psychology and meditation

Study shows brief training in meditation may help manage pain

PsychOrg.com: Living with pain is stressful, but a surprisingly short investment of time in mental training can help you cope.

A new study examining the perception of pain and the effects of various mental training techniques has found that relatively short and simple mindfulness meditation training can have a significant positive effect on pain management.

Though pain research during the past decade has shown that extensive meditation training can have a positive effect in reducing a person’s awareness and sensitivity to pain, the effort, time commitment, and financial obligations required has made the treatment not practical for many patients. Now, a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte shows that a single hour of training spread out over a three day period can produce the same kind of analgesic effect. Read more here.

The research appears in an article by UNC Charlotte psychologists Fadel Zeidan, Nakia S. Gordon, Junaid Merchant and Paula Goolkasian, in the current issue of The Journal of Pain.

“This study is the first study to demonstrate the efficacy of such a brief intervention on the perception of pain,” noted Fadel Zeidan, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UNC Charlotte and the paper’s lead author. “Not only did the meditation subjects feel less pain than the control group while meditating but they also experienced less pain sensitivity while not meditating.”

Over the course of three experiments employing harmless electrical shocks administered in gradual increments, the researchers measured the effect of brief sessions of mindfulness meditation training on pain awareness measuring responses that were carefully calibrated to insure reporting accuracy. Subjects who received the meditation training were compared to controls and to groups using relaxation and distraction techniques. The researchers measured changes in the subjects’ rating of pain at “low” and “high” levels during the different activities, and also changes in their general sensitivity to pain through the process of calibrating responses before the activities.

While the distraction activity – which used a rigorous math task to distract subjects from the effects of the stimulus – was effective in reducing the subject’s perception of “high” pain, the meditation activity had an even stronger reducing effect on high pain, and reduced the perception of “low” pain levels as well.

Further, the meditation training appeared to have an effect that continued to influence the patients after the activity was concluded, resulting in a general lowering of pain sensitivity in the subjects – a result that indicated that the effect of the meditation was substantially different from the effect of the distraction activity.

The finding follows earlier research studies that found differences in pain awareness and other mental activities among long-time practitioners of mindfulness meditation techniques.

“We knew already that meditation has significant effects on pain perception in long-term practitioners whose brains seem to have been completely changed — we didn’t know that you could do this in just three days, with just 20 minutes a day,” Zeidan said.

In assessing the first experiment, the researchers were not terribly surprised to discover that meditation activity appeared to be affecting the experimental subjects’ perception of pain because the researchers assumed that the change was mainly due to distraction, a well-known effect. However, subsequent findings began to indicate that the effect continued outside of the periods of meditation.

” When we re-calibrated their pain thresholds after the training had started and we found that they felt less pain, compared to the control subjects,” Zeidan noted. “This was totally surprising because a change in general sensitivity was not part of our hypothesis at all.

“We were so surprised after the first experiment that we did two more. We thought that no one was going to listen to us because no one had done this before… and we got a robust finding across the three experiments.”

Zeidan stresses that the effect the researchers measured in the meditation subjects was a lessening of pain but not a lessening of sensation. The calibration results showed little change in the meditation subjects’ sensitivity to the sensation of electricity, but a significant change in what level of shock was perceived to be painful.

“The short course of meditation was very effective on pain perception,” Zeidan said. “We got a very high effect size for the periods when they were meditating.

“In fact, it was kind of freaky for me. I was ramping at 400-500 milliamps and their arms would be jolting back and forth because the current was stimulating a motor nerve. Yet they would still be asking, ‘A 2?’ (‘2′ being the level of electrical shock that designates low pain) It was really surprising,” he said.

Zeidan suspects that the mindfulness training lessens the awareness of and sensitivity to pain because it trains subjects’ brains to pay attention to sensations at the present moment rather than anticipating future pain or dwelling on the emotions caused by pain, and thus reduces anxiety.

“The mindfulness training taught them that distractions, feelings, emotions are momentary, don’t require a label or judgment because the moment is already over,” Zeidan noted. “With the meditation training they would acknowledge the pain, they realize what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present.”

Though the results are in line with past findings regarding mindfulness practitioners, Zeidan says that the findings are important because they show that meditation is much easier to use for pain management than it was previously believed to be because a very short, simple course of training is all that is required in order to achieve a significant effect. Even self-administered training might be effective, according to Zeidan.

“What’s neat here is that this is the briefest known way to promote a meditation state and yet it has an effect in pain management. People who want to make use of the technique might not need a meditation facilitator – they might be able to get the necessary training off the internet, ” Zeidan said. “All you have to do is use your mind, change the way you look at the perception of pain and that, ultimately, might help alleviate the feeling of that pain.”

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Happiness, craving, and the treadmill of expectations

Treadmill

Eric Weiner writes today in the New York Times about a recent report saying that the Danes are the happiest nation, and puts it down to their attitude of not having unrealistic expectations — something that he (rightly, I think) equates with Buddhism. It’s a post that’s worth reading in full, especially for his analysis of the "hedonic treadmill," but here’s an extract:

About once a year, some new study confirms Denmark’s status as a happiness superpower. Danes receive this news warily, with newspaper headlines that invariably read: "We’re the happiest lige nu." Lige nu is a Danish phrase that means literally "just now" but strongly connotes a sense of "for the time being but probably not for long." Danes, in other words, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness. Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the "hedonic treadmill." That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I once heard Joseph Goldstein make a nice distinction between aspiration and expectation. Both involve having an idea of things you would like to happen, but with expectation there’s a degree of clinging to the idea of achieving our goals, whereas with aspiration there isn’t clinging. The problem with clinging is that when we don’t get what we want we plummet from excited expectation to disappointment, and when we do get what we’ve been craving the tendency to crave hasn’t gone away, and so we’ll soon find ourselves craving more. This is the dynamic that Weiner so neatly describes.

I’d argue that all of our actions are strategies for attaining happiness. From that perspective craving is not “bad” but just a strategy that happens not to work. What does work are lovingkindness, equanimity, and an awareness of impermanence.

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What inspired a scientist to open a meditation center at UCLA?

Huffington Post:
I recently attended a gathering of supporters of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California, Los Angeles. During this event, I heard MARC founder (and Huffington Post blogger) Susan Smalley, Ph.D., speak. Dr. Smalley, a research scientist for 25 years, shared her fascinating journey of how she was inspired to create a center for mindfulness research. Her audience was completely captivated. I was so moved by Dr. Smalley’s story, I wanted to share it with the HuffPost audience. I was fortunate enough to track her down for an interview. Read more here.

