Oct 25

“The Mindful Body” by Ellen J. Langer

Harvard psychology professor Ellen J. Langer‘s latest book, The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health, focuses on the importance of the mind-body connection. It is far from her first foray into this subject, however. With over 40 years of study in this area, Langer, often regarded as the “mother of mindfulness” as well as the “mother of positive psychology,” has authored several other related books. 

“It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits,” she stated in her 2009 Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

In The Mindful Body she expands on the mind-body unity concept. From the publisher: “Whether it is hotel chambermaids who lost weight when they simply came to see that their work constituted exercise, or patients whose wounds healed faster in rooms with accelerated clocks, she shows how influential our thoughts are to the state of our bodies. Her work has likewise proven that discouraging health news can have negative effects. Learning you are prediabetic, for example—even if your blood sugar reading is only a fraction away from ‘normal’—may actually play a part in the development of the disease.”

Kirkus Reviews offers additional info about the latter amazing finding: “…(T)here’s not much difference between A1C counts of 5.7 and 5.8, but one is held to be normal and the other prediabetic. Furthermore, telling someone they are prediabetic often leads to diabetes owing to the way people are inclined to read medical judgments as infallible and fixed.”

Other interesting research cited by Langer in The Mindful Body involves “several elderly men[who] roomed together in housing ‘that was retrofitted to suggest that time had gone backward twenty years.’ The men quickly began to behave as if they were 20 years younger: ‘Their vision, hearing, strength, and even objective appearance improved’.” 

A conclusion from the review at Publishers Weekly: “According to Langer, patients given grim diagnoses often adopt defeatist attitudes and other ‘stereotypical responses and behaviors’ associated with the illnesses, but when one recognizes that diagnosis criteria, cut-off points, and labels are made by people…we gain a newfound sense of freedom’ and ‘can learn to heal ourselves.’ Langer notes that even chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s can improve with psychological interventions, making decisions mindfully, and realizing that every choice offers opportunities for growth and education.”

The following are some of the ways Langer says we can use our minds more effectively (Greater Good Science Center):

  1. Question authority.
  2. Recognize that what counts as “risky” is different from person to person.
  3. Approach predictions with skepticism. The future is never completely knowable.
  4. Understand how our choices are never completely “right” or “wrong.”
  5. Avoid social comparisons or ranking yourself.

See GoodNet.org for the details.

Aug 28

“McMindfulness”: Critique of Massive Trend

According to McMindfulness, there are more than 100,000 books on Amazon with “mindfulness” or something similar in the title. The movement has sprouted mindful surfing, mindful bread and mindful KFC chicken pot pies. Mindfulness apps have become big business, and Purser notes that there is a “peculiar irony in turning to an app to de-stress from problems that are often made worse by staring at phones.” Jonnie Wolf, The Guardian

Ronald Purser, author of McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality and Korean Zen teacher, knows that the practice of mindfulness has its benefits. On the other hand, he takes issue with its commodification—“co-opted by corporations, public schools, and the US military”—so much so that it’s “become a banal form of capitalist spirituality that mindlessly avoids social and political transformation…” (the publisher).

Also excerpted from the publisher’s blurb, it’s further noted that mindfulness can and has been overly utilized for “social control and self-pacification.”

According to reviewer Dosho Port, Patheos, Purser identifies five distinct problems related to “McMindfulness.” Port chooses several quotes from the book to support each of these. (See the Patheos link for further details.)

  1. Commodifying the calm mind
  2. Decontextualizing mindfulness from the social, economic, racial, and religious reality: “Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”
  3. Blaming the victim: “Mindfulness programs pay little attention to the complex dynamics of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives that shape capitalist culture.”
  4. Absence of ethical reflection: “Forethought and care, vigilant awareness of the consequentiality of one’s actions, and striving to eradicate unwholesome mental qualities (all basic Buddhist aims) take a back seat to just ‘being mindful, ‘being present,’ and other platitudinous edicts like ‘radical acceptance.’”
  5. The research isn’t as good as claimed: “At a practical level, the misinformation and propagation of poor research methodology can potentially lead to people being harmed, cheated disappointed, and/or disaffected.”

Part of his solution is the following, as quoted by Port:

“The therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions are clearly of value. We don’t need to stop using them, but we do need to do much more. Calming the mind can help us engage with social, historical and political realities. We don’t need another form of praxis defined in biomedical and universalizing terms. Mindfulness needs to be embedded in the organic histories and local knowledge of communities, empowering them to see how things are.”

William Davies, author of Nervous States and The Happiness Industry: “Timely and incisive…Purser reveals how mindfulness became a vast industry, promising to cure us of a growing range of psychological ailments, and simultaneously propping up the political and economic system that generates them.”

Mar 20

“10% Happier”: Author Dan Harris Advocates Meditation

Initially I wanted to call this book “The Voice in My Head Is an A—–e.” However, that title was deemed inappropriate for a man whose day job requires him to abide by FCC decency standards. Dan Harris, 10% Happier

That “voice” to which TV news correspondent Dan Harris refers above and in his new book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, is the internal chatter we all have to some degree. Internal chatter that for Harris was getting out of control.

A major catalyst for Harris seeking change in his life? His on-air panic attack in 2004—he was on Good Morning America when it happened. As he states, it was “the single most humiliating moment of my life.”

In the recent ABC News video below, Harris shows a clip of that attack:

Harris embarked on a specific quest. From the official description of 10% Happier:

A lifelong nonbeliever, he found himself on a bizarre adventure, involving a disgraced pastor, a mysterious self-help guru, and a gaggle of brain scientists. Eventually, Harris realized that the source of his problems was the very thing he always thought was his greatest asset: the incessant, insatiable voice in his head, which had both propelled him through the ranks of a hyper-competitive business and also led him to make the profoundly stupid decisions that provoked his on-air freak-out.

