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How Distraction Is Rewiring Our Brains—and How Mindfulness Can Help


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Our modern lifestyles provide nearly endless sources of distraction. Not surprisingly, recent research has shown that this constant input has a significant impact on our health. Read on to learn more about how distraction is literally rewiring our brains, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Mindfulness practice can help reverse the negative effects of distraction on the brain.

We live in a world of almost infinite possibility for distraction. A recent study in PLOS One found that the average young adult checks his or her smartphone every 11 minutes and spends more than five hours (30 percent of the day) interacting with it. (1) In moments that once presented the opportunity for reflection and quiet presence, many of us are more likely to pick up our phones and browse the internet, check our email, scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or listen to a podcast.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these activities, of course. But when they collectively replace all of the potential moments in which we might find ourselves alone, without distraction, I think it’s a problem. I’ve written a lot about the mismatch between our genes and biology and our current diet and lifestyle. The increasing impact of technology and its propensity to distract and fragment our attention is yet another aspect of this mismatch.

Studies have shown that increased use of a smartphone is associated with anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance in adolescents and adults. (2, 3) Other studies have shown a relationship between problematic internet use and electronic gaming and psychological distress and problem behavior in youths. (4)

In short, the greater the opportunities for distraction become, the greater the necessity for a practice that centers our attention in the present moment and counteracts the negative consequences of our increasingly fragmented attention.

Mindfulness is one such practice.

What Is Mindfulness Practice?

Mindfulness simply means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is, rather than getting lost in our thoughts about the future or the past.

In many ways, mindfulness practice is the antidote to a modern life characterized by distraction, worry, anxiety, and other sources of perceived stress. It trains us to keep our awareness and attention in the present moment and experience our feelings and sensations without judgment.

A large body of evidence has shown that practicing mindfulness—even for a short time—increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. (5) It also helps us tune out distractions and improve our ability to focus. (6) It enhances our relationships, makes us feel more connected and relaxed, and boosts our compassion for ourselves and others. (7)

In this article, we’ll take a deeper dive into the ongoing research on how mindfulness affects us, literally rewiring our brains and bodies to become more resilient in the face of stress.

This Is Your Brain on Mindfulness

Neuroplasticity refers to the potential that the brain has to reorganize or adapt in response to its inputs (8), and it’s because of neuroplasticity that researchers can directly observe and quantify the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain. (9, 10, 11)

People assessed to be more mindful on a Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) had reduced volume of gray matter within the right amygdala and left caudate of their brains compared to those assessed to be less mindful. (12) This result supports a differential role for the left and right amygdala in the brain (13) and highlights a possible functional role for the right amygdala in processing perceived stress. This study also supports research that suggests the caudate is responsive to negative stimuli. (14)

To more directly test the functional role and connectivity of the right amygdala in the stress response, a group of 35 unemployed men and women experiencing high levels of stress took part in a study where half were formally taught mindful meditation, and the rest were taught relaxation techniques that did not introduce mindfulness (each condensed to a three-day class).

The group that was taught mindfulness techniques showed a marked decrease in right amygdala resting state functional connectivity over time, indicating less stress-related communication within the brain. Interestingly, despite the lack of an ongoing formal mindful meditation practice, the group armed with mindfulness techniques had lower cumulative markers of a neuroendocrine stress response in the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis up to four months after the study. (15)

Practicing mindfulness can have an impressive impact on your brain—and your body. Check out this article to find out how mindfulness can help you combat distraction.

How Does Mindfulness Change Your Body?

