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Mindful Learning In The Digital World

Digital Distractions
Many definitions of mindfulness exist and they present a wide range of concepts. It has been described as a skill developed via practice (e.g. meditation) and as a psychological process. Harvard University psychology professor, Dr Ellen Langer, defines mindfulness as follows: “The process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present […] It’s the essence of engagement”. According to Dr Langer, approaching learning this way promotes engagement and mind-openness, results in better performance and allows the learner to focus on the present while using experiences from the past.

Digital learning is “any type of learning that is accompanied by technology or by instructional practice that makes effective use of technology.” Digital learning demonstrates great educational potential. It enables interactions that closely approximate the interactions that occur in the real world.

Mindfulness and Mindlessness
The word mindfulness translates as “lucid awareness” and it originates from the Pali Canon, the oldest complete collection of Buddhist texts. In this text, mindfulness means attending to the facts without commenting on them. In modern psychological studies, it is described as paying attention to current information without judgment. Mindfulness is a state of mind – of conscious awareness and openness. Mindful learning means focusing on the present moment in each learning situation and absorbing what is happening as it happens.

Benefits Associated With Mindfulness Include
Making it easy to pay attention and notice subtle changes in reality
Allowing individuals to remember more about what has been done
Promoting creativity
Allowing individuals to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves
Generating more positive results
Improving attention
Allowing individuals to focus on the things that matter the most
Improving problem-solving
Helping to reduce anxiety
Decreasing stress
Improving sleep
Improving pain management outcomes in chronic pain populations

Mindlessness is the Opposite State of Mind to Mindfulness

It relies on experiences from the past; it is like a habit where individuals rely on automatic processing. Mindless learning is a passive type of learning. For example, someone may attempt to take an online course and absorb the information while checking emails, cooking, or finishing a progress note from their day’s workload. Individuals think and react to the new information without really considering the present context. When they are exposed to new information, they tend to assume that the information is obvious, so there is no point in learning it.

Brain regions change over time following task performance. Reductions in task-positive neural systems occur with the passage of time and are associated with changes in ongoing thought. 

Brain Networks
There are two competing networks in the brain that work to regulate a person’s focus and attention. The first network is called the default mode network (DMN) and it generally exhibits higher activity at rest. The second network is called the task-positive network. This network is more active during tasks when the person is very engaged and attentive.

Default Mode Network (DMN)
DMN is distributed in the posteromedial/inferior parietal, temporal, and lateral/ medial prefrontal cortex. These regions are furthest away from those contributing to sensory and motor systems. These regions show higher activity at rest and decreased activity during attention-demanding tasks. Some research indicates that DMN can be active in goal-directed tasks, but these tasks must require the use of internally directed cognition.

DMN is activated when a person is not focused on the outside world, but on their internal mental-state processes. It is active for 47% of the time and is responsible for daydreaming, thinking about the future, the past, and ignoring the present moment.

Task-Positive Network (TPN)
The task-positive network (TPN) is required to process external objects. It is more active during tasks that require attention. Externally oriented attention decreases activation in the DMN and increases activation in the TPN. The task-positive network was also found to have a correlation with response preparation and selection.

When self-focus and lack of attention to the environment are present (e.g. in conditions such as depression and social anxiety), increased activation of the DMN over the TPN is observed. Meditation practices that focus attention on the immediate experience may have the opposite effect, causing a decrease of DMN activity and an increase of TPN activity. Research has shown that the practice of mindfulness meditation helps to facilitate activation of the TPN and reduces activity of the DMN.

Distractions and Mind-Wandering
Distraction is “the process of interrupting attention” and “a stimulus or task that draws attention away from the task of primary interest.” Because of the distraction, individuals are not able to stay focused on the things they want to do.

Example of Distractions
Looking at notifications on your phone while having a conversation
Checking emails while listening to a webinar
Scrolling through social media when planning to read a book
External World Distraction

External Distractions Come From our Environment

They Include:
Prompts to check mail, answer a text or read an alert
Interruption from a coworker when you are in the middle of doing work
The presence of an object eg. television in an office
Hugo Gernsback, a science fiction writer and inventor was a pioneer in this field, attempting to remove external distractions to help people study more efficiently. Gernsback discovered that sound was the biggest distractor and developed the “Isolator” to help students focus on the book they were reading or the paper they had to write. The Isolator was a helmet that covered a person’s entire head; it even required a breathing tube attached to an oxygen tank. While the idea was great, the product was not popular because the helmet was too heavy.

Auto-Pilot Mode of Living
When a person is on autopilot, their brain shows activity in the default mode network zones.

The autopilot mode of living allows a person to undertake tasks without thinking about them. The average person spends 47% of their time in the autopilot mode of living. This is because it is simply too difficult to live every moment completely engaged and aware. Autopilot is a “state of mind in which a person acts without conscious intention or awareness of present moment”. When a person is on autopilot, they are daydreaming, their mind wanders, they are planning for the future, regretting the past, or just narrating their lives. There is no focus and no attention, and it comes with a cognitive cost as it leads to distraction from what is really important. Autopilot can become harmful because it affects an individual’s emotional experience.

Mindlessness is defined as an autopilot mode of learning, where individuals think and react to a piece of new information without considering the present context.

Practical Applications of Mindful Learning
The activity rest cycle (or the ultradian performance rhythm) is a key concept of performance. It includes creating structure, taking breaks and mind-wandering.

Suggestions to improve focus, memory, and attention in an individual’s day-to-day life:
Create a structure: Structuring tasks and learning allows us to spend more time on things that matter.
Take regular breaks to recharge and restore energy: As a general rule, people work best when they work for a continuous period of 90 minutes, followed by a 20-minute break. The goal is to find an ideal amount of focused attention and a break time.
Schedule time for mind-wandering to improve one’s focus: Allow time to check emails and social media and do whatever you need to do. 

According to Paul Seli, intentionally pausing to think about something unrelated to the task at hand, can boost focus when a person returns to the original task.
Practice meditation to improve focus.

Author: JUMP Team (Italy)


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