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Attention: A Muscle to Strengthen

A doctor's recommendations for mental health evoke more philosophy than biology.

"Today is Thursday, the day of Meaning."

That's the message at the very top of the page. And from there down, almost everything about Amit Sood 's website, stressfree.org , is couched in the self-help jargon that scientists instinctively dismiss. So it's especially interesting that Sood is a physician, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, no less. There he recently founded the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing and is now taking to the Internet to teach people how to train their minds for a better life.

One of the core elements of Sood's practice is helping people to "create intentionality." He describes the approach plainly: choosing where you deploy your attention and how you process information. It's unique ground for an M.D. to tread, but increasingly relevant as the connection between mindset and physical health bears out. Sood argues that most of us spend more than half of our mental energy flitting from thought to thought, from app to app; we would ultimately be more productive and resilient, less depressed, and physically healthier, if we were only more deliberate with our cognitive energy. Which is all fine and good, if more easily said than done—though Sood believes it doesn't have to be.

After years of practicing medicine in a more traditional Western sense left him feeling like he was missing the bigger picture in his doctorly goal of minimizing human suffering, Sood decided to dedicate his career to mindfulness. Through his work cultivating attention, among other facets of intentionality, the demands for his time from new patients have outstripped his availability. The approach is predicated on understanding and restructuring "neural predispositions": the ruts in which our brains have gotten used to operating. In the era of intensive medicalization of attention deficits, Sood is finding an audience for his approaches (which I'm inclined to describe as "alternative," but also annoyed at my inclination, because, alternative to what? Millions of kids prescribed amphetamines as the standard? Sood also carries the title of director of research and practice at Mayo's complementary and integrative medicine program, which may be better descriptors.) He's clearly an experienced and vetted doctor, and there is a growing body of research to substantiate the mindfulness practice, despite the suspicious new-age vibe.

"We have multiple set exercises throughout the day where you basically bring intentionality to your attention," he told me over the phone. They involve no newfangled brain-training software, or really anything at all new to neuroscience or philosophy—which may be why it's easy to dismiss them. For example, he might tell a patient to take on little tasks like, when they wake up in the morning—instead of ruminating on the day ahead or idling on their phone—thinking about five people in their lives for whom they're grateful. Maybe even send those people a little note. That strengthens relationships and makes those people feel appreciated, sure, but the real point of it, Sood explained, is that "by choosing where to deploy your attention and what you're processing, you're basically strengthening your attention."

Theoretically a person could accomplish that same attention-building with other exercises—say, staring at a fish tank for a while, counting and naming the fish, and then introducing them aloud whenever one swims near another—but Sood likes to recommend practices that are more productive. That is, something that also promotes any of his five "core principles": gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning, and forgiveness.

We got in touch because he just released a YouTube video, his first, that quickly became popular—nearly 30,000 views in just a few days—and he was very excited about it.

"There are over 15,000 likes on Facebook!" he told me, almost overjoyed.

That's at least in part because the video was picked up by The Huffington Post under the headline "How to Train Your Brain for Happiness." Sood made the video with his two daughters (ages 10 and 4), who provide voiceovers, as a way to reach a younger audience. The video follows a character named Broody, who is a listless brain with eyes and arms and a mouth, as he learns about empathy: "The brain feels others' pain as its own." Broody also learns that "imaginary pain is real," because, as Sood explains it, "emotional and physical pain share the same neural network."

The video is an eerie mix of adolescent inflection and dense humanistic psychology; of a white-board lecture and an ill-conceived fairytale protagonist. It seems like it would be over the heads of most kids and boring to most considerate adults. But it is clearly speaking to people.

"Obviously it's a short video, so I went into the two hardest-core principles," Sood explained, "the two that are immediately actionable: gratitude and compassion."

Other principles and neural predispositions—Sood addresses nine in total in his clinical work—may be the subject of future videos, though they require a little higher-level approach. In the mean time, keeping it simple, he has already talked with the Broody videographers about a follow-up that would explore practical approaches to meditation.

When he's teaching, he'll ask a class how many people have tried meditation, and usually almost everyone raises their hand. He then asks how many people are able to meditate, and almost no one raises their hand. "We need to find more innovative ways to meditate that are aligned with who we are, and how our brain operates. That entails more externalized versus internalized practice."

I told Sood that the Broody video looked a lot like a popular YouTube white-board explainer series called ASAP Science. I googled it as I said it and, what do you know, three days ago ASAP Science made an episode called "The Scientific Power of Meditation." Half a million views and counting.

"You might have some competition," I told him.

"Oh, there's no competition," he laughed, transcendently. "The market, as you know, is infinite."

Checkmate.

There is also no competition because he has no sponsors or producers to disappoint. "We're not seeing this as a revenue-stream opportunity," Sood said. Rather, it's something of a productive exercise of his own, wherein he feels good about helping other people help themselves, and the virtuous circle proceeds ad infinitum. And so Sood's story sails along nicely into what's been an ongoing exploration for me into what a doctor is today, and what a doctor should be.

In the health-media world, there's something of a knee-jerk disdain for the self-help genre. There's obviously a huge commercial market for it, which is clear at any bookstore or grocery checkout line. Maybe distaste for that sort of thing is just the innate revulsion among writers and creative types to any commercial success. Maybe it's also the history of snake-oil salesmanship in the self-help world. I recently got a press release from Deepak Chopra's publisher announcing his 75th book. Because it's totally possible for a human to have 75 nonfiction books worth of things to say? And he's also doing okay financially . It's easy to prey on the most human of vulnerabilities when it comes to self-doubt and unhappiness by promising simple solutions. But, what if there are some simple solutions? And some people get into self-help because they really do want to ... help ... people?

"We need to create something that is fun and uplifting and humorous and has that cuteness factor, to try and translate the neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and spirituality of emotional resilience into something that people enjoy," Sood explained. And if it seems simplistic, that's because it is. To really reach people, especially on the Internet, "It has to be short; succinct and to the point."

Soot grew up in India and did his first decade of medical training there, where he saw a lot of serious illness and chronic problems like undernutrition, which led to suffering. When he first started seeing patients in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic, he saw what he believed was just as much suffering, but of another kind, an emotional kind. "There was just so much suffering," he reiterated, "so much suffering that didn't make sense."

Understanding his approach through that lens makes for a slightly less Internet-video-friendly concept. But it's compelling in conversation. Before long I actually found myself pouring out my own stories to Sood, telling him about a thing I had to do earlier this week that I was nervous about. He has that way of listening that's not so common on the East Coast, where you wait until a person is done speaking before you start. You maybe even wait a few seconds to make sure they're done speaking. Novel. And so I just kept going.

Oh also, yesterday morning, I got an email from Sood. And the message, in its entirety: "Hope your [thing] went well."

( Top image via Anson0618 / Shutterstock.com )

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