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Mindfulness Lessons from Science and Children


Mindfulness Lessons from Science and Children

Photo by  Vanessa Serpas  on  Unsplash

There are some human characteristics that we describe as childlike. In growing up, we gladly leave behind many of those qualities. Adults shouldn’t throw tantrums in supermarkets and cry about parents’ tyrannical desires to prevent accidental deaths in the playground. However, some childish adjectives are earnestly used as compliments for adults. When we describe an adult as childlike, we usually refer to some innocent or charming quality about them. That’s a nice sentiment, but some features of children’s mindsets may even be profoundly healthy for adults to cultivate. So in what ways do we need to be more like a child again?

I don’t yet have my own children, but in interacting with my many young cousins, there is always one particular trait that stands out. That is their ability to live and experience life in the moment. Children seem to be able to have fun with just about anything. The other day, I saw a child screaming with laughter at the noise they were able to create by hitting a can with a stick. They did not worry about the latest disaster in the news or the state of the economy. They simply made the most of what they found in front of them, and appreciated every second as they experienced it.

Of course, none of this is to say that children are Zen masters. Far from it. If you’ve ever been in an airplane with a child around, you’ll know all too well that children do not hesitate to scream for what they urgently crave. Nevertheless, they seem to be able to engage wholly with an activity in a natural way that adults no longer find so easy.

This psychological quality of children is reminiscent of a mindset widely discussed in the sciences and the media: it’s called mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn was a pioneer in bringing mindfulness into the sciences, and he defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”. You can think of it as a mindset in which your attention is entirely locked on what is happening right now. Not what happened moments ago. Not what might happen in the future. What is happening now.

Photo by  Robert Collins  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Why should we care about the science?

It took a while for mindfulness to be taken seriously in the scientific world. This is because the principles within it were originally developed in a religious context, especially in the Buddhist tradition. It wouldn’t take you long to find a scientist who frowns upon the concept of religions. This frowning is due to the many religious premises and claims that cannot be supported by objective evidence. But the frowning often goes too far and becomes a phobic barrier to ideas that can actually be tested scientifically. Mindfulness occasionally still hits this barrier, but now features prominently in neuroscience and psychology studies. If you search for ‘mindfulness’ on Google Scholar, you’ll be reading papers for the rest of your life.

You will still find people who reject the scientific idea of mindfulness because of its religious baggage, and they will often lock horns with people who argue science has no place in discussing mindfulness. I’m in the camp who believe both teams are being too absolutist. Without scientific evidence, mindfulness will never be clearly distinguishable from the snake oils that do more harm than good for humanity, and it certainly won’t ever become a valuable part of our mainstream health services. And without an open and unbiased mind to take mindfulness seriously in the first place, you’ll never fairly weigh up the evidence to understand its true value. If we’re being practical and trying to avoid personal biases, we should enjoy any benefits of mindfulness in our personal lives, while acknowledging the value of emerging evidence through scientific scrutiny.

We don’t necessarily need evidence to believe that mindfulness is good for us personally, but we do need it to truly understand the extent of its benefits across different people, problems, and interventions. We cannot confidently and honestly recommend mindfulness as a useful intervention for others, unless we have independent research to back us. We have to rely on something more than the beliefs, feelings, and words that come from our own mind or the minds of those who agree with us. Clearly defined methods, testable hypotheses, and replicable experiments provide us with the material to convince a sensible doubter. Intercessory prayer has been around for thousands of years, with many religious people attesting to its value in improving the health of their loved ones. But with no scientific evidence to back up that claim, good doctors will never prescribe prayer as an intervention to support your loved one who may be suffering from a medical malady. Mindfulness, on the other hand, has growing scientific support replicating across independent research labs, and may eventually fall into that bucket of widely prescribed interventions. Science and evidence-based medicine have been crucial in our progress as a species. We cannot afford to dump them now.

The mechanics of meditation

Many of our anxieties are driven by a fear of something that may or may not happen in the future. Any pragmatist will tell you that it’s pointless to worry about something if you cannot change or affect it, but mindfulness provides a concrete approach for shifting your attention to something more helpful: your actual experience in the present moment. There are many types of meditation, but all of them are activities that cultivate this mindset in some form.

Photo by  Laurenz Kleinheider  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

I will highlight two types of meditation that I find particularly helpful. Rather than diving into their religious or historical context, I will adopt the labels and methods that have been used in the sciences. The first I will call focused meditation, and the second I will call open monitoring.

