Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.
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The present-moment awareness that stems from mindfulness practices may be the cost-effective tool that our society needs.
- Mindfulness practices may lead to the human brain's transcendence of previously established associations that lead to racial biases.
- A mindfulness-based program, which has a myriad of benefits, may be more effective than a specific racial bias training program and may benefit BIPOC youth and police officers alike.
- Professionally known as Director X, Julien Christian Lutz of the Toronto-based mindfulness organization Operation Prefrontal Cortex believes that many young people that identify as BIPOC lash out violently due to past traumas, the hopelessness that they experience in the face of systemic racism, and other stressors that mindfulness can alleviate.
Researchers at Ball State University and Michigan State University have found that mindfulness practices, including but not limited to mindfulness meditation, may lead to the human brain's transcendence of previously established associations that lead to racial biases.
Like other cognitive biases, racial biases typically lie beyond our conscious attention, informing our conscious thoughts and decisions in ways that science does not fully understand.
Famed psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote that "[t]he psyche is still a foreign, almost unexplored country of which we have only indirect knowledge; it is mediated by conscious functions that are subject to almost endless possibilities of deception."
Historical factors have contributed to racial biases. In the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," author Yuval Noah Harari discusses the origins of anti-Black racism as it presently exists in North America.
Because African slaves were resilient to the diseases that wiped out many of the indigenous slaves before them in North America and South America, Harari theorizes that "genetic superiority (in terms of immunity) translated into social inferiority: precisely because Africans were fitter in tropical climates than Europeans, they ended up as the slaves of European masters! Due to these circumstantial factors, the burgeoning new societies of America were to be divided into a ruling caste of white Europeans and a subjugated caste of black Africans."
An evolutionary adaptation that once kept my ancestors alive may have ironically contributed to the suffering and death of millions of people around the world.
Racial biases, racism, and systemic racism are interrelated and have been essential conversation topics globally, throughout 2020 and 2021.
Such topics have been incredibly polarizing in the United States, given the residual effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the shocking death of George Floyd in May 2020 due to former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 30 seconds.
The racism at the center of Floyd's highly publicized death and the deaths of many other Black people throughout the last two centuries has led to outrage across the globe, culminating in the largest civil rights movement in human history last summer.
In Toronto, Canada, this past summer, the Toronto Board of Health voted unanimously in June of 2020 to declare anti-Black racism a public health crisis.
As police violence relates to Black people, less than 9 percent of Toronto's population is Black, and yet, Black people are significantly more likely than other ethnic groups to be arrested, charged, and killed by Toronto police, according to a 2018 Ontario Human Rights Commission report.
The same report states that between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service.
Julien Christian Lutz, Professionally Known As Director X, Design Exchange, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2019.
Credit: Ajani Charles
Such statistics are troubling to me for many reasons, including the fact that I am the art director for Operation Prefrontal Cortex, a Toronto-based program harnessing the power of mindfulness and meditation to help reduce incidences of gun, mass, and police violence in Toronto.
Lutz is known for directing high-budget, visually distinctive videos for famous artists, including but not limited to Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Kanye West.
When I spoke to Lutz about what Operation Prefrontal Cortex is doing to prevent incidents like George Floyd's death, he said that "we're talking to police about it, really implementing mindfulness. And then spreading a message of what mindfulness and meditation can do for everybody.
"We also need to see the research. From what I've seen, meditation does help reduce racial bias. So, we need to do the proper science and test it and test it again to see if these results are consistent, and if they are, well then again, it feeds right back into what we're talking about."
I also spoke to him about the hopelessness that numerous BIPOC youth experience, especially in low-income communities in Toronto and elsewhere, due to receiving the short end of the stick that is systemic racism.
To Lutz, "it's an impossibility to reach some kind of meaningful existence someplace where you can achieve goals and be happy if you can't see that in your world. Then you become self-destructive. And you lash outwards."
Frequent solidarity marches throughout 2020 on behalf of Black people and other marginalized groups were a by-product of many forces, including but not limited to hundreds of years of oppression, the stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the global mental health epidemic. These marches illuminated the quiet and overt suffering of millions of people, and the ruthless violence that can grow from the seeds of racial biases.
All human beings, regardless of socio-economic status or intellectual prowess, can experience and perpetuate racial biases. The unconscious nature of biases causes them to be elusive, which is a phenomenon that American writer and filmmaker Ben Hecht once eloquently described in the following way, through his "Guide For The Bedevilled": "Prejudice is our method of transferring our own sickness to others. It is our ruse for disliking others rather than ourselves. We find absolution in our prejudices. We find also in them an enemy made to order rather than inimical forces out of our control."
Mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Since racial biases are essentially judgments, mindfulness may be a tool that can lead the human brain to transcend such judgments, both consciously and unconsciously.
There is conflicting evidence of whether [racial bias training] actually does any good or potentially makes people defensive and reactive, and potentially do bad things in response. Doing a program like mindfulness, which has a myriad of benefits, can be better and make people less reactive.