How can a mindfulness component in decreasing stress-related communication within the brain affect the rest of the body? The answer, in part, lies in a nerve that is essentially a superhighway between the brain and the gut. The vagus nerve connects the brain to most visceral organs—and vice versa. It is responsible for normal resting state parasympathetic processes like heart rate and digestive processes. (16) It is a bidirectional system, sending out signals to your organs and collecting information from them in return. Communication between the brain and gut has even been found to be influenced by neurotransmitters created by bacterial communities hosted in your gut. (17)

The functional fitness of the vagus nerve is measured by its “vagal tone.” People with robust, high vagal tone have a greater heart rate variability than people with a more compromised, lower vagal tone. While low vagal tone is related to inflammation, poor cardiac function, and gastrointestinal dysfunction (18, 19), high vagal tone is related to healthy bodily function as well as increased positive feelings and better emotional control. (20, 21)

There are many things known to exercise vagal tone to improve the gut-brain connection; among them are deep breathing, mindful meditation skills, and having the tools to foster self-love and kindness. (22, 23, 24) There is a strong positive feedback loop between improved vagal tone and mindfulness and, consequently, the strength of the mind-body connection.

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What Can Mindfulness Meditation Do for You?

Research on the health benefits of mindfulness meditation is broad, from pain management (25, 26, 27), to reduction in anxiety and depression (28, 29, 30), to blood sugar control (31), to increased focus (32, 33, 34), to cellular aging (35), to healthy pregnancy (36), to improved sleep (37, 38), and overall improved immunity.

Reduce Pain

A double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover study where people experienced a cold stimulus before and after meditation revealed an “analgesic” effect of meditation involving endogenous opioid pathways that reduce pain more than the standard of care. (39)

Reduce Anxiety and Depression

Fifty-two participants took part in an eight-week study where they meditated for 30 minutes and completed 30 minutes of aerobic exercise twice a week. They reported fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination at follow-up. (40) Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and a Health Enhancement Program (HEP) consisting of exercise, music therapy, and nutritional education was evaluated relative to treatment-as-usual for 173 adults with depression. The results indicate that MBCT was significantly more influential in reducing depression (36.6 percent vs. 25.3 percent) as measured on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale and had a significantly higher rate of responders (30.3 percent vs. 15.3 percent) relative to the HEP. (41)

Improve Glycemic Control

In a study of 23 people with type 2 diabetes, 11 were assigned a walking program, 30 minutes on a treadmill three times per week at 50 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate; 11 were assigned the same protocol, only with the addition of a Buddhism-based walking meditation component. After 12 weeks, both groups had lower fasting blood glucose and increased oxygen consumption, but only the group with the meditation component had lower HbA1c, blood pressure, and blood cortisol levels. (42)

Improve Focus

A group of 40 people who were not meditators were randomized into a meditation group or a wait list group. The meditation group received three hours of mindfulness training and were asked to meditate 10 minutes daily. The subjects were analyzed on an electroencephalogram (EEG) while completing a cognitive test at the study onset, at eight weeks, and at 16 weeks. The EEG results indicated that the meditation group improved focusing and attentional resources in the brain over the course of the study and decreased the recruitment of other resources in the brain, indicating more efficient allocation of cognitive resources. (43)

Slow Cellular Aging

Telomeres, which are found on the tips of chromosomes, shorten every time a cell divides. Longevity is associated with longer telomere length. Longer telomeres and a smaller percentage of short telomeres were measured among 20 Zen meditation experts as compared against 20 matched, healthy non-meditating participants. The researchers note that “although limited by a small sample size, these results suggest that the absence of experiential avoidance of negative emotions and thoughts is integral to the connection between meditation and telomeres.” (44)

Support a Healthy Pregnancy

Maternal stress is correlated to hypertension and preeclampsia during pregnancy. Pregnant women who practiced mindful meditation experienced a significant decrease in perceived stress, decrease in blood pressure response to cold pressor test, and a significant increase in heart rate variability over pregnant women who were not meditating. The researchers conclude that mindfulness meditation has the potential to decrease perceived maternal stress in order to reduce complications in pregnancy. (45)

Improve Sleep

In a year-long study, two groups of adults were randomized to either a Mindful Awareness Program (MAP) or Sleep Hygiene Education (SHE). Each group received a six-week training in its respective approaches. The MAP group had improvement over the SHE group on a Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index scale and with respect to insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity. (46)

How Do You Become More Mindful?

