psychology and meditation

Perception, reaction & mindfulness

Codie Surratt, PsychCentral: I am frequently asked “What is mindfulness?”

I start by saying something poignant like “It’s being aware and in the present moment” or “It’s about allowing each experience to wash over us like a cool spring rain, without attachment or judgments.” I love these answers and they generally tend to spawn a lively conversation about experiences, judgment and simply allowing ourselves to be present.

Mindfulness, though, is also about perception and reaction. Here’s what I mean…

I love Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived a World War II concentration camp. He is a genuine hero of mine…

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Who you hang out with can affect your mental health, for good or for bad

One of the things the Buddha stressed very strongly in his teachings was being careful who we choose to spend time with. This is because our values and our mental habits will tend to align themselves with the values and mental habits of others.

At his bluntest he said things like: “Should a seeker not find a companion who is better or equal, let him resolutely pursue a solitary course; there is no fellowship with the fool.” (Dhammapada 61).

He also praised association with friends who embody skillful qualities:

“I do not see even a single thing that so causes unarisen wholesome qualities to arise and arisen unwholesome qualities to decine as good friendship (kalyana mittata). For one with good friends, unarisen wholesome qualities arise and arisen wholesome qualities decline.” (AN I, VIII, 1)

A new study with college roommates gives support to these beliefs by showing that a particular style of thinking that makes people vulnerable to depression can actually “rub off” on others, increasing their symptoms of depression six months later.

The research, from psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Studies show that people who respond negatively to stressful life events, interpreting the events as the result of factors they can’t change and as a reflection of their own deficiency, are more vulnerable to depression. This “cognitive vulnerability” is such a potent risk factor for depression that it can be used to predict which individuals are likely to experience a depressive episode in the future, even if they’ve never had a depressive episode before.

Individual differences in this cognitive vulnerability seem to solidify in early adolescence and remain stable throughout adulthood, but Haeffel and Hames predicted that it might still be malleable under certain circumstances.

The researchers hypothesized that cognitive vulnerability might be “contagious” during major life transitions, when our social environments are in flux. They tested their hypothesis using data from 103 randomly assigned roommate pairs, all of whom had just started college as freshmen.

Within one month of arriving on campus, the roommates completed an online questionnaire that included measures of cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. They completed the same measures again 3 months and 6 months later; they also completed a measure of stressful life events at the two time points.

The results revealed that freshmen who were randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to “catch” their roommate’s cognitive style and develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability; those assigned to roommates who had low initial levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced decreases in their own levels. The contagion effect was evident at both the 3-month and 6-month assessments.

Most importantly, changes in cognitive vulnerability affected risk for future depressive symptoms: Students who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first 3 months of college had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms at 6 months than those who didn’t show such an increase.

The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researchers’ initial hypothesis.

Based on these findings, Haeffel and Hames suggest that the contagion effect might be harnessed to help treat symptoms of depression:

“Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual’s social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention,” they write. “Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy.”

According to the researchers, the results of this study indicate that it may be time to reconsider how we think about cognitive vulnerability.

“Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context,” say Haeffel and Hames. “This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable.”

Of course it would be terrible if this was taken to mean that people with depressive tendencies should be shunned. It would be far better if, as the researchers suggest, they “surround” themselves others with more resilient mental habits, and avoid others who are disposed to react badly to setbacks.

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Can ‘mindfulness’ help you focus?

Annie Murphy Paul, Time Ideas: If there’s any time when we should be paying close attention to what we’re doing, it’s when we’re under pressure to perform — whether taking a test like the SAT or on a deadline at work. But too often, our minds wander even in these crucial moments — distracted by a ticking clock or consumed with worries about how well we’re doing or how much time we have left.

Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wondered if instruction in mindfulness — the capacity to focus on the here and now…

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How meditation can help students to stay focused and improve their grades

teen meditatingEvery summer I spend six weeks teaching a study skills and personal development course to teens from low income families as part of a federally funded program called Upward Bound (not Outward Bound). It’s kind of crazy: every year I feel like I almost totally miss the summer because I’m teaching, grading, doing class prep, and attending various meetings. I end up sleep-deprived and completely exhausted. And the pay’s not great. But it’s totally worth it.

