What is mindfulness, anyway?

By Joe Burton

Mindfulness is awareness and attention training that helps you create daily habits to calm and focus your mind and relax your central nervous system. It’s brain training to improve your focus, mental and emotional wellbeing, and enhance every aspect of performance. We’re training our brains all the time - that’s where habits come from.

An expansive field of brain research called “neuroplasticity” dates back to the early 1900s. Simply put, it’s the brain’s ability to change based on experience. Your brain is a muscle. You get better, stronger, and faster at the things you practice most because you form and strengthen neural pathways. You actually change your gray matter.

The “CliffsNotes” history:

The following is what’s inspired  over 4,500 peer-reviewed research studies on the health and performance benefits of mindfulness training:

  • 1906: Ramón y Cajal, a Spanish neuroanatomist, wrote, “Any man (or woman, ahem) could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.” He spent years making painstaking drawings of brain anatomy, mapping neural pathways. He was one of the first researchers to postulate that we change the makeup and function of our brains based on how we use them.
  • 1949: Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist, sought to understand how the function of neurons contributed to psychological processes such as learning. His work confirmed that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” It’s now famously known as the Hebbian Theory.
  • 1979: Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Founding an eight-week course called Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), he was one of the first researchers to place mindfulness training into a scientific context.
  • 1993: Brain training was introduced into popular culture with Bill Moyers’ influential documentary, Healing and the Mind, igniting a new field of study.

Since the early 1980s, countless studies have confirmed that our brains change, adapt, and mold based on how we use them - like plastic.

The field of neuroplasticity research has become so advanced that the biggest brains in the world come together to talk “plasticity” at the annual Brain Futures conference. One of Whil’s Master Trainers, Dr. Rick Hanson, does an excellent job of explaining the latest research in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, “Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain. This is what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”

Ever heard people describing themselves as a “numbers person” or “good with people?” Beyond your inherent ability lies thousands of hours of training for your brain to be good at specific skills. To the point at which you can do amazing things without even thinking about it. You actually become it.

For example, after thousands of hours of training, the Patriot’s Tom Brady throws a 50-yard touchdown. Steph Curry drains three pointers. Itzhak Perlman plays a mean violin. They’ve practiced to the point at which the brain just takes over. The neural pathways have been created to process information seamlessly to allow them to perform without even thinking about it. That’s amazing if you’re practicing rewarding and valuable skills —and we can all get better at what we choose to focus on.

We’re Practicing the Wrong Things

The issue is that most of us are training the brain and getting tons of practice doing the wrong things. We practice worry, regret, anxiety, and conspiracy theories. We practice distracting ourselves with social media and the same old news feeds that we read five times a day. We train ourselves to fill every waking minute with activity. We’re addicted to busyness and toxic Twitter streams; the greatest hits of our friends’ pretend lives on social media; and we ruminate on negative things that happened forever ago. We feed worries that may never happen. More of us train ourselves to be experts at insomnia, lying in bed until we exhaust ourselves into poor sleep. Our brains are strengthening neural pathways to make us better at the things we practice most.

When it comes to training ourselves to be distracted, we’ve gotten to the point at which a Microsoft study estimates that human beings now have the attention span of 8 to 12 seconds. That’s about the same that a frickin’ goldfish has. In case you drifted off, I said a frickin’ goldfish.

Mindfulness training has a rich history in helping people to overcome the natural tendencies of the brain (distraction, negative ruminations, regret, anxiety, etc.). The good news is, now that you know, you can do something about it. Are you willing to invest five minutes a day to reduce stress, while improving your ability to focus… and in the process, the quality and duration of your life?

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash



Posted by Joe Burton- 20 October, 2018

Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, former president of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He's an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He's worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.