I first learned about the amygdala from Daniel Goleman’s famous book, Emotional Intelligence. He makes repeated reference to this part of the brain in his description of ‘neural hijackings’, in which the brain detects a threatening situation, and provokes flight/fright/freeze responses, flooding us with emotion.
It is always dicey to speak of any part of the brain as doing or causing anything because the brain is much better viewed from a systemic perspective, with various parts functioning simultaneously. Nonetheless, there is an association between the amygdala and emotion, and as long as you don’t start thinking the amygdala is where emotion is, or emotion is what the amydala does, it is a useful association to bear in mind.
The following pretty picture from How Stuff Works gives us some sense of the amygdala’s relative location in the brain. It is part of the limbic system and associated with automatic rather than controlled processing.
Amy, as I like to call her, came back to mind recently when I read the following study suggesting that those with larger amygdalas have larger and more complex social networks.
I found it curious that the amygdala appears to be key, because I previously associated this part of the brain with emergencies, rather than networks, and it briefly made me wonder if people with larger and more complex social networks might be drama queens who need constant and varied reassurance.
More seriously, it is worth considering potential trade offs. If you want Amy to be big, something else may have to be smaller. Brain matter is expensive in evolutionary terms, so usually if one part of the brain is ‘bigger’, or, more technically, has more ‘functional plasticity’, this is compensated for elsewhere.
This idea of trade offs became prominent with the finding that London cabbies had larger mid-posterior hippocampi (relating to spatial memory) suggesting a neural correlate for expertise. However, they struggled to break old habits, take new routes etc, relating to smaller anterior hippocampi, a neural trade off.
A more affecting example is oral memory in certain traditional cultures i.e. shared stories and songs, and how the ability to remember them is directly undermined by literacy. A similar point is made by William Dalrymple in his wonderful book on Indian Religious practice, Nine Lives.
This point about losing oral culture has some relevance for RSA Connected Communities actually, because some argue that literacy, for all its massive life enhancing gains, undermines the cohesive, bonding function of oral stories and songs that communities tend to ‘lose’ when they are written down.
Then Amy got me thinking again, when a colleague forwarded a story describing an important recent study on meditation. In addition to being yet another strong piece of evidence in support of mindfulness, one of the main findings is that people who regularly meditate shrink (reduction in grey matter) their amygdalas, an area, the article reminds us “connected to anxiety and stress”.
So here is a troubling pseudo-equation to ponder:
Bigger amygdala linked to larger social network
Smaller amygdala linked to lower stress.
Therefore…what?… the key to being less stressed is to know fewer people?
Clearly that is not right, but it seems to be what ‘Amy’ is telling us, so perhaps she has gone G’dala.
Nudge is fast becoming to behaviour change what Google is to search engines. We have started to use the term as a catch-all shorthand for a patchy understanding of something like ‘all those fancy psycho-social tricks that alter how people think and act’. In doing so we are in danger of squeezing out all the other approaches we have to changing behaviour that might be more powerful or appropriate, including Think, Steer, and Mindfulness.
Tim Hartford is one of many who argue that ‘nudge’ is being overused, and suggests that we should be wary of applying a concept designed for markets to inform the the way Government changes the behaviour of citizens.
‘Nudge’ was the title of the book by Thaler and Sunstein that created the excitement around behaviour change, but as Richard Thaler indicated while speaking at the RSA, Nudge is really just a catchy term for the much more complex notion of ’Libertarian Paternalism‘ that is supposed to underpin nudge interventions. The idea is that you don’t undermine people’s freedom by choosing for them, but merely encourage them to make certain choices by altering the environment in certain ways, changing feedback mechanisms and shifting defaults.
An intelligent use of choice arcitecture makes good sense to me, but the paternalism is not unproblematic. For instance, speaking at the RSA, Anne Coote referred to “The whole ghastly nudge business which is actually about encouraging conformity”.
Moreover, it is not really transformative, which is perhaps, darkly, why people like it. Nudge changes the environment in such a way that people change their behaviour, but it doesn’t change people at any deeper level in terms of attitudes, values, motivations etc. And, as Clive Gross argued on RSA Comment, we risk oversimplifying why we change our behaviour
In any case, you can hardly open a page these days without being ‘nudged’ and Downing Street’s ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ is called ‘the nudge unit’.
I was prompted to share these thoughts after reading quite a detailed piece on the work of this team in The Independent. However, what I really wanted to say, is that if I am absolutely honest, I think one of the main reasons ‘nudge’ has become so popular is that it sounds like ‘fudge’.
