Sunday, August 2, 2009

Being mindful of the benefits of mindfulness

From the July 2007 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, this:
Studies consistently show that mindful traits [...] and mindfulness meditation practices [...] reduce negative affect, stress, mood disturbance, and disease specific health symptoms across many patient populations

The article shows how mindfulness, combined with 'affect labeling' (or naming the feelings that you are mindful of) actually works in the brain. Turns out that there is more activity in the thinking part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) and less in the fear part of your brain (the amygdala). The theory is that the thinking part of your brain "may disrupt or inhibit automatic affective responses, reducing their intensity and duration." In other words, you can better regulate your emotional responses. But there is more, as mindfulness is also associated with a reduction in symptoms for health problems like pain.

Not bad for a treatment that has no side effects...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The quality of speech

Did you ever think about what makes interesting conversation? I mean, it's all just talk. We know that we lose interest if someone gives too much detail or if we are interrupted at every turn. But are there any lynch pins or keys that make speech compelling?

It turns out that there are some fundamentals that can be described and one philosopher came up with just such a description. Paul Grice suggested four maxims of speech; it should be truthful, relevant and clear, with enough information to be understood (but not more than is needed).

Maxim of Quality
  • Only say what you believe to be true and what you have evidence for.
Maxim of Quantity
  • Make your contribution informative but not more informative than is necessary.
Maxim of Relevance
  • The contribution should be relevant or it should be explained how it is not relevant.
Maxim of Manner
  • Speech should be brief, clear and unambiguous

Clearly, Grice's maxims address only content and not other elements of communication such as attitude, body language and etiquette (e.g., interrupting). But just knowing these maxims has made me more conscious of how I communicate. Even as I write this, I am thinking about the quality of this post. Was it clear, concise and relevant? You tell me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Who's driving your eyes?

You look out into the world and believe that you are seeing everything but in fact, you see just a tiny percentage of reality.

From the 2005 book "On Intelligence":
At any moment in time, you can directly sense only a tiny part of your world. That tiny part dictates what memories will be invoked, but it isn't sufficient on its own to build the whole of your current perception. […]
It is my memory model of the world that predicts […] by analogy to past experience. Most of what you perceive is not coming through your senses; it is generated by your internal memory model. (Hawkins, p. 202)

So if we perceive only a tiny part of the real world, which parts do we focus on? And based on which parts we do perceive, how do we fill in the missing pieces? The answer to these questions is highly individual and will, in large part, determine the emotional state of each individual.

The parts of reality that we focus on is determined by our "attentional focus" or, where your brain directs your attention. A person who has lived through trauma, or who is insecurely attached, will tend to focus on the fearful parts of the reality before them. From the article "Attentional Fixation in Panic Disorder"
Beck and Emery (1985) proposed that anxious individuals are characterized by the heightened activation of a ‘‘danger’’ schema, which orients them toward threat in their environment and directs cognitive resources toward processing threat cues at the expense of safety cues (p. 65).

So here, fear is directing the attentional focus. To give an example, take a pair hand carved jade bookends. For most observers they are a beautiful sight to behold but to fearful eyes, they represent potential blunt force weapons.

A person who has developed low self esteem and "learned helplessness" (for example, after being raised by abusive, addicted or mentally ill parents), will tend to focus on unpleasant aspects of themselves, others and life in general. Having been trained to have a bias towards hopelessness, they will tend to see difficulties as permanent and and will focus on obstacles while ignoring possible solutions.

A third type of person is not focused on the fear inspiring or the depressing aspects of reality. Instead, they are focused on finding support for their own presumed superiority. This person's attentional focus is keenly tuned to find flaws and faults with others. The origins of this critical type of focus is a bit more complex. The first major component is the rejection of early attachment needs. From the book Attachment in Psychotherapy:
At 12 months, he could be seen to actively avoid his mother, presumably in response to her consistent rejection of his earlier bids for physical and emotional contact - or her intrusive, controlling and overarousing parenting, as other researchers have suggested.
Almost invariably, the parents of avoidant children were classified as "dismissing" - in part because they seemed to so regularly to minimize the importance and influence of attachment relationships. (p. 88)

Having been frustrated in the need for human attachment, this person begins to relate to objects. This preference for objects extends to the objectification of other people, who come to be measured by looks, income and performance.

