When Mindfulness and Science Go Hand in Hand

Catch up with the latest news in mindfulness.

Dissecting Mindfulness

“Can I study meditation and have a future as a scientist?” In 2001, when David Creswell asked his graduate school advisor at UCLA that question, the answer was not obvious. Only 28 scienti c papers on mindfulness had been published that year. Nonetheless, his advisor encouraged him, saying, “If you study meditation in a scienti – cally rigorous way, you could make quite an impact.”

Creswell, an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University
in Pittsburgh, is also director of the university’s Health & Human Performance Laboratory. He has become one of the leading researchers in a eld of study that has grown exponentially over the past decade, with more than 400 scienti c papers published every year.

Creswell’s strategy has been to identify signi cant popula- tions where stress may be a key element in deteriorating health and see if a mindful- ness intervention can help.

For example, a small randomized control trial conducted in 2009 found
that mindfulness could slow disease progression in HIV- positive adults who exhibited moderate to high stress. The HIV virus attacks speci c components of the immune system, most notably CD4+T lymphocytes that help block pathogens and infec- tions. When the lymphocytes decline to a certain point, HIV becomes AIDS. Stress acceler- ates this process. According to the results published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, participants in the control sample showed the expected decline in lymphocytes, but “counts among participants in the eight-week MBSR program were unchanged from base- line,” the level prior to taking the training.

Creswell gave Mindful a pre- view of another study that is yet to be published. Researchers randomly assigned stressed, chronically unemployed
adults to either a three-day MBSR program or a standard rest-and-relaxation retreat. Brain scans taken before and a er the retreat showed that the brains of the people who had taken MBSR had been changed in ways that helped them manage their stress more e ectively.

Creswell’s own interest in studying mindfulness started in high school. “My fascina- tion was to understand how meditation gets under the skin to in uence health.” For a psy- chology project, he strapped a heart-rate monitor to a medita- tor, observing a drop of 10 to 15 heartbeats per minute.

“I remember being so dis- appointed—I think I had some idea that their heart would stop or something,” he recalls. “But all these years later, I’m still kind of doing the same thing, albeit in perhaps a more nuanced and scientific way: attaching physiological monitors to meditators and studying what happens as a result of medita- tive experience.”

His interest in mindful- ness led him to a monastery in France, then to meditation retreats in the U.S., where he deepened his experience of meditation and recognized its health bene ts for himself and others. In 2001, he decided
to pursue graduate studies in social psychology at UCLA.

To date, Creswell and his colleagues have published 11 scienti c papers about their mindfulness-based research. In future studies, Creswell says he intends to “barrel more deeply into the mechanisms

of mindfulness. I want to really look at the various components or facets of mindfulness—the ability to be present-minded, the ability to accept and respond to information in a nonjudgmental way. I want to pull them apart, understand them, and see just how they can improve our well-being.”

WAIT a Minute

How many friends do you have on Facebook? For teenagers who use the social media site, the median count is about 300, according to Teens, Social Media, and Privacy, a Pew Center report released last spring.

That’s a lot of rapid- re, non-face-to- face communicating. Add in an ado- lescent’s proclivity for impulsivity, and you can land in the world of sexting and cyber-bullying pretty fast.

“Adolescents are biologically more prone to making decisions that are not well thought out,” says Tristan Gorrindo, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The part of the brain right behind the fore- head, which controls judgment, is at that time undergoing a rapid period of devel- opment,” says Gorrindo, who is studying the way families use technology. In the process, he has created a practice called W.A.I.T. It’s designed with teenagers in mind, but for anyone living in today’s digital world, these questions could prove valuable:

W = Wide Audience “Would I say this in front of a school assembly?”
A = Affect “Am I in a good emotional place right now?”
I = Intent “Might my intent be misunderstood?”
T = Today “Today, tomorrow, or the next day? Can this wait a day?”

Evaluating the urgency of what we’re about to say can provide a helpful injec- tion of perspective. Why is it so urgent? What will happen if I wait? And if I wait, might I feel di erently about it later?

Office Space

When it comes to work, a lot of us are not exactly satis ed these days. So says a Gallup report called State of the American Workplace, which surveyed 150,000 full- and part-time workers and found some staggering results: only 22% of those polled reported being engaged and thriv- ing in their workplace, while a whopping 70% identi ed themselves as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.”

Of course, there are always factors beyond our control: horrible bosses, di – cult coworkers, poorly organized work- places. But in a slow economy, leaving may not always be an option.

