Because half the time at the moment some task ends you start thinking about the past, you're ruminating about all kinds of things. But all other aspects of mind-wandering, neutral mind-wandering, what's going to be a dinner tonight, or unpleasant mind-wandering, why did I do so badly on that quiz this week, all of that kind of stuff is making you less happy. What you find is that in the nutrition case, there's no change from pre to post test, but you get a relatively huge boost in the concept of when you're doing a mindfulness-based practice.
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The next one which is interesting and I think one that really can help a ton if you put in the right effortful control is valuing what I’m going to call call mind control. And by this, I don’t mean the kind of cartoon, sci-fi mind control, where you are going to controlling other people’s mind. I actually mean controlling your own mind and stopping it from being all over the place, all of the time. One of the sad things about modern life and one of the sad things is about being a human, is that we have minds that tend not to stick on the task that we want them to stay on. We have minds that are all over the place all the time. And psychologists have a very cute term for this, they call this mind-wandering, which as you can guess, is a phenomenon in which you’re shifting the contents of your thought away from whatever task you have ongoing and to event and from events in the external environment, so the things in your here and now to other self generated thoughts and feelings often things that are not in the here and now. Some of you are nodding, so I’m sure you’re familiar with this concept of mind-wandering, here’s a wonderful representation of it. You’re supposed to be concentrating on your task and your mind is all over the place ruminating about something in the past, thinking about dinner tonight, thinking about what somebody thought of you at the party, it’s just kind of all over the place. One question though is how all over the place is it? Is this really as bad a phenomena as we think? And this is what Killingsworth and Gilbert looked at, and what they found is that if you do experience sampling and you kind of page people and ask them where their minds are, our minds are not with us most of the time. In fact about 46.9 percent of the time just under half the time, we are not thinking about things in the here and now, we are not thinking about what we’re supposed to be focused on, we’re kind of out there wandering around. So this is a pretty pervasive problem, but is it the kind of problem that is like the kind of thing we can understand? Why do we have minds that are kind of all over the place? Why did they wander around so much? And this is a spot where I get to introduce a teensy weensy bit of neuroscience into this course, because it turns out there’s a very cool neuroscience story for why our minds are all over the place. And it has to do with a certain feature of our brain and how our brain uses energy. So as you guys probably all know our brain has different parts that tend to focus on different things, there are parts of our brain that focus on recognizing faces, there are parts of our brains that we use more when we are speaking and using language, different parts of the brain kind of kick in when we’re doing particular tasks. But there’s also a set of parts of the brain - a network in the brain that seems to be on all the time when we’re not really focused on anything, when we’re off mind wandering. And that’s a set of regions that folks have referred to as the default network. It’s the default network in part because it’s the network of brain regions that kicks in by default whenever we’re not doing a task, whenever we’re doing something else. It turns out it also has some interesting energetic properties where it might be more efficient to run this network of the brain than all of the other networks of the brain that are focused on a task which is why we might default to it as much as we do. But researchers discovered this in a funny way. Usually researchers are doing these kinds of functional neuroimaging tasks where they’re looking at some other cognitive function that we do, say recognizing faces or language or so on, and they put you in the scanner and they say, okay focus on faces and the face part of your brain lights up where they say listen to these words and the word recognition part of your brain lights up. But as soon as you stop doing that task, it’s not like your brain just goes dark, a whole set of energetic regions turn on and start chugging along and they start chugging along in this default network set of regions. And these are what neuroscientists originally referred to as task unresponsive regions, they are responsive whenever you’re not doing a task, which is kind of weird. And if you look at what that network looks like, here’s a kind of picture of the different regions that are involved. As we’ve said it’s not just one spot but it’s a network of a couple of different areas that kick in whenever you stop doing a task. And the funny thing is that what we’re realizing is that this network has a couple of strange features that get folks really interested in it. So one of the strange features of this default mode network is that it seems to be a set of regions that are really fast. They can come on within a fraction of a second when you stop doing a task. So you’re doing a task, you look at faces, great, you recognize that face, and within a fraction of a second these other regions are taking you to somewhere else they’re kind of mind-wandering you around. So we don’t have like a lot of time on the task as soon as we stop we’re thinking about something else. The other thing is that this set of regions