Before I share the interview, I’d like to clarify what mindful awareness is. According to the MARC website:

Mindful Awareness – the moment-by-moment process of actively attending to, observing and drawing inferences from what one experiences. Mindful Awareness (also known as mindfulness) is an ancient concept with over 2,500 years of history and development that has recently been brought into health settings and has shown to have a powerful role on overall health promotion and healing for a variety of physical illnesses including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune disorders, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

PF: Sue, thanks for meeting with me to share your story. Let’s start with your background that, in a surprising way, seemed to lay the foundation for your interest in the study of mindfulness. How did you originally get involved in science, specifically in the field of genetics?

SS: My Ph.D. is in Anthropology, specifically Population and Behavior Genetics. I was interested in evolution, how genes change in frequency over time. Also, how genes influence human behavior. I did two years of post-doc work at UCLA in Medical Genetics, and am licensed as a medical geneticist.

I was fascinated with the gene mapping studies. I thought that if you found all the genes that influence human behavior, you could solve the world’s problems. I thought that once we understood the biology, we would be able to map out what are the environments that interact with those genes and we could cure everything. I thought that was the solution to end suffering.

I did autism research for ten years, and ADHD research for 13 years. As I really started studying ADHD, it became clear that, like every other psychiatric and behavioral condition, there’s not a single gene involved. There are many genes that interact. It’s not something you’re going to treat by altering genes; it will require a variety of approaches. I see ADHD as a way of brain processing that impacts many dimensions, not only attention but also working memory, probably personality, and other domains.

PF: So for 25 years you were immersed in fascinating research at UCLA. And now you are the founder and director of the MARC Center. Seems like a complete 360, but I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind the switch.

SS: Patricia, I received a real wake up call when I was diagnosed with an early stage melanoma. It was a big shock. I thought I was going to die. I really reevaluated my life. I realized that I was doing everything Western medicine said keeps you healthy (working out, diet, etc.) and yet I was not preventing myself from getting ‘sick’. The shock of the diagnosis and the fear of death really brought me to a heightened awareness.

PF: What was your life approach before this heightened awareness?

SS: I didn’t think about trying to heighten my sense of consciousness in any way. I thought, yeah, learn more, read more, study more, talk to people, everything’s in books, everything’s out there in a reason-based world. Just follow it.

I gave zero time to places that would increase intuition, or enhance insight, ignoring what is probably a core component of wisdom. I was just running around constantly doing, doing, doing, and trying to soak up knowledge from books and experiments and science.

PF: So prior to this new level of “awareness,” did you have any hobbies, escapes?

SS: Not really … I would go on vacation with my family every year but mostly I worked. And in addition to working, I was a mom, but I was a workaholic in motherhood and a workaholic in work. I constantly would try to do more.

I loved the role of being a mother. It was the one place that intuition naturally arose for me. In that sense, when I had my first child, I had more awareness. I wrote about it in my first post on Huffington Post; it’s called Mystic Mom. Motherhood was my first touch with being connected to something outside of myself. That was 24 years ago. I have three kids now, ages 18-23.

Back then, I had very few friends to be honest, except my husband who has been my closest friend for 35 years. I didn’t really open up that much to anyone outside my family. But I did go into therapy. That was a huge component to my self-discovery.

PF: You were in therapy before your “awakening”?

SS: I was in therapy for stress, worry, parenting. I felt stressed, and wanted to do the best I could do with my kids. Therapy helped me open up on one level.

PF: Did the cancer diagnosis and the “awakening” inspire you to make changes in your lifestyle?

SS: The medical treatment for my cancer was successful; however, I felt that there was something deeper going on with my overall health.

I decided to go back to an East-West doctor that my husband had recommended earlier. I had started going to him 10 years before, but I didn’t believe in him. I just would roll my eyes. I was so skeptical. He would give me suggestions of ways to improve my well being, and I didn’t follow through.

But when the melanoma was diagnosed, I thought, something’s not working. I thought I was doing everything right, but something’s off.

So for the first time, I listened to what he said and started doing everything he recommended. This included massage, acupuncture, taking herbs, different forms of yoga. On my own, I decided I would explore dietary changes, too. I looked into all of the diets and I went really hardcore into macrobiotic. I did all of those things simultaneously. And I started meditating.

I had learned TM (transcendental meditation) in the 70s, and kind of made fun of it. But I did have a mantra and I knew how to do it.

I took a little time off from work when I started doing all of those things, including meditating every day. I would drop the kids at school and come home. I’d spend the day doing things to improve my health: acupuncture, yoga, massage. Hour after hour of it. This was like a mega retreat on my own. Then I’d pick my kids up from school and do the normal mom stuff.

PF: So when you get into something, you really get into something.

SS: Yeah, I totally got immersed in it. But it was all new because I’d never done any of it, and I didn’t believe any of it before, so I was like, be open, be open.

And it really had a huge impact and I had what I now call a “mystical experience” – I had a huge shift in consciousness. And it wasn’t one that was incremental, day after day, increasing and increasing, but one of those, bam! Wow! The world, we’re all interconnected, I’m part of the oneness of the universe. I discovered this sense of deep interconnectedness of our dependent nature and posted a blog about it.

It was so profound that I couldn’t harm anything, and it was like all of a sudden. It wasn’t choosing not to eat meat anymore or choosing not to harm an insect because I thought it was a nice thing to do. It was because I felt to harm another animal, insect, even plants was like hurting a part of myself, as if I was chopping off my own left arm. I saw us all as one interconnected thing.

It was a really profound state, and along with this heightened state of consciousness, this incredible state of compassion, came a flood of rushing joy, bliss, calmness, happiness. I couldn’t even muster the old feelings I had that included the negative feelings of jealously, greed, anger … all of those things I couldn’t find in myself.

This state was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to function. It was so different, this heightened state of bliss. I had no signs or symptoms of any kind of mental disorder, but I’m guessing it had qualities of what mania or hypomania might feel like in some ways. But not only was there this bliss, but creativity was just massive. So I started painting, I started creative writing, doing lots of things I hadn’t done before.

PF: How long did this feeling last?

SS: It was a really profound experience, then it kind of dissipated after about a month. The negative emotions didn’t come back but I started to lose that extreme feeling of everything as so connected, of that extreme sort of blissful state.

Then I started reading a lot, trying to figure out what just happened to me? What was this amazing experience?

Somehow I came across William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Here
I had been an atheist, or an agnostic, my whole life. But what happened to me was a profound shift in consciousness which led me to relate to the universe in a very different way.

That experience sounded like what James described for people who had had what they called “religious experiences” except my experience had no ‘God’ associated with it.

But, when I began reading Eastern religions of Taoism and Buddhism, I saw many parallels with the profound ‘truths’ I experienced during my ‘epiphany’ in those 30 days, and writings of people from different religions, as well as philosophers, writers, poets, and others. I saw that a lot of truths that became apparent to me in meditation were commonly recognized universal truths that other people have seen and have written about throughout history.

