The Neuroscience of Taming the Wandering Mind

Have you ever tried sitting still and relaxed for three minutes, and focusing on a simple thing? You can focus on a familiar name, a simple image, a small nearby object, or a sensation like breathing. If other thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up, gently ignore them and return your attention to the initial thought.

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A young monk meditating in the forest (Wikimedia Common)

How long are you able to focus? How many distractions come up? Kudos if you can hold the thought with no distractions for more than a few seconds. Most of us can’t. Thoughts naturally pop up in our minds, whether we like it or not. If we can slow the stream of thoughts, we can focus better (and hence be more productive). One way to do this is by practicing mindfulness.

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Your Brain on Music

Are kids who play an instrument or sing smarter than everyone else? Maybe not smarter – but research shows improvements in learning and brain function with musical training. Surprisingly, just a few months makes a difference. Of course, the more years of training, the better, but researchers have measured improvements with only 1 month of musical training.

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Hitting a fastball requires more than just quick reactions

In 2004, Albert Pujols was considered one of the best baseball hitters in the world, leading the Major Leagues the previous year with a .359 batting average. Jennie Finch was considered the world’s best softball pitcher, leading the U.S. to a Gold Medal in the Olympics by striking out more than one hitter per inning and giving up 0 runs. So when Finch challenged Pujols to a matchup, it was billed as a classic showdown of men vs. women. But that was just on the surface. Deep down, this matchup also provided the perfect experiment to test the limits of a human’s reaction time – and how our brains make it possible to surpass them.

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Of Maps and Models

The sun was shining and the birds were chirping in the blossoming trees as we walked along the path, trying to find the BBQ. I pushed the stroller around the bend, eyeing the large park map ahead, and glanced at my wife. Her face was set in an expression that told me she was hungry and losing patience. So was I.

We’d been trying to find this BBQ for the past 30 minutes. And now our 4-month old daughter was screaming because she kept inadvertently pulling the pacifier out of her mouth. We approached the map and I helped my daughter find the pacifier while my wife tried to figure out where we were going. Suddenly, despite the tense situation, my inner neuroscientist perked up. I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny similarity between my daughter flailing for her pacifier and our attempts to navigate with the park map.

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