is doing something very particular. These are the regions of the brain that help us do a different set of tasks, namely think outside the here and now. They get us out of our own reality experience and let us think about something else. The researchers know this just in cases where they’re making folks do a task that is about thinking outside the here and now. So if I were to put you in one of these FMI scanners and I said to you, “hey think about these events in the past”, this is what your brain map would look like. It looks exactly like the same regions that you use when you’re just kind of thinking in default. Why? Because half the time at the moment some task ends you start thinking about the past, you’re ruminating about all kinds of things. If I were to put you in a scanner and have you think about the future, this is what it would look like, again almost exactly the same regions. Why? Because when you’re mind wandering, your brain is on default, you’re thinking about the future, you think about dinner tonight, you think about what you’re going to do when you’re not here. Same thing happens if I were to take you into the scanner and have you think about other people, ruminate about what somebody else was thinking about you at the party, you’d get again same similar set of regions. All this goes to see that what this default network seems to be doing is all the kinds of things that our minds do when we get out of the here and now, when we think about the past, something that happened before, think about the future, something is going to happen later, or think about what somebody else is thinking. It’s basically all of the sets of things we do when we are not in the here and now. And so the neat thing about the default network is in some sense, it’s kind of cool that we have it. And in fact we could do a whole separate course on the fact that this default mode network might actually be unique, because we’re actually one of the only species that can think from other perspectives or think about our future and think about our past. And so in that sense the fact that we mind wander using this network is sort of a kind of cool cognitive achievement. We can be proud that we’re like the only species that gets out of our own heads. But the problem is is that it doesn’t seem like it’s good all the time to be doing that. Because there’s this interesting question about whether or not all this mind wandering we do, all this activation of the default network, whether that’s really making us feel as good as we think. And so this is what Killingsworth and Gilbert studied when they kind of came up with that percentage of how often we mind wander. They did this neat thing where they had this experience sampling survey. So they ping people every once in a while and ask what’s going on in your thoughts? With a huge huge sample of people, ping people and ask okay, what are you doing? To get a sense of what task they were focused on. They say what are you actually thinking about what you’re currently doing, like yes or no. And they ask a few other questions including the relevant one which is are you happy? And so what they find when they do this is the fact that I told you before, which is that people are mind wandering a lot around half the time you’re mind wandering or doing some task where you’re supposed to be focused, but you’re not. And interestingly we seem to be mind wandering in lots and lots of different events we were supposed to be focused. In fact apparently we mind-wander 30 percent of time in most events. In fact the only event in which we don’t mind-wander according to their survey is during sex, I think might be one of the reasons people enjoy sex so much that you’re actually in the moment, interestingly enough, little titbit. But in addition, what they found is that mind-wandering as they predicted had a pretty negative impact on happiness. Such that you’re less happy in most of the domains in which you are mind wandering. So here’s this cool graph that they came up with, they plot happiness on the bottom, going across in terms of all kinds of different activities and here’s what people report and the size of the dot is how often people report doing these things. And you can see people are doing all kinds of stuff. In general people are happy in different moments, having sex is really high on the happiness scale. But in general people are above the mean happiness for most things. And here’s what happens if you kind of average all these times when people are doing that stuff that they’re not mind wandering, that’s their happiness score. But, if you kind of factor in whether or not people are mind-wandering, all of a sudden you see something really interesting. Which is that if people are mind-wandering and they report mind-wandering to a pleasant thing, you are thinking about your vacation, or you’re thinking about that nice looking person at the party who talk to you, that’s pleasant and then that’s about keeping you as happy as when you’re not mind-wandering. But all other aspects of mind-wandering, neutral mind-wandering, what’s going to be a dinner tonight, or unpleasant mind-wandering, why did I do so badly on that quiz this week, all of that kind of stuff is making you less happy. On average, the mind-wandering part of our day is sort of plunking us into the more unhappy part. And this is what Dan Gilbert, who is the co-author on that paper, and of how he sums up this sort of problem of mind-wandering. He says, “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement”. It’s pretty cool. We might be one of the only species that does it. “But it comes at an emotional cost. A wandering mind, in some sense, is an unhappy mind”. So, then that leads to the question, what can we do to stop our minds from wandering? It’s like a