Mindfulness: Just Becoming Aware of Something Changes Its Fundamental Nature

Your brain is regularly inhibited by aversion, apprehension, greed, and fear. Mindfulness exercises can help change that.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: When you sit down and observe your own mind on purpose just for fun as a kind of scientific inquiry into what drives you, it doesn’t take long, say if you focus on, say, the breath as the object of attention and you’re riding on the waves of your breathing. It doesn’t take long before you’ll notice that some kind of want comes up. Some kind of desire. And maybe it’s because your body’s uncomfortable. So maybe you just want to fidget a little or shift posture, you know, and just do it this way or that way. So it’s very hard to sit still. Why? Because we’re antsy. Why are we antsy? Because we want to be comfortable and we’re not comfortable. So rather than holding the discomfort in awareness because why should we privilege comfort? Comfort, discomfort — because there’s no ultimate comfort. That’s why we shift from one leg to the other and we’re very shifty. But if you actually train yourself to be embodied, you get less shifty. I mean the mind just naturally settles. The body naturally settles and you can be, like, comfortable. Just at home in your own skin. But when you’re not and you want something, we call that greed. I mean that’s like, you know, it’s greedy; it wants something. Now that one thing to just be comfortable, that’s fine. But when you start to watch the mind, you’ll notice that it’s got a lot of agendas on the greed spectrum.

I mean it’s — and greed is not quite the same as ambition. It has to do with — greed has to do with more for me. More of what I want for me. Then there’s this other thing that you’ll also notice, which is you’re sitting there and the opposite will come up. What I don’t want. What I’m afraid of. What I need to keep at the door. Keep at bay. To push away. And that’s collectively referred to as aversion or dislike or hatred, you know, when it’s really strong and directed often at other people or whatever. So we’ve got greed on one hand and it is toxic. The more you’re sucked into greed; the more egotistical you become; the more it’s all about me; the more you’re willing to lose your own ethical foundation to get a particular result only to find that even that result is not really satisfying so you’re on to the next result. And it’s a never-ending trajectory. But nevertheless, we have to admit it’s here all the time. It’s not like oh, I’ve transcended greed, you know. I don’t think we do transcend greed, but we can transform how we are in relationship to it. And with awareness that greed doesn’t have to run us. And even if it’s attenuated 5 or 10 percent — wow that would be its own form of liberation. Never mind 30 or 40 or 50 percent. And the same with the aversion. Like what I don’t want. It’s so bloody boring to sit here and watch my breathing.

All right. So what? Who thinks it’s boring? Have you looked at your boredom? So have you looked at your aversion? Then as soon as the you that’s looking at your aversion, that’s more like awareness. It’s like awareness of aversion isn’t diversive. Awareness of greed isn’t greedy. So you’re free already of those two toxic impulses. Then there’s another one, which is like the madness that passes for the scenario in our head. And that’s often spoken of as illusion or delusion. That we’re kind of like, got these completely half-baked explanations about everything and who we are and where things are going and what’s wrong with the world and what’s wrong with my family and what’s right — and all of that is kind of none of it’s true. None if it’s true. But we believe it, that narrative mode and that mind wandering, default-mode network that’s like, you know, our favorite pastime — the story of me. And it’s deluded and it also drains a huge amount of energy. So we can bring mindfulness to greed and the greed can be attenuated or liberated. Mindfulness to aversion and the aversion could be attenuated or liberated. Or mindfulness to our own deluded nature — thoughts and emotions and so forth. And that is liberating of them. Then what do you have left? You. As pure awareness. Fully embodied. What comes next? I don’t know. You’re writing the script. It’s not like oh then you’ll feel this and you’ll feel that and you’ll be enlightened and everybody will bow down to you and you won’t ever have to have any kind of challenges or difficulty.

The full catastrophe will evaporate forever. Nope. It’ll be the same old same old. Only you won’t be the same old same old. Because you’ll be the same you. You’ll have the same bank account. You’ll have the same social security number. You’ll have the same face in the mirror. It’ll be aging every day, but you will be in a wiser relationship to your possibilities. And to your embodied, enacted unfolding of those possibilities moment by moment. And that means life lived fully while you have the chance, while we have the chance. As far as I know, you didn’t ask to be born. This is pure gravy. It’s just a total gift even with all the pain and suffering and the trauma and I recognize the profundity of that and the rending quality of that. Still it’s a gift and you’re a gift and — silence, in some sense, at that point becomes wakefulness. It’s radiant. It’s luminous. And it’s already you.

Your brain is regularly inhibited by aversion, apprehension, greed, and fear. Mindfulness exercises can help change that. Medical professor and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn explains how one can combat their aversion and, hopefully, become a better, more reasonable person in the meantime.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

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