The second component is that these disowned emotional needs are submerged underneath an outward appearance of independence and self sufficiency. And what they have learned to reject in themselves, they must now condemn in others. People who have emotional needs are viewed as weak, defective and as objects of pity.

Combine this objectification of people with a disdain for emotional needs and you end up with a person who directs their attentional focus to all the flaws in others, while turning a decidedly blind eye to their own.

The last type of attentional focus I will discuss is embodied by mindfulness and acceptance. I would describe mindfulness as being aware and fully engaged in the moment, without the need to judge, classify or form opinions. In this mindset, your eyes are observant but not motivated to find any particular subset of reality. And acceptance is taking life as it comes, not wishing that you had more of this or less of that. It means working with the cards that you were dealt and making peace with the circumstances of your life.

The tricky part about choosing an attentional focus is that it is largely an unconscious choice. Very few people wake up in the morning and think, I think I'll just focus on all the depressing aspects of reality today. They just do it. And in the case of those who focus on the flaws in others, there is a a great difficulty is accepting any flaws of their own, including their own distorted attentional focus. But a determined person can be observant and learn what they tend to focus on. It is the kind of self discovery that can lead to significant personal growth.

It is a large question and one that only the brave dare ask. Who is driving my eyes?


Hawkins, J (2005) On Intelligence. New York. Owl Books/Henry Holt & Co.

Wenzel A, Sharp I, Sokol L, Beck A. (2006) Attentional Fixation in Panic Disorder. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 35(2), pp. 65–73.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

How God Changes Your Brain

There has been a spate of books recently on the topic of neuroplasticity (type in neuroplasticity on Amazon and you'll get almost 1,900 results). "How God Changes Your Brain", published in 2009, is one of the most recent. It is the result of some rather exhaustive research done by a neuroscientist/therapist duo. If you don't believe me, check out pages 259-333, a full 74 pages worth of references.

So let's start with the "changes your brain" part. It is a reference to something called neuroplasticity, which is defined in the book as "the ability of the human brain to structurally rearrange itself in response to a wide variety of positive and negative events" (p. 14). The "How God" part refers to how various spiritual practices including meditation, can cause structural changes in the brain.

So here are some of the dramatic reports. "dendrites - the thousands of tentacle like receptors extending from one end of every neuron [...] rapidly grow and retreat in a period of a couple of weeks." And "recent evidence has shown that neuronal changes can take place literally in a matter of hours" (p. 15). Pretty heady stuff; your brain can alter itself in weeks and even hours. So why should you care about the brain's ability to create new neuronal connections? Here is why, "meditation can help maintain a healthy structural balance that will slow the aging process." Can you say "Om"?

There's more. Spiritual practice helps to reduce fear. From page 17: "Spiritual practices specifically strengthen the anterior cingulate and when that happens, activity in the amygdala slows down." What's the amygdala? It's is a pair of structures in the brain about the size and shape of an almond. They generate fear and cause the fight/flight response. So by slowing the activity in your little fear factory, you should feel less afraid.

Spiritual practice also reduces anger. "When you intensely focus on your spiritual values and goals, you increase blood flow to your frontal lobes and anterior cingulate, which causes the activity in emotional centers of the brain to decrease" (p. 20). For the curious, frontal lobe functioning is impaired when you get angry, causing you to become less rational and even lose track of your irrationality. As someone who provides marriage counseling, the idea of increasing a person's ability to control their anger has more than a passing appeal.

For those who say, I do sodoku and crossword puzzles so my brain is just fine thank you, listen up. From page 37, "meditation appears to be more effective when it comes to strengthening the neural circuits in your brain." And Swedish research shows that if you create your own memory enhancing program, the results will be even better.

I'm at page 103, and I am still glad to have discovered "How God Changes Your Brain." Chapter 5 (What does God look like) was a bit too heavy on detail for my tastes. But after meditating on it for a while, I started thinking, maybe chapter 5 is just fine...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What am I worth?

