From Chris Goto-Jones–now Dean of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria–comes a free course which was named ‘one of the best online courses of all time’ in 2020. The course description for De-Mystifying Mindfulness reads:
Interest in meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation has grown exponentially in recent years. Rather than being seen as mystical practices from ancient Buddhism or esoteric philosophy, they are increasingly seen as technologies rooted in evidence from psychology and neuroscience. Mindfulness has become the basis for numerous therapeutic interventions, both as a treatment in healthcare and as a means of enhancing well-being and happiness. For millions around the world, mindfulness has become a life-style choice, enhancing and enriching everyday experience. Mindfulness is big business.
But, what actually is mindfulness? Is it really good for you? Can anyone learn it? How can you recognize charlatans? Would you want to live in a mindful society, and would it smell like sandalwood? What does it feel like to be mindful? Are you mindful already, and how would you know?
Evolving from the popular Honours Academy course at Leiden University [in the Netherlands], this innovative course combines conventional scholarly inquiry from multiple disciplines (ranging from psychology, through philosophy, to politics) with experiential learning (including specially designed ‘meditation labs,’ in which you’ll get chance to practice and analyze mindfulness on yourself). In the end, the course aims to provide a responsible, comprehensive, and inclusive education about (and in) mindfulness as a contemporary phenomenon.
You can take De-Mystifying Mindfulness for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.
Napping is serious business, despite the fact that when some of us think of naps, we think about preschool. We’ve been taught to think of naps as something to outgrow. Yet as we age into adulthood, so many of us find it hard to get enough sleep. Millions currently suffer from sleep deprivation, whose effects range from memory loss to, well… death, if we credit the dire warnings of neuroscientist Matthew Walker. “Sleep,” Walker says, “is a non-negotiable biological necessity.”
In light of the latest research, napping begins to seem more like urgent preventive care than an indulgence. In fact, sleep expert Sara Mednick says, naps are a “miracle drug” that “increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills, and accuracy, enhances your sex life,” helps you lose weight, feel happier, and so on, all without “dangerous side effects” and with a cost of nothing but time.
If this sounds like hype, consider the quality of the source — Dr. Sara Mednick, a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and a fellow at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Mednick runs a “seven-bedroom sleep lab at UCI,” notes her site, that works “literally around-the-clock to discover methods for boosting cognition through a range of different interventions, including napping.”
Maybe you’re sold on the benefits and simple pleasures of a nap — but maybe it’s been a few years since you’ve scheduled one. How long, exactly, should a grown-up nap last? The animated TED-Ed lesson above, scripted by Mednick, answers that question with a short course on sleep cycles: how we move through different stages as we snore, reaching the deepest sleep at stage 3 and concluding a cycle with R.E.M. The length of the nap we take can depend on the kinds of tasks we need to perform, and whether we need to wake up quickly and get on to other things.
Mednick expands substantially on her evidence-based advocacy for naps in her book Take a Nap! Change Your Life. (See her discuss her research on sleep and memory in the short video just above.) In the book’s introduction, she tells the story of her “journey from skeptic to nap advocate.” Here, she uses uses a different metaphor. Naps, she says, are a “secret weapon” — one she reached for just minutes before she stood up at the Salk Institute to present research on naps. “I never imagined,” she writes of her journey into napping, “that a healthy solution to facing life’s multiple challenges could be as simple and attainable as a short nap.” Given how much sleep we’re all losing lately, maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
Yoga as an athletic series of postures for physical health came into being only about 100 years ago, part of a wave of gymnastics and calisthenics that spread around the Western world in the 1920s and made its way to India, combining with classical Indian spirituality and asanas, a word which translates to “seat.” Yoga, of course, had existed as a classical spiritual discipline in India for thousands of years. (The word is first found in the Rig Veda), but it had little to do with fitness, as yoga scholar Mark Singleton found when he delved into the roots of yoga as we know it.
Asana practice was often marginal, even scorned by some 19th century Indian teachers of high caste as the domain of “fakirs” and mendicant beggars. “The first wave of ‘export yogis,’” writes Singleton, “headed by Swami Vivekananda, largely ignored asana and tended to focus instead on pranayama [breath practice], meditation, and positive thinking…. Vivekananda publicly rejected hatha yoga in general and asana in particular.”
In the 20th century, yoga became associated with Indian nationalism and anti-colonial resistance, and imported Western poses were combined with asanas for a program of intense physical training.
