“WE DON’T SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE,
WE SEE THEM AS WE ARE.”
We need to appreciate that what we think we are seeing around us, is actually made up by our minds and is not necessarily what is actually out there. When we look at an object, our brain constructs a picture of what’s out there based on what it thinks is really important for us.
Most people assume that what we see is pretty much what our eyes see and report to our brain. In reality, our brains add very substantially to the report they get from our eyes, so that, a lot of what we see is actually “made up” by the brain. Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways.
A characteristic pattern of connections among neurons in the eyes, termed as “lateral inhibition network”, is responsible for throwing away information. Lateral inhibition helps to explain a number of “optical illusions” and, more importantly, provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it.
Latent Inhibition is the subconscious capacity of the brain to ignore stimuli that experience has shown to be irrelevant to our needs. This is critical, as scientists estimate that we are exposed to several million pieces of information at any one time, but our brains can deal at a time with only about forty. On the flip side, latent Inhibition makes us miss out many important things that happen around us.
Timothy Verstynen of Carnegie Mellon University says that as much as 90 percent of our perception is actually mental fabrication. According to him, as we start walking about in the world, seeing and touching objects and hearing various sounds, our brain starts learning from these experiences and builds models which can help us to effectively interact with people and efficiently navigate the environment.
While these models do make it easier for us to quickly make sense of our surroundings, they also make us miss out on some important things happening around us and that is where mindfulness practice can come to our aid.
There are, of course, more powerful reasons for practicing mindfulness which has increasing acceptance around the world.
We now know that reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of that reality depends on the beliefs that we hold at any given time. Michael Shermer called this process as ‘Belief-Dependent Realism’. It may sound strange if I claim, that the brain is not that much interested in truth or reality. The brain is fundamentally focused on self-preservation and is constantly trying to create its own sense of reality through beliefs.
Shankar Vedantam, author of ‘Hidden Brain’, says that facts do not matter as much as people generally believe. Telling people facts that go against their strongly held beliefs can in-fact be counter-productive. It makes them dig-in their heels even deeper.
Thanks to this belief-driven human society the world is witnessing conflicts at many levels – nations engaged in wars, couples fighting over who does more chores, women demanding equal opportunities with men etc. While these conflicts occur in part because we think that we are only right and that the other nation, person or people are wrong. But the truth is that both the parties suffer from biased perceptions engendered by their own belief systems. Mindfulness practice can bring down the level of this dissonance and bring more harmony. Next time your spouse says something that you do not agree, try to understand that he or she is not necessarily wrong but has a different perspective due to different belief system conditioning.
Racial prejudices that plague almost all societies today are due to our unconscious biases and unfortunately these biases lead to discriminatory evaluation of persons or groups based on stereotypes.
Kabat-Zinn, recognised as father of mindfulness, says “Just as our brains fill in the details of an image our eyes recorded with partial information, so too our brains fill in details about people we don’t know that intimately. In filling in the unknown details about people, our unconscious mind employs parameters such as voice, looks, dress, body language, and at times wishful thinking. More unfortunately, our prior beliefs based on ethnic stereotypes also play a significant part in this reconstruction of the individual. And we normally accept these impressions as real without realizing the extent to which they are the guesses of our unconscious mind. We are also not aware of factors our unconscious mind is employing to make those guesses or impressions”.
Even people who value equality and diversity tend to exhibit negative reactions to people of different races. These subtle biased responses are called implicit associations and they occur automatically, outside of our conscious awareness.
The implicit bias is so deep in the subconscious that it is next to impossible to become aware of its existence. Read this interesting story.
A 34-year old white woman from Washington who had a demonstrated passion for civil rights was also a senior activist in national gay rights organization fighting against bias and discrimination on many fronts. She agreed to take the psychological bias test called Implicit Association Test (IAT) developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. When the result appeared on the screen, the activist could not believe what she was seeing. The test found that she had a clear bias for whites over blacks.
“It surprises me that I have any preferences at all,” she said. “By the work I do, by my education, my background, I’m progressive, and I think I have no bias. Being a minority myself, I don’t feel I should or would have biases.”
