With a shared vision of bringing an education of the “heart”, a mindfulness-based emotional skills and EQ program to schools...read more
This is a new initiative to train mental health professionals in Asia...read more
Our mission is to catalyze a shift in integrating an education of the “heart” into schools, colleges and the institutions of business and public service in Asia...read more
Asian EQ Dojo. Pvt :Ltd Sinan Thapwong Managing Director Line ID: sinandojo Tel: 66(0)617469870 Sinandojo08@gmail.com ...
Developing new skills based on Neuroscience and Eastern Wisdom traditions...read more
Over the past 10-15 years there has been a clear recognition that a “pro-social classroom” is critical to promoting both academic and social emotion development of students....read more
The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-being in Teachers and Students by Daniel Rechtschaffen
Learning to breathe by Patricia Broderick
Mindfulness based emotional balance workbook by M. Cullen, G Pons
Mindfulness for teachers by Patricia Jennings
Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education by Daniel Goleman and Peter Senge
Evidence for Mindfulness: Impacts on the Well Being and Performance of School Staff by Dr. Katherine Weare.
Integrating Mindfulness Training into K-12 Education: Fostering the Resilience of Teachers and Students by John Meiklejohn & Catherine Phillips & M. Lee Freedman & Mary Lee Griffin & Gina Biegel & Andy Roach & Jenny Frank & Christine Burke & Laura Pinger & Geoff Soloway & Roberta Isberg & Erica Sibinga & Laurie Grossman & Amy Saltzman
Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness in education
Richard Davidson on education
Mark Greenberg (founder of PATHS for primary grades being used in over 3000 schools)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8Rubaj8VcQ (mindfulness & SEL)
State of Massachusetts in the US, adopts state wide initiative in SEL
BOOKS (core text)
Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness – a practical guide to Awakening – Joseph Goldstein
Mindfulness – Diverse perspectives by J Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams
Mindfulness – finding peace in Frantic world by Mark Williams(a co-founder of Mindfulness based cognitive therapy)
The Art and Science of Mindfulness by L Carlson and S. Shapiro
Teaching of mindfulness (for clinicians & educators) by McCown, Reibel, Micozzi
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness by Bhante H Gunaratna
Balancing the mind – A Tibetan Buddhist approach refining attention by B. Alan Wallace
Academic degree programs
Leslie U, USA
Bangkor U, UK
Exeter U, UK
Duke U, North Carolina
The best resource on social and emotional learning in schools in the US is:
They are the advisers to 8 city-wide public schools in the US for about half a million students.
See also state of Massachusetts initiative:
One of the best resource on SEL. Also they are technical advisors to 6 city wide school districts in the USA
Greater Good Science Center, Berkley (good site for info on mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience)
Top research institute based in Germany
See work of Tania Singer
self-esteem vs self compassion
Best resource is Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning
And also SEL Practices
A summary of his main ideas regarding language and conversations.
Conversations, neuroscience and human relationships
On Dialogue Language – conversations – Chalmers
Based on the work of Flores, by an executive coach
This is still a seminal book on language,perception/cognition, human relationships and action.
Psycho-biological approaches to trauma/stress
Many US hospitals now have integrative medicine clinics. See also
Best to subscribe to online sources on yoga, chi-gong, tai chi, and so on.
Will recommend a few in a few weeks
Good source for behavorial medicine, pyscho-biological approaches
“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents.
Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived.
In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life.
When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for.
“In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”
According to Gallup, the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. As of January 2013, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent of all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry.
On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful.
Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy.
Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior—being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.”
The pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior—being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.”
The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers, which include Stanford University’s Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.
Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.
Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.
In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.
While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did he establish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life.
By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first.
Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
by Maria Popova
Intelligence, Simone de Beauvoir argued, is not a ready-made quality “but a way of casting oneself into the world and of disclosing being.” Like the rest of De Beauvoir’s socially wakeful ideas, this was a courageously countercultural proposition — she lived in the heyday of the IQ craze, which sought to codify into static and measurable components the complex and dynamic mode of being we call “intelligence.” Even today, as we contemplate the nebulous future of artificial intelligence, we find ourselves stymied by the same core problem — how are we to synthesize and engineer intelligence if we are unable to even define it in its full dimension?
