“Physician, Heal Thyself” with Mindfulness


“As physicians we owe our patients two things– only two things– our time and our skill. We do not owe our patients our lives. To excessively devote our lives to the practice of medicine while we neglect other aspects of living may be tantamount to never having lived at all.” – Joseph D. Wassersug, M.D.


Primary healthcare provides are a critical component of any healthcare system. Yet there is a shortage of primary care providers. It is estimated that there is a shortage in the U.S. of over 9,000 physicians. The shortages are not just due to training insufficient numbers of healthcare provides but also due to high turnover rates. In part because of the shortage and high patient loads, primary healthcare providers experience high stress and burnout. They experience a loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.


In a recent survey 46% of all physicians responded that they had burnout. Currently, over a third of healthcare workers report that they are looking for a new job. Nearly half plan to look for a new job over the next two years and 80% expressed interest in a new position if they came across the right opportunity. Since there is such a great need to retain primary healthcare providers, it is imperative that strategies be identified to decrease stress and burnout.


Mindfulness is a possible help in reducing perceived stress and burnout. Indeed, high mindfulness has been shown to be associated with less stress and burnout in emergency medicine personnel (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/10/burnout-burnout-with-mindfulness/). This is promising and suggests theat there is a need for continued research into the relationship of mindfulness and stress in primary healthcare providers.

In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness, perceived stress, and subjective well-being: a correlational study in primary care health professionals”



Atanes and colleagues performed a survey of 450 primary healthcare provider in Brazil, including family physicians, registered nurses, nursing assistants, and community health workers. They measured mindfulness, perceived stress and subjective well-being and found that these groups reported high levels of perceived stress. Importantly, they found that high levels of mindfulness were associated with low levels of perceived stress and high levels of subjective well-being.


These results suggest that mindfulness is to some extent and antidote to high stress and burnout in primary healthcare providers. There are a number of benefits to mindfulness that could be responsible for the reduced perceived stress and increased well-being. In particular mindfulness has been shown to reduce both physiological and psychological responses to stress (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/destress-with-mindfulness/). Mindfulness has also been shown to increase emotion regulation which prepares the individual to experience and respond to emotional situations appropriately and thereby reduces stress (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/be-smart-about-emotions/). Finally, mindfulness is associated with higher levels of focus on the present moment. This tends to reduce catastrophizing, worry, and anxiety (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/stop-worrying/) and thereby can reduce psychological stress in primary healthcare providers.


These results are potentially important and strongly suggest that the employment of mindfulness training might help primary healthcare providers deal with the stresses of their work environments. This need to be studied with controlled trials. Additionally, the results may have more far reaching applicability than just to the healthcare field. Mindfulness may help with all kinds of stresses in all kinds of situations. Obviously more research is needed in this promising area.


So, practice mindfulness and heal thyself from stress and burnout.


“Stress, burnout and strain on the human heart are all increasingly taking their toll for millions of hardworking people. However, even someone who is working in a job that simply ‘pays the bills’ can turn mundane and stressful tasks into pleasant activities with a slight adjustment in attitude and by adopting a daily mindful practice.” ― Christopher Dines
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Get Connected with Mindfulness


The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe. – Michio Kaku
There are billions of cells in the nervous system that you are born with. Since the number of cells doesn’t increase as we mature, in fact it decreases, it should be obvious that our increased mental capacity is due to the development of connections between these cells. Indeed, the intelligence of a normal individual human is not related to the number of cells in the brain, but rather to how they are connected. It should be clear that the connectivity of the brain is a key to its capacity to perform mental functions.


Mindfulness is known to increase the number of cells in certain areas of the nervous system and decrease the number of cells in other areas and also increase the connectivity of some areas to others (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/01/this-is-your-brain-on-meditation/). Since the interactions between neural areas is so central to determining the capabilities of the nervous system it is important to investigate exactly what areas and systems are activated together and which do not.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness is associated with intrinsic functional connectivity between default mode and salience networks”



Doll and colleagues investigated the relative activities of the intrinsic brain networks. Research has identified three distinct interconnected areas, networks that are associated with different mind states during meditation. When the meditator is focused on present experience the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, the central executive network (CEN) was activated. During mind wandering the default mode network (DMN) was activated. When the individual became aware of mind wandering the salience network (SN) was activated.


