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.
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Swiss physician Paracelsus knew chemicals that heal in small doses can be toxic in large doses. The 16th-century "father of toxicology" spent his career investigating the effects of chemistry on human biology—and consciousness.
Psychedelics offer some of the most profound changes in consciousness known to humankind. As with the work of iatrochemists (chemists that provide chemical treatments for disease, a discipline vocally championed by Paracelsus), modern researchers recognize that understanding the dosage requirements of psychedelics is essential for determining efficacy. While overdosing can be psychologically damaging, psychedelics are generally not deadly, making them ideal for study.
Most people don't worry about overdoing LSD or psilocybin, however. The current trend is almost homeopathic in nature. Microdosing has become the productivity pastime of the Silicon Valley set, with knowledge workers swearing that minute quantities of LSD help them focus. Given the legal status of psychedelics, however, research has been scarce, though growing.
Imperial College London's Centre for Psychedelic Research has led the way in clinical trials. Director Robin Carhart-Harris has published over 100 papers on the effects of psychedelics on a variety of mental health issues. The center recently produced one of the first large-scale studies on microdosing, with a caveat—the psychedelics were self-supplied (to skirt legal issues) and the psychological results self-reported.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs
For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.
The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.
The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results.
The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia.
The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups.
Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect."
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock
Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A 2019 study found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.
"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."
The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.
"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."
As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company reaching a $2 billion valuation, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary.
This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities.
Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. Pharmacological dependence is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round.
When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Can playing video games really curb the risk of depression? Experts weigh in.
- A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health.
- Young boys who played video games daily had lower depression scores at age 14 compared to those who played less than once per month or never.
- The study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health. The study suggests that boys who play video games frequently in early adolescence (around age 11) are less likely to develop depressive symptoms throughout the following years. Additional findings in this study suggest that girls who spend more time on social media appear to develop more depressive symptoms.
How do video games and social media impact young kids?
The study gained interesting insight into the link between depression rates at age 14 and video game usage a few years earlier.
Credit: Pixel-Shot on Adobe Stock
The study's lead author, Ph.D. student Aaron Kandola, explains to Eurekalert: "Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful."
How this study was conducted:
- These findings come as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, where over 11,000 (n = 11,341) adolescents were surveyed.
- Depressive symptoms were measured with a Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (age 14).
- "Exposures" were listed as the frequency of video games, social media, and internet usage (age 11).
- Physical activity was also accounted for on a self-reporting basis.
When comparing young boys (age 11) who played video games to those who don't, the study showed interesting results:
- Boys who played video games daily had 24.3 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
- Boys who played video games at least once per week had 25.1 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
- BOoys who played video games at least once per month had 31.2 percent lower depression scored at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never).
When comparing how depression impacted young girls based on their social media usage, the researchers found that:
- Compared with less than once per month/never social media usage, using social media most days at age 11 was associated with a 13% higher depression score at age 14.
Can playing video games actually be beneficial?
There has been a lot of speculation in the past two decades about screen-time, social media, and video games. Whether it's linking video games to violence and obesity or linking social media to depression and anxiety — this seems to be a controversial question. According to the research, the answer to this question is yes, video games can be beneficial in moderation when paired with physical activity and real-life application.
Adding in some physical activity could be the difference between beneficial and harmful.
The above-mentioned study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
Previous studies have concluded there are some mental health benefits to playing video games.
A 2020 study by the University of Oxford analyzed the impacts of playing two extremely popular games at the time: Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" and Electronic Arts' "Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville." The study used data and survey responses from over 3000 players in total — the games' developers shared anonymous data about people's playing habits, and the researchers surveyed those gamers separately about their well-being.
Results of this study found that time spent playing these games was associated with players reporting that they felt happier.
Additionally, previous studies (such as this University of Arizona study) have linked video game usage with new learning opportunities: "
Games like Minecraft are being used in more and more classrooms around the country. MinecraftEdu (recently purchased by Microsoft), allows teachers to structure a sandbox-style play environment around any curriculum. Students can work together to learn the scientific method, build farms, or take advantage of turtle robots to learn basic programming. Not only do these activities improve team-building skills, but they give students the chance to develop and practice technological literacy."
"Everything in moderation" is an important factor in determining whether video game use is beneficial or harmful.
While there can be some positive impacts from playing video games, research (such as this study conducted in 2013) has also shown that people who spend a predominant part of their day gaming are at risk of showing lower educational and career attainment in addition to problems with peers and lower social skills.
In-depth research suggests BDSM practitioners can experience altered states of consciousness that can be therapeutic.
- BDSM is an acronym encompassing a variety of sexual practices that include: bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism. The practice of BDSM usually consists of partners taking on specific roles in which one partner is dominant and the other is submissive.
- BDSM practitioners (individuals who frequently engage in BDSM play) can experience various mental health benefits from engaging in their scenes.
- According to the research, subspace is often characterized by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation.
The psychology of BDSM
Many experts have weighed in on the significant mental and physical health benefits of sex:
- Lower blood pressure
- Stronger immune system
- Better heart health
- Improved self-esteem
- Decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Better sleep routines
However, there is an increasing interest in studies that explore the specific mental and physical health benefits of BDSM practices. BDSM practitioners (individuals who frequently engage in BDSM play) can experience various mental health benefits from engaging in their scenes. For example, one study suggests that being dominant in the bedroom can boost your work ethic. Other research in this area has suggested engaging in BDSM activities can boost your mental well-being and increase awareness of your attachment style in partnerships, which can ultimately lead to healthier relationships. Additionally, unhealthy stereotypes and misconceptions about BDSM have also been addressed by experts.
