psychology and meditation

Conquering self-doubt with mindfulness-based therapies

The boss loves your work. Your spouse thinks you’re sexy. The kids—and even the cat—shower you with affection. But then there’s the Voice, the nagging presence in your head that tells you you’re a homely, heartless slacker.

Even people who appear supremely fit, highly successful and hyper-organized are sometimes riddled with debilitating doubts, fears and self-criticisms.

“Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says ‘I’ve got it handled,'” says Steven C. Hayes, a professor of psychology at University of Nevada-Reno. In reality, however, “there’s a big difference between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to help patients conquer their self doubts in two ways: Either by changing the behaviors that go along with it (I’m so fat—I need to get to the gym!) or by challenging the underlying thoughts, which are often distorted. (I’m 45-years old and I’m comparing myself to anorexic models. Get serious!)

Now, a third-wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy is catching on…

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in psychology and self-help circles. It holds that simply observing your critical thoughts without judging them is a more effective way to tame them than pressuring yourself to change or denying their validity.

” ‘Tame’ is an interesting word,” says Dr. Hayes, who pioneered one approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “How would you go about taming a wild horse? You wouldn’t whip it back into a corner. You’d pat it on the nose and give it some carrots and eventually try to ride it.”

This new psychology movement centers on mindfulness—the increasing popular emphasis on paying attention to the present moment. One of its key tenets is that urging people to stop thinking negative thoughts only tightens their grip—”like struggling with quicksand,” Dr. Hayes says. But simply observing them like passing clouds can diffuse their emotional power, proponents say, and open up more options. (“Here’s that old fat feeling again. You know, this happens every time I look at fashion magazines. I am sure judging myself harshly. Do I want to go to the gym? Or I could go to a movie. Or I could stop reading magazines.”)

“Part of what mindfulness does is get to you to recognize that these critical thoughts are really stories you have created about yourself. They are not necessarily true, but they can have self-fulfilling consequences,” says Zindel V. Segal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who devised Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to help depressed patients. “If you can get some distance from them, you can see that there are choices about how to respond.”

Mindfulness also involves paying attention to your breathing and other physical sensations while observing your thoughts so you have a tapestry of information to consider, says Dr. Segal. In fact, neuro-imaging studies have shown that when people consider problems mindfully, they use additional brain circuits beyond those that simply involve problem-solving.

Although some critics initially dismissed mindfulness-based therapies as vacuous and New Age-y, dozens of randomized-controlled trials in the past decade have shown that they can be effective in managing depression, panic disorders, social phobias, sleep problems and even borderline personality disorder.

A study of 160 patients with major depression, led by Dr. Segal and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry last month, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was just as good at as antidepressants at warding off relapses of depression.

The National Institutes of Health is funding more than 50 research studies involving mindfulness treatments for psychological problems.

A growing number of therapists are also using mindfulness-based acceptance in their practices. Katherine Muller, associate director of the Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Allentown, Pa., says she sometimes brings out a little plastic gnome to represent a patient’s negative feelings. “The idea is, ‘These feelings are going to come. What are you going to do about them?’ ” she says. “You don’t have to react to them at all. Just allowing them to exist takes away their power.”

She also finds that practicing mindfulness is more effective at easing her own fear of flying than being reminded about the safety statistics.

On one flight, she says, “all my cognitive skills were going right out the window.” Then another psychologist suggested focusing on the tray table rather than fighting her fears. “It helped me center my head and get a grip,” she says. “It gave me a chance to watch the movie and talk to the person next to me, rather than focus on how the plane might go down in a fiery ball.”

Psychologist Dennis Tirch, director of the New York Center for Mindfulness, Acceptance and Compassion-Focused Therapies, uses this formula to help even people with profound developmental disabilities take control of their emotions: “Feel your soles of your feet. Feel yourself breathe. Label your emotions and make space for your thoughts.”

Extending some compassion for yourself is also an important part of the new mindfulness therapies, Dr. Tirch says. “I can’t tell you how many clients I have who are just beating themselves up about things” says Dr. Tirch. “Give yourself a break—not so you can curl up in bed and stay home, but so you can interact better with the world.”

Kindness and accepting your thoughts nonjudgmentally doesn’t mean having to settle for the status quo, proponents say. Rather than be paralyzed by negative thoughts, you can opt to change your situation—get to the gym or work harder—but with a clearer set of options based on what really matters.

Some critics note that such advice doesn’t sound so different from standard cognitive-behavioral therapy or being kind to the “inner child” of earlier psychotherapy approaches. And some experts say that still more scientific data are needed to evaluate its effectiveness, particularly now that it’s being applied to such a wide array of disorders.

It’s also not clear yet who might benefit most from mindfully accepting their thoughts rather than reasoning with them. For example, Dr. Tirch thinks that it’s still important to convince someone with severe agoraphobia that a piano won’t fall on their head if they leave the house.

Yet Marsha Linehan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, found that the acceptance therapy she developed in the 1990s enabled suicidal patients and those with borderline personality disorder to accept their feelings and get help while trying to challenge them would only have created more bad feelings.

“It’s the nonjudgmental part that trips most people up,” says Dr. Linehan. “Most of us think that if we are judgmental enough, things will change. But judgment makes it harder to change.” She adds: “What happens in mindfulness over the long haul is that you finally accept that you’ve seen this soap opera before and you can turn off the TV.”

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Wandering minds less happy than focused ones

wildmind meditation news

There’s a good chance your mind is drifting right now, suggests a new study. And even if your daydreams are pleasant, you’d likely be happier if you just focused on what you’re doing.

The study, which periodically contacted people through their iPhones, encountered wandering minds close to half the time.

When people’s minds were disconnected from their actions, they were generally less happy than when they were truly engaged in a task — no matter what they were doing or what they were daydreaming about.

While previous work has found that people who are depressed tend to have more trouble focusing, the new study is the first to suggest that mind wandering also causes discontent.

“People often think about pursuing happiness in terms of choosing the right activities and external experiences,” said Matthew Killingsworth, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge.

“Based on our data, we find that much more important than the activity you’re engaging in is how often you leave the present and what you think about when you do,” he added. “If you could actually focus on the present and remain focused, you might get more pleasure out of an experience than if you were pleasantly distracted.”

Daydreaming is a helpful human ability that opens up a world of possibility. As we reflect on the past, dream about the future, and imagine things that may never happen, our lives grow richer. Creativity blossoms. New ideas emerge. But how happy does mind wandering, itself, make us?

To find out, Killingsworth and colleagues developed an iPhone application, available for anyone to download at the site TrackYourHappiness.org.

The app, which is part of an ongoing study on happiness, pings users at various times through the day. As soon as they can after hearing a ping, users pick from a list of 22 activities that they are doing right now.

Among other questions, the app asks users if they are thinking about something other than what they are doing, and if so, whether those thoughts are positive, negative or neutral. Users also rate how happy they feel.

Based on data collected from 2,250 people, the researchers reported today in the journal Science, people thought about something other than what they were doing nearly 47 percent of the time.

Daydreaming was most common during personal care activities, like tooth brushing and showering. It was least common during sex, when the rate of mind wandering dipped to just 10 percent. (Users are told to respond as soon as they are able). For every other activity, the daydreaming rate was higher than 30 percent.

“It really hits home just how ubiquitous mind wandering is,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s a massively frequent mental state.”

On a 100-point happiness scale, people rated themselves an average about 9 points lower when their minds were somewhere else, the study found. Happiness fell most when people thought about negative or neutral topics. But thinking pleasant thoughts didn’t help.

The findings offer support for activities like yoga and mediation, which aim to calm the wandering mind and anchor people in the present. On the other hand, Schooler said, being happy all the time isn’t necessarily the most important goal.

