Mindfulness – Mindful What?

2016-07-31 16.40.37

Mindfulness has become a ‘buzz word’ advocated by the likes of Davina McCall, Jerry Seinfeld and Oprah Winfrey, through to companies such as Google, eBay, Twitter and even The Bank of England. Whilst some argue that it’s a fad, it’s actually been around since the 1970’s and is based on Buddhist meditations practiced for 2550 years.

But What Is It?

Mindfulness is a practice of turning our attention away from our thoughts and the ‘chatter in our head’, toward sensations. Concentrating on what we can hear, smell, see, taste and feel in the present moment. This puts us in the ‘here and now’ rather than fretting over the past (e.g. why did I eat that) or worrying about the future (e.g. will I ever lose weight).

Our neo-cortex, which is the most advanced part of our brain, has given us incredible opportunities as a species e.g. the ability to speak, read, write, pass on knowledge, project into the future and have an awareness of ourselves. In the context of our modern world and coupled with the primitive survival driven parts of our brain, it can also cause us the odd problem.

Take for example, walking into a room full of people we don’t know. Our more primitive brain sees this as a threat (a throng of people we don’t know could kill us). It releases chemicals that put us on edge. Our more advanced brain responds with chatter such as:

“What’s wrong with me? Why am I so nervous, all I’m doing is walking into a room?”

“Maybe they won’t like me. What happens if no one talks to me? I’m going to look like a right idiot just standing there on my own.”

This is how many of us naturally respond, but in order to get the most out of our brain we need to be gentle with it not talk to ourselves like we’re idiots. Mindfulness helps us to treat our mind with care and teaches us to move our attention away from this unhelpful chatter. Consequently it’s incredibly helpful when it comes to our mental well-being and resilience to stress.

Is There Any Proof That It Actually Works?

Psychologists have been studying the impacts of mindfulness since the late 1970s with research showing the positive impacts on both physical and mental health.

When it comes to physical health studies have shown it’s positive effect on HIV pathogenesis, inflammatory disorders, drug abuse, chronic pain and immune system disorders.

And in terms of mental health, among other things it can reduce depression relapse, neuroticism, absent-mindedness, rumination and social anxiety. It also improves certain factors such as life satisfaction, conscientiousness, self-esteem, empathy, optimism, emotion regulation, attention and working memory.

More recently neuroscientific research has shown that individuals who are mindful are better able to regulate emotional responses ‘via prefrontal cortical inhibition of the amygdala’ or in other words through the advanced and rational brain managing impulses kicked out by the primitive brain.

But does it REALLY work?

I know from personal experience that it brings a greater sense of calm, reduces anxiety and stops a racing mind, and it’s not hard to see how it helps people to regulate their thoughts and emotional responses more effectively. But, it’s not a silver bullet. Why? Because:

  1. It takes a concerted effort: even with Headspace’s 10 minute a day approach it’s all too easy to deprioritize it in our daily to do list (I manage once a week if I’m lucky).
  1. It needs to be understood in the context of the brain. Knowledge of what’s normal and what’s not makes it immediately more impactful. This can’t be learnt from mindfulness alone.
  1. People need to know how to apply it to daily life experiences. Without this understanding, it will only counter stress during meditation.
  1. It’s been taken out of context. When practiced as spiritual meditation, mindfulness is put into the perspective of other life factors. For example showing compassion toward others, being a good member of a community, living an ethical life and searching for meaning. These are factors that produce a deeper level of satisfaction, playing to our advanced rather than primitive brain and are something that mindfulness in isolation lacks.

In spite of these potential limitations I still strongly advocate its use as a positive psychological tool. Mindfulness has taken something that was largely inaccessible to Western life and turned it into something that can be understood and applied by anyone. If nothing else it helps us to protect our brains from the fast-paced over stimulating modern world that we live in.

What about you – what are your thoughts on mindfulness? What have your experiences been? I’d love to hear.

