Thursday, November 17, 2011

Compassion is not pity

Maybe I've written about this before, but I'm too lazy to go check. I think it matters a lot, so I'm even fine saying it again: compassion and pity are different things.

A group of young people on the street laugh at you and call you fat and ugly. Why not just remind yourself how those poor, miserable dolts probably didn't get enough love as a child, and pity their ignorance?

Because you can instead remind yourself how these unfortunate kids may actually not have received enough love or guidance, and you can wish that they do get on track before it does them and others more harm.

Okay, so maybe it takes some practice to get from the first response to the second, but it sounds worth it. Do you really want to cultivate condescension?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Daydreaming is a downer

I'll be giving a talk about roughly this subject soon, but here's one to mull over:
Snap out of it! That daydream you're having about eloping to the Bahamas with Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie is leaching away your happiness. In a new global study, researchers used iPhones to gauge the mental state of more than 2000 volunteers several times a day—even when they were having sex. The results indicate that, if you want to stay cheerful, you're better off focusing on the present, no matter how unpleasant it is.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Hens and chicks

One of the most common reasons I hear for why it's "okay" to eat factory-farmed chickens is that they're not very bright.

They may be brighter than you think. Chicks several days old can "add" and "subtract." And mothers do indeed feel empathy for their young ones.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The limits of willpower

Should have posted this long ago (when I first was made aware of the study), but it's one of my favorites. The following quote sums it up:
"The theory that willpower is a limited resource is interesting, but it has had unintended consequences," Dweck said. "Students who may already have trouble studying are being told that their powers of concentration are limited and they need to take frequent breaks. But a belief in willpower as a non-limited resource makes people stronger in their ability to work through challenges."
The researchers manipulated belief in unlimited willpower in their subjects (that is, they suggested to some that it is limited, and others that it is unlimited); those who believed that it is unlimited went on to demonstrate more self-control.

Article about the finding here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A post elsehwere

I'm going to resurrect my old blog so that I can occasionally take off my science hat without feeling bad. I'll try to post more science here, more pontificating there.

A post elsehwere

I'm going to resurrect my old blog so that I can occasionally take off my science hat without feeling bad. I'll try to post more science here, more pontificating there.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why meditation? As a psychological defense.

When you're meditating and a thought pops up, what happens? Well, you may return to your object quickly, but, especially if you're new to practicing or the thought is particularly captivating, it may grab ahold of you and whisk you away for a joyride for some time before you remember to eject. It is the quality of awareness during this interlude, and not the contents of awareness, that signal what I will call "distraction."

It's the state that ends with "oh crap, I'm supposed to be meditating." It's the quality you commonly experience while daydreaming, or any time your default network is active. And it's a state that negative emotions are great at sucking you into.

While you're meditating and trying not to generate thoughts, still they arise. This should make it clear that "you" are not the originator of all of your thoughts. When you're off-cushion and a particularly strong negative emotion happens your way, chances are it will do some damage before you gather your wits and evict it. In a mild case, the damage may simply be a mild unease for some minutes or hours. The longer you let it sideline your mind, though, the more thorough the roots it will lay down, and the harder it is to escape cleanly from.

One reason to practice nondistractedness (aka meditation) is that you'll be more frequently on your guard during the day. And don't scold yourself for every thought that distracts you on the cushion, for every return to your object strengthens your ability to "snap out of it" when in the clutches of any experience you'd like to escape.

Monday, April 25, 2011

It's 9 PM. Do you know where your mind is?

People often ask what meditation is like, or what they're supposed to be experiencing or doing. During my retreat, I thought of a few analogies. I just remembered one of them, and I thought I'd share it briefly.

Have you ever had the experience while reading where you have to re-read a sentence (or whole paragraph) because you weren't really paying attention for a few seconds? Maybe your mind wandered off to what you're going to eat for dinner, or maybe you were just thinking about the last paragraph. The point at which you realize that you've been distracted is where you typically regain mindfulness. Mindfulness is about knowing where your mind is right now.

Had you actively chosen to think about something else while reading, you wouldn't have had to re-read the sentence, because you would have known to stop reading. There would be no sense of "oh crap, where was I?" In colloquial terms, perhaps consciously choosing to think of something else could be considered "distraction," but in the context of meditation, it is not (necessarily). It is said that "when there is mindfulness, there is meditation; when there is no mindfulness, there is no meditation."

When beginning meditation, it is often suggested that one object (usually the sensation of breathing) be kept in mind. One reason is that if you make an agreement with yourself to pay attention to just one thing, it's more obvious when you're distracted. So when you start thinking about your plans for the weekend, either you're willfully breaking your agreement with yourself, or you're distracted. It's easy to tell which.

Once you get the hang of it, you might move on to practices where thoughts are not banned. Sometimes they're even active supports. If you think meditation has to be boring, you may not have spent enough time yet watching what incredible acrobatics your mind is capable of.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Check out this talk by Daniel Siegel:

I'm watching it for work, since I'll be hosting Dr. Siegel when he comes to visit soon. A few neat things:

* In his description of what the prefrontal cortex does, he sums it up as harmony. I swear I wrote the post yesterday before watching this :)

* The actions of the "middle" PFC are exactly those that meditation (at least in the Buddhist traditions) are meant to develop.

