Two recent big Hollywood movies, Limitless and Lucy, tell different stories based on the same premise – since we only use 10% of our brain capacity, what would happen if we took a drug that would allow us to use all 100%? In the movies, these changes allow the main character to develop supernatural abilities to read patterns so accurately as to predict the future, read other people’s thoughts and intentions, perceive everything going on in their environment, and move objects with their mind. Interestingly, except for the last one, though our intuition, empathy, and mindfulness we too can develop these abilities to reach our greater human potential. But instead of taking a magic pill, we can do this through a certain daily practice.
Like these two fictional stories, there’s two longstanding myths about our brains. The first myth forms the basis of these movies’ plot lines – that we only use 10% of our brain. The other is that people are divided into two groups – those that are predominantly logically “left brained” thinkers or creatively “right brained” feelers. What is actually true is that we all use 100% of our brain, not just Bradley Cooper or Scarlett Johansonn. And, by the time we reach adulthood, the natural and deliberate process of neuronal integration makes so many connections between our brain’s left and right hemispheres that most important mental tasks require the cooperation between these regions of the brain. In other words, what is more accurate is that in order to truly think logically, it requires creativity and emotion, and to be genuinely creative, it requires a lot of thinking and feeling. Why is this important? Because if we are to grow and reach our greater potential, we need to be grounded in what is true and understand what our best goals are. Trying to use “more” of our brain isn’t really a path that can be achieved because that’s based on false ideas about how our minds work. However, trying to grow existing capacities, making more connections between differentiated parts of our mind, and learning how to be more aware and in control of our mental energy – are all goals that are aligned with how our brains really do work, and are goals that can be achieved through the practice of mindfulness.
First of all, let’s define what is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of heightened focus towards our own experience, in real time, without distancing ourselves from the experience itself. It’s making observations about our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts without making any judgments. It’s like an awareness of being aware. It is not a state of Zen-like calm regardless of circumstance. In fact, you can be mindful of being emotionally out of control. It’s also not attached to any religion or spiritual belief, though one can achieve mindfulness through religious practices such as meditation or prayer. It can be practiced and learned completely independent of spirituality. The second important feature of mindfulness is that while in this state, we have a greater ability to redirect our own mental energies where we choose, within the broad scope of all our human capacities. These capacities include the unique functions of our prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain most developed in humans. These functions include emotional regulation, impulse control, soothing of fear, self-awareness, empathy, and intuition. We also can tap into our mind’s ability to connect to, regulate, and integrate the more instinctual and emotional parts of our brain, where we have our basic drives and defenses, store subconscious and conscious memories, and where we make snap judgments.
To illustrate that we all already have this ability to be mindful, try this simple exercise to get a sense of what mindfulness feels like for you. Stop what you are doing for a few minutes and shift all of your attention to the sounds in your environment. Try and notice how you can now hear things that obviously had been there all along, but now sound relatively loud compared to how they had been completely ignored by your perception just moments before. Get a sense of what it feels like to be paying such close attention to one thing only. Do this for a minute. Then shift your attention from sounds to your sense of touch. Become aware of how you may be sitting in a chair and how you can feel your own weight. Focus on how you can feel your clothes touching your skin. Your feet touching the ground. Focus on this for a minute. Now attune yourself to your internal states – your present mood, your thoughts. Examine them closely. Do this for a minute. Lastly, now focus on what it feels like to be in this state of heightened awareness. This is the feeling of being mindful.
Two things that we do when we practice mindfulness are: 1) we become more aware, and 2) we redirect our mental energies to where we choose. Any practice that allows us to do these two things, whether it be a formal practice of meditation, yoga or Tai Chi, using a specific app on your phone – will develop mindfulness. Because of how our minds learn – “neurons that fire together, wire together,” it is also helpful for us to prompt ourselves that our intention is to learn mindfulness. That way, our concept of mindfulness, our capacity to enter a state of heightened awareness, and our ability to redirect our mental energy – all get associated together in our brain.
What does this look like in everyday living? Imagine that you are feeling frustrated with how a conversation is going. A regular practice of mindfulness makes it more probable that you can appropriately enter into such a state “in real life” when needed. Being mindful could then allow you to see your own emotional state of anger, which was triggered by your unmet need to be understood. You may recognize that as a result of your frustration and aggression, you have not been really listening to the other person and that they have become defensive, which is contributing to the difficulty of your conversation. Paying attention to your body, you may become aware that you’re also feeling irritable because you’re tired. Once you see all these things more clearly, you can then choose to redirect your mental energy to your healthier abilities, such as soothing your own emotions, reaching out with empathy so that both of you feel soothed and connected, using your intuition to choose a more effective way to share your need to be understood, or exercising impulse control to defer your conversation to a later time after you’ve rested.
If this sounds like something that you may find useful in your life, the good news is that we can all learn how to be more mindful, and it won’t require a lifetime of practice before you start to see its benefits.
As we continue in this series, Changing Your Mind, we’ll talk about these benefits and learn how to integrate a regular practice of mindfulness into daily life. But first, in Part 2, we’ll talk about how our minds develop, and how early life experiences can shape the course of our whole lives.