February 18, 2013 | 8
How many times have you arrived someplace but had no memory of the trip there? Have you ever been sitting in an auditorium daydreaming, not registering what the people on stage are saying or playing? We often spin through our days lost in mental time travel, thinking about something from the past, or future, leaving us oblivious to what is happening right around us right now. In doing so, we miss much of life. We also make ourselves relatively miserable, and prone to poor performance and mishaps.
The opposite mental state, mindfulness, is a calm, focused awareness of the present. Cultivating that state is associated with improvements in both mental and physical health, as you will learn from the current cover story of Scientific American Mind (see “Mindfulness Can Improve Your Attention and Health” by Amishi P. Jha). It can even ameliorate mental illness.
It turns out that mindfulness training works in large part by training our ability to pay attention. As we learn to focus on the here and now, we also learn to manipulate our mental focus more generally. The ability to direct our own minds at will means we control what we think about. It is no wonder that honing such a skill can make us happier. It can also boost the performance of soldiers, surgeons, athletes and many others who need to maintain a tight focus on what they are doing.
Some people are naturally more mindful than others, but it is possible to train yourself to enter this state more often. Simple exercises performed as little as 12 minutes daily can help you become more mindful. For a sample exercise, watch this video “Learn to Live in the Now.”
Putting Stock in the Future
A focus on the now, however, is not always appropriate when you have to make a choice between an immediate desire and a future outcome. In fact, a central human fallibility is our tendency to value what we can have right away much more than we do even bigger rewards down the road. In the human brain, a later benefit feels farther off than it really is, making it less appealing. This problem, which scientists term temporal discounting, leads to overeating, overspending, abusing drugs and other problems that seem to hail from lack of self-control. But we wouldn’t need self-control if our brains did not make this unfortunate miscalculation time and time again.
Fortunately, there are tricks for fixing this glitch. One is to delay the more immediate reward. If you just wait five minutes before indulging in a chocolate bar or purchasing a pricey necklace or making any other stupid move, you’ll want that indulgence significantly less, about half as much, as you did just five minutes before. That minor postponement helps level the playing field, giving the longer-term health or financial benefit a fighting chance. Other tips for good decision-making include detailing the consequences of a downfall—in your diet, say, or your sobriety. Writing down the specifics of what happened in the past, or could happen down the road can boost the significance of those future scenarios. And if you’re weighing the future heavily, you’ll be more likely to make a wise choice now (see “Warped Sense of Time Heightens Temptations,” by David H. Freedman).
Live Action Mind Control
The March issue of Mind introduces another, more high-tech way of wresting control over your own mind and brain. With a technology called real-time fMRI, you can now visualize your own brain activity. You can then practice techniques that raise or lower it—thereby changing your conscious experience. To manage this feat, you have to lie inside a brain scanner while computers gather and analyze your brain activity, which is then put up on a display for you. A computer represents it as, say, a flame. You can then experiment to figure out what thoughts alter that activity. When you land on a thought that works, you change how you feel or even what you can do. People have used this technique to minimize chronic pain, which is notoriously hard to treat, by calming commotion in a particular brain region. Patients have also used it to combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by focusing on raising activity in a brain area involved in motor control (see “How Real Time Brain Scanning Could Alleviate Pain,” by Heather Chapin and Sean Mackey).
In the future, people might boost or suppress the activity in specific brain areas to quell anxiety or speed learning. Taking the idea of controlling movements to an extreme, I wonder, too, if it might be used to enhance a person’s prowess at sports or surgery. At the moment, using this method of mind control requires a big, expensive brain scanner, so it won’t be practical for less dire applications until smaller and cheaper devices are available. But the technology seems to have enormous promise. I, for one, would like to peek at the mechanisms of my mind and try to grease the cogs.
Other feature articles in this issue highlight the mental downsides of city living (see “Urban Living Raises the Risk of Emotional Disorders,” by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg) and newly discovered powers of the placebo. The magazine also covers psychological remediation for schizophrenia and an understanding of addiction as a learning problem. I invite you to read and enjoy these offerings. Meanwhile, don’t forget to live in the now—yet put some stock in the future!