* The anterior insula, which is engaged when mindfully attending to bodily sensations like the breath, is also strongly implicated in empathy. In his experience, teaching people to attend to their breath often incidentally strengthens their empathy, even after short training.

* When describing what functions she'd lost, a woman who'd had an accident damaging her PFC described it as losing her soul (scary, I know). "Soul" and "ghost" are words I sometimes use when describing the feeling present when I'm practicing mindfulness.

If you have an hour to spare, it's a good watch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Warning: this post is likely to contain no science, a little religion, and a lotta pontificating, none of it original.

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about happiness, enlightenment, and compassion. I indicated that I'm not really looking for "happiness" out of meditation -- in fact, in my less deluded moments, I don't even prefer happiness to sadness. Consider the distinction between the mere physical perception of pain and the suffering one typically unleashes on oneself as a result. If you can mindfully observe the pain, it's just another curious apparition of mind, a cloud drifting across the untouchable sky. So it is with regular happiness and sadness.

Similarly, I'm not looking to become more compassionate in the sense of REALLY FREAKING WANTING to save more starving children. And yet, I think something like happiness and something like compassion are likely byproducts of more meditation. Is that just wishful thinking?

The Tibetans -- having learned from contemporaries who have spent tens of thousands of hours investigating the question -- claim that compassion is indivisible from mind. Prima facie, this sounds reasonable: can you imagine spending countless hours on the mat, refining the clarity of your mind, only to discover that the right path is to stab kittens? If so, I humbly suggest you're doin' it wrong. The more you meditate, the more malice and greed seem extrinsic and parasitic, and the less compassion does. I think this is not an accident.

Earlier I referred to my "less deluded moments." In Buddhism, "delusion" or "ignorance" refers to our amazing capacity to read the world wrong. When you quit fighting reality -- that is to say, when you're more in harmony with it -- things hurt a lot less. "Happiness," check.

Eventually perhaps you realize that yours is but one consciousness amongst a sea of others. And since your particular instance isn't really so special (the worse you are at reading the world, the more special it seems), you might as well roll up your sleeves and assist the rest in moving toward harmony, too. "Compassion," check.

Monday, April 4, 2011

I'm sorry, alcohol

I've been on a booze break for some weeks now. My intention is to follow through on this indefinitely, but it appears I may have it all wrong. This page summarizes several hundred studies showing why: Alcohol and Health.

At first, I figured none of the studies suggested causation, only correlation. At least one study suggests that the apparently cognitive benefits in older adults who drink moderately (as opposed to not at all) are nonexistent after controlling for intelligence in young age:

But then I came across one damning section: "Alcohol Abstainers Who Begin Drinking Reduce Their Risk of Cardiovascular Disease":
During a ten year study of 7,697 non-drinkers, investigators found that 6% began consuming alcohol in moderation. After four years of follow-up, new moderate drinkers had a 38% lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease than did those who continued abstaining. Even after adjusting for physical activity, Body Mass Index (BMI), demographic and cardiac risk factors, this difference persisted.

This study is important because it provides additional strong evidence that the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease among moderate drinkers is a result of the alcohol itself rather than any differences in lifestyle, genetics, or other factors.
(from King, Dana E., Mainous, III, Arch G. and Geesey, Mark E. Adopting moderate alcohol consumption in middle-age: Subsequent cardiovascular events. American Journal of Medicine, 2008 (March), 121(3).)

So I may have to reconsider...

Friday, April 1, 2011

On becoming a potato

It seems that some people, interested in attempting meditation, but untrained in any techniques, resort to a process that's not so useful: they sit with eyes closed, think of nothing, and try to be aware of nothing. One Tibetan lama whose work I'm fond of has a nice description of this: "it's almost like becoming a potato." Supposedly, if you pour enough hours into this practice, you'll slowly vegetate.

As it happens, this method does have one useful purpose: it's a great way to fall asleep quickly! I used to use it as a child, when my mind was racing at night and I got tired of all the churning. I'm glad I didn't keep it up while awake, though :)

So give it a go. Just not for very long.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A quote on meditation

Just stumbled upon this clever quote from the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa about meditating properly.
When you run after your thoughts you are like a dog chasing a stick; every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. But if, instead, you look at where your thoughts are coming from, you will see that each thought arises and dissolves within the space of that awareness, without engendering other thoughts. Be like a lion, who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. You only throw a stick at a lion once.
Oh, and now I am reminded of the moniker assigned to me at the monastery: Chokyi Senge, which in Tibetan means "Dharma Lion" (and "Dharma," in turn, is something like "the truths expounded by the Buddha").