I previously wrote an article called “How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience” in which I described six steps toward cultivating mindfulness and increasing your awareness:

  • Practice mindfulness meditation
  • Stop multitasking (it doesn’t work anyway!)
  • Batch your email and social media
  • Turn off notifications on your phone and computer
  • Go off the grid
  • Do less (and accomplish more)

There are tons of free resources online for getting started with meditation. Lifehacker has some helpful information, and the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a free meditation podcast with guided weekly meditations. I also like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, and some people have found apps like Headspace to be helpful.

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Join the conversation

  1. Really? A study was done with unemployed people? How about a how-to for working people, ok let’s just say Moms who are juggling work, kids, house, spouse, pets and social life? We desperately need mindfulness, but are too strung out to implement!

  2. I have recently started being consistent with meditation. Just 5 minutes at a time, minimum. If I have time, I set a timer and just go until my brain has run away with thoughts a few times. I am currently just counting my breaths as a mantra, which seems to be working well. I count breaths until I have a string of thoughts, then I start over at 1 since I’ve forgotten the count. I’ve noticed that after a couple of weeks it is becoming rarer for my mind to hold onto a thought for more than one breath.

    What’s ironic is that this is helping my concentration and my emotional resilience. I’m going to keep going with meditation and am going to add mental training (Elevate app) to see if I can increase my info intake/processing power.

    Thanks for the great posts. These encourage me in all the right ways!

  3. I am using headspace. There’s a section of 30 guided mediaitions to relieve negative thinking that I am 2/3s through. I have found it very helpful and easy.

  4. I need to learn. Are there places or people that I could connect with in Ocala, Fl.

  5. Well for all those stuck in their distractions…when the hype finally hits the fan and the various support systems collapse…those of us not living in those distraction zones will thrive and become the Overlords!

    But to play Devil’s Advocate…what if, the cell phone and all these device distractions has some sort of unexpected evolutionary catalyst effect…which will someday manifest in a changed, therefore new branch of humanity?

    If we extrapolate outwards, the increasing rate of arrival of, and incessant push of new devices and the reasons to use them (which are just marketing ploys) keep growing and becoming ubiquitous before we notice…will the mindful, less distracted humans be outpaced, out bred…?

    The question, “What are we truly trying to preserve?” has to be part of the discussion. We can’t just say it’s better and must be promulgated, etc…if we don’t actually know how to accurately measure it all. Or even what we’re measuring?

    It’s like being those in the pro-horse camp naysaying the new automobile.

    What is truly being given up? What is truly going to be lost? Just saying we lose X or Y…doesn’t prove it in the long run.

  6. Mindfulness tools and skills enabled me to step back from myself, the one who had lived life unsuccessfully on 16 years of psychiatric medications. One day at a time- while focusing on one medication at a time, 30 mins of qigong and then 30 mins of meditation with Bob Stahl PhD on one of his DVD’s, I safely stopped one medication at a time. I used common sense. I took my blood pressure and pulse every day. Logical decreases while learning to regulate my moods which begin with thoughts. Which thoughts are true that create me, the one I truly desire. It worked along with psychotherapy to steady the becoming a new me. Five years later, I am free. Not perfect, yet perfectly me. Yep owe my new life to those guys and gals who came back to these states and slowly changed my world, mindfully~

  7. “When I realized that ancient wisdom had been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, and yet had reached our day almost un-changed, I regretted having begun too late to give the legends of antiquity the immense significance that I now understand they really have.” – George Gurdjieff
    The ideas of becoming mindful and schools on how to achieve (its not easy) are exposed by Ouspensky/ Gurdjieff/The Fourth Way- for those interested

  8. I actually have the opposite problem. I suffer from an inability to DO stuff, the art I know I want to do and keep avoiding, other things I should be doing. When I come home from work – where I don’t work hard at all – I want to lie on the couch. My diet is good – I’ve been maintaining a 90 lb. weight loss for almost 30 years – I’m 60. I meditate – as best I can – for 20 minutes a day, walk 3 – 6 miles a day. So, I need to DO MORE, not less. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Debbie, Have you ever tried EFT? Sometimes referred to as tapping. I do this with my patients as an additional healing modality beside diet & exercise.

