The Brain Science of Attention and Overwhelm

Meet Amishi Jha

Amishi Jha is Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research & Practice Initiative at the University of Miami. Her research focuses on the brain bases of attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training. 

Excerpts from the article by Amishi Jha

Volatility. Uncertainty. Complexity. Ambiguity. In my lab at the University of Miami, these four words (shorthanded to “VUCA”) describe the type of high-stress, high-demand scenarios that can rapidly degrade one of our most powerful and influential brain systems: our attention.

My research team and I study people who regularly experience VUCA conditions as part of their jobs—soldiers, firefighters, organizational leaders, and more. We investigate the powers and vulnerabilities of the attention system, pinpoint the forces that degrade and weaken attention, and look for ways to protect and strengthen it.

Right now, nine months into a grueling and unpredictable global pandemic, we are all living in VUCA conditions. Compounding the constant health and economic concerns, we are facing unprecedented levels of social upheaval, environmental destruction, and political discord. All of these events influence our cognitive capacities—and it’s not for the better. If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed or unfocused; if you’ve struggled with staying on task or been blindsided by emotion during this time—me too! But this is precisely what our prior research regarding the human brain’s attention system would predict.

Your attention system is complex and multifaceted, but the more you know about how it works, the more able you will be to navigate VUCA events. So here are a few things you need to know about your attention—and how to protect it—that will serve you not only through this crisis, but for the rest of your life.
 

1. Your Attention Creates Your Reality

The reason we have “attention” is to solve one of the brain’s big problems: There is far more information in our environment (and in our own minds!) than the brain can fully process. Without a way to filter, the relentless sensory input would leave us overloaded, incapable of functioning effectively.

The attention system is like a flashlight. It allows us to select and direct our brain’s computational resources to a smaller subset of the information. We can narrow our sights onto our conversation partner and boost her voice in a crowded room while dimming down other sights and sounds; it allows us to focus on a particular problem or happy memory from our past. During COVID, your attention is what allows you to hold, at the front of your mind, the new rules for living to successfully keep yourself and others safe.

So realize this: Your attention is powerful. It determines the moment-to-moment experience of your life—what you perceive, feel, remember, think, and do.
 

2. Your Attention is Vulnerable to Stress, Threat, and Poor Mood

Attention is, in some ways, your brain’s superpower. But like many superpowers, it has kryptonite: threat, stress, and poor mood will rapidly degrade your capacities. And these are things that occur quite regularly in VUCA conditions like fire season, military deployment, corporate bankruptcies and restructuring, or a global pandemic. COVID is producing circumstances that accelerate the rate at which attention is degraded as it jacks up attention’s kryptonite. During this protracted pandemic, we’re all experiencing a heightened sense of threat, new and constant stressors, anxious feelings, and more.
 

3. Your Attention is Limited—And So Is Your Working Memory

Working memory is an essential partner to attention: It’s what allows you to do something with the information you focus on. It’s what you use when you need to hold something in mind for a few seconds—for example, remembering that six-digit confirmation code, composing a phrase in your mind as you tap out a text, visualizing the route to a new location as you drive. Think of it as a mental whiteboard: a temporary scratch space where you can jot down crucial information.

But just like a real-life whiteboard, it’s only so big. You can fit about three or four items on it before you max out the space. And it has one important quirk: It uses disappearing ink. Anything you “write” on your mental whiteboard will start disappearing within a few seconds. If you want to keep it there longer, you have to keep focusing on it. In this COVID era, we are all running up against the limits of our whiteboards, all the time.

We’re spending a lot of our vulnerable and limited attentional resources policing our instincts and behaviors, as well as overcoming impulses and habits. This sucks up our limited attention and our finite working memory capacity, leaving few cognitive resources for anything else.

Read the full article at mindful.org or in our new Winter Issue.

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