My quandary became that I didn’t know how to go back to work, as I had a totally different view of the world. I felt that the insights I gleaned during that 30 day period were ones that we could each discover but how do you discover them if you don’t give time for yourself to try to uncover that stuff?

Before I didn’t think that this was anything I should value … to take time for myself, to reflect on things. Or to use any kind of tools that could help you to do that.

I didn’t know what to do next and I didn’t know if I could ever go back to UCLA because I just thought it was so inconsistent with this way of seeing the world – an alternative way of knowing – a first-person experiential way vs. a third person scientific way. Both are valuable and I used to think only one was valuable for real truth, until I realized they both are valuable.

Then I came across the Albert Einstein quote:

“The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift, the Rational Mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

That was really profound to me because Einstein said it. It helped that my insight was validated by someone else who I knew was really smart.

Jonas Salk is another person who had a huge influence on me. I didn’t know Jonas Salk had written anything about ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’ until after my experience and then I discovered this Salk quote:

“Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”

This resonated a lot with me.

Then I read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, where even he, the great proponent of reason, argues for the value of ‘intuitive’ experiences; what he described as the sort of knowledge that makes reason pale in comparison.

So there was all this from highly intelligent, reason-based thinkers that I respected.

My analogy that I use all of the time to reflect the balance of these two modes of knowing (reason and intuition) is that of a coin rolling on its side, and I wrote a blog about it. One side is reason and one side is intuition. If you ever lean too far, the coin falls flats and can’t move. The only way to keep the coin rolling is to keep both sides in balance.

With all of this, I contemplated whether or not to go back to UCLA….

Stay tuned for Part II (next Wednesday), where you’ll read how Dr. Smalley created a university-based center to share her insights and processes with others.

Huff Post readers: Have you had an experience of heightened awareness – intuition – mindfulness – that affected you in a significant way? We’d love to hear from you.

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Getting High: On Drugs, Medication Or Meditation?

Huffington Post: We all seek that rush or high, the feel-good factor that turns us on and makes us feel that we can succeed and even conquer the world. Getting high is one of the great pleasures of life and that is why so many people find different ways to do it, whether through alcohol, the use of recreational drugs, such as marijuana, or prescription drugs, such as pain killers, all of which aim at altering our consciousness enough that our present reality becomes workable and even enjoyable.

In 2007 66% of high school seniors regularly drank alcohol, 31% smoked dope, while 10% used other opiates. Among adults, according to data from the 2006 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) 112 million Americans (45% of the population) reported illicit drug use at least once, 15% reported use of a drug within the past year, and 8% reported use of a drug within the past month. Vicadin is one of the most widely prescribed painkillers and it is used and abused by teenagers and adults alike.

This adds up to a lot of people and, as we all know, reported statistics are often very short of the mark. Most of us have “inhaled” at least once. Although pot is a party drug and in some cases considered sacred weed, there are also many known side effects, such as addiction (Ed remembers his friend Judy saying, “I’m not addicted; I’ve just been smoking grass for 20 years.”), mental disturbance, and erratic behavior. Vicadin is now likely to be banned, along with Percocet, because it is detrimental to the liver, while alcohol is damaging not only to the liver but also to relationships.

In his twenties in NYC, Ed was a part of the generation that took drugs freely and often. It was a time of Be Ins and Love Ins, when Ed hung out with Tim Leary and Ram Dass who promoted LSD, with poet Allen Ginsberg, and the author of One Flew Over The Cookoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey. Then he met Swami Satchidananda, who said that if the LSD pill can make you a saint then you should be able to take a pill to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist, because being a saint is much more difficult than those! Satchidananda then introduced Ed to yoga and meditation.

“I was blown away with meditation as it didn’t have the side effects of dope — no laziness, munchies, or coming down. I realized this was a great alternative as I was getting just as high, but without the negatives. My mind was clear, alert and and focused.” Ed then went to India to train and his teacher there, Swami Satyananda, said how taking LSD was like shooting a bullet to Nirvana but not knowing how you got there, while meditation was like learning the route in detail.

The word meditation and the word medication have the same prefix derived from the Latin word medicus, meaning to care or to cure, indicating that meditation is the most appropriate medicine or antidote for stress; a quiet calmness is the most efficient remedy for a busy and overworked mind.

Our new book BE THE CHANGE – How Meditation Can Transform You and the World helps us to understand how we can become free without drugs — a natural high without the hangover!

Five Reasons Why Meditation is the Best Natural High

1. Rather than adding toxins into our system, meditation is a way to clean out.

2. Meditation purifies our nervous system and mind in such a way that we see our present reality with greater clarity. Creativity is enhanced and solutions to difficulties arise so we can be with whatever is happening, rather than trying to hide from it.

3. The madness of the mind is likened to a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. With meditation, this begins to calm down and we can make friends and peace with our mind, so we can be free of the craziness.

4. Meditation opens our heart to love, joy and compassion, and there certainly isn’t anything as high as the power of love!

5. Meditation gets us high on life. It enables us to enjoy life to it’s fullest, to enjoy breathing, walking, a sunset, and the simple beauty of being alive!

What high moments have you experienced? Do let us know, as we would love to hear from you! You can receive notice of our blogs every Thursday by checking Become a Fan at the top.

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Ed and Deb Shapiro’s new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors such as Marianne Williamson, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Byron Katie, Michael Beckwith, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jane Fonda, Jack Kornfield, Ellen Burstyn, Ed Begley, Dean Ornish, Russell Bishop, Gangaji and others, will be published November 3rd 2009 by Sterling Ethos.

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Teaching the mind to treat insomnia

Web MD: Changing bad sleep habits and clearing the mind with meditation may offer drug-free alternatives to traditional insomnia treatments. Two new studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy to change people’s attitudes and actions about sleep and using meditation to encourage relaxation can help insomniacs get a better night’s sleep without pills. Read more here.

Researchers say that contrary to popular belief, insomnia is not a nighttime-only affliction but a 24-hour problem of hyperarousal. By teaching people how to relax and clear their minds during the day, they sleep better at night.

“Results of the study show that teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night,” says researcher Ramadevi Gourineni, MD, director of the insomnia program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in a news release.
Meditation to Treat Insomnia

Gourineni’s study examined the effectiveness of practicing meditation as an insomnia treatment in 11 people with insomnia.

The participants were divided into two groups. One group was trained in kriya yoga, in which meditation is used to focus internalized attention, and the other received general health education.

Two months later, the results showed that the meditation group experienced improvements in sleep quality and quantity, according to their sleep diaries. They also took less time to fall asleep, woke fewer times, and had fewer symptoms of depression.