“I think many people are feeling a lack of choice right now,” says Jeremy Hunter, who teaches in the MBA program at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management in Clare- mont, California. “Add to that, we’re living with the fallout of years of downsizing.

One person is doing multiple jobs, which is creating a chronic level of stress.”

So what’s the best way to make the most of your current situation?

When it comes to stress of any kind, Hunter suggests mindfulness techniques to help improve things. Here are ways to get back in the driver’s seat when it comes toyour9to5:

Skill #1: Learn how to watch your own emotional responses. We can change the way we deal with situations we don’t have control over. “Your organizational environ- ment may not be particularly healthy, but you can be,” Hunter says. Recognizing and acknowledging what you’re really dealing with at work is an important rst step.

Skill #2: Learn to relax. When stress
is hitting you daily, the idea of relaxation may seem impossible. “But taking time for yourself is absolutely key,” says Hunter. That doesn’t mean you have to take a three-week vacation. Stress relief is as close at hand as a few ve-minute pauses throughout your day where you are quiet and re ective, just being in the moment.

Skill #3: Take into account that if you’re stressed out at work, others in your orga- nization probably are as well. That doesn’t mean cutting others more slack than you allow for yourself, but it does mean learning how to lower reactivity and raise respon- siveness. In stressful atmospheres things can escalate, but they don’t have to.

This Bread is Priceless

With 1,700 locations across the country, bakery-cafe Panera Bread is one of the biggest restaurant success stories of the past decade. But CEO Ron Shaich says it’s the company’s ve Panera Cares outlets—the pay-what-you- can cafes that provide job training for at-risk youth— that give added meaning to the for-pro t business.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that one in six Americans struggles to afford food. When Shaich realized the extent of the problem, he was inspired to do something that went beyond simply donating to food banks. “There’s something about the physical experience of actually doing something to help that’s di erent from just writing a check,” he says.

The first Panera Cares cafe opened in Clayton, Missouri, in 2010. It had everything you’d nd in any Panera Bread—except the cash register. Instead, a donation box sat on the counter with a sign telling customers: “Take what you need, leave your fair share.” Customers could also donate an hour of work in lieu of payment.

Four more cafes have opened since then. They’re operated by Panera’s nonprofit foundation, with the goal of each cafe generating enough donations to cover direct costs. Dozens of at-risk young people have graduated from the job-training program to paid positions at Panera Bread.

Panera Cares has served more than a million custom- ers while navigating the challenges that come with such an unorthodox business model. It has taken a while to educate customers about pric- ing, and sta members who have experienced tough times themselves initially got upset when apparently well-o customers skimped on their donations.

Shaich says his sta went through a lot of emotional ups and downs when they saw people who didn’t need the money take advantage of a good thing. But gradually peo- ple came to see that for every one who scammed the sys- tem, “there were many more good people who touched you with their generosity.”

According to Shaich’s records, on average, 60% of Panera Cares customers pay the suggested price, 20% pay more, and 20% pay less.

When Art Meets Science

Two neuroscientists walk into a lab. They come out with a comic book.

Neurocomic tells the story of a man who haplessly gets sucked into a human brain. Wandering through a tangled forest of neurons, he encoun- ters famous neuroscientists who choose to help (or not help) him escape.

Matteo Farinella and Hana Roš wrote the comic book, with Farinella doing the illustra- tions. They spend their working days at the University College of London on computational neuroscience and analyzing brain cells, respectively.

So why a ctional turn instead of a scienti c one for Neurocomic? “Textbooks are boring,” says Farinella.

“It’s all about the narra- tive,” says Roš, who admits to pet-naming neurons she has analyzed in the lab. “Read- ers become the characters traveling through the brain. So maybe they’ll be more likely to take in the actual science.”

Trust, an independent U.K. charity that funds research to improve health and the understanding of science. The aim of the book is to make the neurochemical workings of the brain more understandable for those who don’t o en consider our gray matter.

Initially, Farinella thought his interest in illustration was just
a distraction from his neurosci- ence studies, but now he sees how important sketching has been to the development of the eld. One of the fathers of mod- ern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who’s featured in Neurocomic’s rst chapter, was himself a gi ed artist.

“He was the rst one to describe the anatomy of the brain on a microscopic scale,” says Farinella. “He did that by looking down a microscope and drawing hundreds of beautiful illustrations of brain cells. If he hadn’t, maybe Cajal wouldn’t have made those discoveries.”

