Target Corp., the mega discount shopping chain, has successfully been taking advantage of some basic neuroscience in capturing business, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Its marketing wizards have discovered that shopping habits typically change only during periods of major life upheaval. For Target, that means using purchasing histories to identify women so early in pregnancy that they haven't yet spread the news beyond their closest family. The goal is to make each mom-to-be a life-long customer -- or at least one during the lucrative years of buying diapers, baby clothes and all the rest. Extensive marketing research tells Target that once a mom-to-be is in the store she'll return indefinitely without thinking twice.
Target has done its research well. There's sound science behind their techniques; their success has to do with the way human brains are wired. In an effort to conserve energy, people mentally hardwire solutions to questions and problems, such as, "How can I get all the stuff I need for my baby without paying too much or driving too far?"
To avoid expending additional effort, the brain follows the same path every time the same situation arises. As it happens, that trail can lead to anyplace, so why not Target? This type of automated response actually does have advantages. New moms have plenty to do without having to research the best deal on baby soap each and every week. Similarly, we don't have to wrestle with tying our shoes each and every morning; once we've got it figured out we never think about it again. But these mental tendencies have disadvantages, too. The same type of wiring entrenches patterns throughout our lives, including details like how we talk to our children, manage their behavior, and build a family lifestyle.
Coming to Attention
Sometimes our habits are physical actions, almost logistical in nature. We might buy the same breakfast cereal year after year. We might check emails and messages nonstop throughout the day, distracting us from our kids and the actual world around us, and missing out on down time we might otherwise have found nourishing. We may stop exercising when kids are born, and then struggle to create a new routine.
Sometimes we habitually react to underlying emotions. Because we're afraid of our child's resistance to change, we buy the same unhealthy breakfast cereal our pediatrician would like us to eliminate. We check messages compulsively out of a nagging sense we're missing out on something, even though in a more logical moment we know this could wait. Exhausted by a chaotic family life, we struggle to find the mental energy to carve out the exercise plan that is exactly what would, in fact, make us feel more energetic in the first place.
There was one bright light in the midst of the disturbing Target article: Experts stated that the best way to change habits is to be aware of them. The act of paying attention alters our experience. This deceptively-simple concept has been a basic teaching of mindfulness for centuries.
Most of us spend much of our lives lost in distraction, living on autopilot. We're making breakfast while thinking about dinner, or handling a spat between our kids while ruminating about work. We're also reacting moment-to-moment to a steady stream of internal chatter. Both the subtlety of our experience and our reactions to all of it pass by without much notice. We fail to register that we're actually agitated because of a rough encounter earlier in the day with a coworker and find ourselves snapping at our spouse that night.
Mindfulness is a practice of returning our attention to our experience as it unfolds. Whatever is going on for us, we bring our full attention to all its nuances as best we can, observing all the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that come and go. As with shopping, in any situation the easiest mental path is to do the same old thing, time after time. However, choosing instead to pause and pay attention, we discover new possibilities for taking care of ourselves and everyone around us. Regardless of how we have lived up until this moment, we always have a choice in how to respond next.
The ways we shop, eat and move through daily routines are not fixed in concrete. Neither are the ways we think about ourselves, manage crises, communicate with others and countless other choices we make throughout the day. By developing the habit of paying attention, we can discover on our own -- without the help of marketers -- the ways of life we want to cultivate and the ones we might want to change. Pausing and bringing our attention to our mental tendencies allows us to make a far more proactive choice about the very next step we take into our future.
None of us want to be overly influenced by decisions based on marketing or excessively reliant on any other unconscious mental habit. To break the cycle, pause several times a day. Perhaps plan on once while waking, during lunch, and again at the end of the day before going to bed. Instead of continuing with whatever is habitual for you, try a short mindfulness practice.
Take 15 breaths while paying attention to regular, unforced breathing. Notice physical sensations as you breathe. You may observe the air passing in and out of your nose and mouth, or maybe the physical movement in your belly rising up and down.
Your mind will get distracted, probably many times. This is normal, as there is never a goal of eliminating thought. Notice feelings of frustration or anything else that arises, and return your attention gently to your breath. Over and over again, however often as needed, focus attention on your experience right now, wherever you are, without trying to make anything in particular happen.
Like strength training with weights, we can build the challenging skill of paying attention bit by bit. Taking a few moments to pause, focusing on our experience, and letting our minds settle has practical implications far broader than changing where we buy diapers. The practice of mindfulness builds skills that spill over into the rest of life. Maybe next time you'll find an even better buy on baby soap at a locally-owned store, or another megastore besides Target. Anything is possible.
Dr. Mark Bertin M.D., a board certified developmental behavioral pediatrician in Pleasantville, NY, studied at the UCLA School of Medicine and completed his training in general pediatrics at Oakland Children's Hospital in California. After several years as a general pediatrician he returned for fellowship training in neurodevelopmental behavioral pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York College of Medicine, a consultant for Reach Out and Read, a national organization that promotes child development and literacy, and on the editorial board of Common Sense Media. His book "The Family ADHD Solution: A Scientific Approach to Maximizing Your Child's Attention And Minimizing Parental Stress" integrates mindfulness into evidence-based ADHD care.
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