“If you have a difficult problem to work out, it may cause you temporary unhappiness to solve it,” he said. “But in the long run, having thought about it, you will solve it, and your overall happiness will increase.”

Instead of ruminating on your problems, Schooler suggested trying to daydream with purpose. His research suggests that creative ideas usually spring up during periods of mind wandering.

So, when your mind inevitably drifts elsewhere, it might help to seek solutions to your problems, or to reflect on books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, or conversations you’ve had.

“Those kinds of creative musings are very valuable, and I think it would be a great idea if people could identify a repertoire of ideas they’d like to think about,” he said. “A great actual topic for mind wandering is thinking about mind wandering. It’s very rich.”

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“Life Happens,” by Cheryl Rezek

Life Happens is the work of Dr. Cheryl A. Rezek, a UK-based clinical psychologist who teaches mindfulness as a way of helping her clients deal with often difficult life situations. It combines pithy insights in written form with excellent audio instructions that guide the listener through a variety of meditative exercises and even physical stretches. It’s aimed in particular at those who have problems with mental distress or physical pain, such as stress, depression, chronic pain, cancer, and addiction.

The recordings most clearly show Rezek’s strengths as a teacher. Her voice is very pleasant to listen to, and conveyed to me a sense of warmth and gentleness, combined with precision. Her instructions emphasize self-care, for example in learning to recognize when you’re trying too hard in stretching exercises. These audio guides, which span two CDs, introduce yoga-based movements that promote body awareness and also help to release tensions. They also include a number of meditation and mindfulness exercises of various lengths. The instructions are well-paced and clear.

Title: Life Happens
Author: Dr. Cheryl A. Rezek
Publisher: Leachcroft
ISBN: 978-0-9566020-0-8
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Rezek’s work as a clinical psychologist deeply informs her writing, which shine light on the mental processes that create much of our suffering, and which recognize our complexity as human beings. For example, she points out that many of our problems are caused by coping mechanisms that have gone astray, such as defense strategies that lead to us cutting off from others in order to protect us from harm, but end up impoverishing our lives by isolating us and removing us from sources of love and support. The book is full of such analyses, and I suspect many people who are beginning a part of spiritual exploration in order to transcend their psychological suffering will have “aha!” moments of self-recognition, and will feel relieved to have put a finger on what has been hindering their happiness.

Implicit in Rezek’s approach is not giving ourselves a hard time for being imperfect. This is heartening, since for many people beginning meditation the tendency is to see parts of themselves (their unhelpful habits) as “the enemy,” to be vanquished. Rezek’s approach is based on lovingkindness and wisdom, seeing our unhelpful habits as simply strategies that don’t work very well at accomplishing the aim of bringing about our well-being.

Rezek repeatedly points out that there are limits to the change we can bring about: “We cannot change rocks into rivers or trees into streams: we cannot change the fundamentals of who we are so we cannot be who we are not.” She stresses however that we can exercise choice and make changes in our lives, and thus bring about more balance. At the same time, she also stresses that our unhelpful ways of relating to our experience — while they may have been with us since childhood — are not integral to who we are. We don’t, in other words, have the ability to change everything about ourselves, but we can change what really matters, which is our tendency to make ourselves unhappy.

I enjoyed the fact that the final chapter of the book is called “No conclusion,” suggesting that practice is a life-long task of learning. In keeping with the principles of lovingkindness, Rezek reminds us that we will inevitably make mistakes, and that we should accept this and simply keep on making an effort to learn from them.

“Life Happens” is not perfect, and the editing leaves much to be desired. Although Rezek is generally a good writer, she would, like all good writers, have benefited from having some occasional “clunkiness” smoothed out. And there were times I wished she’d had someone on hand to encourage her to write more, or sometimes less; certain passages are a bit too brief and pithy for their own good, while others seem padded. But I am (I confess) a very critical reader as regards style, and I suspect most people for whom this book would be useful will simply be focused on, and grateful for, the content. I’d regard the CDs not so much as being a complement to the book, but the book as being a complement to the CDs. Without the guided meditations, the written descriptions of practice would be interesting but not necessarily life-changing. The combination allows for both reflection, on reading the written word, and a living engagement with experience, through following the guided meditations that Rezek so skillfully leads. “Life Happens” (the book and CDs) could potentially benefit many people, and I hope Rezek’s work finds a wide audience.

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How meditation can help with “choking”

Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To

A star golfer misses a critical putt; a brilliant student fails to ace a test; a savvy salesperson blows a key presentation. Each of these people has suffered the same bump in mental processing: They have just choked under pressure.

It’s tempting to dismiss such failures as “just nerves.” But to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, they are preventable results of information logjams in the brain. By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best — and when we choke — Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

Beilock’s research is the basis of her new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, published Sept. 21 by Simon and Schuster, Free Press.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” said Beilock, an associate professor in psychology.

Fear of failure

Some of the most spectacular and memorable moments of choking occur in sports when the whole world is watching. Many remember golfer Greg Norman’s choke at the 1996 U.S. Masters. Norman had played brilliantly for the first three days of the tournament, taking a huge lead. But on the final day, his performance took a dive, and he ended the Masters five shots out of first place.

Choking in such cases happens when the polished programs executed by the brains of extremely accomplished athletes go awry. In Choke, Beilock recounts famous examples of these malfunctions in the context of brain science to tell the story of why people choke and what can be done to alleviate it.

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead (as in Norman’s case) or worrying about failing in general, can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” In a nutshell, paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success. Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.”

Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows. Whistling can help at work. “If the tasks are automatic and you have done them a thousand times in the past, a mild distraction such as whistling can help them run off more smoothly under pressure.”

Conforming to stereotypes

The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways other than paralysis by analysis. For instance, pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities.

Beilock’s work has shown the importance of working memory in helping people perform their best, in academics and in business. Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand, whether that task is doing a math problem at the board or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brain power necessary to excel.

One example is the phenomenon of “stereotype threat.” This is when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths that contend, for instance, that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance.

In Choke, Beilock describes research demonstrating that high-achieving people underperform when they are worried about confirming a stereotype about the racial group or gender to which they belong. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

In one study, researchers gave standardized tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.

Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.

Meditation and practice can help

Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. In that instance, relaxation techniques can help.

In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability.

Stress can undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.

Practice helps people navigate through these tosses on life’s ocean. But, more importantly, practicing under stress — even a moderate amount — helps a person feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock said. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem like old hat. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.

A person also can overcome anxiety by thinking about what to say, not what not to say, said Beilock, who added that staying positive is always a good idea.

“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock advised. “Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”

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The Invisible Presence, by Michael Gurian

The Invisible Presence

Although it’s not clear until you begin reading the book, this is a new edition of a book published in 1994 as Mothers, Sons, and Lovers, and it includes a new preface and study questions. Michael Gurian has published twenty five books over the years, establishing his reputation as a leader in the world of gender studies, as well as founding the Gurian Institute, which conducts research and provides training and education for other professionals.

You may be asking yourselves, as I certainly did, why Shambhala Publications has put out a book on men’s studies and Jungian psychology. This esteemed press is best known for its Buddhism books, especially Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, among many, many others. It turns out that Shambhala published the original edition, back in an era where they did a lot more psychology and philosophy books, including most of Ken Wilber’s books.

* * * * *

Title: The Invisible Presence: How a Man’s Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with Women
Author: Michael Gurian
Publisher: Shambhala Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-807-3
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

One of Gurian’s essential points in the book, and where he begins, is the lack of initiation for boys as they enter manhood. In tribal cultures, and even in the modern world until the previous century, boys were not intimately tied to their mothers the way they are now. Child-rearing was different, and separation from the mother and the family was not only expected, it was enforced. Primal cultures often had a series of initiation ceremonies that progressively removed the son from the family of origin and signaled his emergence as an adult. Sometimes this process even included a new name.

