One Skeptical Scientist’s Mindfulness Journey

by Scott Barry Kaufman, December 19, 2016 in Blog

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Me: I constantly feel anxious. It’s usually about nothing in particular. Just a feeling deep in the pit of my stomach about human existence.

My doctor: I think you may be ready for an SSRI.

Me: Give me 8 weeks. Just 8 weeks.

My doctor: Good luck.

For years, I’ve been told to try mindfulness, by everyone and their mother.

You need to learn how to harness the power of deep concentration, I am told.

But I *do* harness the power of deep concentration, I tell them– when it’s something that truly captivates my imagination.

That’s your monkey mind talking, I am told. Settle in. Open your mind. Stop judging. 

Fine. Once and for all, I will do it. I will pull back the judgment.

It’s not easy.

You see, I’ve been studying the science of daydreaming for over the past decade. One of my mentors in graduate school was Jerome L. Singer, father of daydreaming research. He found in the 60s that daydreaming is a normal, widespread part of human cognition that can serve many adaptive benefits, from creativity to perspective taking to just plain old entertainment. Modern science has backed up many of Singer’s claims on the benefits of “positive-constructive daydreaming” (see here for a review). To my ears, this mindfulness craze is just one big dig at daydreaming. Whenever I hear a guided meditation, all I hear is: Return to the breath and stop daydreaming. To which I think: But what if I don’t want to? Followed by sticking out my tongue to no one in particular. In one Big Think video (in which I quite possibly have the worst haircut ever known to man) I even went so far as to refer to mindfulness zealots as “zombies”.

So it’s with all of these preconceptions that I entered day 1 of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at Penn’s Program for Mindfulness. My instructor was Michael Baime, who is head of the program. As much as I committed myself to this 8 week journey, and decided I would slavishly do all the mindfulness “homework”, I must admit I still entered that first day with a rebellious spirit. I told my friend to take a picture of me meditating at the end of that first day. I don’t know if you can tell, but I am meditating rather tongue and cheek:
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Nevertheless, I did take it seriously. I meditated about 40 minutes a day, every single day for 8 weeks. I engaged in a combination of meditation practices, from breathing meditation to body scan awareness to open-monitoring awareness to walking meditation. I took a Facebook hiatus so I could really focus on this journey. I read every bit of the readings assigned to us from Jon Kabat-Kinn’s book Full Catastophe Living. I also read a few more books on mindfulness, and made an earnest attempt to really understand the rationale behind mindfulness meditation and Buddhist philosophy. I really gave it my all.

So what happened? Here are some of the lessons I learned. Just a heads up: this post isn’t a ringing endorsement for mindfulness meditation. If you want to read that, you can go to your local bookstore and pick up virtually any book on the topic (they are all so glowing). Instead, this is just one scientist’s honest recounting of his personal experience, and his attempt at reconciling his experience with the science. OK, here goes.

My (mini) Mindfulness Journey

Little by little, the nature of my generalized anxiety did start to change. I use the word “change” very carefully here. I can’t say my anxiety completely went away, but my relationship to it changed. Instead of feeling the emotion and acting on it (e.g., wanting to run home and curl up under my covers and hide), I started to just notice it. Yes, non-judgmentally. But I’d also dare to say, compassionately.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Taking this attitude toward my thoughts and emotions made me realize just how much suffering I cause myself on a daily basis. I just had no idea how much I was in it, bound/attached to the drama of my emotions. I also had no idea just how free I was to step out of it, at least momentarily. I can honestly say this is one of the most important insights I gleaned from my meditation practice.

I also realized just how wrong I had been to pit mindfulness against mind-wandering. They really, truly, are not opposites. I feel like this was a really important insight for me, so please allow me to repeat it: mindfulness is not the opposite of mind-wandering.

Many of you may be aware of the study conducted at Harvard a few years back called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind“. It certainly got a lot of press. When that study came out, and received all the publicity it did, it felt like a kick to the gut of this daydreaming researcher. Which is why I was excited to discover this study conducted by David Stawarczyk and his colleagues at the University of Liege. They found quite clearly that it is not mind-wandering, per se, that causes psychological distress, but the tendency to be less aware of the present-moment that leads to reductions in well-being.

So yes, kudos to the Harvard researchers for getting it part-right: difficulty attending to the present mind is associated with reduced levels of well-being. However– and this is a BIG however– “the strength of the association between [mind-wandering] and psychological distress became almost null once the influences of mindful awareness [was] taken into account.” The results of this study most certainly didn’t get as much publicity because the researchers weren’t Ivy-League, but I’d say the findings are just as important.

Heck, Jerome Singer could have told you that back in the 60s (I try to stand up for my mentor every chance I get)! Singer and his colleagues distinguished between three “daydreaming styles”:

  • Positive-Constructive Daydreaming (representing playful, wishful and constructive imagery),
  •  Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming (representing obsessive, anguished fantasies),
  • Poor Attentional Control (representing the inability to concentrate on ongoing thought or external tasks).