Focus on Education

MeMoves teaches children a series of movements they can do to foster learn- ing and communication. “Everything is designed to activate and support a calm and attentive state,” says its co-creator, Roberta Scherf. There are 13 interac-

tive segments, averaging about three minutes each, that take children through simple geometric patterns of movement. “The goal is not to do it perfectly but be fully engaged,” says Scherf. Though the program is particularly useful for people on the autism spectrum, about 70% of users are students in general education classrooms, from prekindergarten to fifth grade. To date, MeMoves has been used in 2,000 school districts across the United States.

oers strategies—from meditation and yoga to music and breathing exercises— to help teachers and parents create calm learning environments. “If we can be quieter and more relaxed in our class- rooms and homes,” says the book’s author, Sandy Bothmer, “that’s going to help our interactions with one another.” Bothmer gives workshops at educational confer- ences and schools and also instructs at the University of Connecticut’s summer institute on teaching, the Confratute.

Those dreaded SATs. To help students prepare for the high-pressure test, Eng- lish teacher Kate Rosselli has been using mindfulness in her nine-week SAT prep class at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Three days a week, students learn strategies to focus on the task at hand. One student came

to see her a er a second attempt at the SATs, saying she felt “a huge di erence in her focus and stress levels, compared with the rst time she took it.”

Holiday Relief

It’s time to rest up for the holidays.

We are often so busy at this time of year that we can’t do what we’d really
like to do: appreciate one another, give thanks, celebrate. Instead, we’ve got a long to-do list, our usual routines are dis- rupted, and we get less sleep than usual.

It’s a perfect recipe for boosted stress levels. So here are three sugges- tions to help keep you on an even keel over the holidays:

1. For ve minutes, four times a day, stop brie y. It’s a simple way to practice just being instead of doing (or buying). Bring your attention to your own breath and body in the moment, just as they are. And no need to think about your to-do list—guaranteed, it will be there when you’re done.

2. Try passing on a few invitations this year. And don’t be shy about ducking out of parties early. You might be surprised at the extra time you’ll nd for yourself, not to mention feeling like you’re securely in the driver’s seat of your own life.

3. Spread compassion around liberally this season (and all other times of the year), but direct a bit of that holiday spirit your own way, too. Especially if you over- cook the turkey or don’t get someone the “perfect” gift.

Research Roundup

Smokers using a form of mindfulness meditation called integrative body-mind training were able to reduce their smoking by 60%—without even knowing it. In a recent study, participants believed they were learning to meditate for stress reduction, but researchers from the University of Oregon were actually monitoring their smoking behavior. Many participants realized they were smoking less only after seeing the results of a test measuring their exhaled carbon monoxide.

Stress Relief

If you’ve ever been stuck in an airport over the holidays— and who hasn’t— you know the irritation that can set in when you don’t leave on time. Now a number of airports are offering a space for you to do a few sun salutations while you wait for your right to depart. You’ll find yoga rooms at the airports in San Francisco, Dallas–Fort Worth, and Burlington, Vermont. And if downward dog isn’t your thing, consider an actual dog. Airports in Miami, Los Angeles, and San Jose, California, have friendly canines available for wet-nosed affection a few hours every week—how’s that for a greeting at your gate?

Try to Resist

A study done at California State University–Dominguez Hills sheds some light on how easily students are distracted by technology. Students from middle school to university were asked to work on an assignment for 15 minutes, but on average they did only 10 minutes of concentrated work. The main distractions? Texting and social media.

Researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa recently studied the impact of mindfulness- based cognitive therapy on the core symptoms of bipolar disorder. Results suggested that MBCT improves emotion regulation and reduces anxiety in people with the disorder. Brain scans also showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with cognitive flexibility.

Want to be healthier and live longer? Be helpful.

A five-year study by three universities—Buffalo, Stony Brook, and Grand Valley State—concluded that being helpful to others reduces the negative effects of stress. Individuals who regularly provided tangible assistance—from running errands to babysitting—lived longer than those who didn’t.

Would you give up your seat if someone on crutches entered the room and had no place to sit? You’re more likely to if you meditate. Researchers from Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Northeastern University staged just such
a scenario and observed participants’ behavior. Of the people who had never meditated, 16% offered their seat. The proportion rose to 50% among those who had taken an eight-week meditation course.