Part of the course involves meditation, and it’s consistently the part of the course that gets the biggest positive response in the end-of-course evaluations that the kids hand in. I’ve described the educational benefits mostly in terms of improved focus. As I like to say, you can’t take a clear picture with a shaky camera. If your mind is constantly moving around from one thing to another, then we’re not really paying attention to what we’re studying, and at best we have a blurred and distorted picture of what we’re trying to learn. At worst this picture is so distorted that what’s learned is misleading or plain wrong.

Learning to still the mind and to resist the mind’s tendency to wander therefore allows us to gain a clearer picture of what we’re learning. That’s how I’ve always explained it. Now some research has come along the blows me away, because not only does it confirm my understanding, but it exceeds my expectations of the benefits that mindfulness can bring students.

While some mind wandering is normal, it can have negative consequences for our ability to perform cognitive tasks, and mind wandering has been linked with impairments in working memory capacity and fluid intelligence. A graduate student in psychology, Michael Mrazek, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, had wondered whether targeting mind wandering could be a way to improve performance on tests like the Graduate Record Exam. And so Mrazek, his psychology professor Jonathan Schooler, and other colleagues investigated whether cognitive abilities that have historically been considered fixed — such as working memory capacity — might actually be improvable through mindfulness training.

48 college students were randomly assigned to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. Both classes met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks and were taught by professionals with extensive experience in their respective fields.

The mindfulness class emphasized physical and mental strategies that help people to maintain focus on the present moment, in the face of interrupting thoughts and perceptions. The students were required to integrate mindfulness into their daily activities over the two-week session.

The students performance on verbal reasoning was tested the week before the class started, and again a week after it ended. The results were clear: Participants who received mindfulness training showed a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE. They also showed higher working memory capacity compared to those who received instruction in nutrition. Analyses suggested that the improvement could be explained, at least in part, by reduced mind wandering.

The amazing thing for me was that this change came about after just two weeks of mindfulness training — and also that the change was so significant. a 16-percentile boost in scores could take a student from a C to an A, for example.

Mrazek and his colleagues are continuing their research, and extending it to school age children. They’re also investigating whether web-based mindfulness training, which is accessible to a much broader population, could be an effective vehicle for enhancing cognitive performance. And they’re examining whether the benefits can be further enhanced by teaching mindfulness as part of a more holistic program that targets nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal relationships.

One of the other benefits of meditation training, besides reduced mind-wandering, is improved emotional health. The teens I teach are going through a very emotionally turbulent time in their lives, and learning how to calm their emotions and be more patient and forgiving of themselves is an important part of my meditation curriculum at Upward Bound. Hopefully further research will investigate those aspects of meditation, and how they can benefit students.

[This article draws on a press release from the Association of Psychological Science.]
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The backward step: resting in pure being

Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa once opened a class by drawing a V on a large white sheet of poster paper. He then asked those present what he had drawn. Most responded that it was a bird. “No,” he told them. “It’s the sky with a bird flying through it.”

How we pay attention determines our experience. When we’re in doing or controlling mode, our attention narrows and we perceive objects in the foreground—the bird, a thought, a strong feeling. In these moments we don’t perceive the sky—the background of experience, the ocean of awareness. The good news is that through practice, we can intentionally incline our minds toward not controlling and toward an open attention.

My formal introduction to what is often called “open awareness” was through dzogchen—a Tibetan Buddhist practice. Until then, I’d trained in concentration and mindfulness, always focusing on an object (or changing objects) of attention. In dzogchen, as taught by my teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche, we repeatedly let go of whatever our attention fixates on and turn toward the awareness that is attending. The invitation is to recognize the skylike quality of the mind—the empty, open, wakefulness of awareness—and be that.

My first retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche loosened my moorings in a wonderful way. The more I became familiar with the presence of awareness, the weaker the foothold was for the feelings and stories that sustained my sense of self. Tensions in my body and mind untangled themselves, and my heart responded tenderly to whoever or whatever came to mind. I left that retreat, and later dzogchen retreats, feeling quite spacious and free.

I more recently learned of the work of Les Fehmi, a psychologist and researcher who for decades has been clinically documenting the profound healing that arises from resting in open awareness. In the 1960s researchers began to correlate synchronous alpha brain waves with profound states of well-being, peace, and happiness.

Fehmi, an early and groundbreaking leader in this research, sought strategies that might deepen and amplify alpha waves. Experimenting with student volunteers, he tracked their EEG readings as they visualized peaceful landscapes, listened to music, watched colored lights, or inhaled various scents. But it was only after he posed the question, “Can you imagine the space between your eyes?” that their alpha wave levels truly soared. (note-I’m offering a link to a guided meditation that I’ve adapted from Fehmi’s work.)

