• Gus Castellanos M.D.

Seeking Mindfulness for Brainfulness

Multitasking is a myth—we are all serial thinkers….

I confess that once again, I write this email while multitasking, realizing that I multitask because I think I have too much to do or feel like there is not enough time to do what I think needs to be done. In addition to multitasking, I notice I have a tendency to keep my mind busy when I am not sufficiently interested or engaged in what I am doing. I go to google and search for the latest mindfulness news and

research, or I check facebook-twitter, or find music, look at apps, or plan another mindfulness class or a future trip. This continuous doing and looking for things to do causes my brain to feel full. And this BRAINFULNESS - not to be confused with MINDFULNESS – makes it harder to pay attention to what I am doing, leading to mistakes, causing me to have more to do to undo the mistakes—perpetuating the sense that I have too much to do.

"I can't get no satisfaction I can't get me no satisfaction And I try and I try and I try t-t-t-t-try try" -The Rolling Stones

Multitasking, and even more so, the trying to keep stimulated with digital gadgets, searching for the latest info and such, comes from the “looking for novelty” that is ‘hard-wired’ into our brains. Mammals are wired to look for novelty in the environment, a behavior sometimes called “seeking.” In humans this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our basic instincts and physical needs (food, sex, shelter, safety) -- we get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. When we feel excitement about a new idea, or make meaning of a situation, or experience an ‘aha’ moment, it is the seeking circuits that are firing. When seeking, our brains (mostly in the Nucleus Accumbens, sometimes called the reward center) give us a dopamine hit. The dopamine circuits "promote states of eagerness and directed purpose." This release of dopamine makes us feel focused, energized, and good at first -- so good that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused. However, there is a restless, agitated quality to the experience that comes with dopamine, and after a while, the ‘good feeling’ wears down and we end up feel stressed, irritable, and burnt out. This is particularly well known by those that use/abuse stimulant drugs that directly affect the dopamine system—cocaine, methamphetamine, Adderall -- the more one uses these drugs, the more that is needed to keep from feeling tired, stressed, and anxious. Similarly, constantly reaching for our digital devices, grasping for the latest news, and such, triggers the same brain network causing the same feelings.

Even though research has shown that multitasking doesn’t work, we tend to do it because multitasking and seeking makes us look and feel productive. Processing tasks and crossing things off our To Do list feels good, and most of us will choose feeling good over being efficient and effective in the long term. Zheng Wang (assist prof Ohio State University), noted in media multitaskers:“…they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

Also, it is known that we inherited these 'seeking' and 'need to be doing' behaviors from our ancestors who had much less stimuli in their world. Seeking was needed to help with survival since theirs was a world of boring sameness, where almost nothing interesting ever happened. Our brains evolved to seek those things needed for survival, making it advantageous to look for novelty in the environment. Inheriting these traits partly explains why we get so addicted to the new, the exciting, the strange. However, the problem is that we now live in a society with an endless supply of novel stimuli that is geared to hijacking our attention and brains to satisfy this biological - and insatiable - urge for seeking new things. This overwhelming availability of stimuli and distractions results in the release of dopamine, triggering restlessness which causes the want to do something to relieve the comfortable sensations (recent research suggests an increase in Nucleus Accumbens activity in ‘facebook over-users’)

"Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn

While we should not give ourselves a hard time for seeking & looking for novelty, we should also recognize the harm and suffering our unchecked seeking and distractibility is causing ourselves and others. And we can remind ourselves that mindfulness can be an antidote to both the seeking and multitasking. For instance, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Richard Davidson’s group) have shown that heavy media multitaskers benefited from a simple, guided online mindfulness meditation exercise in which participants repeatedly count groups of breaths -- nine inhales and exhales. They found that heavy media multitaskers scored worse than light media multitaskers all around on attention tasks, but both groups posted better attention scores right after counting breaths, with heavy multitaskers improving more than the low multitaskers after breath counting. And Jud Brewer of UMass CFM suggests mindfulness can help by cultivating curiosity: “When something triggers our curiosity, we naturally get drawn in. And curiosity also feels good — so curious attention has a natural reward. Contrast this to forcing yourself to concentrate on something. So, if we can practice tapping into our natural capacity to pay attention in a curious way, we can put our reward-based learning to good use. This is what mindfulness practice is all about: dropping our preconceived notions or judgments of how something “always” is, and being curious about what is actually happening right now.” He points out that what remains to be discovered is the distinction between dopamine-based reward pathways and those that involve mindfulness

"You can't always get what you want But if you try sometime you find You get what you need" -The Rolling Stones

So anytime—including right now, when you are distracting or multitasking, PAUSE and notice, with curiosity, that you are doing so. And if available to you – which it should almost always be—notice your breath, and count 9 inhales and 9 exhales. Then see what you decide to do…if you start to distract, count 9 more breaths…perhaps coming to know that everything that needs doing gets done, that being bored is not so bad, and that what matters is not that we do more, but that we do more of what matters!