Fortunately, recent research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditation reduces implicit race and age bias by weakening the associations of the target group with negative constructs. Social psychology researchers Adam Leuke and Bryan Gibson from the University of Central Michigan conducted experiments to prove that just ten minutes of mindful meditation significantly lowered racially biased behaviour.
All of us have a natural tendency to assume that people’s actions and accomplishments reflect their innate traits and latent abilities. We do not for a moment think that some external factors might have been at work influencing the outcomes. So, if a student doesn’t pass his test in mathematics, we conclude that he is either not good in mathematics or perhaps lazy to apply his mind. We ignore the possibility that he could have missed a good night’s sleep before the test.
This tendency known as the correspondence bias refers to the idea that people sometimes give undue weight to dispositional rather than situational factors when explaining behaviours and attitudes.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many white Americans assumed that the residents who stayed were stubborn, rather than simply too poor to evacuate. The fact was, many people lacked the resources to escape. Having no money, no mode of transportation and no friends or family in safe places, they had no choice but to weather the storm literally.
Research also suggests that this bias plays a role in the courtroom, where juries often dismiss mitigating circumstances when assigning punishment, especially when the punishment is for people of colour.
Extended period of mindfulness practice builds more empathy towards others and helps us to consider various possibilities and that someone may be acting in a certain way due to pressures they are facing or situations they find themselves in.
There is enough research to show that we pay more attention to and react more strongly to negative events than positive events in our lives—a phenomenon called the negativity bias. This bias in entrenched in us due to our early evolutionary history, where our survival heavily depended on being ever vigilant.
Whether it is a disabled person walking into the workplace or an African American student entering a predominantly white university – a history of experiences of rejection based on one’s status can create doubts about acceptance in these social institutions. Even after removal or discontinuation of such structural barriers, research suggests that some members of historically excluded or marginalised groups continue to experience such doubts in social institutions.
But mindfulness can help reduce our negativity bias and consequently can help us to be less wary of negative social encounters. Support for this claim comes from several experiments looking at how mindfulness impacts our emotional reactivity to negative stimuli.
Another study led by Andrew Hafenbrack of INSEAD examined the impact of mindfulness meditation on the “sunk cost” bias which is our tendency to stick to something like an investment or a relationship even when it is clearly not serving us well any more. We overvalue our past investment of time, effort or money, in other words our “sunk costs”, and are therefore unwilling to cut our losses and move on even when logic clearly dictates such action.
Hafenbrack and his team reasoned that our wandering minds lead us to dwell too much on the past and the future, thus providing fuel for the sunk cost bias. By focusing more on the present, they hypothesized, we allow the bias much less of a foothold.
The team then conducted a series of experiments in which some groups were encouraged to let their minds wander before being asked to make a series of decisions that were designed to evoke the sunk cost bias. Other groups were guided through a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session prior to being presented with the same decisions. The mindful group was significantly less influenced by the sunk cost bias.
Over the years we have gathered overwhelming evidence that mindfulness practice can substantially increase our awareness levels of what is going on in our minds, thus helping to reduce the automatic or habitual responses that is characteristic of all cognitive biases.
Let us now discuss what we mean by mindfulness.
Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as intentional, non-judgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experience.
Despite the fact that mindfulness has been practised for thousands of years in the East, it was Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn who first recognised its potential for therapy in modern day clinical settings. He established that mindfulness-based interventions could effectively reduce negative factors such as psychological distress in those living with chronic back pain.
Thus, acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises in and out of session.
Another central topic of mindfulness is paying attention to body and breathing, from a certain “distance”. This allows people to adopt a detached attitude towards the objects and the contents of their mind – like emotions and thoughts. Practitioners over a period of time develop a sense of equanimity without getting absorbed into their own mental processes. They realize that the mental phenomena observed like thoughts, emotions and feeling are distinct and are outside of the mind that is actually observing them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of mindfulness based therapy which was started in 1980 theorizing that greater well-being can be attained by overcoming negative thoughts and feelings. We know that acceptance of things as they come, without evaluating or attempting to change them, is a skill developed through mindfulness exercises. ACT does not attempt to directly change or stop unwanted thoughts or feelings but instead encourages people to develop a new and compassionate relationship with those experiences. This shift can free people from difficulties attempting to control their experiences and helps them become more open to actions consistent with their own values.