He posed another: “Can you imagine the space between your ears?” The subjects’ alpha waves spiked again. Further experimentation confirmed the effects of what Fehmi termed “open focused attention.” The key was inviting attention to space (or stillness or silence or timelessness) and shifting to a nonobjective focus.

Narrowly focused attention affects our entire body-mind. Whenever we fixate on making plans, on our next meal, on judgments, on a looming deadline, our narrowed focus produces faster (beta) waves in the brain. Our muscles tense, and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released. While necessary for certain tasks, as an ongoing state this stress constellation keeps us from full health, openheartedness, and mental clarity.

In contrast, open-focused attention rests the brain. With a sustained pause from processing information—from memories, plans, thoughts about self—brain waves slow down into synchronous alpha. Our muscles relax, stress hormone levels are lowered, blood flow is redistributed. No longer in fight-or-flight reactivity, our body and mind become wakeful, sensitive, open, and at ease.

You may have noticed the effect of open awareness when looking at the night sky and sensing its immensity. Or during the silence in the early morning before sunrise. Or when the world is still after a snowfall. We resonate with such moments because they connect us with the most intimate sense of what we are. We sense the depth of our being in the night sky, the mystery of what we are in the silence, the stillness. In these moments of objectless awareness there’s a wordless homecoming, a realization of pure being.

In practicing open awareness, I’ve found it helpful to think of existence—the entire play of sounds and thoughts and bodies and trees—as the foreground of life, and awareness as the background. In the Zen tradition, the shift from focusing on the foreground of experience to resting in pure being is called “the backward step.” Whenever we step out of thought or emotional reactivity and remember the presence that’s here, we’re taking the backward step.

If we wake up out of a confining story of who we are and reconnect with our essential awareness, we’re taking the backward step. When our attention shifts from a narrow fixation on any object—sound, sensation, thought—and recognizes the awake space that holds everything, we’re taking the backward step. We come to this realization when there is nowhere else to step. No anything. We’ve relaxed back into the immensity and silence of awareness itself.

You might pause for a moment and receive this living world. Let your senses be awake and wide open, taking everything in evenly, allowing life to be just as it is. As you notice the changing sounds and sensations, also notice the undercurrent of awareness—be conscious of your own presence.

Allow the experience of life to continue to unfold in the foreground as you sense this alert inner stillness in the background. Then simply be this space of awareness, this wakeful openness. Can you sense how the experiences of this world continues to play through you, without in any way capturing or confining the inherent spaciousness of awareness? You are the sky with the bird flying through; you are, as a traditional Tibetan saying teaches:

Utterly awake, senses wide open.

Utterly open, nonfixating awareness.

Adapted from True Refuge (2013)

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Professor profile: Richard Davidson, expert in meditation

Sam Cusick, The Daily Cardinal: While people have been meditating for centuries, one University of Wisconsin-Madison professor is working to scientifically prove meditation makes people happier.

Richard Davidson, a psychology professor at UW-Madison since 1984, also runs the university’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, which includes his research to incorporate the Dalai Lama’s theories on the healing powers of meditation into scientific research.

Davidson said he has been interested in this topic for many years, although he was initially hesitant to publicly express his interest, since many people did not feel it was “scientific research.” But, after meeting the Dalai Lama in 1992, Davidson said he…

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Practicing mindfulness of faces

Eggs with comical faces painted on them. Each one has a different facial expression.

As our ancestors evolved over millions of years in small bands, continually interacting and working with each other, it was vitally important to communicate in hundreds of ways each day. They shared information about external “carrots” and “sticks,” and about their internal experience (e.g., intentions, sexual interest, inclination toward aggression) through gestures, vocalizations – and facial expressions. Much as we developed uniquely complex language, we also evolved the most expressive face in the entire animal kingdom.

Our faces are exquisitely capable of a vast range of expressions, such as showing fear to send signals of alarm, interest to draw others toward an opportunity, or fondness and kindness to increase closeness and the sense of “us.” These expressions include seemingly universal signs of six fundamental emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust – as well as more culturally and personally specific expressions. For example, I know that very particular look that crosses my wife’s face when she thinks I’m getting too full of myself!

Of course, there is no sense in having evolved an extraordinary transmitter – the face – unless we also developed an extraordinary receiver: our remarkable capacities to recognize, sense, and infer states of mind in others from subtle and fleeting facial expressions.

