Practicing ‘mindfulness’ may seem like an abstract or unfamiliar concept, but that’s because it is a word used to encapsulate what actually represents a way of living life. We spend a lot of our time lost in distraction, doing one thing while thinking of another, and acting reflexively or out of habit to both our emotional and real-life experiences. Through mindfulness practice, we cultivate cognitive traits that counter these tendencies and promote long-term well-being through building abilities such as focus, responsiveness and compassion.
Our brains continually rewire themselves based on experience throughout our lives, a relatively new and remarkable finding. Analogous to physical exercise and the body, we can take advantage of this plasticity to affect our own basic neurology. Training our brain to be less distracted and reactive, less prone to falling back on ingrained habits, and more flexible in thought unsurprisingly turns out to have life-long benefits.
Research in mindfulness has exploded exponentially over the last decade, suggesting improvements in both physical and mental health. Among hundreds of positive results, studies have shown better immune function, decreased anxiety, and physical growth of areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. While many have been conducted in the adult population, a growing number relate to children.
At the forefront has been Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating the Healthy Mind at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose pioneering research opened up an entire field of study called “contemplative neuroscience.” Dr. Davidson is featured in the upcoming documentary “Free Your Mind” which highlights programs working with traumatized military veterans ... and also preschool age children.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Davidson and separately to the movie’s director, Phie Ambo. Ms. Ambo attended an eight-week mindfulness based stress reduction program she found life-changing, and “wanted to do a film about the brain for people not likely to enter a meditation study.”
Dr. Bertin: There are many different ways of describing mindfulness for people not familiar with it. One from an elementary school age child in the New York Times was something like “getting angry and not bopping someone in the nose.” From your perspective, how would you define mindfulness as it pertains to children and family, for people who might not be as familiar with the idea?
Dr. Davidson: The way it has been defined in this context for popular readership has typically been this: paying attention, non-judgmentally, on purpose. Those are the elements that are incorporated to the training that we do. The potential consequences like not bopping your friend on the head are consequences, they are not part of the practice itself.
There is a lot of discussion in the scientific and contemplative literature about just what mindfulness actually means. It’s quite complicated, because it also has a component that involves remembering to be aware, remembering to pay attention on purpose non-judgmentally, so that you can actually bring this into everyday life. For a child this may mean remembering they have skills that can be deployed in everyday life where anxiety or conflict may arise.
Dr. Bertin: When you are working with children as opposed to adults, how do you approach them differently?
Dr. Davidson: Well, the strategies and exercises you use are age appropriate. In the film you see some of them. Various kinds of external prompts and activities are used like belly breathing with a stone on the belly. We also have kids listening mindfully to sounds, where they have to raise their hands as soon as they hear a bell stop ringing. During the time that the tone is going you can hear a pin drop in the room. Everyone is very quiet, and they are instructed to raise their hands when they can no longer hear it.
Dr. Bertin: In some cultures where these practice come from, they don’t start direct instruction in the practices until children are older. What is your perspective on when and how to start?
Dr. Davidson: What you are referring to in certain cultures, in certain traditional Buddhist contexts, formal practices of mindfulness are not typically begun until adolescence. But there are other kinds of practices that are started early and have the same effects. My own view is that in our culture here in America, and Western countries generally, it may make sense to begin these practices earlier because we don’t have those other kinds of activities. (Author’s note: Mindfulness, while drawn from Buddhist traditions, is not inherently a spiritual or religious practice.)
Dr. Bertin: There is a lot more specific research about mindfulness and adults, how would you describe the state of the research around mindfulness and children?
Dr. Davidson: To use a single word, I would say it is minimal. There are very, very few good studies that have been done with mindfulness and children. Right now, I would say it is more of a promissory note than anything else. I think the evidence in adults is sufficiently compelling to suggest it is worth exploring in children, but I think anyone who tells you there is good evidence in children is way over-estimating what is out there.
Dr. Bertin: Some people feel that experience of being fully aware and present in many activities of life, if they are lucky, maybe through athletics or a particular hobby. If these activities promote what feels like present-moment, non-judgmental awareness, from a neurological perspective is that the same experience, or is there something unique to the mindfulness practice?
Dr. Davidson: That’s a very important question and I’d answer it in a couple of different ways. The first way to answer it is that it is likely there are some elements that are common, although there are no really good studies to compare them directly. There are many activities, as you note, in which we can engage in that type of attention and my suspicion is that if you are looking exclusively at circuits in the brain that are important to the regulation of attention you might see similar effects.
When mindfulness is taught authentically, rooted in the traditions from which it is derived, the reason we practice mindfulness is to be of benefit to others. We don’t normally go out and play tennis to be of benefit to others, we don’t normally go out and learn a musical instrument to be of benefit to others. And so when mindfulness is taught within the authentic context from which it derives, it is really very much other-focused and that in itself has some very important neural consequences which are not shared with other activities of focused attention.
Dr. Bertin: Could you comment on those consequences?
Dr. Davidson: There are consequences in circuits of the brain important for empathy and compassion and other-directed focus. That kind of stance … helps to increase characteristics like humility and altruism and things of that sort. Which are byproducts of mindfulness, if you will, that can occur if taught authentically.
Dr. Bertin: I don’t think it was touched on in the documentary, but your lab has come out with those types of study within the last year.
Dr. Davidson: We have done quite a bit of work on that.
Dr. Bertin: How would you like to wrap up?
Dr. Davidson: I think that the film speaks for itself and I hope it can inspire people to explore the possibility that there are simple types of practice we all can engage in, in everyday life, that promote well-being. The fact of neuroplasticity should give us all hope and encourage us all to take more responsibility for the positive cultivation of a mindful brain in ways I think can make a difference in our own individual lives as well as in those with whom we interact.
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Regarding what stood out about her experience making the film, Ms. Ambo said she was struck by the warmth of the teachers in the preschool classroom, which utilizes a “Kindness Curriculum” developed at the University of Wisconsin. It integrates games such as one in which when you receive a seed from a friend, you have the privilege of giving one to a friend. One related study demonstrated increased behaviors such as sharing in participating children, distributing stickers more fairly to peers they liked more or less than others.
With the veterans (who engaged in a program emphasizing a type of yoga not part of traditional mindfulness programs), Ms. Ambo was amazed to find that after only one week she could “see that they were very hesitant but had started to smile more … they softened up and seemed much more alive in a way.” Of mindfulness, she said: “Give yourself the possibility. It’s free and we all have a brain … so the raw material is right there to check it out and try. These simple things make changes not only in our own lives but in those around us”
“Free Your Mind” opens at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on Thursday, May 2nd. It will premiere at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City on May 3rd.
“Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain” is a particularly accessible book discussing neuroplasticity, mindfulness, and Dr. Davidson’s work.