How the emergence of IQ tests contracted our understanding of intelligence rather than expanding it and what we can do to transcend their perilous cultural legacy is what practicing physician, research scientist, and Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjeeexplores throughout The Gene: An Intimate History (public library) — a rigorously researched, beautifully written detective story about the genetic components of what we experience as the self, rooted in Mukherjee’s own painful family history of mental illness and radiating a larger inquiry into how genetics illuminates the future of our species.
A crucial agent in our limiting definition of intelligence, which has a dark heritage in nineteenth-century biometrics and eugenics, was the British psychologist and statistician Charles Spearman, who became interested in the strong correlation between an individual’s high performance on tests assessing very different mental abilities. He surmised that human intelligence is a function not of specific knowledge but of the individual’s ability to manipulate abstract knowledge across a variety of domains. Spearman called this ability “general intelligence,” shorthanded g. Mukherjee chronicles the monumental and rather grim impact of this theory on modern society:
“By the early twentieth century, g had caught the imagination of the public. First, it captivated early eugenicists. In 1916, the Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, an avid supporter of the American eugenics movement, created a standardized test to rapidly and quantitatively assess general intelligence, hoping to use the test to select more intelligent humans for eugenic breeding. Recognizing that this measurement varied with age during childhood development, Terman advocated a new metric to quantify age-specific intelligence. If a subject’s “mental age” was the same as his or her physical age, their “intelligence quotient,” or IQ, was defined as exactly 100. If a subject lagged in mental age compared to physical age, the IQ was less than a hundred; if she was more mentally advanced, she was assigned an IQ above 100.
A numerical measure of intelligence was also particularly suited to the demands of the First and Second World Wars, during which recruits had to be assigned to wartime tasks requiring diverse skills based on rapid, quantitative assessments. When veterans returned to civilian life after the wars, they found their lives dominated by intelligence testing.”
Because categories, measurements, and labels help us navigate the world and, in Umberto Eco’s undying words, “make infinity comprehensible,” IQ metrics enchanted the popular imagination with the convenient illusion of neat categorization. Like any fad that offers a shortcut for something difficult to achieve, they spread like wildfire across the societal landscape. Mukherjee writes:
“By the early 1940s, such tests had become accepted as an inherent part of American culture. IQ tests were used to rank job applicants, place children in school, and recruit agents for the Secret Service. In the 1950s, Americans commonly listed their IQs on their résumés, submitted the results of a test for a job application, or even chose their spouses based on the test. IQ scores were pinned on the babies who were on display in Better Babies contests (although how IQ was measured in a two-year-old remained mysterious).
These rhetorical and historical shifts in the concept of intelligence are worth noting, for we will return to them in a few paragraphs. General intelligence (g) originated as a statistical correlation between tests given under particular circumstances to particular individuals. It morphed into the notion of “general intelligence” because of a hypothesis concerning the nature of human knowledge acquisition. And it was codified into “IQ” to serve the particular exigencies of war. In a cultural sense, the definition of g was an exquisitely self-reinforcing phenomenon: those who possessed it, anointed as “intelligent” and given the arbitration of the quality, had every incentive in the world to propagate its definition.”
With an eye to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s culture-shaping coinage of the word “meme” — “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs,”Dawkins wrote in his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, “so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” — Mukherjee argues that g became a self-propagating unit worthy of being thought of as “selfish g.” He writes:
“It takes counterculture to counter culture — and it was only inevitable, perhaps, that the sweeping political movements that gripped America in the 1960’s and 1970’s would shake the notions of general intelligence and IQ by their very roots. As the civil rights movement and feminism highlighted chronic political and social inequalities in America, it became evident that biological and psychological features were not just inborn but likely to be deeply influenced by context and environment. The dogma of a single form of intelligence was also challenged by scientific evidence.”
Along came social scientists like Howard Gardner, whose germinal 1983 Theory of Multiple Intelligences set out to upend the tyranny of “selfish g” by demonstrating that human acumen exists along varied dimensions, subtler and more context-specific, not necessarily correlated with one another — those who score high on logical/mathematical intelligence, for instance, may not score high on bodily/kinesthetic intelligence, and vice versa. Mukherjee considers the layered implications for g and its active agents:
“Is g heritable? In a certain sense, yes. In the 1950s, a series of reports suggested a strong genetic component. Of these, twin studies were the most definitive. When identical twins who had been reared together — i.e., with shared genes and shared environments — were tested in the early fifties, psychologists had found a striking degree of concordance in their IQs, with a correlation value of 0.86. In the late eighties, when identical twins who were separated at birth and reared separately were tested, the correlation fell to 0.74 — still a striking number.
