your family in the U.S.” So, of course I dart to the thing, and they have one phone that I can use and I’m like, “Yes, hello, what’s going on?” And I hear my son whimpering like, “Mommy?” And I’m like, “Oh geez.”
BB: Oh God.
AJ: Next sentence, “Where are my shin guards?”
AJ: And I was like, “What the… ” And…
AJ: I was like, “Really?” I’m like, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine, but we’ve been looking and daddy can’t find them, and I’m late for practice and… ” Oh, God.
AJ: And here’s the thing, I knew exactly where those damn shin guards were.
AJ: I was able to tell him, and he was on his way, and a happy camper by the time we’re done with this conversation. So, in some sense, that’s kind of what you mean, there’s some people in some ways, and we have to be in our lives, and I think as a mom, I definitely feel this. You’re like, boop, boop, boop… You’re kind of directing a show, and it definitely feels like a multitasking context. But in those circumstances, unless the thing you’re doing requires very little attention, you actually are task-switching.
BB: That sounds exhausting.
AJ: Yeah. But now think of the complexity of our working lives, and trying to do multiple high-demand attentionally exhausting… Let’s not use exhausting. Attentionally demanding things.
BB: Demanding. Yeah.
AJ: And the switching function depletes that limited resource even further. I talk about it really as a fuel, attention is a fuel, and we empty our gas tanks the more we switch. So, if you want to see… Just do it as an experiment, try to mono-task instead of multitask, just try it. And what I mean by that is, don’t have 10 windows open and try to do 10 things at once while your notifications are on, while people are trying to talk to you, and you’re giving a podcast interview at the same time. [laughter]
BB: And I’m playing Wordle.
AJ: And you’re playing Wordle. So…
AJ: Don’t do that to yourself, see if you can actually limit… There’s sometimes when some professionals where, they can’t, they need to be available and they need to be able to jump into whatever they are required to do the phone as a lifeline, when you’re talking about first responders, etcetera. But for most of us, especially when we’re trying to do deep work, we’re disadvantaging ourselves, and I say this to students all the time, like, “See if you can just close some of the windows and focus, that will at least prevent you from… ” There’s still going to be mind-wandering, the flashlight will get yanked by some internal thought, but at least now the external environment isn’t impinging further to grab you and keep you distracted from the thing you’re trying to do.
BB: Okay. Walk us into meditation from here.
AJ: Sure. Sure, sure.
BB: What have you learned about how we change our minds to change our lives?
AJ: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, the first thing to say is that everything we just talked about with regard to attention, you can see it’s extremely powerful. We need our attention to do, literally… I’m just going to throw out some things that we need our attention for.
BB: Do it.
AJ: We need it to think. Following a train of thought, the glue from thought to thought to thought is hyper-linked attention, we need to deliberate, problem-solve, anything that we consider cognitive functioning requires our attention. We also need our attention to feel. Now that sounds a little bit strange, like, “What?”
AJ: But yes, we do. And not just to experience the emotion, but to regulate it. And in your line of work, as somebody who helps other people work on that as a social worker, it’s very, very important. So, we need it to think, we need it to feel. And then of course, most robustly, and I would say this is sort of the culminating aspect, we need it to connect. If you think about the value of attention, being able to shine that flashlight at another person, it’s what allows them to feel cared for, it’s what allows them to feel understood, and us as well, the recipient of other’s attention. So, when we talk about care, compassion, collaboration, all of these things require attention as the glue that allows it. And performance, anything we do that we have to perform, we need our attention. This is the space in which attention is required.
AJ: This is what made me sort of worried about attention, because in my work in my lab as I was starting out, I was realizing, okay, attention is powerful, we know it from the brain. But there’s another thing we learned, very quickly, which is that it is extremely fragile and extremely vulnerable. And the things that are the most potent forms of kryptonite, as I like to refer to it, are stress, that experience of overwhelm. Threat, so not just threat like your physical safety, but your reputation, your sense of justice and purpose, your moral sense. So, stress, threat, and then negative mood.
BB: Oh God.
AJ: So, under circumstances where we’re experiencing this, our attention is compromised, all three of those systems become compromised. And it’s interesting because sometimes what we think of as psychological health challenges are actually very tightly intertwined with attentional challenges. Even things like feeling a sense of depression is in some sense the flashlight getting stuck on depressogenic thought, it’s unable to flexibly move away from it, it keeps getting caught by that. Or anxiety, and the symptoms of PTSD, hyper-vigilance. It’s like that flashing yellow light, we see everywhere in our world, we’re amped up in that way. Or of course, things like attention deficit disorder, the juggler has dropped the balls entirely, we cannot keep goals and behavior aligned. So, just to make the connection that attention is powerful as we were talking about, but it’s also vulnerable, and the circumstances that make it vulnerable are the circumstances of our life.
