The Science of Mindfulness

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The practice of meditation may at first seem counterintuitive or foreign to the Western mind. With the abundance of digital technologies and entertainment options available to us, why would anyone abandon these luxuries to sit alone in silence. Surely there are more productive ways one ought to spend their limited time here on earth.

Yet meditation has become a recent cultural phenomenon.  According to one study, the number of people practicing meditation has tripled since 2012. The benefits of meditation have been boasted by a wide range of professions including athletes, musicians and educators. Furthermore, many practitioners have claimed that the practice can aid with a number of physical and mental ailments.

The intention of this article is to provide an objective account of what modern-day science is telling us about the benefits of meditation. While there are many different types of meditation techniques, I want to focus on one of the more popular practices known as mindfulness meditation.  As described by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, the practice involves, 

“A quiet awareness without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sense of ‘non-difference’ between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents – the various sounds, sights and other impressions of the surrounding environment”

Scientific Studies on Mindfulness Meditation

Scientific study into the practice of mindfulness has significantly increased over the past decade. While studies have pointed to a vast array of benefits from mindfulness meditation ranging from alleviating ailments such post traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure, some of these claims have been called into question due to poor experimental design. As Thomas Plante has noted in Psychology Today, many mindfulness studies do not incorporate randomized control trials in which meditation is compared to other established available treatments. 

However, there are a couple of key areas where concrete evidence is stacking up about the benefits of meditation. Some of these include,

  1.  A long-term meditation practice can increase resilience to stress

Meditation enables us to respond better to stressful situations. Studies have demonstrated that meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ reactions to events.  It seems that there are long-term effects in reducing the intensity of stress amongst long-term meditators. As noted in Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s book Altered Traits,

These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”

2. Improved Attention

The practice of mindfulness meditation requires an individual to be conscious of their wandering thoughts and to continue to bring their attention back to their breath. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that this would improve one’s ability to focus. Evidence has supported this claim.  

In one longitudinal study published in Springer’s Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers evaluated the attention span of individuals before and after they attended a 3-month meditation retreat. They found that after the retreat meditators were able to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.  After reassessing these participants 7 years after the retreat, many of the mental improvements were sustained amongst the participants. [1] 

3. May reduce psychological bias 

Humans are fraught with cognitive biases that distort our interpretation of reality. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions in instances where we have little evidence to support our beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,  

The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly upon the quality of the story they can tell about what they see even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence should be critical to our judgement is missing – what we see is all there is.

There is preliminary evidence that demonstrates that mindfulness reduces negativity bias which is our tendency to focus on negative events rather than positive even when they are equal in intensity. In one study, participants were shown images that induce positive (ie. babies) and negative emotions (ie. pain) while having their brains scanned. Participants who actively practiced mindfulness meditation were shown to be less reactive when they were shown negative images than participants who had no meditation practice.

Conclusion  

While research on mindfulness is still forthcoming, it is important to note that the practice is not a panacea for dealing with issues related to mental clarity and wellbeing. For those dealing with mental distress it can work as an aid in conjunction with other scientifically proven techniques.

From a personal perspective, I see the value of adopting a ‘mindfulness mindset’. That is, it enables us to view events from an objective perspective and refrain from jumping to conclusions or devising narratives to make sense of the unknown.  That is to say, it allows us to see reality how it really is.

Hope you enjoyed this article till next time,

AA


[1] Of note all participants in the study reported that they continued to meditate after the retreat to some degree.

Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill: Buddhism

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As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss. Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience. As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

Going forward, I will refrain from discussing the metaphysical or religious aspects of Buddhism, but focus mainly on the key aspects of the Buddhist doctrine from a naturalistic or scientific paradigm. Moreover, I want to demystify these concepts and ideas and ground them in the scientific literature.  In in my next article I will focus on what science is saying about mindfulness meditation.

Till next time,

AA

Mindfulness and Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer

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Much of our suffering and psychological problems we face are due to the fact that we are using ancient cognitive machinery to deal with the complexities of the modern world. Humans evolved though a process called natural selection in which genes that were best suited for their respective environments were passed on to the next generation. As Robert Wright notes in his book Why Buddhism is True, natural selection is not concerned about whether we evolved to be free from pain or to see reality objectively. Rather, its central objective is to pass on genes which are essential to an organism’s survival through reproduction. 

Humans have shifted from living in relatively small hunter-gatherer tribes to urban environments and large cities. Consequently, many of our predispositions that were previously useful in the past are now the cause of needless anxiety, suffering and discontent. Let’s look at some examples to prove this point.

Anticipatory fears:  As the Stoic philosopher Seneca stated, “We often suffer more in our imagination than in reality.”  Why is it that people fear things that they have not yet experienced?  For instance, some people have a fear of flying without even stepping foot on a plane.  Others dread experiencing traumatic events based on programs they watched on TV.

Why is this the case?

Our fight or flight response system that we inhibit was incredibly useful when humans were living in natural environments. Imagine living in a hunter-gatherer society and hearing the sound of movement in the trees. We anticipate a threat even though this may or may not have been a predator. However, in the one case that it was, those who quickly escaped had a better chance at long-term survival than those who did not.

Our proclivity towards short term pleasure: Many of us continually crave and indulge on short-term pleasure which we know are only temporary and will soon pass. Take for instance, the craving to eat a whole box of chocolates. Once we start eating it may take incredible will power to stop. However, we know that after of our feast is over, we will likely feel terrible – not to mention the high caloric intake and long-term effects of this indulgence.

The temporal nature of pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. If pleasure lasted forever, we wouldn’t have the drive for reproduction and to fulfill our most basic needs. We would cease to desire more food after we finish a meal because we wouldn’t have the signal of hunger telling us that we need more food.

Our aversion towards public speaking:  According to studies, almost 30% of Americans claim they are either ‘afraid or very afraid of public speaking.’ The fear of public speaking can be traced to our distant ancestors. Maintaining group solidarity and cohesion was crucial to fighting off large predators. Being ostracized from the group would lead someone to face incredible hardship, a potential early death. This links to our loathing towards public speaking, and our aversion to be judged and rejected by our peers.

Mindfulness

So how can we cut through these delusions and regain control over our immediate desires and impulses? Mindfulness can provide us with some direction.

Mindfulness is quite simply ‘cultivating awareness’ to the contents of your consciousness in a clear and non-judgemental way. It trains us to cultivate attention and be able to shift our awareness to the present moment.  The hectic nature of our day to day lives barely gives us time to think and reflect. Consequently, as mindfulness practitioner Jon Kabat Zinnn notes in his book Falling Awake,

“We so easily default to an automatic pilot mode – descending into the familiar ruts in our thinking and our emotional life, getting caught from agenda item to agenda item, and becoming more and more addicted to all the ways we have to distract ourselves through our devices and our so-called ‘infinite-connectivity’ that we lose sight of what is right in front of us and of what is called for now”

This next section of the blog will explore how mindfulness and Eastern philosophy can serve as an antidote to our needless suffering. These practices can help us step off the so-called ‘hedonic treadmill’ and enable us to cultivate awareness so we aren’t constantly driven to ‘keep up with the Jonses’.