Although the effects and study size were small, researchers say the findings suggest that meditation may be an effective alternative insomnia treatment.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Tames Insomnia

The second, larger study looked at the effects of a cognitive behavioral therapy-insomnia (CBT-I) program designed to treat insomnia in 115 people with insomnia. The program included evaluating the person’s habits, attitudes, and knowledge about sleep.

During the treatment sessions, participants learned about sleep scheduling, creating the proper environment for sleep, reducing stimuli that may interfere with sleep, relaxation training, and mindfulness training.

“CBT-I teaches strategies to ‘reset’ the bodily systems that regulate sleep,” researcher Ryan Wetzler, PsyD, of Sleep Medicine Specialists in Louisville, Ky., says in a news release. “Since these systems also play a role in regulation of mood, pain, and other bodily processes, skills developed through CBT-I may also have a positive impact on mood, anxiety, pain, and other associated medical or psychiatric conditions.”

The results showed that 50%-60% of those whose main insomnia symptom was trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both experienced improvement. Those who completed five or more cognitive behavioral therapy sessions also had improvement in other sleep quality measurements and needed less medication for their insomnia.

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“Guilt: An Exploration” by Caroline Brazier

Guilt: An Exploration, by Caroline Brazier A leading Buddhist teacher writes about the knotty problem of guilt, but chooses to do so through a blend of fictional narrative, autobiography, and commentary. Vajradevi reveals all.

Caroline Brazier is a Buddhist practitioner and a psychotherapist of many years standing. She is a course leader of the Amida Psychotherapy training program and lives in a Buddhist community in England. She brings these two aspects of training and experience to bear in her book, Guilt: An Exploration. The Buddhist aspect is implicit in the kindness and perceptiveness Caroline Brazier brings to her subject. You will find this book in the “Psychology” section of your bookstore and it is this perspective that frames the story she tells.

Unusually, Brazier has decided to approach this nebulous and pervasive topic through a blend of fiction, autobiography, and commentary. She deliberately relegates theoretical ideas to the far margins of her book. There is not a study or survey result to be seen. We don’t get to hear anything of how guilt generally affects human beings or who is most susceptible to its influence. Instead she focuses down on a group of young children and, to a lesser extent, their parents and tells their fictional story letting us witness the complex emotions that form part of growing into adolescence and adulthood.

Title: Guilt: An Exploration
Author: Caroline Brazier
Publisher: O-Books
ISBN: 978-1-84694-160-3
Available from: Amazon.com.

She places her characters in south London of the 1960’s. Not the England of the Beatles and mini-skirts and beehives but “a time of transition where traditions were still respected and radical new ways of thinking had yet to reach the majority of the general population.” A world characterized by freedom for children to roam away from familiar adults and create a realm of their own.

Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke guilty feelings.

Through these characters and particularly “Joanne,” a spirited 10 year old tomboy when we first meet her, Brazier shows the nuances and subtleties of the feeling of guilt. When feelings, thoughts and actions conflict how does a child make sense of them? What affects the decisions we make to act? How do we feel when we want to act in a way we think is wrong and will be disapproved of by those we love or are scared of? How do we grow and explore our world when it means pushing against the boundaries of those who love us, or keeping secrets from them? Brazier explores Joanne and her friends’ responses of guilt in relation to ethics. How does a child work out what is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do? What of the “moral uncertainty” of different value systems a child is exposed to? Or, she asks, does the child have a deeply felt sense of what is the correct way to be?

Some of these questions Brazier leaves open while she answers others by painting a picture of great delicacy. What I appreciated most about her book is that guilt is not made into a heavy, static entity but something that arises in the intersections of emotions and impulses to act, and that guilt can be seen as almost a natural part of maturing.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life. It is in these moments that guilt seems to lurk as well as in times that thrill and fascinate with new experiences. Through the story Caroline Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke such feelings. A boy who loses an expensive new coat is thrown into agonies of confusion and guilt by the unexpected forgiveness from his strict mother. A girl unable to understand her new desire for intimacy is unkind to a school friend. Another child feels “different” and ashamed because of family secrets about her mother’s affair and her own racial background. Parents’ religious values conflict with each other and their child is caught in the middle, guilty at his ability to play one parent against the other. Sexual exploration is one of the main themes in the book evoking a whole cocktail of strong emotions — especially guilt — for the pre-adolescent Joanne to get to grips with.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life.

Often these occasions are a doorway to a new freedom, a new step in understanding and maturity that enrich a child’s life. Caroline Brazier’s story paints a powerful picture of the complexities of growing up. I am of a similar age to the author and brought up in the UK so there were many parallels to our experience as children. She evokes the world of a child in this period very well. I found many of my own memories and feelings re-surfacing, of times spent with my brothers and sisters building dens in the local woods and playing vivid adventure fantasy games alongside a meandering stream, coming home wet, muddy and happy.

The life of a child and teenager in 2009 is radically different to that of a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Multiculturalism has given rise to many different ways of child-rearing within one society. Society itself is a more complex organism and children are at the same time more protected by parents but more exposed to danger especially from other young people. I have a question in my mind as to how well this book would translate to a reader from a different generation or culture. I suspect something would be lost but perhaps the central exploration would remain clear.

At times I would have appreciated a little more theory which would have helped to give the book more of a framework. As it stands, without many “hooks” from which a structure could hang, a cursory reading might lead to underestimating the value of “Joanne’s” story. This would be a shame as many areas such as independence, projections, conscience, choosing and testing loyalties are woven in to the book in a natural and informative way.

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Dalai Lama’s brain challenge produces split decision

New Scientist: If you’re going to challenge the Dalai Lama to a memory game, don’t do it just after he’s meditated. New research finds that meditation boosts visual memory, but only in the short term. The findings counter the claims of some monks who say that years of practicing a meditation technique that centres on creating an elaborate mental picture of deities can offer long-lasting improvements in visual memory and processing. Read more here.

“They claim they can do it all the time – they cannot,” says Maria Kozhevnikov, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who travelled to several monasteries in Nepal to test the Buddhist monks’ visual memory.
Holy challenge

In 2003, the Dalai Lama, who has a long-term interest in science and what he calls “the luminosity of being”, attended a neuroscience conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he challenged Kozhevnikov’s then post-doctoral advisor, Stephen Kosslyn, to test the visual memory of Buddhist monks.

Kosslyn and most other neuroscientists claimed that working memory was too short to maintain an image for more than a few seconds. He found no difference in visual memory between moderately practiced monks and non-meditators who came to his Harvard lab.

The Dalai Lama suggested that Kosslyn test more experienced monks in Nepal, and Kozhevnikov took on the task while on sabbatical.