Until the last century or so, with the advent of much-needed child labor laws, boys from “middle class” families often were sent to work or to apprentice with a craftsman — a carpenter, a blacksmith, an accountant (if they were really well-off), and so on. This apprenticeship process, which often took years, was a form of initiation (separation from family, initiation into a trade guild, and his return as an adult — the classic model outlined by van Gennep more than a century ago), even though Gurian doesn’t mention it in the book.

Now boys live at home until college, and often they return when school is finished until they can find a job and their own apartment. Mothers make this separation process even more difficult in trying to maintain their early attachment to their child, which is the opposite of what a young man needs. An adolescent boy is beginning the individuation process, moving away from the mother and into the world of men, and going to college should finalize this separation. Yet this is not happening for a lot of young men.

So what happens to the son when the mother has been dismissing the role of the father, or dismissing the roles of men in general — or worse, disparaging the father with put-downs or insults? How is a boy to find his place in the male world when his mother has negated what he is destined to become, an adult man?

As Gurian demonstrates, that boy does not become an adult man — he remains stuck in an in-between place where he needs the approval of women and men to feel of value, in essence, because there has not been any internalized male ideal (since men are bad, abusive, or useless: “all men are pigs,” “men suck!” “all men want is sex,” or “men have ruined the world”). While this does not happen in the majority of young men’s lives, it does happen much more than we would like to believe.

The other possibility for this individuation failure is an absent father, either through abandonment, divorce, or death. My father died of a heart attack when I was 13-years-old — and there was no good male role models in my life. I was dismayed to see myself in one of Gurian’s lists of characteristics of uninitiated men (p. 38-39). While I have spent years working on this aspect of my life, it seems I still carry some of the scars.

* * * * *

In the third chapter, Gurian looks at how this initiation failure and the impingement relationship with the mother shapes a man’s adult romantic relationships. By impingement (a reference to the work of D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in parent-child attachment theory) Gurian is referring to the ways that parents fill their own emotional needs through their children. This is a difficult thing to monitor in ourselves — Dr. Dan Siegel spends a whole book on how we can development this skill (Parenting from the Inside Out, 2003) — but we need to be aware of it because it puts the infant or child in the impossible position of taking care of the parent.

For boys, growing up in this environment — which can continue into adulthood, especially when the father is absent due to emotional distancing, work, abandonment, or death, and shows up in comments such as, “Don’t ever leave me,” or “Be my little man” — symbolically forces him to be a surrogate “lover” or partner for his mother. And what little boy does not want to please his mother?

But this sets up the young man to remain more loyal to his mother than to his romantic partner when he begins that element of his life. This was classically known as the mother complex, and although it’s a near cliché, it’s also an accurate assessment of what can happen. The girlfriend or wife ends up feeling she comes second to the mother, and she is correct.

Other elements of this pattern can manifest as a need for approval from the romantic partner. A boy-man who grew up with a “smothering” mother (which is how I look at my own childhood with my mother) has no sense of self outside of that external approval. This man is “spineless” or “weak” or “hen-pecked” — all clichés that pathologize something the man had no control over in his life. He did not choose to be parented in that way.

In this respect, I would recommend this book for women as much as for men. Understanding how the man you love was raised will help you understand those aspects of his personality that you might find challenging. (Gurian offers study questions for women at the end of the book.)

* * * * *

In the second half of the book, which is more like two-thirds, Gurian offers a way out of this liminal space between boyhood and manhood, a series of initiation tasks that can help us toward a mature individuation.

In offering his outline and exercises for experiencing our own initiation, Gurian is men identify and move from the adolescent hero (seeking adventure and power, the traditional hero seeking his place in the world) into the mature, masculine hero (who seeks wholeness and wisdom, not ego trinkets). He actually makes this distinction early in the book:

The mature counterpart of the adolescent hero, the Mature Hero, gains his maturity when he makes the journey out of the survival mode, stepping out of the need for ego fixes and ego approval. (p. 37)

He presents the “Heroic Quest” in the second half of the book as a “search for information, understanding, inspiration, and recovery” (p. 119). He asks us to take the tasks he will present very seriously, as ritual, which includes creating a ritual space, some sacred objects, a notebook, and even a special pen devoted to just this project.

Wisely, he also suggests that some men will want to seek support from a therapist or a men’s group, and I would generally agree with this, especially the therapist part. I have found that working with a good, spiritually-inclined therapist is very helpful in sorting out family of origin issues.

Finally, I want to present abbreviated versions of the seven affirmations he presents in the introduction to Part II of the book, which I found supportive for men beginning such a journey:

  1. A man is a loving, wise, and powerful male adult.
  2. The human unconscious is a mythological story.
  3. My outward behavior and inward yearnings are guided by countless personal and family myths I rarely articulate.
  4. My personal myths are not written in stone, just as wounds are not permanently damaging.
  5. Not all damaging personal myths and wounds respond to personal odyssey work.
  6. There is no such thing as a perfect man.
  7. Because our culture has turned away from the magic of the inner story toward the radiant distractions of external stimulation, I must look inward toward the dark center of my being, where my sacred self lives. (p. 128-129)

* * * * *

While I can easily recommend this book with only minor reservations, I did find myself questioning several things as I read the book.

Gurian begins with his acknowledgments, a standard move, but I immediately became skeptical in seeing Carlos Castaneda in the list, a well-known fiction writer still sometimes thought of as an anthropologist. Also on the list are many authors who have made the complexity of Jungian psychology seem little more than the misappropriation of another culture’s mythology.

R.W. Connell, in Masculinities (2nd edition, 2005), is very critical of the archetypal move in mainstream Jungian psychology, by which he refers to the impulse to find archetypes nearly everywhere. In his later work, Jung did this as well, and his followers picked up where he left off.

This results in deeply confused texts such as Marshall Bethal’s The Mythic Male, an errant hunt through Greco-Roman myths, taken utterly out of context…. Iron John is a Jungian work in exactly this vein, except that Robert Bly finds his archetypes in a folk tale recast by the Brothers Grimm…. (p. 13)

I bring this up because Gurian also does this in his book. There are several instances that I marked early in the book, before I gave up due to the sheer number of them. At one point (page 74), he rattles off a series of examples of the devouring Goddess myth from various cultures. But what he does not mention is that these are all pre-rational (or pre-personal) myths, meaning that they come from a time in human history before we developed much of a rational sense of self, a time when humans showed very little compassion or empathy in raising their children (see Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, Chapter Four). Those myths were appropriate to those times, but they bear little relevance to how we live now.

On the other hand, Gurian also makes reference to literature, poetry, and film, and in these instances, his point is carried more clearly and makes more sense to the educated contemporary reader. For example, in one short section of the book, he references Hamlet, Don Juan, and a poem by Robert Duncan. When he makes these references, he is giving the reader a modern, accessible correlate to the point his is trying to make and it works better.

Gurian is not alone in this issue — it’s endemic in popular Jungian psychology, as Connell pointed out. In this respect, Jungian psychology fails as a useful tool for men’s studies. And yet, as I also pointed out, when the author avoids primitive myths and uses modern literature and film, he offers us a mirror of our own struggles raised to the level of art, which is both instructive and comforting (we are not alone).

Later in the book, when he is outlining his initiation program, I found myself referring to some of the things Gurian suggests (as I often do when I see them in New Age books) as “woo.” If you are less rational than I am, it probably won’t bother you.

If you come to this book as a Buddhist, you might also be put off by all the talk about the self. On the other hand, what he is seeking in men is openness to experience and a reduction of ego drives. Both of these allow men to experience and express greater love and compassion — and that can only be a good thing.

