Mindfulness- Defeating Distraction And Amplifying Awareness: Richard Chambers (Transcript)8 min read

Richard Chambers at TEDXUniMelb
Richard Chambers at TEDXUniMelb

Full text of Richard Chambers’ talk: Mindfulness- Defeating Distraction And Amplifying Awareness at TEDXUniMelb

In this talk, Richard Chambers explains how mindfulness is a tool for increasing self-awareness and how it can help create a generation of young people better equipped to solve the problems we are facing in the world today.

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Richard Chambers:- Clinical psychologist, Leading mindfulness expert, and developer of the Leadful framework.

On a rainy Monday evening back in 1999, I was sitting at home on the couch. I’d been depressed and I was barely passing uni. My mind was really cloudy and it’s really unmotivated.

My phone rang. That was my friend Wil. And he asked if I want to go along to this meditation class. He was heading to and I was like, sure, that sounds good. And so I went.

And the moment they started talking about how our mind works and how we create our own stress through mental habits of reactivity and distractedness, it just made perfect sense to me. And then when we did some meditation, suddenly, just for a moment, I was free from all of that.

The next day when I woke up, I did a little bit more, and over time it became a bit of a habit. And pretty quickly, I started to feel better. Less cloudy, more motivated. And was also more focused.

I remember sitting in a lecture and zoning out for a second, as I used to do, but just catching myself almost immediately, just bringing my attention back to what the lecturer was saying. And I started to absorb more of the information.

And then I had this funny experience of being in my final year psych exams and not just guessing what the answers were, which was kind of good. And in that moment, I knew that mindfulness was going to become a really important part of my life and was also something that we should teach in schools.

We did mindfulness more than ever now. The pace of things has certainly picked up since ‘99. We’re bombarded with information. You know, the average person today is exposed to more information in a single day than someone in the 15th century would have encountered in their entire life.

To cope with this, we’re sold this myth that we need to multitask, but haven’t even noticed how that actually just makes things worse. The human brain processes information one bit after another. Not in parallel. So when we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually attention switching.

Which means, that if you sitting there right now listening to what I’m saying, but also on your phone or think about something else, you’re not actually catching everything I’m talking about. And every time we switch our attention from one thing to another, the attentional systems in the brain go offline for up to half a second. And we miss any information presented to us in that time.

We don’t normally notice that. But if you wanna know what I’m talking about, try this simple experiment: Say to yourself silently in your head the letters A to Z as fast as you can. And now the numbers, 1 to 26 And and now to switch with letters and numbers A1, B2, C3, 3D after that Z26, give it a go as fast as he can.

Exactly right. Anybody noticing that really obvious slowing down as he go from the letter to the number and who lost track after about D4?

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And did any of you find that difficult, even stressful? Yes. So here’s the thing. When we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually attention switching. And when we’re doing that, we’re slowing ourselves down, losing track of what we’re doing, and creating unnecessary stress for ourselves.

And just have a seat. How many times in a typical day would you switch your attention from one thing to another? And if you multiply that by half a second, that start to add up, wouldn’t it?

Technology makes things even worse. The average person now checks their phone 150 times a day. And we’re literally becoming addicted to our devices. And there’s research that’s found if you’re in the middle of doing something complex, like writing an assignment and you stop and check an e-mail when you get back to the assignment, it takes an average of 64 seconds to get your attention fully back into what you’re doing. And if you do that every five minutes in a 40-hour workweek, you waste 8.5 hours, whole day of lost time.

And get this, if your phones are on silent and vibrates in your pocket. And you don’t even check it. You might 28 percent more errors on the task you’re engaged in.

So all of this distractedness and reactivity is making us much less effective learners and do is. And it’s making us less happy. A lot of you probably know that depression is set to be the biggest health problem in the world. 75% of mental health problems begin between the ages of 15 and 25.

But we haven’t seen them in kids. One in seven primary school kids has a diagnosed mental health disorder. And by the time they get to high school, that’s increased to one in four. And suicide, tragically, is the biggest killer of young people.

So I think it’s hyperbolic to say that we’re facing a crisis in youth mental health. There is something we can do about it, though. Everything I’ve just been talking about we could think of is mindfulness.

When we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing. It’s kind like our bodies in one place, but our minds somewhere else. Mindfulness is the opposite of that. It’s about having our body and our mind in the same place at the same time. And being fully present, engaged, and aware in each moment. It’s an everyday experience, one that we all have. Looks like a lot of you are having a mindful moment right now, just listening to what I’m saying.

If you think about what your hobbies are, your interests, you’ll notice that there are things that engage your attention in the senses, whether it’s cooking or sport or reading or music. And that’s why you tend to feel happy and relaxed when you’re doing nice things.

Or when you’re in the zone studying or at work, just focused on one thing. That’s mindfulness. And we tend to be at our most productive when we’re doing that. It’s also something that we can practice. And here we get into what some has called mindfulness meditation.