Her initial tests at Sechen Monastery in Kathmandu confirmed Kosslyn’s findings. She showed monks an array of six images – various animals, for instance – and then five seconds later another six images, five of which appeared in the first set and one new picture. Test subjects had to determine which image was new.

In another task, Kozhevnikov showed monks a three-dimensional shape next to a rotated version of the shape or its mirror image.
‘Unbelievable performance’

The Sechen monks proved no better at determining whether the second shape was identical to or the mirror image of the first shape, compared to people who don’t meditate. Their visual memories, too, seemed normal.

Then, by chance, Kozhevnikov tested a monk immediately after a meditation session. “He showed unbelievable performance. Suddenly, I realised that I need to give this test right after meditation,” she says.

On subsequent exams of 15 monks and experienced meditators in the US, she got the same results. Before meditation, they performed no better than anyone else. Yet after 20 minutes of meditation, their visual memory and spatial skills improved dramatically.

What’s more, only practitioners of a meditation style that emphasises visual imagery – called deity yoga – registered an improvement. Kozhevnikov also tested 14 people experienced in a form of meditation that does not focus on mental imagery – known as open presence meditation – and their visual memory and spatial skills saw no gains.
Artists too?

The team didn’t probe how long the improvement lasts after meditation, but Kozhevnikov suspects that it varies from person to person, depending on meditation experience, mood and the length of the meditation session.

She also speculates that heightened visual memory and processing isn’t unique to those who practice Buddhist meditation. Visual artists may also experience transient surges in visual awareness that allow them to maintain mental images for extended periods, Kozhevnikov says.

“I think that if she shows it’s not confined to these practitioners, but you find the same thing happening in these great visual artists that’s important,” says Jack Loomis, a neuroscientist at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Their heightened mental images may not even be contained to two dimensions, Loomis speculates. Most people can maintain a coarse mental picture of their three-dimensional world and can roughly approximate different vantage points.

“What if these people have an incredibly dense representation of three-dimensional space,” he says. “That’s pretty amazing.”

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Meditation key to treat depression

Times of India: People with severe and recurrent depression could benefit from a new form of therapy that combines ancient forms of meditation with modern cognitive behaviour therapy, early-stage research by Oxford University psychologists suggests. Read more here.

The results of a small-scale randomised trial of the approach, called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), in currently depressed patients are published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.

In an experiment, 28 people currently suffering from depression, having also had previous episodes of depression and thoughts of suicide, were randomly assigned into two groups.

One group received MBCT in addition to treatment as usual, while the other just received treatment as usual. The result indicated that the number of patients with major depression reduced in the group which received treatment with MBCT while it remained the same in the other group.

The therapy included special classes of meditation learning and advice on how best participants can look after themselves when their feelings threaten to overwhelm them.

Professor Mark Williams, who along with his colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, developed the treatment said, “We are on the brink of discovering really important things about how people can learn to stay well after depression.”

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“Ten Zen Questions,” by Susan Blackmore

Title: “Ten Zen Questions” / “Zen & the Art of Consciousness”
Author: Susan Blackmore
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford (2009).
ISBN: 978-1-85168-642-1
Available from: Amazon.com.

Susan Blackmore’s “Ten Zen Questions” (later re-released as “Zen & the Art of Consciousness”) may at first glance seem silly or pointless — asking yourself things like “Where is this?” for example — but when approached with a focused mind they can be used to push back our assumptions and let us have a glimpse at what’s really going on.

Susan Blackmore is justifiably something of a superstar in the small but important and expanding world that exists where science and Buddhism overlap.

She’s well-known on the TED circuit for her work on “memes” — ideas and cultural phenomena understood as viral-like entities that “infect” our minds and compete for dominance.

She is a psychologist by training, has 25 years of Zen practice under her belt, and employs both disciplines to study the mind in the field that’s become known as “consciousness studies.”

Blackmore emphasizes that she is not a Buddhist, but is “someone with a questioning mind who has stumbled upon Zen and found it immensely helpful.” Helpful, that is, not just on a personal level but as a tool to help her probe the mysteries of consciousness. Ten Zen Questions is a description of Blackmore’s attempts to combine her knowledge of the science of consciousness with introspective practice. It’s an extraordinary book: a sometimes heady but deeply rewarding read.

Although it isn’t billed as such, Ten Zen Questions is largely a spiritual autobiography, in which Blackmore outlines how she stumbled upon Buddhist practice, her struggles with various “koans” (questions that push the mind past limiting assumptions about how things are), and the insights that arose from these experiments. As an account of one person’s spiritual quest, it’s an exceptional piece of writing. But it’s also highly thought-provoking because of the sher intensity with which the author has explored the existential issues implicit in those Zen Questions.

Am I conscious now?

The questions themselves come from various sources, including her scientific training, but mostly they arise from her Buddhist practice. The “Zen” component of the title is slightly misleading because some of the questions are taken from Mahamudra reflections, albeit ones that she studied under her Zen teacher, John Crook.

Questions that arose from her scientific work and her teaching include “Am I conscious now?” and “What was in my consciousness a moment ago?” while questions that she describes as more classically Buddhist include “What is the difference between the mind resting in tranquility and the mind moving in thought” and “How does thought arise?”

What was I conscious of a moment ago?

The purpose of the questions, though, makes more sense in relation to some of the outstanding problems faced by the field of consciousness studies. These problems are outlined in an introductory chapter called “The Problem of Consciousness.” Unfortunately going into these in depth would involve an extensive amount of regurgitation of the chapter, so I can only touch on a couple of points and hope that I haven’t distorted the rather heady problems Blackmore outlines.

One core problem is the relationship of consciousness to the physical body, and in particular to the brain. This is known as the “hard problem” of “how can objective, physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience?” Electrical and chemical brain activity are one thing, but the experience of the color red, the feeling of sorrow, or a childhood memory appear to be completely different and irreducible to mere chemistry. This, Blackmore points out, is a modern form of the problem of Cartesian dualism, where physical things in the world and subjective experiences are regarded as fundamentally different things. But if they are truly separate things, then how do they interact? How does the body receive input from the physical senses? How does the mind give instructions to the body?

Who is asking the question?

Philosophical attempts have been made to eliminate the dualism by reducing everything to consciousness (idealism: the world is a creation of the mind — but then how to explain the world’s consistency?) or to reduce everything to matter (materialism: but then how to explain away the sheer subjectivity of our experiences? How can the color, taste, and aroma of a glass of wine be explained in purely chemical terms?)

The other big problem, besides dualism, is where is the “self” that we instinctively assume is sitting in the midst of our flow of experiences, monitoring inputs and deciding on our responses? The notion of a central self does not correspond to anything found in the brain, which lacks a central command center. It’s even been shown that when we make a decision the actual activity happens seconds before we are aware of it. The conscious mind claims to have made a decision only after it’s been made, in an act of post hoc rationalization.