If you have any basic experience of meditation, you are probably familiar with focused meditation. The instruction is to focus on a specific object in the world or on your body. A convenient anchor is often the breath. You aim to maintain your attention entirely on your inhalations and exhalations in the present moment. This is far more challenging than it sounds, as any early practitioner will tell you. You don’t just consider the concept of breathing while mentally singing Ed Sheeran’s new song. You pay full and exclusive attention to every moment of the breath as it occurs. For example, if you are focusing on your chest, you want to experience it as it lies rested at its lowest point, then stay focussed on it as it slowly rises in each moment, then maintain your attention as it reaches its peak, and then do exactly the same with your mind as it sinks back to its resting position. Whenever you realize your attention has deviated from your breath — which might be as frequently as every few seconds — you simply return your mind calmly to the breath. Ideally without getting angry at yourself for having been distracted.

As you practice this, you will become better able to focus your attention on your breath for a few more seconds each time. Areas of the brain involved in sustained attention become more active as you start practicing meditation and improve your focus. However, at the highest levels of expertise (around 44,000 hours of practice), this activity is reduced again. In early practice, you become better able to recruit your attentional resources in the brain, but with expertise, focusing becomes effortless and you no longer need to rely on those resources. Distractions have a harder time dragging your attention away from where you direct it.

Open monitoring is a little different to focused meditation. Instead of choosing a specific object to direct your attention towards, the task is to focus your attention fully on any thought, feeling, or experience that arises in the present moment. There is no need to judge, anticipate, control, or react to anything that occurs. So an active mind that frequently jumps between objects is less of a concern during open monitoring than focused meditation as long as you are aware of what is happening. It’s still easy to become so distracted that you no longer pay close attention to your thoughts as they happen. There is an important distinction between being aware of thought and being lost in thought. I’m aware when I notice that my mind has floated from thinking about my breath to thinking about the work presentation I’m anxious about. I’m lost when my mind has drifted to worrying about the work presentation, panicking, wondering what I will need to do to prepare, and forgetting to notice each emerging experience.

The nice thing about open monitoring is that you can learn to apply it throughout your everyday life activities. With focused meditation, you usually need to find the time and space to quietly sit and focus on your breath. After a few days of this, most people will inevitably find some excuse to stop the practice. But with open monitoring, you can simply aim to remain aware and present with anything you happen to be doing: in the shower, you can focus your attention on the water as it hits your back; while walking in the park, you can focus on the colors of the trees; when eating, you can focus on the texture of the food as it rolls around your mouth. These are just examples, but the more you manage to bring your mind into the present as you go about your life, and the less you get lost in your head while your body does everything else on autopilot, the better you will appreciate your life as you live it. We too often let the day drift by and ask ourselves at the end of it “where did my Sunday go?”.

Evidence to support the benefits of mindfulness

Research is ongoing, and we still have much to learn. The experiments in this area are a mixed bag of higher and lower quality methods. A challenge in designing a good experiment is to compare mindfulness interventions with an appropriate control condition. If we want to understand how mindfulness impacts health, we need to know what it’s better than. Some experiments use no controls, which is clearly not ideal; if people improve in an aspect of their wellbeing following a mindfulness intervention, how do we know it’s not just because of the social interaction involved in their classes, or the effort of trying something rather than nothing? Other studies compare mindfulness to standard treatments for the targeted symptoms, or to different attention tasks, which is providing a more reliable insight into the specific health benefits of mindfulness itself. Review papers and meta-analyses that helpfully combine the results of multiple studies are also growing in number.

There is a way to go, but consistent effects are emerging. Mindfulness may not help everyone but there is now a large volume of evidence to suggest that it can have important, far-reaching benefits for many aspects of mental health. In general, extended mindfulness practice seems to adapt brain structure and function related to emotion, attention, and self-awareness. Experiments so far have highlighted benefits in areas including hypochondria, decision-making, chronic depression, and even chronic physical pain.

Some of the most convincing benefits are in emotions and relationships. Mindfulness techniques can be a great tool for shifting the mind away from ruminating on possible dramas and disasters. Most of my recent fears came from prognosticating outcomes that were either not that bad in the end, or did not happen at all. My time clearly would have been better spent focusing on my actual lived experiences. When we successfully apply mindfulness to our lives, many of us are happier, and we become more pleasant people to be around. We shouldn’t meditate with any specific goal in mind, because it’s counterproductive. A goal orientation is a distraction in itself. But it’s certainly helpful and motivating to know that whenever we do meditate, there are good reasons to believe it is worthwhile.

The child in us is waiting to emerge from a long slumber. There are many benefits to centering our minds on our current experiences and shifting away from the usual obsessions about objectives, plans, and goals. It’s about time we focused on the only thing we know for certain: that we are breathing, thinking, and feeling right now. We don’t need to keep a chart or track our data. Mindfulness is less of a life hack and more of a way to live. It provides an escape from our monotonous and robotic approach to our everyday activities. Next time you eat, shower, or fold the laundry, know that you can appreciate the moment rather than simply get through it. Life is always going to be too short. So you might as well live it.


