by Peter Bregman
October 13, 2012
Meditation is never a waste of time
This morning, like every morning, I sat cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, rested my hands on my knees, closed my eyes, and did nothing but breathe for 20 minutes.
People say the hardest part about meditating is finding the time to meditate. This makes sense: who these days has time to do nothing? It’s hard to justify.
Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what’s happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you’re still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.
How? By increasing your capacity to resist distracting urges.
Research shows that an ability to resist urges will improve your relationships, increase your dependability, and raise your performance. If you can resist your urges, you can make better, more thoughtful decisions. You can be more intentional about what you say and how you say it. You can think about the outcome of your actions before following through on them.
Our ability to resist an impulse determines our success in learning a new behavior or changing an old habit. It’s probably the single most important skill for our growth and development.
As it turns out, that’s one of the things meditation teaches us. It’s also one of the hardest to learn.
When I sat down to meditate this morning, relaxing a little more with each out-breath, I was successful in letting all my concerns drift away. My mind was truly empty of everything that had concerned it before I sat. Everything except the flow of my breath. My body felt blissful and I was at peace.
For about four seconds.
Within a breath or two of emptying my mind, thoughts came flooding in — nature abhors a vacuum. I felt an itch on my face and wanted to scratch it. A great title for my next book popped into my head and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I thought of at least four phone calls I wanted to make and one difficult conversation I was going to have later that day. I became anxious, knowing I only had a few hours of writing time. What was I doing just sitting here? I wanted to open my eyes and look at how much time was left on my countdown timer. I heard my kids fighting in the other room and wanted to intervene.
Here’s the key though: I wanted to do all those things, but I didn’t do them. Instead, every time I had one of those thoughts, I brought my attention back to my breath.
Sometimes, not following through on something you want to do is a problem, like not writing that proposal you’ve been procrastinating on or not having that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding.
But other times, the problem is that you do follow through on something you don’t want to do. Like speaking instead of listening or playing politics instead of rising above them.
Meditation teaches us to resist the urge of that counterproductive follow through.
And while I’ve often noted that it’s easier and more reliable to create an environment that supports your goals than it is to depend on willpower, sometimes, we do need to rely on plain, old-fashioned, self-control.
For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it’s better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you’d be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Meditating daily will strengthen your willpower muscle. Your urges won’t disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them. And you will have experience that proves to you that the urge is only a suggestion. You are in control.
Does that mean you never follow an urge? Of course not. Urges hold useful information. If you’re hungry, it may be a good indication that you need to eat. But it also may be an indication that you’re bored or struggling with a difficult piece of work. Meditation gives you practice having power over your urges so you can make intentional choices about which to follow and which to let pass.
So how do you do it? If you’re just starting, keep it very simple.
Sit with your back straight enough that your breathing is comfortable — on a chair or a cushion on the floor — and set a timer for however many minutes you want to meditate. Once you start the timer, close your eyes, relax, and don’t move except to breathe, until the timer goes off. Focus on your breath going in and out. Every time you have a thought or an urge, notice it and bring yourself back to your breath.
That’s it. Simple but challenging. Try it — today — for five minutes. And then try it again tomorrow.
This morning, after my meditation, I went to my home office to start writing. A few minutes later, Sophia, my seven-year-old, came in and told me the kitchen was flooded. Apparently Daniel, my five-year-old, filled a glass of water and neglected to turn off the tap. Oops.
In that moment, I wanted to scream at both Daniel and Sophia. But my practice countered that urge. I took a breath.
Then, together, we went into action mode. We got every towel in the house — and a couple of blankets — and mopped it all up, laughing the whole time. When we were done soaking up the water, we talked about what happened. Finally, we all walked together to our downstairs neighbors and took responsibility for the flood, apologized, and asked if we could help them clean up the mess.
After that, I had lost an hour of writing. If I was going to meet my deadline, I needed to be super-productive. So I ate a quick snack and then ignored every distracting urge I had for two hours — no email, no phone calls, no cute Youtube videos — until I finished my piece, which I did with 30 minutes to spare.
Who says meditation is a waste of time?
Republished from Harvard Business Review
By Stephanie O’Neill
Aug 13, 2012
Link to original
Joern Pollex/Getty Images – A new study shows that repeat meditation exercises could show measurable reductions in gene inflammation and loneliness in the elderly.