    • Sounds like you are calorie deficient, if you are constantly trying to limit how much you eat, and you don’t get full at meals this is likely the case. Typically when people maintain weight loss of that magnitude they do so by eating far fewer calories a day then someone else who is naturally their same weight. This puts metabolism in a depressed state where most people will experience lack of energy, depression, hormone issues, cold intolerance, and possibly a whole host of other problems related to nutrient deficiency.

    • Stop beating yourself up because you think you SHOULD be doing something. You’re not doing your art because, right now, you don’t want to. Enjoy what you ARE doing (or not doing), now and every day, and the rest will follow.

    • If this is really bothering you (sounds like it is) I might suggest you check with your doctor to have your hormone levels tested (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and also thyroid). Dieting can really mess with your hormone levels, particularly testosterone and thyroid (yes, women do have small amounts of testosterone, and it helps create that “get ‘er done” drive that younger folks have). Low thyroid function can cause the “blahs” too. Doctors can help, and hormone imbalances can be fixed if indeed that is the issue.

  9. Calm is a great mindfulness app. I use it daily and the results with stress level and sleep are amazing.

  10. The 10% Happier app has been immensely helpful for me. I’ve been trying to make meditation a part of my life for a few years and it just never seemed to stick, but I’ve done it every day now for over a month, which is not a lot for most people, but that’s huge for me. I’ve already noticed I’m less anxious.

    • As a long time meditator who has used Holysync (I’ve liked it), I have recently started using the 10% Happier App also and am finding that it sets a wonderful tone for my day. It is extremely well designed and provides a few minutes of unique guidance each day. You can also try it out for 7 days without fee. Lastly, new meditators should know that the changes brought on by meditation tend to be very subtle not dramatic. So expectations going in are important too.

  11. Thanks Chris – some sound info here – AND – as a long-time secular/inclusive mindfulness educator I must add that a recent study published via PLOS One concluded: “The proportion of mindfulness-based therapy trials with statistically significant results may overstate what would occur in practice.” http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153220

    I appreciate Chris’ basic definition of mindfulness – yet that just scratches the surface. Yes, as he said, mindfulness can be defined as “…being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is, rather than getting lost in our thoughts about the future or the past.”

    But then what? Proactive, deliberate, formal and informal holistic mindfulness practices put you eye-to-eye with everything you’ve managed to hold at arm’s length with every Roadside Distraction that comes your way, and sit still in the present moment with radically honest, kind self-reflection and say, ‘Whoa, this particular thing I see about myself isn’t very productive, or cool or ‘enlightened’ or even nice – but I accept who I am right now and all my Imperfect Human-ness – AND it’s looks like I better roll up my sleeves, ‘cause I have some serious work to do.’ If you don’t acknowledge and own the impact you have, you can convince yourself you are being ‘mindful’ – but to Play Big you need to also acknowledge and transcend both external (social media, email, etc.) AND internal distractions (negative self-talk and mind traps) and upgrade your inner operating system – not merely for yourself, but as a form of service to humanity for the ripple effect it has. In my over 15 years as a mindfulness trainer and coach, I know that mindfulness practices are radically transformative *if* you do the work. But it isn’t always “comfortable” – and that is in part why it takes years of practice and plenty of rides on the roller coaster to become a mindfulness educator who is not just telling you to just “accept, non-judgmentally breathe and let go.” 🙂

    As I say on my site:

    “Although we’re more connected than ever before via technology, a new sort of digital divide is taking place. The compulsive ‘checking-in’ culture we live in is actually making us less genuinely connected. People sit in meeting rooms, restaurants and living spaces together but alone, attention locked onto laptops and mobile devices instead of one another. Rising ‘task-shifting’ distractedness (aka ‘multi-tasking’) and an increasing neural addiction to dopamine ‘hits’ in the brain are hitting epidemic levels, obtained by constantly checking email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

    “The ‘digital din’ is hitting overload levels in our mind, brain and body. People have access to us 24/7, and many compulsively reply to text and social media messages instantaneously no matter what they are doing or whom they are with. Loss of present moment focus is bad enough – but it’s also resulting in human death – both literally and figuratively.

