Meditation

Research method integrates meditation, science: the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

[Brown University] —

Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science — and the reported mental health benefits — of the practice.

A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.

“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”

Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

Structuring the spiritual

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.

For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.”

Unifying experience and the brain

The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They found that when meditators of several different traditions reported feelings of “effortless doing” and “undistracted awareness” during their meditation, their PCC showed little activity, but when they reported that they felt distracted and had to work at mindfulness, their PCC was significantly more active. Given the chance to observe real-time feedback on their PCC activity, some meditators were even able to control the levels of activity there.

“You can observe both of these phenomena together and discover how they are co-determining one another,” Santoyo said. “Within 10 one-minute sessions they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a certain experience and use it to drive the signal.”

Toward therapies

A theme of the conference, and a key motivator in Santoyo and Kerr’s research, is connecting such research to tangible medical benefits. Meditators have long espoused such benefits, but support from neuroscience and psychiatry has been considerably more recent.

In a February 2013 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Kerr and colleagues proposed that much like the meditators could control activity in the PCC, mindfulness practitioners may gain enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Those brain waves help regulate how the brain processes and filters sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions.

Santoyo, whose family emigrated from Colombia when he was a child, became inspired to investigate the potential of mindfulness to aid mental health beginning in high school. Growing up in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., he observed the psychiatric difficulties of the area’s homeless population. He also encountered them while working in food service at Cambridge hospital.

“In low-income communities you always see a lot of untreated mental health disorders,” said Santoyo, who meditates regularly and helps to lead a mindfulness group at Brown. He is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and contemplative science. “The perspective of contemplative theory is that we learn about the mind by observing experience, not just to tickle our fancy but to learn how to heal the mind.”

It’s a long path, perhaps, but Santoyo and his collaborators are walking it with progress.

Meditation: Our Quest for Love

Bruce Davis, Ph.D From Huffington Post

Some people are always in their worldly life. They say they either do not have time for meditation or they do not believe in sitting, breathing,paying attention to the moment. The idea of an inner life is like a foreign country that does not interest them to travel to.

In recent years, however, more and more people are trying meditation. After experiencing the tastes and delights of an inner landscape they find this foreign travel is not so foreign. In fact, meditation is just the opposite. It is an experience of coming home within ourselves. With less worldly distraction, our awareness finds its own essence, an innocence of simply being. When the details on our mind are not so busy occupying and stirring up our attention, an experience of our heart is naturally present. Love comes forward in our awareness. People who meditate discover love is their true awareness when all the stuff of daily life is not mixed in.

Every day, meditation and the calming, centering effects call more love from within us and into our lives. Yes, meditation invites love into our lives.There is no magic here. A brief time of morning meditation including simplicity, being, silence becomes an anchor for more simple being and peace in our lives. Love attracts love. As meditation becomes a priority so does love become more front and center.

As we take time for meditation, our awareness learns to rest in our heart. We are thinking less and being heartfully more present. In the silence of meditation, our noisy thoughts dissolve in an inner quiet. So much thinking welcomes peace and quiet. Our awareness naturally grabs the stillness of meditation like a child grabbing candy! The sweetness of no thought is just too good to pass by. Of course the world keeps tugging on us. But with our meditation practice, the way to the candy store becomes clearer, easy, and fun. We know it is there. We just have to take the time, close our eyes, and go there.

The simplicity of our journey into meditation becomes a lesson in simplicity in other parts of life. Simplicity is love’s best friend. There is no limit to where simplicity and love, where this relationship can lead us.

With meditation, each of us find our own special way to uncover our ground of being. A candle, ocean view, sacred altar, mantra, or simple silence and meditation begins. Underneath our complicated personality, our likes, dislikes, fears, and self importance, our awareness can just be. As we grab onto inner silence, our thoughts are untying. As the rope of our mental life loosens, meditation opens the heart. As we enter, we are free. The inner quiet washes our personality. The deep silence of meditation is perfect therapy, healing, restoring love into the very structure of our personality and life.