A natural starting point for more research surrounding the mental health impact of BDSM practices is to explore what happens in a person's mind and body when they experience intense sexual activity. While physical reactions (such as arousal and climax) are quite typical, there is something unique that happens to individuals who participate in intense BDSM scenes.
What is "subspace" in BDSM play?
Subspace is defined as a state of transcendence reached by submissives through intense physical or psychological experiences with their partner. This can happen through sensory triggers (the use of paddles, blindfolds, restraints) or through emotional triggers (certain words or phrases, meaningful expressions).
This space, while experienced differently for many, can be described as a nearly-hypnotic feeling that takes over when the submissive partner is highly engaged in their role.
What is "domspace" in BDSM play?
Domspace is defined as an altered, elevated state of mind that Dominants (during BDSM scenes) experience through intense physical or psychological experiences with their submissive partner. This can happen through sensory triggers (using paddles or restraints on your partner) or through emotional triggers (expressing certain words or phrases to your partner, meaningful expressions, the notion that your submissive trusts you enough to be vulnerable with you).
While subspace can be described as a "hazy" or "blurry" trance-like state, domspace is often described (by individuals who experience it) as an intense, euphoric, and focused state of mind.
Are there therapeutic benefits to submission?
Experts weigh in: there may be therapeutic and relational benefits to being a submissive person in BDSM scenes.
Photo by LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS on Adobe Stock
According to the author of the study, Dulcinea Pitagora: "Because the BDSM community has been historically vilified due to stereotypes reinforced by negative media exposure and inadequate education, relatively little is known about the phenomenon of subspace outside of the BDSM community."
There is a proven connection between BDSM interactions and altered states of consciousness.
According to a 2016 study, there is a direct link between BDSM interactions and ASCs (altered states of consciousness) - the significant one, in this case, being that engaging in a submissive role during BDSM play can lead to transient hypofrontality.
Transient hypofrontality, a term coined by Dr. Arne Dietrich, is when the focused, thought-processing part of the brain is "shut off" by external triggers. An example of this is the difference between engaging in a competitive sport and running in a beautiful park. During a competitive sport, your brain will need to make a variety of complex decisions. While you're running a calmer path in a beautiful park, however, your mind can "let go" of that prefrontal engagement and you can experience an alternate (relaxed) state of consciousness. For a submissive, during BDSM scenes, this can result in reduced self-reported stress and increased sexual arousal.
Transient hypofrontality has also been used to describe severe "end-stage" addictions. This ability to "shut off" the thought-processing function in your brain can actually cause "involuntary" cravings for this feeling. This can be why many submissive practitioners become reliant on their BDSM activities.
The study explains, "In order to examine an alignment of transient hypofrontality with subspace, the authors collected additional self-reported data describing experiences of subspace; a comparison of these datasets confirmed that the characteristics of transient hypofrontality were consistent with those of subspace."
Experiencing subspace during BDSM play can activate the sympathetic nervous system.
According to the research, subspace is often characterized by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the release of epinephrine and endorphins, and a subsequent period of non-verbal, deep relaxation. This chain reaction can often lead the submissive in the scene to experience a temporary state of depersonalization and derealization (which are generally experienced as positive and pleasant in this context).
The key to experiencing this trance-like state is having a partner you trust, research suggests.
This state is highly sought after by individuals who identify as submissives in the BDSM context - and the key to achieving this state of being is having a dominant partner you can trust. This type of trust and reciprocal consent can provide an entry to subspace.
"Because the participant who identifies as the sadist, dominant [or top] in a given scene is generally charged with monitoring and protecting their partner, the [submissive] bottom in the scene might be better situated for achieving an altered state of consciousness and transcendence." - Rethinking Kink, 2010
BDSM could be used as a way to heal from trauma and benefit your relationships, experts suggest.
While there is no research to date that has sought to capture the specific experiences of subspace and how they relate to relationships and healing, many experts believe BDSM can in fact provide therapeutic and relational benefits to those who engage in the practices.
"Given the associations between ASCs and subspace described above, the authors' findings on ASCs can be extended to the analogous experience of subspace. The study suggested that symbolic action can have a profound effect on psychological processes and connected trance (a type of ASC) with the healing properties of the trance state."
From baboon hierarchies to the mind-gut connection, the path to defeating depression starts with understanding its causes.
- According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people suffer from depression. It is the leading cause of disability and, at its worst, can lead to suicide. Unfortunately, depression is often misunderstood or ignored until it is too late.
- Psychologist Daniel Goleman, comedian Pete Holmes, neuroscientist Emeran Mayer, psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, and more outline several of the social, chemical, and neurological factors that may contribute to the complex disorder and explain why there is not a singular solution or universal "cure" that can alleviate the symptoms.
- From gaining insight into how the brain-gut connection works and adopting a more Mediterranean diet, to seeking help from medical or spiritual practitioners, depression is a personal battle that requires a personalized strategy to keep it at bay, as well as more research and understanding.