What did he eventually find that helped? MeditationKirkus Reviews recounts some of his process toward this realization:

Though Harris’ journalistic assignments would bring him face to face with influential self-help spiritualists Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, neither dispensed the precise amalgam of assurance and credibility necessary to truly diffuse his afflictions. After his wife Bianca’s success with books by sage psychiatrist Mark Epstein, Harris found himself connecting with the good doctor’s Buddhist leanings, befriending him and swiftly embracing the art of meditation, instead of debunking it as the hokey ‘exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music.’

From Harris’s Preface to 10% Happier, in which the book title is explained:

Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.

At first it was only five minutes a day that he meditated. But the three benefits he found immediately, he says, were:

  1.  Increased focus
  2.  A greater sense of calm
  3.  A vastly improved ability to jolt myself out of rumination and fantasies about the past or the future, and back to whatever was happening right in front of my face

Now Harris has been practicing meditation for about four years, 35 minutes per day. Another important benefit he’s been able to find? It has to do with that “voice”:

I created a different relationship to the voice in my head. You know the voice I’m talking about. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, checking our e-mail while we’re in conversation with other people, and losing our temper only to regret it later. The ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment without reacting to it blindly—often called ‘mindfulness’—is a superpower. I’m certainly not arguing that meditation is a panacea. I still do tons of stupid stuff – as my wife will attest. But the practice has definitely made me happier, calmer, and nicer.

Things he still struggles with are decreasing his multitasking attempts and his mindless and compulsive eating. Habits he’s broken are his use of self-medicating drugs (cocaine and ecstasy) which he’s now learned had led to brain changes (too much adrenaline) that likely contributed to his panic.

Oct 15

Ruby Wax: A Comedian Waxing Mindful On Mental Illness

“People who say … they’re perfectly fine [are] more insane than the rest of us.” Ruby Wax

The above quote is taken from “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?,” a TED Talk by Ruby Wax, an American comedian who started a successful career in the U.K. in the 1980’s.

In more recent years her career stalled a bit, however, apparently related to episodes of depression.

But Wax has let neither her condition nor the lack of available work keep her down, so to speak. She and friend Judith Owen, a singer/songwriter who’s also battled depression, created their own show, one they inaugurated at various mental health facilities. Along the way, Wax unexpectedly became a celebrity “poster child” for depression.

From the TED blog: “Comic Relief put my face on a poster. I was in the Tube, and there was a poster of my face with the word DEPRESSED stamped across it. When I saw it, I almost lost my organs out of my nose.”

As she continued walking she saw that the posters were everywhere. “And by the time I got down to the platform I thought, OK, well, I’ll write a show and pretend this was my publicity. I’ve always said to myself, if you’ve got a disability, use it.”

So they branched out even further. Their newly beefed-up show Losing It expanded to other venues, including an extended run last year at a theater in London’s West End. The Guardian states that the first half is “funny and informative” of both depression and OCD.

And the second half, a Q & A session? As stated to The Guardian, “‘We wanted to give people a chance to share their experiences and ask questions,’ says Wax, ‘but we only imagined one or two people at most speaking out before it petered out with everyone making for the exit. Rather than finding it hard to get people to talk, our real problem was getting them to shut up.'”

On a more personal level, Wax has been working on her Master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Mindfulness is what she uses to decrease her own ruminating—though as she says (in the TED post)…

…not in a guru Buddha let’s-eat-a-cauliflower way. I throw my attention to a physical sensation, to a sound, focus on my feet on the ground, as opposed to this … endless mental loop tape … because the mind can’t be in two modes at once. It can’t think and also sense something at the same time. It’s a trick you’re playing on yourself, on your thinking. If I throw focus from my rumination to one of my senses, it brings the cortisol down. Other people might say, ‘I’m going to focus my attention on my cat or put Vivaldi on.’ I don’t care how you learn to flip your dial when you need to.

…We need better words. ‘Mindfulness’ sounds like something Martha Stewart says: ‘Be mindful when you serve the chicken at a dinner party.’

…And the bitch of it is, you have to do it every day. Feel your breathing, feel your feet on the ground. It’s attention on attention. When you do it regularly, your neurons are rewiring…

Notably, Ruby Wax says she actually got into mindfulness because she’d become fed up with shrinks who weren’t so helpful.

Jul 27

Multitasking a Myth: John Medina, “Brain Rules”

The brain cannot multitask. Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time…To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing information-rich inputs simultaneously…Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors. John Medina

In developmental molecular biologist John Medina‘s book Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (2008), he talks about the myth of multitasking. It’s, in fact, something we’re “biologically incapable” of doing.

The following advice is taken directly from his blog: “The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Businesses and schools praise multitasking, but research clearly shows that it reduces productivity and increases mistakes. Try creating an interruption-free zone during the day—turn off your e-mail, phone, IM program, or BlackBerry—and see whether you get more done.”

By the way, Medina’s 12 “brain rules” for “surviving and thriving at work, home, and school” are listed below in the order he gives them in the book:

  1. Exercise boosts brain power.
  2. The human brain evolved too.
  3. Every brain is wired differently.
  4. We don’t pay attention to boring things.
  5. Repeat to remember.
  6. Remember to repeat.
  7. Sleep well, think well.
  8. Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
  9. Stimulate more of the senses.
  10. Vision trumps all other senses.
  11. Male and female brains are different.
  12. We are powerful and natural explorers.

Guess which of the 12 rules Medina thinks “are most important to the average person?” Medina readily will say they’re exercise, stress, and sleep.

And, of those three, which two particularly affect our emotional well-being (more than the excluded one)? Exercise and stress. Although lost sleep also does a number on us, Medina places more emphasis on its possible effects on learning.