There is an inner vault. It is a place where our daily world cannot enter. I use the word “vault” because even though there are actually no walls, the boundary to this place is so true, nothing but silence, being, awareness can be present. This place is available to all of us. This inner vault is a solid place of complete quietude. Here God is absorbing us and we are absorbing God. There is no separation. Meditation is the most direct route. As we leave our daily world behind, the gentle wind of our breath and stillness of heart take us. An inner space opens. Meditation lessens the weight of our personality as we embrace this vault of inner stillness. There is an emptiness which is actually a warm, pure presence. Deep silence and this inner vault comes forward. Deep silence and the landscape of the heart inside our heart unveils. Here there is a vastness and quality of love that is other worldly yet very natural, as if always waiting for us.

As where before we would chase riches in the world, in meditation we begin to unearth inner riches. In our ground of being is real treasure. Here is an abundance which gives us generosity, humility, and gratitude. Our patterns, routines in worldly life begin to change. Much of who we think we are, what we do is only a habit of thought and doing. The treasure inside us changes all of this and that, changing much of what we think, feel,strive for, and hold onto as important.

This inner treasure is our source of more honesty, humor, patience, and kindness for ourselves and others. Our normal identity and priorities are transforming. Vacations, retreats, retirement is planned around life’s real treasure.It is rather easy to step aside from the distractions in daily life, at least for some days. Getting by our own mental distractions is more of a challenge. Compulsive thoughts, our ever wandering mind can seem so overwhelming. Here our intention is important. Lets seek real peace and quiet. Our focus and concentration helps tame our distractions. Lets practice receiving our heart essence. This gentleness within tames our nervous energy. The peace around us supports us to find and receive deep inner silence. Step by step, meditation is breaking habits of thought and compulsively doing for the special love of simply being.

Follow Bruce Davis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/silentstay

More doctors embrace meditation as medicine

As evidence of its effectiveness grows, more doctors are prescribing meditation to help boost the body’s healing powers.

The stress of caring for her ailing parents, then grieving their deaths eventually caught up with Sharyn Resvick.

She suffered from shooting pain in her shoulder from a pinched nerve. Worse, she could feel her heart pounding and battled feelings of panic.

“My body just crashed,” said Resvick, 55, of Plymouth.

Instead of going on medication, she took a different tack: meditation.

Her remedy of choice was endorsed by her doctor, who scanned her heart to rule out other issues, then suggested she use mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) — a popular meditation program — to manage her symptoms.

As with yoga a decade ago, meditation is slowly expanding beyond its fringe following, appealing to a wider audience, even in the data-driven medical world. More doctors are prescribing meditation to help treat anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and manage pain, according to a recent study by the Harvard Medical School. It’s one of several studies showing that meditation can actually alter how the brain works.

“It’s that kind of scientific research that really changes physicians’ minds,” said Dr. Henry Emmons, a Minneapolis psychiatrist and author of “The Chemistry of Joy” and “The Chemistry of Calm.”

The trend has gained a foothold especially among health professionals, some of whom practice meditation themselves to cope with the demands of their stressful occupations. Ever so gradually, they’ve moved from practicing the technique to preaching it.

For a long time, doctors who meditated were quiet about it, said Dr. Selma Sroka, medical director of Hennepin County Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Clinic.

“It wasn’t professional. It wasn’t medical to talk about it,” she said. “I think things are getting more open.”

The mindful revolution

Sroka is a big believer in meditation’s healing powers.

The body’s stress response, also known as “fight or flight,” is aggravated by emotional or physical stress, she explained. The opposite of that reaction is the body’s relaxation response. Meditation triggers that response.

“Any chronic illness can be benefited from emptying one’s mind and not thinking, and breathing more deeply,” Sroka said. “That’s all part of meditation.”

She often recommends that her patients give their minds a rest for a few minutes each day to help their bodies heal. Getting a patient who has suffered a heart attack, for example, to see the importance of the mind-body connection to their recovery is the first step.

“Then, right there in the exam room, I will teach them a simple deep-breathing technique and have them do it for three to four minutes,” Sroka said. She instructs her patients to aim for meditating for 10 minutes a day. “I’m trying to plant seeds,” she said.

Like Sroka, Dr. Debra Bell, a family medicine doctor, regularly prescribes meditation to her patients.

She works for Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis and recommends several meditation resources to her patients. She suggests classes and books to help them learn different techniques and gives some basic instructions herself.

