28th October 2019

‘Push Ups for the Mind’. Attention: why it matters, what can mess with it, and how we can support it.

Earlier this month Amishi Jha, an assistant professor in Psychology and Neuroscience was invited to speak to military and civilian staff at the Pentagon. Her work centres on attention and in particular the way stress and mind wandering can impact upon this crucial capacity. Whilst military personal are used to doing physical push-ups, what Jha is has been exploring with elite military forces is the means of training in a very different way.

The role of attention

‘Attention is the currency of leadership’ (Ron Heifetz, Harvard Uni)

So why is attention so crucial? Well, it is a core cognitive function that allows us to stay focussed rather than distracted, stay connected to others rather than disconnected, and to maintain emotional balance rather than be reactive. This is key for any leader, and essential in any safety critical workplace.

The human brain receives a huge amount of stimuli moment to moment, indeed, too much for our cognitive system to process. To solve this problem of overload, evolution has devised a solution; the brain’s attentional system. Jha describes two aspects that are key to attention:

  • The first is focus. Much like a torchlight / flashlight beam, we can select a focus for our attention, we can direct our attention to salient objects, and we can narrow or broaden its focus. Try this out right now; have a look around the room where you are and have a play with this amazing capacity. Maybe select a section of wall, zoom in notice the particular colours, textures and features of one patch. Then try widening your focus to include objects in your peripheral vision. For good measure, start to notice the sounds around you too. For humans, this focus can be on external events or our internal experience and narrative. So, for example you might be able to bring your attention right now to this very exercise you have undertaken. What’s your internal dialogue; are you curious, bored, distracted? This awareness is also an aspect of attention. 
  • Working memory is also crucial with regards to effective attention. It keeps information in an active form and can be compared to a whiteboard with disappearing ink. Have a quick check in: Where are your house keys? Where is your car parked? And who was the last person you spoke to? This is your working memory in operation.
The spotlight of attention

When this attentional system is working well, it underpins key functions central to our effectiveness; to stay focussed, connected with others and emotionally balanced. Anything that harms our attentional capabilities and working memory tends to lead to distraction, disconnection and a reactive mode of dealing with events.  

Our attention systems are powerful yet susceptible to some potent vulnerabilities.

So, the brain’s attention system turns out to be a key component of many highly regarded attributes. However, Jha’s work demonstrates that it is highly vulnerable, and that these vulnerabilities affect everyone, regardless of their starting point. In her work with elite U.S. military servicemembers, Jha identified that stress, threat and poor mood are all heightened when high demands are put upon individuals. And, of course this is precisely when they need to operate at their best. Attention is powerful, yet when it is most under pressure, it is vulnerable.

‘In periods of high stress reliable attention declines.’ ( Jha, Pentagon talk, 2019)

To explain the mechanics of this attentional decline in times of stress, Jha uses the metaphor of a tape recorder with a fast forward, play and rewind button. Under normal circumstances, the human mind has gained great evolutionary advantage from being able to plan ahead (fast forward) and to review and reflect (rewind). However, these capabilities can become hindrances when we are under significant amounts of stress; Reflection can become rumination and regret. Planning can become catastrophising and worry.  

Our minds have a natural tendency to wander; 46% of the time according to a comprehensive Harvard study in 2010. This is exacerbated in times of high stress. The impact of this increase in mind wandering upon Neurological function is:

  • We see things and hear things less clearly. As our perception decouples from real life stimuli, our ability to process information declines. 
  • We become more prone to errors.
  • Our mood declines (again, see the Harvard study in 2010)
In our minds right now are we in rewind, fast forwards or pressing play?

More of life in the ‘play mode’ 

The alternative is to work with our cognitive abilities; to train our capacity to spend more time attuned to our experiences as they are happening. In a world of increasing demands on attention, it is becoming crucial to explore ways of protecting our cognitive abilities.  For the US military, this attentional training tool is very much seen as akin to ‘push ups for the mind’. At its most basic, it involves choosing a point of focus (such as the breath), maintaining focus as best they can, noticing when the mind is distracted (which will surely happen) and then, without self-criticism, redirecting attention back to the chosen focus. 

This is a fundamental bedrock of many forms of meditation. It’s not relaxation, or the clearing of the mind, but rather a training to bring awareness to our moment to moment experiences.

The results of the studies in the US military have been impressive (outlined in New York Times in April 2019). Troops undergoing high-stress episodes who trained in mindful breathing and focussing techniques, were able to discern key information under chaotic circumstances, and experienced increases in working memory function. They have also reported making fewer cognitive errors than the service members who have not undertaken mindfulness training. 

Jha’s work with the military has also helped clarify what can make a mindfulness intervention both accessible and successful. As I’ve found in my own work with nuclear engineers, it’s crucial that the delivery style and content are appropriate to the workplace. EDF engineers have responded well to the scientific evidence base for the mindfulness approach. And wherever possible, examples and tools are made relevant to a safety critical environment. An ‘interruption’ from a safety announcement coming over a tannoy, can be a prompt to pause, feel your feet on your floor, and check in with your intention, level of ‘clear-headedness’ and focus. 

The evidence base of my own work tallies well with the work of Jha and her colleagues. Over the seven mindfulness courses I’ve run with EDF, the groups have reported significant shifts in attention (+33% in one nuclear plant and +30% in another plant. A small control group showed no change). The results have been similar for wellbeing (+22% in one nuclear plant and +25% in another plant. A much smaller +2% shift for a small control group). 

Widening the torchbeam…. Ethics and the broader use of mindfulness for safety and performance.

There are, of course, legitimate ethical questions around the use of mindfulness within a military setting. And yet we must consider closely the valuable effective use of Mindfulness to support PTSD amongst returning soldiers (when carefully coupled with Cognitive Behavioural therapy in MBCT programmes) and as a means of adding careful listening and clear decision making to a soldiers’ toolkit. 

Major General Piatt provides a fascinating insight on the topic of the shifts that can happen when intentionally tuning into the present moment. In the Pentagon talk he describes how he began to return home to his family in a more present way; listening fully to his wife and son. And in the New York Times article he describes how he used this sense of being fully present when in dialogue with an Iraqi tribal leader, allowing him to just listen and be fully present, rather than busying his mind with forming a response. This enabled a very human connection to be made between the two people.

There are some strong examples of mindfulness coming to the fore in safety critical work environments. The focus has been to support both wellbeing and attention amongst the workforce, with the aim of improving safety. Examples include New Brunswick Power in Canada, Boral Mining in Australia, Premier Oil in the North Sea Oil fields, tram drivers in Spain reducing signals passed at danger (SPADs), and bus drivers in London reporting less stress and more attention. 

Obviously, in safety critical working environments the safety protocols, culture, systems and PPE need to be right. But in addition, so does each individuals’ attention and focus. 

Sellafield – taking a safety pause…

Martin Chown, Deputy Chief Executive of Sellafield Ltd (Nuclear Reprocessing and Decommissioning) spoke recently about this very matter – the importance of taking safety down to an individual level. He discussed how individuals either take or don’t take action in the moment, and how this can have major impacts upon individuals, their families and co-workers. 

The final word goes to Toto Wolff, Team Principal Mercedes F1 Team, who earlier in 2019 talked of his reasoning behind introducing mindfulness to the 1,000 staff within his F1 Team. 

“Staying physically and mentally fit is not a trivial matter.”

You can listen to Amishi Jha’s full hour long lecture here.

Martin Summerfield delivers training to support focus and wellbeing in the workplace. His particular intertest is making mindfulness relevant to particular work environments and cultures. His work with EDF Energy since 2017 has developed his professional interest in how these themes play out in safety-critical working environments.