Miami-Dade County

UM study: Training a soldier’s mind

University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha points out information on a powerpoint presentation with Martin Paczynsk, a member of her research team.
University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha points out information on a powerpoint presentation with Martin Paczynsk, a member of her research team. Miami Herald Staff

A new University of Miami study shows that mindfulness meditation for soldiers in the months leading up to deployment can shield against mental lapses — loss of attention and a wandering mind.

In the same way soldiers are physically trained during the period before embarking on dangerous, high-stress military missions, research led by UM neuroscientist Amishi Jha suggests mindfulness exercises can help during deployment. The study expands the body of evidence that one of the best ways to protect soldiers is by training their own minds.

“Soldiers are experts at standing at attention,” said Jha, associate professor in the psychology department at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, and principal investigator of the project. “However, maintaining a mind at attention under the intense physical, emotional and cognitive demands they face is a more difficult task.”

Funded by the Department of Defense, the research demonstrated a link between mindfulness training and protection against attentional lapses in a shorter time frame than previous studies. Mindfulness is defined as the ability to be aware and attentive in the present, without emotional reactivity or volatility.

“Mindfulness is a good option because it’s portable and low-tech and accessible for people. We wanted to see if they were trained in it before deployment, would it help in managing their psychological health,” said Jha, whose work is recognized in the field of contemplative neuroscience. “We already know how to provide physical fitness. Now, we are learning how to protect the soldiers’ minds.”

The results are significant because during the critical pre-deployment period, soldiers often do not have the time to devote to a lengthier mindfulness regimen. The study cut the length of the training by two-thirds from 24 hours to eight hours over eight weeks.

“With the continued deployment of our soldiers to face complex threats around the world, these results are a critical addition to our ever-evolving readiness and resiliency toolkit,” Major General Walter Piatt, Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe said in a statement. “Ensuring our men and women are both mentally and physically prepared is essential to mission success. This study provides important information to help us do that.”

The walk-up to a deployment, which includes intensive physical training for the mission, is an especially demanding time. Soldiers can face mental health challenges even before going to combat.

“You receive an alert that your unit is going to be mobilized. Then you have to prepare for leaving your homes and your families and your employment,’’ said Janette Chandler, Family Readiness Support Assistant of the U.S. Army 841st Engineer Battalion in Miami. “Before they leave, they have to prepare wills and power of attorneys. It’s absolutely stressful.”

Jha’s research team studied 75 active-duty U.S. Army soldiers who were trained via the shorter form of mindfulness. The soldiers, stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, were eight to ten months away from deployment to Afghanistan. Afterward, they were tested for attention lapses and mind wandering. The results showed the training promoted cognitive resilience by guarding against the loss of attention during high-stress periods.

Jha’s prior research was based upon 24 hours of mindfulness training given to a group of Marine reservists in Florida deploying to Iraq. It found that the more time military service members spent practicing daily mindfulness exercises, the better their moods and working memory.

“I watched my Marines develop a real sense of focus,’’ said retired Maj. Jeff Davis, who was the officer in charge of the detachment West Palm Beach at the time of the study. “After the mindfulness training, they walked out in a better state to deal with complex and stressful issues.”