Meditation in Business: Mindfulness training can help meditator cut losses

by Andrew Hafenbrack and Zoe Kinias

Practice more than just a passing management fad as it can play role in decision-making and bring changes to emotions and behaviour

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that cultivates awareness of the present moment and clears the mind of other thoughts, often accomplished by non-judgmentally focusing attention on the physical sensations of breathing or other experience as it occurs.

Top-level managers appear to be highly interested in mindfulness at the moment, as evidenced by recent sessions on meditation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and a cover story about mindfulness in Time magazine.

Chief executives of major companies such as Ford Motor, Salesforce.com and Tupperware have publicly touted the benefits of meditation. Organisations as varied as Google and the United States military have instituted internal mindfulness-based training programmes for their employees.

Meditation … reduced negative emotion [and] facilitated [the] ability to let go of sunk costs

At Insead – in Singapore and abroad – professors incorporate meditation into executive and MBA courses.

Although there is a risk that some may write off mindfulness as pop psychology or a management fad, it is more than that.

The practice dates back more than 2,000 years to the Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism, and Western clinical psychologists have used secular mindfulness meditation training to effectively combat anxiety and depression for several decades.

There are many articles in academic journals, particularly in the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, that document the benefits of meditation.

Meditating regularly increases how much people habitually focus on the present moment relative to the past and future at times when they are not meditating, a tendency psychologists call trait mindfulness.

Research has linked increased trait mindfulness to increased positive emotions and decreases in several forms of negative emotion, such as rumination, depression, anxiety and anger.

Previous research has also found evidence of other benefits, linking greater trait mindfulness to decreased substance abuse, improved psychological functioning, increased self-control, decreased overconfident gambling, decreased distraction from the task at hand and improved test performance.

Recent research has also found that even a single eight to 15-minute session of focused-breathing mindfulness meditation can cue a brief state of mindfulness, which leads to changes in emotions and behaviour immediately afterwards.

For example, a state of mindfulness has been found to reduce short-term negative emotions, distraction from the task at hand and the impact of negative information on attitudes and persistence.

Illustration: Henry WongOur research team examined the idea that a short state of mindfulness could improve decision-making by helping people cut losses sooner.

In other words, we were interested in whether mindfulness meditation could reduce what economists call the sunk-cost fallacy or the sunk-cost bias, which is the tendency to continue an endeavour after having already invested time, effort or money.

We collaborated with Professor Sigal Barsade from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on a research article that appeared in the February issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Our key finding is that mindfulness meditation increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias, and this occurred in a two-step process.

First, meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.

Our findings can help managers and businesspeople, because there are so many cases in which the sunk-cost bias can destroy value.

For example, people often hold on to losing investments for too long. Businesses often continue with projects even when the costs increase dramatically or their product is less unique or marketable than it initially appeared.

Governments often continue fighting wars they know they cannot win. Managers can be reluctant to fire massively underperforming employees who they hired with great expectations.

In all of these cases, resources are wasted that could have been used more productively in another endeavour, whether that is a more promising investment or project, peacekeeping efforts, or a new hire who is a better fit for the organisation.

Our advice is that when people need to make decisions about whether to change course, that is a great moment to step back, clear one’s mind by meditating, and approach the decision again.

A potentially helpful question to ask oneself is: “Would I continue this endeavour because I truly think it is the best decision in light of all available evidence or because I am reluctant to let go after having invested so much?” As to how to briefly meditate, there are many excellent free recorded meditations available online, such as those from freemindfulness.org

There are also meditation classes and trainers in all major cities and excellent books on the subject by Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

More broadly, our findings suggest that even people with little experience meditating can use mindfulness meditation in small doses at times when they need it, such as when experiencing excessive negative emotions or stress, or when thinking too much about the past or future.

For these reasons, mindfulness should be more than a passing fad, and instead a tool people keep at their disposal for use when it can be helpful.

People and corporations should seriously consider the role mindfulness meditation can play in mental and emotional well-being, task performance and decision-making.

Andrew Hafenbrack is a doctoral candidate in organisational behaviour and Zoe Kinias an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Insead.

Researchers integrate meditation and science to develop targeted mental health treatments

Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science – and the reported mental health benefits – of the practice.

A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.

“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”

Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

Structuring the spiritual

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.

