Noticing the effects of a franctic age 1

Will put up one or two posts on the effects of our speeded-up world and social media on the human psyche, partly prompted by reading this address of Pope Benedict XVI to a group of contemplative monks. His remarks, although from a philosophical perspective, reflect the most recent scientific research on the fact that increased internet and social media usage seems to effect and change the very nature of the brain itself.

Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic. Cities are almost always noisy, silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always a lingering background noise, in some areas even at night. In the recent decades, moreover, the development of the media has spread and extended a phenomenon that had already been outlined in the 1960s: virtuality that risks getting the upper hand over reality. Unbeknown to them, people are increasingly becoming immersed in a virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night.

The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Carthusian Monks, Carthusian monastery of St. Bruno, Lamezia Terme, Italy, Oct. 11, 2011

Being ordinary

What is known as “realizing the mystery” is nothing but breaking through to grasp an ordinary persons life.


For most people, just the thought of being ordinary is like a cross to a vampire; it’s the thing we fear most. We want to be unique and special, not ordinary, and we turn to books on meditation, perhaps, to help turn us into the kind of special person we want to be.  None of us want to accept the mind that we have got. We come to practice because there are aspects of the mind that we don’t know how to come to terms with.

This dread of being ordinary has many roots deep in our psychological makeup. We dread being lost in the crowd, feeling that we have never gotten the attention or acknowledgement that we deserve. So much of our life is spent running away from the ordinary, and towards what we think of as some kind of a spiritual alternative.

Barry Magid,  Ending the Pursuit of Happiness

Living in a distracted age

Philosopher Alain de Botton on the effects of the relentless barrage of information which our minds are subject to in today’s world and how we need to re-learn and practice the ability to switch off:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible…..The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

More on Mind-Body medicine: Meditation’s effect on the brain

This study on the effects of the MBSR Course on the Brain, is getting a lot of attention. I posted about it last week already. Here is a link, which Carol sent me,  to a very nice piece in the New York Times. It summarizes well the current debate about the effects of meditation on the brain and health and links to some hard data in the area of mind-body medicine.

Mindfulness meditation changes the brain

Participation in the 8 week MBSR programme affects the brain in areas which are responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy and stress, according to a new study due to be published next week in the Journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. The research was led by Sarah Lazar at the Massachusetts General Hospital and looked at MRI scans of participants before and after they took part in the MBSR Programme and compared them with a control group of non-meditators. They found, for example, that participant-reported reductions in stress  were correlated with decreased density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. This change was not found in the control group, meaning that it was not just due to passage of time.

As Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper states: It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life. What is interesting about this study is that it shows how the reported effects of the MBSR Course are now beginning to be tracked in the underlying structures of the brain.

You can check out a report of the study here:

When your day is blue, or grey, look for red

The snow returned briefly yesterday, and today there is a bitter north wind.  When times are grey or cold, or if our mood is blue (as this week is purported to be) we need to consciously notice the moments of colour and warmth in our lives, explicitly savouring them a little longer. We have to let positive facts become positive experiences. Just as   Mary Oliver does when she pays attention to the red bird in this poem. What were  or are the moments of colour in your day today that you can be grateful for? Who or what brought warmth? Allow yourself  to feel good if you achieve something  however small,  if someone smiles or if you notice a good quality in yourself. As studies have shown, the more you take in the good in little details, the more your brain tilts towards the positive in an overall sense.

Still, for whatever reason —
perhaps because the winter is so long
and the sky so black-blue,

or perhaps because the heart narrows
as often as it opens —
I am glad

that red bird comes all winter,
firing up the landscape
as nothing else can do.