While the inability to control your attention was associated with lower levels of conscientiousness and self-control, and guilty-dysphoric daydreaming was associated with higher levels of neuroticism, anxiety, and worry, positive constructive daydreaming was associated with increased levels of openness to experience, a key contributor of creativity.

The Mindfulness-Creativity Paradox

Which brings us to the mindfulness-creativity connection. Before I took the 8-week course, there was a particular paradox in the field that just didn’t make any sense to me. On the one hand, the neuroscience of creativity literature shows that the “default mode network”–  which is involved in mind-wandering and the construction of our sense of self– is absolutely essential for creative thinking. On the other hand, some mindfulness studies were showing that mindfulness practice reduces default mode network activity but simultaneously increases creative thinking. How can this be??! How can the brain network most associated with daydreaming both contribute and not contribute to creative thinking?

I found some ways out of this paradox. I warn you that this is all going to get really technical really quickly, but heck, I assume the readers of this blog find that just as fun as I do. 🙂

OK, first way out: Creativity is not a single thing. It’s a whole process that involves various different stages– some messier than others. For instance, during the process of bringing something original and meaningful into this world there are times when you want to think divergently and generate lots of possibilities. But there are times when you want to focus more intensely on a single idea and help it grow and develop. Different forms of meditation are conducive to different stages of the creative process. Recent research supports this idea. Consider the work of Lorenza Colzato, who found that focused-attention meditation supported the ability to arrive at a single solution, whereas open-monitoring meditation facilitated the ability to generate many new ideas. Consistent with this, a recent meta-analysis looked at the combined effects of multiple studies on the mindfulness-creativity link and found that while yes, overall, there was a relatively weak connection between mindfulness and divergent thinking, the open-monitoring aspect of mindfulness was much more strongly linked to divergent thinking than the sheer awareness aspect of mindfulness.

This really dovetails with my own experience meditating. Right after focused breath meditation, I really do feel much calmer, settled, and at peace with myself. But I can also really truly say that I also feel less creative (at least as measured by creativity researchers), and even feel less motivated to be creative. If you asked me right after a good focused breathing meditation to come up with as many uses for a brick as possible within a minute, I think I’d be too calm and focused to come up with a lot of novel uses. But after open-monitoring meditation, I think I’m in a better position cognitively to consider many different possibilities.

Now, let’s consider the second way out of the mindfulness-creativity paradox. This way out returns to Singer’s seminal insight that there are different forms of mind-wandering. A new dynamic framework for mind-wandering by Kalina Christof and colleagues fleshes this out in greater detail from a neuroscience perspective. Take a look at this graph from their paper and then we’ll try to make sense of it:

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First up is “rumination and obsessive thought”, which is akin to Singer’s “guilty-dysphoric” daydreaming style. When we ruminate or become obsessed with one really negative aspect of our existence, this tends not to be when we are at our creative best. In fact, under this dynamic framework, rumination isn’t even worthy of being called “mind-wandering” because when we ruminate our minds are actually doing the opposite of wandering– they are becoming locked in to a particular idea over and over again.

Within the realm of truly “spontaneous thought”, our thoughts can be deliberate or automatic. Overall, the sweet spot for creativity seems to be a mindful state of consciousness in which you are aware of your spontaneous thoughts, but not *too* goal-directed so that you miss out on unexpected connections.

So from a neuroscience perspective, we can say that generally speaking, creativity is best when the “executive attention network” has strong communication with the “default mode network”. When these two brain networks talk to each other, they allow for a unique state of mindful daydreaming, which seems to be an optimal state for creativity.

Of course, it does depend on the stage of the creative process you’re in. Here’s a neat graph that shows relative activity of the executive attention network and default mode network during different states of consciousness, from REM sleep to waking rest to idea generation to idea evaluation:

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Note that during REM sleep, there is very little executive attention and a lot of imagery and episodic memory retrieval going on. Dreaming involves extremely unconstrained thought. During waking idea generation, you get overlapping activations with REM sleep, indicating that the thinking is still unconstrained, but less so, because you get some executive attention activity and other parts of the default mode network associated with self-monitoring come online. Idea evaluation is the most constrained part of the creative process, as you see greater activation of the executive attention network than during idea generation and during REM sleep.

Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that regardless of the stage of creativity, it’s never good to be so completely mindless that you are completely oblivious to any insights generated by your spontaneous thoughts. I believe that if we are to ever satisfactorily solve the mindfulness-creativity paradox, this is the level of nuance we will have to take: looking both at the dynamic interactions among various large-scale brain networks as well as the interactions among the subcomponents of each brain network!