For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.”

Unifying experience and the brain

The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Happy Spring! Meditation and Breathing Exercises May Help Allergy Flare Ups, Research Shows

Hay fever and other allergies could be made worse by stress, and some scientists believe meditation and breathing exercises may be the key to relieving flare ups, according to a report by the Daily Mail.

“Stress can cause several negative effects on the body, including causing more symptoms for allergy sufferers,” Dr Amber Patterson, from the Ohio State University Medical Centre said in the report. “Our study also found those with more frequent allergy flares also have a greater negative mood, which may be leading to these flares.”

Researchers looked at 179 patients over 12 weeks and monitored their allergies, and the study was published in the journal “Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology,” revealing the 39 percent who had more than one allergy flare-up had higher stress levels than the rest of the group.

Also, a number of those tested said they had allergy flare-ups that coincided with how stressed they were feeling. Researchers suggested meditation, deep breathing, and avoiding smoking and coffee could help keep stress levels down, and a healthy diet and regular exercise may also reduce symptoms.

“Symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes can cause added stress for allergy sufferers, and may even be the root of stress for some,” said Dr. Patterson. “While alleviating stress won’t cure allergies, it may help decrease episodes of intense symptoms.”

- See more at: http://www.elevatedexistence.com/blog/2014/04/23/meditation-breathing-exercises-may-help-allergy-flare-ups-research-shows/#sthash.nloFNi05.dpuf

NCCAM: Meditation and the Dalai Lama

Meditation and the Dalai Lama

March 17, 2014
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.

Director
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

View Dr. Briggs’ biographical sketch

The NIH community was delighted to welcome His Holiness the Dalai Lama on March 7 to present the annual NIH J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture, in which he discussed “The Role of Science in Human Flourishing.” Not surprisingly, the event—a conversation between the Dalai Lama and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins—drew a large and engaged audience.

While the Dalai Lama was here, I was privileged to be among a small group to accompany him for a visit with a child enrolled in an NIH Clinical Center study on rehabilitation for childhood cerebral palsy. Researchers at NIH are interested in learning how physical exercise and training in rehabilitation affect the neuroplasticity of the childhood brain. The Dalai Lama’s warmth, infectious laugh, and curiosity about the research completely won over both patients and staff.

NCCAM grantee Richard Davidson, Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison accompanied him during the visit and has worked with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks to examine how the mental exercise of meditation might impact the brain in order to improve health and well-being. Here at NCCAM, we have held a long interest in the research of meditation for health purposes and have supported a number of studies. Past studies have established an association with changes in the electrical function of the brain; more recent studies indicate possible neuroanatomic changes associated with the practice of meditation.

It was fascinating to hear the Dalai Lama’s insights on the connection between science and the human condition—for example, the biological impacts of a mother’s loving touch on her newborn’s development. I am intrigued and look forward to continuing our research on how the brain is changed by varying emotional states and how that affects our physiology.

Original post: http://nccam.nih.gov/research/blog/Dalai-Lama?nav=rss

Dr. Briggs meets with the Dalai Lama, escorted by Dr. Collins.

Is Mindfulness just another hype of the disconnectionist “artisanal crowd?” or is it as “a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley”

In yet another sign that the new age lingo of the 1960s is still very much with us, “mindfulness” has become the new “sustainability”: No one quite knows what it is, but everyone seems to be for it. It recently made the cover of Time magazine, while a long list of celebrities—Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, Paolo Coelho—are all tirelessly preaching the virtues of curbing technology-induced stress and regulating the oppressiveness of constant connectivity, often at conferences with titles like “Wisdom 2.0.”

The embrace of the mindfulness agenda by the technology crowd is especially peculiar. Consider Huffington, whose eponymous publication has even launched a stress-tracking app with the poetic name of “GPS for the Soul”—a new app to fight the distraction caused by the old apps—and turned the business of mindfulness into a dedicated beat. Or take Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, who has warned that we need to define times when we are “on” and “off” and announced his commitment to make his meals gadget-free. There are also apps and firms that, at a fee, will help you enforce your own “digital sabbath,” undertake a “digital detox,” or join like-minded refuseniks in a dedicated camp that bars all devices. Never before has connectivity offered us so many ways to disconnect.