Loneliness in older people is linked to an increased risk for serious illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and depression.
It’s an issue that’s long concerned health workers who deal with older patients, but a new UCLA study of 40 people, aged 55-85, suggests a solution may not be hard to come by.
The eight-week study trained subjects in a simple meditation program, which focused mainly on paying attention to the present and refusing to dwell in the past. Those patients who practiced the meditation exercise showed measurable reductions in loneliness and in gene inflammation (measured by blood tests).
Meditation’s effect on reducing gene inflammation is an especially important finding, researchers say, because chronic gene inflammation is known to promote a number of physical diseases and psychological disorders.
The study appears in the current online edition of the journal Brain, Behavior & Immunity.
August 1, 2009
Scientific American Mind
A psychologist probes how altruism, evolution and neurobiology mean that we can succeed by not being cutthroat
Why do people do good things? Is kindness hardwired into the brain, or does this tendency arise via experience? Dacher Keltner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, investigates these questions from multiple angles and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his recent book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (W. W. Norton, 2009), Keltner weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover human emotion’s innate power to connect people with one another, which he argues is the path to living the good life. Here Keltner discusses altruism, neurobiology and the practical applications of his findings with David DiSalvo.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND: What, in a nutshell, does the term “born to be good” mean to you?
DACHER KELTNER: “Born to be good” means that our mammalian and hominid evolution has crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion—feelings such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth. Recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, play, reverence and modesty is built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices.
MIND: One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism is the vagus nerve, as your team at U.C. Berkeley has found. Tell us a bit about this research and its implications.
KELTNER: The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.
Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.
MIND: Often when we learn about this type of intriguing academic work being done on emotions, morality and related areas, we are left asking, “Is there anything we can make actual use of here?” As you look down the road, what do you want the impact of your work to be out in the world?
KELTNER: In summarizing the new science of emotion in Born to Be Good, I was struck by how useful it is. Recent research is suggesting that our capacities for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms, and these capacities are found in the emotions I write about.
A new science of happiness is finding that these emotions can be readily cultivated in familiar ways, bringing out the good in others and in oneself. Here are some recent empirical examples:
- Experiences of reverence in nature or of being around those who are morally inspiring improves people’s sense of connection to one another and their sense of purpose.
- Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.
- Talking about what we are thankful for—in classrooms, at the dinner table or in a diary—boosts happiness, social well-being and health.
- Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging a materialist desire, brings about lasting well-being.
This kind of science gives me many hopes for the future. At the broadest level, I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life. In more specific terms, I see this new science informing practices in almost every realm of life. Here again are some well-founded examples: Medical doctors are now receiving training in the tools of compassion—empathetic listening, warm touch—that almost certainly improve basic health outcomes. Teachers now regularly teach the tools of empathy and respect. In prisons and juvenile detention centers, meditation is being taught. And executives are learning the wisdom of emotional intelligence—respect, building trust—and that there is more to a company’s thriving than profit or the bottom line.
By Dacher Keltner
July 31, 2012
The vulnerability of our children transformed human relationships, argues Dacher Keltner, and made compassion essential to our survival.
The vagus nerve is marked in yellow/Wikipedia Commons
Charles Darwin was the beloved and engaged dad of a really rambunctious group of children. When one of his daughters died at age 10, Darwin started to have these deep insights about the place of suffering and compassion in human experience.
That led him to write, in The Descent of Man, that “sympathy is our strongest instinct, stronger than self-interest,” and he argued that it would spread through natural selection, for “the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
This point was totally forgotten by evolutionary science for quite some time. Well, given all the awful things humans do to each other, how could you make the case that sympathy is our strongest instinct?
The answer lies in the dependence and vulnerability of our children. Little baby chimpanzees eat by themselves; human babies can’t. Baby chimpanzees sit up on their own; you sit up a human baby, and they go, “Watch out, man, my head’s really big!” Boom!
Their heads are so big because their brains are so big. To fit their big heads through the human birth canal—which narrowed as we started to walk upright on the African savanna—our babies were born profoundly premature and dependent upon people to take care of them.
