Mindfulness is on everyone’s mind

Mindfulness is a hot topic. And has been for the past 2500 years. But the resurgent interest is more likely related to our love/hate relationship with social media than rediscovery of ancient wisdoms.

Overwhelmed by the constant demand of our electronic devices. Puzzled by the irresistible pull of checking for an update, a new email, a reply to one of our posts. We certainly seem to be more distracted. Couples sitting in restaurants staring at their screens. People sending text messages while watching a movie.

Mindfulness

I am thinking (actively, not in a detached way) about mindfulness, because of a lecture by Judson Brewer, a clinical psychologist and expert in the field. Judson is also experienced in meditation and has been practicing his own mindfulness and studying the opportunities that mindfulness offers.

The lecture was part of a course titled Tools for Wellbeing, that is organized by Pattie Maes, a Professor and colleague of mine at the MIT Media Lab. The syllabus covers a wide range of perspectives on wellbeing and how we can use technology to better understand and improve our own wellbeing.

I took some notes during Judson’s fast-paced and dense talk. This is not a summary, but just a snapshot of some points I noted along the way. About half-way through I also realized the irony of trying to take notes during a talk on mindfulness, and by doing so, being decidedly not mindful.

Behaviors and re-enforcement

A lot of behaviors can be explained as a result of positive or negative re-enforcement. The basic ideas is that:

A cue/trigger is -> Interpreted as pleasant or unpleasant (based on previous experience) -> Which leads to craving/wanting -> Which leads to an action (giving in or resisting) -> Through repetition this process and the behavior gets re-enforced

This process let’s us understand how our brain responds to familiar ring-tones on our phone, as well as the desire to light up a cigarette.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is on the cover of TIME, but the basic ideas and mindfulness training have been around for ~2500 years. It focuses on two areas:

How it works: Helping people to stop smoking

Mindfulness training enables smokers to de-couple the stages of “craving/wanting” from “behavior”. That means, instead of designing around it, we can take it out the craving and break down the process. The smoker can observe himself craving a cigarette, but make a decision about smoking that is almost unrelated. It turns out that mindful smoking doesn’t seem all that appealing, even to smokers. When they get the opportunity to pause, block out the craving for a moment, and consider if they really want to smoke a cigarette, many of them are able to simply say no.

And it seems to work. Mindfulness training has success rates that are on par with the most successful approaches to end smoking, yet it has almost no cost. 4 weeks of mindfulness training led to just under 40% of participants successfully giving up smoking. And the long-term effect is a reduction in craving (whereas for people who don’t quit, craving stabilizes, although at a lower level).

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