In essence, we are being urged to unplug—for an hour, a day, a week—so that we can resume our usual activities with even more vigor upon returning to the land of distraction. Here the quest for mindfulness plays the same role as Buddhism. In our maddeningly complex world, where everything is in flux and defies comprehension, the only reasonable attitude is to renounce any efforts at control and adopt a Zen-like attitude of non-domination. Accept the world as it is—and simply try to find a few moments of peace in it. The reactionary tendency of such an outlook is easy to grasp. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once quipped, “If Max Weber were alive today, he would definitely write a second, supplementary, volume to his Protestant Ethic, entitled The Taoist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.” And what a wonderful Kindle Single that would make!

CEOs embrace mindfulness for the same reason that they embrace all the other forms of the “new spirit of capitalism,” be it yoga in the workplace or flip-flops in the boardroom: Down with alienation, long live transgression and emancipation! No wonder Huffington hopes that the pursuit of mindfulness can finally reconcile spirituality and capitalism. “There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that these two worlds are, in fact, very much aligned—or at least that they can, and should, be,” she wrote in a recent column. “So yes, I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations—by emphasizing the notion that what’s good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America’s bottom line.”



Illustration by Jessica Fortner

But couldn’t the “disconnectionists”—asone critic has recently dubbed this emerging social movement—pursue an agenda a tad more radical than “digital detoxification”? For one, the language of “detox” implies our incessant craving for permanent connectivity is a medical condition—as if the fault entirely resided with consumers. And that reflects a broader flaw in their thinking: The disconnectionists don’t seem to have a robust political plan for addressing their concerns; it’s all about small-scale individual action. “Individuals unplugging is not actually an answer to the biggest technological problems of our time just as any individual’s local, organic dietary habits don’t solve global agriculture’s issues,” complained the technology critic Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic.

Note that it’s the act of disconnection—the unplugging—that becomes the target of criticism, as if there are no good reasons to be suspicious of the always-on mode championed by Silicon Valley, what is called “real-time.” Madrigal, for example, draws an intriguing parallel between our attitudes to processed foods (once celebrated for their contribution to social mobility but now widely condemned, at least by the upper classes) and processed communications (by which, he means all digital interactions). Like processed foods, social media and text messages are increasingly perceived as inferior, giving rise to an odd form of technophobic—but extremely artisanal—living. As Madrigal sardonically observes, “[T]he solution is to make local friends, hang out organically, and only communicate through means your Grandma would recognize. It’s so conservative it’s radical!”

There’s some truth to this, but in their efforts to reveal the upper-class biases of the “digital detox” crowd—by arguing, for example, that the act of unplugging falls somewhere between wearing vintage clothes and consuming artisanal cheese—critics like Madrigal risk absolving the very exploitative strategies of Twitter and Facebook.

So far, our debate about distraction has hinged on the assumption that the feelings of anxiety and personal insecurity that we experience when interacting with social media are the natural price we pay for living in what some technology pundits call “the attention economy.”

But what if this economy is not as autonomous and self-regulating as we are lead to believe? Twitter, for instance, nudges us to check how many people have interacted with our tweets. That nagging temptation to trace the destiny of our every tweet, in perpetuity and with the most comprehensive analytics, is anything but self-evident. The business agenda is obvious: The more data we can surrender—by endlessly clicking around—the more appealing Twitter looks to advertisers. But what is in Twitter’s business interest is not necessarily in our communicative interest.

We must subject social media to the kind of scrutiny that has been applied to the design of gambling machines in Las Vegas casinos. As Natasha Dow Schüll shows in her excellent book Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, while casino operators want us to think that addiction is the result of our moral failings or some biological imbalance, they themselves are to blame for designing gambling machines in a way that feeds addiction. With social media—much like with gambling machines or fast food—our addiction is manufactured, not natural.

In other words, why we disconnect matters: We can continue in today’s mode of treating disconnection as a way to recharge and regain productivity, or we can view it as a way to sabotage the addiction tactics of the acceleration-distraction complex that is Silicon Valley. The former approach is reactionary but the latter can lead to emancipation, especially if such acts of refusal give rise to genuine social movements that will make problems of time and attention part of their political agendas—and not just the subject of hand-wringing by the Davos-based spirituality brigades. Hopefully, these movements will then articulate alternative practices, institutions, and designs. If it takes an act of unplugging to figure out how to do it, let’s disconnect indeed. But let us not do it for the sake of reconnecting on the very same terms as before. We must be mindful of all this mindfulness.