I am not being entirely facetious. For instance, social psychology has taught us that we prefer people with names similar to our own, and although I can’t prove that we are thinking of fudge when we say nudge, my gut feeling is that this tacit association needs to be part of the story…
In English, attention is something we are asked to pay, as if it were a scarce resource, like money. ‘Pay attention!’ is also a negative injunction, like paying your taxes. But attention is not really scarce, and when practised, rather than paid, it is positive and rewarding. As positive psychologist, Czikzsentmihalyi once said: ‘Where attention goes, energy flows.’
The challenge is that we live in an increasingly distracting world, and need a method to make our attention, the touchstone of consciousness, more readily available to us. The challenge is that the speed of the world and the nature of our technology makes it difficult to make best use of this precious resource, which is a core component of mindfulness. John Teasdale captured the centrality of this point as follows:
“Mindfulness is a habit, it’s something the more one does, the more likely one is to be in that mode with less and less effort… it’s a skill that can be learned. It’s accessing something we already have. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful”
So how can we remember?
Aldous Huxley is most famous for his dsytopic novel Brave New World, but his final novel, Island presents a more utopian vision of the future, in which attention pays a central role. Indeed, perhaps the defining quality of the island Huxley imagined was the mindfulness of its inhabitants.
The writer Borges once described Utopia as “a Greek word, which means ‘there is no such place’” and Huxley’s utopian vision honours that idea. The island, Pala, struggles to guard its beauty, simplicity and integrity from incursions from the world outside, and though I don’t want to give away the ending, it was Utopian in the Borgesian sense.
My abiding memory of Pala is the role played by the mynahs on the island, birds that are known for their capacity to imitate. The following two extracts are separated by several pages, but serve to show the role of ‘reminder birds’ on the island, as seen through the eyes of a cynical journalist, Will Farnaby:
["Attention", a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. "Attention", it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. "Attention" (...)
"Is that your bird?" Will asked.
She shook her head.
Mynahs are like the electric light", she said. "They don't belong to anybody."
Why does he say those things?
"Because somebody taught him", she answered patiently...
But why did they teach him those things? Why 'Attention'? Why 'Here and now?'
"Well ..." She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. "That's what you always forget, isn't it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what's happening. And that's the same as not being here and now."
"And the mynahs fly about reminding you—is that it?"
She nodded. That, of course, was it. There was a silence.]
The book is warmly recommended, but the key question for now is how we can create ‘reminder birds’ of our own.
Jules Evans, who writes a wonderful blog on the politics of wellbeing recently indicated that technology might play a role, and I wouldn’t be surpised if there was already a mindfulness ‘app’ out there. I am trying to conceive of something more visceral and direct, but can’t quite picture it.
We don’t live on Pala, and mynahs are not always there when you need them, so what would a 21st century reminder bird look like? Who or what will remind us to be mindful?
One of Nietzsche’s most resonant remarks was that ‘man has no ears for that to which experience has given him no access.’ Sometimes you just can’t process an idea, because you don’t have the mental tools or reference points to make sense of it.
Sometimes a whole ‘way of being’ passes you by, because you are simply not aware that such an experiential state is possible. The classic illustration is HG Wells’s short story, The Country of the Blind, in which a man with vision fails to convey to the blind that there is a fith sense, and that he can see. Instead, he is thought to be ‘unstable’ because of his ‘obsession’ with sight.
Such considerations are pertinent with regard to mindfulness, because one of the main ideas that motivates the practice of mindfulness is the idea of ‘doing’ less, and ‘being’ more. Don’t just do something, sit there! is one vernacular way to capture the injunction to be mindful.
But what does it mean to just ‘be’? If you have no experience of meditation, the idea of just ‘being’ sounds passive, pointless and indulgent. But if you have tasted the experience of freedom that comes from feeling that you don’t have to ‘do’ anything, you know that it is often wonderfully cleansing, and even productive. Moreover, from the perspective of ‘being’, so much of what passes for productive activity looks frenzied, hubristic and futile.
The point is not that we should all stop and do nothing, but that we need to recognise how much more creative, considerate and judicious our actions could be if they were grounded in a daily experience of just being. Indeed, although mindfulness in the west is a largely secular practice, the notion that being should underpin and inform doing has a distinguished spiritual pedigree. A secular translation of Christ’s statement that: ‘The kingdom of heaven lies within you’ might be: ‘go and meditate’ . Perhaps the core message of the Hindu holy text, The Bhagvad Gita, is ‘grounded in being, perform action.’ That is sound, if abstract advice. A sweeter version of the same idea is expressed by Lao Tzu: “Search your heart and see. The way to do is to be.”