In a report entitled "Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias," Bryan Gibson of Central Michigan University and his research partner Adam Lueke of Ball State University found that "mindfulness can positively affect peoples' lives in a number of ways, including relying less on previously established associations."
Participants in the study listened to either a mindfulness or control audio. They then completed Implicit Association Tests (IATs), which are commonly used by researchers to measure the strength of associations between concepts like race and evaluations like "good" or "bad."
Lueke and Gibson's research showed that mindfulness meditation led to a decrease in implicit age and race bias.
I spoke to Lueke about his research, and he had this to say: "I think it's really interesting and potentially very valuable that mindfulness has been shown to help de-automatize our engagement with the environment, which can help us interact with people in a much more objective way, rather than allowing our previous histories or experiences or bugaboos of whatever, change or alter the way that we interact with new people that we don't know anything about, and we shouldn't necessarily make assumptions about."
Lueke explained that mandatory and optional racial bias training within organizations often results in resistance from those that have strong racial biases.
"There is conflicting evidence of whether [racial bias training] actually does any good or potentially makes people defensive and reactive, and potentially do bad things in response. Doing a program like mindfulness, which has a myriad of benefits, can be better and make people less reactive."
Capt. Latisha Fox centers herself while learning about basic meditation techniques during an Operation Army Ready: Ready and Resilient seminar at Enduring Faith Chapel on Bagram Airfield.
Credit: Photo Credit: U.S. Army
In Gibson and Lueke's research, the participants were 72 white college students from a midwestern university town, 71% of whom were female. Would the study differ with a more diverse group of participants?
According to Lueke, most people tend to view their group members more positively than those outside of their in-group. So, positive associations will need to be considered in future studies with diverse participants.
"If we were to get a more diverse group of people, we would probably have to switch the measures a bit in order to most accurately figure out whether mindfulness was doing anything on an unconscious or automaticity type of level."
When I asked Lueke about his thoughts on racial biases in general, he had this to say: "It's shortcut thinking, to just automatically label somebody. And pretty much all human beings do it; it's a way of attempting to predict your environment without a lot of information. So if you don't have a lot of information, your brain will attempt to label that individual in order to try to get as much information as possible about them."
"The problem with that is, oftentimes, those inferences can be incorrect and wrong. So it does take those extra resources to disengage from all of those automatic types of evaluations and try to actually do the work to interact with that person and get to know them a little bit better."
Because I wanted to understand how research like Leuke and Gibson's could be enhanced from another researcher's perspective, I spoke to Benjamin Diplock, a Clinical Developmental Psychology Ph.D. Student at York University in Toronto.
Diplock believes that using psychometrically validated measures could be beneficial. "Individuals evaluating psychological measurement (psychometrics) consider the reliability of the respondents' answers when they are filling out a questionnaire."
He also recommended using an MRI and other machines to evaluate biological response markers. For example, "are there particular areas of the brain that light up or that are activated, based off of self-reported feelings of fear related to a Black person?"
The present-moment awareness that stems from mindfulness practices may be the cost-effective tool that humanity needs to access the present while significantly reducing the proliferation of systemic racism and race-based violence throughout communities, organizations, and nations.
More research on the topic is needed, as such research can potentially save some of the most marginalized people's lives on a global scale.
A new study of nurses shows the importance of sleep—and staying aware on the job.
- A study of nurses found that an extra 29 minutes of sleep dramatically improved job-related mindfulness.
- Nurses that reported higher mindfulness scores were 66 percent less likely to experience symptoms of insomnia.
- Roughly 70 million American adults suffer from some form of sleep disorder.
Health care requires extreme attention to detail. Surgeons must pay particular attention to every move. Orthopedic surgeons can easily miss revealing details on an x-ray. Perhaps no job in health care requires more multitasking than nursing. Mindfulness is especially important in this field.
A new study from the University of South Florida's School of Aging Studies, led by assistant professor Soomi Lee and published in the journal Sleep Health, uncovers a critical best practice for nurses: sleep. In this study of 61 full-time nurses in U.S. hospitals, an extra 29 minutes of sleep every night helped these frontline workers be more mindful while on the job.
Mindfulness requires complete attention to detail on the moment in front of you. Derived from Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness became vogue in psychotherapy circles in the seventies, predominantly due to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. While the word tends to invoke images of seated meditation practice, mindfulness can be done at all times by anyone, making this focus on nurses especially intriguing.
Nurses are expert multitaskers—the antithesis of mindfulness, though given their job duties, juggling multiple obligations comes with the territory. It's easy to overlook a blood test or temperature check when the hospital floor is slammed. Mindfulness plays an important role in helping them stay on track without becoming overwhelmed by tasks.
Thanks to long and often grueling shifts—some nurses can be on the floor for 24 hours—sleep problems are common. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic; the emotional toll is causing mental health problems for all frontline workers, which can result in a lack of sleep. A vicious cycle ensues.
For the study, Lee and her team tracked the nurses via self-reported questionnaires on their phones, examining eight sleep variables across five dimensions: satisfaction, alertness, timing, efficiency, and duration. They also reported their levels of attention and awareness while at work. The nurses answered mindfulness and sleepiness questions three times a day for two weeks.