curse of our species that we can do this. Is there any way to shut this off? And note that this is going to be tricky in part because the default mode of our brain is probably going to be wandering around. So, how do we get it to stop doing it? Well, there’s a whole host of techniques involved in the practice of meditation that seems to help out with this. And so, for those that don’t know what is meditation, well, it’s kind of a little bit hard to define because it’s a whole host of different practices. But for the purposes of this lecture, we’ll define it as the practice of turning your attention away from distracting thoughts. So, in some sense, away from mind-wandering, towards a single point of reference or focus. You could think about the breath. You could think about bodily sensations. You can think about compassion, a specific thought. All kinds of things. But the point is that you’re stopping your mind from wandering around to all this stuff out of the here and now, and focusing it on one thing. The question is, does the act of doing this actually make us happier and can it shut off activation in this default mode that our brain is usually in? And this is what Hedy Kober, who’s a Professor here at Yale, has been studying. She is actually the professor that teaches the Drugs Brain and Behavior course, and she’s also really interested in the extent to which meditation can actually help us feel happier and be healthier. And so, she did this lovely study to try to see if the act of meditating can change the normal default pattern of the way the brains fire. In other words, you stop mind-wandering if you’re good at meditating. And so, to test that she brought in expert meditators, who are defined as having 10,000 plus hours of meditation done versus healthy controls. And then, they were asked within this fMRI scanner while they were measuring brain activation to do one of three different kinds of meditations, either what’s called the loving kindness meditation, I have you sit there and think about the fact that you care about someone and you want them to be happy and healthy. So, I would think, I’ll think Raven like may she’d be happy, may she’d be healthy, have like loving kindness towards Raven, or loving kindness towards myself. That’s one type of meditation. You could have someone concentrate on your breath. So, I’m just focusing on breathing in and watching my breath over time. Or what Hedy would refer to as choiceless awareness, which is kind of a meditation where you just note the thoughts that come into your brain. Non-judgementally, you kind of keep track of where they are, so you’re just noting the sensations around you and trying to focus on the external environment. And so, after all of these, she then had those folks in the scanner doing those meditations. And then, she tested what happened to their default network activation. Did folks who are meditating show less default network activation while they were meditating? And so, here’s what she found. Here’s a little quick glimpse of the brain. And Hedy and colleagues are looking at two regions in the brain that are part of the default network. They kind of scroll in on two different parts. And the question is, are these areas less active in meditators when they’re meditating than normal controls? And when she looks at the change in signal when meditators are meditating, what she finds is that in this first region in the prefrontal cortex and this other region in the cingulate, meditators are using those regions less when they’re meditating than normal folks. So, they’re sort of shutting off this default network that’s going off into the world to actually focus in on the present. But she found something even cooler about the default network in folks who are expert meditators versus not. And that has to do not just with whether or not the default network is on, but whether or not other regions of the brain are coming in to kind of shut up the default network, whether other regions are more connected when you’re actually doing meditation. And what she finds, if you look at the connections, comparing meditators with controls, is that meditators end up having while they’re meditating, more connections with other parts of the brain. There’s more connectivity there, suggesting that other regions are coming in and saying, ‘no, shut off default network, pay attention to me’ and kind of thinking more about the here and now. The super amazing thing is that happened not just when folks were in the scanner and they were meditating, it also happened outside of meditation even during baseline, suggesting that the effects of meditation go beyond just the moment where somebody’s actually meditating. That’s actually changing your default pattern throughout the day, so you can kind of be more focused on the present and in the here and now all the time. And so, the cool thing is it suggests that meditation practice can curb mind-wandering in a very cool way. Basically, stops this default mode of being out of the present, both when you’re meditating and importantly, even during your daily life when you’re not actually in the middle of practicing. And the prediction is that if it’s the case that mind-wandering makes us unhappy, then maybe the act of meditation practice can make us happier because it stops mind-wandering. Is that really the case? Well, that’s what Fredrickson and colleagues looked at, just plotting people’s positive emotion across a meditation intervention. These are folks who were asked to do a loving kindness meditation for a small amount of time across eight weeks. And then, here’s what happens to plotted positive emotion over that time. Basically, what you see is controls are just kind of flat, whereas meditators kind of inch up and then continue to stay up, such