“Mindful” is a word often applied to willful or intentional thinking: that “held in mind” thought we direct to the prefrontal cortex. We can think of mindfulness as the act of interrupting the brain’s tendency toward routine, reactive, and fast processing. Instead, we shift, intentionally, to aware, directed thinking.
Consider the basic brain area and their functions: managing bodily functions, housing memory and emotion, and processing information.
All three of these modes work together and simultaneously. We can flow, shift, or even be jolted from one mode to another. For the most part, our body functions are invisible to us: completely autonomous. Normally, for example, we don’t think about breathing. But we can. We can control our breathing rate, or hold our breath. We can learn to breath differently (think swimming or meditation) to the point where it becomes unconscious or even automatic to breathe that way. Btu most of the time, breathing, like other bodily functions, happens at a level that we don’t and even can’t, control.
Memory, emotion, perception, and thought are different. Although generally these levels of processing are unconscious, we have a different level of processing are unconscious, we have a different level of agency with them than we do, say, with the way we breathe while we’re asleep.
We can, for example, work our way back to memories or feelings and gain insight into how they affected us. We can practice managing our emotions, finding new ways to process things like anger, sadness, negativity, or fear. We can train our perceptions, learning to tune out background noise, overcome a fear of heights, or enjoy spicy foods.
We can also learn to be aware of our thoughts (some of them, at least), shifting them to where we can control them rather than letting them mindlessly control us.
Try It Out
Take a cookie Break while you think about this, even if it’s only with an imaginary cookie. Grab one, fast, and chomp into it. By the time the cookie is gone, you’ll barely even know you’ve eaten it.
Next, take a nice little bite, maybe while you look out your window at the view outside. Pay attention to the scenery and the taste of the cookie. Sip some coffee and savor the contrast in flavors.
Then, slow down and take an even smaller bite, examining the texture on your teeth and layers of subtle flavors melting on your tongue.
That’s what it’s like to shift gears, exploring the range of awareness we can bring to an experience—and sending the transitions between brain modalities.