Should you "hack" your sleep pattern? | Vanessa Hill | Big Think
It shouldn't be surprising that more sleep leads to greater capacity to focus. Specifically, the nurses that reported greater sleep sufficiency, higher sleep quality, and less insomnia fared best the next day at work. The goal, however, was to track more than awareness. As Lee notes,
"Mindful attention is beyond just being awake. It indicates attentional control and self-regulation that facilitates sensitivity and adaptive adjustment to environmental and internal cues, which are essential when providing mindful care to patients and effectively dealing with stressful situations."
In a sort of feedback loop, the nurses that reported higher mindfulness scores were 66 percent less likely to experience symptoms of insomnia. About one-third of American adults sleep less than six hours per night. Problems ranging from cognitive decline and weight gain to automobile accidents and immune system issues result from too little sleep.
If car crashes are more likely when drivers aren't sleeping enough, just think of the number of workplace accidents—an especially harrowing prospect if your job requires sticking needles into patients and monitoring their vitals. With an estimated 70 million Americans suffering from some form of sleep disorder, this is an under-discussed public health crisis.
The feedback loop from Lee's study shows the necessity of cultivating both more awareness and sleeping better. When you work in health care, it's not only your health on the line.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
You're always in control of your breath.
- Anxiety is triggered environmentally and emotionally, but a physiological response quickly follows.
- Calming breathing techniques help to tamp down the physiological response of anxiety.
- The following four exercises are known to help calm anxiety and develop focus.
Stressed? Use This Breathing Technique to Improve Your Attention and Memory, with Emma Seppälä
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Emma Seppälä, science director at Stanford Center For Compassion And Altruism Research And Education, says American culture values intensity yet undervalues calmness. We never shut off. While intensity has its place, every animal in nature inherently knows the necessity of rest in order to store up energy for when it's actually needed. Americans are careless with our energy reserves, which is why so many of us are chronically tired, overworked, and stressed out.
Seppälä knows that breathing changes our state of mind. She recommends a popular yogic breathing technique, nadi shodhana, also known as alternate nostril breathing.
Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead. Use your thumb to close your right nostril while inhaling through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Repeat this for at least two minutes, then sit quietly for another minute or two, breathing normally.
There are many variations of this technique. My favorite is a four-cycle breath: inhale for a count of four through one nostril, retain your breath for a count of four, exhale for four, hold your breath out for four. If you're new to this breathing technique, retention might initially create more anxiety than it relieves, so try the basic inhale-exhale pattern until you can last for at least five minutes before moving onto breath retentions.
Mind Hack: Combat Anxiety with This Breathing Technique
Game designer and author of "Superbetter," Jane McGonigal, recommends the Power Breath: exhale for twice as long as you inhale. She says this will shift your nervous system from sympathetic to a parasympathetic tone—you'll calm down. Simply sit comfortably, close your eyes, and begin by inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of eight.
This is also a popular yoga breathing technique. As with nadi shodhana, it can initially kick up rather than diminish anxiety. If you find long exhales challenging, begin by inhaling and exhaling at an even rate: a count of four in both directions. Then try to slowly increase your exhale to a count of five, six, and so on. Longtime practitioners can inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of 50. As with any muscle, you can train your breathing. The benefits are immense.
Breathing Techniques to Help You Relax
Focus Word Breathing
Lolly, a Mind-Body Specialist at the University of Maryland Heart Center, offers what she calls Focus Word Breathing. Traditionally, this is known as Mantra meditation. Choose a word that has meaning to you—calm, grace, ease—and repeat it during every inhalation and exhalation. As your mind wanders, the word becomes a sort of flagpole that you've mentally planted to bring you back to this moment.
As a former sufferer of anxiety disorder, I remember how important my thoughts were when having a panic attack. The power of the physiological symptoms increased when I dwelled on negative thoughts. This spiral felt like being sucked into a vortex. By contrast, when I was able to redirect my thinking, the symptoms lessened.
Mantra meditation never completely worked during an attack. By that point, my physiology had been hijacked. But as a regular practice, this breathing technique is powerful. Think of it as training for the big game of life. You teach yourself to focus on beneficial words. Your attention goes where thinking leads you, but you also have control of your thoughts. By integrating a mantra with breathing, you're priming your mind to focus at will.
How to do Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall) w/ AnaMargret Sanchez
Deep Belly Breathing
This exercise is commonly used by yoga instructors to bring their students into Corpse Pose (Savasana). Place your hands over your stomach while lying down and focus your attention there. Take deep, even breaths into your hands. As with the last technique, focus your mind there. Relax the muscles at your extremities: your toes, fingers, and forehead. Allow yourself to melt into the floor.
I love doing this breath while in Viparita Karani, otherwise known as Legs Up the Wall posture. The video above explains how to enter this pose; a blanket or pillow under your lower back makes the posture comfortable. Once there, I practice deep belly breathing. This technique always calms me down. I've recommended it to friends suffering from insomnia; they all responded with positive anecdotal feedback.