AJ: And so, in my own work, what became really interesting to me, because I could see it now, it’s like, “Oh, that’s why I couldn’t keep a hold of my attention,” I was check, check, check, I had all of that going on. And it was for a protracted period of time, that’s the other thing that’s really key. It’s not just a day or two and we kind of bounced around, attention goes up and down, up and down, but when it’s protracted, there’s no chance for attention to bounce back, there’s no buoyancy in our system kind of realigning itself, so then we start seeing degradation. So, what I became very interested, just to connect the dots to get to the work and meditation is I became interested in a solution, not just because I was interested in one personally, but because I was seeing that there are certain professions where we know that stress, threat, and poor mood are not just part and parcel of their daily lives, but they describe the professional context in which these individuals have to do their best work, so…
BB: So yeah, I’m thinking military, first responders…
AJ: Social workers.
BB: ER surgeons,
AJ: ER surgeons.
BB: Social workers. Yeah.
AJ: Critical care nurses. And frankly, over the last couple of years of the pandemic, all of us, we’re all in that high-stress…
BB: All of us. Yeah.
AJ: Circumstances and we’re trying to function. Anyway, what I was interested in seeing is, first of all, is it true, when I look at service members and first responders and even students, academic, over the course of something like the academic semester, if I take them over intervals that I know they’ll describe as high-stress intervals, pre-deployment training, deployment itself, hurricane season for firefighters that live in Miami, for example, or students through the academic semester, is it the case that attention actually significantly declines? Can we track it with our objective metrics and our brain metrics? And yes, we see that it significantly declines, we can measure it. So, then the question becomes, well, “What can we do about that? Can we provide training that may prevent that decline, keep people steady, even if it’s a high-stress interval?”
AJ: And if we’re really lucky, maybe we’ll find something we can offer that could even bump them up from where they started, if they continue engaging in the exercises and the training. And so that was part of a good chunk of my lab’s work was trying to figure out solutions, and frankly, nothing was working, positive mood inductions, light and sound devices, brain training games, nothing could protect against this decline. And the one very surprising thing that did work was offering high-stress, high-demand professionals, mindfulness training over a high-stress interval, where they get a series…
BB: Over a high-stress interval?
AJ: Yeah. Where we gave them mindfulness concepts, we taught them practices, and then they started practicing over that high-stress interval. And then across the kinds of groups that we’re talking about, service members, first responders, medical and nursing professionals, teachers, students, we saw straight line, not a degradation. And when those individuals practiced more than 12 minutes or so a day, we actually saw things starting to bump up, where it looked like they were getting better and better, and the more they practiced…
AJ: The more they benefited. Yeah. [laughter]
BB: It’s just so real. As much as we don’t want it to be real, it’s just real, right?
AJ: Yeah, yeah, it’s real. But that’s what was so thrilling, because just like that patient that was exercising his finger movements, there’s a way people could exercise their attention that I could give them that they could do privately on their own, 12 minutes a day, and strengthen this very precious brain resource that refueled their capacity to think clearly, regulate their emotion, connect with others, it was a lifeline type of refueling that we were offering.
BB: Okay. So, I’m going to go to my favorite page, 308…
AJ: Oh, okay.
BB: In your book.
BB: So, when we talk about this mindfulness training, I have to go right to the myths part.
AJ: Yeah, yeah.
BB: So, what you’re asking me to do is completely clear my mind.
AJ: Good luck. No, that’s the number one myth, you cannot clear your mind, just drop that project. It will never happen. The brain was built for distractibility and mental meandering. Your mind will wander.
AJ: It will wander. And so, the intention of a mindfulness practice has nothing to do with stopping the mind from having mental content arise. The practices themselves, and a very fundamental one is what I call the find your flashlight practice and is yoked to that concept of the flashlight, is to pick a target for your attention, breath is a really handy one, not because we’re going to do anything with the breath, we’re just going to focus on it as it’s occurring naturally. That’s where you’re going to point that flashlight for the period of time that you’re practicing. You’re going to, at some moment, because I know that you’re a human being, you and anyone else that does this, will experience mind-wandering, the attentional focus is no longer on that breath-related sensation. So, the first step is point your flashlight to something, focus, direct your attention. The second step is notice, “Where am I right now? Where is my mind?” If you notice it’s wandered away, first of all, you can’t clear it because there’s stuff that’s going to come up, so if you’ve noticed it’s wandered away, instead of using that as an opportunity to yell at yourself and say, “God, I can’t even keep focused on the breath.” No, eh, don’t do that. Instead, say, “Ha, it’s a win, I found my flashlight, I can bring it back.” So, it’s really three steps, focus…
BB: Oh, I love that.