"You are unique in all the world"
- from the movie "Artificial Intelligence"

If you were to envision self worth as a wheel and you cut that wheel in half, one half would be what you believe about yourself and the other half would be how you allow yourself to be treated by others. Each half would be constantly readjusting to align with it's other half. A positive view of yourself would guide you to require positive treatment from others and that positive treatment would in turn, reinforce the positive views of yourself. A negative view of yourself would guide you to accept ill treatment and that ill treatment would in turn, reinforce the negative views of yourself. This is how the two halves mutually reinforce and strengthen each other.

So if you find yourself in the ‘negative view of yourself’ camp, how do you shift into the positive view of yourself camp?

The first step is to understand how you developed a negative view of yourself. From the book “The Self Esteem Workbook”:
The research is very clear. If you want to have self-esteem, it helps to choose your parents well. Children with self esteem tend to have parents who model self esteem [...] are loving toward their children, expressing interest in the child’s life and friends, giving time and encouragement (p. 19).
Of course, there are no absolutes. Some children may have had their self esteem damaged through bullying, molestation or some other type of abuse by people outside the family. But for those who were raised with damaging interactions from within the family, the wounds can be especially deep and long lasting.

The next step is to begin to expect and require good treatment from others. You may feel uncomfortable doing this at first, because you don’t feel entitled to positive treatment yet. Do it anyway. If you know people who insult you and then say “just kidding,” politely ask them to stop. If you know people who make decisions for you or who borrow and then don’t return, politely ask them to stop. By requiring positive treatment, you are sending a message to your brain that “I am worth something.” The half of the wheel (what you believe about yourself) will begin to adjust in response to the new external reality. For those circumstances where you cannot require good treatment (e.g., an unapologetically abusive boss), always say to yourself “I don’t deserve this bad behavior. Their behavior is a reflection of them, not me.” If possible, give yourself some type of reward for enduring this bad behavior.

The last step is to require good treatment from yourself. Since we are only issued this one body, help it to stay healthy by engaging in some type of exercise and by eating healthy foods. Take care of your mind by making time for relaxation and by engaging in activities that you find meaningful (or just plain fun!). If self critical thoughts come into your mind, politely ask that inner critic to stop. Better, replace those criticisms with affirmations, such as “I love myself just the way I am.”

In closing, here are two quotes that speak to the danger of accepting ill treatment.

An insincere and evil friend is more to be feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your mind.

Never allow anyone to rain on your parade and thus cast a pall of gloom and defeat on the entire day.
Remember that no talent, no self-denial, no brains, no character, are required to set up in the fault-finding business.
Nothing external can have any power over you unless you permit it.
Your time is too precious to be sacrificed in wasted days combating the menial forces of hate, jealously, and envy.
Guard your fragile life carefully.
Only God can shape a flower, but any foolish child can pull it to pieces.
-Og Mandino, Air Force veteran, salesman and author

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Forgiveness: breaking the chains of the past

At different points in our lives, we all look back at our lives and review. And somewhere in that closet full of memories, we can all find a legitimate reason to be angry with someone. Some might be minor slights that can just be rationalized and forgotten. But others might be more profound and need debriefing in therapy, such as child abuse, sexual abuse, violence and experiences in war. Do you ever wonder, what am I still carrying around?

A good litmus test is how you react when you are behind the wheel. When someone cuts you off in traffic, can you say "I guess they are in a hurry" and just shrug it off? Or do you utter a stream of expletives in that split second? Judging by what I see on the roads, a good number of us fall in the 'stream of expletives' category. On occasion, so do I.

I am not suggesting that a few clever quotes will help anyone heal a significant trauma. They won't. But if you feel like you could almost forgive someone, these thoughts might just be enough to push you over that edge and into the territory of the forgiver. That said, I leave you with some of my favorite quotes on forgiveness.

From The Four Agreements (p. 104):

You don't need to blame your parents for teaching you to be like them. What else could they teach but what they know? They did the best the could, and if they abused you, it was due to their own domestication, their own fears, their own beliefs. They had no control over the programming they received, so they couldn't have behaved any differently.

The next quote is by Lance Morrow, a journalist and author:

Not to forgive is to be imprisoned by the past, by old grievances that do not permit life to proceed with new business. Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another's control... to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. The present is endlessly overwhelmed and devoured by the past. Forgiveness frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else's nightmare.

And Longfellow wrote:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

For this last quote, I cannot locate the original source (anyone who can attribute this, please write)

Knowing who they are, what else could they do?