In fact, our babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the face of the Earth. And that simple fact changed everything. It rearranged our social structures, building cooperative networks of caretaking, and it rearranged our nervous systems. We became the super caregiving species, to the point where acts of care improve our physical health and lengthen our lives. We are born to be good to each other.
Are you a vagal superstar?
You can see our natural connectivity and compassionate instincts in how our brains react to pain. Let’s say I pinch or burn your skin—the anterior cingulate region of your brain will light up. But it’s not just your own pain. If you see somebody else suffering, that very same part of the cortex activates. We have the same pain response to other people’s pain as we do to our own experience of pain. We are wired to empathize, if you will.
That’s not the only part of the brain that lights up when we see images of suffering and distress. The amygdala—the brain’s threat detector—activates, which is no surprise since we might worry the suffering will come our way.
But there’s another area that lights up, a very old part of the mammalian nervous system called the periaqueductal gray, way down in the center of the brain. In mammals, this region is associated with nurturing behavior. We don’t just see suffering as a threat. We also instinctively want to alleviate that suffering through nurturance.
We can find another example of how our bodies are wired for compassion in a fascinating part of your autonomic nervous system called the vagus nerve. Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and the vagus nerve starts at the top of the spinal cord and wanders through your body, through muscles in your neck that help you nod your head and orient your gaze toward other people and vocalize. It then drops down and helps coordinate the interaction between your breathing and your heart rate, then goes into the spleen and liver, where it controls a lot of digestive processes. Recent studies suggest the vagus nerve is related to a stronger immune system response and regulates your inflammation response to disease.
This makes the vagus nerve one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down. You see baseball pitchers do this on the mound—they breathe out to calm down, just before they start their windup. The vagus nerve controls that relationship, between the breathing and the calming.
In our lab, we show participants photos of suffering and distress and find that these images activate the vagus nerve. We’ve also found that if somebody tells you about a sad experience—of, say, their grandparent dying—your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an inspiring story, their vagus nerve fires. The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
We also show our undergraduates images intended to inspire pride—like Berkeley’s Sather Gate or the school mascot—and we find that the more pride they feel, the weaker the vagus nerve response. And that really astounds me. This result tells us that when you feel a strong vagus nerve response, you are feeling common humanity with many different groups. When we’re encouraged to feel strong identification with just our own group and not others, the vagus nerve dims.
We’ve also found people who have really strong vagus nerves—“vagal superstars,” as I like to call them. We find that these folks have more positive emotion on a daily basis, stronger relationships with peers, better social support networks. Fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile are the kids who intervene when a kid is being bullied. They’re more likely to cooperate, and will donate recess time to tutor a kid who needs help on homework.
There are a lot of data that suggest we are wired to care, down to the neurochemical level. I’m sure many of you have heard about oxytocin, a neuropeptide that goes up to your brain and is then distributed through your body by your bloodstream. You probably know that breastfeeding mothers release oxytocin and so do men who are engaged in a good long smooch with their sweetheart.
But there are also new studies finding that it may induce altruism. If I give 10 dollars to study participants and squirt some oxytocin up their nose, they will share more of that money with a stranger than they would without the squirt. That’s why oxytocin has been dubbed “the moral molecule” by neuroeconomist Paul Zak.
How contagious is compassion?
And here’s the thing: Research suggests that those strangers who receive money will then be more likely to turn around and make their own gifts. Generosity is contagious. Kindness just spreads like wildfire.
Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have been studying a community in Massachusetts, and they find that among adults, everything is contagious. If your neighbor goes on a diet, you go on a diet. If a person a couple of blocks away start smoking, other people start smoking, and you end up smoking. If you become angry, it spreads to your family and through social networks.
But are negative emotions and behaviors more contagious than the positive and ones, as some think? Research says the answer is no. In fact, positive emotions and prosocial emotions are more contagious than any others. They spread much more rapidly and collectively than the negative.
This might be because giving and sharing feel good. There are studies showing, for example, that if I share resources with you, I get a little activation in the reward circuit in my brain.
What’s more, there’s evidence that these good feelings promote bonding through social networks, even bridging social divisions. My lab has found that if you can get people to feel compassion, they start to feel deeply connected to very different groups. In particular, they feel like they are similar to and share a common humanity with people who are really in need, who are really vulnerable. Cultivating this feeling of compassion makes people more attuned to who is in need and enables more altruistic behavior toward them.
