Stress proofing the mind

Bus Runner 2Unless we train it the mind does the minimum necessary to fulfill a function. In that way it is like the body. For example, our muscles and bones are strong enough for us to walk – but not to run, unless we condition them…..The difference between the mind and the body is that no one is surprised to get winded while running to catch the bus. Nobody get’s mad at themselves, saying “I can’t believe I can’t run 26.2 miles!” However, when we get overwhelmed by longer hours at work, more emails or more parenting duties, we become irritable, moody and unhappy. It does not occur to us that our mind is out of shape. We put more stress on ourselves because we assume we should be able to handle it all.

Sakyong Mipham, Running with the Mind of Mediation

Taking charge of how we experience life

I have written before about Jill Bolte Taylor who suffered a severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in 1996. After this stroke  she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life. It took  her eight years  to completely recover all of her functions and thinking ability, and in that time she observed closely the action and functioning of her brain. She noticed that it was possible to choose whether to hook into a feeling as it arises in the brain and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right through.  As a result she now encourages people to practice this brain development and to “Step to the Right” of  their – often judgmental –   left hemisphere brain chatter in order to live a more balanced life. This can be done by setting aside time for meditation, yoga or other activities. In this way we can take control over a lot of what passes through the mind and not over-identify with it.

As my left brain became stronger, it seemed natural for me to want to “blame” other people or external events for my feelings or circumstances. But realistically, I knew that no one had the power to make me feel anything, except for me and my brain. Nothing external to me had the power to take away my peace of heart and mind. That was completely up to me. I may not be in total control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to perceive my experience.

Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight


Words are the cognitive contraptions we use to work our way through a world of uncertainty. Words can free us: as symbols they are essential to distance us from experience enough to compare and contrast and reveal patterns in a complex universe. Seeing those patterns with ideas framed in our mind also enables us to communicate those insights to others. In these ways words are a wonderful gateway to understanding and sharing.

Yet words can also entrap us. If we do not recognize the limitations of their boundaries, if we see them as real, their top-down influences on our lives can be devastating. We can come to believe that “intelligence” is something we are either born with, or not. We can think that “we” are good and “they” bad. We can even feel that “I” is something so real  and important that “you” don’t matter. Letting go of such top-down influences is the art of mindful awareness. The receptivity of presence allows us to unleash the shackles that automatically enslave us.

Daniel J. Siegel. The Mindful Brain

A theoretical framework for mindfulness

There is a lot of anecdotal – spoken – evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation practice. Even from my own experience I can say that most people who attend the MBSR Course report feeling some benefits, from a some people having a sensation of greater calm,  to the participants who say that the practice was  “life-changing”. And it would seem that this is consistent with what is said all around the world as well as being suggested by the popularity of the Course. That being said, the MBSR Course is part of a growing field of evidence-based initiatives in Mind-Body medicine and,  although it difficult to measure all the outcomes, it has been accompanied by scientific research from the start. As I have reported from time to time on this blog, much of this – increasingly expanding – research concerns itself with small studies on the application of MBSR and other mindfulness programmes to particular conditions, such as anxiety, ability to focus, exam stress or irritable Bowel Syndrome. However, from time to time we get another type of research which focuses on trying to understand why mindfulness works and come up with a theoretical framework which can explain that.

The best of the studies to this point in time has been published recently, entitled, “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective“. The lead author, Britta Hölzel, of Justus Liebig University,  has been a part of Sara Lazar’s lab at Harvard Medical School and has worked on the studies there on the effects of meditation on the brain. This excellent, detailed,  study suggests perhaps the most comprehensive framework to date for the different aspects of the person that are impacted upon through ongoing mindfulness meditation. As Dr Hölzel states, the goal of the research was to  “unveil the conceptual and mechanistic complexity of mindfulness, providing the ‘big picture’ by arranging many findings like the pieces of a mosaic”  And what they suggest is that Mindfulness Meditation is a multi-faceted mental practice that involves several different mechanisms, producing effects in four areas, namely, focusing attention, greater awareness of the body, regulation of emotion and a changed perspective on the self. They examine the empirical research, including practitioners’ self-reports and experimental data, which give evidence of these effects as well as looking at brain imaging techniques which explore the neural processes implicated in the process.