Where is this?

This is all fascinating stuff, and very relevant to Buddhism, which states that there is in fact no self in the sense that we normally think of it, and that we are therefore deluded about the nature of our “selves”. Consciousness Studies and Buddhism therefore have at least some potential common ground, and Blackmore’s Ten Zen Questions are an attempt to explore “the conflict between scientific findings and our own intuitions” by means of introspective awareness engages in reflection.

Some of the questions are familiar to me as practices, while some are new. Asking “Am I conscious now?” is a common practice in one form or another and one that goes back to the earliest days of my own practice. The mindfulness bell for example (a bell rung at intervals as a wake-up call) is a wordless version of that question. The question “Am I conscious now?” brings about the disconcerting realization that often “the lights were on but nobody was home.” In other words in asking the question “Am I conscious now?” we most often become aware of the fact that actually we were not (really) conscious, just a moment before. Obviously something was going on in the mind before the question was asked, but whatever it was it didn’t involve the mind being conscious of itself.

How does thought arise?

This chapter, because of its relentless repetition of the question “Am I conscious now?” itself acts as a wake-up call. I doubt many people could read this chapter without finding the following days filled with moments in which they become aware that they have just “woken up” from unmindfulness.

In my own practice history, this question was phrased “Am I aware of being aware?” which I think is in some ways a more apt question (although it lacks that tangy word “now” that calls on us implicitly to look back at the previous moment). The thing is that we do not, in the terminology I favor, go from being not-conscious to being conscious but go from having simple consciousness (which includes sensing, thinking, and feeling) to having reflexive self-awareness (sensing, thinking, and feeling, combined with an awareness that we are sensing, thinking, and feeling).

There is no time. What is memory?

In hearing the mindfulness bell (or the question “Am I conscious now?” in whatever form of words is chosen) we become aware of ourselves as aware beings. Instead of the mind functioning on automatic pilot, with internal processes (sensing, thinking, and feeling) chugging along in an entirely habitual way, the mind becomes aware of its own inner states. Self-monitoring comes into being. This “being aware of being aware” allows us to make choices that affect what we do and how we respond: for example in simple consciousness we may be obsessed by a train of thought that is painful to us. Without any internal self-monitoring there is nothing to prevent us continuing to cause ourselves pain. When the mindfulness bell (in whatever form) rings and we become aware of being aware, we are able to evaluate the helpfulness or otherwise of our activities and can choose to let go of that pain-inducing train of thought.

When are you?

This twist on Blackmore’s question (moving from “Am I conscious now?” to “Am I aware of being aware?”) may make a difference to the analysis and reflection that she engages in with respect to the second question, “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” She beautifully explores the nuances of this question as it percolates through her mind in meditation. We’ve all had the experience of suddenly hearing the last few seconds of the fridge compressor running before it cycles off. Had we previously been conscious of the fridge running? Usually, no. Yet when the fridge shudders to a halt the mind seems to jump back in time, retrieve the sensory impression of the sound of the compressor (from outside of consciousness? — from where then?) and thus allows us to make sense of the sudden quiet. You weren’t conscious of the fridge running. Then the fridge stopped. And then — what? — you realize you had been conscious of it after all? This doesn’t make much sense in the language of being conscious or not-conscious.

Are you here now?

Blackmore in fact frames her observations consistently in terms of conscious/not-conscious, whereas from my point of view anything that has entered our senses we are conscious of, but we are not necessarily aware that we are conscious of those things unless we “wake up” into reflexive self-awareness. The question “Am I conscious now?” is one possible prompt to make that leap.

I suspect that considering the fridge scenario in terms of “simple consciousness” and “reflexive self-awareness” simplifies things somewhat by allowing us to be “conscious” of the sound of the fridge running even though we weren’t reflexively aware of the sound. In other words we weren’t aware that we were aware of the sound. The stimulus of the fridge stopping acts as a mindfulness bell and we become aware that we were conscious of the fridge. Of course I could be wildly oversimplifying here — never underestimate the power of a consciousness researcher to spot an overlooked complexity. That’s what they’re paid for.

What am I doing? 

Blackmore also brings up a question with regard to those “fridge” sensations that are retrieved from simple consciousness and made the object of reflexive self awareness. She asks, “Who, then, was conscious of them?” She also seems to implicitly assume that “someone” must have been conscious of them, but I’m not sure why she needs to assume that, or what she means by “someone.” It seems to me to be enough to say that the information (say the sound of the fridge) was being processed in the brain (in “simple consciousness”) and that we then then became aware that we were conscious of that particular sensation. Call me a reductivist, but I’m unclear why it has to be more complicated than that.

She also points out that there is no part of the brain that is a “special place where consciousness happens, or a special process uniquely correlated with conscious, as opposed to unconscious, events.” But since we don’t even know how the experience of consciousness relates to the electrical and chemical activity in the brain, I confess this doesn’t much bother me. Where is reflexive self-consciousness located in the brain? I couldn’t guess. Perhaps it’s a quantum process that involves the whole of the brain at one time. Maybe our current tools just can’t even begin to look for the kind of activity that reflexive self-awareness is. It’s not that I’m incurious — I love to see consciousness and the brain being studied — but more that I’m not unduly bothered by the inability of science to measure something that may be essentially intangible.

What happens next?

Blackmore’s investigations of the other eight questions are all described in an equally experiential and autobiographical way, often with blow-by-blow descriptions of what went on in her meditation practice and the history of particular retreats she attended. Her writing style is vivacious and colorful. Her observations are thought-provoking. Her commitment to self-examination is something I frankly find both exemplary and shaming (what exactly do I do in my meditation practice — sometimes it all seems a bit flabby).

The questions tend to be cumulative, in that the insights or exposed assumptions raised in an earlier question tend to become part of the background for the next just as “Am I conscious now?” leads to “What was I conscious of a moment ago?” Blackmore’s analytical/reflective approach leads her to progressively analyze the notion of an “observer self” out of existence.

By Question Six, “There is no time. What is memory?” Blackmore’s spiritual autobiography has led her to experience the “great doubt” — a profound uncertainty about every aspect of experience, where all assumptions seem shaky and the security of knowledge frighteningly elusive. She arrives at the point where she recognizes that there is no past, no future, and not even a present moment. (She also, as an aside, asserts her individuality and departs from the way her teacher advises her to conduct her practice. She is, after all, “not a Buddhist” but hopefully even if she were she would still feel able to enjoy that freedom).

With Question Seven, “When are you?” Blackmore finds herself observing experiences manifesting from nothingness and then going back into nothingness, “with no continuous someone” to whom they appear, and while they appear they are essentially mysterious and unknowable. She recognizes that the self is a fiction, but some fear holds her back from abandoning her attachment to the notion.