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Have less, give more

I’m fascinated by the psychology of giving and/or financial exchanges. Just this morning I was noticing my hesitation in committing to pay 99¢ for an iPhone app without having tried it first. But when I go into a coffee shop I happily plonk down $1.50 or so for a cup of Joe, without hesitating or asking for a free trial. The coffee will last me for 20 minutes, while I might end up using the app on a daily basis for an indefinite period of time. There’s no guarantee I’m going to find the coffee pleasant. Screwy, but normal.

One peculiarity regarding money is that people who have less of it are more willing to give it to another person in need. The following is from an article in today’s Boston Globe:

Given the opportunity to share money with an anonymous person, people who considered themselves lower in socioeconomic status shared more. When asked how much of one’s salary should be donated to charity, they designated a higher percentage. And, when confronted with a distressed person in need, they offered more help. These differences don’t seem to be innate. For example, after simply asking people to contemplate their socioeconomic status relative to those with higher socioeconomic status, people became more charitable. The authors theorize that people in the lower strata of society are particularly motivated by a greater dependence on — and, thus, concern for — social relationships, though affluent individuals may be more inclined to abstract charity (e.g., the environment).

The research is from, Piff, P. et al., “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Isn’t that interesting? It’s not a simple case, as I would have assumed, of “the rich” getting that way by being tight with their money. It seems more that poorer people are more tied into social networks and value the support they give. In my experience, many people who are better off are unable or unwilling to empathize with the difficulties of those who are less well off. In the US it’s common to blame people for being poor, even though it’s impossible for every single person to accumulate wealth, given how our society operates, with the people who have wealth setting the wages and conditions for those who don’t, often making it very difficult indeed to escape poverty.

It’s encouraging that reflecting on one’s relative lack of wealth compared to others boosts empathy and generosity. At least these attitudes are not fixed, and reflection, self-awareness, and social awareness are tools for change.

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The art of living mindfully

Nothing is ever certain, says the psychologist Ellen Langer. We should make the most of that.

Last summer Ellen J. Langer posted an entry on her Psychology Today blog that caused a minor uproar. A friend had just described a group trip taken to India, many years earlier. “They met a guru and asked a bystander to take a picture of them with him,” wrote Langer, a prominent social psychologist and a professor at Harvard University. “Two pictures were taken, using two different cameras.” Yet when the film was developed, the guru—who had been standing in the middle—was missing from both photographs.

Langer didn’t speculate why—she didn’t propose, say, that the guru had reached a state of such spiritual purity that light passed through him. Her point was this: No amount of evidence would be enough to persuade most scientists of paranormal phenomena, because too many of them were “stuck in soon-to-be-outdated theories.” Rather than ignore data that don’t fit those theories, she said, “we need to open our minds to possibility.”

Commenters scoffed. A fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stanton Peele, was moved to write a long post of his own, headlined, “Ellen, we don’t need more irrationality (you must be a sought-after guest at seances!).” While acknowledging Langer’s “brilliant” career, he urged psychologists to protect their discipline as “a beacon for a commitment to empiricism and reasoning.”

Langer’s response, the next day, was mild: “My last post seems to have upset people,” she wrote. “My intention was to suggest that we keep our minds open to the possibility of new phenomena, but perhaps the example I gave was too far from current beliefs to do the trick.” She sounded a lot like a teacher realizing that she was going too fast for the class.

That’s not unusual. In the course of her 35-year career, Langer has repeatedly flouted convention, confident that (or indifferent to whether) other researchers will eventually catch up with her. A petite, kinetic woman with a turned-up nose and a voice like Lauren Bacall’s, Langer does not tend to ruminate, and her immediate response when told “No,” about anything, is to ask, “Why not?”

Early on she took psychology’s prevailing wisdom about decision-making and turned it on its head, setting the stage for later work by researchers in cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics. She is best known for her concept of “mindfulness”—a term that most researchers use in the context of meditation, but by which Langer means paying attention: consciously looking for what is new and different, and questioning preconceived ideas.

Doing that is more difficult, and more significant, than it sounds. Most of our actions, Langer has shown, are mindless. Mindfulness requires reconsidering everything we think we know. If we did that, she says, all of us could be more effective, more creative, and healthier.

Her research on the effects of mindfulness on physical health, in particular, has had such surprising results that, she acknowledges herself, it “teeters on the edge of believability for some.”

This year the actress Jennifer Aniston will produce and star as Langer in a movie about what is perhaps the most startling of those experiments. It is known as the “counterclockwise study” and lends its name to Langer’s most recent book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books).

In 1979, Langer and her students invited two groups of eight men in their late 70s and early 80s to go on a retreat for a week and spend time reminiscing about life 20 years earlier. “When they first showed up at the office, their daughters usually brought them,” remembers Langer, who was in her early 30s at the time. “They were walking down the hall to my office, and they looked like they were just about to keel over. I remember thinking, What am I getting myself into?”

The researchers took each group of eight for a week at a time to an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., which they had filled with props to make it look as it might have two decades before. The men watched Sgt. Bilko and The Ed Sullivan Show on a black-and-white television and listened to Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole on the radio. All the men (who were used to being taken care of) were encouraged to be active—for example, to help serve meals and clean up.

The first group was instructed to behave as if it really were 1959. Ahead of time, they had written autobiographical statements that stopped in that year. During the week, they spoke in the present tense as they discussed the threat of communism, the Baltimore Colts’ 31-16 defeat of the New York Giants in the NFL championship game, and recently published books.

Men in the control group, which went on a separate retreat, followed a similar program but were permitted to speak of the past as the past. They spent time reflecting on their younger days, while the first group in effect tried to take themselves back in time.

What happened? After just one week, both groups tested better on hearing and memory. The men gained an average of three pounds each, and their grips were stronger. “At the end of all this, I was playing touch football with some of them,” says Langer.

But the changes were especially striking in the first group: Their joints became more flexible and their hands more nimble. Sixty-three percent of them improved on intelligence tests, compared with 44 percent of the control group. And people unaware of the purpose of the study rated every member of the first group younger in photos taken after the retreat than in photos taken before.

“When I first described the study, I was hesitant to spell out just how big the changes were,” says Langer, who wrote about it in her 1989 book, Mindfulness (Addison-Wesley), but did not publish the study in a psychology journal. In a field experiment like this one, lacking the controls of the lab, many factors might have explained the results.

“The most important part of the study,” she says, “was that people who are only supposed to get more debilitated over time showed great improvement—regardless of the reason.”

Langer has come to question whether any medical knowledge—about aging, about diagnosis, about the natural course of diseases—is necessarily true. Medical science is imperfect. Probabilities—that cells are cancerous, for example, or that a person with those cells will survive—are abstract mathematical constructs, she points out: They do not account for outliers, and they are based on a limited number of cases, which are analyzed by fallible human beings, who are making judgment calls.

“I am not arguing against medical tests,” she writes in Counterclockwise. “I am arguing against mindless reliance on them and the mindless state they lead to.”

She is now emboldened to offer an explanation for the results of the counterclockwise study: that the subjects’ mental states had direct, physical effects, an explanation that has been borne out in her subsequent, peer-reviewed research.

Take eye tests. In a group of studies soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Langer and her colleagues showed that people’s vision improved when they expected to see better. In one strikingly simple experiment, the researchers reversed the standard eye chart so that the letters became progressively larger rather than smaller. “Now, rather than expecting as they went down the chart that pretty soon they were not going to be able to read the letters,” Langer says, “people expected that pretty soon they were going to be able to read the letters.” The result: They could read letters that had been too small for them on the standard chart.

