Tag Archives: research

Multitasking? Can’t Focus? Breathe!

Are you a “frequent/heavy media multitasker?” If you, or someone you know, fits this label, read on. I’ll keep it short.

A research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently gathered 1,683 undergraduates, identified roughly 50 students who could be described as either unusually ‘light media multitaskers’ (LMM) or unusually ‘heavy media multitaskers’ (HMM), and then conducted additional tests on the LMM and HMM students. In the latter phase of the investigation, students in the selected groups performed a 10 minute task, either a mindfulness intervention or a control activity (see below), and then completed two mental performance tests (the task-test #1-test #2 sequence was then repeated two more times so that each student could take a total of 6 performance tests).

The team* found that, as expected, the LMM students turned in better scores on the mental performance tests regardless of which task (control/intervention) they performed first, and the tasks didn’t seem to affect their performance much. The HMM students who completed the mindfulness intervention, however, had much better performance scores than the HMM students who performed the control task.

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The Enlightened Mouse

The use of animal models as surrogates for humans in scientific experiments goes back centuries. If animals and humans aren’t that different, the thinking goes, we can learn about human biology by studying the biology of our mammalian relatives. According to “Of Mice and Mindfulness” (Reynolds, NY Times – Well, 18 May 2017), the animal model approach might even be used to learn how human brains respond to various mental states, including meditation.

Previous research on humans had revealed a positive correlation between meditation and the amount of white brain matter in a region of the human brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in regulating emotions. Because humans lead such complicated lives, though, researchers could not say whether meditation caused this change in brain matter.

Enter the mouse.

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The Brain-Breath Connection

A few months ago I wrote about the virtues of 5 deep breaths (Reset with 5 Deep Breaths, 5 Mar 2017). Now I’m back with scientific news that shows breathing affects brain function in mice. To put it briefly, there are special brain cells that connect breathing with states of arousal: sleep-wakefulness, vigilance, and emotions.

“Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice” (Yackle et al., Science, 31 Mar 2017, p. 1411) summarizes its findings as follows:

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The Science of Meditation

The Shambhala Mountain Center is convening top researchers and meditation teachers this week (Oct. 19-23) for a free, online summit on The Science of Meditation. Follow the link to learn more and register. Remember, it’s online and free!

Update: I just registered (takes 2 sec) and learned that some (maybe all?) of the materials will be available after the ‘live’ sessions so you don’t have to worry about being in the right time zone, or work-summit conflicts.

Silence, Please

“Silence, Please” is one of the most popular themes used by VisitFinland.com to attract tourists. It seems some people crave silence. But what is silence? Is it just the absence of sound? Or is it something tangible in its own right? It turns out teams of scientists have been trying to address this question in the ways that scientists often do: they have looked at patterns of brain activity to determine how brains differentiate silence from louder alternatives. “This is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel Gross (Nautilus, 7 July 2016) reports on some of this research. Be prepared for surprises.

Meditation and academic success

Meditation traditions (zen, for example) often encourage meditation without any thought of personal gain. However, this has not prevented researchers from looking for possible benefits (and harms) that meditation might bring about. Stress, focus, attention management have all been investigated, and now researchers are looking into academic performance.

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The Contemplative (Chemistry) Classroom

con·tem·plate – verb, “look thoughtfully for a long time at”

It might seem like contemplation has a natural role to play in education. Learning anything new would seem to involve looking, being thoughtful, investing time. But nothing can raise student (and faculty and administrator) highbrows faster, or higher, than suggesting that classroom time be given over to silent contemplation. So a recent Washington Post story (To get students to focus, some professors are asking them to close their eyes, Washington Post, A. Reiner, 7 Apr 2016) about Bryn Mawr physical chemistry professor, Michelle Francl, and her use of silent contemplation to lead students through some of the mathematical mysteries of quantum mechanics got me thinking … so much of organic chemistry is visual. What might my students gain if I paused over a complicated structural formula and said a la Francl, “We’re going to take a minute and a half and just look at it”?

Is Mindfulness Useful? – Feb ’16 Updates

Here are my top picks from the Feb ’16 issue of the Mindfulness Research Monthly newsletter, a publication of the American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA). The newsletter lists several interesting articles describing the effects of mindfulness interventions on military personnel. My top picks include studies of the connections between mindfulness practice and perceived stress in college students, successful parenting behaviors, and stress levels during romantic conflicts. I also picked out several review articles examining the status of mindfulness research with regard to job burnout, executive functioning, ADHD, and possible concerns about the suitability of mindfulness practice.

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