Mindful Learning

Dr. Craig Hassed is one of an increasing number of medical professionals and academics involved in medical education, praising the benefits of mindfulness and mindbody medicine in general, and playing an instrumental role in shifting the paradigm about the mind-body connection.  “If the mind is not in balance it doesn’t matter how healthy the body is,” Dr. Hassed offers in the film The Connection, a film that puts the spotlight on research evidencing the direct connection between your mind and your health.

In an article for the Int’l Journal of School and Educational Psychology he talks to the idea of mindful learning and how teaching attention can benefit the mental and physical health of young people.

Paying attention by Mads Bødker

Image by Mads Bødker

Attention is an interesting concept.  Most of us think we can pay attention well, that is until we are able to explore this through say, a sitting meditation.  We quickly realize how easily distracted our minds are, how easily we get caught up in the stories the mind creates. And if we learn to pay close enough attention, we can begin to feel the effect of this distraction in the body as something physical.

Technology is a pervasive distractor.  How often I pick up my smart phone to do one thing only to find myself off someplace else on the phone, remembering my initial task only some time later. Notifications, apps, messages, it goes on. The fact is we live in a world where technology and information will not get less, it will only get faster and more improved, our desires will increase so that more and more technology and information will vying for our attention.  As attention is a limited resource young people particularly, could do with learning ways to manage their attention.

…modern technology, and increasingly fervent consumerist values, has come at a cost that is measured in stress, poor mental health, inattention and educational difficulties. Amid this backdrop, the modern world seems to be searching for things that provide stability amid rapid change, comfort in the face of threat, and focus amid distraction.

Dr. Hassed suggests that paying attention has three characteristics that can be learned and practiced as with any other skill.

  • To know where our attention is
  • To prioritize where attention needs to be
  • For the attention to go there and stay there

Mindfulness based approaches have many applications as highlighted in table 1 in the article, from: pain management; improving cognitive function; improving sports, academic and leadership performance; improving emotion regulation; as a treatment for those with mental health issues.  He reminds us that learning mindfulness skills and applying mindfulness in daily life can often result in benefits additional to what was intended in the first place.

“For example, a person might explore mindfulness in order to manage anger better but find that he or she also starts to work more efficiently or sleep better. These are like positive side effects of the treatment.”

mindful learning

Mental health

Mental health is one area mindfulness based approaches in therapy and treatment have been studied more extensively in both adult and children populations.  Mental health is a real concern for young people, and it is reported that by 2030 “…depression will easily be the developed world’s number one burden of disease.” Dr. Hassed suggests that a new paradigm is needed to meet this head-on, via a preventive approach.  One where the mind spends less time in default mode (auto-pilot, inattentiveness, distraction, idleness, worrying, internal chatter), and more time in mindful present moment actions and behaviors.

Reported successful outcomes in using mindfulness techniques in young people with mental health issues or risk factors have included:

  • Fewer depressive symptoms
  • Lower stress
  • A clear understanding of themselves
  • High level of acceptance

What is not so obvious though is the long term benefits.  There isn’t much in the way of work assessing this in young people at the present time. Although, this may be changing as major institutions begin researching the effects of mindfulness and compassion practices on young people from kindergarten age up.  I’m sure there will be some longitudinal studies in this batch.

So an assessment and understanding of long term benefits can really only come from the stories of young people themselves who have been meditating or are practicing mindfulness in daily life over time.  If you are one of these young people, it would be wonderful to hear from you.  What have you found about using mindfulness in your daily life over time?  Has it benefited you, or not?

Attention Deficit Trait 

Dr. Hassed talks to the distractive effects of technology and the ‘always on’ culture that we live all live in today, how this leads to all sorts of addictions. As we’ve determined, distraction is not conducive to developing attention and he suggests that it is such a problem that it’s been named Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). “It is a response to a hyperkinetic environment that results from trying to deal with too much input.” ADT can express as:

  • Black and white thinking with lack of perspective (lack of mental flexibility impedes learning)
  • Difficulty organizing, prioritizing and managing time (many would agree to having some level of concern with this)
  • Constant feelings of panic and guilt (heightened stress)

He recommends that in order to make activities like studying and communicating (in the learning environment) easier it is important to remove unnecessary distractions and manage inputs like Facebook, email and smart phone’s (notifications in particular).  Yes I’ve been closing my email and Facebook whilst working lately!

In The Zone

Having some level of stress is often associated with getting motivated, or encouraging goal achievement. This is called eustress or good stress, and can be effective in getting kids to move off the couch; away from the screen; to act, play and move; to engage with life.  However Dr. Hassed suggests that to attain high performance levels it is focus we need rather than stress.

…complete focus on the present activity itself, so much so that the students are not preoccupied about themselves or the outcome.  This leads to the zone or flow state and the hallmarks of such states are a lack of performance anxiety but highest performance. It is relaxation, as an inner calmness, but complete engagement: effortlessness, efficacy, and efficiency, all in the one state.

Needless to say Dr. Hassed recommends mindfulness to achieve better learning outcomes in individuals and in education as a whole.  His book Mindful Learning incorporates some of these ideas addressed in his article.  It also includes many topics not covered in other Mindfulness in Education titles.  I’m looking forward to diving this book and sharing my views at a later date.  If you have already been there do let us know your views.

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