I'm a freelance science writer formerly on the staff of New Scientist and the Guardian in London. Right now my particular interest is Buddhist psychology and mindfulness research. My book about the science of enlightenment, Siddhartha's Brain, comes out in 2016 (on 26 April in the US and 2 June in the UK)
There’s something weird going on in the field of meditation and mindfulness research. On the one hand there are voices warning that meditation can cause psychosis – leading people to lose touch with reality and experience symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and disturbing thoughts – on the other there are equally persuasive voices claiming that it should be used to treat psychosis. Continue reading “Meditation and psychosis”→
Why do we find our extinct cousins the Neanderthals so very fascinating? Is it because we imagine they were as we once were during the childhood of our own species, before we lost our innocence? The last common ancestor we share with the Neanderthals was Homo heidelbergensis, but we parted company in Africa some 350-400,000 years ago. Maybe the romantic in us yearns to recapture this more primitive way of being before the advent of human civilisation and the mixed blessings of acute self-awareness: an idyllic existence we enjoyed before our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Or maybe we simply feel a guilty thrill at the thought we “won” in the competition for survival, our “superior” species erasing them from the face of the Earth? Continue reading “Neanderthals versus Humans: How much did William Golding get right in The Inheritors?”→
Imagine if whenever you greeted someone for the first time – a supermarket cashier, the postman, a new colleague, a neighbour, a date, anybody – rather than uttering the usual “How are you?” you instead transmitted some little nugget of wisdom that might be of more use to them and might provoke a more interesting response than the usual “Fine thanks.” Continue reading “Tell everyone you meet: All that arises, ceases”→
I recently stayed at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at Great Gaddesden in Hertfordshire, enjoying not only the quiet, reflective atmosphere of this sanctuary of calm in the Chiltern Hills but also many interesting conversations with fellow guests and staff. One of the things that came up was the unease that many Buddhists feel about the spread of mindfulness training in recent years from contemplative and clinical settings into business and finance, and even the military. Mindfulness training is now being used not just to help people cope with the stresses, anxieties and pains of everyday life – and perhaps to become a little more enlightened – but to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace and on the battlefield.
Journalists adore research that allows them to write stories along the lines of “scientists have tracked down the brain’s love HQ” or “researchers have located the brain’s god spot”. It is very satisfying to imagine that we can divide the brain into neat components with distinct functions like the parts of a car engine. We dream that one day, neuroscientists will be able to lift the bonnet (or the hood if it’s an American brain), point and say “here’s the valve that causes schizophrenia – we can readjust that with this chemical spanner. Here’s the tank that causes OCD when it overflows – we can drain that by turning this tap here. Over there are the spark plugs that we clean up to cure depression …”
Unfortunately the brain is a lot messier and more wonderful than your average motor engine, which is why we’re still standing over it scratching our heads trying to figure out how on earth it all works. It’s a tangle of connections, with myriad networks of components involved in creating thoughts, consciousness, sensations and emotions.
So it is with a mixture of excitement and wariness that I approach a study by researchers at Beijing Normal University in China that seems to point to a particular part of the brain that switches mindfulness on and off. It’s called the thalamus (shown in red on the animated gif), a pair of bulbous structures that sit at the top of the brainstem (yellow) on the midline of the brain. The thalamus plays a pivotal role as the brain’s switchboard, relaying information from all the senses apart from smell to the cerebral cortex, which is the thinking, conscious part of the brain. Continue reading “Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?”→
Mindfulness training courses and books will usually recommend everyday activities such as taking a shower or doing the washing-up as opportunities to exercise your powers of concentration. The idea is that by focusing on these simple, routine tasks – paying attention to what your body is doing and what your senses are telling you – you can calm the wayward thoughts that for the rest of the day chase each other through the corridors of your mind like overexcited children.
Humdrum activities that don’t require much brainpower, such as washing the dishes and showering, are perfectly good ways to practise your mind-taming skills, but their very ordinariness can make them a challenge. It’s a struggle to stay focused.
I know, that’s the idea – to be mindful even of the mundane – but for a novice like me, how much easier it would be to apply mindfulness to an everyday task that involves a more stimulating visual scene, loud noises, physical exertion and the ever present threat of injury? Continue reading “Mindful cycling: staying alert, staying alive”→
Forty years ago, the Whitehall Study of men working for Britain’s Civil Service famously revealed that those at the bottom of the pecking order were much more likely to die prematurely than those at the top – regardless of other risk factors such as smoking. They had higher mortality rates from all causes, but especially heart disease.
So the lowly paid doorman, whether or not he was a heavy smoker, was more likely to drop dead than the clerk sitting at his desk all day earning more money. As ever, life was deeply unfair. But what was the biological explanation for this health inequality? One theory was that the stress and lack of control over their working lives experienced by men in lowlier jobs were putting their health at risk, though how that worked physiologically was anyone’s guess. Continue reading “Growing old stressfully: chronic stress and prematurely aged cells”→
There was good news last week about the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for easing anxiety, depression and pain. Mail Online reported that a study had found “meditation ‘works just as well as anti-depressants’: half an hour a day offers as much relief as tablets”, while The Boston Globe said those who took mindfulness classes experienced improvement in mood after eight weeks “on par with the effect seen with prescription medications”.
This was all perfectly true. A review published in JAMA Internal Medicine had looked at all the best studies to date and concluded that there was “moderate evidence” of improved anxiety, depression and pain among patients. The effect on mild depression was indeed equal to that achieved with anti-depressants.