There’s one final, crucial social effect of compassion, and it goes back to Darwin and evolution. To pass your genes to the next generation, you’ve got to have qualities that make you attractive as a partner or, in evolutionary language, as a mate.
Well, researcher David Buss generated a lot of controversy when he surveyed 10,000 people from 37 different countries—heterosexuals at the age of forming romantic partnerships—and asked them: What is most important to you in a mate?
Gender differences generated all the attention around this remarkable study. Women were a bit more interested in men’s financial prospects than men were in women’s, so according to this study, women value resources a little more. And men—primitive apes that they are—were a bit more interested in women’s beauty than women were in men’s looks.
But there was another result that no one talked about, and it was this: Kindness was found to be the most important criterion for a mate, and the single universal requirement across these 37 countries. People are looking for kindness as a mating strategy.
So forget what you’ve been told about compassion—that it’s unnatural, that it’s for suckers. Compassion is essential to our evolutionary history, it defines who we are as a species, and it serves our greatest needs as individuals—to survive, to connect, and to find our mates in life.
European Journal of Paediatric Neurology
Sylvia Klinkenberg, Charlotte N.C.J. van den Bosch, H.J. Marian Majoie, Marlien W. Aalbers, Loes Leenen, Jos Hendriksen, Erwin M.J. Cornips, Kim Rijkers, Johan S.H. Vles, Albert P. Aldenkamp
Received 3 April 2012; received in revised form 8 July 2012; accepted 15 July 2012. published online 08 August 2012.
In addition to effects on seizure frequency in intractable epilepsy, multiple studies report benefits of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) on behavioural outcomes and quality of life. The present study aims to investigate the effects of VNS on cognition, mood in general, depression, epilepsy-related restrictions and psychosocial adjustment in children with intractable epilepsy, as well as the relation between these effects and seizure reduction.
We conducted a randomized, active-controlled, double-blinded, add-on study in 41 children (age 4–18) with medically refractory epilepsy. We performed cognitive and behavioural testing at baseline (12 weeks), at the end of the blinded phase (20 weeks) in children receiving either high-output or low-output (active control) stimulation, and at the end of the open label phase (19 weeks) with all children receiving high-output stimulation. Seizure frequency was recorded using seizure diaries.
VNS did not have a negative effect on cognition nor on psychosocial adjustment. At the end of the follow-up phase we noted an improvement of mood in general and the depression subscale for the entire group, unrelated to a reduction of seizure frequency. At the end of the blinded phase a ≥50% reduction of seizure frequency occurred in 16% of the high-stimulation group and 21% of the low-stimulation group. At the end of the open-label follow-up phase, 26% of the children experienced a seizure frequency reduction of 50% or more (responders).
VNS has additional beneficial effects in children with intractable epilepsy. As opposed to anti-epileptic drugs, there are no negative effects on cognition. Moreover, we observed an improvement of mood in general and depressed feelings in particular, irrespective of a reduction in seizure frequency. These beneficial effects should be taken into account when deciding whether to initiate or continue VNS treatment in these children.
University of Texas, Dallas
Jul. 19, 2012
Dr. Michael Kilgard helped lead a team that paired vagus nerve stimulation with physical movement to improve brain function.
UT Dallas researchers recently demonstrated how nerve stimulation paired with specific experiences, such as movements or sounds, can reorganize the brain. This technology could lead to new treatments for stroke, tinnitus, autism and other disorders.
In a related paper, UT Dallas neuroscientists showed that they could alter the speed at which the brain works in laboratory animals by pairing stimulation of the vagus nerve with fast or slow sounds.
A team led by Dr. Robert Rennaker and Dr. Michael Kilgard looked at whether repeatedly pairing vagus nerve stimulation with a specific movement would change neural activity within the laboratory rats’ primary motor cortex. To test the hypothesis, they paired the vagus nerve stimulation with movements of the forelimb in two groups of rats. The results were published in a recent issue of Cerebral Cortex.
After five days of stimulation and movement pairing, the researchers examined the brain activity in response to the stimulation. The rats who received the training along with the stimulation displayed large changes in the organization of the brain’s movement control system. The animals receiving identical motor training without stimulation pairing did not exhibit any brain changes, or plasticity.