Westernized yoga has obscured other traditions around the world that developed over hundreds or thousands of years. For his book with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga, Singleton consulted “yogic texts from Tibetan, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Tamil, Pali, Kashmiri, Old Marathi, Avadhi, Braj Bhasha, and English,” notes the Public Domain Review, who bring our attention to this early 19th-century series of images from a text called the Joga Pradīpikā, made before classical yoga became known in the west by adventurous thinkers like Henry David Thoreau.
A few millennia before it was the provenance of lycra-clad teachers in boutique studios, asana practice combined rigorous, often quite painful-looking, meditative postures with mudras (“seals”), hand gestures whose origins “remain obscure,” though yoga historian Georg Feuerstein argues “they are undoubtedly the products of intensive meditation practice during [which] the body spontaneously assumes certain static as well as dynamic poses.” The collection of drawings in the 118-page book depicts 84 asanas and 24 mudras, “with explanatory notes in Braja-Bhasha verse,” notes the British Library, and one image (top) related to Kundalini yoga.
Whatever the various practices of yogic schools in both the Eastern and Western world, “the methods and lifestyles developed by the Indian philosophical and spiritual geniuses over a period of at least five millennia all have one and the same purpose,” writes Feuerstein in his seminal study, The Yoga Tradition: “to help us break through the habit patterns of our ordinary consciousness and to realize our identity (or at least union) with the perennial Reality. India’s great traditions of psychospiritual growth understand themselves as paths of liberation. Their goal is to liberate us from our conventional conditioning and hence also free us from suffering.”
Folk medicine is, or should be, antithetical to capitalism, meaning it should not be possible to trademark, copyright, or otherwise own and sell plants and natural remedies to which everyone has access. The entire reason such practices developed over the course of millennia was to help communities of close affiliation survive and thrive, not to foster market competition between companies and individuals. The impulse to profit from suffering has distorted what we think of as healing, such that a strictly allopathic, or “Western,” approach to medicine relies on ethics of exclusion, exploitation, and outright harm.
What we tend to think of as modern medicine, the Archive of Healing writes, “is object-oriented (pharmaceuticals, technologically driven) and structured by historical injustice against women and people of color.” The Archive, a new digital project from the University of California, Los Angeles, offers “one of the most comprehensive databases of medicinal folklore in the world,” Valentina Di Liscia writes at Hyperallergic. “The interactive, searchable website boasts hundreds of thousands of entries describing cures, rituals, and healing methods spanning more than 200 years and seven continents.”
In countries like the United States, where healthcare is treated as a scarce commodity millions of people cannot afford, access to knowledge about effective, age-old natural wisdom has become critical. There may be no treatments for COVID-19 in the database, but there are likely traditional remedies, rituals, practices, treatments, ointments, etc. for just about every other illness one might encounter. The archive was curated over a period of more than thirty years by “a team of researchers at UCLA, working under the direction of Dr. Wayland Hand and then Dr. Michael Owen Jones,” the site notes in its brief history.
The material from the collection, which was originally called the “archive of traditional medicine,” came from “data on healing from over 3,200 publications, six university archives, as well as first-hand and second-hand information from anthropological and folkloric fieldnotes.” In 2016, when Dr. Delgado Shorter took over as director of the program, he “reorganized it with an eye to social sharing and allowing for users to submit new data and comment on existing data,” notes UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture in an interview with Shorter, who describes the project’s aims thus:
The whole goal here is to democratize what we think of as healing and knowledge about healing and take it across cultures in a way that’s respectful and gives attention to intellectual property rights.
This may seem like a delicate balancing act, between the scholarly, the folkloric, and the realms of rights, remuneration, and social power. The Archive strikes it with an ambitious set of tenets you can read here, including an emphasis on offering traditional and Indigenous healing practices “outside of often expensive allopathic and pharmaceutical approaches, and not as alternatives but as complementary modalities.”
The archive states as one of its theoretical bases that health should be treated “as a social goal with social methods that affirm relationality and kinship.” Those wishing to get involved with the Archive as partners or advisory board members can learn how at their About page, which also features the following disclaimer: “Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information contained herein is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” Use the information wisely, at your own risk, in other words.
This collector’s top 10 list gives extra consideration to scripts that “place typewriters at the heart of the story.” First and second place feature typewriters on their posters.
An IBM Selectric III in Avissar’s supercut caused one viewer to reminisce about the anachronistic use of Selectric IIs in Mad Men’s first season secretarial pool. Creator Matthew Weiner admits the choice was deliberate. The first Selectric model is period appropriate, but much more difficult to find and challenging to maintain, plus their manual carriage returns would have created a headache for sound editors.
Avissar’s round up also serves to remind us of a particularly modern problem—the ongoing quest to portray texts and social media messages effectively on big and small screens. This dilemma didn’t exist back when typewriters were the primary text-based devices. A close up of whatever page was rolled onto the platen got the job done with a minimum of fuss.