Your Brain’s Battle Between Happiness and Greener Grass


Your Brain’s Battle Between Happiness and Greener Grass

Photo by  MI PHAM  on  Unsplash

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

We all do what we can to feel good. When you consider what it means to feel good, you probably think of the immediate pleasures that life has to offer: excitement, laughter, and requited love. But most of us want more diverse experiences, including a sense of calm, gratitude, and purpose. In fact, sometimes the best feelings we ever have come from long or grueling challenges. For me, this includes a backbreaking (almost literally) process of learning to snowboard, and a gruesome mountainous cycling challenge in the Canadian Rockies. It’s almost as though the pain of a difficult challenge makes the pleasure of success feel that much better in comparison.

Our moods hang like a cloud over everything we do. Sometimes they change as an immediate response to a new event, while other times they are more like background feelings without any obvious cause. They have a clear impact on our quality of life, but we are generally bad at understanding exactly how or why we feel the ways that we do. Worst of all, we often fail to see what truly makes us happy in life. Without this knowledge, we’re like a hamster on a treadmill, chasing elusive good feelings but never quite reaching happiness.

If someone asked whether you want to implant an electrode in your brain directly targeting your pleasure centre and leave it switched on, what would you say? We could organize it so that it would be like the best drug in the world, but you would be protected from adapting to it or suffering from withdrawal symptoms or other negative physiological side effects. Even with these reassurances, we might hesitate. We don’t really want constant pleasure. Without life’s downs, the ups lose value. Would we be as productive, motivated, and appreciative of happiness, if we never really knew a life without it? Probably not.

Although negative emotions are practical in life, positive emotions are always the long-term goal. We direct any struggles or pains towards a future positive benefit in our life experiences. We often experience some fear before speaking to large groups or traveling to unfamiliar countries, but we don’t do these things because we want to feel the fear. We want the gifts at the end of the rainbow: enhancing our reputations and careers or broadening our horizons by meeting other cultures. We simply accept that fear is a central part of the journey towards gaining that positive outcome in our experiences.

When we are not afraid or nervous about what we are doing, we are unlikely to gain much at the end of the exercise. That may be because the activity is not scary in the first place, or because we have done it so many times already that we have adapted to it, and it’s no longer scary. Either way, we are unlikely to achieve anything life-changingly positive when we finish. We get nervous about new territories and public speaking precisely because they mean so much to us. We can all agree that we will have a more comfortable and pleasant life with less anxiety and sadness, but it is also true that tackling the occasional short-term drama can help us in the long term. We give ourselves the chance of entering a new realm of potentially greater mental well-being.

The optimal strategy is to find our personally ideal balance of creature comforts and novel excitements. This balance likely depends on our personality, especially on our level of openness, which relates to our desire to search for new experiences over familiar environments. A specific theory of animal behavior describes exactly this balance of explore vs exploit.

Life is full of decisions between sticking with what we know and exploiting the resources we already have, or riskily jumping at a new opportunity to potentially gain something much bigger. Humans and other animals need to deal with this challenge all the time. Antelope: “Do I stay here where it seems safe, and keep munching on this diminishing low quality grass, or do I move on and find some higher quality stuff while trying to avoid cheetahs?”. Human: “Do I go back to that restaurant I quite like tonight, or try this totally new one that I’ve heard about but might hate?”. We are not so different.

Photo on left by  Holger Bartholomä  on  Unsplash . Photo on right by  Zuza Reinhard  on  Unsplash .

Photo on left by Holger Bartholomä on Unsplash. Photo on right by Zuza Reinhard on Unsplash.

The brain is a prediction machine. It has a model of expectations about the world, and this model initially depends on our evolutionary genetics, but it also evolves as we live and learn new things about the environment around us. A human lives in a very different world than a whale, so each brain has its own individual preset models about how the world should look. As we navigate and act on the world, we naturally perceive new things around us, and we compare all of those new perceptions to our model of expectations.

When we find a big difference between them, something needs to change because uncertainty is dangerous. We either need to change what we are seeing, or we need to change our expectations of what we should see. If, as humans, we find ourselves lost in a dark forest or we are stuck outside on a cold night, we will spend all of our energy trying to get away from the darkness or the cold, given their inherent danger. We keep moving until our senses tell us we are in light or warmth again. But what if this is not an option? What if we have gone blind and we remain stuck in darkness for an extended time? Then we only have one other option for remaining sane: we change our expectations about the world, rather than continuing to try and change the sensory inputs themselves. In other words, we adapt so that the new world we find around us is no longer a constant surprise, and we find better ways of negotiating the world with the new model of expectations in our head.

