Staying Sharp: Q&A with Doctors Henry Emmons & David Alter

DrHenryEmmons DrDavidAlterBy Women in Recovery

In their new book Staying Sharp, doctors Henry Emmons and David Alter have combined the latest neuroscience research with ageold wisdom about resilience, mindfulness, and stress reduction to show that vibrant aging is within reach. Together they demonstrate how to blend the best of modern science and Eastern holistic medicine to form a powerful drug-free program that will maintain a youthful mind and a happy life.

We posed some questions to the doctors on how to live more joyfully, age more gracefully, and build intimacy in our relationships, no matter what our age.

Q. What happens to our brains when we multi-task? How do we get to the middle when we have either too much information or there is so little?
A. (Emmons and Alter): Excellent question! The short answer is that multi-tasking leads to mental inefficiency, more rapid mental fatigue, and forgetfulness. The reality is that our brains can’t truly multi-task. The best way to get to what we call “the middle way” is to practice three things:
• Learn to focus attention through mindfulness practices that may also include meditation.
• Since we live in a world with 24-7 stimulation, it is important to actively practice discernment. This means selecting those things that are worthy of our precious attention while simultaneously learning to suppress the influence of constant but relatively unimportant distractions, each of which is seeking to seduce our attention.
• Actively seek to stimulate our mind’s appetite for curiosity, connection and solitude. Curiosity and connection may be more obvious as they directly train us to be focused and engaged. Solitude, on the other hand, trains us to be at peace and content with ourselves. In turn, solitude practices help reduce our craving for constant stimulation, helping us learn to be present, aware and connected to whatever it is toward which we direct our focus.

MindfullnessQ. Can you elaborate on Mindfulness? Because many may think it is just meditation.
A. Mindfulness overlaps with meditation but they are not synonymous. Meditation is an ancient set of practices developed by many of the world’s wisdom or faith traditions as a way of linking together our physical body and our mental awareness with our higher spiritual nature. Today, meditation is not necessarily religiously oriented but science has discovered a multitude of physical and mental/brain benefits that regular meditation practices bring. Meditation involves a practice of focusing attention and awareness in particular directions. For example, there are meditation traditions that train our ability to focus very narrowly for longer periods of time. There are meditations that train our mind to focus on ideas or concepts, such as gratitude, compassion for self and others, or even to meditate on our mortality as a means of becoming more able to be deeply engaged in life.

Mindfulness meditation refers to a particular form of practice that aims to increase our ability to expand our awareness to the present moment while suspending judgment about what is flowing through each present moment. But, mindfulness (without the capital M) is also a term for paying attention, being aware, learning to observe without being swept away by what we observe, and of being present to what is going on without judging it. We can be mindful with or without engaging in a meditation practice, just as we can engage in a meditation practice that doesn’t focus primarily on mindful awareness as does Mindfulness meditation.

Q. Optimism has to be increased. Is this more than just projecting gratitude? Can you explain how optimism has to be hardy?
A. Optimism is one of the three core mental skills we highlight in Staying Sharp. We usually think of optimism as an attitude, but it is ultimately a skill that we can develop. Hardy optimism is not the same as gratitude. But, I will say that people who are optimistic may be more likely to be grateful. Why is that?

SlicesOfSerenity201x134A person higher on the optimism spectrum shares two characteristics. First, they recognize that the world is constantly changing, that the future is unpredictable, and that they don’t know with any certainty what they might encounter next in their lives. But, instead of being a source of worry or anxiety, optimism leads such people to the second characteristic. They tend to trust that no matter what life brings their way, they have the ability to face it, respond to it, and that the result will be alright, maybe even great. That is why optimism is so dependent upon the skills of curiosity and flexibility to be fully expressed. Curiosity engages you in the world as it is while flexibility helps you to respond effectively to what you encounter in the world you face. Together, this triad of mental skills helps us survive and thrive in an uncertain world, grateful for the opportunities we encounter and full of hope and faith we can persevere to better times even when what we encounter is challenging.

Q. Can you elaborate on the phrase “Watch where you put your mind?”
A. Let’s first briefly describe what we mean by mind. Mind ≠ Brain. The brain is a physical structure or organ that floats inside our skulls. It is one part of an immensely interconnected system that enables us to interact with our internal and external world. Mind, on the other hand, is not a physical “thing.” It is a quality or a capability. Mind is what allows us to consciously and deliberately select what it is toward which we choose to direct our brain. We direct the brain’s abilities toward something using attention. We might say that mind involves directing our brain’s attention with intention. The critical point here is that unless we train our brain through our mind to focus our attention with positive intention, our brain can default to a focus that may be unhelpful. We may default to thoughts that breed anxiety, foster unhealthy cravings, feed depression, anger, fear or desperation. Left unchecked, these unregulated thoughts can and do have an impact on our physical bodies. The impact can show up in all manner of stress-mediated conditions such as migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, eating disorders, myofascial pain conditions, sexual dysfunction, or any of a wide number of other negative health consequences. Learning to “watch where we put our mind” is a way of saying that we have the ability to influence our physical health, our emotional health, our general mental health, and ultimately the quality of our long-term life health by fully engaging the built-in connections that exist between our body, our brain and our mind. Our brains and bodies will play whatever music our mind directs them to play. Our message is to employ our mind as the powerful conductor that it is, and choose our life’s music wisely.


On September 28, Women in Recovery will host Drs. Emmons and Alter for a discussion and book signing at 7pm at The Retreat. Women in Recovery is sponsored by The Retreat – a community based recovery program grounded in the spiritual principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and located in Wayzata, MN. Visit www.theretreat.org/women-in-recovery, email us at WIR@theretreat.org, or call The Retreat at 952-476-0566 for more information.

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