De-Mystifying Mindfulness: A Free Online Course by Leiden University

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.

De-Mystifying Mindfulness will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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How to Take the Perfect Nap, According to Cognitive Scientist Sara Mednick

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.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Tibetan Monks Use Meditation to Raise Their Peripheral Body Temperature 16-17 Degrees

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.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Don’t Think Twice: A Poignant Film Documents How Bob Dylan & The Beatles Bring Joy to a Dementia Patient

It’s often said the sense of smell is most closely connected to long-term memory. The news offers little comfort to us forgetful people with a diminished sense of smell. But increasingly, neuroscientists are discovering how sound can also tap directly into our deepest memories. Patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia seem to come alive, becoming their old selves when they hear music they recognize, especially if they were musicians or dancers in a former life.

“Sound is evolutionarily ancient,” Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, tells NPR. “It is deeply, deeply rooted in our nervous system. So the memories that we make, the sound-to-meaning connections that we have and that we’ve made throughout our lives are always there. And it’s a matter of being able to access them.” The earworms we find ourselves humming all day; the songs we never forget how to sing… these are keys to a storehouse of memory.


Stories documenting dementia patients in the presence of music usually focus, understandably, on those who have lost brain function due to old age. In “Don’t Think Twice,” the short documentary above, we meet John Fudge, who sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell from the white cliffs of Dover and split his head open at 24 years old. “The extent of his injuries weren’t revealed,” writes Aeon, “until decades later, when doctors decided to perform a brain scan after John slipped into a deep depression.”

He was found to have extensive brain damage, “including a progressive form of dementia” called Semantic Dementia that leaves sufferers aware of their deterioration while being unable to express themselves. John’s wife Geraldine “compares his brain to an oak tree, its limbs of knowledge being slowly trimmed away, causing John great mental anguish.” In the short film, however, we see how “his musical abilities” are one “as-yet untrimmed branch.”

John himself explains how he “nearly died three times” and Geraldine assists with her observations of his experience. “It’s all there,” she says, “it’s just bits of it have sort of been blanked out…. Over the years, John’s semantic understanding of the world will deteriorate.” When a young volunteer named Jon from the Hackney Befriending Service stops by, the gloom lifts as John engages his old passion for playing songs by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Follow the moving story of how John and Jon became fast friends and excellent harmonizers and see more inspiring stories of how music can change Alzheimer’s and dementia patients’ lives for the better at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Former Ballerina with Dementia Gracefully Comes Alive to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

According to dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal, “dance/movement therapy operates on the premise that our life experiences are held in the body, and that through the use of movement, memories and emotions can be recalled and re-experienced despite cognitive, psychological, or physical impairment.” The video above of former dancer Marta C. González shows in effect how music might activate those muscle memories, as a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake sends Ms. González, a former ballet dancer, into an elegant reverie when she had been barely responsive moments before.

The video was reportedly taken in Valencia, Spain in 2019 and “recently shared by the Asociación Música para Despertar, a Spanish organization that promotes music therapy for those afflicted by memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” writes Anastasia Tsioulcas at NPR. It has since been shared by celebrities and noncelebrities around the world, an “undoubtedly moving and uplifting” scene that “speaks to the power of music and dance for those suffering from memory loss.”


Many such videos have made headlines, illustrating the findings of neuroscience with moving stories of recovered memory, if only for a brief, shining instant, in the presence of music. The González video doesn’t just warm hearts, however; it also serves as a cautionary tale about sharing viral videos without doing diligence. As Tsioulcas reports, “Alastair Maccaulay, a prominent dance critic formerly with The New York Times, has been chasing González’s history and posting his findings on Instagram.” His most recent post possibly identifies Ms. González as a dancer from Cuba, but the details are murky.