Evgeny Morozov is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, popularly known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, generosity and affection.

All You Need is Love, Gratitude, and Oxytocin: the Science of Romance

By Lauren Klein | February 11, 2014 

A new study finds a biological mechanism behind “thank you”—and reveals one way that it bonds couples together.

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, inviting us to think about what’s at the heart of our romantic relationships. Is there some sort of “glue” that binds us together with other people?

The GGSC’s coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

A recent study from GGSCGratitude Research Fellow Sara Algoe and colleague Baldwin Way, published earlier this month in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggests the answer may be gratitude.

It’s well-established that being grateful is a unique and powerful way to foster healthy relationships, but science is just now beginning to understand that there there’s a biological mechanism behind “thank you.”

The reason gratitude brings us together, the new study suggests, is because of its relationship to our big O. That’s right: We’re talking about our oxytocin system.

Gratitude will keep us together

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, popularly known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, generosity and affection. It’s involved in all kinds of human social interactions, from parenting to meeting a new acquaintance—but its baseline in the body is around zero and it needs a stimulus to cause its release.

So, the researchers, curious about the closer kinds of social bonds, sought out couples in ongoing romantic relationships and invited them into the lab, where they were given an opportunity to say “thanks” to their partner, a situation in which oxytocin would be particularly likely to reveal its influence.

These 77 couples—all heterosexual and monogamous—visited the lab twice, two weeks apart, and completed brief nightly questionnaires for each of the 14 nights between visits. At the beginning of the study, they were also asked to fill out a questionnaire on how satisfied they felt in their relationship.

Once in the lab, they were asked to choose something big or small—but something specific—that their partner did for him or her and for which he or she felt grateful. After he or she said thanks, both partners would privately rate their feelings of love, positivity, and responsiveness. While they filled out these self-reports, four “judges” submitted their own ratings on what they’d observed of these couples’ expressions of gratitude. Once everyone’s pencils were down, then the partners would swap roles and repeat.

Each partner, then, got to be part of two different interactions: one in which he or she expressed gratitude and one in which he or she received an expression of gratitude.

Then it was time to get physical. The researchers took a saliva sample, looking for a particular gene known as CD38—a key regulator of oxytocin release and therefore a big player in social interactions. Researchers were hoping to find a genetic basis for the pattern of effects they’d observed as their participants gave and received thanks. This step confirmed their hypothesis: CD38 is, in fact, significantly associated with a number of positive psychological and behavioral outcomes that are all intimately related to the expression of gratitude.

It means that participants reported that they felt more loving.  They also reported feeling more peaceful, amused, and proud. They perceived their partner as being more understanding, validating, caring, and generally more responsive. They were more likely to have reported spontaneously thanking their partner for something they’d appreciated on any given day. And they were more satisfied with the quality of their relationship overall.

CD38 is all you need

More on Love, Gratitude, and Oxytocin

These findings suggest there is something about the genes that control our oxytocin system, which systematically predicts our ability to experience positive moments with someone close to us.

Is there something specific about our oxytocin system, the authors wondered, that promotes social bonds? Or could it be the case that saying thanks, generally speaking, feels good enough to reinforce our relationship with the person with whom we’re sharing this joy?

The researchers ran a different study. They didn’t ask participants to say thanks. Instead, they asked for them to share a personal positive event. Like those in the first study, participants felt joy and enthusiasm. But, unlike in the first one, no pattern emerged at a genetic level. The presence of CD38, here, could not systematically predict the presence of these positive feelings.

Somehow, then, the oxytocin system isn’t just selective toward joy or feeling good. It’s really selective toward something about gratitude, perhaps to the extent that sharing gratitude—saying that my happiness is due to your role in my life—recognizes our interdependence. The authors say that the oxytocin system is associated with “solidifying the glue that binds adults into meaningful and important relationships.”

And while this study isn’t the first to suggest that we’re social creatures, it is perhaps the first to suggest that our emotional response to someone sharing a kind word or deed is deeply rooted in our bodies and is part of our evolutionary history.