AJ: Notice, redirect. And then you’re not at war with yourself, it’s just like the intention is to hold the flashlight steady, notice what’s going on, and if I notice it’s not there, just redirect it over and over again. So, no clearing the mind, just moving around where our attention is and aligning it where our goals say we want it to be.
BB: You’re trying to make me feel peaceful and relaxed.
AJ: Again, I wish that for you. I wish that for all of us.
AJ: But the practice of mindfulness is not about trying to achieve any special state. Mindfulness…
BB: You don’t want me to be blissed-out?
AJ: I’d love for you to be blissed-out, but that’s not what we’re trying to achieve here.
AJ: So, what we’re trying to achieve, mindfulness is about paying attention to our present moment experience, so it’s about being in the here and the now, without a story about it, without reacting to it, so we’re really trying to get the raw data of what is actually occurring. So, if you’re in the middle of a practice and you’re being mindful, you’re keeping your flashlight on whatever you decide to keep it on, you can notice there’s a lot of physical pain right now, “I’m in a lot of discomfort, there’s a lot of heartache right now. There’s a lot of upheaval or there’s annoying noises from the air conditioner,” whatever it is, that will arise. And it’s not a failure of your practice that you aren’t feeling blissed-out, in fact, it’s a success because you are observing what is occurring right now. So, you may feel great…
AJ: But that’s not the intention, it’s really to get the raw data of what’s going on.
BB: What if I can’t achieve that special, like where I’m floating thing?
AJ: A special state, yes.
AJ: When I walked into the first military base I ever went to, and I didn’t know anybody that was in the military before I started this work, for sure, they thought I was the mindfulness teacher, I was not, I was a neuroscientist doing the research. But the other thing I got to worry about is they look at me and they think, “She’s going to try to get me to levitate, isn’t she?” Like…
AJ: “What is she going to do? She’s going to get me in some blissed-out moment.” These are things that aren’t going to serve us, if the intention for a mindfulness practice is to return back to what is, what is going on right now, orienting to it in this sort of non-editorializing way. There is no special state to achieve, you’re not trying to go somewhere else, you’re actually trying to be here with whatever is occurring with a steadiness and an objectivity toward your ability to experience it. So, I have to tell you that I just… The reason I’m so drawn to your work, with regard to vulnerability, is that in some sense, for us to experience difficult emotion, we need to be able to have a level of distress tolerance, the ability to experience what’s going on…
BB: That’s right.
AJ: Without reacting to it. And the cool thing about mindfulness training is we can train for that, we can train to orient to our present moment experience in an observational way without getting dysregulated, then we can do the real work, an interesting journey of what it means to experience that vulnerability and what happens next because of it.
BB: Okay. The last thing I want to talk to you about before… I could just talk to you forever.
BB: I could keep my flashlight on you for a long time.
AJ: Aww. [laughter]
BB: Yeah. That’s going to be my new compliment.
BB: You’ve got my flashlight, my whole flashlight and nothing but my flashlight.
AJ: Love it.
BB: You write that there’s a standard way of thinking and then there’s a peak mind pivot. Right, it’s not that the standard way of thinking isn’t valuable, it’s just that the peak mind pivot greatly expands our options. So, can we take a look at a couple of these…
AJ: Yeah, yeah.
BB: And walk through them? Somehow, I’m going to spit this out, I can’t really think of what I’m going to say because I’m so focused on you.
BB: My flashlight is inhibiting my linguistic prowess.
BB: Okay. The standard view says, “To think better, practice thinking.” You say, “To think better, practice being aware that you are thinking.” This is so meta. What does that mean?
AJ: When you use the right term “meta,” it’s actually… The term would be meta-aware. So meta-awareness is awareness of the contents and processes that are occurring in our mind moment by moment. And when we do that, we all of a sudden become more, what I would call situationally aware. Oftentimes when we’re thinking, we are trapped in the thinking. And thinking is almost neutral, but I’m thinking, think of being in a ruminative loop, there’s something that occurred and you are just…
BB: Oh yes, I do that.
AJ: Stuck. You’re stuck. You’re stuck over and over and over again, and you think, “Okay, if I just keep thinking about,” you end up kind of rounding that turn over and over again. Or it’s a problem you’re trying to solve, and you just keep kind of getting caught in it. In some sense, what I’m saying is, if you can step away from that, take a distanced perspective. I talk about it to my kids like, “Take the drone’s view of like you’re a traffic helicopter above, and you’re looking down, what is happening right now? Amishi is trying to solve this particular problem, this is the way Amishi is conceptualizing this problem.” I’m literally objectively trying to report what’s going on. The first thing you realize is, “Oh, there’s a framework I’m using in my thinking, and I’m locked into that framework.” Pulling yourself away, noticing the thinking is occurring, makes you realize, “I don’t have to be sticking to that framework, I can reframe, I can deframe.”