Take another scientific given: that to lose weight you must exercise more or eat less. In a recent study, Langer and Alia J. Crum, now a doctoral student at Yale University, got hotel housekeepers who reported doing little or no exercise to recognize the physical nature of their jobs: telling half of a group of 84 that their days spent bending, stretching, and lifting were similar to workouts at a gym. Four weeks later, those 42 chambermaids had lost an average of two pounds each, reduced their percentage of body fat, and lowered their blood pressure—all while reporting no changes in eating habits, even less physical activity during their off hours, and (according to their bosses) the same level of work.

As in the men’s retreat and the eyesight study, it seemed that people’s states of mind were changing their bodies. “The main idea for all these studies is very simple,” Langer says. “We take the mind and the body and we put them back together, so that wherever we’re putting the mind, we’re necessarily putting the body.”

When she started to explore the mind-body connection, most psychologists had long accepted the Cartesian split between the two. (So had doctors, although a cardiologist named Herbert Benson had published research just a few years before on what he called “the relaxation response,” showing that meditation could lower metabolism and slow heart rate and brainwaves.) Today Langer is not alone in her field. The discovery, in the 1990s, of “mirror neurons” in primates, which fire when animals perform an action and when they see someone performing it, has led neuroscientists to postulate the same structure in human brains. The idea has influenced psychological research on, for example, empathy and social cognition. Others have written about the spirit and consciousness as products of the body—notably Antonio Damasio in his 1994 book, Descartes’ Error. And, of course, the placebo effect in medicine is well established.

But while a placebo causes your mind to act on your body without your knowing about it, Langer is interested in how people might consciously create physical effects—including some that they never would have expected.

Langer grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., the younger of two daughters in what she describes as a loving middle-class family. As a teenager, she says, she made friends with the popular kids and with the “brains.” Because kids from both groups came to her with their problems, she saw how differently two people might see the same situation. “It showed me how context-dependent evaluation is,” she says. “There’s nothing that I can’t reinterpret.”

She married while still an undergraduate at New York University, where she majored in chemistry with plans to become a doctor. Neither the marriage, which didn’t last, nor the major was a good match. “Every day I’d emerge from lab a different color,” she jokes. “I was doing Jewish chemistry: A little is good, a little more may be better.” She switched to psychology.

While in graduate school at Yale in the early 1970s, she got licensed as a clinician. “But when I was doing clinical work, I’d see that the client could do what needed to be done,” she remembers. “I’d find myself tempted to say, ‘Just do it.’ That’s not good advice.” She decided to pursue research instead.

The work she did for her dissertation is still cited by scholars today. Langer looked at what factors led people to expect success in games of chance. She found that people were less likely to recognize chance for what it was if they were prompted to do things they usually did in games of skill, such as assessing an opponent’s competence or making decisions—like which lottery ticket to choose. In fact, when they had chosen a “lottery ticket” created by Langer’s research team—based on whatever personal associations they had made with the letters on the ticket—they clung to it even when invited to trade it for a ticket in a different lottery, with better odds. Langer dubbed their illogical confidence in winning with the first ticket the “illusion of control.”

Most psychologists at the time worked on the premise that people’s cognitions led them to act in certain ways; Langer flipped that around, showing that people’s cognitions were often based on their behaviors.

She followed that up with a study in which she and two colleagues showed that framing a silly request in a familiar way led people to comply with it. In one of a set of experiments, the researchers sent an interdepartmental memo around the Graduate Center at the City University of New York that contained nothing but the request that it be returned to a designated room. When the memo was designed differently from the typical interdepartmental memo, 60 percent of the recipients returned it; when it looked like a typical memo, 90 percent returned it, in spite of how absurd the request was. In other words, they acted mindlessly, responding to the structure of the memo rather than its content.

“The dominant view of social cognition now is that people behave unthinkingly,” says Anthony G. Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who studies unconscious cognition. “The tide has rather dramatically reversed.”

“Ellen was the harbinger of a later, full-scale effort to understand the unconscious mind,” writes a fellow Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin R. Banaji, in an e-mail message. Banaji says Langer’s work influenced her own well-known research on people’s implicit bias—stereotypes that they are unaware of—and has made waves beyond the field: The mindless clinging of Langer’s subjects to their lottery tickets is an early example of the “endowment effect” posited by behavioral economists, notably Richard H. Thaler, who in the early 1980s challenged standard economics with findings that people place a higher value on an object they own than on one they do not.

Langer’s interest in mindlessness soon led her to ask what its opposite might look like. In the mid-1970s she published two important studies with Judith Rodin, then a professor at Yale and now president of the Rockefeller Foundation. They showed that nursing-home residents who were encouraged to make more choices—such as whether to eat in their rooms or in the dining hall—and were given responsibility for watering a plant became more active, reported being happier, and even lived longer: 18 months later the death rate among the subjects was significantly lower than that of the residents over all.

Langer began to look at how people in all kinds of circumstances, including young, healthy people, could benefit by being more mindful. She has done studies showing that students prompted to question categories think more creatively: Those presented with an object in conditional language (“This could be a dog’s chew toy”) instead of imperative language (“This is a dog’s chew toy”) were likelier to find new uses for it to solve a problem (the chew toy makes a handy eraser). Her research in business has shown that managers who express confidence but admit uncertainty are evaluated more highly by employees. Recently she found that orchestral musicians who played mindfully, focusing on making subtle variations in their performance, were rated more highly than when they tried to recreate their best performance ever.

“Mindful attending, noticing, is enlivening,” says Langer. “People who say they’re bored—with their relationships, for example, or their jobs—that’s because they’re holding it still. They’re confusing the stability of their mind-set with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing.”

The research, much of it gathered in Mindfulness, is considered a precedent for what is now known as positive psychology, a turn in the discipline toward helping already healthy people flourish.

“Her initial work on mindfulness made it possible for scientifically minded researchers to take on that question,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the leaders of positive psychology. “She was bold enough to take it on.”

“The applicability of the counterclockwise study is mind-boggling,” says Jack Demick, a developmental psychologist who teaches at Brown University. He has written about Langer’s concept of mindfulness as a “grand theory” with implications for all branches of psychology.

In the same vein, the psychologist Jerome Bruner compared the boldness of Mindfulness to that of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

But a reviewer for The Independent, of London, found it less impressive. “If the brain’s function is to filter out a mass of impressions rather than to think them up, perhaps we avoid going mad by sometime being bored and boring,” she wrote.

Wouldn’t following Langer’s instructions to notice everything, and question everything, lead to paralysis? Research by Sian L. Beilock at the University of Chicago, for example, has shown that talented athletes perform worse when they start analyzing every part of their particular skills.

“That’s not mindfulness, that’s evaluating,” Langer says. She is very much against overthinking and has written widely about the ways an “evaluative mind-set” can impede creativity and happiness, particularly in her book On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (Ballantine, 2005). Langer took up painting when she was already in her 50s—she describes hearing herself tell an acquaintance that she was going to paint, before she had really given it any thought—and her artworks now command thousands of dollars.

When she began, she had no interest in taking art classes or trying to learn the proper techniques. Instead she focused on doing what interested her, and found that she got great pleasure from the act of painting itself. She says she paints where the strokes lead her, mindfully attentive to the experience rather than worried about how her work will turn out, and is often surprised by the pictures that result. (Many of her paintings depict friends or her beloved dogs in humorous poses.)

The first time one of her artworks was accepted by a juried show, she writes, “I was thrilled.” But she decided later that she would have been better off realizing that the achievement was not a mark of the painting’s inherent value: That way she wouldn’t have worried so much about repeating her success. (Yes, in spite of herself, she does sometimes care what people think.)

“Studies show that people form evaluations based on their own needs,” Langer writes, “but we tend to accept other people’s evaluations as though they were objective.”

That they are not gives her no little grief when it comes to the end of the semester. “When I have to grade students, it’s torture,” she says. “Grading doesn’t make sense.”