This paper is the most satisfying  outline to date for those who wish to reflect on the underlying process of mindfulness and understand it in the context of wider psychological understandings and theories. I find that its more complex framework corresponds to my own experience in working with the MBSR Programme. The mosaic metaphor is also quite apt, as the different elements seem to me to be related. For example, the way we regulate emotion and deal with the fearful situations which threaten us can have a direct impact on our sense of self . Furthermore, a  greater ability to work with the felt sense of the body means that one relates to one emotions in a different way. Grasping the relationships between these components, and the brain mechanisms that underlie them, will allow clinicians to better tailor mindfulness interventions for their patients, says Dr Hölzel. The paper firstly goes into each component and looks at research in that area, but then goes on to suggest the areas of further research that is needed to move understanding in this area beyond the “infancy stage” it is currently in. The authors hope that this research will “enable a much broader spectrum of individuals to utilize mindfulness meditation as a versatile tool to facilitate change – both in psychotherapy and in everyday life.”

Hölzel, B.K. Lazar, S.W.,  Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago, D.R., Ott, U., (2011) “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6) 537– 559.

Noticing the effects of a frantic age 3: Changing the Brain?

There is no doubt that the effects of  online and technology usage on the brain will be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Such research is in its early days, and few conclusions can be drawn on the basis of it. One person who is looking at it is UCLA  psychiatry professor Gary Small – Director of the Memory and Ageing Research Centre at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a specialist in the effects on the brain of the ageing process – who was named by Scientific American magazine as one of the world’s top innovators in science and technology.  In 2007 he began research which  found that even moderate internet use – subjects were asked to spend an hour a day online, searching the Internet – changed the activity patterns in the brain dramatically. This news was greeted initially with delight, seeing that internet surfing can make the brain sharper and more intelligent, and a potential help in the aging process. In itself, there is nothing strange about this as temporary synaptic rewiring happens whenever anybody learns anything. As Dr. Small states: It’s a basic principle that the brain is very sensitive to any kind of stimulation, and from moment to moment, there is a very complex cascade of neurochemical electrical consequences to every form of stimulation. If you have repeated stimuli, your neural circuits will be excited. But if you neglect other stimuli, other neural circuits will be weakened.

But, as Dr Small continues his research, the problems implicit in the second part of that statement are becoming more clear. He has noted that other neural circuits, and other human behaviours –  such as social skills and communication –  can be weakened as we strengthen processes in other parts of the brain. For example, the more we reduce our concentration by expecting information to be entertaining, by concentrating on soundbites and by using short messages such as those favoured by Twitter, the less our ability to concentrate on material that requires deeper processing.  As Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic states: The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets, the less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information. And I do think we might lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance. Like any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it. This idea seems to be backed up by Dr Patricia Grenfield, who reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of different  types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She came to the conclusion that  every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others. Because we use the internet and other hand-held devices much more now, we have seen the widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills. But this advantage can mean the weakening of our capacity for the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.

These processes have led Dr. John Ratey, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to use the term “acquired attention deficit disorder” to describe the way technology is rewiring the modern brain. It reminds me of Jon Kabat Zinn’s phrase which I heard some years ago, that from the point of view of Mindfulness practice, the whole of modern society suffers from ADD. Dr Small has noted what too much time spent online can do to other mental processes, such as the ability to maintain eye contact, or interact easily with others, but other studies have linked voluntary and excessive online use to depression, poor school performance, increased irritability and ordinary Facebook use to lower self-esteem.

A new study published this year goes even further, and suggests that  excessive time online rewires structures deep in the brain, and indeed, seems to shrink surface-level brain matter in relation to excessive amounts of time spent online. It looked at 18 college-age students who spent long hours online, up to 10 hours a day. They were compared to 18 healthy controls who spent less than two hours a day online. All of the subjects were subjected to MRI scans of the brain. The results of the study were that several small regions in the brains’ of the excessive online users shrunk, in some cases as much as a 10 to 20%. The affected regions included the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area and parts of the cerebellum. The longer the usage, the more pronounced the tissue reduction. The researchers suggest this shrinkage could lead to negative effects, such as diminished goal orientation. With its small sample size, this research can only suggest possible directions for future, more in-depth study. However, taken with the reflection from other philosophical and mindfulness perspectives, it challenges us to reflect on the role new technologies are playing in all our lives.