Doll and colleagues found that the higher the mindfulness of the individual the greater the inverse relationship between the networks respective activities. That is, they found that the higher the activity of one network the lower the activity of the others. In other words the three networks had tendencies to inhibit each other’s activity. So, when areas associated with increased focus on the present moment were activated there was a reduction in activity in areas associated with mind wandering and detecting salience and visa-versa. The higher the individual’s level of mindfulness the greater the negative relationship.


Hence, mindfulness is associated with greater mutual inhibition between the three neural networks. The more mindful the individual is the greater the difference between the networks’ activities. This suggests that mindfulness is associated with neural system interactions, such that their activities become more distinct. When focused on the present moment mind wandering is much less in a mindful individual. Similarly, when mind wandering is present in that mindful individual, focus on the present moment is lower.


Thus the neural systems reflect the observations that mindful people have more focused attention on their mental state than less mindful people. Their brains appear better able to separate out and focus on specific mental states. Hence the brains of mindful people are tuned to and probably underlie their abilities to pay attention in the present moment nonjudgmentally.


So, practice mindfulness and get your neural networks more connected.


The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.” – Carl Sagan
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Fight Disordered Eating with Mindfulness


“In all the years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve yet to meet one girl who likes her body.” – Mary Pipher


Disordered eating is difficult to deal with particularly because eating is necessary and cannot be simply stopped as in smoking cessation or abstaining from drugs or alcohol. One must learn to eat appropriately not stop. In binge eating disorder (BED), the initiation of eating frequently results in the ingestion of wildly excessive amounts. It is called disinhibited eating as there appears to be no restraints (inhibitions) that stop food intake. Once eating starts it goes on without anything holding it back.


“Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5% of women, 2% of men, and up to 1.6% of adolescents.” – National Eating Disorders Association. BED is associated with body weight and around 2/3 of individuals with BED are obese. It has not been proven but it is thought that overweight and obese individuals chronically diet and are chronically hungry. The disinhibited eating, binge, is much like going off the wagon for an alcoholic; once, started excessive intake results.


Contemplative practices have shown promise for the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. Yoga practice has been shown to reduce emotional eating (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/30/stop-emotional-eating-with-yoga/). In addition, research demonstrates that mindfulness based interventions are effective for reducing the incidence of some obesity related behaviors that lead to overeating; binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/26/eat-mindfully-for-obesity/). So, it would seem appropriate to further investigate the application of mindfulness for eating disorders like BED.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness and Eating Behavior in Adolescent Girls at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes”



Pivarunas and colleagues investigated the relationship of mindfulness to binge eating, eating in the absence of hunger, the reinforcing value of food, and eating attitudes, in adolescent overweight and obese girls. They found that girls who were high in mindfulness were significantly less likely to engage in binge eating and had less concern with eating.


Pivarunas and colleagues also found that high mindfulness was associated with lower levels of eating in the absence of hunger. Thus the individual is less likely to eat palatable foods in the absence of physiological hunger. In addition, high mindfulness was associated with lower levels of the reinforcing value of food. Thus high mindful individuals find food less reinforcing and are less willing to work for preferred, palatable snack foods.


These results represent an important piece in the case for mindfulness’ applicability to the prevention of binge eating. The higher levels of present moment awareness associated with mindfulness may make the individual more aware of their actual state of hunger and satiety, producing better control of eating.


Mindfulness also is known to improve emotion regulation, allowing the individual to sense and feel emotions but react to them appropriately. Additionally, mindfulness has been shown to reduce perceived stress and the physical and emotional responses to stress. Hence the emotional triggers for a binge eating episode may be less likely to actually produce one in a high mindfulness individual.


Finally, mindfulness is associated with mindful eating. That is a mindful individual is aware of eating and all of its associated sensations while they’re eating. Frequently eating, particularly excessive eating, occurs while the individual is distracted, watching TV, engaged in conversation, texting, reading etc. This has been shown to produce overeating. Hence, by improving the present moment awareness of eating, the individual is more aware of their body’s signals of hunger and satiety and more likely to stop eating at an appropriate amount.


