Tag Archives: breath

Multitasking? Can’t Focus? Breathe!

Are you a “frequent/heavy media multitasker?” If you, or someone you know, fits this label, read on. I’ll keep it short.

A research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently gathered 1,683 undergraduates, identified roughly 50 students who could be described as either unusually ‘light media multitaskers’ (LMM) or unusually ‘heavy media multitaskers’ (HMM), and then conducted additional tests on the LMM and HMM students. In the latter phase of the investigation, students in the selected groups performed a 10 minute task, either a mindfulness intervention or a control activity (see below), and then completed two mental performance tests (the task-test #1-test #2 sequence was then repeated two more times so that each student could take a total of 6 performance tests).

The team* found that, as expected, the LMM students turned in better scores on the mental performance tests regardless of which task (control/intervention) they performed first, and the tasks didn’t seem to affect their performance much. The HMM students who completed the mindfulness intervention, however, had much better performance scores than the HMM students who performed the control task.

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The Brain-Breath Connection

A few months ago I wrote about the virtues of 5 deep breaths (Reset with 5 Deep Breaths, 5 Mar 2017). Now I’m back with scientific news that shows breathing affects brain function in mice. To put it briefly, there are special brain cells that connect breathing with states of arousal: sleep-wakefulness, vigilance, and emotions.

“Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice” (Yackle et al., Science, 31 Mar 2017, p. 1411) summarizes its findings as follows:

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Why Breathing?

As a rule, mindfulness meditation practice involves 3 steps:

  1. choosing something to be aware of (breath, sounds, touch, feelings)
  2. paying attention to this phenomenon
  3. returning one’s attention to it once we detect that our attention has wandered

The first step, choosing, often strikes people as a bit odd because nearly every set of instructions says, “pay attention to the sensations of breathing.” But why? My breath isn’t that interesting: I do it all the time without thinking about it. Worse, it seems to change whenever I pay close attention to it, and it just doesn’t seem that interesting compared to all of the other things I might focus on. So why pay attention to breathing?

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Attentional Reset: The Path Back to Here & Now

There are many types of meditation techniques, but nearly all of them have one instruction in common: when you discover your mind has been wandering, gently pause, observe that you have wandered, and then return to the instructions.

This act of changing direction functions as an attentional reset. It takes only a few moments, but it allows you to reset your focus, your attention, and (at least temporarily) free your mind from one task so that it can take up another.

A 15-minute meditation session might provide over a hundred opportunities for attentional resets, but you don’t need to take a 15-minute break to reset your attention. A few well-timed breaths, a short walk around your building, listening to some music, or almost any focused activity that you can give your undivided attention to, may provide a much needed reset.

I’m discovering that there is fairly large research literature on attentional resets (I’ll just call them “resets”) and I’ll try to share some of that with you. For starters, here is an article, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (D.J. Levitin, Sunday Review, NY Times, 9 Aug 2014) and two posts from this blog:

Reset with 5 Deep Breaths

Spring Break is right around the corner, and so are midterms, papers, and qualifying exams. Your chances of squeezing a meditation session into your schedule this week are probably zero, but you can still use this simple, portable, breathing technique to calm yourself down when you start to feel crazy:

1. Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. 2. Pause. 3. Exhale slowly to the count of five. 4. Repeat four times.

When you have a little more time, learn more about other controlled breathing tools: Unsure What To Do? Breathe. Exhale. Repeat. (A Quiet Place, 14 Nov 2016)

Unsure What To Do? Breathe. Exhale. Repeat.

“Breathe. Exhale. Repeat.” is the title of a popular article (NY Times, 9 Nov 2016) on the how-to, and benefits of, controlled breathing. As the article puts it, “Controlled breathing … has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. … It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”
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The Practice of Mindfulness

I think it was a spring day in San Francisco. My wife was attending a chemistry workshop downtown and I was out for a stroll. I dropped down into the basement of City Lights Books (why had I waited so long?), and a small book, one that wouldn’t weigh me down, called out, “Take me home. I have something to tell you.” The book was The Miracle of Mindfulness by author, Zen master, peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The book was small, but the heart that wrote it was as big as the universe. This is where my practice began.

Thich Nhat Hanh turns 90 this month and Lion’s Roar has republished three of his essays. Enjoy them. May they help you in your life.