When talking with her Harvard students and lab assistants, Langer comes off as both supremely confident and playful. One day last semester, dressed in dark jeans, sandals, a red shirt, and a fleece vest, she strode into her first lab meeting with a stack of notes, some of them scribbled on Post-its, about the experiments she wanted to start that fall. She had at least a half-dozen, and more occurred to her during the meeting.

“The first one is a study we need to do right away,” she said, taking a chocolate cookie from the package that was being passed around the table. The idea was to photograph people entering and leaving an exhibit that Langer’s partner, Nancy Hemenway, had helped produce of early-1970s style—Marimekko maxidresses, boldly patterned dishes. Langer’s hypothesis: Observers would perceive the exhibitgoers in the “after” photos as younger, because the blast from the past would have literally turned back the clock for them. “Who wants to do it? Come on, it’ll be fun,” she exhorted.

“But it has so many flaws,” said Emily Kroshus, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health who wanted to know what mechanism the study would measure—stress hormones? blood pressure? After a few minutes of back and forth, Langer said it was just a “quick and dirty” study they could attach to her next idea: What if they took people with some condition, say, a rash, and got half of them to reconstruct what life was like the week before the rash. Would it go away? Again, Kroshus was skeptical. “I know you don’t like to think in terms of mechanisms,” she said, “but there are so many factors that could affect this.” She raised the same objection to a third study and suggested something narrower. “Let’s do both,” replied Langer. Repeatedly she urged her team to think big, to be dramatic. Told by another lab member that a contact in the medical school was reluctant to let Langer’s team add some research to a sleep study, she rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to him,” she said. “You make sure I talk to him.”

As with the counterclockwise study, it is more difficult in any field experiment than in the lab to control for the many variables that may affect people’s health. “But there’s a trade-off between rigor and artificiality,” says Greenwald, the psychologist at the University of Washington. “Laboratory experiments have their virtues, and I’m in favor of them. But you don’t compellingly persuade people that you have a phenomenon.”

“If I can make one monkey talk,” says Langer, “then it can be said, ‘Monkeys are capable of speech.'” She calls her approach “the psychology of possibility.”

These days Langer’s lack of interest in the mechanisms underlying behavior is what pushes against the tide of the discipline, which in recent years has been keen to identify the biological activity behind thought processes.

“I see the human being as a seven-layer cake,” she says. “The sixth layer doesn’t cause the fourth layer; they just coexist. That’s not to say neuroscientific approaches are not worthwhile, but even if we know all of Johnny’s neurochemistry and brain circuitry, we don’t know if he’s going to read, rape, or run for office.”

Students say it’s not uncommon for Langer to create experiments out of her everyday life. “She tends to come in with a set of ideas and just throw them out there and see what people think,” says Laura M. Hsu, a lab member and a graduate student in Harvard’s School of Education. “A lot of her work is out of curiosity. She’s so generous—she gives grad students a lot of opportunities to research and publish.”

Hsu is listed as the first author on new research about how cues of age affect people’s health and longevity. In a series of studies, she, Langer, and Jaewoo Chung, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that women who think they look younger after having their hair colored or cut show a decrease in blood pressure and are rated younger in photos, even when the pictures do not show their hair; that people who wear work uniforms (rather than clothes that might indicate their age) are healthier than people in the same income bracket who don’t wear uniforms; that being married to someone younger tends to lengthen life, and being married to someone older tends to shorten it; and that prematurely bald men see themselves as older and therefore age faster. All this adds up to evidence, the researchers assert, that the body may age partly in reaction to “younger” or “older” cues in the environment.

The research will be published this year in Perspectives on Psychological Science but was met with some skepticism by reviewers. Hsu says the journal’s editor, Ed Diener, asked the authors to revise the article to make it more speculative.

“We do recognize that there are probably other explanations,” she says. Bald men, for example, may age faster because of genetic differences that also cause their baldness. “But we’re just trying to germinate this idea.”

Langer is one of the “great social psychologists who do demonstration experiments that ignite a field,” says Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re the hypothesis generators rather than the verificationists.”

Still, Langer’s penchant for sweeping statements, whether about science or life, can sometimes strike a careless note. She can appear to believe that people would never struggle—with learning something new, with making a choice, with finding happiness—if they simply broke free of assumptions and automatic thinking. On the subject of divorce, she has written that if children were taught that families can be composed of a mother, a father, and a child but also of other arrangements, “then there wouldn’t be such a problem were the circumstances to change.”

Pressed, she acknowledges that her own life has had its share of challenges—much greater than trying to grade students. “I was divorced before most people are married,” she says. “I lost my mother [to breast cancer] when I was 29. I had a major fire in ’97 and lost 80 percent of what I owned. I slipped on the ice a few years later and smashed my ankle badly; it’s full of metal pins. The difference is, I don’t like throwing good money after bad.”

And so, she claims, she never experiences regret. “Regret is an illogical emotion. Whatever decisions you made, you made them for a reason, and so you just go from there.” Though she can betray impatience, she very rarely gets angry (her students confirm this). Anger is a tactic of the powerless, Langer believes, and she decided a long time ago that she had the power to do anything she set her mind to. That also takes care of envy: “If you have something, it doesn’t mean I can’t have it, if I learn how.”

She likes to argue that, given enough information and enough practice, she could even learn to control the toss of a coin.

So, does Langer suffer from “the illusion of control” she identified so many years ago? She says she looks at that phenomenon differently today: “When I was at Yale, I was young,” she told a classroom of undergraduates last fall. “I had what is called an observer’s perspective, which is the same perspective psychology had: the assumption that we’re all seeing the same thing. The illusion-of-control study is basically saying that people don’t see that chance is chance.”

“Then I got older and I said, Wait a second, who says that people can’t control things?”

She draws an analogy to Pascal’s wager, substituting “control” for “God”: If you believe you have no control and you truly don’t, “no big deal.” If you believe you have control and it turns out you do, “that’s the big win.” And if you don’t have control but you believe you do, you are actively engaged in something, feeling alive and effective—and you may just be successful someday. “You can’t prove that something is uncontrollable,” Langer says, “All you can show is that things are indeterminate.” The best gamble, then, is to act as if you have control.

She rephrases it with typical bravado: “Nothing is uncontrollable. We just don’t yet know how to control it.”

[Jennifer Ruark, The Chronicle]
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Experiment shows brief meditative exercise helps cognition

Some of us need regular amounts of coffee or other chemical enhancers to make us cognitively sharper. A newly published study suggests perhaps a brief bit of meditation would prepare us just as well.

While past research using neuroimaging technology has shown that meditation techniques can promote significant changes in brain areas associated with concentration, it has always been assumed that extensive training was required to achieve this effect. Though many people would like to boost their cognitive abilities, the monk-like discipline required seems like a daunting time commitment and financial cost for this benefit.

Surprisingly, the benefits may be achievable even without all the work. Though it sounds almost like an advertisement for a “miracle” weight-loss product, new research now suggests that the mind may be easier to cognitively train than we previously believed. Psychologists studying the effects of a meditation technique known as “mindfulness ” found that meditation-trained participants showed a significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills (and performed significantly higher in cognitive tests than a control group) after only four days of training for only 20 minutes each day.

“In the behavioral test results, what we are seeing is something that is somewhat comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training,” said Fadel Zeidan, a post-doctoral researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and a former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where the research was conducted.

“Simply stated, the profound improvements that we found after just 4 days of meditation training– are really surprising,” Zeidan noted. “It goes to show that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation.”

The study appears in the April 2 issue of Consciousness and Cognition. Zeidan’s co-authors are Susan K. Johnson, Zhanna David and Paula Goolkasian from the Department of Psychology at UNC Charlotte, and Bruce J. Diamond from William Patterson University. The research was also part of Zeidan’s doctoral dissertation. The research will also be presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting in Montreal, April 17-20.