So here’s the question: how often and how well do we use this great receiver?Walking down a busy sidewalk, standing in an elevator, waiting in line at a deli: people usually don’t look very much at the faces around them, and if they look, it’s briefly and without really seeing. Or we grow familiar with the faces around us each day at home or work and then tune out, make assumptions – or are simply uncomfortable with what we might see, such as anger, sadness, or a growing indifference. With TV and other media, we’re also bombarded with so many faces from around the world, and it’s easy to feel flooded by them, and increasingly numb or inattentive.

But as natural as this is, you pay a price for it. You miss important information about the wants of others, and their hot buttons, true aims, anxiety or irritability, or good wishes toward you. You lose out on opportunities for closeness and cooperation, and you learn too late about potential problems, including misunderstandings, ruffled feathers, saying yes but meaning no, or simply boredom with what you’re saying.

More generally, you lose out on the chance to feel connected and part of an “us” – which has been so crucial for well-being, stress management, regulating negative emotions, and coping with life throughout our long history on this planet. Further, when you are not attuned to the faces of others, you can’t give them the deeply important experience of feeling recognized, seen, and understood – which, besides not being kind to them, will often boomerang back to hurt you. And in the broadest sense, receiving the faces of others across the world is an important step toward stitching the fabric of humanity closer together, using the ancient threads that bound us to friends and family long ago on the Serengeti plain.

For all these reasons, try to open to and receive the faces of others.

How?

Look at people in passing you do not know, on the sidewalk, in the mall, in a restaurant, etc. Try this also with people you interact with, where it’s natural to have some eye contact. And experiment with recalling or imagining the faces – or seeing them in photos or videos – of key people from your past.

When you look:

  • Don’t stare or be invasive. Look with respect.
  • Just take a few extra seconds to get past superficial features – young or old, male or female, stiff or smiling, handsome or not – and take in more of the person. Let him or her come into focus as a unique individual, with specific qualities, such as weariness, good humor, firmness, residues of anger, kindness, perkiness, hopefulness, looking for things to like in life, etc.
  • In particular, look at and around the eyes and mouth, which are major regions of social signaling in our faces.
  • Let yourself not know about the person – especially with people that are familiar to you. It’s OK to note to yourself what you see – “stress” . . . “kindness” . . . “determination” – or to reflect a bit, but mainly be like a child looking at a human face for the first time, startled and delighted by its magnificence.
  • Have a sense of receiving, of letting in, of registering the other person in a deeper way than usual. As it happens, let yourself be moved by the experience.

As you look in these ways, notice any difficulty with taking in faces, which inherently involves opening to others. For example, it could feel a little overwhelming, since a face is such an intense stimulus for human beings as a profoundly social species. Or painful longings for more closeness could be stimulated. Help yourself by receiving faces in small doses, and by staying centered in yourself “here” while knowing that face is over “there.”

Also open to any positive experiences – such as compassion, kindness, humility, connection, or even love – that are stirred up by receiving faces. Enjoy these and take them in. They are wonderful – and a fundamental, vital, and lovely part of your human endowment.

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‘Spiritual’ people at higher risk of mental health problems

Stephen Adams, The Telegraph: People who said said they had spiritual beliefs but did not adhere to a particular religion were 77 per cent more likely than the others to be dependent on drugs, 72 per cent more likely to suffer from a phobia, and 50 per cent more likely to have a generalised anxiety disorder.

They are more likely to suffer from a range of mental health problems than either the conventionally religious or those who are agnostic or atheists, found researchers at University College London.

They are more disposed towards anxiety disorders, phobias and neuroses, have eating disorders and drug problems.
In addition, they …

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When you feel like you’re “not enough”

Girls hands holding ripe blueberriesOne slice of the pie of life feels relaxed and contented. And then there is that other slice, in which we feel driven and stressed. Trying to get pleasures, avoid pains, pile up accomplishments and recognitions, be loved by more people. Lose more weight, try to fill the hole in the heart. Slake the thirst, satisfy the hunger. Strive, strain, press.

This other slice is the conventional strategy for happiness. We pursue it for four reasons.

