We’re all distracted, all of the time. More and more studies show that on average, we spend only 50% of our waking hours engaged with the present moment—the other half of the time we’re zoning out, ruminating, mind-wandering or daydreaming. Furthermore, research suggests that our ability to pay attention is on the decline. And why wouldn’t it be, given the increasing pace at which we’re assaulted by social media notifications, breaking news alerts, and instant messages. It’s no surprise that our minds, drowning in a sea of sensations without a chance for rest or respite, have a hard time to focus on anything at all. The dangers of this pervasive state of mindlessness are of course obvious in situations that depend on our ability to concentrate, whether you’re performing surgery on someone’s brain or simply driving a car. But not only does this constant running on auto pilot cause countless preventable errors of oversight or negligence. It’s also detrimental to our psychological wellbeing: Every time our minds are not truly present in the moment, we can’t fully enjoy our current experience, our social interactions become more and more shallow and less meaningful, our brains can only form inferior memories, and ultimately, we might miss out on what’s most valuable in our lives.
The 50% number, which psychology professor Amishi Jha uses to kick off her 2021 book about the “new science of attention”, may sound shocking at first. But if you don’t believe that that’s true, try the following right now: Close your eyes. Focus on the raw sensation of the air moving in and out of your nostrils with every breath. And think of nothing else. How long can you keep your attention on target before your mind drifts off course? For five breaths? Seven? One? What happens—inevitably—is that your thoughts wander off, entirely on their own. You begin to engage in (more or less random) deliberations about lunch, or work, or the news, or your shopping list, or something, anything, else. But none of these things are part of your present moment experience right now. They’re mostly memories you formed in the past or ruminations about possible futures. That distinction is critically important though, because both practically and philosophically speaking, now is the only time in which we’re truly alive.
Jha’s book frequently enlists first-person experiments such as the one above to exemplify its key arguments. The first one of those is as simple as it is intriguing: Our capacity to control what we pay attention to is crucial if we want to perform at the peak of our mind’s ability and thus live a fulfilling life. Jha goes so far to call this skill a superpower, and in a world where very few of us are able to actually master that power, this makes intuitive sense. Accounts of people whose lives depend on performing in high-stakes environments, such as soldiers in active warzones or civilian first-responders like firefighters, add another layer of depth and make it easy for the reader to come to the same conclusion. Furthermore, the author weaves in stories about her personal stress when trying to balance a high-profile academic career with a demanding family life. Even though these episodes add strokes of intimacy to an otherwise mostly research-oriented text, some readers might find them off-putting as they’re too easy to dismiss as the banal, everyday first-world-problems of the american upper-middle class.
The second aspect of Jha’s argument covers a more practical concern: Not only is the mind’s ability to pay attention to present moment experiences an important skill, it can in fact be trained and improved. Not quite in the same way as a physical training improves muscle strength, but in a surprisingly similar fashion. Jha then goes on to walk the reader through decades of psychological research during which she attempted to systematically determine which mental exercises actually have an effect on attention and concentration, and at what dosage. As it turns out, structured mindfulness training is—at this point—the best of the available options. Furthermore, the countless studies Jha and others have performed with large populations, primarily soldiers in the U.S. military, have revealed that a regular practice of as little as 12 minutes per day is the most promising path to increasing our attention, and that there is a measurable dose-response-effect. Hence, the more one practices, the greater the magnitude of the results.
For readers who are familiar with advocates of non-religious meditation practices, such as Dan Harris or Sam Harris, this might not come as a complete surprise. What’s different in this case though, is how Jha structures her chain of arguments: Where others start with ancient Buddhist or tantric practices and then menially disperse with the superstitions, the folk tales, the gods and deities, with the notion of nirvana and the rest of the otherworldly aspects before they finally introduce modern-day psychological or neuroscientific research, Jha takes the exact opposite approach. Her starting point are the simple questions “Can the mind’s ability to pay attention be improved? And if so, by what means?” and she works her way upward from there, instead of downward from Buddhism. That this path led her to a set of practices that were, among many other things, also performed religious contexts for many thousands of years, is, from this standpoint, a coincidence rather than a foregone conclusion. In fact, the term Buddhism is mentioned only twice in the entire text! That alone makes the book exquisitely suitable for those who would otherwise be skeptical of anything that reeks like religion, spirituality or superstition. Here, the author’s experience with how to best convince hard-headed military leaders, some of whom we meet throughout the book, that meditation has tangible benefits for real-world performance clearly shines through.
Jha introduces five “core practices” which are also the cornerstones of the mindfulness training program she and her team assembled for the military. The clarity she introduces by selecting exactly those five is refreshing for everyone who ever meandered through the endless number of different meditation practices available in the literature. Jha begins with the common concentrate-on-the-breath routine (noticing whenever attention wanders and directing it back to to the breath), moves on to a labeling exercise, then the well-known body scan popularized in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and finally covers a connection practice also known as metta, or loving-kindness. All of the exercises are explained in straight-forward, easy-to-understand terms, but also come with a fair amount of warning from the author: They may sound simple, but they’re not easy. And, what’s more, while the benefits are scientifically proven, they only materialize after consistent practice for at least a few weeks.
Summary & Opinion
Summing up, Jha’s book is a comprehensive, yet easy to follow account of the current psychological and neuroscientific research on attention and it’s well suited for a popular audience. The author manages to bridge the gap between more spirituality-oriented texts and the hard science of which techniques improve attention, why they work, and which benefits one can realistically expect. Thereby she steers clear of the new-age fluffiness which often puts books about meditation practices into the self-help corner, rather than on the popular science shelf where this one clearly belongs. My only item of concern is the slight disconnect between the book’s title and its contents: The concept of a “Peak Mind” is definitely an intriguing one and will attract many curious readers. I’m afraid though, that some of them may be disappointed to find the broadness of topics that could be subsumed under that headline to be diminished by the comparatively narrow focus on attention and concentration. Reading between the lines, one could get the impression that the author herself would have had a different title in mind as well, as the term “Peak Mind” itself only plays a very small role in the entirety of her text. That slight irritation however should not discourage anyone interested in improving their cognitive ability from picking up Jha’s otherwise excellent book.