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Oct 02, 2019



The world of mindfulness and meditation is taking off these days. No longer do you have to be a hippie or a worldly Buddhist to spread the good word of Zen; all it takes is a simple download of an app to tell you to sit still for ten minutes.

But that’s getting beside the point. There are a thousand thousand hooks vying for our express attention all the time, and the brain does a remarkable job of filtering the incoming streams of data. Without this system of filters and barriers, the dam would break and we would experience an overwhelming cascade of sensory information that would leave us spent. Aside from the sensory data, our internal dialogue is something that most people experience bubbling (or is it babbling?) away constantly in the background like an unending ad break with the volume turned down.

Mindfulness is one way of directing attention that can be employed at any time. Paying attention to some of the details of sensory perception that get filtered out is a mindful act. You could pay particular attention to the sensation of water running over your skin when you shower in the morning, or you could focus on the feeling of the air against your body when you walk. Internally, you could focus on negative emotions to recognise them and depower them – or positive ones to fully experience them.

I’d guess that most people define meditation and mindfulness as almost the same thing. The important distinction is that meditation is a process of training. I remember listening to a podcast by Sam Harris where he explained that the goal of meditation not to experience mental silence. The struggle of focusing on the breath or bodily sensations is analogous to muscle contracting against a weight – the strain provides the stimulus for beneficial adaptation. In this way, meditation is training the mind by using mindfulness.

I’d like to introduce a third player to the stage. I’ve been calling it ‘decompression time’ after a comment from a colleague (thanks Kylie!). Where meditation and mindfulness seek to focus attention and remove extraneous thought, decompression time embraces it. The important caveat is that it needs to be done sans distraction.

We have conscious and subconscious thoughts. The brain is processing and running millions of processes without our explicit knowledge of them. I’ll take the example of forming connections between neurons to enable learning and recall.

When we attempt to learn something (a physical skill, a fact, a sequence of numbers, a language - anything) we must first focus on it. This occupies the working memory (aka short-term memory) and the brain is highly engaged in a focused mode of thinking. The goal is to move this information into longer term storage, which is comprised of thousands of neural connections arranged in a specific pathway. When the neural pathway lights up, we experience recall of that memory. The more often we can light up that pathway, the more quickly and easily we can access the information it codes for.

What’s interesting is that the brain is still actively involved in forming these connections between neurons during time spent away from learning the subject matter. In fact, during sleep is where these pathways are shored up most – reinforcing the idea that a whole lot happens behind closed doors that we aren’t explicitly conscious of.

When we aren’t concentrating our focused mode of thinking, we enter what’s been called the diffuse mode. This is a broader, less specific way of accessing thoughts.

The focused mode could be compared to a spotlight – it’s very bright but can only illuminate a small area. The diffuse mode is more like a flare – it can illuminate a large area but isn’t that bright. The advantage of the diffuse mode of thinking is that it allows us to make connections between the millions of neural pathways we’ve stored in long-term memory. In other words, it allows connections between different ideas. We call this creativity.

I’d like to tie this back to decompression time. A typical person in the modern first world is constantly occupied. Although a typical workday may feel monotonous at times, we provide unending stimulus that inhabits the focused mode. Podcasts, music, TV, radio, work, social media, browsing the internet, messaging etc

When do we find time to daydream anymore? Have you ever wondered why your mind sometimes feels like a scrolling Facebook feed when you lie down to sleep? My hypothesis is that the brain is finally getting some time free from focused stimulus to simply think and process subconscious thought that bubbles to the surface. Ironically, the first opportunity it has to do this is when you lie down at the end of the day sans occupation.

I propose that we should plan periods of the day where we try to remove stimuli and just let our thoughts run their course. I’ve personally found that my morning walk to work can be a profound place of creativity if I simply make the decision to forgo a podcast or music for 20 minutes. Many business decisions, troubling thoughts or personal opinions have taken a leap towards resolution by just giving my head the space to explore options, to calculate odds, to simulate possibilities, to think things through.

If this concept is added to time spent outdoors, the mental benefits are even greater. Go for a walk or sit on a bench. Be outside with the sun on your skin and green in your eyes.

I should point out that a lot of this is simplified neuroscience and taking a bit of scientific liberty to fill in the gaps. The subjective benefits are obvious to me, though.

Meditation and mindfulness have their place. Decompression adds to the trifecta. There’s certainly overlap with each of these ideas and I’m curious to see if there are other ways to apply attention that might have a measurable benefit to us.

I’m off to daydream.

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