The video’s text identifies her as the prima ballerina of the “New York Ballet” in the 1960s, yet “there is no such known company and the New York City Ballet does not list anyone by that name as one of its alumni.” To complicate the mystery of her identity even further, Macauley says the clips that appear to show a young Marta González, who passed away in 2019, are actually “a former prima ballerina from Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet, Uliana Lopatkina.” So who was Marta C. González? Surely someone will identify her, if she was a prominent ballet dancer. But no matter her personal history, Tchaikovsky “clearly evoked a strong, truly visceral response,” as well as a gracefully muscular one.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

The Secret to High Performance and Fulfilment: Psychologist Daniel Goleman Explains the Power of Focus

“Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life,” says novelist Haruki Murakami in a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile. “If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy.” In this, the author of A Wild Sheep Chase surely has the agreement of the author of Emotional Intelligence, the psychologist and writer Daniel Goleman. But Goleman expresses it a bit differently, as you can hear — in detail and at length — in “Focus: The Secret to High Performance and Fulfillment,” an Intelligence Squared talk based on the book he published eighteen years after the bestselling Emotional IntelligenceFocus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Attention, Goleman tells us, is under siege, not least by devices “devised to interrupt us, to seduce us, to draw our attention from this to that.” He quotes the famed economist, political scientist, and cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon’s observation that “information consumes attention. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” — but he doesn’t mention that Simon made it nearly fifty years ago, long before the invention of most of what besieges our attention today. (Then again, even medieval monks complained of constant distraction.) Most of us can feel, on some level, that to the extent we have trouble focusing, we also have trouble performing at the level we’d like to in our professional and social life.


What can we do about it? After offering psychological explanations of what’s going on with our ability to focus (or lack thereof), Goleman suggests strategies we can use to master our “emotional distractors” and work out the “mental muscle” that is our attention. (This analogy with physical exercise would get no argument from Murakami, who runs as rigorously as he writes.) Though “mind-wandering is absolutely essential for creative insight,” as we’ve previously discussed here on Open Culture, the critical skill is to bring our mind back from its wandering at will. This we can practice through Buddhist-style breathing meditation, a subject to which Goleman has since devoted a good deal of research, and just one of the practices that can help us live our lives to the fullest by allowing us to see, hear, consider, and engage with what’s right in front of us.

As Goleman lays out a suite of attention-building techniques and their benefits, he touches on theories and findings from cognitive psychology that have by now been popularized into familiarity: the Stanford “marshmallow test,” for example, which appears to show that children who can delay gratification have better life outcomes than those who cannot. Such outcomes can be ours as well, he argues, if we make a habit of “lengthening the gap between impulse and action” in our own habits. “I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years,” as Murakami says. “I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.” As for the rest of us, couldn’t we all stand to become bigger kettles than we are?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” & Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” Get Turned into Dazzling Musical Animations by an Artist with Synesthesia

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

—Wassily Kandinsky

We may owe the history of modern art to the condition of synesthesia, which causes those who have it to hear colors, see sounds, taste smells, etc. Wassily Kandinsky, who pioneered abstract expressionism in the early 20th century, did so “after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre,” the Denver Museum of Art notes. He was so moved by the moment that he “abandoned his law career to study painting at the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He later described the life-changing experience: ‘I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.’”

Kandinsky never heard Coltrane, but if he had, and had access to 3D rendering software, he might have made something very much like the short animation above from Israeli artist Michal Levy. “Roughly 3 per cent of people experience synaesthesia,” writes Aeon, “a neurological condition in which people have a recurring sensory overlap, such as … envisioning letters and numbers each with their own inherent colour.”


Levy’s condition is one of the most common forms, like Kandinsky’s: “chromaesthesia, in which sounds and music provoke visuals.” Where the Russian painter saw Wagner in “wild, almost crazy lines,” Levy sees the “rollicking notes” of Coltrane’s Giant Steps as a “kinetic, cascading cityscape built from colourful blocks of sound.”