But the heritability of a trait, no matter how strong, may be the result of multiple genes, each exerting a relatively minor effect. If that was the case, identical twins would show strong correlations in g, but parents and children would be far less concordant. IQ followed this pattern. The correlation between parents and children living together, for instance, fell to 0.42. With parents and children living apart, the correlation collapsed to 0.22. Whatever the IQ test was measuring, it was a heritable factor, but one also influenced by many genes and possibly strongly modified by environment — part nature and part nurture.
The most logical conclusion from these facts is that while some combination of genes and environments can strongly influence g, this combination will rarely be passed, intact, from parents to their children. Mendel’s laws virtually guarantee that the particular permutation of genes will scatter apart in every generation. And environmental interactions are so difficult to capture and predict that they cannot be reproduced over time. Intelligence, in short, is heritable (i.e., influenced by genes), but not easily inheritable (i.e., moved down intact from one generation to the next).”
And yet the quest for the mythic holy grail of general intelligence persisted and took us down paths not only questionable but morally abhorrent by our present standards. In the 1980s, scientists conducted numerous studies demonstrating a discrepancy in IQ across the races, with white children scoring higher than their black peers. While the controversial results initially provided rampant fodder for racists, they also provided incentive for scientists to do what scientists must — question the validity of their own methods. In a testament to trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer’s assertion that the way we frame our questions shapes our answers, it soon became clear that these IQ tests weren’t measuring the mythic g but, rather, reflected the effects of contextual circumstances like poverty, illness, hunger, and educational opportunity. Mukherjee explains:
“It is easy to demonstrate an analogous effect in a lab: If you raise two plant strains — one tall and one short — in undernourished circumstances, then both plants grow short regardless of intrinsic genetic drive. In contrast, when nutrients are no longer limiting, the tall plant grows to its full height. Whether genes or environment — nature or nurture — dominates in influence depends on context. When environments are constraining, they exert a disproportionate influence. When the constraints are removed, genes become ascendant.
If the history of medical genetics teaches us one lesson, it is to be wary of precisely such slips between biology and culture. Humans, we now know, are largely similar in genetic terms — but with enough variation within us to represent true diversity. Or, perhaps more accurately, we are culturally or biologically inclined to magnify variations, even if they are minor in the larger scheme of the genome. Tests that are explicitly designed to capture variances in abilities will likely capture variances in abilities — and these variations may well track along racial lines. But to call the score in such a test “intelligence,” especially when the score is uniquely sensitive to the configuration of the test, is to insult the very quality it sets out to measure.
Genes cannot tell us how to categorize or comprehend human diversity; environments can, cultures can, geographies can, histories can. Our language sputters in its attempt to capture this slip. When a genetic variation is statistically the most common, we call it normal — a word that implies not just superior statistical representation but qualitative or even moral superiority… When the variation is rare, it is termed a mutant — a word that implies not just statistical uncommonness, but qualitative inferiority, or even moral repugnance.
And so it goes, interposing linguistic discrimination on genetic variation, mixing biology and desire.”
Intelligence, it turns out, is as integrated and indivisible as what we call identity, which the great Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf likened to an intricate pattern drawn on a tightly stretched drumhead. “Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance,” he wrote, “and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” Indeed, it is to identity that Mukherjee points as an object of inquiry far apter than intelligence in understanding personhood. In a passage emblematic of the elegance with which he fuses science, cultural history, and lyrical prose, Mukherjee writes:
“Like the English novel, or the face, say, the human genome can be lumped or split in a million different ways. But whether to split or lump, to categorize or synthesize, is a choice. When a distinct, heritable biological feature, such as a genetic illness (e.g., sickle-cell anemia), is the ascendant concern, then examining the genome to identify the locus of that feature makes absolute sense. The narrower the definition of the heritable feature or the trait, the more likely we will find a genetic locus for that trait, and the more likely that the trait will segregate within some human subpopulation (Ashkenazi Jews in the case of Tay-Sachs disease, or Afro-Caribbeans for sickle-cell anemia). There’s a reason that marathon running, for instance, is becoming a genetic sport: runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, a narrow eastern wedge of one continent, dominate the race not just because of talent and training, but also because the marathon is a narrowly defined test for a certain form of extreme fortitude. Genes that enable this fortitude (e.g., particular combinations of gene variants that produce distinct forms of anatomy, physiology, and metabolism) will be naturally selected.
