Psychiatrist finds roots of happiness lie in meditation

Cognitive scientist Judson Brewer will bring his insights on the use of mindfulness to improve one’s mood. His research is based on the effects of focused meditation on brain activity while concentrating. Photo By: Persuing Happiness
Cognitive scientist Judson Brewer will bring his insights on the use of mindfulness to improve one’s mood. His research is based on the effects of focused meditation on brain activity while concentrating. Photo By: Persuing Happiness
Cognitive scientist Judson Brewer will bring his insights on the use of mindfulness to improve one’s
mood. His research is based on the effects of focused meditation on brain activity while concentrating. Photo By: Persuing Happiness

Next Monday, Feb. 24, leading cognitive scientist Judson Brewer takes the floor at Vassar to discuss the mood lifting, focus boosting quality of mindfulness when used with Buddhist practices.

Thin and wearing glasses, Brewer, in a TEDxTalk he gave last year, outlined the ways which humans overthink or get caught up in cravings that distract them and keep them from reaching flow, a psychology term invented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for a relaxed and focused mental state of complete immersion (TEDxTalks, “You’re Already Awesome. Just Get out of Your Own Way,”  5.11.13).

In the talk, he gives the example of an Olympics runner who tripped on the ninth out of 10 hurdles in 2008 as getting in her own way by overthinking. Smokers fall into the same trap by getting caught up in their cravings or resisting their cravings.

Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist at Yale, taught smokers to quit by “being with their cravings.”

“They could let those things come up, do their dance, and go away. They quit smoking,” said Brewer, who first tried meditation in medical school. He has also done mindfulness training with cocaine addicts and alcoholics in funded research projects.

“When you have a craving, see if you can note it so you can ride it out, so if it’s burning, clenching, tightness—really keep it embodied,” Brewer said in an interview with a podcast.

After spending all of grad school experimenting with mice, Brewer decided to tackle the brain instead.

During his psychiatry residency, he told the podcast Buddhist Geeks in an interview, “One thing that I noticed was that people with addictions were speaking the same language as the Buddha, craving, clinging, wanting.” The connection between Buddhist practices and relieving addictions and in general, overthinking, was growing more apparent to Brewer during this time.

Religion professor E. H. Rick Jarow said that getting Brewer to Vassar was “[A] stroke of serendipity.”

“[The lecture will be] hosted by the Carolyn Grant Committee, a group of Vassar faculty committed to promoting embodied experience and contemplative engagement at Vassar,” wrote Gabe Dunsmith ’15 in an emailed statement. The Carolyn Grant ’36 Endowment Fund is dedicated to giving faculty members the chance to express and explore pedagogical methods.

Religion professor E. H. Rick Jarow said in an emailed statement, “He is at the forefront of an amazing interfacing between neuroscience and Buddhist meditative practices. The ‘mind maps’ provided by Buddhist traditions are congruent with contemporary research into perception, attention and the development of healthy qualities of mind.”

Christine Lin ’17, a student in introductory computer science, was intrigued by the upcoming lecture.

“A lot of people are into meditation, so I’m curious to see how certain Buddhist practices tie in with neuroscience,” said Lin, “The mind is such a puzzle, so I’m curious to know more. [And the subject] is hard because there’s no definitive answer to all of the questions we have to address.”

Brewer recently published a paper with other scientists on the relationship between subjective experience and brain activity during a period of focused attention. People accustomed to meditating, he suggested, can better control their brain activity through their own conscious will, emphasizing the potential of mindfulness.

“So what we were having people do was just meditate with their eyes open and let this graph of their brain activity that they can look at be in the background,” Brewer said in the interview.

When people used to meditating reported their minds wandering, their brain scans responded accordingly. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Brewer said in the TEDxTalk.

As Brewer wrote in an article for the Huffington Post, cognitive science can learn from Buddhist practices (Huffington Post, “How Rewarding Is Love? Some Clues From Neuroscience,” 2.19.13).

He wrote, “As practiced traditionally in Buddhist communities for centuries…Individuals were given the following instructions: ‘Please think of a time when you genuinely wished someone well. Using this feeling as a focus, silently wish all beings well, by repeating a few short phrases of your choosing over and over.’”

By repeating a kind of prayer of selfless love, meditators can activate the reward parts of the brain, achieving satisfaction and a better mood overall. Brewer believes that romantic love activates the parts of the brain that motivate and exhilarate, increasing productivity as well.

To those who may question whether his findings and experiments are traditional Buddhism or cultural appropriation, Brewer gave the following response: “I would say, ‘So what?’ I’m not calling it traditional Buddhism. I’m just calling it feedback. If you’re driving off the road, do you want to know that or not? Who cares what you call it? Are you about to go into a ditch or not?”

Lin said she’s interested in attending Brewer’s lecture because she has observed a need for mindfulness in her daily life. “The lecture would be helpful for a lot of students because a lot of us go through the day without being mindful or paying attention to what’s happening in our surroundings,” she said.

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