Contemplating the intersections of meditation, technology, and western science…
“Compassion” appears 228 times in the 120 page program for the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, which I attended recently in Boston. Sessions related to compassion included meditation practice led by masters and presentations of research findings by top scientists from neuroscience, psychology, clinical science, the humanities, philosophy, and education.
I’ve always casually aspired to approach life with compassion and kindness, until now without ever thinking deeply about what that means.
In this blog post I explore ideas related to compassion and compassion fatigue among health care professionals inspired by three of the myriad fascinating talks. This is not the only or the most interesting takeaway from the conference, but has big societal importance and it relates to a grant proposal I’m working on.
I think of health care professionals, and especially nurses, as professionally compassionate. It was upsetting to learn that burnout and compassion fatigue are extremely common among nurses and physicians. 30% of primary care interns will leave the field within their first 5 years. 61% of palliative care clinicians experience burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization. Health care workers, administrators, and academics are aware of the extent of the problem, but I wasn’t. Continue reading
By Carrie Heeter, Ph.D, August 23, 2014
High users of health services drive up health care costs. Individuals who are anxious and depressed often focus on and worry about physical sensations and symptoms. As a result, they may seek out health care appointments sooner and more often than necessary to maintain health.
A recent 8 year retrospective analysis of health care utilization comparing high users of health services who were treated with Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and patients who received other forms of group in a Canadian hospital system found a significant reduction in health care utilization in the year following MBCT treatment (Kurdyak, Newman, and Sengal, 2014). Specifically, the researchers found one fewer non-mental health visit per year for every two MBCT patients treated.
The researchers analyzed hospital system billing records between 2003 and 2010 and were able to identify and compare 10,633 patients of MCBT physicians and psychiatrists to 29,795 patients of non-MBCT physicians and psychiatrists. (The non-MBCT patients would have experienced group therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy, and/or psychodynamic group psychotherapy). Among patients in the study who were high utilizers of health care, MBCT resulted in a reduction in non-mental health service utilization, and also resulted in fewer psychiatrist visits in the year following therapy. Continue reading
By Carrie Heeter, PhD, February 17, 2014
New neuroimaging research documents dramatic effects of an embedded brain controlling device: our eyes.
Neuroscientists have been examining what parts of the brain are activated when eyes are open (EO) compared to brain activation when eyes are closed (EC). It turns out that opening your eyes, even in a totally dark room, instantly changes how your brain operates.
People who meditate experience this shift when they begin a meditation by sitting comfortably and closing their eyes. Other forms of meditation, such as walking meditations, occur with eyes open. All of us have convenient access to eyes we can experiment with opening and closing while we reading this blog about the latest research. Continue reading
by Carrie Heeter, February 10, 2014
In the early 1990s I designed and studied virtual reality experiences. My generation dreamed of VR experiences as real as Star Trek’s holodeck. (For newer people, think The Matrix or Avatar.) Our goal was to design systems and experiences so real you felt like you were actually inside of the virtual world. VR experiences often required a $150,000 system, including heavy, bulky 3D immersive headsets, position trackers, lots of wires, and expensive computers.
In 2014 my company, Mindtoon Lab, designs and studies meditation experiences, played inside of your body and mind with eyes closed. But I’m still fascinated by many of the same issues. Technologically mediated experiences and meditation experiences both involve designed experiences, and both ultimately depend upon the experiencer.
My VR experiences were built with the Mandala Second Person VR system, using a video camera and blue screen chromakey key to separate the person from the background and insert them into a computer-generated scene. Edge detection software could be programmed to react when their body touched a virtual animated object. (Today, Microsoft’s Kinect and other systems do the same and more.)
Players stood in front of a blue screen looking at a 3D camera and a large screen. They saw video of themselves on the large screen, inside of 3D “undersea” video recorded at the Monterrey aquarium. A small animated octopus swam into view. When it reached the player, it grabbed onto whatever body part it touched, held on, and made a gurgling sound. If you moved slowly, it moved with you. If you moved quickly, you shook it off and it swam away. After a while, a much larger octopus showed up and the interaction happened again. Continue reading
by Carrie Heeter, February 2, 2014
Wandering minds are distracted from the present moment by stream of consciousness narratives. Brain scans show that the default mode of resting attention in western society resembles a wandering mind. We habitually allow our experience of the present moment to be interrupted and superseded by thoughts and rumination about the past and future.
Recent research shows that focusing attention on stream of consciousness narrative (NF) such as memory and reflective self-knowledge uses a separate neural pathway than focusing attention on sensory experience of the present moment (EF). According to neuropsychologist Norm Farb, there is a fundamental neural disconnect between these two distinct modes of self-awareness. Continue reading
by Carrie Heeter, 1/27/2014
Media effects scientists study immediate and long term effects of media exposure such as playing video games. Some of those effects are positive. For example, playing World of Warcraft quests as a member of a guild over time improves leadership skills. Playing first person shooter games before surgery improves doctors’ laparoscopic surgery skills. We call these effects “incidental” because the games were not designed to result in those outcomes.
Meditation effects scientists study incidental effects of meditation. What they are finding is more dramatic and stranger than anything I have seen in three decades of media effects research. Let’s look at three recent studies published in Psychological Science in 2013 that examined incidental effects of a mere two (or for one study, eight) weeks of beginning mindfulness meditation practice.
by Carrie Heeter, 1/19/2014
Scientific methods used to study yogic-meditative practices document wonderful outcomes but ignore the process and experience of meditation. Today I write about a review of empirical evidence of how meditation practices complement and enhance higher education, conducted by Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2011). They identified three primary rationales for incorporating meditation into higher education: 1.) Improving Cognition and Academic Performance; 2.) Improving Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being; and 3.) Development of the Whole Person.
Within the outcome of improved cognition, the authors reviewed four empirical studies of the effect of meditation on attention, where meditators were compared with control groups. Three of those administered standard psychological tests to measure attention, and one used fMRI brain scans. Four experiments examining the impact of meditation on information processing were reviewed. This section concluded by describing an experiment in which subjects randomly assigned to a semester-long meditation intervention had significantly higher GPAs at the end of the semester. Continue reading
by Carrie Heeter, 1/12/2014
In a TEDxTalk posted in July, 2011, Professor Willoughby Britton talks about the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience, which is neuroscience applied to studying the family of mental training practices in major religions of the world designed to cultivate positive qualities of mind. One of these qualities of mind is attention. being able to bring your attention back to an object that you are intending to pay attention to. Her work focuses on empirical study of meditation.
She referenced Killingsworth’s 2010 study, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” published in Science, November 12. A pervasive tendency or habit of mind is that we do not pay attention to what we are doing, nearly 50% of the time, and doing things while the mind wanders makes us less happy than when we are paying attention to what we are doing. Continue reading