Competition for Attention is Responsible for Fluctuations in Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“With so many stimuli competing for attention, any hope for making it through the day without our brains feeling like scrambled eggs rests on being more conscious of how you parse attention over specific tasks.” – Jeremy Hunter
One of the primary effects of mindfulness training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of mindfulness training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. The importance of heightened attentional ability to the individual’s ability to navigate the demands of complex modern life cannot be overstated. It helps at work, in relationships, in coping with emotion laden situations, or simply driving a car.
Attention can be a double-edged sword in relation to mindfulness. In daily life there is a barrage of stimuli vying for attention. Many can draw away our focus on the present moment. Hence, outside events can disrupt mindfulness. Unfortunately, little is known regarding the effects of everyday events to distract from mindfulness.
In today’s Research News article “Explaining Variations in Mindfulness Levels in Daily Life.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6244631/ ), Suelmann and colleagues recruited adults with active mindfulness practices for a 7 to 10 day experience sampling. Five times per day the participants received a signal on their smartphones at random times that prompted them to answer questions on their smartphones. The brief questionnaire asked the participants to indicate their state of mindful awareness and non-reactivity, intention to be mindful, threat to mindfulness, social interaction, fatigue, business, and good feeling.
They found that most participants answered the questions within 3 minutes of receiving the signal. They found that mindfulness levels fluctuated often during the day with no correlation of mindfulness at one moment with mindfulness in the next sampled moment. They also found, not surprisingly, that mindfulness was higher when there was an intention to be mindful and when they felt good and lower when they were busy, when they were fatigued, and when they were involved in a social interaction.
These are interesting results that in many ways are not surprising. Everyone who practices mindfulness recognizes that mindfulness changes from moment to moment particularly in response to the environment including social interactions and business. But this study is a wonderful attempt to begin to study the factors that influence mindfulness on a moment-to-moment basis. This could lead to a better understanding of how to promote mindfulness, decrease distractibility from mindfulness, and recover it once lost. These understandings could lead to new mindfulness training programs that had heightened effectiveness, maintaining mindfulness in busy and social contexts where mindfulness may be particularly important.
The results demonstrate that competition for attention is responsible for fluctuations in mindfulness.
“If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing) These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being.” – Jennifer Wolkin
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Suelmann, H., Brouwers, A., & Snippe, E. (2018). Explaining Variations in Mindfulness Levels in Daily Life. Mindfulness, 9(6), 1895–1906.
Despite the apparent benefits of being mindful, people are often not very mindful. There seem to be forces that drive people toward as well as away from mindfulness. These forces are conceptualised in terms of competition for scarce attentional resources. To explore these forces and to test this framework, an experience sampling study was performed among people with an explicit intention to be mindful and an ongoing practice to examine concurrent associations between state mindfulness and daily life experiences that may affect it. Participants (N = 29, 1012 observations) filled out questions on momentary experiences at semi-random intervals, five times a day, over a period of 7 to 10 days. Predictors of within-person variations in awareness of Present Moment Experience (PME) and non-reactivity to PME were examined using multilevel analyses. Participants were more aware of PME when they had an activated intention to be mindful and when they felt good, and not very busy or hurried, and were not involved in social interaction. They were more reactive to PME when they experienced unpleasant affect, and when they were hurried or tired. An activated intention to be mindful was also associated with an increased tendency to analyse PME. Experiencing threat was associated with increased reactivity, but not with decreased awareness. Our study generally supports the idea that competition for attention can be a fruitful framework to describe mechanisms behind being or not being mindful.