By the way, if the analogy of a dog chasing after a stick isn't clear, I think of it like this: thoughts can arise by themselves. When you're meditating on the breath, they often do. What often ends up happening is that you'll sort of start "owning" the thoughts, or becoming attached to them. At that point you often start narrating them, and you're off to the races, riding one thought to the next. Instead, if you stop believing that you own or are responsible for the thoughts, they quickly melt away.

Now to find the thrower...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My brain made me do it?

Good article over at CNN about how brain differences that correlate with psychopathic behavior can be seen in children as young as three.

The article gives me hope, but as usual, the comments do not:

I swear I didnt kill that person.. My brain made me do it...

Ah, snideness. The easiest way to bury your head in the sand while trying to look clever.

Then there's no way that you can be rehabilitated. We'll have to remove you from society....permanently.

Armchair neurology: if it's in your brain, then there's no way to change it! And then a scary threat... punctuated by a scary... ellipsis.

There was, however, one comment that I am glad to have read:
I know I'm one of these people. My lack of guilt and fear of consequences have led me to make some huge mistakes. I've had to work very, very hard to make some major changes in the way I live my life and make decisions. This is a very interesting study. I hope that good things come from it.
What do you know? Sociopaths are people too! Of all the things I'm glad for, high on the list should be my acute sense of guilt, remorse, shame, and the host of other social emotions that keep me both from causing harm and being vilified.

Do you punish your child differently depending on how intentional you deem his act to be? Would you label him a monster if you were to learn that you passed on genes that made it painfully difficult for him to act in accordance with most of society? Or would you do your damnedest to make sure he stops hurting himself and other people?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Meditation is boring

There, I said it. A friend and I were chatting earlier today about ways of revamping the brain. I wanted to suggest meditation -- as I have a thousand times in the past -- but I hesitated, and not only because I hate sounding like a preachy bastard all the time. It's also because I've been lousy at keeping up my practice myself, and I suppose it's not hard to understand why.

The thing is, meditation isn't supposed to be fun. I know that as well as anyone. But if I feel it's so boring that I don't do it, maybe it's time to be more practical and less idealistic. So here's an alternative I suggested to him. It's one I do myself when I'm not too lazy.

Pick up a challenging magazine that's only marginally interesting to you. I use The Economist. Spend five or ten minutes reading articles, being careful not to let your mind wander from the topic at hand, or even far from the details of the passages. Every paragraph or so, give yourself a very brief quiz ("What was this paragraph about? The PM of Japan. What's his name? Naoto Kan. Check."). Try to be as engaged as possible, allowing those details to seep into longer-term memory, even as you read on.

It's similar to attention meditation in that you're expected to carefully monitor your attention and detect when it's going off course. It's easier in that the subject is generally more engaging (than your breath, for example), and that you're able to wander further from the exact subject before you must accuse yourself of being off course (the sensation of the breath at your nostrils is a rather precise percept).

But even this simple exercise is not trivial to do well for most of us, and I believe that practicing it is a step in exactly the right direction if you're looking to strengthen the circuits in your brain that allow you to live your life in a directed and conscious manner (more on that soon).

So if you're not ready to give full-blown meditation a try, or are just feeling lazy, reach for a nearby magazine or book and give your brain a more manageable workout.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Revisiting a hard-to-pronounce Greek word

I guess it's high time I update this thing. Had a few thoughts yesterday, and figured I'd commit one of them to writing.

In Nov 2009 I wrote about a condition called anosognosia. That's a condition where you have a disability but don't know you have it. I'll repeat one of the quotes:
Neuroscientist Edoardo Bisiach at the University of Milan in Italy reported one 74-year-old stroke patient who repeatedly claimed that his left hand belonged to the doctor examining him. The doctor finally grasped the paralyzed hand between his own two and held it up to the patient's face.

"Whose hands are these?" he asked.

"Your hands," the patient replied.

"How many of them?"


"Ever seen a man with three hands?" the doctor asked.

"A hand is the extremity of an arm," said the patient. "Since you have three arms, it follows that you must have three hands."
When we are attacked or affronted by another person, how do we decide how much to blame the offender? For many people, part of that decision is based on how much we think the other person should know better.

Well, how do we know whether they should, or even can, know better? For an amputee with anosognosia, surely he should know he's missing an effing arm. And still, no amount of yelling at him will change the fact that he does not.

I really enjoy learning about neurological disorders because they remind me how profoundly differently other people may experience the world. And I'm constantly reminded that the only thing people seem to have in common is that we're all trying to do well for ourselves, with the limited mental resources we have.

What mistaken beliefs might you hold you don't know about? Are you sure you'd recognize or accept them if they were pointed out to you by even your closest friends? I'd like to end again with the same quote as last time. It's something I believe fiercely:
"Looking at patients like Mrs. M. can be spooky at first," says Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and physician at the University of California at San Diego, and the Salk Institute nearby. "But then you realize you're really looking at yourself, in amplified form."
Do yourself a favor and spend an extra 15 seconds asking yourself if you're really really sure you're right the next time someone criticizes you. You just might be missing an arm.