  1. The brain evolved through its reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human stages to meet three needs: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. In terms of these three needs, animals that were nervous, driven, and clinging were more likely to survive and pass on their genes – which are woven into our DNA today. Try to feel not one bit uneasy, discontented, or disconnected for more than a few seconds, let alone a few minutes.
  2. You’re bombarded by thousands of messages each day that tell you to want more stuff. Even if you turn off the TV, worth in our culture is based greatly on accomplishments, wealth, and appearance; you have to keep improving, and the bar keeps rising.
  3. Past experiences, especially young ones, leave traces that are negatively biased due to the Velcro-for-pain but Teflon-for-pleasure default setting of the brain. So there’s a background sense of anxiety, resentment, loss, hurt, or inadequacy, guilt, or shame that makes us over-react today.
  4. To have any particular perception, emotion, memory, or desire, the brain must impose order on chaos, signals on noise. In a mouthful of a term, this is “cognitive essentializing.” The brain must turn verbs – dynamic streams of neural activity – into nouns: momentarily stable sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and thoughts. Naturally, we try to hold onto the ones we like. But since neural processing continually changes, all experiences are fleeting. They slip through your fingers as you reach for them, an unreliable basis for deep and lasting happiness. Yet so close, so tantalizing . . . and so we keep reaching.

For these reasons, deep down there is a sense of disturbance, not-enoughness, unease. Feeling threatened and unsafe, disappointed and thwarted, insufficiently valued and loved. Driven to get ahead, to fix oneself, to capture an experience before it evaporates. So we crave and cling, suffer and harm. As if life were a cup – with a hole in the bottom – that we keep trying to fill. A strategy that is both fruitless and stressful.

All the world’s wisdom traditions point out this truth: that the conventional strategy for happiness is both doomed and actually makes us unhappier. The theistic traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity) describe this truth as the inherently unsatisfying nature of a life that is separated from an underlying Divine reality. The agnostic traditions (e.g., Buddhism) describe it as the inherent suffering in grasping or aversion toward innately ephemeral experiences.

Call this the truth of futility. Recognizing it has been both uncomfortable and enormously helpful for me, since you gradually realize that it is pointless to “crave” – to stress and strain over fleeting experiences. But there is another truth, also taught in the wisdom traditions, though perhaps not as forthrightly. This is the truth that there is always already an underlying fullness.

When this truth sinks in emotionally, into your belly and bones, you feel already peaceful, happy, and loved. There is no need for craving, broadly defined, no need to engage an unhappy strategy for happiness. And you have more to offer others now that your cup is truly full.

How?

Recognize the lies built into the conventional strategy for happiness to wake up from their spells. Mother Nature whispers: You should feel threatened, frustrated, lonely. Culture and commerce say: You need more clothes, thinner thighs, better beer; consume more and be like the pretty people on TV. The residues of past experiences, especially young ones, mutter in the background: You’re not that smart, attractive, worthy; you need to do more and be more; if you just have X, you’ll get the life you want. The essentializing nature of cognition implies: Crave more, cling more, it will work the next time, really.

As you see through these lies, recognize the truth of fullness. In terms of your core needs to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others, observe: that you are basically alright right now; that this moment of experience has an almost overwhelming abundance of stimulation, and you probably live better than the kings and queens of old; and that you are always intimately connected with all life, and almost certainly loved. Regarding our consumerist and status-seeking culture, consider what really matters to you – for example, if you were told you had one year to live – and notice that you already have most if not all of what matters most. In terms of the messages from previous experiences, look inside to see the facts of your own natural goodness, talents, and spirit. And about the impermanent nature of experience, notice what happens when you let go of this moment: another one emerges, the vanishing Now is endlessly renewed.

Abiding in fullness doesn’t mean you sit on your thumbs. It’s normal and fine to wish for more pleasure and less pain, to aspire and create, to lean into life with passion and purpose, to pursue justice and peace. But we don’t have to want for more, fight with more, drive for more, clutch at more. While the truth of futility is that it is hopeless to crave, the truth of fullness is that it’s unnecessary.

Finding this fullness, let it sink in. For survival purposes, the brain is good at learning from the bad, but bad at learning from the good. So help it by enriching an experience through making it last a 10-20 seconds or longer, fill your body and mind, and become more intense. Also absorb it by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it. Do this half a dozen times a day, maybe half a minute at a time. It’s less than five minutes a day. But you’ll be gradually weaving a profound sense of being already fundamentally peaceful, happy, loved, and loving into the fabric of your brain and your life.