 Links:

 https://www.headspace.com

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/15/mindfulness-study-meditation-7000-teenagers-impact

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-matters-most/201306/top-10-things-most-people-don-t-know-about-mindfulness

References:

Bishop, SR, Lau, M, Shapiro, SL, Carlson, L, Anderson, ND, Carmody, J, Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241

Creswell JD (2016) Mindfulness Interventions. Annual Review of Psychology, 68

Creswell JD, Lindsay EK. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23(6):401–7

Schonert-Reichl KA, Oberle E, Lawlor MS, Abbott D, Thomson K, et al. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology 51(1):52–66

Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, Clive J. Robins (2011) Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies. Clinical Psychological Review August; 31(6): 1041–1056

Zenner C, Herrnleben-Kurz S, Walach H. 2013. Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology 5:603–603

 

 

I Want It NOW!

Catch a train, wait in a queue or go out for dinner and everyone is intensely staring at a screen. It feels like we’re submerged by technology in a world that is moving at an ever-faster pace. Everyone wants everything ‘NOW’.

As Julie Andrews would say….“Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start”….this is where you may need to exercise some patience before I get to the point!

Taking a leap back to 50,000 years ago (which is around when our brains stopped evolving) there were certain factors that were critical to our survival including eating, reproducing and being part of a group. Consequently our brain structure evolved to encourage and reward these behaviours (and any other behaviour that meant we escaped death).

These parts of the brain act quickly so that if we are under threat we run away; if we are hungry we eat whatever is available; if we have an opportunity to mate we get on with it. I call this part of the brain, the survival driven brain. We are still led by these ancient drivers today. When we follow them we get a quick fix, a rush of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which make us feel (temporarily) good.

The other part of our brain (simply speaking) is more concerned with feeling fulfilled, finding purpose in life and contributing to society. It’s much slower and takes more effort to engage. This is the part that employs patience and manages the more troublesome survival driven brain. Unfortunately, whilst it is the wiser part of the brain, when we’re facing a threat or if we’re over stimulated, it doesn’t get a look in. Our ancestors needed the brain to function like this so that survival was the main focus of attention. I call the part that carries out these processes the meaning driven brain.

Although we don’t face the same urgency to run away from predators today, our brain operates in exactly the same way. So we still have a survival driven brain that dominates a large majority of our behaviour.

 

How Does This Relate to Technology & Wanting Everything Now?

Technology is great, it’s fast, responsive, and it allows us to live life via the touch of a finger. This plays to our survival driven brain’s need to get a quick fix and rapid response. It also meets the need of engaging with others and therefore belonging and reproducing (e.g. via selfies and tinder). Meanwhile, constant notifications received via social media act as reward cues, releasing dopamine and encouraging us to do the same thing again and again. A short lived rush which originally evolved to help us survive now keeps us hooked on our social media.

 

So Why Does This Make Us Want Everything Instantly?

This habituates us to getting everything immediately and reduces our ability to hold out for a reward or response. Professor Christopher Lucas from New York University School of Medicine has looked at the interaction of kids with technology. He explains how children focus on social media and video games in a different way to focusing on schoolwork. Using technology the brain receives frequent, intermittent rewards which habituates us to need more of the same. When children are in a classroom the rewards are not immediate, they are received over an outstretched period of time. This doesn’t live up to expectancies, so children disengage.

The same is true for adults. The constant stream of information and sensations we receive when we interact with technology not only leaves us wanting a quick fix to every situation, it also distracts us from more meaning driven activities that have a longer term benefit. It puts us in survival driven mode and on edge, constantly on the look out for danger or needing another reward.

 

What can we do?

As with every area of psychology, the first step is to become more aware. It’s very difficult to live outside of the norms that society and our environment creates and technology is very much part of those norms, but we can limit the amount of time we use it. We can also take part in more meaning driven activities, that offer prolonged levels of reward such as: sport, reading, gardening, mindfulness or simply doing a good deed for someone. Ultimately doing these things will give back to us as individuals, helping us to train our brains to be more patient and giving us lasting benefits.

Mindfulness:

If you’re interested in mindfulness I would highly recommend Andy Puddicombe’s headspace app.

https://www.headspace.com

 

Technology is Not All Bad:

https://www.headspace.com/blog/2016/07/14/were-addicted-to-pokemon-go-and-thats-ok/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-media-psychology-effect/201203/brain-behavior-and-media

 

References:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/health/views/10klass.html?_r=1

Egerton, A. et al. (2009). The dopaminergic basis of human behaviors: a review of molecular imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehaviour. Rev. 33, 1109–1132

Satoh, T., Nakai, S., Sato, T., and Kimura, M. (2003). Correlated coding of motivation and outcome of decision by dopamine neurons. Journal of  Neuroscience. 23, 9913–9923

Caplan, S. E. (2003). Preference for online social interaction: A theory of problematic internet use and psychosocial well-being. Communication Research, 30, 625–648

Yoo, H. J., Cho, S. C., Ha, J., Yune, S. K., Kim, S. J., Hwang, J., Chung, A., Sung, Y. H., & Lyoo, I. K. (2004). Attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and internet addiction. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 58, 487–494

Do We HAVE to Have Children?