So, practice mindfulness and fight disordered eating.


“Most women in our culture, then, are disordered when it comes to issues of self-worth, self-entitlement, self-nourishment, and comfort with their own bodies; eating disorders, far from being ‘bizarre’ and anomalous, are utterly continuous with a dominant element of the experience of being female in this culture.” –  Susan Bordo


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Get Balanced Emotionally with Yoga


“Yoga is a balancing factor, a substratum across all of your life, so you do not get shifted in one direction or another. It gives you freshness, gives you light, recharges your batteries. You become a stable person. You realize what balance is, what sukha is, what contentment is, what joy is.” ~ Birjoo Mehta


Emotions are important to our well-being. They provide the spice of life, the joy, the love, the happiness. But, they can be troubling producing sadness, hurt and fear. They can also be harmful such as the consequences of out of control anger or suicidal depression. We need emotions, but we must find ways to keep them under control.


In psychology, emotion regulation is the term used to describe the ability to control emotions. It is not eliminating or suppressing them. Far from it, emotion regulation allows for the emotion to be fully felt and experienced. But, it maintains the intensity of the emotion at a manageable level and also produces the ability to respond to the emotion appropriately and constructively. Clearly, emption regulation is a key to a happier life.


Emotion regulation is most needed during times of turmoil and early adolescence is a time of intense emotional turmoil. This results from raging hormones, difficult social interactions, development of a self-concept, and tests of competency that are so prevalent during this period. So, any method that can help to develop emotion regulation could be of great benefit during this difficult period of development.


Mindfulness techniques such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/09/10/take-command-and-control-of-your-emotions/) and meditation (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/20/regulate-emotions-with-mindfulness/) have been shown to improve emption regulation. So, there is reason to believe that mindfulness techniques in general may improve emotion regulation. There is a need, however, to explore other contemplative practices and their applicability to the development of emotion regulation in adolescents.


In today’s Research News article “Yoga and Emotion Regulation in High School Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial”



Daly and colleagues investigate the use of yoga to improve emotion regulation in 15-17 year olds. They compared adolescents who were taught yoga as their physical education class to adolescents who participated in the usual PE class. They found that emotion regulation increased for the yoga condition and decreased for the PE condition. In addition they found that higher levels of body awareness were associated with higher levels of emotion regulation.


These findings are interesting and potentially important. They demonstrate that yoga, like other contemplative practices can improve emotion regulation. This improvement is probably not due to the exercise component of yoga as it did not occur with traditional physical education classes. Importantly, yoga can improve emotion regulation in adolescence, a time when there is such a great need for emotion regulation.


In addition, the positive relationship between body awareness and emotion regulation suggests that yoga may be especially effective because of its emphasis on body awareness. This would seem reasonable as the first step in regulating emotions is being aware of the feelings in our bodies that are an integral part of emotion. By being sensitive to the bodies state the individual can be more aware of the presence and magnitude of an emotional reaction. Emotions can only be regulated once their presence is detected and yoga may improve this skill.


Of course more research is necessary before recommending that yoga be taught routinely to adolescents. But, the current research is suggestive that such a program could be very beneficial during this difficult phase of development.


So, practice yoga and get emotionally balanced.


“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are available at the Contemplative Studies Blog http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/



Genes, Mindfulness, Anxiety, and Depression


Of course, genes can’t pull the levers of our behavior directly. But they affect the wiring and workings of the brain, and the brain is the seat of our drives, temperaments and patterns of thought.” – Steven Pinker
There are large differences between people in both their physical and psychological characteristics, including their levels of mindfulness, anxiety, and depression. Some of the differences are the result of environmental influences. But, many people still differ considerably even though they have lived in similar environments and had similar experiences. In addition, many of these characteristics seem to be present right at birth. These facts support the notion that both the genes and the environment determine human characteristics.