The technology we put between ourselves and others tends to always create additional strains on communication, even as it enables near-constant, instant contact. When it comes to our now-primary mode of interacting — staring at each other as talking heads or Brady Bunch-style galleries — those stresses have been identified by communication experts as “Zoom fatigue,” now a subject of study among psychologists who want to understand our always-connected-but-mostly-isolated lives in the pandemic, and a topic for Today show segments like the one above.
As Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson vividly explains to Today, Zoom fatigue refers to the burnout we experience from interacting with dozens of people for hours a day, months on end, through pretty much any video conferencing platform. (But, let’s face it, mostly Zoom.) We may be familiar with the symptoms already if we spend some part of our day on video calls or lessons. Zoom fatigue combines the problems of overwork and technological overstimulation with unique forms of social exhaustion that do not plague us in the office or the classroom.
Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, refers to this kind of burnout as “Nonverbal Overload,” a collection of “psychological consequences” from prolonged periods of disembodied conversation. He has been studying virtual communication for two decades and began writing about the current problem in April of 2020 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that warned, “software like Zoom was designed to do online work, and the tools that increase productivity weren’t meant to mimic normal social interaction.”
Now, in a new scholarly article published in the APA journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Bailenson elaborates on the argument with a focus on Zoom, not to “vilify the company,” he writes, but because “it has become the default platform for many in academia” (and everywhere else, perhaps its own form of exhaustion). The constituents of nonverbal overload include gazing into each others’ eyes at close proximity for long periods of time, even when we aren’t speaking to each other.
Anyone who speaks for a living understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time. Even when speakers see virtual faces instead of real ones, research has shown that being stared at while speaking causes physiological arousal (Takac et al., 2019). But Zoom’s interface design constantly beams faces to everyone, regardless of who is speaking. From a perceptual standpoint, Zoom effectively transforms listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with eye gaze.
On Zoom, we also have to expend much more energy to send and interpret nonverbal cues, and without the context of the room outside the screen, we are more apt to misinterpret them. Depending on the size of our screen, we may be staring at each other as larger-than-life talking heads, a disorienting experience for the brain and one that lends more impact to facial expressions than may be warranted, creating a false sense of intimacy and urgency. “When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life,” writes Vignesh Ramachandran at Stanford News, “our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict.”
Unless we turn off the view of ourselves on the screen — which we generally don’t do because we’re conscious of being stared at — we are also essentially sitting in front of a mirror while trying to focus on others. The constant self-evaluation adds an additional layer of stress and taxes the brain’s resources. In face-to-face interactions, we can let our eyes wander, even move around the room and do other things while we talk to people. “There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” says Bailenson. Zoom interactions, conversely, can inhibit movement for long periods of time.
“Zoom fatigue” may not be as dire as it sounds, but rather the inevitable trials of a transitional period, Bailenson suggests. He offers solutions we can implement now: using the “hide self-view” button, muting our video regularly, setting up the technology so that we can fidget, doodle, and get up and move around…. Not all of these are going to work for everyone — we are, after all, socialized to sit and stare at each other on Zoom; refusing to participate might send unintended messages we would have to expend more energy to correct. Bailenson further describes the phenomenon in the BBC Business Daily podcast interview above.
“Videoconferencing is here to stay,” Bailenson admits, and we’ll have to adapt. “As media psychologists it is our job,” he writes to his colleagues in the new article, to help “users develop better use practices” and help “technologists build better interfaces.” He mostly leaves it to the technologists to imagine what those are, though we ourselves have more control over the platform than we collectively acknowledge. Could we maybe admit, Bailenson writes, that “perhaps a driver of Zoom fatigue is simply that we are taking more meetings than we would be doing face-to-face”?
We humans did a number on ourselves, as they say, when we invented agriculture, global trade routes, refrigeration, pasteurization, and so forth. Yes, we made it so that millions of people around the world could have abundant food. We’ve also created food that’s full of empty calories and lacking in essential nutrients. Fortunately, in places where healthy alternatives are plentiful, attitudes toward food have changed, and nutrition has become a paramount concern.
“As a society, we are comfortable with the idea that we feed our bodies,” says neuroscientist Lisa Mosconi. We research foods that cause inflammation and increase cancer risk, etc. But we are “much less aware,” says Mosconi—author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power—“that we’re feeding our brains too. Parts of the foods we eat will end up being the very fabric of our brains…. Put simply: Everything in the brain that isn’t made by the brain itself is ‘imported’ from the food we eat.”
