Mind fitness: How meditation boosts your focus, resilience and brain
Consider stress junk food for your brain, while meditation is the gym that can repair and reshape you after years of a bad brain diet.
Daniel Goleman is a psychologist, lecturer, and science journalist who has reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books) was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year and a half.
Goleman is also the author of Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. The book argues that new information technologies will create “radical transparency,” allowing us to know the environmental, health, and social consequences of what we buy. As shoppers use point-of-purchase ecological comparisons to guide their purchases, market share will shift to support steady, incremental upgrades in how products are made – changing every thing for the better.
His latest book is Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, which he has co-authored with Richard Davidson reveals the science of what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it.
Daniel Goleman: Altered states refers to a mode of consciousness or awareness that takes us out of our ordinary everyday sense of the world, sense of ourselves.
We can enter altered states when we get intensely focused on something—deep concentration will bring you into an altered state, sometimes people like to talk how athletes get “into the zone” or they “get into flow”, those are everyday altered states, but they come from being intensely focused on some activity or in the moment itself.
And of course altered states can come from drugs or from being in an unusual physiological state. A fever can bring on an altered state. And of course, the ‘60s and ‘70s saw a huge upsurge of people interested in exploring altered states through psychedelics.
So altered states are temporary conditions, and when whatever it was that brought on the special state of awareness leaves, then the state fades.
So if you get into a flow state rock climbing, when you come down from the mountain, it’s gone—or whatever may have caused it: your temperature might have gone up, and put you into maybe not a pleasant altered state, but still an altered state. The temperature goes down, it’s gone.
Altered traits on the other hand are lasting changes or transformations of being, and they come classically through having cultivated an altered state through meditation, which then has a consequence for how you are day-to-day—and that’s different than how you were before you tried the meditation.
And what we find in our research, as we say in the book Altered Traits, is that the more you meditate, the more lifetime hours you put into it, the stronger the lasting traits become.
When we surveyed more than 6000 peer reviewed articles published to date on meditation we used very strict rigorous methodological standards and we whittled them down to about 60, so maybe one percent of all those articles were really well done. And they document very strongly that altered traits are a lasting consequences of regular meditation and it’s not that it’s the altered states that’s the point. If you look at the classic traditions from which meditation comes to us in the West all of them talk about the quality of being, the person you’ve become. And we see it in the data in many ways. We see it in cognitive changes, we see in behavioral changes and most importantly we see it in neurological changes the neuroscience of meditation is really getting stronger and stronger. It’s pretty spectacular and it shows that brain function and perhaps even structure in the long-term meditators becomes different and becomes different in ways that are actually predicted in classic meditation texts.
The good news is that there’s a dose response relationship in meditation. Apparently from what we can tell the longer you do it the more benefits you get. So for example, right from the beginning there are intentional benefits, there are stress benefits, you’re more resilient under stress, but we see this even more strikingly in people who have been longer-term meditators, people who have done meditation daily for say several years. There you see in terms of attention things that don’t show up with the beginner so much you see that, for example, they’re more present. There’s a strict test of this in cognitive science called the intentional blink. The intentional blink means you get lost in one thought and you don’t notice what’s happening the next moment. And this happens, of course, to all of us ordinarily, but longer-term meditators seem to have this less, it means they’re more present to the moment. Longer-term meditators are able to better focus in the midst of distractions. This is kind of common sense because meditation in essence is training in attention.
The basic move in meditation is you’re focusing on one thing or on a particular intentional stance, the mind wandering circuitry, which is well known in neuroscience, the mind wandering circuitry kicks in, people’s mind wanders on average 50 percent of the time research at Harvard tells us. So at some point when you’re trying to do your meditation your mind will wander. We’re wired that way. The key is do you notice that it wonders? Once you notice your mind has wandered off and you bring it back your strengthening the circuitry for focus for attention. And just like going to the gym and working out for years and years doing reps you get bigger muscles and more strength and fitness, the same thing happens in the mind. The mind is a mental gym and meditation is a basic work out. So if you’re a long-term meditator you get more benefits than people who are just starting out. It’s just common sense. And we see it in the scientific findings. So longer-term meditators are better able to focus on that one thing and not be distracted even when there’s a hubbub around them; they’re are better able to concentrate; they’re better able to be present to what’s happening. So the attentional benefits just get stronger and stronger and even more important they become traits. We see them not when a person is meditating but months after or just in their everyday life when they come into a lab without meditating we see that the attentional benefits still last.