From the western canon, Pascal famously said that all of our miseries stem from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone, and Kafka penned the fabulous suggestion: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
The point is that as individuals and collectively we are missing out because we tend to do too much and be too little.What Kafka doesn’t say is that it takes a certain amount of training to be able to be ‘quiet, still and solitary’. There is some gentle irony in the fact that those who most value ‘getting stuff done’ are often not so much unwilling, but rather unable to sit still. The one thing they can’t do, is to just be.
Most people in developed countries are overactive, distracted and restless. Even the people who are really trying to change the world for the better are sometimes in danger of letting their alacrity get in the way. In the Mindful Manifesto (p4), this point is captured as follows:
“A few people want to do something so much that they go into politics. They devise and carry out programmes designed to solve our problems from above- improving the lot of communities, countries or even the planet… The plans may differ in content, but the underlying message is usually the same: if we want to make the world a happier place, we need to do something- right now!
But what if all this doing is actually part of the problem? What if, rather than needing to take more action, we actually need to take less? What if our compulsive habit of striving so hard to make things better is actually part of the reason we are so anxious? What if we don’t need technology to speed up, but ourselves to slow down?”
Alas, such ideas do not feel permissable for our relatively mindless media. The message that doing might be part of the problem feels like a modern kind of heresy, and I feel almost guilty as I write these words. What Brits do when the conversation gets too close to the bone like this is to lighten the load with some humour, so here are three famous sayings about the relationship between doing and being. More seriously, I suspect the last one is quite close to the truth.
‘To be is to do’ -Socrates.
‘To do is to be’- Jean Paul Sartre.
Do-be-do-be-do-be-do. – Frank Sinatra
Since our event earlier this month, I’ve been banging on about mindfulness to anybody who will listen. Nobody has yet asked me for a definition, but I can see in their eyes that they want to.
So what is mindfulness? My quick answer is that it’s the surprisingly difficult and strangely liberating experience of paying attention to what is going on inside us.
And yet, that’s a bit of a trap, as any definition would be. There is a place for verbal definitions, because unless you pin an idea down, there is a meaning vacuum, and it is difficult to proceed to say anything useful without fear of talking at cross purposes. However, verbal definitions are not entirely benign. If I ask you: What is water? You could give me its chemical composition, H2O, but I won’t really know what it is until I have taken a drink. Some things have to be experience to be understood, as is the case with mindfulness.
A verbal description prior to a taste of the experience may not be harmful, but it is probably not helpful either. Your best definition is to find a good teacher and start practicing, but if that seems daunting, just to try to sit still, perhaps with eyes closed, and continue to breathe, but now with an ongoing awareness of your breath. You will quickly discover, if you didn’t know already, that our everyday minds are rather chaotic, and that we struggle to hold our attention on any single thing, including something as simple as our breath, our basis of our existence, for more than a few seconds.
I will later come back to why such an experience should be important, or useful, but for now I want to stick with the definition. If the injuction to ‘just do it’ sounds evasive, consider the following definition of definition, for why the experience is necessary:
Definition: The vivisection tray upon which a word is splayed; while the gist may be clearly labelled with coloured pins, resuscitation becomes problematic. (Abrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary)
The Devil’s dictionary is deliberately subervise, but the point is powerful. Definitions can bring ideas to life, but if the conditions of that life are stricly demarcated, one’s idea of what the word means is needlessly limited.
Yes, yes, but what is it? What is it? Well it’s partly an attempt to free ourselves from the narcissistic verbal chattering that goes on in our heads for about 16 hours a day. So in a way, words and thoughts are part of that challenge.
Above all, I would say mindfulness is honest. It’s about facing up to our own minds, in all their complexity, and everything that follows from that honesty. The acclaimed author, Tim Parks, describes one aspect of this experience beautifully towards the end of his disarming book, Teach us to Sit Still.
“But as words and thought are eased out of the mind, so the self weakens. There is no narrative to feed it…. ‘Self” it turns out, is an idea we invented, a story we tell ourselves. It needs language to survive. The words create meaning, the meaning purpose, the purpose narrative. But here, for a little while, there is no story, no rhetoric, no deceit. Here is silence and acceptance; the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning. Intensely aware, of the flesh, the breath, the blood, consciousness allows the ‘I’ to slip away.”
