An Antidote for Mindlessness

Posted on February 10, 2014

"We know that physical activity helps our bodies, but we're just coming to the understanding that mental exercise is also critical to promoting mental well-being", Amishi Jha

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, the cognitive psychologist Ellen Langer noticed that elderly people who envisioned themselves as younger versions of themselves often began to feel, and even think, like they had actually become younger. Men with trouble walking quickly were playing touch football. Memories were improving and blood pressure was dropping. The mind, Langer realized, could have a strong effect on the body. That realization led her to study the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, or awareness, which she characterizes as "a heightened state of involvement and wakefulness."

One of the first cognitive scientists to study mindfulness in an experimental setting, divorced from its spiritual trappings, Langer remained for years a lonely voice. But the past decade or so has seen a tremendous uptick in empirical research, as scientific collaborations with nontraditional schools, like the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute, have become more mainstream. We now know, for instance, that even brief mindfulness practice - typically, a kind of meditation that focusses on a particular aspect of the present moment, like your breath, your body, or a particular sensation - has a substantial positive effect on mental well-being and memory. It also appears to physically improve the brain, strengthening certain neural structures that are tied to heightened attention and focus, and bolstering connectivity in the brain's default mode network, which is linked to self-monitoring and control.

When Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist who directs the University of Miami’s Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research, and Practice Initiative, first began researching the effects of mindfulness on cognitive performance, in the early aughts, most of the existing studies focussed on what could be easily tested: the effects of short bouts of intense practice on immediate cognitive performance. There had been comparatively little work done on the lasting impacts of mindfulness training, especially under conditions of high stress.

Mindfulness training, Jha hypothesizes, may work as a protective factor against the typical stresses of student life - or any stress, for that matter, since it improves emotional equilibrium and enables people to better handle distractions. "It's similar to how physical exercise can change the body," Jha said. "We know that physical activity helps our bodies, but we're just coming to the understanding that mental exercise is also critical to promoting mental well-being. It's a cultural shift."

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Category(s):Mindfulness

Source material from New Yorker


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