Along these lines, I really like the recent work of David Creswell and colleagues. In the Kabat-Zinn book we were reading for the course, Kabat-Zinn discusses studies showing that mindfulness meditation reduces default mode network activity, and he interprets this as meaning that mindfulness meditators have gained greater distance from their “narrative mind” (as he describes the default mode network). While I think this is partially correct, I think we can add some more nuance. After all, the default mode network has many different subcomponents.

As David Creswell’s research is showing, mindfulness training decreases communication between the executive attention network and certain subcomponents of the default mode network but increases communication between the executive attention network and other subcomponents of the default mode network. In particular, mindfulness meditation reduces focus on our self-critical thoughts and self-relevant cognitions, but makes us more mindful of the aspects of the default mode network associated with a broader range of personal emotions and experiences. Indeed, research shows that self-compassion facilitates originality, particularly in those who are already very self-critical individuals. So it seems that meditation may alter the connectivity of the default mode network in such a way that it isn’t as self-focused and self-critical, which can really facilitate the creative process.

Benefits of Long-Term Meditation?

Which makes me think of a possible benefit of long-term mindfulness meditation. Recently, an expert meditator came to the Positive Psychology Center. I asked him about this mindfulness-creativity paradox and he responded, “Yes, well, Van Gogh was creative but then again, he did cut his ear off.” Ouch! (literally) Then he went on to say that maybe what he personally has lost in creativity from his long-term mindfulness practice, he gained in wisdom.

Well, by this point I had already been through weeks of the mindfulness course so I took what he said with open monitoring awareness (if it were months ago, I probably would have responded to this comment with instant disdain). Could it be that most of these studies that look at the mindfulness-creativity link are too crude? They have people meditate a few minutes, and then ask them to quick! think of many uses for a brick! Maybe this isn’t the path to a deeper, more wiser form of creativity. You know, the form that allows you to see reality more clearly than anyone has ever seen it before.

There are hints that there might be something to this idea. Colzato— the Italian cognitive scientist who studied the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring meditation on creativity– conducted a follow-up study in which she compared a group of novice meditators to a group of expert meditators. Regardless of meditation experience, open-monitoring meditation facilitated divergent thinking. However, expert practitioners applied an insight strategy to solve problems that require a single correct solution, whereas novices tended to apply an analytical approach to solving such problems. Similarly, a hot-off-the-press article in Mindfulness reports on data showing that divergent thinking is enhanced by long-term mindfulness training (> 1000 hours), but doesn’t show any improvement among short-term mindfulness practitioners.*

So while yes, mindfulness meditation can help us to put more distance between our emotions and the self-critical and self-conscious aspects of our narrative mind, mindfulness can also make us more aware and mindful of our ongoing stream of consciousness. Put another way, while it’s true that long-term meditation practice helps us regulate our emotions, regulation is not the same thing as control. Regulation gives us more freedom to pay attention to what we want to pay attention to. And often I really do want to pay attention to my daydreams. So I would say that long-term meditation gives us a more nonjudgmental awareness of our mind-wandering. It’s both the mindfulness and the mind-wandering that are essential to insight and creativity.

Well, this is the insight I came to after 8 weeks of intense mindfulness meditation. On the last day of the course, which happened to correspondent with the election results– yes, we all really needed mindfulness that day– we all went around in a circle and talked about what we learned from the course. I mentioned that I was still processing what I went through, but that I felt as though I no longer so urgently felt I needed to take an SSRI. That I had a tool I could use to relax the mind when I needed it. I also mentioned that I found the full day silent mindfulness retreat that was part of the course quite profound. Sitting nonjudmentally with my thoughts for an entire day made me truly realize the thought patterns that keep coming up over and over again in my spontaneous cognition. This made me better realize which patterns I’d like to not attach to anymore, and which ones I’m fine attaching to.

After the class was over, I asked someone to take another picture of me. Here it is:

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I don’t know if you can tell by looking at the before and after picture, but I am much more authentically at peace in the second one. Indeed, I got independent verification: one of my fellow students came up to me after the class and said she noticed a big change in me from the first day, that I seemed much calmer, and much less judgmental.

This is all great, but hopefully you can also see just a glimmer of skepticism is still there. While I greatly increased my appreciation of the benefits of mindfulness meditation, I hope I will never be so nonjudgmental that I just take what meditation gurus say at face value. Thankfully, we can use the tools of science to test the nature of reality. But I must also admit that it wasn’t science alone that most beneficial to me. It was this combination– science and experience– that led to my biggest insights.

© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Acknowledgment: Much gratitude to Michael Baime for the course and for his patience with all of my burning questions.

* However, the researchers also found that long-term mindfulness training was negatively correlated with default-mode-related low-gamma inter-hemispheric connectivity. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I suspect that not all subcomponents of the default mode network showed the same reductions in connectivity.


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