With Question Eight, “Are you here now?” Blackmore is looking for the “pure pristine cognition” that Zen, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen assure us is ever-present and non-separate from the impermanent experiences that rise out of emptiness and fall back into it like waves rising and falling on the ocean. She realizes that her thoughts are her self, and “self seems to dissolve … so that there is no longer any central self whose attention switches.” She experiences something “like a void or an emptiness or a vast space of possibilities” rather than an observer separate from her experiences. She also experiences conflict with her teacher, John Crook, who has definite ideas about how her practice should proceed, and who thinks she is intellectually fixated on one approach to her experience.

Question Nine is “What am I doing?” Blackmore examines actions and their relation to “free will” and comes to the conclusion (one consciousness studies would agree with) that there is no such thing. It’s not that there is no choosing going on — there clearly is — but there is not conscious “I” who makes choices. “There’s no one in here making decisions.” Decisions, however, still happen.

In Question Ten, “What happens next?” there is some rather uninteresting questioning about reincarnation and survival, and some rather more interesting observation and reflection about the tendency to want to hold on in subtle ways: to observe experiences sinking, like waves, back into the ocean of emptiness, but to resist their passing. “The task is not to prevent it, not to interfere with it, not to suppose that there even is a me who could interfere with it.”

She explores the possibility that what seems to be her “self” merely arises along with whatever is being experienced, and passes away with it. If I may once again use a metaphor that Blackmore does not, the self is like the sum total of the waves on the surface of the ocean: there is no identity — no “thing” that endures because each wave, like each experience, is short-lived — but there is a continuity. Perhaps this continuity, she wonders, “is that of the timeless, emptiness, or void, or whatever it is, out of which phenomena appear.”

This is a conclusion that many a Buddhist tradition would recognize and embrace, of course.

After this final question there is a chapter on “Being conscious.” Perhaps I missed something here, but I found this chapter rather unsatisfactory. She mainly addresses some of the preoccupations of consciousness researchers, but since I don’t share those preoccupations I had the feeling Blackmore was talking past me (and to a large extent over my head).

In the introductory chapter she had raised the problems inherent in believing that there is a “self” that handles experiences, and she also outlines the “hard problem” of how subjective experience can arise on the basis of physical phenomena. While the chapter “Being conscious” reiterates the illusory nature of the self, it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about the “hard problem.” I found that rather disappointing.

She does make some interesting observations about the nature of consciousness — observations that also resonate with me as a practitioner:

At any time in a human brain there are multiple parallel processes going on, conjuring up perceptions, thoughts, opinions, sensations, and volitions. None of these is either in or out of consciousness for there is no such place. Most of the time there is no observer: if consciousness is involved at all it is an attribution made later, on the basis of remembering events and assuming that someone must have been experiencing them in the past, when in fact no one was.

She argues that “temporary observers” are constructed and that we need to study how this happens and she ventures some suspicions about how these temporary observers may come into being.

I find myself in agreement with most of what she says here, but I doubt, however, that consciousness is “an attribution made later.” Blackmore spends a lot of time dealing with sounds, and the nature of some of the questions she asks lead her to be aware of things that have just happened. “Am I conscious now” immediately leads to thoughts of what has just been. It can become essentially the same question as “What was I conscious of a moment ago?”

And sound has a peculiar nature. We can be aware of sounds as they arise, for example while listening to a piece of music unfold, or we can be aware of sounds that are in what’s called “echoic memory,” which is a kind of sensory buffer that stores around four seconds of auditory data. The purpose of this would seem to be to allow us to briefly skip back in time and check for important data we may have missed, just as you might skip back a few seconds in an audiobook to pick up the thread when you’ve been distracted from the narrative. A lot of Blackmore’s descriptions of mindfulness seem to have involved paying attention to what’s in echoic memory rather than what she was currently listening to. Rather than simply listening to what was at the forefront of her auditory consciousness, she made it a practice to seek out the sounds she was not paying attention to — and those by definition would be in echoic memory, and therefore in the past in some sense.

I think this emphasis on “skipping backwards” into echoic memory may have skewed her view of consciousness. As I’m writing this review I’m aware right now that it’s, well, right now. I’m here now, being aware of my experience, not attributing consciousness later. Unless, of course, I’m seriously deluded.

Part of the problem for me in staying engaged with Blackmore’s account of her explorations is the fact that she doesn’t define what it means to be “conscious,” and doesn’t generally make a clear distinction between the kind of consciousness we have just before we ask “Am I conscious now?” and the kind we have afterwards. The question “Am I conscious now?” implies that “conscious” is what I am once I’m in a position to ask that question. But what do we call the kind of awareness we had before we ask that question? Blackmore tends to use the word “conscious” there as well: “I can remember what was happening just before I asked the question, so it seems that someone must have been conscious.” A more careful use of terminology would have helped me be sure I knew what she was talking about.

Blackmore’s final words point to a spiritual experience of non-self that corresponds to what is known to be going on in the brain: “There is no persisting self, no show in a mental theatre, no power of consciousness and no free will, no duality of self and other — just complex interactions between a body and the rest of the world, arising and falling away for no one in particular.” This description very much accords with what I understand the state of bodhi, or enlightenment, to be — a radical acceptance of and non-interference with direct experience, a flow of experience undistorted by ego-based grasping or aversion.

Yet those final words also leave me feeling uneasy. Blackmore throws in the phrase “no power of consciousness” and I find myself wondering what she means. Why at the very end of the book introduce a new term? Did I miss something earlier? I’m sure I missed a lot while reading Ten Zen Questions, but I’m pretty sure she’s never used that phrase before. I’m sure she means something by saying there is “no power of consciousness” but it’s almost as if she’s so excited about what she’s saying that she doesn’t take the time to connect the dots — and perhaps to connect to the reader as well. Or maybe I’m being a bit dim? I experience doubt and confusion.

Spotting that final ambiguous and unexplained phrase (“no power of consciousness”) brought to my attention that throughout the book I had half-noticed other instances where explanations didn’t seem clear or seemed partial, and where phrases were dropped in as if of course you’d know what she was talking about. The feeling I’m left with is that Blackmore’s book to some extent went over my head. Some moments I doubt myself and think I must be too inattentive or lacking in intelligence to grasp her arguments, but at other times I suspect she may have a “feeling” of significance that hasn’t been fully thought out or articulated.

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Publilius Syrus, “To do two things at once is to do neither”

Publilius Syrus, author of To do two things at once is to do neither

The other day I read about a family of six who were wiped out when a truck-driver plowed into their vehicle. He’d allegedly been driving and attempting to look at a laptop screen at the same time.