We adapt our expectations in subtler ways in everyday life. For example, we might have a prior belief that raw fish is disgusting, and so we stay away from sushi. But then we might meet someone who encourages us to at least try it. The first time you try it might be a disaster. Your brain enters surprise mode, and kicks back to tell you to throw it away and never look at it again. But you might try a couple more times. The next few times are less surprising, and eventually you might even be quite comfortable with it. This process of becoming comfortable is the brain adjusting its expectations as new sensory experiences repeatedly show you that your predictions might be inaccurate. So your expectations for sushi might develop from ‘sushi = disgusting’ to ‘sushi = not so bad’, and perhaps eventually to‘sushi = awesome’. Because let’s face it, sushi is awesome.

Original pictures from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

Original pictures from Pixabay. Adapted by yours truly.

You can see shorter term adaptation happening in the brain during brain scans. When you are repeatedly shown the same image, the parts of your brain responsible for processing that image reduce in their activity over time. For example, when you are shown the same person’s face multiple times, activity in the fusiform gyrus area of your brain (which is important in decoding facial identity) decreases each time. When you are shown the same emotional expression, activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus (involved in processing emotional expression) reduces over time. So the brain has in-built adaptation functions. New information tends to be more important than old information, so it makes sense to devote less processing power to information as it becomes familiar. In fact, this adaptation mechanism is so deeply ingrained, that it’s one of the few methods we have for measuring the psychology of newborn babies. When newborns are interested in something, they look at it, and when they get bored, they look away. By measuring how long they look at different objects and images before adapting and looking away, we can understand some of the innate preferences that we are born with, like preferring biological motion (walking people) to non-biological motion (random movement).

Adaptation is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when we are working through an event that makes us fearful or anxious, because eventually we get used to it and calm our nerves. But we also face the same problem when we become especially excited or happy about a new event in our life. We never maintain the high for very long. Our energy and excitement when we start a new job dies down within a couple of months. Our passion and drive for going to the gym starts to fade after the first few workouts. And the romance and butterflies of a new relationship do not last forever either, even when we truly love someone.

It is a great revelation when we learn firsthand that we didn’t fully appreciate something or someone until we lost them. The loss snaps us out of the adaptation that took over, allowing us to more realistically appraise the object’s value and desperately want it back. One great example is good health. We live our lives taking good bodily health for granted and never thinking about it, until we develop an awkward cyst, infection, or goodness forbid, cancer that we need to get fixed. Then we spend our days praying for our good health to return, promising that we’ll better appreciate it this time. And often we do appreciate it more, at least for a week or so…

In one sense, adaptation to the good stuff in our lives also has an advantage. It allows us to develop new motivations and keep moving forward. In a world where we want to earn more, learn more, and experience more, it is not conducive to be fully happy with what we have. A little boredom gives us the push we need to climb up the ladder of life. But it is entirely obvious that most of us do not have this balance right.

This is why it’s important to make the most of what we have while we have it. One great way to do this is to strengthen your sense of awareness. Open monitoring mindfulness is just one technique for helping with this. Instead of getting lost in your thoughts, the aim is to attentively monitor all your thoughts and experiences as they appear, without reacting to them. You don’t necessarily need to sit cross-legged on a pillow to enjoy this mindset. You simply have to become more aware of how you’re thinking and feeling moment-to-moment in your everyday life. This level of internal self-monitoring requires practice, because it’s far from easy to maintain. But there is good evidence for the positive benefits of mindfulness, especially when it comes to emotional and relationship issues. So it’s worth the effort, and the effort can be enjoyable.

Whenever we break out of the ongoing buzz of annoying thoughts in our head, we tend to notice more of what’s going on around us. It might be as simple as noticing the freshness of the air in the park or the reckless abandon of a dog chasing sticks. These sound insignificant but have you ever noticed the experiential difference between walking through a park while paying attention vs walking while lost in thought? When you leave the park at the end of the first scenario, you feel as though you’ve had a full, rich, and meaningful experience. At the end of the second, you don’t have much of an experience at all, and you wonder where the time went. That’s if you don’t continue blindly scurrying all the way home without even noticing that you have left the park and the experience has ended.

These differences are far from trivial. Too many of us appreciate traveling vacations only in hindsight, because on the trip we get distracted by flight delays, baggage problems, too much heat, too much cold, overspending, uncomfortable accommodation, undercooked meat, foreign languages, and goodness knows what else. When we focus on the positives, we savor the best parts of the experience while we are actually there, rather than taking 500 rapid-fire photos to enjoy only once we are home.

Photo by  Jon Flobrant  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Outside of the most extreme hardships, the things that make us happy are usually within our reach. We just need to look for them. Ongoing gratitude and appreciation can be tough to cultivate because we are so inclined to push them away as we chase bigger and better things. But if we try, we can set ambitious goals and make progress, all the while appreciating what we already have.