BB: Oh my God. Yes. I’ve actually done that before, when I’m working on research, when I’m working on, “What is the connection here? I don’t understand why I’m not seeing it,” and then I’ll just stop and I always say, “I’m floating above myself.”
BB: And I’ll float above myself and be like, “Wow, you are just grinding and grinding at the same thing over and over, step away.”
AJ: You’ve got a peak mind, Brené.
BB: On occasion. Let me ask you another one then, do not let me forget to ask you about Law & Order. Do not…
BB: Barrett, will you make a note? Okay, yes. Okay. Alright. You say, the standard view says to focus better, practice directing your attention. You say the peak mind pivot is to focus better, practice noticing and monitoring when you are not focused.
BB: What do you mean?
AJ: Well, it’s sort of that same thing, where we yell at ourselves because we aren’t able to get the email written or the report done, or…
AJ: Even stay in whatever we’re trying to do, even if it’s a conversation we’re trying to have, we’re kind of all over the place. And then we yell at ourselves for having our attention not where we want it to be, but what we can do is slow down, and if we’re at the same time as we’re engaging in focus, we’re kind of watching, “Oh, okay, this is what the intention is.” Engage that juggler, right? So, engage the juggler, engage executive control, this is the goal right now. Engage the, what I call the flood light, that alerting system, watch what’s going on right now, and then see where the flashlight is focused. So, it’s not so much about yelling at yourself for not having the flashlight pointed, notice if you’re doing this more often, you’ll… For example, let’s just take a real-world example of how this might be.
BB: Yeah, yeah.
AJ: So, I am intending to respond to a difficult email I got, let’s say, or something that… it doesn’t have to be difficult, just something that’s going to require a lot of concentration and focus. And then it’s due… I have to respond to this email by five o’clock, and it is 4:30, I’m like, “I got it, I got 30 minutes, I’m going to do this.” And then five o’clock comes around I realize, “Oh, I wrote two words, what happened?” I had no idea, and then I’m going to start laying into myself like, “God, can’t get the… ”
BB: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AJ: Well, what happened? Well, what happened, and this has happened to me, is all of a sudden I get a text and it was like a group text chat regarding something, the group wanted to do like three weeks from now. And so I get the ping. So, all of a sudden, okay, sit here, do it, I’m on the chat, now I’m responding, I’m sucked in, and then I put it down and then there’s another message so I pick it up again, and what I didn’t realize is that there were so many opportunities for me to notice where I was. And if I had just done that, I could have said, “Oh, you know what, I don’t have to actually answer the phone right now, I can actually turn off the notifications, turn it upside down and not look at it.”
AJ: So what I’m saying at the granular level is if you have an intention to do something, and let’s just say in the context of your phone, notice picking up the phone, notice that feeling you get when you actually turn it to maybe get your face ID. Notice the icon you’re clicking on, feel the finger touching it, notice when the screen emerges, and before you do anything else, and as you’re doing all of this, what’s the goal here? The goal was to make sure it wasn’t a text from my daughter, in case she needed me for something. That was the goal. Did I achieve that goal? Yes, it’s definitely not my daughter, it’s definitely not something I need to be dealing with right now, I don’t need to address this right now. Aligning goals and behavior. Boom, put the phone away. I could not have done that if I were not monitoring my own attention moment by moment and noticing it’s pull away from what I wanted to do.
BB: Wow. And I think it’s so helpful because it’s almost like… It reminds me of, I talked to James Clear, the guy who wrote Atomic Habits, and he has this great quote that says, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” And it’s almost like when you say, notice the monitor when you’re not focused. For me it’s almost like, be aware of the systems in which I’m operating. If that text came in and I was trying to compose a difficult email or… I’d be like, I’d pick it up, I’d look at it, I might put it down the first time, but then if I got a second one, I’d be like, “Okay, let me get out my calendar and see what we are doing for three weeks from now. Oh shit, it’s somebody’s birthday, I’ve got to get a card, let me put that on my… ” I’m gone, I’m just gone.
AJ: Exactly. Exactly. So, we’ve got to strengthen up the potency and the prevalence of the goal in our own mind, and remind ourselves we are active actors in this, we are not passive recipients of the moment-to-moment actions we take and we can do something about it, and we don’t have to do the thing that our phone pulled us to. And we can strengthen all this by mindfulness training, by the way, the training actually does strengthen the flashlight, the flood light, and the juggler, all three of them through these practices.
