My aunt Pat was something of a dish. Lively and humorous, with a caustic wit that rarely failed to entertain, she augmented the very restrictive rations available to Britons during WWII with “two shilling teas” to which she was escorted by a bevy of besotted servicemen. According to my mother, Aunt Pat had a one-track mind, and the Troop Train Was Always On It.
Aunt Pat isn’t the only one. Norman Farb, along with six other scientists at the University of Toronto, has discovered that we have two distinct sets of circuitry, or tracks, involving different areas of the brain that lead us to interact with the world in two different ways, but many of us spend most of our time on one track – the “narrative circuit”.
The narrative circuit is active when we are thinking about ourselves, planning, daydreaming or ruminating. This is the one we inhabit by default. When we’re in this mode, all information we take in from the outside world is processed through a filter that assigns meaning to the input, adding our interpretations, like my mother’s disapproval of Aunt Pat’s dietary supplementation methods.
The other network is what scientists like to call “direct experience”, where information is absorbed in real time, without first going through our internal filter. On this track, we don’t think as much about ourselves, our relationships or our To Do list. We are more “in the moment”, absorbing information directly. In spite of my mother’s pronouncement, knowing Aunt Pat, I have little doubt it was this circuit she employed while enjoying the two shilling tea – a truly splendid repast replete with tea sandwiches, scones and gobs of clotted cream.
The kicker is that apparently we don’t inhabit these tracks simultaneously. We have to switch back and forth, and increasing the fluidity of the switch is what mindfulness meditation is all about. We can activate the “direct experience” mode simply by taking a deep breath and focusing on the present moment. This is important because an active direct-experience network expands our awareness, so we take in new information, thereby increasing our flexibility and allowing us to make more thoughtful choices. We are less trapped by our stories, our expectations and assumptions, and better able to deal with events as they arise.
So how do we take advantage of the best of both circuits? In Your Brain At Work, David Rock, whose analogy of the brain as a stage we described in our previous blog Life Is A Stage, introduces the concept of the Director. The Director shows us the way. Its role is to stand outside of our experience and make decisions about how our brains will respond, or which track to use. We are most effective when we can both know our brains and observe how our brain processes are occurring. We notice that the stage is too full of actors and we need to get some of them off the stage, or when we need to turn up the lights by getting something to eat.
In the Farb et al study, people who regularly practiced noticing which track they were on, such as regular meditators, could switch paths more easily. Those who did not practice taking note tended to take the automatic path, the narrative route.
Our facility with mindfulness can be measured, and we can watch it improve with practice. Kirk Brown at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond Virginia developed the Mindfulness Awareness Attention Scale (MAAS). It’s the gold standard for measuring our everyday mindfulness. Those with higher scores have better physical and mental health, and higher quality relationships. Hmm – this mindfulness business seems to have a lot of benefits.
Activating our Director can be difficult, especially when we are feeling pressured or stressed. Many of us never leave Circuit Narrative, consumed with busyness and e-mail, and fail to call on our Directors for assistance. But here’s the good news: when we practice activating our Directors, we actually change the structure of our brains by thickening specific regions of the brain involved in cognitive control and switching attention. It doesn’t matter what direct sense we focus on, whether it’s noticing a cardinal alighting in our back yard, or feeling the breeze on our face, the key is to keep switching our attention.
Ask Aunt Pat. I’ve rarely met anyone with more zest for life.