    “Chronic stress, input overwhelm and cognitive distractedness are all harming performance, focus, relationships, leadership, teamwork and mind-body well-being. People claim they don’t have time to take proper care of themselves, but what is often true is not a problem of time management, it’s one of attention management. Civility is declining – and yet everyone wants to be treated with respect, honesty and kindness.

    “The good news: People are acknowledging how out of balance their personal and work lives have become. They’re hungry for more tangible human connection and greater meaning in life. Values are shifting toward what makes us feel more deeply alive: including being present, aware and genuinely treating others with kindness, respect, and understanding. Letting go of constant busy-ness to appreciate events and people in the moment is being seen as not indulgent, but vital to our health and happiness.

    “No matter what stressors come our way – whether it’s from external events, situations, and people – or internally via our nonproductive thoughts and challenging emotions – mindful awareness skills teach us to choose how we can respond with greater equanimity, instead of compulsive, mind-less reactivity – and all the stress that creates.

    “Think for a moment what that means to you as a leader: at work, at home … anywhere you find yourself. Forward-thinking companies, educational institutions and individuals from all walks of life are choosing to incorporate secular, inclusive holistic mindfulness skills as part of a unifying socio-emotional-cultural-economic awareness and intelligence wave that is making each one available, right here, right now, to anyone who makes the choice to think and live differently.”

    Peace to all. 🙂

  12. There’s a free mindfulness course available at the Palouse Mindfulness website. It’s 8 weeks and seems to follow the (not free) course program designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the developer of MBSR in the US.

  13. Insight Timer is a great free app for IOS and Android with over 1500 guided meditations available. There’s also a super supportive community of more the 800,000 meditators in 150 countries.

  14. Meditation in a noisy environment is quite possible. ‘was fortunate to learn meditation with a good TM teacher. I’m not sure if it was the teacher herself of the system which is now very expensive… Learning to drop deep inside to that peaceful place can be amazing, to me much more than mindfulness.

  15. Meditation in a noisy environment is quite possible. ‘was fortunate to learn meditation teacher with a good TM teacher. I’m not sure if it was the teacher herself of they system which is now very expensive… Learning to drop deep inside to that peaceful place can be amazing, to me much more than mindfulness.

  16. Thanks for all the work you do getting us the information we need to live a happier and more productive life.

    I’m proud to say that I’m one of the few people that doesn’t own a smartphone (probably on the planet!) and I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

    As for meditation, my husband and I are just beginning, but we’ve already seen a huge difference. We follow the 4-7-8 breathing pattern as well.

  17. As with any other discipline, meditation takes discipline to execute effectively. Some of us don’t have much of that. My solution was to use a binaural-beat technology to meditate, which I have done daily for over a decade. It takes virtually NO discipline and there’s no learning curve – it does its work automatically; all you have to do is put on headphones and close your eyes. It works even if you fall asleep, which I often do. Monroe Institute (hemi-sync.com) is one source for these programs, and some are even available on Youtube for free.

  18. Turning off the artificial stimulants that ramp up our neurochemicals does help however how can we get the supermarkets to turn off the music when we ourselves aren’t living a life of addiction with the artificial stimulants?

  19. Why should increased “mindfulness” be associated with decreased grey matter in the right amygdala and left caudate areas? Much of the literature suggests that stress reduces brain volume / increases atrophy, so how could decreased grey matter be a sign of lower stress?

    • I think it depends where the gray matter atrophies.The right part of the amygdala seems to induce negative feelings, thus atrophy of that region is actually a good thing i believe.

    • I had the same initial thought, Bob, but if you read on he explains this.

      People assessed to be more mindful on a Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) had reduced volume of gray matter within the right amygdala and left caudate of their brains compared to those assessed to be less mindful (10).

      The right amygdala is proposed to have “…a possible functional role for processing perceived stress.”

      The caudate is “… responsive to negative stimuli (13).”

      So, by reducing grey matter in these areas the individual becomes less reactive to negative and stressful stimuli.

      The scientific article he cites explains it well: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0064574