BB: And the flood light is our…
BB: Receptive alerting.
AJ: Yeah. Yeah.
BB: Yes, yeah. Can we do one more before we go to the…
AJ: Yeah, sure. Sure.
BB: Okay. Standard view, this is in my area of interest. “To feel less pain, distract yourself from it.” The peak mind pivot, “To feel less pain, practice focusing on it, non-elaboratively. Don’t make up a story about it, simply observe it and notice how it changes over time.”
AJ: Yeah. Absolutely.
BB: Don’t run from it.
AJ: Do not run from it. You can try and you will fail. That’s the other reality.
BB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AJ: And, yeah, I think it is really a dove-tailing of our work and interests because it’s such a common thing to think you can run from it, suppress it, medicate it, whatever it is that you’re going to do to not feel it. And this other approach feels like the wrong thing to do, but it is actually going to help you a lot more. And I had this happen to me pretty recently, my son had just gone away to college, so now fast-forward, he was three and now he’s… And again, a lot to do, busy life, things haven’t kind of calmed down, but I kept feeling that tug at my heart, I just felt so sad, especially it would come up during my practice, I just would well up with tears feeling so sad, and it wasn’t a pain, like, I wish it was differently. I know I want them to go away, I want them to have that life, but it was a real feeling of pain and I’m like, “No, don’t think about it, don’t think about it,” I’m like, “Oh, I can actually take a different approach here.”
AJ: And what I decided to do in my practice is I made that feeling the focus of my attention. I literally said, “Okay, let’s think about Leo, and what’s the feeling that comes up?” And then I said, it’s almost like a body scan where you’re really getting granular, what is this experience? My heart feels tender, my face feels flushed, my stomach feels a little jittery, I feel sad, feel sad, and then just kind of getting back into the sensory aspect to it, and then kind of realizing it’s like a wave and it ran its course, and it didn’t keep yanking at me anymore. I felt it, I felt it, I honored it. I looked at it without flinching, I just experienced it. In some sense, bathed in it, I was fully in the flood light of my pain. But I wasn’t reacting to it, I wasn’t elaborating, I wasn’t trying to justify, I wasn’t fighting it, I was being with it, and then it moved on, and I moved on.
BB: Wow. I think about the energy that we spend, myself included, trying to outrun and outsmart pain or vulnerability or uncertainty.
AJ: Yeah, yeah.
BB: Instead of just facing toward it and bathing in it a little bit.
AJ: Yeah, but bathing it in a very specific way, because I think most people don’t get the bathing in it isn’t thinking about the pain, it’s not thinking, it’s actually dialing down thinking. And most of us don’t even know what that means. “What do you mean don’t think about the pain? What else is there?” Feel the pain, physically…
BB: Feel it.
AJ: In the sensations that you are experiencing associated with the pain. Or take the bird’s eye view, watch the pain. But neither of those are elaborating on the mental content, the conceptual thoughts that actually are associated with the pain. That’s what gets us into a lot of exhaustion because you’re using that executive control endlessly to try to generate and go places with it that aren’t going to serve you.
BB: I think this is true, but correct me if it’s not. I think the opposite of bathing in it is ruminating in it, and people think bathing and ruminating are the same things.
BB: But when it comes to this practice, they’re very different things, it’s paying attention to it, but not elaboratively and not ruminating.
AJ: You got it. Yeah.
BB: It’s feeling it and letting go.
AJ: Yeah. And you can even watch your own rumination, like, “There I go.” But you’re watching it like, “Oh, there I go, I’m looping.” And just taking that small step away, like you said, floating above, you can actually see that you’re participating. This is important, you’re using your attention to ruminate. It’s fueling the rumination. Now, if I pull away, I’m actually giving it less fuel…
BB: That’s right.
AJ: And it will dissipate. So yeah, it’s…
BB: This is amazing… Okay. Law and Order, before we go.
AJ: Yes, yes, yes.
BB: I don’t know if this is in your area or not, but no one has ever helped me figure it out, so I’m going to ask you because you’re about as close as I can get to maybe someone who might understand why this happens. When I’m creating because there is a lot of overlap between your work and creating.
BB: I think. Do you agree?
AJ: Oh yeah.
BB: Yeah, creativity. It’s very helpful for me to watch sometimes several hours of formulaic re-runs of Law & Order while I’m working on new research or a new book. And the more I just kind of get like lulled into it, the more creative I get, it’s almost like my busy mind, this is not true, don’t snip this part of this and call it neuroscience, but it’s almost like the busy part of my mind gets distracted by the rhythmic predictability of the show, and then the creative part of my mind can think bigger thoughts. I don’t know what’s happening.