This idea may sound terrifying to some, and suggests quite an advanced level of practice, but while the ‘I’ may ultimately slip away, our lives, and our personal roles and identities very much go on, as Tim Parks suggests with reference to his wife, his daughter and his dog:
“So if I can recount the first minutes, I can’t tell the rest. There are deepenings. There is a liquefaction of some kind, the things flowing into the calves, the head into the breast. And there are resistances: stones, obstructions, pains. The mind goes back and back to them. An ankle. A shoulder. Maybe they will shift, and maybe not. I am absolutely awake. I hear Rita pad downstairs with the dog behind her. I hear a scooter straining up the hill. And I am not there. I am in the stream.”
Still sounds intense, but his responsibilities are unaffected:
“Then the alarm sounds and I must move. I’m up, dressed and getting Lucy into the car in just a few minutes. By ten past seven we are speeding down the hill, trying to beat the traffic light at San Felice.”
(Tim Parks, Teach us to Sit Still, p331)
The Great Room was packed last night for Mindfulness: The Key to a Healthier Society. The speakers were Ed Haliwell and Dr Jonty Heaversedge, authors of The Mindful Manifesto, and Tim Parks, an author once shortlisted for the booker prize, who recently wrote ‘Teach us to Sit Still‘- a darkly humorous and profound examination of an embarrassing medical condition, and an improbable journey back to health through meditation.
I enjoyed chairing the event, and although I think we had a sympathetic ‘home crowd’, I hope we managed to critically engage with the theory and practice of mindfulness as well as possible within the time and format constraints. I was particularly pleased that we managed to do a two minute guided meditation at the end of Ed’s speech, because the main message of the evening was ‘just do it’, and it’s important to walk the talk.
For those who have never heard of mindfulness, I would encourage you not to settle for the first verbal definition that comes your way because the heart of the approach is to loosen the hold of concepts and try to make our perception as concept free as we can. If that seems too evasive, mindfulness is broadly concerned with paying attention, in particular paying attention in a gentle but systematic way to things we normally take for granted, including our bodies, our minds and our breathing.
I will come back to highlights of the event when we can link to the recording, but for now I offer a couple of choice quotes from the books:
“The faster we go, the more we tend to react impulsively, following our unconscious, habitual patterns. It is a nasty vicious circle. And in order to release ourselves from it, we need help. We need a powerful antidote to speed. We need a method.” (The Mindful Manifesto, p9)
“The more we threaten thought and language with silence, or simply seek to demote them in our lives from the ludicrous pedestal on which our culture and background have placed them, then the more fertile, in their need to justify and assert themselves, they become. Reflection is never more exciting than when reflecting on the damage reflection does, language never more seductive than when acknowledging its own unreality.” (Teach us to Sit Still, p244)
I want to write a few different posts on Mindfulness, to clarify in my own mind how we might best make it a part of our Social Brain project, including thoughts on the discomfort around the word ‘spirituality’, the role of science in making the case for mindfulness, and the relationship between mindfulness and other forms of meditation. For now I want to simply state what I think is the heart of the matter.
You can talk about ‘behaviour change‘ until you are blue in the face, without changing your own behaviour in any meaningful way. You can also craft elegant words about 21st century enlightenment, and lay out a roadmap to a better future by describing the kinds of people we need to become. For instance you can argue, as Matthew Taylor does, that we need to become more empathetic, more autonomous and more other-regarding. But the burning question is how? Intelligent discourse is important, as far as it goes, but it remains at the level of theory, aspiration and proto-policy. In this sense it is as much a part of the problem as it is part of the solution.What we need are methods, ongoing practices that are tested and inclusive, and which will allow us to change ourselves for the better in deep and enduring ways.
No less than Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Alas, this rarely happens, because as no less than Tolstoy said: “Everybody thinks about changing the world, but nobody thinks about changing themselves.”
The RSA believes in collaboration, a message embodied in our fellowship. We rarely make social progress without people working together. In this respect we like to ‘do stuff’, and the point of mindfulness is that we ‘do stuff’ a lot more effectively when we invest some time in just being. We find it incredibly, surprisingly, revealingly hard to ‘just be’. Hence the apposite title of Tim Park’s wonderful book: ‘Teach us to Sit Still’.
If we are serious about transformative social change, we need to at least be open to the idea that transformation begins at the level of consciousness. Perhaps our first step should simply be to understand ourselves at a more fundamental level, not just from the perspective of science and reason, but experientially and viscerally. We problematize institutions, people, social systems and structures, policies and places, but we rarely problematize our own wayward minds, and typically take them for granted. We see, think and act through our minds, but rarely look at them directly with deep curiosity and discernment.
The injunction to ‘know thyself’ needs to be taken seriously, even though it is not ‘cool’, or mainstream. We typically resist this kind of self-knowledge because we think it is too difficult, or we are too busy being busy. Even if we periodically glimpse what Tim Parks calls ‘the clamour’ inside our minds- something that meditation shows you- we are usually too scared to look more closely, and keep the disquieting insight at bay through denial and distraction.
