Frontiers

Semper Zen

Cognitive neuroscientist Amishi Jha studies mindfulness training for military preparedness.
March 2010

We know that physical conditioning, weapons training and fighting skill prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat, but a recent study by cognitive neuroscientist Amishi Jha shows that meditation practice gives them "mental armor" to better withstand the trauma of war.

Jha, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, uses various neuroscience methods and imaging technologies to study the neural machinery involved in working memory and attention. She is particularly interested in understanding how these brain functions can be improved with exercises like stress reduction, mindfulness training and long-term meditation practice. In a 2007 study with physician Michael Baime, M' 81, who heads the Penn Program for Stress Management, Jha found that mindfulness meditation practice changes how the brain works, sharpening focus and performance. That research led to million-dollar grants from the Department of Defense to study mindfulness training in soldiers. Last spring she briefed members of Congress on her findings, and she has discussed her mindfulness research with the Dalai Lama.

Mindfulness training is the technique of deliberately bringing full attention to present experience and holding it there moment to moment, without judgment or emotional engagement, and returning to the present each time the mind wanders. The clinical value of meditation practice for treating physical and psychological disorders is widely recognized, and there are more than 250 U.S. medical centers offering mindfulness-based stress-reduction programs.

"Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick and considered decisions and action plans." – Amishi Jha

To investigate the protective effects of mindfulness practices on soldiers, Jha and collaborator Elizabeth Stanley, an Assistant Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, provided mindfulness training to Marines preparing for deployment in Iraq. The training was given to one group of 31 soldiers but not to a control group of 17. In the months prior to deployment, soldiers undergo intense training for physical endurance and mission-critical operational skills, as well as "stress-inoculation" training, which helps habituate them to the extreme mental rigors of combat. During this period, Jha and Stanley provided Marines with Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training, which helped them cope with the pre-deployment training and the stresses of leaving family to face the uncertainties of war. The eight-week program used mindfulness exercises like focused attention on the breath and mindful movement, and participants kept track of the time they practiced the formal meditation exercises outside the classroom.

Jha evaluated the protective influence of the mindfulness training on working memory and the ability of Marines to regulate emotion. "Our findings suggest that, just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness," she says. "Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick and considered decisions and action plans."

The study, "Examining the Protective Effectiveness of Mindfulness Training on Working Memory Capacity and Affective Experience," was published in the journal Emotion and featured in Joint Force Quarterly, the advisory journal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mindfulness training, the researchers suggest, could offer some protection to combatants from posttraumatic stress and other anxiety disorders, and it might provide the clarity of thinking needed for soldiers fighting in challenging and ambiguous counterinsurgency zones.

"Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training may help anyone who must maintain peak performance in the face of extremely stressful circumstances," Jha contends, "from first responders, relief workers and trauma surgeons, to professional and Olympic athletes."