Indeed, there is evidence that our level of mindfulness is in part inherited and transmitted with the genes but is also affected by the environment (See http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/we-are-born-to-be-mindful/). It has also been shown that depression and our overall levels of anxiety are to a large extent inherited factors that also are affected by the environment. This taken together with the fact that mindfulness training is an effective treatment for depression (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/19/this-is-the-brain-on-meditation-major-depressive-disorder/), and anxiety (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/13/get-the-brain-to-reduce-anxiety-with-meditation/) raises the question of to what extent are the genes and environment underlying mindfulness also related to the genes and environment underlying depression and the genes and environment underlying anxiety.


In today’s Research News article “A Multivariate Twin Study of Trait Mindfulness, Depressive Symptoms, and Anxiety Sensitivity.”



Waszczuk and colleagues investigated the genetic and environmental determination of mindfulness, anxiety, and depression using a twin model including identical and fraternal twins. They found that low mindfulness was associated with high levels of anxiety and depression. They also found that there were significant influences of both heredity and environment on all three characteristics. In addition, they found that common genetic influences explained most of the association between low mindfulness, depressive symptoms, and anxiety sensitivity. In other words, not only was depression and anxiety related to low mindfulness, and that each of the characteristics were influenced by heredity, but also the relationship between them was also influenced by heredity.


It is important to keep in mind that although heredity was found to be an important contributor to each of these characteristics and their relationships, there were also significant environmental contributors. Hence, although biology, influenced by the genes is an important determinant, the environment is also. This suggests that environmental interventions such as mindfulness training could alter these characteristics and their relationships.


These are interesting and important observations. They go a long way toward explaining why people are so different in their inherent levels of mindfulness, anxiety and depression. They also help us to understand why different people may respond differently to mindfulness training for anxiety and depression.


So, develop mindfulness to assist your genes in fighting anxiety and depression.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies



Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?



Spiritual experiences, be they called awakenings, mystical experiences, or enlightenments, involve a shift in how the individual perceives reality. This could be viewed as a spiritual revelation. But it could also be viewed as a change in the neural systems integrating and interpreting experiences. So, are spiritual awakenings revelations of a reality beyond physical reality or are they simply hallucinatory experience evoked by changes in the nervous system?


One way of investigating this question is to study the brain-spirituality connection. Research along these lines has revealed that there is a clear association between spirituality and the brain. Modern neuroscience has developed methods, such as neuroimaging, to investigate the relationship. Applying these techniques it has been demonstrated that spirituality is associated with changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/19/spirituality-mindfulness-and-the-brain/). So spirituality and changes in neural systems co-occur. But, this does not demonstrate a causal connection, whether spirituality alters the brain or brain alteration causes spirituality, or some third factor is responsible for both.


A better way to demonstrate if brain activity cause spiritual experiences is to investigate what happens to spirituality when the brain changes. One place to look at this is with accidental brain injuries incurred by humans that afford an opportunity to glimpses associations between brain change and spirituality. In general people who have incurred damage to the right inferior parietal area show an increase in spirituality. So, brain alteration affects spirituality. But, increased spiritual beliefs and spiritual seeking is not the same thing as spiritual experiences. So, we cannot conclude that these changes in the brain are responsible for awakening experiences.


Another manipulation of the brain occurs with drugs. Indeed, various hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, etc. have been shown to produce experiences that are extremely similar to spiritual experiences. These drugs have been shown to alter the activity in specific neurochemical systems in the brain and when that happens, experiences that are very similar to spiritual awakenings are evoked. Many people who have used these drugs are altered spiritually but vast numbers of people find hallucinatory drugs as fun recreation but are not affected spiritually.


Spiritual seekers who have used psychedelic substances report that they experience something like but not the same as spiritual awakening experiences. The following quote from Alan Watts is illustrative.

“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse            which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs   are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones.             The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away        and works on what he has seen…”

Also a quote from Ralph Metzner

            “While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits,        and one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

Hence, it appears that although there are great similarities between manipulation of brain chemistry with drugs and the experiences occurring with spiritual awakenings, they are in fact quite different.


