February 19, 2013
"The ability to control the mind differs across development and varies among individuals. The developmental differences provide us with clues about the necessary neural machinery that is required to come “on-line” that is a prerequisite for controlling the mind.
Sectors of the prefrontal cortex appear critical to this process and are not fully mature until the mid 20’s. Adult individuals also vary considerably in their ability to control the mind. Such differences likely are due to a myriad of factors including genetic and experiential influences.
Mind wandering is the flip side of mind control and appears to occur involuntarily. It is associated with the default mode of brain function and is frequently accompanied by reports of dysphoric affect, perhaps a consequence of not paying attention to the task at hand.
This state of affairs, while typical of the average adult in our society, is not obligatory and this essay invites the view that we all can indeed learn to control our minds. Humans are endowed with the capacity to learn to control their minds and such learning should be accompanied by a decrease in mind wandering and by corresponding changes in brain function in the default mode.
The ability to attend to the present moment in the absence of distraction appears to be intrinsically rewarding and people report increases in positive affect when this occurs. Many humans seem to have a propensity to place themselves in difficult and/or dangerous situations in order to fully capture their attention, which effectively, though transiently, eliminates mind wandering. Often referred to as “flow”, people report that such experiences are highly positive.
An important implication of the perspective advanced in this essay is that we do not need to place ourselves in such difficult and dangerous situations to experience flow. The quality of awareness characterized by being fully present in the moment is a skill that can be learned and does not require a specific context or challenge to be expressed.
In light of the known sensitive periods for neuroplasticity early in life, this perspective invites the suggestion of implementing training for mental control in the early years of life, as the prefrontal cortex is developing. Such early training may take advantage of the increased neuroplasticity evident at this time and lead to more enduring changes in our ability to control our minds.
Research focused on this question is critically needed and if the outcome is as implied here, the findings would provide an important foundation for a call to include within the regular preschool and elementary school curriculum, methods to train the mind in such ways.
The modest investment in the mental capacity of our children will likely pay off in a multiplicative way later in life as a consequence of improved adult outcomes based upon this early life training. The possibility of such an outcome demands that we marshal the resources to subject it to serious scientific test.
Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Founder and Chair and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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