People who suffer strokes or brain trauma often undergo rehabilitation that includes repeated movement of the affected limb in an effort to regain motor skills. It is believed that repeated use of the affected limb causes reorganization of the brain essential to recovery. The recent study suggests that pairing vagus nerve stimulation with standard therapy may result in more rapid and extensive reorganization of the brain, offering the potential for speeding and improving recovery following stroke, said Rennaker, associate professor in The University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences
“Our goal is to use the brain’s natural neuromodulatory systems to enhance the effectiveness of standard therapies,” Rennaker said. “Our studies in sensory and motor cortex suggest that the technique has the potential to enhance treatments for neurological conditions ranging from chronic pain to motor disorders. Future studies will investigate its effectiveness in treating cognitive impairments.”
Since vagus nerve stimulation has an excellent safety record in human patients with epilepsy, the technique provides a new method to treat brain conditions in which the timing of brain responses is abnormal, including dyslexia and schizophrenia.
In another paper in the journal Experimental Neurology, Kilgard led a team that paired vagus nerve stimulation with audio tones of varying speeds to alter the rate of activity within the rats’ brains. The team reported that this technique induced neural plasticity within the auditory cortex, which controls hearing.
The UT Dallas researchers are working with a device developed by MicroTransponder
, a biotechnology firm affiliated with the University. MicroTransponder currently is testing a vagus nerve stimulation therapy on human patients in Europe in hopes of reducing or eliminating the symptoms of tinnitus, the debilitating disorder often described as “ringing in the ears.”
“Understanding how brain networks self-organize themselves is vitally important to developing new ways to rehabilitate patients diagnosed with autism, dyslexia, stroke, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Kilgard, a professor of neuroscience.
Treatment of neurological disease is currently limited to pharmacological, surgical or behavioral interventions. But this recent research indicates it may be possible to effectively manipulate the plasticity of the human brain for a variety of purposes. Patients then could benefit from brain activity intentionally directed toward rebuilding lost skills.
If subsequent studies confirm the UT Dallas findings, human patients may have access to more efficient therapies that are minimally invasive and avoid long-term use of drugs.
By Kerry Grens
Wed Jul 18, 2012
Exercise and meditation keep us free from colds
Meditating or exercising could drastically cut the number of days people feel sick and miss work due to respiratory illnesses like colds and the flu, according to new research.
The findings are based on a small study and need to be confirmed. “But if our results turn out to be true… that’s monumental,” said Dr. Bruce Barrett of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the work.
That’s because there are few ways people can avoid catching a cold – an illness that, despite being mild, costs society billions every year.
“The only preventive things that we have at our disposal right now (for colds) are hand washing and avoiding sick contacts,” Barrett told Reuters Health.
Previous work has suggested that people who exercise or have low stress levels are less likely to get sick. To test whether exercise and positive thinking could actually prevent illnesses, Barrett and his colleagues studied 149 people randomly assigned to one of three groups.
One group participated in an eight-week meditation program, another did an eight-week exercise program, and the last group received no special instruction.
The training groups had two-and-half hour weekly group sessions along with another five days each week of practicing on their own for 45 minutes.
The exercise group did aerobics, cycling, jogging or brisk walking. The meditation group worked on mindfulness, a form of meditation emphasizing awareness of stress reactions and sources of stress.
After the weeks of training, the researchers surveyed the participants throughout a flu season to track how many people got sick.
Among the people in the meditation group there were 27 bouts of respiratory illness throughout the study, compared with 26 cases in the exercise group and 40 in the passive comparison group.
Those who meditated reported less-severe symptoms overall. And people spent only five days on average feeling sick if they worked out or meditated, compared to nine days in the comparison group.
“I suspect this is because they are better able to cope with the symptoms,” said James Carmody, a mindfulness researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, who was not involved in the study.
He said that when people are sick, they tend to dwell on how unpleasant their symptoms are.
“Keeping attention focused on the thoughts is going to add to the unpleasantness,” he told Reuters Health. With mindfulness, “people learn to redirect their attention so they don’t stay stuck on unpleasant thoughts.”
The exercise and meditation groups also missed work less often during the study. The exercise group had 32 sick days due to colds and similar infections and the meditation group had 16, whereas the comparison had as many as 67.