The experiment involved 63 student volunteers, 49 of whom completed the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned in approximately equivalent numbers to one of two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened for equivalent periods of time to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit) being read aloud.

Prior to and following the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.

Both groups performed equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved following the meditation and reading experiences in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored consistently higher averages than the reading/listening group on all the cognitive tests and as much as ten times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other information in mind.

“The meditation group did especially better on all the cognitive tests that were timed,” Zeidan noted. “In tasks where participants had to process information under time constraints causing stress, the group briefly trained in mindfulness performed significantly better.”

Particularly of note were the differing results on a “computer adaptive n-back task,” where participants would have to correctly remember if a stimulus had been shown two steps earlier in a sequence. If the participant got the answer right, the computer would react by increasing the speed of the subsequent stimulus, further increasing the difficulty of the task. The meditation-trained group averaged aproximately10 consecutive correct answers, while the listening group averaged approximately one.

“Findings like these suggest that meditation’s benefits may not require extensive training to be realized, and that meditation’s first benefits may be associated with increasing the ability to sustain attention,” Zeidan said.

“Further study is warranted,” he stressed, noting that brain imaging studies would be helpful in confirming the brain changes that the behavioral tests seem to indicate, “but this seems to be strong evidence for the idea that we may be able to modify our own minds to improve our cognitive processing – most importantly in the ability to sustain attention and vigilance – within a week’s time.”

The meditation training involved in the study was an abbreviated “mindfulness” training regime modeled on basic “Shamatha skills” from a Buddhist meditation tradition, conducted by a trained facilitator. As described in the paper, “participants were instructed to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of their nose. If a random thought arose, they were told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought and to simply let ‘it’ go, by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath.” Subsequent training built on this basic model, teaching physical awareness, focus, and mindfulness with regard to distraction.

Zeidan likens the brief training the participants received to a kind of mental calisthenics that prepared their minds for cognitive activity.

“The simple process of focusing on the breath in a relaxed manner, in a way that teaches you to regulate your emotions by raising one’s awareness of mental processes as they’re happening is like working out a bicep, but you are doing it to your brain. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to release sensory events that would easily distract, whether it is your own thoughts or an external noise, in an emotion-regulating fashion. This can lead to better, more efficient performance on the intended task.”

“This kind of training seems to prepare the mind for activity, but it’s not necessarily permanent,” Zeidan cautions. “This doesn’t mean that you meditate for four days and you’re done – you need to keep practicing.”


The paper, “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training” is available on Pubmed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20363650.

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P.G. Wodehouse: “If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is!”

P.G. Wodehouse

We spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend impermanence isn’t real, but the strange thing is that when we embrace impermanence we become happier.

Here’s a very “queer thing” about life: sometimes the things that we think will make us miserable actually make us happier. When Professor Eric D. Miller of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology asked people to imagine the death of their partner they reported that they felt more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.

I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
—P.G. Wodehouse

We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind. Wary that thinking about impermanence will be too much of a “downer” we try not to think about these things too much. And yet, ironically, when we do happen to experience the fragility of existence we often find our appreciation of life is enhanced.

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Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s just the sheer joy of being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting pleasure to pay attention to those that do.

Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and wellbeing. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world that we can absolutely rely upon. True, it’s pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it.

The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate?

An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. In studies it has been found that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island in the midst of a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.

Another common strategy is that we imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing that we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we engage in grasping for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.

We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us.

Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us, and that including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.

We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. The self that we imagine to be separate and unchanging is not that way at all. The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline that we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river starts. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.

The Buddha pointed to an alternative way of living, which is that we radically embrace impermanence. In his path of training, we systematically notice all acts of holding on, all acts of trying to resist impermanence, and learn to let go. In doing so repeatedly, we start to see the disadvantages of clinging, and the advantages of non-clinging. Training the mind in this way, we cling less, we experience more freedom and expansiveness, and we find we can face impermanence with less fear.

This post is an edited extract from Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book, “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” to be published by Sounds True in October, 2010.

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Mind Power

Harvard professor Ellen Langer’s research transformed psychology. Now she wants it to transform you.

The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is housed in a former Jesuit seminary built in the 1950s, on a rise with broad views of the Berkshires. The long hallways have the institutional feel of a high school, except that everyone is speaking in respectful tones, and rolled yoga mats are everywhere, like baguettes in Doisneau’s Paris. On the walls are limited-edition photographs of lean people doing yoga in front of moss-dappled Indian shrines. At the gift shop on an early February weekend, visitors could have their tarot read, or a photographic portrait taken of their aura. And one of the featured speakers, offering a weekend-long seminar, was a senior professor at Harvard University, Ellen Langer.

Langer is a famous psychologist poised to get much more famous, but not in the ways most researchers do. She is best known for two things: her concept of mindlessness – the idea that much of what we believe to be rational thought is in fact just our brains on autopilot – and her concept of mindfulness, the idea that simply paying attention to our everyday lives can make us happier and healthier. She was Harvard’s first tenured woman professor of psychology, and her discoveries helped trigger, among other things, the burgeoning positive-psychology movement. Her 1989 book, “Mindfulness,” was an international bestseller, and she remains in high demand as a speaker everywhere from New York’s 92d Street Y to the leadership guru Tony Robbins’s Fiji resort. And now a movie about her life is in development with Jennifer Aniston signed on to star as Langer.

While other researchers might blanch at the Hollywoodization of their work, for Langer it’s almost an organic development – part of a long journey to bring the message of her research to the masses. Langer’s reputation in the field of social psychology rests on a set of ingenious experiments that expose the strange power of the mind to fool itself and to transform the body. In one of her best-known studies, she found that giving nursing home residents more control over their lives made them live longer. In more recent work, she made hotel maids lose weight simply by telling them that their work burned as many calories as a typical workout. And in the study at the center of the Aniston movie, a team led by Langer found that instructing a group of elderly men to talk and act as if they were 20 years younger could reverse the aging process.

Today, Langer’s studies are required reading in introductory psychology courses, and her work has inspired a generation of leading behavioral researchers who are rethinking human thought itself. But Langer herself has taken a different tack. As her intellectual successors publish research studies, she has transformed herself into almost an advertisement for her own work, setting out to spread the word about the power of mindfulness. Nearly a decade ago, she took up painting, pursuing it, as she pursues everything, as mindfully as possible; today her canvases, many of them whimsical portraits of her pet dogs, show in well-reputed galleries and sell for thousands of dollars. She has long been at work on a book on mindfulness and tennis, a sport she plays avidly. And her recent books are concerned less with how mindfulness works than how we all might better use it to improve our lives.

“Things are not good or bad,” she repeated to her audience at Kripalu, “What’s good or bad are the views we take of things.”

For some psychologists, mantras like these make Langer less a social scientist than a guru. She treats research and writing – the day-to-day work of most psychologists – with a pronounced cavalierness, neglecting to publish results even when they strike her as interesting. At times she sounds suspicious of the very idea of scientific evidence. What she is practicing, she says, is a different brand of psychology, “the psychology of possibility.”

“I do research, but my research is not designed to be a description. It rarely says what is, but what can be,” she told me at Kripalu.

“I don’t think I’ve ever envied anybody. If someone has something, I can, too,” Langer announced to her Kripalu seminar during the Saturday morning session. Dressed in slim black slacks and a black, tunic-like cardigan, she stood before 65 people, mostly women, in a lofty, barn-shaped room that had once been the seminary’s main chapel.

The night before, Langer had asked participants to think of someone or something that bothered them. She started the morning by asking what they had come up with. One woman said her husband was always late for breakfast, another described her child’s “defying” behavior, another made what sounded like a veiled complaint about her in-laws.