After visualizing her experience of Coltrane, Levy created the animation above, Dance of Harmony, to illustrate what happens when she hears Bach. During a maternity leave, working with her friend, animator Hagai Azaz, she set herself the challenge of showing, as she describes it, “the cascading flow of emotion, to make the feeling contagious, by using only color, the basic shape of circles, and minimalist motion, assigning to each musical chord the visual elements that correspond to it synaesthetically.”

It is fascinating to compare Levy’s descriptions of her condition with those of other famous synesthetes like Vladimir Nabokov and, especially Kandinsky, who in essence first showed the world what music looks like, thereby giving art a new visual language. Levy calls her synesthesia art, an “emotional voyage of harmony,” and includes in her visualization of Bach’s famous prelude an “unexpected elegiac sidebar of love and loss,” Maria Popova writes. Read Levy’s full description of Dance of Harmony here and learn more about the “extraordinary sensory condition called synesthesia” here.

via Aeon

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An Artist with Synesthesia Turns Jazz & Rock Classics Into Colorful Abstract Paintings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagnes

Electronic Musician Shows How He Uses His Prosthetic Arm to Control a Music Synthesizer with His Thoughts

The techno-futurist prophets of the late 20th century, from J.G. Ballard to William Gibson to Donna Haraway, were right, it turns out, about the intimate physical unions we would form with our machines. Haraway, professor emeritus of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, proclaimed herself a cyborg back in 1985. Whether readers took her ideas as metaphor or proleptic social and scientific fact hardly matters in hindsight. Her voice was predictive of the everyday biometrics and mechanics that lay just around the bend.

It can seem we are a long way, culturally, from the decade when Haraway’s work became required reading in “undergraduate curriculum at countless universities.” But as Hari Kunzru wrote in 1997, “in terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the ‘world’ to thinking of them as nodes on networks, the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.” Three decades later, networked implants that automate medical data tracking and analysis and regulate dosages have become big business, and millions feed their vitals daily into fitness trackers and mobile devices and upload them to servers worldwide.


So, fine, we are all cyborgs now, but the usual use of that word tends to put us in mind of a more dramatic melding of human and machine. Here too, we find the cyborg has arrived, in the form of prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brain. Psychologist, DJ, and electronic musician Bertolt Meyer has such a prosthesis, as he demonstrates in the video above. Born without a lower left arm, he received a robotic replacement that he can move by sending signals to the muscles that would control a natural limb. He can rotate his hand 360 degrees and use it for all sorts of tasks.

Problem is, the technology has not quite caught up with Meyer’s need for speed and precision in manipulating the tiny controls of his modular synthesizers. So Meyer, his artist husband Daniel, and synth builder Chrisi of KOMA Elektronik set to work on bypassing manual control altogether, with a prosthetic device that attaches to Meyer’s arm where the hand would be, and works as a controller for his synthesizer. He can change parameters using “the signals from my body that normally control the hand,” he writes on his YouTube page. “For me, this feels like controlling the synth with my thoughts.”

Meyer walks us through the process of building his first prototypes in an Inspector Gadget-meets-Kraftwerk display of analogue ingenuity. We might find ourselves wondering: if a handful of musicians, artists, and audio engineers can turn a prosthetic robotic arm into a modular synth controller that transmits brainwaves, what kind of cybernetic enhancements—musical and otherwise—might be coming soon from major research laboratories?

Whatever the state of cyborg technology outside Meyer’s garage, his brilliant invention shows us one thing: the human organism can adapt to being plugged into the unlikeliest of machines. Showing us how he uses the SynLimb to control a filter in one of his synthesizer banks, Meyer says, “I don’t even have to think about it. I just do it. It’s zero effort because I’m so used to producing this muscle signal.”

Advancements in biomechanical technology have given disabled individuals a significant amount of restored function. And as generally happens with major upgrades to accessibility devices, they also show us how we might all become even more closely integrated with machines in the near future.

via Boing Boing

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Neurosymphony: A High-Resolution Look into the Brain, Set to the Music of Brain Waves

Twerking, Moonwalking AI Robots–They’re Now Here

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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