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Bothered by negative thoughts? Just throw them away

If you want to get rid of unwanted, negative thoughts, try just ripping them up and tossing them in the trash. In a new study, researchers found that when people wrote down their thoughts on a piece of paper and then threw the paper away, they mentally discarded the thoughts as well. On the other hand, people were more likely to use their thoughts when making judgments if they first wrote them down on a piece of paper and tucked the paper in a pocket to protect it. “However you tag your thoughts — as trash or as worthy of protection — seems to make a difference in how you use those thoughts,” said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. Some types of psychological therapy use variations of this concept by trying to get patients to discard their negative thoughts. But Petty said this is the first study he is aware of that has validated that approach. “At some level, it can sound silly. But we found that it really works — by physically throwing away or protecting your thoughts, you influence how you end up using those thoughts. Merely imagining engaging in these actions has no effect.” The findings suggest that people can treat their thoughts as material, concrete objects, Petty said. That is evident in the language we use.

“We talk about our thoughts as if we can visualize them. We hold our thoughts. We take stances on issues, we lean this way or that way. This all makes our thoughts more real to us.” Petty conducted the research with Pablo Briñol, Margarita Gascó and Javier Horcajo, all of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. The results are published online in the journal Psychological Science and will appear in a future print edition. For the study, the researchers conducted three related experiments. In the first experiment, 83 Spanish high school students participated in a study they were told was about body image. Each participant was told to write down either positive or negative thoughts about his or her body during a three-minute period. All the participants were asked to look back at the thoughts they wrote. Researchers told half of the students to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them in the trash can located in the room, “because their thoughts did not have to remain with them.” The other half were told to contemplate their thoughts and check for any grammar or spelling mistakes. The participants then rated their attitudes about their own bodies on three 9-point scales (bad-good, unattractive-attractive, like-dislike). Results showed that for those who kept their thoughts and checked them for mistakes, it mattered whether they generated positive or negative thoughts about their bodies. As would be expected, participants who wrote positive thoughts had more positive attitudes toward their bodies a few minutes later than did those who wrote negative thoughts. However, those who threw their thoughts away showed no difference in how they rated their bodies, regardless of whether they wrote positive or negative thoughts. “When they threw their thoughts away, they didn’t consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative,” Petty said. In a second study, 284 students participated in a similar experiment, except this time they were asked to write negative or positive thoughts about something most people believe is good: the Mediterranean diet (the diet emphasizes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes and unrefined cereals, with olive oil as the basic fat). In this case, some threw the thoughts away, some left them on their desk, and some were told to put the paper in their pocket, wallet or purse and keep it with them. All participants were then asked to rate their attitudes toward the diet and intentions to use the diet for themselves. As in the first study, those who kept the list of thoughts at their desk were more influenced by them when evaluating the diet than were those who threw them away. However, those who protected their thoughts by putting them in a pocket or purse were even more influenced than those who kept the thoughts on their desk. In other words, those who wrote positive thoughts about the Mediterranean diet and put those thoughts in their pocket rated the diet more favorably than those who wrote positive thoughts and simply kept those thoughts on their desk. And, those who wrote negative thoughts and put them in their pocket rated the diet more negatively than those who kept their thoughts on the desk. “This suggests you can magnify your thoughts, and make them more important to you, by keeping them with you in your wallet or purse,” Petty said. But how important is the physical action of throwing these thoughts away or keeping them in your pocket? To find out, the researchers conducted a third experiment using computers. In this case, 78 Spanish college students wrote their thoughts in a computer word-processing document. Some later used a mouse to drag the file into the computer recycle bin, while others moved the file to a storage disk. Just as in the previous studies, participants made less use of negative thoughts that they had trashed — by dragging them to the recycle bin — than did those who saved the thoughts by transferring them to a disk. In one other condition, some participants were told to simply imagine dragging their negative thoughts to the recycle bin or saving them to a disk. But that had no effect on their later judgments. “The more convinced the person is that the thoughts are really gone, the better,” Petty said. “Just imagining that you throw them away doesn’t seem to work. “Of course, even if you throw the thoughts in a garbage can or put them in the recycle bin on the computer, they are not really gone — you can regenerate them. But the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them.” Petty said the researchers plan to see if this technique could work to help people who have recurrent negative thoughts that are intrusive and bothersome, such as thoughts about the death of a loved one. “It is often difficult to get rid of these thoughts. We want to find out if there is a way to keep those thoughts from coming back, at least for longer periods of time.” The study was supported by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the equivalent agency in Spain.

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