Breaking mind-wandering | Inquirer Opinion

Breaking mind-wandering

01:15 AM July 08, 2015

I am now officially in middle age and, while I do not spend my days worrying about old age, it does come into my awareness sometimes. An experiment in the 1980s with 70- and 80-year-old men makes me optimistic.

The men were brought to a monastery turned into a 1950s-era residence, complete with Life magazines from that period, “The Ed Sullivan Show” on the black-and-white TV, and Perry Como on the radio. One group was asked to pretend they were transported back in time and the other to stay in the present and just reminisce about their heyday. The results were astounding: Both groups of men were later measured as stronger and more flexible than they were before the experiment. Posture, gait, hearing and vision all improved. Even more astounding, the men who acted like they were back in the 1950s, as opposed to those who just reminisced about the past, showed much more improvement.


Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor who led the experiment, said studies like this confirm that it is not our physical state that limits us but our mindset about our own limits.

Langer defines mindfulness in a very particular way, more Western and action-oriented, as “the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations.” The more widely-accepted definition, based on Eastern traditions, is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced mindfulness to mainstream America by creating what he called the mindfulness-based stress reduction program now used in medical settings in the United States and other countries. He defines mindfulness as the “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”


However it is defined, the idea behind mindfulness is that we can increase our wellbeing by changing our relationship with our mind. How does mindfulness work? The science is still relatively new but what some studies suggest are:

Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert used a “track your happiness” iPhone app to collect data on the thoughts and feelings of more than 2,000 subjects as they went about their lives. The survey results showed that people spend 47 percent of their waking time thinking about something other than what they were doing, and that this mind-wandering typically made them unhappy. Mind-wandering appears to be the default mode of the human brain. “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” the scientists say.

Mindfulness breaks this mind-wandering. Sam Harris, an author, explains: “The problem is not thoughts per se but the state of thinking without knowing that one is thinking. As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.”

The amygdala has a privileged position in the brain: It is the brain’s sentinel, continuously scanning everything around us for threats to our survival. It is like each of us having our personal Secret Service agent. Its philosophy is “rather be safe than sorry,” such that when it processes something as a threat, it hijacks the brain, impairing the prefrontal cortex (PFC) or the rational brain, and puts the entire body in a fight-or-flight (or freeze) mode. This made sense for our early ancestors living in the wild and at any time could be fodder for other hungry beasts, but not for us in the contemporary world when most emotional triggers are not life-threatening—the husband who refuses to do his house chores, a nasty e-mail from a client, a project terribly delayed, or a reckless cab driver. All these daily annoyances, while not life-threatening individually, can build up into chronic stress when sustained, which is a real health risk.

Mindfulness seems to help down-regulate the amygdala. In one experiment, distressing sounds (a woman screaming, etc.) were played while subjects were meditating, and scanners showed that the brains of longtime meditators had less activation in the amygdala than novices. Another study suggests that mindfulness helps reduce emotional reactivity by increasing activity in the PFC. Even more intriguing, practicing mindfulness seems to actually shrink the amygdala.

The current thinking is this: The more the ratio of brain activity tilts to the right hemisphere, the more unhappy or distressed one tends to be, while the more activity to the left, the more happy and enthusiastic he or she will be. Experiments by Richard Davidson, a contemplative neuroscientist, and Kabat-Zinn with Matthieu Ricard, a molecular geneticist turned Tibetan monk and dubbed “the happiest man in the world,” and other longtime meditators as well as relatively new practitioners, showed that during meditation, there was a significant left tilt in the participants’ brain activity.

The scientific world is all abuzz about mindfulness, and more and more findings on its beneficial effects are coming out. It’s time to take notice. (For a brief instruction on sitting meditation, see “Mindfulness for better work performance, less stress,” Opinion, 6/10/15.)

Joel Villaseca ([email protected]) is a lawyer working at the United Nations in New York City and a teacher-in-training with

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TAGS: Ellen Langer, happiness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Matthieu Ricard, meditation, mindfulness, optimism
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