So, what should we conclude regarding the clear relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences? It has been established that spirituality changes the brain and that changes in the brain are associated with spiritual experiences. Does this indicate that spirituality is nothing but a brain function? This would suggest that spirituality and spiritual experiences are nothing but physical events and don’t represent experience of true transcendence or an indication of a god. If this were true then it would suggest that there is nothing beyond the physical, that spiritual awakenings are nothing other than evoked changes in the nervous system.


It should be noted that reported spiritual experiences most frequently involve changes in sensory experiences. We know that sensory experiences are produced by the nervous system. So, it would be expected that if a spiritual experience occurs then there would be changes in the nervous system. As a result it is not surprising that nervous system changes would accompany spiritual experiences.


Neural changes may represent the effects of spiritual experiences on the physical body. After all, when we become aware of any kind of remarkable occurrence we react emotionally, physically, and thoughtfully. This would imply that the neural changes occur after the spiritual experience and not before it as a causal relationship would demand. In addition, changing the brain with drugs may simply induce the same effects as the sequela of spiritual experience and not the spiritual experiences themselves.


The most common report of spiritual experience is that everything is perceived as one. This oneness experience is not reported to be a change in the actual sensory information, but rather as a perception of the interconnectedness of all things such that they are seen as all a part of a singular entity, like seeing individual waves as all being part of one ocean. The more modern science studies events and their interconnections the more that the truth of oneness is revealed. The entire science of ecology has developed to study the interconnectedness among biological entities, meteorology has determined that atmospheric conditions over the entire planet are interconnected, and geology has revealed the interconnectedness of all movement of the planet’s surface and interior. Just think how interconnected everything is with sunlight. Without this energy, life could not exist and even the weather would not be changing. Everything about us and our planet is interconnected to the sun’s energy.


So, perhaps the oneness revealed in spiritual experiences may actually be a more accurate glimpse of the truth of existence. Perhaps, the changes observed in the brain may simply be the effect of this revelation rather than the cause. At this point we cannot reach a clear conclusion as to whether spiritual experiences are material and physical or true revelation of a non-physical reality. But the research is exciting and will continue to explore these ultimate questions regarding existence.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Control Low Back Pain with Mindfulness  

“When I was able to concentrate I had a great experience. The only time I had a sensation is when I was concentrating on my lower back. I felt like something was happening to that section of my body and … the pain would disappear”


Low Back Pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and affects between 6% to 15% of the population. It is estimated, however, that 80% of the population will experience back pain sometime during their lives. There are varied treatments for low back pain including chiropractic care, acupuncture, biofeedback, physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, massage, surgery, opiate pain killing drugs, steroid injections, and muscle relaxant drugs.


The therapies are sometimes effective particularly for acute back pain. But, for chronic conditions the treatments are less effective and often require continuing treatment for years. Obviously, there is a need for effective treatments for low back pain that are low cost and don’t have troublesome side effects. Mindfulness training has shown promise in the treatment of a variety of pain conditions (see links at the bottom). But, there is a need for testing with chronic low back pain patients.


In today’s Research News article “Effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on pain and quality of life of patients with chronic low back pain”



Banth and colleagues compared the meditation and body scan components of an 8-wk Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to medical treatment as usual for chronic low back pain in women. They found that treatment as usual had very little if any effect. But, the mindfulness treatment markedly reduced pain by the end of the 8-wk treatment period. In addition,, the pain was reduced further for the subsequent 4-wks to the point where the pain scores were nearly cut in half. They also observed a large improvement in both mental and physical quality of life. These are remarkable results and suggest that mindfulness training is a safe and effective treatment for chronic low back pain.


Pain usually has a physical cause but it is greatly affected by the psychological reaction to pain. Mindfulness training is thought to modify pain sensitivity by both affecting the psychological and physical aspects of pain. Mindfulness training appears to uncouple the pain from the emotions and thought process such as worry and rumination that accompany chronic pain. These psychological processes can have the effect of amplifying the perceived pain. So, uncoupling them from the pain can greatly reduce the perceived pain. In addition, mindfulness training appears to reduce the nervous systems response to painful stimuli by reducing the activity of the brain areas that normally respond to painful stimuli.


So practice mindfulness and control chronic pain.