Polly Florida

 

At a historic time, Theresa May takes on the mantle of the second ever female prime minister with the duty of leading our country through a critical period. Her former rival Andrea Leadsom inadvertently accused her of being less able to lead with the commitment of someone who had had children. But, in the 21st Century, do we need to be having children to have a real purpose in life and effectively leave our mark on the world?

My grandmother died a couple of weeks ago. Her soul focus and purpose in life was my Mum, her only child. Whilst she may not have achieved great things in the eyes of the world, she was a dedicated mother whose meaning in life was created by having a daughter. There is a spectrum of choices and at the other end of the scale are those women who don’t have children, who find meaning and purpose in focusing solely on their career or other aspects of life.

Below I’m sharing an extract from my (yet unpublished) book, Behavioural Big Bang. When it comes to parenthood, our more basic emotional brain tells us to reproduce and this inadvertently influences the views of society. But in our advanced world, is that really necessary? Women who remain childless create a cultural conundrum, which reflects the mismatch between what the evolution of our brains left us with, and the world we live in.

….how does society react to women who choose not to reproduce?

American blogger Laura Scott is married but has decided to stay child-free. She is part of a growing movement of voices across the media and the internet who are ‘childless by choice’. Scott’s blog posts have expressed frustration about the stigma attached to not having children: ‘Childlessness is perceived as being selfish, with a tragic outcome – you’ll die alone with 10 cats’. She takes specific issue with the portrayal of childlessness in Hollywood movies. After seeing the film ‘Four Christmases’, a 2008 blogpost argued that the movie perpetuated four unhelpful stereotypes:

1) Childfree couples are shallow, jet-setting DINKs (Dual Income No Kids).

2) Childfree couples are in denial: they secretly want a child but they are too fearful or too dysfunctional to step up to the plate and be real adults in the world.

3) They are allergic to kids, or just plain don’t like them.

4) When one half of a couple wants a child and the other one doesn’t this dilemma is easily solved by just having a kid— she, or he, will come on board once the kid is here.

One Hollywood insider who has encountered such stereotypes ad nauseum is the Oscar-winning British actress Dame Helen Mirren. She has spoken about becoming increasingly angry and impatient with constant journalistic questions about not having children. When once advised to get on with having children before it was too late, she snapped, ‘No, fuck off!’ In an interview with an American magazine, the American Association of Retired Persons, Mirren said: ‘I never felt the need for a child and never felt the loss of it, I’d always put my work before anything’. We can speculate that her survival-driven urges to reproduce were not as strong as other women. But regardless of that, she has made a meaning-driven decision to find fulfillment in her creative career instead or having children. She refused to conform to a barrage of social pressure and so represents those women who today choose to remain childless.

“….women’s advance in the workplace in an undeniable positive. However, it would be better if they didn’t have to justify it. As a society, we haven’t quite fully acknowledged that meaning of life is now more complex than simply passing on our genes. The insistence of reproduction is the remnant of hunter-gatherer societies in which the survival of the group hung in precarious balance. Now that is no longer the case, women, as well as men, have the ability to find purpose in what they do and to make a difference across society as a whole.”

What does this all mean? Being childless doesn’t make someone worthless, far from it. In our complex and dynamic world, there are multitudes of other alternative and critical ways in which to give back that add just as much value and meaning as being a parent. And when it comes to leadership (an area I know a lot about) you cannot identify whether someone will be better for having children or remaining childless. Separating out survival drivers from rational thinking, it is clearly about how someone is driven that matters: what values they have and what that they choose to give back to the world that really matters.

Links

http://www.childlessbychoiceproject.com

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36768148

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/12/theresa-may-builds-cabinet-prime-minister-david-cameron-live/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/andrea-leadsom-apologises-to-theresa-may-over-motherhood-comments-row-a7130361.html