Conversely, the more we widen the definition of a feature or trait (say, intelligence, or temperament), the less likely that the trait will correlate with single genes — and, by extension, with races, tribes, or subpopulations. Intelligence and temperament are not marathon races: there are no fixed criteria for success, no start or finish lines — and running sideways or backward, might secure victory. The narrowness, or breadth, of the definition of a feature is, in fact, a question of identity — i.e., how we define, categorize, and understand humans (ourselves) in a cultural, social, and political sense. The crucial missing element in our blurred conversation on the definition of race, then, is a conversation on the definition of identity.”
Complement this particular portion of the wholly fascinating The Genewith young Barack Obama on identity and the search for a coherent selfand Mark Twain on intelligence vs. morality, then revisit Schopenhauer on what makes a genius.
Summary: A new study reports the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement.
Source: Northwestern University.
Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.
Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.
These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.
In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.
“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”
The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.
Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.
This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.
The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.
When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.
In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.
The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.
“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”
Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.
The excitement about the application of mindfulness meditation in mental health settings has led to the proliferation of a literature pervaded by a lack of conceptual and methodological self-criticism. In this article we raise two major concerns. First, we consider the range of individual differences within the experience of meditation; although some people may benefit from its practice, others will not be affected in any substantive way, and a number of individuals may suffer moderate to serious adverse effects. Second, we address the insufficient or inconclusive evidence for its benefits, particularly when mindfulness-based interventions are compared with other activities or treatments. We end with suggestions on how to improve the quality of research into mindfulness interventions and outline key issues for clinicians considering referring patients for these interventions.
‘I therefore recommend meditation, just as I recommend the use of Jacobsen’s relaxation method or other focusing and relaxing techniques, as a palliative, distraction method, and advise most of my clients to use it with discretion and not take it too seriously or view it as a general therapeutic method.’ Albert Ellis,1 p. 673.
Something has gone wrong with the science of mindfulness. The literature on its supposed mental and physical benefits is conceptually and methodologically precarious and has been divulged in a sensationalist way. Academic articles describe weak results as ‘encouraging’ and ‘exciting’; popular best-selling books about mindfulness, many of which are written by researchers, are bursting with magical promises of peace, happiness and well-being. The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture’s desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements. There is a misrepresentation of the place and value of meditation in the Buddhist tradition, including its depiction as a purely rational method of self-exploration,2 which would feel alien to countless past generations of Buddhists.3
There are two major types of problems with the attempts to study mindfulness. First, its scientific literature is plagued by conceptual and methodological shortcomings and the turning of a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to this technique. Second, we also have concerns about how it is being utilised by individuals with little formal training in mental health, and its branding (often against the alarming background of a global increase in mental illness) as the technique of choice to develop ‘mental fitness’. Our aim is not to engage in a damning critique of mindfulness, but simply to urge caution about its widespread use as a therapeutic technique, including its limitations, the lack of clear evidence about its benefits, and its ‘assembly-line’ approach based on a reductive understanding of the human mind.
When the practice of meditation exploded in the West and was taken into the lab in the 1970’s, the idea behind its efficacy was couched in a language of altered states of consciousness: meditating allowed an individual to enter a particular state of consciousness,4 which was associated with a range of physiological alterations and mental health benefits.5 Although the notion of ‘altered states of consciousness’ is no longer popular in the medical and psychological sciences, the supposed efficacy of mindfulness is rooted in a particular state of consciousness: a non-judgemental awareness of the stream of our experiences. There is an acknowledgement in the literature that individuals will vary in their dispositional or trait levels of mindfulness6 – in other words, how naturally gifted one is in achieving this state of consciousness – but nevertheless the underlying stance is a universalist one: the practice of mindfulness is regarded as an innate human cognitive ability which, when regularly engaged in, is beneficial to all. Given this universalist framework, it is perhaps not surprising that mindfulness researchers have generally turned a blind eye to the fact that individuals react differently to meditation techniques – and that these reactions may not always be positive.
Let us start by focusing on the benefits of mindfulness as a preventive treatment for recurrent depression, currently the only mental illness for which the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends the use of a mindfulness intervention. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was developed with the intent of treating individuals at risk for recurrent depression. The early studies showed that, when compared with a treatment-as-usual (TAU) group, mindfulness led to lower relapse rates for those with three or more episodes of depression.7,8However, it increased the likelihood of relapse in individuals with two or fewer depressive episodes. But there is more. The last two major trials found that even patients with more than three episodes of depression react differently to it. Those who benefit the most were shown to be individuals with a personal history of childhood trauma and abuse, in other words, those most psychologically vulnerable.9,10 It is unclear what the reasons are for mindfulness being particularly effective within this subgroup of individuals with a high probability of depression relapse, but it certainly calls for a more nuanced recommendation by NICE.