AJ: I love it.
BB: What’s happening? Why does that work like that?
AJ: For you, the thing you do is Law & Order?
BB: Yeah. I do a lot of Law & Order or re-runs of British mysteries, yeah.
AJ: Oh wow, okay. So, for me, it’s home improvement shows.
BB: Is it really?
AJ: It’s the same idea, you know it’s a problem, you know there’s going to be a challenge and then it’s going to be solved at the end and their space is going to look more beautiful, so.
BB: Yeah, it’s super formulaic.
AJ: It’s super formulaic. Okay, so very cool observation that you notice this in yourself, and in some sense you can almost get yourself into the mode to be able to create by what you call lulling it in this way, right? Engaging in this kind of content.
BB: Yes. Yes. Yes.
AJ: But what you’re trying to achieve, and creativity is so interesting, because in some sense, there’s two steps to creativity, there’s the generative step, and then there’s the evaluative step, the generative step is like proliferating the ideas, and then we cull and we narrow, etcetera.
BB: Yes. Yes.
AJ: In some sense the generative aspect is like the floodlight, receptive to anything that’s going on, and then the evaluative step is executive control saying, “Does this align with what I’m trying to do step by step,” so yes, your hunch that attention has a lot to do with the creative process, for sure important. But the other thing that happens when we engage in this sort of formulaic shows or whatever it is that we do to kind of quiet is what we’re doing is we’re quieting something that we’ve hinted at this whole conversation, something called mind wandering, and it’s a technical term, it sounds like I’m just talking about going for a walk and letting your mind wander. Mind wondering is actually having off-task thoughts during an ongoing task or activity.
BB: Wait, wait, say that again. Define it again, but really slow.
AJ: Having off-task thoughts during an ongoing task or activity.
AJ: So, you would want to do this and you get pulled away, and so what kinds of things are a part of mind wandering? Rumination. We’re rewinding the mind, we’re moving away from the current moment and we’re stuck on something in the past, catastrophizing, fast-forwarding the mind to future events, and in this way, we are constantly mentally time traveling away from the present moment, and when we do that, when we mind wander, it has consequences, it can actually end up resulting in psychological health challenges or definitely noise that is cluttering our ability to do the thing we want to do. So that’s one thing to keep in mind.
AJ: So, in some sense, watching these kind of shows may quiet that because you’re sucking in that attentional bandwidth to kind of go to something predictable, you know where it’s going, you’re anticipating, you’re reflecting, you’re kind of doing all that you’re using in the service of that, which is so you’re not adding to your conceptual load that can be so internally distracting. Just to say that there are other ways we can do this to support ourselves as well, when we want to get creative, if the shows are working for you, obviously they are because look at all the things you’ve been able to do. That’s great, but we can also support ourselves by doing some kind of specific practices.
AJ: So, you can do, as a practice I offer called the river of thought practice. So, in some sense, what you’re doing is you’re kind of visualizing yourself on the bank of a river and think of all of the mental content of your mind, the conscious flow of thoughts, feeling, sensations, memories as passing by in a river, and you’re sitting on that bank in a stable big boulder and just observing it flow, you’re not holding it, you’re not chasing a leaf, you’re not chasing some kind of fish in the water, you’re not getting into the water and swimming, you’re watching it pass away, and that can also open up sort of the creative mindset, because all that stuff that’s flowing is probably the default of the mind where our mind tends to wander. The worries, the reflections that are problematic, etcetera, so there are other things we can do to support our creativity as well, but that’s my hunch on why it might be working for you.
BB: Oh my God, it makes so much sense. I am a mind wanderer.
AJ: [laughter] Yeah, and here’s the thing I was going to say, the other side of the coin of mind wandering is something we call or the broader category that mind wandering is in, is something called spontaneous thought, which is this thought pump that the brain just pumps out. We’ve got thoughts happening all the time, like you were saying earlier with, you can’t clear your mind, it’s not the nature of the mind, but spontaneous thought that is done not in the context of a task we’re trying to do, and it’s pulling us away, just happening. Like when we’re actually going for a walk or what we might call day-dreaming, looking out the window and just letting your mind go wherever it will very, very useful for creativity, because you’re kind of dialing down attentional control, you’re letting anything come up, and that’s where sort of insight and creativity can really be birthed.
BB: It’s so crazy because when I’m writing a book, or I’m under a book deadline or something is going on, I have to walk every day.
AJ: Oh yeah.
BB: And it’ll be a biblical Texas rain, and I will be like.