“There is a way to work with all this, based on Buddhist meditative practices, which can liberate you, to a very large extent, from the experience of pain. Whether or not you can reduce the level of sensory pain, the affective and cognitive contributions to the pain— which make it much worse—usually) can be lessened. And then, very often, the sensory component of the pain changes as well.” – John Kabat-Zinn


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


MBSR is effective in reducing pain http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/mindfulness-the-pain-killer/ and headache pain http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/09/07/headaches-are-a-headache-reduce-them-with-mindfulness/

Teenage meditators have reduced pain sensitivity http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/07/pain-is-a-pain-relieve-it-with-meditation/

Yoga reduces pain from arthritis http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/14/age-healthily-yoga-for-arthritis/


Medical School Mindfulness  


“It has been suggested that inadequate self-care and ineffective coping styles are often established during medical training; they may persist after training and be self-destructive in the long-run. Therefore, introducing students to self-regulation skills along with other self-care approaches during medical school may improve their personal health and professional satisfaction not only during residency but also beyond.”  – William McCann


Medical School is challenging both intellectually and psychologically. Stress levels are high and burnout is common. It’s been estimated that 63% of medical students experience negative consequences from stress while symptoms of severe stress was present in 25% of students. The prevalence of stress is higher among females than among males. High stress levels lead to lower performance in medical school and higher levels of physical and mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression. Indeed 50% of medical students report burnout and 11% have considered suicide in the last year.


Obviously there is a need to either lower stress levels in medical education or find methods to assist medical students in dealing with the stress. One promising possibility is mindfulness training. It has been shown to reduce stress in students (See http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/10/burnout-burnout-with-mindfulness/), to help with the negative consequences of stress (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/17/destress-with-mindfulness/) and to reduce burnout in medical professionals (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/10/burnout-burnout-with-mindfulness/). So, it would seem reasonable to suspect that mindfulness would be helpful in assisting medical students cope with the stress of their training.


In today’s Research News article “The relationships among self-care, dispositional mindfulness, and psychological distress in medical students”



Slonim and colleagues demonstrate that the higher the level of mindfulness in medical students the lower their distress levels including levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. They also found that higher levels of self-care, in particular spiritual growth, were associated with lower levels of distress.  Finally, they showed that high levels of mindfulness strengthened the relationship between self-care and lower distress levels.  That is, the higher the mindfulness level the greater the impact of self-care on lowering distress. So, mindfulness not only directly lowers depression, anxiety, and stress in medical students but also magnifies the positive effects of self-care on these symptoms of distress.


Mindfulness may assist medical students by increasing present moment awareness. This reduces patterns of automatic, mindless, and judgmental thinking which can mitigate the impact of the situation on the individual. So, the student can attribute how they’re feeling and acting to the situation rather than to some personal failing.


Mindfulness is known to increase emotion regulation allowing the student to more accurately interpret what they’re feeling and respond to it appropriately. This also reduces the impact of strong negative emotional responses to thoughts and emotions their levels of depression and anxiety. So, mindful students experience their emotional reactions, recognize their causes, and adjust to them in an adaptive way.


Finally, mindfulness has been demonstrated to directly reduce symptoms of stress and the individual’s responses to stress. This occurs both by altering the physical and hormonal responses to stress and by reducing the negative spiral of stress, where the fact of stress induces more stress. This dramatically improves the students’ ability to cope with the stressful demands of medical education, perform at a higher level and make burnout less likely.


So, be mindful and be better equipped to deal with stressful educational experiences.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Meditation is not always a Good Thing

“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.” –Mark Twain


Sometimes we clearly remember information that was not in fact true. Have you ever been absolutely sure that you left your keys on a kitchen counter, only to find them in the bedroom? Have you ever been certain that you went to a particular movie with your spouse only to find out it was with a friend? These are called false-memories. They are not fabricated out of thin air. Rather, they often occur due to confusion where an actual memory is misattributed to an incorrect context. False-memories are frequently due to a failure to distinguish the source of the memory.