Not all multitasking is that catastrophic, but nevertheless attempting to juggle too many things in a short space of time is causing us stress, reducing our productivity, and making it harder to maintain focus when we need to.

What happens in the long term to an economy built on the labor of information workers when those workers are too distracted to think? Well, perhaps that might be considerably more of a catastrophe than a single family being killed — no matter how tragic an event that was.

To do two things at once is to do neither (Publilius Syrus, an Iraqi enslaved by the Romans. Flourished first century BCE.)

Multitasking is actually a misnomer. Your brain hasn’t evolved to deal with consciously processing multiple streams of data, such as listening to someone talk on the phone while you check your email and try also to keep one ear open for tidbits of an interesting conversation nearby. Modern computers may have been designed to do this, but our brains evolved to live in a simpler world. So we can’t genuinely multitask. What we call multitasking is actually a process of switching attention rapidly among a number of different activities.

The problem with multitasking is that although it may give the illusion of efficiency, it’s actually a very bad way to use the brain’s resources. It takes time, when switching from one task to another, to let go of one task, move your attention to the new one, and to resume your train of thought once again.

Imagine you’re doing some painting at the top of a stepladder and the phone keeps ringing (one of those old-fashioned phones with a wire, not the cordless variety). Every time the phone rings you put down your paintbrush, descend the ladder, answer the phone, write down a message or have a conversation, go up the ladder again, pick up your brush, and then resume your task. And this happens every three minutes. How much painting would you get done?

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted.

Every three minutes is, by some accounts, how often the average office worker gets interrupted, by a phone call, an incoming email, a passing colleague, or some other task that pops into the mind. And that process of stopping one task, moving to another, and switching back all takes time and energy in the brain.

This is why, when subjects are asked to perform two different tasks at the same time, the amount of brain activity goes down rather than up. The level of brain activity actually decreases to two thirds of what takes place when subjects perform one task at a time.

Confirming this finding is an experiment where subjects were asked either to check their email and then write a report — the tasks performed sequentially — or to do both tasks at the same time. The multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

My ladder metaphor is exactly the situation many of us put ourselves in when we interrupt writing to read an incoming email, and then interrupt reading the email to read and incoming text, and then futz around on Facebook for a few minutes before returning to … “What was it I was doing again?”

But not only is multitasking bad for our efficiency, it’s been implicated in reducing our ability to apply sustained focus with our attention. Psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard say that multitasking can lead to “pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder,” where we constantly seek new information but have trouble concentrating on its content. We end up restlessly seeking new stimuli, and unable to focus on it, in an information-worker’s version of the myth of the “hungry ghost.”

So what can we do to help avoid pseudo-ADD and multitasking-induced loss of productivity?

Multitaskers took one and a half times as long in total than those people who did one task and then another.

1. Switch off contact applications except for the one you’re working on.
Right at this very moment I’m writing an article on multitasking. Wouldn’t you love to know that I’m also checking my email, my Twitter updates, my IM, and stopping now and then to answer my phone and scan interesting web articles. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not. My email and other contact programs are closed. My cell-phone is in another room. I’ll deal with any messages later.

When you’re dealing with email, deal with email. Let your voicemail pick up your phone calls. If dealing with your email requires you to look up an article or check your calendar, then by all means do so. But avoid unnecessary input.

2. Use simplifying tools
Some computer programs are hideously cluttered, with the toolbars on Microsoft programs being particularly overwhelming. And how many of those buttons do you ever use anyway? Do you even know what they do? I’ve reduced my toolbars in Word to just a few essentials, while for many common functions I simply use keyboard shortcuts, which in themselves reduce multitasking because they don’t require us to move from one kind of activity (typing) to another (selecting menus). The reduction in visual clutter helps me maintain focus.

It’s also helpful to write first and then format later. Trying to fiddle with formatting at the same time as writing is like trying to tidy the inside of your car while you’re driving it.

You can go further. For writing I use a program called “WriteRoom,” which has no menus and whose interface looks like an early 1980’s PC – simple green text on a black background (although the colors can be customized. There’s nothing there to distract me.

If you have a Mac or a large monitor, the profusion of applications on the screen can induce clutter-fatigue. You can simplify by using command+shift+H to hide all applications but those you’re working on. Or you can use “Spaces” to keep application that are open, but which you’re not currently using, out of sight and out of mind.

How many of those buttons in Word do you ever use anyway?

3. Use planning tools
Before I started using planning tools I’d often find that I’d repeatedly remember — often at completely inappropriate times, like driving or meditating — about things I had to do. Things improved a lot when I started doing “brain-dumps” to record all the tasks that had been jumbled up in my mind. You need to capture everything — not just work tasks but personal ones too.

Tools such as OmniFocus not only encourage you to keep lists of things to do, but they also help you organize them by context, so that if you find you have to nip out to the bank you can easily see which other tasks (pick up the dry-cleaning, pick up a prescription) that you can do while you’re out and about.

I have to say that using planning tools has reduced the level of distraction in my meditation practice more than any meditative technique I’ve ever learned.

4. Practice simplicity
I’m not very proficient at being tidy, although I have my good days — and on those days I feel happier and lighter. “Being tidy” is the end result of finishing one task elegantly before starting another; rather than leave a bit of paper on the desk as a reminder that some action has to be taken we add the action to our to-do list and file the paper in a “projects in progress” file. Being tidy also provides a good environment for the mind to perform without distraction.

We should be willing to be in silence.

We can also do things like take one or two deep breaths before answering the phone, so that we give ourselves time to let go of what we were just doing and get ourselves into a focused and friendly state before we speak to the person on the other end. When you’re calling a company, would you prefer the phone picked up two seconds earlier, or to be picked up by a person who is centered and friendly?

We should also be willing to be in silence. I use some of my time in the car to listen to podcasts, but I also regard it as important just to drive without other input, and so sometimes my iPod goes off. Driving in silence gives us a chance to let the mind rest without a constant barrage of input.

5. Defrag your mind
Take breaks during the workday: just two or three minutes spent relaxing the body and tuning in to the breath. Your brain needs a chance to rest, and your mind needs opportunities to “defragment” itself.

Time taken out for meditation also helps the mind to become calmer and less restless.

When you’re working on one task, resist the desire to interrupt yourself by checking your email, or Facebook, or whatever. If you’re writing and you notice those temptations arising, just notice them and let go of them. They’ll pass.

It’s not possible to escape multitasking altogether. In fact at times it’s essential. But if we avoid it where we can, and especially if we resist become addicted to it, we’ll feel happier and more integrated. And we’ll make a long-term investment by protecting one of our most valuable assets — the mind’s ability to pay sustained, focused, attention.

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