We have recently reviewed some of the evidence for what we call the ‘dark side of meditation’, which includes evidence of somatic, psychological and neurological problems associated with meditation practice.11 This is a surprisingly under-researched area, mostly consisting of case studies, but not exclusively. A cross-sectional study on the effects of intensive and long-term meditation reported that over 60% of individuals had at least one negative effect, which varied from increased anxiety to depression and full-blown psychosis.12 Qualitative research on mindfulness meditation shows that it may increase the awareness of difficult feelings and exacerbate psychological problems.13 One individual reported being suddenly confronted with material relating to a forgotten childhood trauma during his mindfulness practice:
‘I saw the depth of the pain that is buried things that have happened to me that have not been dealt with properly. It can be very scary to know there’s that very strong thing in there’13 p. 853. It can be argued that the emergence of difficult emotional material from mindfulness practice may be a positive, rather than an adverse circumstance. This will, of course, depend on the context in which these feelings and memories emerge – if it happens in a therapeutic context, it may very well be; but if the person is alone or doing mindfulness in a group setting without a trained mental health clinician, a positive outcome is more unlikely and it may simply result in unexpected distress.
Why do some people react badly to meditation? A possible explanation is that it amplifies inner problems; if one has a ‘disposition’ to depression, bipolar disorder or psychosis, meditation may heighten it. This amplification thesis, however, is purely speculative and based on a biased positive understanding of mindfulness. Another explanation is that mindfulness is not only about ‘being aware’ but may also challenge the ordinary sense of self. We call this the ego-rattling hypothesis. Meditation techniques, including mindfulness, were originally developed to assist with bringing about a deep change in how individuals perceive themselves, others and the surrounding world. It is then not entirely surprising that a person might experience emotional difficulties as a result. For example, it has been found that after an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course, some participants experienced increased stress and depression.14 One experimental study, which used the Trier Social Stress Test, found that a short mindfulness intervention with healthy individuals led to increased biological stress when compared with an active control group.15
Individual differences in mindfulness, including the potential for adverse effects, should not be regarded as the elephant in the room. Their study is crucial if we are to advance our knowledge of the real therapeutic potential of mindfulness. We must understand for whom and under what circumstances it works and when it may be contraindicated. The neglect of individual differences has other obvious drawbacks: it weakens our conceptual understanding of mindfulness and severely limits the scientific usefulness of the plethora of studies that are searching for its benefits.
Contrary to popular opinion, the evidence for even the most ‘well-founded’ benefits of mindfulness is not consistent or conclusive. A recent comprehensive meta-analysis16 of randomised clinical trials showed that mindfulness interventions only led to moderate improvements in depression, anxiety and pain, and very small improvements in stress reduction and quality of life. There was no evidence that mindfulness had an effect on other variables, such as positive mood, attention, sleep or substance use. Further, when mindfulness was compared with other interventions, such as physical exercise or relaxation, it was not more effective. This confirms the result of an earlier meta-analysis,17 which found that mindfulness-based interventions did not lead to medium- or long-term (3 weeks to 3 years post-intervention) better clinical outcomes compared with relaxation or psychoeducation.
The enthusiasm surrounding mindfulness easily leads to reporting the evidence in a different way. Let us again take the case of mindfulness in the treatment of recurrent depression. Its last major trial was published with great media fanfare: ‘mindfulness is as effective as drugs for treating depression’ reported the Daily Mail (21 April 2015).18 What the media did not pick up on was that the study had in fact failed, as its hypothesis was that MBCT would be superior to antidepressant medication in preventing depression relapse.
The media also completely ignored the results of the previous major trial on MBCT for recurrent depression, a methodologically more sophisticated study and one with surprising results. Williams and colleagues9 employed a dismantling design to investigate the ‘active ingredient’ of MBCT by comparing a typical MBCT intervention with psychoeducation (similar in all aspects to MBCT, except it did not involve meditation) and a TAU group. The psychoeducation groups met for the same amount of time and learnt to recognise the warning signs of depression and disengage from them, exactly as in the MBCT group. All participants were assessed at 6, 9 and 12 months. The results: participants in the MBCT group were as likely to relapse as those in the psychoeducation and the TAU groups. The only participants for whom MBCT proved more effective were those with a higher frequency of childhood trauma and abuse.
