Five years ago, mentioning ‘mindfulness’ would have got you a bunch of blank looks from almost any room you walked into. Now everyone knows about the basic benefits of stopping to focus on the ‘now’, but can it help you do more than just calm down and smell the roses? Almost certainly. That’s why Silicon Valley CEOs, boundary-pushing biohackers and even elite athletes are experimenting with better ways to utilise mindfulness.
Here are three benefits of mindfulness you’ve (probably) never heard of – and how to utilise them with just a few minutes of practice a day.
Mindfulness helps you perform better under stress
You’ve probably heard of the benefits of good proprioception – a heightened awareness of your body’s position and movement in 3D space, which can make you better at everything from tightrope-walking to water polo – but less well-known is interoception, or an awareness of what’s going on inside your body, from hunger and thirst to your heart rate or stomach butterflies.
In a 2014 study, Olympic-level racers from the USA BMX team practiced a mindfulness programme to increase their interoceptive awareness. The results were impressive. Not only were they better equipped to handle stress in races, but fMRI imaging showed increased connectivity between the regions of the brain dedicated to self awareness and impulse control.
The simple version? They were more in tune with their bodily sensations and more intentional, while also less likely to flee from stressful situations or indulge in negative self-talk – equally useful whether you’re jumping off a ramp or about to walk into a job interview.
Mindfulness helps you be more critical
Fake news and dubious health and wellness advice is a problem that’s only getting worse. Exacerbated by ever-evolving tech, social media makes living in an echo chamber easy, while rapidly improving deepfakes make even video evidence suspect.
One thing that makes us super-susceptible to false information, though, is under our control – our cognitive biases, which prompt us to share information that supports our own worldview without thinking about it critically. How can mindfulness help?
Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism Is True, argues that if you’re mindful at the moment you’re considering a click, you’ll notice that your urge to spread the news and the feeling of gratification you get from sharing stuff uncritically. By being more aware of these feelings, he argues, you’ll reflect on feelings that you might otherwise obey on reflex – helping you pick out facts from falsehoods before you spread the latter.
Mindfulness helps you work faster
If you’re reading this on one of forty tabs you’ve got open on your browser while simultaneously checking Twitter and Whatsapp… well, don’t stop yet, because that’s only one of the distractions you’re likely to contend with while you’re trying to be productive in a typical day, but it’s not the only one you have to contend with.
Visual distractions, noise and feelings – heat, hunger, mild discomfort – can all distract you from tasks and according to a study from the University of California Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on track once you’re distracted.
This is where mindfulness comes in: according to researchers from Harvard, brain cells use particular frequencies, or waves, to regulate the flow of information, much like radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. One frequency, known as the alpha rhythm, is most active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations. After eight weeks of mindfulness training, test subjects’ alpha rhythms were able to adapt much more quickly. The result? Less distractions and more work.
How to get started with mindfulness
There are dozens of apps, online resources and week-long retreats offering to teach you the intricacies of being more mindful, but mindfulness at its core is mostly about paying attention.
It’s something you can do anywhere, anytime, once you’ve got the basics down.
One of the simplest ways to start is the ‘walking meditation’, where you ditch headphones and screen-scrolling as you walk and pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells of things underneath your feet and all around you, aiming to notice half a dozen new things you’ve never seen before.
If your attention starts to wander, don’t worry – even Olympians had to start somewhere. Stick with it and the feeling of appreciating new sights, sounds and feelings – rather than letting them all just wash over you – will start you on the path to everything from keeping cool in high-pressure situations to knowing when your body is telling you to slow down to prevent injury.