Most of the time these are innocuous and we can chuckle about our memory problems. But sometimes they become very serious. This is the case with eyewitness testimony. Research has demonstrated repeatedly how false memories can creep in to alter these memories and influence the outcome of a trial. They can also be a major problem in memories of childhood trauma and abuse. It’s now known that children must be very carefully interviewed to make sure that a false memory does not emerge. The consequences of false memories in these cases can be dire.


In order to counter false memories we have to be careful when a memory arises to judge it rigorously to be certain of the source of the memory. Mindfulness training is devoted to accepting things just as they are and not judging them. This would seem to be counter to the need for screening false memories. It is known that meditation can improve memory and in some cases can impair memory. Mindfulness training can make it easier to forget negative things (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/09/08/forget-the-bad-stuff-with-mindfulness/). So, there is reason to believe that mindfulness training might improve memory or it might make it harder to identify false memories.


In today’s Research News article “Increased False-Memory Susceptibility after Mindfulness Meditation”


Wilson and colleagues attempted to answer whether mindfulness training might improve or impair the detection of false memories. The test was simple. Students viewed a list of words one at a time such as garbage, waste, can, refuse, sewage, bag, junk, rubbish, sweep, scraps, pile, dump, landfill, debris, and litter. Such a list can often induce a false memory of the word trash which is actually not on the list.  After mindfulness training the students were nearly twice as likely to report seeing the word trash.


These results suggest that mindfulness training can at time actually be harmful.  Inducing judgment-free awareness and acceptance can produce difficulty identifying the source of the memory. Mindfulness training might improve memory by reducing the filters that tend to screen it out. Hence, the same mindfulness training that produces many benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility.


So, mindfulness provides great benefits but can also produce some problems. It is important to be careful with memory recall after mindfulness training to avoid false memories.


“It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us. A year impairs, a luster obliterates. There is little distinct left without an effort of memory, then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment — but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?” ~Lord Byron


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


The Power of the Mind – Concentration Without Action Improves Tactile Sensation


“The mind has exactly the same power as the hands: not merely to grasp the world, but to change it.” – Colin Wilson


The mind is powerful. It senses and interprets our world, plans for the future, solves problems, and even writes these words. The mind can even adjust itself depending upon the environment. We know, for example, that practicing almost anything can result in the nervous system changing to make it better at the task in a process called neuroplasticity. This is even true with meditation, where practice changes the nervous system (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/01/this-is-your-brain-on-meditation/).


But, can the body adapt to the mind? Can our minds change our senses just by thinking about it and not actually practicing it?  Meditation can make the brain more efficient at processing sensory information (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/03/make-the-brain-more-efficient-with-meditation/). Meditation can also improve our sensitivity to internal sensations, interoceptive awareness (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/08/05/feeling-feelings-getting-in-touch-with-the-body/). So, is it possible that meditative focus on a sense solely can improve the sensitivity of that sense?


In today’s Research News article “Enhanced tactile acuity through mental states”



Philipp and colleagues explore the question if meditative focus without any overt action can change sensory sensitivity. Participants in a four day Zen meditation retreat were either asked to engage in open-monitoring meditation during the retreat (control condition) or for three days to be completely aware of the spontaneously arising sensory perception in their right index finger and then engage in open-monitoring meditation for the last day (sensory focusing condition). They found that at the end of the retreat only the sensory focusing group showed improved tactile sensitivity in the right index finger.


These results are quite remarkable. Neither group practiced feeling with the finger. The entire process was done in the mind by just focusing on the sensation. Yet, sensitivity increased without practice just based upon a mental focus. So, the mind can change the body, even without actually doing anything except thinking about it.


It can be speculated that the mental focus actually produces increased activity in the neural areas responsible for tactile sensation (the post-central gyrus) which in turn results in a neuroplastic response growing the brain area and increasing its connectivity. This would then make the individual more sensitive to the appropriate tactile stimulation. It will remain for future research to establish whether this is indeed what happens.


Regardless, focus the power of the mind on what you want improved.


“The human body is a machine which winds its own springs.” ~Julien Offroy de la Mettrie, L’Homme Machine


“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Our bodies are our gardens to which our wills are gardeners.”
~William Shakespeare, Othello

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies