Mind Games: Training your Frontal Lobe and Why It’s Good for your Health
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and left feeling like you really didn’t pay attention to a word they said? Or spent a day at work ‘multitasking’ and at the end of it, felt frazzled and unsatisfied? Maybe you’ve gone to the gym and ‘worked out’ while your brain wandered in and out of your to-do list the whole time rather than becoming immersed in your body?
You may have emerged from each of these scenarios feeling like you didn’t get as much out of the experience as you wished, or even worse, feel a bit empty and ungrounded. If you are like me, being distracted is wholly unsatisfying. And it can even contribute to overall feelings of being unwell if it becomes the baseline of our life.
We all have had experiences where we get distracted and veer off task and now, with the internet at our fingertips all the time, it is even easier to live an existence that is very far from connected to the here and now. This leaves many of us feeling like we are floating through life and often leads to stress, anxiety, unhappiness and burnout, among other things.
A major reason for this is that when we live our lives in a distracted manner, we don’t access our center of concentration in our frontal lobe, instead, defaulting to a more reactive ‘automatic’ brain pathway that is more reactive and less connected to what is happening in the moment.
For many of us, long-term distracted living can lead to physical ailments: overeating, stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, chronic pain…these issues can snowball and lead to chronic diseases. Mindfulness training can help us regain our connection to ourselves and our world bringing a sense of stability and wellbeing.
Meditation & Yoga
In my work as an emergency physician, my workday is filled with distractions, yet as each one comes my way, I have learned to stay focused on what is happening right now. I, for one, do not want to take care of a patient ‘half-way’. I don’t think any of you out there would like to be ‘sort of’ taken care of by your distracted doctor!
The key to my success has been a dedicated yoga and meditation practice. Mine is not always an hour plus in length, because sometimes I only have 20 minutes to practice yoga and 3 minutes to sit! But in that time, I am focused and committed. It isn’t necessarily the amount of time you practice, but the intention behind your practice. The intent on being focused for the time you are practicing.
In March of 2014, JAMA published a meta-analysis – a study that looks at a group of similar studies – that looked at outcomes of people who participated in a meditation program versus those who did a placebo type of program at 8 weeks, 3 months and 6 months.
The study concluded that meditation showed benefits in the areas of reducing psychological stress, anxiety, depression and pain. In my work as a physician, I can confidently say that the majority of both acute and chronic diseases I see in patients are the result of people struggling and trying to cope with these very issues – often in the form of overeating, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, poor sleep – the list is long.
It’s likely not news to any of you who are reading this that meditation has many wonderful benefits. But what exactly are we ‘exercising’ when we meditate? When we take the time to sit quietly or even move in a mindful, deliberate way – e.g – walking meditation, yoga – we give the frontal lobe of our brains – the most highly evolved part – a chance to ‘flex its muscle’ so to speak.
The frontal lobe is where executive functioning happens. It is where we take pause to ‘think things through’ before acting, overriding our default pathway of reactivity. Motor planning also happens here – where we take movement and hone it before we execute it. I like to think about this part of our brain is a place of refinement. When we are more focused, we can execute things in a more skillful way – both mentally and physically. And, neuroscience supports that the more we do this kind of work, the more robust the nerve cells in this part of our brain become.
So the next time you think about moving a seated or moving meditation lower on your priority list to make room for say, checking social media or shopping online, realize that there is an important choice in front of you: will you reinforce ‘distraction’ or will you tone your ‘concentration’ muscle?
Will you set yourself up for a more frantic, frazzled, unconnected existence? Or will you train your ability to focus intently on whatever is in front of you? If you choose the latter, you will undoubtedly be moving toward a larger a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and overall wellness in your life.
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Amy Sedgwick lives in Portland, Maine where she practices emergency medicine. In 2014, she opened Riverbend Yoga and Meditation Studio with an intention to help people achieve holistic wellness from within. In her teaching life, Dr. Sedgwick draws upon several disciplines combining her medical background and love of anatomy with her passion for yoga and the transformative effects of the practice. She completed her emergency medicine residency at Maine Medical Center and sees patients at InterMed, MMC, and Mercy Hospitals.