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How Meditation Transforms the Way You Experience Pain

If you want to feel less pain, meditate more often. According to this new research, it can genuinely erase the emotional reaction to pain. And since it's long been said by coaches and some doctors that most pain is within the mind, here's scientific proof to back that assertion up.

Daniel Goleman: One of the stunning findings that showed up in long-term meditators—and these other scientists were quite skeptical about [it], but Richard Davidson my co-author and his group went ahead and tried it—they had people who had done 1,000 to 10,000 lifetime hours of meditation come in and simply do a retreat for one day in the lab. And they did a measure of the genes for inflammation, and they found that there was a down-regulation of inflammatory genes from one day of meditation. 

What this means is that inflammation, which is a cause, it’s a risk factor for a wide range of diseases, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease, you name it, inflammation almost always plays a role in disease. 

And what this says is that intensive retreats in meditation, even for a day, help you lower the level of those genes. We don’t yet know if this is clinically important; that’s another study that needs to be done. 

But we do know that it’s so remarkable that people in genomic science were amazed that a simple mental exercise could have such a profound impact on this array of genes. 

Pretty eye-opening. There was a remarkable finding when it comes to how the Olympic level meditators experience pain. Ordinarily if you bring someone into the lab and you tell them “We’re going to give you a burn in ten seconds, it won’t cause blisters on your skin but you’re going to feel it, it’s going to hurt,” the moment you tell them that the emotional circuitry for feeling pain goes ballistic. It’s as though they’re feeling the pain already. 

And then you get them the touch of the hot test tube—whatever it is, and it stays ballistic, and then for ten seconds more it stays ballistic; they don’t recover emotionally. 

The “Olympic-level” meditators had quite a different response. You tell them “You’re going to feel this pain in ten seconds,” their emotional centers don’t do anything. They’re completely equanimous. 

The pain comes and they feel it, you see it register physiologically, but there’s no emotional reaction, and there’s no emotional reaction afterward, so in other words, they’re totally equanimous, they’re unflappable. 

Even though they experience the pain physiologically they don’t have the emotional reaction. 

And what we find is that calming the emotional reaction is one of the most powerful benefits of meditation. And I’m not talking about the Olympic level, I’m talking about beginners.

There’s a wonderful method called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; it was developed by a friend of ours John Kabat-Zinn years ago. And it’s for people in hospitals, people in clinics—although anyone could benefit—but one of the strongest findings on this has been that it helps with people who have chronic pain. 

And I’m talking about pain that medication is not going to help you with, there’s nothing medicine knows what to do about this except give you horrible narcotics that are addictive. And here is a very positive alternative, because what happens when you do MBSR if you have chronic pain is: the emotional component changes. You shift your relationship to the pain. 

It no longer is “My pain, oh my God I can’t stand it,” instead it’s “Oh, there’s that sensation again.” 

So the physiology of the pain continues, but the emotional component, which is really where the hurt is, disappears or is much reduced because you no longer have that same relationship to the pain that we do ordinarily.

Picture this: you're in a doctor's office, and the doctor tells you that he or she is going to give you an injection. By the time they bring the needle out, you've already felt half the pain you're going to feel just by mentally preparing yourself for, arguably, worse pain than you're ever going to get with just that needle. That's because much of pain itself is psychological—and an effective way to mitigate this is by simple mediation. Just a one-day "boot camp" of meditation can make a difference, says Daniel Goleman. His new book is Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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