What happened when I tried to be a ‘mindful’ parent

LEAH MCLAREN

Special to The Globe and Mail

When I had my son James, I tried to be mindful for the first time in my life.

I had practised yoga and meditation and read books on Buddhism and spiritual enlightenment before. I even did a 10-day juice detox during which I hallucinated colours while in a particularly intense reiki session. But I don’t think much of it sank in. I’d go through these phases of “being present” while half-starving on brown rice and spirulina tea and then return to eating canapé dinners and moaning about my charming commitment-phobe boyfriend of the moment.

But as I found out fast after my son came shrieking into the world, there is really no way of caring for a newborn other than to surrender to the experience. As the old gospel song says, you gotta walk that lonesome valley for yourself – ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you.

Being alone all day with a baby, I quickly realized, is much easier if you can quiet your mind and go to “the baby place” in your brain. This is a state where you can spend several minutes, and eventually hours, simply laying on the floor and empathizing with your infant by feeling the sun on your face and occasionally thinking, “Oooh, look how my fingers move. I think I might do a poo now.”

Of course, many books will have you believe that to effectively care for a newborn you must spend your days sterilizing, pumping and swaddling according to a strict, incremented schedule, but I didn’t do any of that. I just sort sloped around braless for a few months, silently communing with James’s oceanic ego and changing an endless stream of diapers.

Eventually I went back to work and before I knew it I’d turned into that mother – the one in the supermarket lineup scrolling through work e-mails, snapping at the five-year-old to put down the candy NOW and nearly driving off leaving the baby in the cart.

So I started reading up on the practice of mindful parenting, which incorporates the techniques of mindfulness into family life. There was no shortage of material to choose from: In the past few months alone, several new books have come out on the subject. I started reading the daily tips on The Mindful Parent website and even signed James up for toddler yoga and meditation classes at my local wellness centre.

Much of the advice – effective breathing techniques, strategies to still the racing mind, tips for existing in the moment rather than ruminating about the past or fretting about the future – is stuff I’ve read before. Cultivating stillness is difficult, but it’s also simple.

After all this theory, it was time for practice. I decided to start with one of the most basic exercises on The Mindful Parent blog. The idea is to gather your family together and suggest a minute of silence, and in this way, “insert a pause at a time when everyone is otherwise caught up and engaged in the doing of things.” How sweet, I thought, imagining my stepson Freddie and James clasping hands around the kitchen table and doing cleansing breaths.

I decided Saturday breakfast was my best window of opportunity. First, I made sure my English husband had gone out to buy the paper because, although he is very good at being silent and calm, he has an admittedly low tolerance for what he calls “North American hippy bollocks.” Once Freddie and James were finished munching their muesli, I announced in my best Mary Poppins voice that we were going to play a game called “being silent for one minute.” The boys stared at me in confusion, but I persisted. “Doesn’t that sound fun? So on the count of three we all say nothing and keep very still for one minute. Okay, one, two …”

“BIRD!” James pointed out the window at a squirrel.

Freddie narrowed his eyes and let his spoon clatter in the bowl. “So what do I get if I win?”

“Win what?” I did the Mary Poppins smile again, hoping to dazzle him with my attentive enthusiasm.

Freddie: “The silent game. What’s the prize?”

Me: “The prize is that you get to live in the moment and experience the world without judgment. The prize is being silent. Isn’t that cool?”

Freddie: “The prize can’t be the same as the game, silly.”

Me: “Well the truth is there is no prize because it’s not actually not a game. It’s an exercise for living well.”

Freddie: “So you lied.”

Me: “Not really. More fibbed.”

Freddie: “Miss Mackie says fibbing is just as bad as lying. You have to go on a time out for it.”

Me: “And she’s right.”

Freddie: “Samuel went on a time out just for spitting in Ruby’s ear. He didn’t even fib and he still went on a time out.”

Me: “Thank you for honouring us with that story Freddie. Now could we just try being silent? Just for one minute? Please?”

Freddie: “No fair fibber, you make me go on time outs.”

James (pointing at a passing airplane): “CAR!”

And so I laid down on the floor and went to my baby place, where I felt perfectly present.

Namaste.