I am not advocating casual introspection, navel gazing or self-indulgence. Progress often does require ‘doers’ who communicate and collaborate well, and people need to get together to discover and serve their common good. This much all remains true, but first such ‘doers’ would benefit from sitting still, sometimes alone, and watching their minds at work. If we don’t do this sort of work on ourselves, we remain strangers to our true influences, motivations and potential. Without some form of practice or method to know our own minds, we carry on acting habitually, reactively and busily. We may think we are helping the world through our acts, but often we are merely acting out conditioned behaviour, driven by vexed desires, restlessness, and various forms of denial, not least the denial of our own mortality.
I don’t think mindfulnes is a panacea. Indeed, Ed Haliwell indicates that to think this is just to create another unhelpful attachment. What is clear to me however, is that unless we learn to look more deeply and honestly at ourselves, in ways that are not always easy, comfortable or socially sanctioned, we will not fulfill our potential, either individually or collectively.
There is a lovely line in the film Good Will Hunting where the character played by Robin Williams ends a college class on psychotherapy by saying: “See you Monday. We’ll be talking about Freud, and why he did enough cocaine to kill a small horse.”
Freud is widely quoted, often derided, and rarely appreciated. If you want to understand his work, don’t surf the net or buy a secondary text. Try reading him in the original, and you’ll realise why, small horses aside, he was such a heavyweight.
One of his major ideas concerns the structure of the psyche. I remember Robert Rowland Smith gave a particularly lucid overview of the idea when he spoke at the RSA, but my dramatised version goes as follows (analytical psychologists look away now).
The psyche is comprised of das Es(Id), das Ich(Ego) and das Über-Ich(super-ego). Crudely, the Id is your libidinous, desire-ridden, status conscious self. The Super-ego is your conscience, your tempered reason, your empathetic other-regarding self. And the Ego is your everyday sense of self, the part of you that you refer to when you say “I”.
One way of looking at the psyche is that the ego tries to navigate through life while facing upward pressure from the Id and downward pressure from the Super-ego. In RSA terms, we might say the Id is anti-social (disregarding the feelings of others) the super-ego is pro-social(actively supporting and shaping positive social norms) and the ego is typically a-social (permissively accepting pervasive social norms but doing nothing to pro-actively create them).
So far, so contentious, but let’s try to diagnose the world’s problems with the following argument. The reason anti-social and a-social behaviour are so pervasive is that the Id has a natural ally in the advert. The super-ego, meanwhile, has lost its institutional moorings and needs an alternative to the church. The ego has become imbalanced because while the Id is bombarded by the Ad, the super-ego lacks an equivalent medium through which to communicate.
I offer a hat-tip to Michael Foley for linking the Ad to the Id, and commend his extremely funny and insightful book, The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life makes it hard to be happy. The following extract from page 19 gives some idea of the basic claim:
“So the ad woos the id in the traditional way- by impressing, flattering and stimulating…
The AD: Regard the mighty vault soaring to Heaven.
The ID: SHEEZ!
The AD: Now regard the many shiny prizes.
The ID: WANT!
The AD: All of this is for you.
The ID: ME!
THE AD: You are indeed uniquely wonderful
The ID: Lights! Cameras! Put me on Prime-time!
The AD: Nor need to concern yourself with others, but be an infant till you die.
The ID(Scowling): Don’t you mean, be an infant forever?
The AD: I said, be an infant for eternity.
The ID: WHOOP-DE-DOO!
The AD: Never shall your desires diminish or your appetites abate.
The ID: MORE!”
Foley wisely counsels that rather than trying to defeat the ad(not easy given that the average American, for instance is subject to 3000 ads a day) we would be wiser to work on controlling the id but:
“This is not easy either. The contemporary Id is rampant and in no mood to be tamed. Never have so many wanted to so much so badly. Never has the Id been so flattered and indulged. This is the golden age of the id.” (p21)
1) As Matthew Taylor recently reiterated, a large part of the RSA’s new mission is to foster pro-social behaviour. We cannot be a substitute church. Instead we be the kind of institution that actively promotes collaborative pro-social behaviour that might act as a counterweight to the relatively selfish desires of the Id.
2) As spiritual traditions have recognised for thousands of years, what is required to tame the Id is not ideas, projects or policy, but sustained personal/spiritual practice. We need to be still, and look closely at our own natures from the inside. Hence the need for techniques like Mindfulness, an issue we will be discussing at the RSA on Thursday.