“What this study did was it confirmed what other studies have shown, that regular activity reduces illness days and symptoms,” said David Nieman, a professor of health, leisure and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, who was not involved in the new research.
Nieman, who is a consultant to Barrett on grant proposals, has found in his own work that people who exercise most days of the week have a 40- to 45-percent reduction in sick days.
Nieman said that exercise stimulates the immune system to better patrol the body for any potential viral invaders.
“It helps the immune system do its job better,” he told Reuters Health.
“No medication or supplement has produced preventive findings as strong as these,” he said.
There is no vaccine to prevent the common cold, and no medicine that can cure it. Flu vaccines can prevent infections 60 to 70 percent of the time in healthy people, Barrett said.
He cautioned that because the study was the first of its kind, the findings are only preliminary and there still remains a “big if” as to whether exercise or meditation can prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Barrett and his colleagues are starting another trial with a larger group of people.
SOURCE: Annals of Family Medicine, July 9, 2012
by Anita Bruzzese
July 5, 2012
David Levy, a computer scientist and professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, found that those who had meditation training were able to stay on task longer and were less distracted. Levy and his co-authors discovered that meditation also improved test subjects’ memory while easing their stress.
All sorts of gizmos and gadgets can help you be more productive at work, and theories abound on how you should structure your days to get more done.
But a new study finds that becoming more focused, productive and less stressed at work may involve nothing more than learning to meditate.
David Levy, a computer scientist and professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, found that those who had meditation training were able to stay on task longer and were less distracted. Levy and his co-authors discovered that meditation also improved test subjects’ memory while easing their stress.
Levy, who has used meditation for many years in his own life, decided to do the experiment involving the workplace after reading Darlene Cohen’s book, The One Who Is Not Busy: Connecting to Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way.
“In the book she was talking about how she’s adapted some Zen training to the workplace,” he says. “For 20 years I’ve been looking about how to add balance to the workplace, and that gave me the idea for the experiment.”
Levy had one group of human resource managers undergo eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training. A second group got eight weeks of body-relaxation training. The third group received no initial training but then was given the same training as the first group after eight weeks.
Subjects were given a stressful test on their multitasking abilities before and after each eight-week period. They had to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, phones and word-processing tools to perform common office duties.
Researchers looked at their speed, accuracy and number of times they switched tasks. The participants also were asked to record their stress levels and memory performance while doing the jobs.
Researchers found that the meditation group not only had lower stress levels during the multitasking tests but also were able to concentrate longer without being distracted.
But for the other two groups — those who received relaxation breathing training and those who had no initial training — stress did not go down. However, when the third group received meditation training after eight weeks, their stress also decreased.
Further, those who meditated also spent more time on tasks, didn’t switch between different chores as often and took no longer to get their work done than the other participants, the study found.
“Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle,” Levy says.
Levy says that he knows what it feels like to be overwhelmed at work, calling himself “stunned” when he left a Palo Alto, Calif., think tank to take up academic duties.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he says. “I do wonder why we make ourselves work this way. There’s no time to even think. We’ve gotten to a place where we’re just speeding up and we don’t do things well. We’ve got to slow down.”
While Levy says further study is needed to determine whether the meditation benefit can continue over the long term, in his own life he says meditation has helped calm his stress. He thinks it can be worth a try for workers who feel overwhelmed, distracted and stressed.
Many employers are beginning to agree. For example, Google offers “Search Inside Yourself” classes that teach mindfulness at work. Employees reportedly have given the program rave reviews and say it increases their focus and decreases stress.
“There’s an awful lot going on in this area,” Levy says. “You see it in health care, in the schools and in the workplace. It’s really turning into a serious direction and finding a place in American lives.”
For those who have not had training in meditation or mindfulness, Levy says the first step can be a simple one.
“The simplest form of mindfulness meditation I know is to just to sit and pay attention to your breathing,” he says. “To feel the actual sensations of your breathing and when you mind inevitably goes away to something else; just bring your mind back. Bring it back to the sensation of the breath again and again.”
“It really can make a difference in your life,” he says.
Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy . . . and How to Avoid Them,” www.45things.com. Write to her in care of Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107. For a reply, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.