We learn much more about the constituents of brain matter in the animated TED-Ed lesson above by Mia Nacamulli. Amino acids, fats, proteins, traces of micronutrients, and glucose—”the brain is, of course, more than the sum of its nutritional parts, but each component does have a distinct impact on functioning, development, mood, and energy.” Post-meal blahs or insomnia can be closely correlated with diet.
What should we be eating for brain health? Luckily, current research falls well in line with what nutritionists and doctors have been suggesting we eat for overall health. Anne Linge, registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Nutrition Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt, recommends what researchers have dubbed the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
“The Mediterranean diet focuses on lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and heart-healthy oils,” Linge says. “When we talk about the DASH diet, the purpose is to stop high blood pressure, so we’re looking at more servings of fruits and vegetables, more fiber and less saturated fat.” The combination of the two, reports Angela Cabotaje at the University of Washington Medicine blog Right as Rain, results in a diet high in folate, carotenoids, vitamin E, flavonoids and antioxidants. “All of these things seem to have potential benefits to the cognitive function,” says Linge, who breaks MIND foods down into the 10 categories below:
Leafy greens (6x per week) Vegetables (1x per day) Nuts (5x per week) Berries (2x per week) Beans (3x per week) Whole grains (3x per day) Fish (1x per week) Poultry (2x per week) Olive oil (regular use) Red wine (1x per day)
As you’ll note, red meat, dairy, sweets, and fried foods aren’t included: researchers recommend we consume these much less often. Harvard’s Healthbeat blog further breaks down some of these categories and includes tea and coffee, a welcome addition for people who prefer caffeinated beverages to alcohol.
“You might think of the MIND diet as a list of best practices,” says Linge. “You don’t have to follow every guideline, but wow, if how you eat can prevent or delay cognitive decline, what a fabulous thing.” It is, indeed. For a scholarly overview of the effects of nutrition on the brain, read the 2015 study on the MIND diet here and another, 2010 study on the critical importance of “brain foods” here.
Tibetan monks in remote regions of the Himalayas have long claimed near miraculous powers through yogic practices that resemble nothing you’ll find offered at your local gym, though they may derive from some similar Indian sources. One such meditative practice, a breathing exercise known as tummo, tum-mo, or g-tummo, supposedly generates body heat and can raise one’s peripheral body temperature 16-17 degrees—a distinctly advantageous ability when sitting outside in the snow-capped mountains.
Perhaps a certain amount of skepticism is warranted, but in 1981, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson was determined to take these ancient practices seriously, even though his first encounters with western practitioners of tummo produced results he deemed “fraudulent.” Not ready to toss centuries of wisdom, Benson decided instead to travel to the source after meeting the Dalai Lama and receiving permission to study tummo practitioners in Northern India.
Benson’s research became a 20-year project of studying tummo and other advanced techniques while he also taught at the Harvard Medical School and served as president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, where he believes the study of meditation can “uncover capacities that will help us to better treat stress-related illnesses.” The claims of monks who practice tummo have been substantiated in Benson’s work, showing, he says, “what advanced forms of meditation can do to help the mind control physical processes once thought to be uncontrollable.”
In his own experimental settings, “Benson found that [Tibetan] monks possessed remarkable capacities for controlling their oxygen intake, body temperatures and even brainwaves,” notes Aeon. Another study undertaken in 2013 by Maria Kozhevnikov, cognitive neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore, “corroborated much of what Benson had observed, including practitioners’ ability to raise their body temperatures to feverish levels by combining visualization and specialized breathing.”
In the short documentary film above—actually a 7-minute trailer for Russ Pariseau’s feature-length film Advanced Tibetan Meditation: The Investigations of Herbert Benson MD—we get a brief introduction to tummo, a word that translates to “inner fire” and relates to the ferocity of a female deity. Benson explains the ideas behind the practice in concise terms that sum up a central premise of Tibetan Buddhism in general:
Buddhists feel the reality we live in is not the ultimate one. There’s another reality we can tap into that’s unaffected by our emotions, by our everyday world. Buddhists believe this state of mind can be achieved by doing good for others and by meditation. The heat they generate during the process is just a by-product of g Tum-mo meditation
Perhaps centuries-old non-European practices do not particularly need to be debunked, demystified, or validated by modern scientific medicine to keep working for their practitioners; but doctors have significantly benefited those in their care through an acceptance of the healing properties of, say, psilocybin or mindfulness, now serious subjects of study and clinical treatment in top Euro-American institutions. Just as this research is being popularized among both the medical establishment and general public, we may someday see a surge of interest in advanced tantric practices like tummo.
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