that they’re having positive emotion over time. Again, this is not during meditation. This is just being a person who meditates over time. Eight weeks on, you’re getting this little positive emotion, which is really cool. And so, it does seem like meditation practice can make us happier, maybe via shutting off this default mode of mind-wandering all the time, but it’s worth noting that meditation turns out to be this kind of cool panacea to help us in all these other sorts of ways as well. One of those sorts of ways is amazingly meditation seems to be building in brain tissue and kind of strengthening our brains over time. And so, this is what a group of researchers at Harvard looked at. They actually studied the size of your gray matter, before and after an eight week meditation course in sort of a mindfulness-based stress reduction course. And this was eight weeks, but it was pretty pretty chill in terms of meditation. On average people are meditating about half hour a day across eight weeks. And here’s the amazing thing they find, which is that if you look at changes in gray matter content, in regions that the default network and other parts of the cortex, what you find is you get big boosts in those who did a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. You’re actually increasing the size of your gray matter in these regions. And then, in regions and other parts of the brain like the cerebellum involved in motor coordination and so on. They are like literally changing and strengthening your brain by doing this meditation. And again, not very much, a half hour a day for eight weeks, right? Imagine building that much muscle that quickly for a half hour day for eight weeks in terms of exercising your body. You also get sort of a big boost in terms of cognitive performance on things that some of you guys think should matter, but don’t. Bracket that like things like the GREs and so on. And that’s what other researchers looked at, trying to see whether or not meditation could affect GRE performance. And in this study, they had people do four 45 minute classes for two weeks, learning about meditation and so on. And then, folks had to do 10 to 20 minutes of mindfulness exercises outside the classroom. The control group did the same sort of classes, but they learned about nutrition strategies, and there were supposed to like increase their nutrition throughout the week. And so, here’s what they find when they look at performance and accuracy on terms of the GRE. What you find is that in the nutrition case, there’s no change from pre to post test, but you get a relatively huge boost in the concept of when you’re doing a mindfulness-based practice. In other words, as you’re doing more meditation, you’re boosting your GRE performance. Again, grades shouldn’t really matter, but those of you who want to get into grad school, this could be a little bit of a help for you. Finally, there’s lots of evidence, new evidence suggesting that meditation can actually help you increase the things that we also see can increase happiness. Things like social connection and kindness and so on. And that’s what a group of researchers at Stanford looked at. They had people do a loving kindness meditation and tried to see whether it increased social closeness. And they did that by giving people photos of strangers that they didn’t know. And they said, “how socially close do you feel to these strangers, just look at this picture and see how close you might like to be to these people?” They also did this cute implicit liking measure where they had people make judgments about those folks using different adjectives that were positive or negative, and they could look at the speed that people judged things. So if I really pressed very quickly to say you’re a nice person, I’m kind of socially close to you. But if instead, I press really quickly to be like it seems like you’re mean, then that means I’m like kind of implicitly really don’t like you. And so, then, folks did this loving kindness meditation for one of those three different strangers. And then, they looked at folks testing both before and after folks did this. And so, here’s what they find on these differences in social closeness numbers. So, this is a difference from pre to post. So bigger numbers mean more social closeness. When you do a loving kindness meditation, you boost up your social closeness measure by a whole point over controls. And in fact, it works not just for the person you lovingly kindly meditate about. So if I’m like, oh, Raven you know, I want her to be happy and so on. But what happens to my loving kindness towards Darwin or towards Gabriella? What you find is even meditating on one target, increases your loving kindness and your social closeness for other targets too. So, you don’t have to kind of do a loving kindness meditation for everybody, just doing it for one person can kind of increase your social closeness more broadly. And they found the same sorts of patterns on this implicit liking measure, even bigger patterns, and kind of get a big boost in your speed for saying nice things about the target relative to controls, and still, you see a pretty big boost even for those non-targets too. All of this goes to say that these kinds of meditations can be increasing the stuff that we already think can make us happy, namely, increasing social connections and social closeness. So, all that goes to say that finding time to put the effortful practices in to increase mind control can make you happy via kind of shutting off your mind-wandering, but can make you happy via all these other positive benefits as well. And so, if you had to pick one effortful practice to add into your daily life, Meditation is a pretty good thing to do.
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