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.

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 phone 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 (10). This result supports a differential role for the left and right amygdala in the brain (12) 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 (13).

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 (9).

Practicing mindfulness can have an impressive impact on your brain–and your body.

How Does Mindfulness Change the 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 (14). 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 (15).

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 (16, 17), high vagal tone is related to healthy bodily function as well as increased positive feelings and better emotional control (18, 19).

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 (20, 21, 18). There is a strong positive feedback loop between improved vagal tone and mindfulness and, consequently, the strength of the mind-body connection.

What Conditions Can Mindfulness Meditation Help?

Research on the health benefits of mindfulness meditation is broad, from pain management (22, 23, 24), to reduction in anxiety and depression (25, 26, 27), to blood sugar control (28), to increased focus (29, 30, 31), to cellular aging (32), to healthy pregnancy (33), to improved sleep (34, 35), 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 (22).

Reduce Anxiety & 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 (26). 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 (27).

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 (28).

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 (30).

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” (32).

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 (33).

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 (35).

How Can Your Patients 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 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.