There are many other findings in the literature that raise doubts about the long-term benefits of meditation. Two meta-analyses disconfirmed the expectation that continuous practice would lead to cumulative changes, both in emotional-cognitive domains19 and in brain structure.20 There are no obvious interpretations for the finding that the expected positive changes of mindfulness plateau after only some weeks of practice, rather than increase with time. But the contrary is also true – there is no clear rationale for why continuous mindfulness practice would keep improving well-being or cognitive abilities. A sort of magical rationale for the ‘power of mindfulness’ appears to be the underlying explanation. Continuous practice is supposed to add up in a mathematical way, making you more mindful, super aware, super controlled, super happy and eventually liberated from the illusion of the individual self. It is against the background of this expectation that researchers show surprise about the lack of a linear evolution of the benefits of mindfulness.
This grandiose expectation regarding the optimisation of human functioning through a meditation technique may be looked on as naive; but it is also dangerous. It is driving an enthusiasm to show the effects of mindfulness that runs way ahead of the modest evidence, as well as tainting our perception of the data. It does something else that we find worrying: it encourages a simplistic portrayal of the human mind and of our inner lives. A number of analogies are used to make mindfulness amenable to our modern mindset. A particularly popular one is to think of mindfulness as a ‘mind gym’: ‘Just as brushing your teeth or going for a run are well known ways of protecting general physical health, mindfulness exercises develop mental fitness and resilience’.21 It is unclear what these metaphors refer to – what exactly is mental fitness and how can mindfulness promote it? Is it a process of self-regulation mediated by improvements in attention and awareness? Or is it a process of reappraisal of one’s thoughts and sense of self as unimportant or illusory?
To improve the quality of research into mindfulness we first need clear and comprehensive theories of how it works that acknowledge the range of experiences people can have when they meditate. Second, regarding methodology, studies should involve active control groups, control for expectations, and seek to explore individual differences in more depth.
Until we have better-designed studies and evidence which can shed light on these areas, it is imperative that we consider mindfulness not as the ‘go-to’ approach for patients struggling with stress or recurrent depression, but as one possible therapeutic approach among others. It is important that we also speak openly about the potential for adverse effects in order to de-stigmatise the issue; surely the last thing we want is for a patient to feel that they ‘failed’ at using a technique, when the reality is that it worked differently for them than for another – and as yet, we do not know why.
Currently, there is no professional or statutory registration required to teach mindfulness-based interventions such as MBSR and MBCT, and no regulatory body which oversees the training of mindfulness teachers. The current popularity of mindfulness is encouraging the rushed, unregulated formation of thousands of teachers. Organisations offering training may set their ‘minimum requirements’ for those wanting to train, but these vary from organisation to organisation. Unlike other mainstream psychological interventions available in the UK in the National Health Service (such as cognitive-behavioural or systemic family therapy), you do not need to be a therapist or have any formal training in mental health to deliver mindfulness courses. In other words, some mindfulness teachers may be merely equipped to deliver a mindfulness package, in a group setting, and may have limited experience and expertise in identifying and managing mental health difficulties. Yet, given that mindfulness is promoted as a way to improve mental health, it is very likely that for individuals attending mindfulness groups in the community (or at school, or at work) many will be experiencing some level of mental health difficulties. For individuals experiencing common difficulties such as stress, anxiety or depression and considering paying for therapy or attending a mindfulness group, the combination of media hype and the comparative affordability of a mindfulness group may easily sway them to opt for this, potentially placing their mental health in the hands of someone who may lack adequate training and experience of working with psychological difficulties.
Key considerations for clinicians contemplating referring patients to mindfulness interventions include past experiences of meditative techniques, providing information as to the range of effects that may occur, ensuring that the individual has support in place to help them to manage difficult experiences should they occur, and giving them a choice as to whether this, or some other form of therapy, would be best suited to them.
Mindfulness has its place in therapy, as one of many techniques available to a trained clinician. However, we need to understand who it benefits and when, its merits and limitations. And we need to moderate the excitement; practise a salutary modesty that acknowledges the difficulty of personal change and of recovery. Perhaps rethink the metaphors of how mindfulness works — after all, picturing the exercise of present-moment awareness as mind-pumping that will make one more resilient to mental health bugs is probably not the most mindful of therapeutic models.
This is an open-access article published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.