BB: Out there because I can’t…
BB: In fact, I’ll tell you the truth, on the Atlas of the Heart, I did something to my hip playing pickleball, and I really couldn’t walk for about two weeks, and we had to shift the whole deadline.
AJ: Oh. It’s a lifeline for what our mind needs to do.
BB: Yeah. No walking, no writing.
AJ: Yeah, yeah, that’s really cool. I think it’s really helpful for people to know what a important part of your process that is, and what an important part of creativity that is to let the mind roam free, just like a puppy dog off its leash. Just go where you want to go.
BB: Alright. I just love this. Yeah, I could talk to you forever. The practices are in the book, right?
AJ: Yeah, there’s a whole sequence of them.
BB: Yeah, the book is so good.
AJ: Aww, thank you.
BB: We’ll link to it on the episode page, I’ll talk all about it, but it’s called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. 12 minutes y’all. I spend more time in the pantry wondering how I got there, than 12 minutes like, come on. Alright, so we have a set of rapid-fire questions for Dare to Lead, which this is Dare to Lead, and we have rapid fire questions for Unlocking Us. But I… I’ll ask you the Unlocking Us questions because I’m curious about them.
BB: Okay. Ready for the first one?
AJ: Go for it.
BB: Vulnerability is fill in the blank for me.
AJ: Wow. I should have been prepared for this.
BB: No, no, you should not.
AJ: Vulnerability is touching into what the heart is actually experiencing.
BB: Oh my God. I’m so glad you did not prepare because we would not have gotten that. That’s beautiful. Okay, you are called to be very brave, you’ve got to do something really hard, your fear is real, you can feel it in your body, you can taste it in your mouth. What’s the very first thing you do?
AJ: Get quiet.
BB: Tell me the last TV show that you binged and loved.
AJ: Oh, well, it’s kind of like the moment right now, Inventing Anna. [laughter]
BB: What did you think?
AJ: I’m not at the end yet so don’t tell me.
BB: Okay. Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. I won’t say anything. I watched it too. One of your very favorite movies of all time.
AJ: Oh, a very favorite movie is probably Truman Show.
BB: That just fits. That’s so funny. Okay, that’s such a research answer. Okay. Just the observation of human behavior and that maybe is astounding isn’t it?
BB: Yeah, yeah. A concert that you’ll never forget.
AJ: Oh, Polo & Pan. I just went to one, I was probably 30 years older than everybody in the audience, I loved it.
BB: Did you have fun?
AJ: I had so much fun.
BB: Okay, favorite meal.
AJ: Oh gosh, anything my mom cooks.
BB: What would she make you if she was going to do something just for you?
AJ: Yeah, it’s an Indian dish. I don’t even know if I could describe it, but.
BB: What’s in it?
AJ: I mean, I can kind of taste it, well, it’s got a ton of vegetables, it’s vegetarian, it’s got all kinds of spices. I’m sorry, I’m not giving a… I don’t… It’s called Undhiyu, which is the Gujarati word for a very specific kind of curry type thing that’s made. And then she makes her own Roti, which is the bread.
BB: Wow, that just sounds good. It just sounds good. Is it spicy?
BB: Okay, that sounds good. What’s on your nightstand?
AJ: Oh, my mouth guard, I started out telling you about grinding my teeth to a pulp. My mouth guard, a Rumi book, I like to read Rumi poems before I go to bed, and right now, since he just recently passed away, a Thích Nhất Hạnh book.
BB: Boy, yeah.
AJ: Just small passages.
BB: I could use your nightstand, yeah.
BB: Thích Nhất Hạnh, had something I ran across, I was probably 20, so several decades ago, and it was probably the first time I’d ever… It wasn’t called mindfulness, I don’t know what it was, but it was just… It was something very simple, it was kind of like, how can you enjoy an orange, an entire orange if you can’t enjoy one piece.
AJ: Yeah. One bite.
BB: I don’t know what… One bite, I don’t know how that stuck with me, but it was like… It’s just like, mathematically, it doesn’t work. Are you kidding me? You can’t enjoy the whole thing, if you can’t enjoy one bite. That’s interesting.
AJ: Yeah. Yeah. He had a really good book called Savor, that was about that, sort of mindful eating.
BB: Is that what it is?
AJ: It might be. Yeah.
BB: Is that what it may be from? Oh God, I’m going to look at that. Savor. Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you real joy.
AJ: Oh, sitting on the couch with my husband and daughter at the end of the day.
BB: Tell me one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now.
AJ: My mindfulness practice. I mean, it took a lot of pain to get there, but I’m glad that I have it especially during the pandemic, I just can’t imagine certain moments in my life where what would I do if I didn’t have something to lean on that helped kind of refuel me in this way.