In responding to each, Langer returned to a similar point: Each of these complaints was born of mindlessness. They were instinctual responses rather than thoughtful engagement. Why not see the time alone at breakfast as a gift? Would the young mother rather have a child who blindly followed orders? And surely there was something interesting and redeemable to be found in the in-laws.

As advice, it was not revolutionary. But as the morning went on, and Langer described the research on which she had built her particular worldview, a sense emerged of just how powerful she thought the mind could be.

As Langer sees it, it’s the pervasiveness of mindless behavior that makes mindfulness so powerful, and her earliest research focused on the former. Her doctoral dissertation, at Yale, grew out of a poker game with some colleagues. One round, the dealer accidentally skipped someone. “Everyone went crazy,” Langer recalls. It was out of the question, she learned, to simply give the skipped person the next card and proceed with the deal. She began to wonder why people were so attached to “their” cards even when they had no idea whether they were good or bad.

At the time, the dominant view in the field of psychology assumed that human decision-making was a thoroughly logical process, driven by a constant calculation of probabilities and costs and benefits. The reaction to that botched deal made Langer suspect something very different.

To test this, she ran a study in which she set up a lottery and varied the terms by which people got their tickets. She found that subjects valued their tickets much more when they were allowed to choose them, even though that did nothing to increase their chances of winning. She called this “the illusion of control.”

Langer followed this up by looking at the often meaningless factors that determine how people evaluate information. In one study, conducted with Benzion Chanowitz and Arthur Blank, she had experimenters approach people who were using a Xerox machine and ask to cut in to make copies. They found that people were more likely to let someone cut if offered a reason – but, intriguingly, it did not matter if the reason made sense. People were as receptive to a meaningless reason (“to make copies”) as a valid one (“I’m in a rush”).

“It is not that people don’t hear the request,” Langer wrote in “Mindfulness,” “they simply don’t think about it actively.”

These findings broke open the field of social psychology. “It was a huge corrective,” says John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale known for his work on “automaticity” and thought. He remembers reading the Xerox machine study as a graduate student: “That just lit me up. It opened my eyes and everything was off to the races after that.”

For Bargh and others, Langer’s research cleared the way for a whole new model of how people really think and decide, one that replaced the cold inner logician with a rich tangle that incorporated emotion, evolution, and the particularities of the human body. Researchers like Daniel Gilbert, Antonio Damasio, and Dan Ariely saw mindless behavior as a trove of clues, and in many cases, psychologists discovered that there could be a value to “mindlessness” – our seemingly irrational instincts were not only quicker, but often more accurate than our more considered ruminations.

Langer, on the other hand, thought mindlessness was harmful. Not paying attention to their lives, as she saw it, made people bored and careless, prejudiced and complacent; it stunted innovation and led to catastrophic errors among pilots and soldiers and surgeons. She didn’t see mindlessness as a window into the brain. She saw it as a condition to be cured.

So Langer began to study its opposite. She called it “mindfulness,” a term that was being independently adopted around the same time by doctors and therapists embracing the Buddhist practice of mindful meditation. Langer’s definition was something more everyday – that we simply need to go through life paying better attention to it. She began to focus her work on the question of what difference that might make.

Among other things, she argued, it could make us live longer. In 1976, working with Judith Rodin at Yale – a psychologist who would later become president of the University of Pennsylvania – she published a landmark field study that looked at what happened when nursing home residents were given more control over their lives. Langer and Rodin set up their experiment so that one group of residents was asked to make a few small decisions about their lives – where to receive visitors, what entertainment options they preferred, and how to care for houseplants placed in their rooms – and another group was not given these choices. A year and a half later, Langer and Rodin found that not only were the residents who had been given more choices happier, more social, and more alert than the other group, many more of them were still alive.

“Whenever you’re making a choice, you have to notice things, and that makes us engage,” Langer told me. “Mindfulness is figuratively enlivening, and it’s literally enlivening.”

Another set of findings by Langer suggests that, to a seemingly supernatural degree, simply believing something can make it so. In a study published in 2007 with her student Alia Crum, Langer found that telling hotel maids that their work satisfied the surgeon general’s recommendations for an active lifestyle led to a decrease in those maids’ weight, blood pressure, and body fat four weeks later, even though they reported no change in activity or diet.

The study that the movie will center on took place in 1979 and was, in its way, a feat of canny stagecraft. In an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., Langer and her students set up an elaborate time capsule of the world 20 years earlier, then sent two separate groups of men in their late 70s and early 80s to spend a week there. Each group spent the week immersed in the year 1959, discussing Castro’s advances in Cuba and the Colts’ victory in the NFL championship, listening to Perry Como and Nat King Cole, watching “North by Northwest” and “Some Like it Hot.” The only difference between the two groups was that one talked about the year in the present tense – they were pretending it was 1959 – and the other group referred to it in the past.

Before and after, the men in both groups were given a battery of cognitive and physical tests. What Langer found was that the men in both groups seemed to have reversed many of the declines associated with aging – they were stronger and more flexible, their memories and their performance on intelligence tests improved. But the men who had acted as if it really was 1959 had improved significantly more. By mentally living as younger men for a week, they seemed actually to have turned back the clock.

What was happening to those men? Today Langer says she’s not entirely sure. It may be that they believed, on some level, that they really were 20 years younger, and that their bodies reacted accordingly. Or it may be that the effort of maintaining the fiction engaged their minds in a way that rejuvenated them.

But ultimately Langer seems less interested in the question of how mindfulness works than how to harness it in practice. In her books – mostly written for a popular audience – and her many speaking engagements, she outlines a philosophy in which the right mindset can often literally transmute life’s ills.

Other researchers, however, are more cautious about Langer’s mind-over-matter effects, and wonder if other factors might be at work. There may be subtle behavioral changes that accompany the changes in mindset, unbeknownst to both subject and researcher.

“The question is how much does it help simply to have the feeling – or does the feeling help because it gets you motivated to try to do something,” says Julie Norem, a psychologist at Wellesley College.

Skepticism about Langer’s conception of mindfulness is fed by the fact that she doesn’t always publish her more provocative findings in academic journals, a tendency that can make her seem less interested in testing her ideas than publicizing them. The study of the older men is recounted anecdotally in multiple books, but was never published in a peer-reviewed research journal. (The movie was born when a screenwriter cold-called Langer and told her he had read “Mindfulness” on his mother’s recommendation.)

Langer readily concedes that her ideas have changed since her early career. “When I was first studying the illusion of control, I was doing it from a very rational perspective,” she says. Now, however, she says she is suspicious of the empirical approach that lies at the heart of scientific research. One of her favorite hobbyhorses is probabilistic thinking. (“You can tell me that there’s a 20 percent chance of it raining tomorrow, but tomorrow it will either rain or it won’t rain.”)

Instead, Langer’s “psychology of possibility” focuses not on how the typical person thinks, but on the special qualities of outliers and apparent oddities, and rests on a faith in the untapped potential of the mind. Her work reaches thousands of people, and, on the largest scale, she sees progress.

“I think the culture is headed toward an evolution in consciousness,” she told me.

The psychology of possibility can take Langer to some curious places. In a blog post last summer for the Psychology Today website, she told the story of a friend who on a long-ago trip took photos of an Indian guru only to find he didn’t show up on film. The inability of many people to believe the story, Langer suggested, was due to “our mindless adherence to longstanding views.”

But to Langer, among the strongest arguments for the psychology of possibility is the way it has enriched her own lived life: She is now a painter, a dispenser of performance-enhancing advice on the doubles court, and the basis for a Hollywood biopic. As she told the seminar at Kripalu, “I have fun when I make the paintings, I have fun when I write the books, I have fun when I speak to you. Because, why not have fun?”

[via Boston Globe]
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