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Ep 161: Develop a Healthy Mind: How Focus Impacts Brain Function

Welcome to the More Than Sound podcast. 

In this episode…

Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist and the founder of The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. In a conversation with Daniel Goleman, he discusses innovative practices in cognitive control for children, including ways to help them quickly recover from upsets and return to the task is at hand.

The rest of their conversation is available as an audio download, Develop a Healthy Mind: How Focus Impacts Brain Function, which also contains supplemental guided exercises you can practice at home, in the office and in the classroom. Available at morethansound.net.


“Attention works much like a muscle: use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows,” said Daniel Goleman. “In an era of unstoppable distractions, we must learn to sharpen focus if we are to contend with, let alone thrive in, a complex world.”


In Develop a Healthy Mind...

Richard Davidson talks with Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence  highlighting the latest scientific research tells us about our brain functions, common psychological conditions, habits, and what it means to have a healthy mind. They also answer the following questions:

•  How can attention training enhance emotional intelligence abilities?
•  What are the different types of attention – and how can we recognize them?
•  Why is it crucial to teach our children how to focus?
•  How can we develop an attention training practice that suits our needs and style?

Also included are guided exercises by Danial Goleman and Mirabai Bush, to help you practice attention-training skills at work, at home, and in the classroom.

Sensory Focus – for adults at home or work
Body Scan – for teens at home or school
Breath Exercise – for kids at home or school
Listening Exercise – for teens at home or school
Breath Count – for adults at home or work
Enhancing Listening and Communication – for adults at work
Managing Negative Emotions – for adults at work

develop a healthy mind

What to do when worry dominates your attention

develop a healthy mind

Did I unplug the iron?

Traffic is brutal. Will I be late for my meeting?

I haven’t heard back from my friend. Are they upset with me?

Worry is a natural response to an upsetting situation, the unknown, or if we’re run down and frazzled. It can be difficult to get a handle on distressing thoughts. Fixating on a worry can exact a toll on our brain and our body. It also affects our decision-making skills, even our relationships (spending too much time with a “worry wart” can be draining).

Daniel Goleman spoke with Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of The Center for Investigating a Healthy Mind about the role of attention training in optimal brain functions in Develop a Healthy Mind: How Focus Impacts Brain Function. Here’s what they had to say about attention driven by worry.

Human beings are endowed with a very large prefrontal cortex, which gives us the ability to do mental time travel. That means that we can anticipate the future and reflect on the past, which clearly has its advantages. But it can also create a lot of problems.

We can worry about the future. We can anticipate threats that don’t actually occur, which, in most cases, turn out to be far more significant than real threats.

Our brain on stress

When we’re under stress, the brain secretes hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that in the best scenario mobilize us to handle a short-term emergency, but in the worst scenario create an ongoing hazard for performance. In that case, attention narrows to focus on the cause of the stress, not the task at hand. Our memory reshuffles to promote thoughts most relevant to what’s stressing us, and we fall back on negative learned habits. The brain’s executive centers – our neural circuitry for paying attention, comprehending, and learning – are hijacked by our networks for handling stress.

In today’s over-stimulated, fast-paced culture, it’s very difficult to respond effectively to worry and stress. Our old habits kick in: we shut down, lash out, ruminate, stress eat, and on and on. But you can develop more positive responses to stress.

Write it down

In Paul Ekman’s book Emotions Revealed he encourages people to keep a log of regrettable angry episodes. Write down:

  • what the incident was about
  • how it happened
  • what set you off
  • and what did you do that you think you shouldn’t have done.

After a few journal entries, try to see the commonality in the triggers and responses. You’ll usually find a particular script that underlies what’s causing you to have a particular perception on certain situations, to cast people into roles that they really aren’t in, and to try to replay a plot that doesn’t really fit.

Exercise your mental muscle

Practice different mental exercises to calm the mind and body down after a stressful arousal. The more you practice, the easier you can recall these tools when you need it most. Try these very simple exercises when you’re stressed or angry:

develop a healthy mind       develop a healthy mind

Know your stress type

Stress hits each of us differently. Some of us feel it in our bodies. Others just can’t stop worrying. Knowing how you experience stress can help you find the most effective relaxation methods. Try different exercises, such as deep breathing, auto suggestion or sensory focus. See which methods work best for you.

Stop and see

Stress management expert Elad Levinson developed the stop and see practice for the overwhelmed executives he coaches. Try this:

Begin with a simple exercise of thoughtful observation.

  • How would I characterize my mind right now? What does it feel like?
  • If I had to guess its revolutions per minute, what would I guess?
  • Does it feel hot or cool?
  • If my mind were a river, would it be a lazy river or a rushing river?

Next, try a slow deep breathing exercise to calm the mind.

  • Inhale and count to 3, 4, or 5, depending upon how deep an inhalation you can take.
  • Now exhale, doing the same.
  • Try this for one minute.
  • Notice any differences in you body, or changes to the content of your thoughts.

Additional resources

Develop a Healthy Mind: How Focus Impacts Brain Function

Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence

Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress

Working with Mindfulness

Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader’s Toolkit

Knowing Our Emotions, Improving Our World

Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence