Mindfulness, the practice of being present and in the moment, is easier for some people than for others. But it is a skill that many believe is worth cultivating—some say, starting with children. Preventing your mind from taking you into the past or future can, after all, be an antidote to depression (which can result from ruminating over previous mistakes, say) and anxiety (about bad things that might happen). Practicing attending to the sights, sounds and other sensations of the moment can, research shows, be calming. It can also train your focus. Both of these effects, it turns out, can have a fundamental impact on brain function.
In particular, mindfulness seems to buttress the brain’s “executive” functions, which are needed to plan and carry out goals. These functions include working memory, where we store data short-term and manipulate it; the ability to shift mental gears and, importantly, self-regulation, which is largely, stopping ourselves from doing stupid things. Many educators now say these basic functions are worth training in schools, because they prepare students to learn and indeed, seem to have a significant impact on academic achievement. They also promote success in other ways.
The ability to pay attention in school and elsewhere, after all, relies on being able to think about the right things, and inhibit thoughts that lead you astray, so it is part of self-regulation. Maintaining focus may also depend on good working memory. Self-regulation itself is closely linked to self-control, the ability to act in a way that furthers your goals even when doing something else seems more immediately appealing. Having a lot of self-control, thus, helps kids get their homework done. Indeed, this trait is advantageous in so many situations that, research shows, it far outweighs IQ when it comes to measures of success, including your health and financial status as an adult. (For more on executive functions and learning, and the importance of self-control, see my feature article “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control” in the September/October Scientific American Mind.)
The other way that mindfulness may tone executive functions is by taming anxiety. Keeping worry to a minimum is essential for executive processes to operate, to put the mind in a receptive state. Stress pretty much shuts these processes down, as Clancy Blair explains in the September/October 2012 Scientific American Mind. (See “Stress Relief Can Be the Key to Success in School.”)
There are various ways to coach kids (and adults) to be mindful. One method is to provide exercises that focus on immediate sensations. Mindful tasting, smelling, seeing and listening are, for example, an important part of Goldie Hawn’s MindUP curriculum, a social and emotional learning program being adopted by many schools in the U.S.
In the video below, Marianne Prins, a teacher at Sir William Van Horne Elementary in Vancouver, leads her third graders in an exercise in “mindful tasting” that helps them stay focused and in the moment. The practice is an antidote to the rushed way most of us gobble our food, filling our bellies while driving, doing chores or just thinking about something else. Learning to savor our food may benefit more than just our minds, I suspect. It also seems likely to do our bodies a bit of good.
To learn more about social and emotional learning in schools, listen to me discuss the topic on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook: "Reading, Writing and Character."
Next week: The Education of Character—Stoking Memory with Stones. Prins challenges her students to stretch their minds by carefully examining ordinary gray stones.
See previous post in this video series: