From the outside, former model Alison Canavan’s life looked picture-perfect. But her glamorous exterior masked a lifelong struggle with depression.
Can Meditation Change Your Brain?
A lot of mindfulness literature makes the brain sound like a very simple machine. Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce talks with two leading neuroscientists about better ways to think and talk about the brain and the mind.
Have a Seat
Taking the time to discover the most suitable cushion, bench, or chair for your body will pay off in years of less painful meditation sessions.
The Marshmallow Test (TMT) is the most cited psychological experiment of all time.
Walter Mischel, a career research psychologist, has one abiding professional interest: the underlying brain mechasmisms informing self-control (aka willpower).
His insights are worth noting, as he has spent his adult life teasing out the multidimentiosional approaches to understanding (arguably) the central pivot for living a sustained successful life: delaying immediate gratification.
Over the last few days I have reread his book The Marshmallow Test (Understanding self-control and how to master it). Published in 2014, the chapters span from his earliest experiments in Trinidad in the 1950s, the the Bing Crèche at Stanford University in the 1960s, through to the decades following up and measuring many of the 550 famous four year olds when they were forty or fifty years old.
The Marshmallow Test is a simple experiment. Four year olds were presented with a clear option.
If they could wait twenty minutes they were rewarded with two Marshmallows, or a similar food treat. If they did not want to wait, the child could eat the one marshamallow, anytime within the twenty minute period.
All they then had to do was ring the bell, and the supervisor would enter the room, and the child could eat. That was the simple contract.
Picture this: On the table in one corner was one marshamallow; in the other corner was two marshmallows; and in-between the bell. They had to sit on the chairs.
Only one third of 550 children could wait the twenty minutes.
The real influence of the TMT was the longer terms effects (of waiting, or not waiting) when tested at 14 years old and 24 years old. Those who waited were much better off in relationships, educational test scores, and behavior traits such as low impulsivity and disciplinary issues.
The TMT is an important insight into delaying graitification for a future reward. Mischel describes two systems: the cool system and the hot system. The cool system is rational, effortful, longer term, conscious (similar to the slow thinking system of Daniel Kahneman).
The hot system is emotional, immediate, irrational, effortless (fast thinking system of Kahneman).
Brake versus accelerator. Epic inner wars.
In the four year olds, the battle is between the cool (100% return on waiting) and the hot (immediate digestion of a yummy food). Those that waited can control the hot by activating the cool by dialling down the heat (emotions, cravings, wants).
And so this psychological mechanism is activated throughout life when there is conflict between immediate gratification or short to long term reward (sex, food, academics, work reports, parenting …)
There are, conversely, so many life long manifestations of this malfunction: depression, addiction, attention deficit, relationship breakdown, poor academic performance, work and career frustration.
A critical executive function (in the prefrontal cortex) is the ability to imagine beyond the present. This is a cool response, to try work out the consequences of immediate decisions. The limbic system, a collection of (evolutionary) older and deeper emotional brain structures, including the amygdala, ismcaught up in the current hot moment.
Inter alia, the importance of well worked out goals, that slip easily into conscious awareness when faced with a hot emotional scenario, is a hard won technique to put out the fire of vapid emotions.
Recommend you get a copy of the The Marshmallow Test, and read slowly through the fascinating story of how waiting twenty minutes – at age four years – for an extra marshamalow can predict success in adult life. The hopeful news is that neuroplasticity can be invoked to improve self-control throughout life.
Most people visualize meditation as sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, reciting a mantra or following the breath. There are variations if meditation is understood on its bedrock primary principles: meditation is the practice of Focused Attention. The intention to pay attention is the second principle. Thirdly, if the ‘mind’ wanders, as wil it do, over and over again, simply and gently bring it back to the intended point of attention. That is, get the intention sorted, first of all.
‘I have the attention of paying attention to the breath cycle, or the candle, or the cloud movements, or my current thoughts or …
Same with walking meditation, which my preferred point of focus. I have the intention to pay attention to the movement of my feet, legs, thighs and hips.
One step at a time. On a safe path. With little distraction.
Find a walking path – bedroom, garden, veranda, pavement or public park. Slowly start to walk. Concentrate on the sensations your feet make with the ground. Walk five sets of ten steps, slowly. Then very slowly.
And men ought to know that from nothing else but thence [from the brain] come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations.
And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and hat are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory…
And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us…
All these things we endure from the brain, when it is not healthy…
In these ways I am of the opinion that the brain exercises the greatest power in the man. This is the interpreter to us of those things which emanate from the air, when it [the brain] happens to be in a sound state.
I really like this idea. Not only the idea of resting Ala Arianna Huffington (her book Sleep Revolution was really not that great in my opinion but maybe I was expecting an academic text), but the idea that resting can be an active engagement of a different way of being – tapping into different neurocircuits and breaking from the monotony of the tasks that drain us. It is an interesting paradox that one can rest by being active.
And that in some ways rest should, whilst one is learning to rest well, involve an active intention.
It never ceases to amaze me how we know exactly how to raise children – we know that they need to eat well and regularly, that they need to rest (in the sense of having a nap, and that they need to rest from activities), that they need to play, and that they need to be active. But as soon as we become adults we forget that these things are beneficial, so we eat one meal a day, cut back on rest, don’t play and live sedentary lives. Then moan when we are not well. Adult human beings are a genius species.
Book launches ain’t one of my favorite outings. Just a soft sell of a product often not worth its price tag. Good authors seldom transmute into good speakers. Can easily pop into one of many chic Jozi bookshops, and with coffee in hand have a quick squiz, and decide after a couple of paragraphs whether it will help shift my paradigm of the complexities of the universe, or provide light reading entertainment during downtime from serious matters of the day. If not, just move on to the next.
However, the other night I succumbed easily, because a good long term friend (‘a solid relationship’) suggested that the event might tickle my curiosity. One of the authors is a long term friend of his (over 25 years). Soft conflict of interests, but well within my moral philosophical flexibilities. I trust my long term friend’s insight of my important needs!
That is the context. To get to the point! The Sunday night out was most enjoyable. The book argues about the usefulness of hypnotherapy, getting ‘to the core’ of the problem. Here read ‘core’ as “phobia”, specific fear of something, like spiders, the dark, men in suits bearing documents.
The Sandton based therapist, neither a psychologist or psychiatrist, writes about clients who were helped by his approach. Good, so far, as long as there is no harm. Agree, some patients can only go into painful limbic emotional stuff in a very relaxed, calming, trusting setting. Takes time, many sessions, and has echoes of neuroplastic principles and practices. Neuronal networks change slowly. Freud reincarnated?
What was more interesting, that made me sit up, was the opening remarks of the co-author, a senior Rabbi, who dealt with the most controversial aspects of hypnotherapy, that of regression. In other words, it is claimed that under the right conditions, by the right therapist, a client can remember all the back to birth, the womb, and then, oh boy, to previous lives. Often an Egyptian prince or princess. This makes for great fiction. And if readers want to pay for such wild imaginations, then they have free choice to do so. But please, do not manipulate it into an empirical science project. Anecdotal evidence is just that.
Massive lawsuits were recently successful in the USA, where adults were ‘regressed’ way back to whenever, accusing their wonderful parents of abusive behavior, whilst toddlers. These inscrutable charismatic practitioners unleashed enormous pain and suffering in the innocent parents, whereby they used highly suggestible content to convince their highly suggestible clients of highly improbable behavior by caregivers, sometimes thirty years before. These professional mental abusers, so to speak, were run out of town.
Let me clear: memory is extremely fragile, especially recalling emotionally charged events. Most normal human beings can only remember earliest memories from age two years. Even those facts change over time. Time, in other words – irrepressible changing brain function and form, distorts recall of memories. There are just to many unconscious biases that infiltrate our recall of past events.
Tread very carefully with concepts of previous lives, reincarnation, or a predicting a future life, based on your current behavior and station in this world. Rather spend your precious time and scarce resources on making great decisions in this world, in this lifetime. Find your golden seeds, germinate them. As Ghandi said: Be the change you desire (in the here and now.)
There are some unplanned-for events – political, sport, economic – that raises the mental temperature of a Nation. Can’t really measure it, but the mood is palpable. What people are talking about, their body language, the headlines in newspapers, and social media. All classes of society become chattering, even for a short few hours or days.
On Friday morning, one Jacob Zuma, cleaned out most of his cabinet. The cry from the beloved country bellowed like never before. Mindful to my own bodily sensations, I felt a sudden gulp, like drinking something bitter, too quickly. My flight and fight reflex kicked in. Was my passport legal? Where could I flee to? What was the Rand dollar change rate at that moment? What a flood of limbic brain activity, filling my frontal lobes, occupying rent free my working memory. For a few minutes I felt like a rabbit paralyzed by floodlights shining brightly on my fragile self. Proving, once again, that fear trumps rational thought, at least for a few moments.
Then I put he kettle on, ran a shower, ate a few raisins. I stopped to just observe my overactive inappropriate overarching mental and physical response. The coffee helped, the hot shower glorious, and an two egg omelette was good protein. I left out the onions and tomatoes.
I am a long term survivor of national bad news, a victim of over responding to media hype. Sharpeville riots of 1960 set off an earthquake through my extended family, destitute refugees of the Bolshevik Revolution. We survived major downturns in the economic cycle, where uncles and aunts fervently believed the 1929 American Depression was upon us, again. The Soweto riots of 1976; the Rubicon speech of PW Botha in 1980s; the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990; the first democratic elections of 1994; the replacement of Thabo Mbeki. Aids, TB, crime, droughts. Zuptas. And so it continues.
Life is volatile, politics and economics even more so. These events are the givens of living a flourishing life. Because it is how we respond to their energy and information that determines our health and future. No one can accurately forecast the future, both white and Talibian black swans; predictable or from extreme left field. We can guess based on probabilities and designing possible scenarios. That is how far our certainty travels. For the future, it’s essence, is always uncertain.
My rational response. Work harder in my circle of influence. Focus on the good, be grateful to be alive, stand firm in adverse conditions, strengthen solid relationships, spot opportunities, ride the unexpected lucky breaks, for tough times will pass (and return.)
Whilst reading chapter 2 of Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, my inner entrepreneur starts pulsating and seeks freedom from long term suppression. This chapter deals with latest research into attention and effort. Self-evident for any reasonable chance of success, but there is opportunity if one paid the requisite attention and made the effort to focus on the pupil findings.
What is the pupil story? The pupil is the central part of each eye, and can dilate and constrict depending on …. effort and attention. So if you really like what I am writing about, then it is most probable your pupils are larger than the static state. If you are bored, pupils constrict.
That is what Kahneman et al found empirically when instructing subjects to increase or decrease effort and attention to mathematical experiments. For example, the Add 1 test, whereby the subject is given a random four digit number, e.g. 4198. Then must add one to each of the four digits, remember the result, and add one again to each. Try it in your minds eye only. (Correct 5209 then 6310). Now try the Add 3 test, instead of adding one add three for a three cycles.) Kahneman argues this Add 3 requires the highest form of mental effort.
Kahneman could beam the pupils onto a large screen, and anyone could see the changing size of pupil depending on effort, capacity, energy and attention. Cool. Also, the pulse rate would increase when maximal effort was in full throttle.
Bottom line: There is clear physiological proof that mental effort has biological markers.
This is where my entrepreneurial circuits kick in. Imagining developing a pair of reading glasses that has an inbuilt microchip. This tiny widget can measure the size of pupils of others. The results are beamed backed into a mobile application on a hand held smart phone. On the touch screen are the findings: Red (constricted, not interested); Orange (intermediate, neutral interest); and Green (dilated, very interested).
So if on a third date, simply make out you reading an SMS : red means go home now; orange suggests enjoy the moment, split the bill, have early night – and no real chance of going anywhere fast; but green strongly implies there is possibility. She/He is interested. Making the effort. Paying attention.
Of course, the widget will eventually measure ones own pupils, and match with the other. Two reds are disaster; two greens are possible of magic happening.
My specific challenge – I am green-red vision deficient. But then again, I don’t have to do the dreaded dating scene.