The same thing is true of stress. In long-term meditators the benefits for handling stress get stronger and stronger as time goes on. Of course we see some signs of this in people right from the get go, beginners in meditation, but the longer you’ve been a meditator the more, for example, you’re able to snap back from an upset. And this is really the sign of resilience. Resilience is measured scientifically by how long it takes you to get back to what we call your baseline that pleasant mood you’re in before that thing flipped you out. And the shorter that is the more resilient you are. And we see this as a lasting trait in long-term meditators they are able to bounce back from stress. Also we see that their amygdala, that trigger point for the stress reaction is less reactive; they’re calmer in the face of stress. So the stress benefits get stronger and stronger and become traits in long-term meditators.
Meditation is like a gym for your brain. If you follow through and exercise (in this case, your brain) every single day... pretty soon you'll see results. Psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman posits that meditation truly leads you to an "altered state" similar to psychotropic drugs, albeit in a much more lasting and positive way that Goleman calls an "altered trait". Meditation is the opposite of stress in that with meditation we can unlearn stress; consider stress junk food for your brain and meditation as the gym that can repair and reshape you after years of a bad brain diet! Goleman's new book is Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.
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We are likely to see the first humans walk on Mars this decade.
- Space agencies have successfully sent three spacecraft to Mars this year.
- The independent missions occurred at around the same time because Earth and Mars were particularly close to each other last summer, providing an opportune time to launch.
- SpaceX says it hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2026, while the U.S. and China aim to land humans on the planet in the 2030s.
Spacecraft from three of the world's space agencies reached Mars this year.
In February, the United Arab Emirates' Hope space probe entered the Martian orbit, where it is studying the planet's weather cycles. That same month, NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars, where it will soon begin collecting rock samples that could contain signs of ancient life. And in May, China successfully landed its Zhurong rover on the Martian surface, becoming the second nation to ever do so.
All three missions launched in the summer of 2020. The timing was no coincidence: once every two years, Earth and Mars come especially close together because their orbits are "at opposition," which is when the Earth-Mars distance is smallest during the 780-day synodic period. It is an opportune window to send spacecraft to Mars.
The handful of spacecraft currently exploring the Martian surface and atmosphere are scheduled to conduct their experiments for periods ranging from months to years. Some even plan to collect materials to return to Earth. For example, NASA's Perseverance will store its rock samples in protective tubes and leave them behind for a smaller "fetch rover" to pick up on a future mission.
Photo of Martian surface taken by the Perseverance roverNASA/JPL-Caltech
If all goes well, an Airbus spacecraft dubbed the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will carry the samples back to Earth in 2031. It would be the first time a space mission has returned Martian matter to Earth. But before the decade's end, space agencies have some other missions that aim to study the Red Planet.
Europe & Russia
NASA is not the only space agency aiming to find evidence of life on the Red Planet. In 2023, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency plan to land their Rosalind Franklin rover on the Martian surface, where it will drill into rock and analyze soil composition for signs of past — or possibly present — alien life.
The joint mission is part of a long-term Mars project that began in 2016. This second phase was initially planned for 2020, but due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the space agencies decided to postpone the launch to 2022.
"We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.
In 2022, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to send to Mars its TEREX lander, which will "precisely measure the amount of water molecules and oxygen molecules, and search for water resources and the possibility of life on Mars," JAXA wrote.
In 2024, JAXA also plans to launch a uniquely bold interplanetary mission that will involve sending a probe to orbit Mars, landing on the Martian moon Phobos, collecting surface samples, and then returning those samples to Earth in 2029. JAXA says the mission has two main objectives: (1) to investigate whether the Martian moons are captured asteroids or fragments that coalesced after a giant impact with Mars; and (2) to clarify the mechanisms controlling the surface evolution of the Martian moons and Mars.
Following the successful landing of its Zhurong rover this year, China released a roadmap of its plans for additional Mars voyages. The first is an uncrewed mission scheduled for 2030, with crewed missions planned for 2033, 2035, 2037, and 2041. As the International Space Station project is coming to a close, China is in the process of building its own space station; earlier this year it launched into orbit the first part of its station, which will take 10 more missions to assemble.
Elon Musk's California-based aerospace company has its sights on two Mars voyages: a cargo-only mission in 2022 and a human mission by 2026. The crewed mission would involve building a propellant depot and preparing a site for future crewed flights. Getting to Mars will first require an orbital test of SpaceX's Starship rocket, which the company hopes to conduct this year.
Regarding the long-term future of humans on the Red planet, Musk once told Ars Technica:
"I'll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining. But I'd like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars."
In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization executed its first interplanetary trip with its Mars Orbiter Mission. It marked the first time an Asian nation reached Martian orbit and also the first time a nation successfully reached the Red planet on its maiden voyage. India has plans for a follow-up Mars Orbiter Mission 2, but it remains unclear when that will occur and what the mission will entail.
In February, the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation said the nation would only launch a Mars mission after Chandrayaan-3, India's upcoming mission to the Moon, which is expected to launch in 2022.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."