Amishi Jha, Ph.D. is probably one of the most influential women you never heard of.
She’s everywhere: smiling next to media mogul Arianna Huffington, meeting with the military and Congress in Washington, advising her friend Goldie Hawn, speaking to leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, with the Dalai Lama in India.
At 42, Jha, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, is the ultimate oxymoron — a rock star in the field of contemplative neuroscience. She studies how practices like mindfulness meditation change the structure and function of the brain, increasing attention and working memory while minimizing stress.
Practiced for centuries by Eastern cultures, mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment.
Although she is following in the footsteps of giants in the field, they say Jha is blazing her own trail. Her work is influencing such disparate fields as the military, primary education and business. Jha currently has five active research grants with the U.S. Army, which is trying to help soldiers protect their minds as well as their bodies amid multiple deployments and life-altering injuries.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Walter E. Piatt and his soldiers had just returned in 2009 from back-to-back deployments to Iraq when he expressed to an army doctor a desire to help prepare soldiers mentally and emotionally. The doctor connected him with Jha, who came to speak to military leaders about her research.
Now commander of the Seventh U.S. Army Joint Multinational Training Command, stationed in Germany, Piatt says within five minutes of listening to Jha’s presentation, she had described challenges soldiers were facing after multiple deployments. “She pretty much described me,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was not the nicest thing to hear, but she was very accurate.
“Her study really interested me because we train all the time to get better, and we see results,” he says. “We weren’t doing anything for our minds, just giving soldiers information.”
To administer the training for her research, Jha enlisted Elizabeth Stanley, Ph.D., founder of the Mind Fitness Training Institute and associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. Stanley, a former U.S. Army military intelligence officer, developed the mindfulness-based training.
“We fight now in a cognitive struggle with an enemy that can’t be defeated through technology. They’ve taken our strengths, big weapons and technology, and changed the game,” Piatt says. “They attack on their terms. They don’t care about civilian casualties. Our best weapons in that fight is the soldiers’ minds.
“You’re not letting your mind wander, you’re focusing straight on. This is what her technique teaches you to do, focus on the task.’’
In addition, he says, according to research, soldiers who do not receive the training are more predisposed to serious levels of stress and trauma.
“In the military,” Piatt says, “we all suffer from post-traumatic stress. Everyone does. The first thing we have to do is admit that. We now acknowledge that.”
Soldiers who are taught before deployment can regulate their stressful thoughts by increasing focus on the present moment, rather than continually reliving stressful events or worrying about the future.