BB: Are you pretty disciplined with it?
AJ: Yeah. But I mean, right now, for example, we’re running a study with the program and I follow whatever sequence the participants are in, so 15 minutes a day of practicing.
BB: Wow. Is it normal for that to feel like a lifetime when you don’t have a practice?
AJ: It can be, and I would say start with five minutes, start with a minute, do whatever is going to make you feel comfortable to kind of set up the routine, because it can really be helpful in surprising ways, so.
BB: I believe it 100%. I believe it. Okay, you may have to help me because we asked you for five songs that you cannot live without.
AJ: Yes. It was so cool to be asked to do that. I loved it. I was like, why wouldn’t I have something where it’s like, all the songs that I feel like I couldn’t live without. So now I have a Brené Brown playlist that’s just that.
BB: I love it, I love it. It’s hard. Isn’t it? Did you have a hard time?
AJ: It was hard. Yeah.
BB: So, we’re going to pronounce them together… So, you gave us a list, I’m going to need your help.
AJ: I have no idea how to pronounce probably the first one, but it’s by…
BB: The first one is “Jacquadi.”
AJ: Yeah, it’s like a French word, but it’s by that group that I told you I love Polo & Pan, they’re a French tropical house DJ group so…
BB: I am really into French music, so I’m going to listen. Okay, “One Too Many Mornings,” by Chemical Brothers.
BB: “Unlimited Combinations,” by…
BB: I think there’s a side of you that we do not, we have not seen yet. I am just saying right now. “Oceanic Part 2,” by…
AJ: Anoushka Shankar and Ravi Shankar, the famous sitar player and his daughter.
BB: Yeah. Is that beautiful?
AJ: It’s gorgeous.
BB: Okay, and then Leo Amato.
AJ: Yes. That is my aunt, my dear aunt is the singer on that song, and she’s only seven and a half years younger, and her voice has been part of my musical joy for my whole life.
BB: Okay, you have to now… Amishi, this is the hard part. In one sentence, and I always have to warn academics and writers, no em dashes, semicolons, none of the bullshit that we do to drag our senses on. In one sentence, what does this playlist say about you?
AJ: A fusion of eastern and western non-lyrical joy.
BB: Dang, I think you crushed it.
AJ: Because if you listen to it, you’ll see, other than that last song that my aunt sings, there’s no real words in any of these songs so it helps me get non-conceptual.
BB: Are we dancing to this music?
AJ: This is all… Most of it’s electronic house music. Yeah.
BB: I knew there was a side of her. You could see the glimmer in the eye. Thank you for being on Dare to Lead. It was such a joy.
AJ: Oh, this was so much fun. Thank you so much for having me.
BB: Yeah, my pleasure, and I’m going to start.
AJ: Oh, that’s great.
BB: I’m going to start and I’ll report back.
AJ: Please report back.
BB: My little juggler’s like, “Do something.”
AJ: Call on me for any help. Yeah.
BB: Oh good. Thank you so much.
BB: Okay, I told y’all it was good, I told y’all that you needed to point your flashlight right at this conversation, so good. And my juggler, my tired juggler is, I’m committing to this, I’m going to try it, I’ll report back on the podcast. In 12 steps, in AA, we always say, definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I’ve got to try something new, and it’s about time I showed up for this meditation thing, mindfulness practice, I know it’s real and I know it’s important and my resistance, I’m going to make the thing I think about my resistance. I don’t know what it is, I just… Yeah, I don’t know. You can find Dr. Jha’s book, Peak Mind wherever you like to buy books. And she’s got a great TED Talk, it’s a TEDx Talk, “How To Tame Your Wandering Mind.” We’ll link to it on the episode page, we have episode pages for all the podcasts on brenebrown.com. You can find Dr. Jha online at amishi.com, she’s also on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, all the links to find her will be on the episode page.
BB: Really appreciate you joining me for this conversation, it’s an important one, and I think all of our jugglers are tired and everything’s coming for our attention these days, and I cannot believe the stuff on multi-tasking, it’s no wonder we’re tired, because I’m task switching so often. And to think about what I’m doing is starting, stopping, starting, stopping, starting, stopping. It just wears me out to think about it. A couple of things housekeeping, the trailer for the HBO Max series, Brené Brown: Atlas of the Heart is out now. So scary, I hope you’ll watch it and love it. I can’t wait to hear what you think. We just had the premiere of the first episode at South by Southwest, and the full series will drop on HBO Max later this month on March 31st.
BB: Alright, thank y’all. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. See you next week.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and Andy Waits, and the music is by the Suffers.
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