Saturday, 22 February 2014

Mindfulness & The Brain

Notes inspired by a fantastic talk by Mike Bell


Every time we sense anything, nerve cells are transmitting electric signals to our brain. But what I never knew (and what scientists believe) is that the electrical signals do not pass directly from cell to cell, but at each synapse between cells chemicals bridge the gap and carry the electrical signal forward. The body is amazing! And I guess this emphasises the importance of the food we eat because there's so much amazing stuff the body does and the food we eat provides the building blocks for everything. This thought also gives a new energy to the idea of mindfulness of the senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste!

Working Memory

It is said that short-term memory is a better predictor of raw intelligence in five-year olds than IQ or anything else. Short-term or working memory is the longest sequence of numbers we can remember without using any mnemonic devices. It comes in two forms (visual and auditory). I noticed this once myself when trying to memorise the classmark of a library book. Instead of repeating the whole thing on audio-loop, just repeat the first chunk and visualise the second chunk and it becomes much easier! On average our working memory capacity is 7 plus or minus 2. But now here's the key… some of those slots are occupied by worries or distractions and this is what hampers our mindfulness in the moment. We need to let these go to be fully aware in the here and now. This is a process of concentration, silencing the chattering mind. At a deeper level, we can let go of concentration and achieve effortless awareness which doesn't need working memory at all. We see the world without judgment or commentary, and the state of mind is pleasant. This is "mind in the zone", effortless mindfulness.

Letting Go of Distractions

Since we have a tendency to focus more on negative feelings than positive ones, most distractions are associated with negative states of mind. Worries are almost always thoughts relating to "self" which occupy part of our working memory, go round and round, and the repetition is self-reinforcing. How to break them? A wonderful trick is to focus on the associated painful sensations which also occupy part of our working memory. By taking away focus from the worrying thought and placing the whole attention of our working memory on the physical sensation, this leaves no space for the thought of worry. But the physical sensation depends on the thought to survive, so both will soon dissipate and repeating this each time the worrying thought is recognised, for example putting the attention on the hands, or on the belly, or wherever we feel the sensation directly, the worry will soon fade. Noticing the worry quickly stops it faster before a habit is formed. This also means it is best not to tell all your friends about it or to keep repeating a story about it to yourself, because this way the negative thought develops into a negative memory. If possible, just let it go.

Letting Go of Painful Memories

We do not remember things like a camera, but our memories are built up out of components: colour, shape, place, person, emotion… They are patterns of thought built up from repetition, the pattern of components depending on the specific memory. If a memory is painful, deconstruct it into its component parts (what these are will depend on the specific memory so this requires contemplation). For each component, try to think of a happy memory which you can associate with that component. Then whenever the unhappy memory comes up, switch attention to the associated happy memories, and they will grow stronger in the mind, and the original painful memory will fade.


The "four noble truths" from a purely cognitive perspective are (1) suffering happens, (2) there are reasons for suffering (worries), (3) dealing with the reasons, suffering will lessen, and (4) there are ways to deal with the reasons.

This is wonderful, but at a deeper level, the purpose is not just to lessen suffering I don't think but to grow from our experiences. It's unthinkable to say this from a cognitive perspective, but suffering can be a blessing if we can learn from it, not just something to be avoided. The cognitive lesson though is to have the openness of heart to be able to see things this way, to be able to refrain from the negative response to negative feelings which can turn into a vicious cycle. In sum, to be the creators of our own stories. The first words of Buddha's Dhammapada, "You are what you think..." 

In the case of Lykke Li, 
not drowning it, 
not acting out on it, 
but channeling it creatively... 
in dance, in song... 
in compassion... 
for oneself and others.

Video: "Sadness is a Blessing" by Lykke Li

To a friend...

What's on your mind? Let it go! Let it go!
What's on your heart? Let it grow! Let it grow!
Burn this poem, its truth you know,
The smell of incense, the taste of honey
Fingers dipped in wine, hair tipped with snow,
Let your inspiration flow!


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