Now I’m going to say a whole lot about this, because there are lots of really great talks available online already about meditation. But I will say this meditation means a tension training. And with mindfulness, we focus our attention on the present through the senses.

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We noticed when the mind wanders and it will, that’s the nature of the mind to wander. Some of you might have heard of that now-famous Harvard research: It’s found that we’re distracted nearly half our lives.

And there’s a report from Microsoft a few years ago that found that the average human attention span is now eight seconds, one second less than a goldfish.

So the mind will wander. It’s a given. And we’re not trying to stop that. And meditation is not about getting rid of our thoughts. It’s about noticing when the mind’s wandered so we can bring it back. And if we start to practice that like anything we practice, we get better at it.

So we noticed when the minds wandered and we learned just to bring it straight back without any further thinking or judgment. And we start to spend longer in the present and become more focused and engaged. And then we can apply that to anything we want, like study.

It also changes the brain. The neuroscience shows that mindfulness meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus to key learning areas associated with attention and memory. Meanwhile, it dials down the activation in the amygdalathe brain’s fear center. So that we’re less stressed and anxious.

And this is why we’re seeing meditation pop up in classrooms all around the world, which is an amazing thing. But mindfulness needs to be the source, not the side-dish. We need to integrate it into each moment in the classroom, not just included as an add-on. We need to create a mindful education system. We’ve been piloting this at a major university here in Melbourne, Australia. We’ve now got mindfulness embedded in the core curriculum in 20 different units in faculties like law, medicine, I.T., pharmacy.

We can give our students exam questions on the concepts and the science behind it. We can textualize, which means we make it relevant for them. So we teach our medical students how to focus on their study so that they can get through their workload.

We teach them to reduce stress just by being present rather than worrying and obsessing about outcomes and deadlines. We teach them mindful, reflective practice, setting aside ideas of good and bad and right and wrong so that they can actually learn from their own experience. And we teach them mindful communication, how to actually listen when their patients are talking to them.

In this Harvard study, 83 percent of radiologists fail to notice what I hope for you is a pretty obvious anomaly in the top right-hand corner of this C.T. scan. We’re hoping our students do a better job. We teach our pharmacy students how to pay attention when they’re dispensing medications so they make less medication errors.

We teach our I.T. students the same thing to make less coding errors. And we also teach them to pay attention to their bodies, our art and design students, often when they’re drawing they’re just obsessing about the outcome or getting it right or doing a perfect job or worrying about getting out in front of the class and presenting their work.

And we teach them instead just to come back to the pencil in their hand, the movement, the form, taking shape on the page, the background. When they do that, they enjoyed a lot more and they’re much more creative.

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We teach our MBA students mindful leadership, getting in touch with their values, what’s important. Communicating that effectively. And listening for feedback to make sure that that message gets received. We teach the mindful decision making. Slowing down. Looking at the situation on its merits and checking in to notice if there are any emotional reactions, mindsets or cognitive biases that might be clouding their ability to make good decisions.

So what do we see when we teach mindfulness like this?

Well, students become less stressed, anxious, and depressed. Their academic performance improves. They engage better with their studies. And they learn to become curious and interested in what they’re what they’re studying rather than just filling their head with information.They also procrastinate less.

And as I’m sure some of you know, a lot of students use fear and harsh self-criticism to motivate themselves to study. bub mindful students instead learn to focus their attention where they want it to be noticed when it wanders off and just gently bring it back. Like I went to do all those years ago in that lecture. And when they do that, they become kinder to themselves and more productive at the same time.

We see the same kinds of things in schools. This meta-analysis from 2012 found that students who learn mindfulness in the classroom have much better emotional well-being. The academic performance improves their attention and their memory, and they have better social skills. This is especially true for students with learning problems or attentional difficulties, disadvantaged students.

Mindfulness is also really good for teachers. It helps them to reduce their levels of stress and burnout, which is a huge problem in the teaching profession. We don’t know what the return on investment for mindful education is yet.

We do know that in the corporate world, for every dollar spent on wellbeing programs, you see about 2.70 dollars worth of increased productivity. And it’s likely to be even greater for students because if we could prevent those mental health issues from happening, if we could teach them how to study and learn effectively, we’d create a totally different trajectory for them through life.

But the thing that excites me most about mindful education is that it gives young people tools for waking up and being more aware. They develop metacognition, an awareness of their feelings and their thoughts.

They get in touch with their values, with what’s important to them. Something which is sadly lacking for a lot of young people these days. They start to notice the effect of their actions on others and on the world, and they become more socially responsible.

Imagine if at the same time as teaching maths and science and humanities, we also taught mindfulness and as well as learning to focus and study more effectively. We also helped young people to be more aware, compassionate and ethical.

Perhaps if we get mindfulness into education, will create a generation of young people who are better equipped to solve the problems we’re facing in the world today.

Thank you.

-Richard Chambers

Richard Chambers’ talk: Mindfulness- Defeating Distraction And Amplifying Awareness at TEDXUniMelb