ACT patients learn to stop their attempts to avoid, deny or struggle with their inner emotions. Instead, they start accepting that these deeper feelings are appropriate responses to certain situations and therefore recognise that these feelings should not prevent them from living their normal peaceful lives.
As mindfulness practice increases an individual’s ability to detach from thoughts, painful feelings related to the past lose their intensity and gradually even disappear. Acceptance, in a sense, builds the capability to allow internal and external experiences to naturally occur and reduces the urge to fight or avoid these experiences.
The science of mindfulness is still developing, but to date over 4,500 scientific studies support the practice of mindfulness. These studies show that the practice makes us less anxious, less depressed, less stressed and less judgmental. The practice also makes us more focused, more resilient, more innovative and more compassionate.
It should therefore come as no surprise that very many organizations around the world have embraced mindfulness with very successful outcomes. Employees of healthcare insurance giant Aetna decreased their stress levels by one third after doing just one hour of yoga every week, which reduced the company’s healthcare costs by an average of $2,000 per employee. Similarly, fifteen billion dollar consumer giant General Mills instituted a seven-week employee meditation program resulting in 83 percent of participating employees reporting 60 percent increase in daily productivity once they had time to optimise their work.
The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School had more than 22,000 people complete the school’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MSBR) and had more than 6,000 medical doctors and healthcare professionals refer their patients to the program as of 2017. Participants reported a 38 percent reduction in medical symptoms, a 43 percent reduction in psychological and emotional distress and a 26 percent reduction in perceived stress.
One country which strongly believes in mindfulness is UK. Its parliamentary group called Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) published a report called “Mindful Nation UK” in October 2015.
The report said
“We have been impressed by the quality and range of evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and believe it has the potential to help many people to better health and flourishing. On a number of issues ranging from improving mental health and boosting productivity and creativity in the economy through to helping people with long-term conditions such as diabetes and obesity, mindfulness appears to have an impact. This is a reason for government to take notice and we urge serious consideration of our report”.
Their first recommendation was
“MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) should be commissioned in the NHS in line with NICE guidelines so that it is available to the 580,000 adults each year who will be at risk of recurrent depression. As a first step, MBCT should be available to 15% of this group by 2020, a total of 87,000 each year. This should be conditional on standard outcome monitoring of the progress of those receiving help”.
The report talking about mindful parenting has this to say.
“There is an emerging body of evidence that suggests that extending the influence of mindfulness into families can support both parents and children. Mindful parenting programmes aimed at parents in socio-economically disadvantaged families, who are at greater risk of stress, can reduce parents’ destructive behaviour, increase their ability to disengage from emotionally charged stimuli, reduce parents’ stress and enhance their emotional availability and improve children’s behaviour”.
In conclusion, the important thing we learn from mindfulness is “the deep humility of not knowing”. As we practice mindfulness, we discover successively deeper and deeper layers of our biases. Recognising these patterns arising in our minds, we can begin to study their origins and observe their operation in real time. We can then gradually relate these feelings to past experiences and conditioning that is stored in our memories.
Once you become more aware of a particular bias and its origins, it holds less sway over your actions. Again, once you become aware of the tendency to lean in one direction or another, you can consciously choose a new response. Each time you recognise and become cognizant of a previously unconscious bias, your world expands.
While by definition, we can’t see our own blind spots, over time, we start realizing how little we actually know about our perceptions. With each new awareness or shift in perspective, our humility deepens. It dawns on us that there are too many things that we do not understand and there is really no need to reach some ideal state of perfection. Thus we learn to rest in the deep humility of not knowing. This kind of acceptance and openness is the most fertile ground for learning and human development.