Everybody is talking about mindfulness… but nobody seems to be able to explain clearly what the heck it really is. Ask people and you’ll hear, “Umm, be in the moment and SOMETHING SOMETHING SOMETHING, uh, meditation.”
But is it merely the latest fad? Actually, no. And there isn’t some looming deathmatch between mindfulness and neuroscience, between East and West. They’re actually on the same page.
Research shows mindfulness works. It can help you be happier and help you reduce stress. But nobody’s ever explained it to you in a way that makes sense or doesn’t sound corny. Let’s fix that.
We’ll look at how neuroscience and mindfulness line up, get real answers as to why our brains so often get anxious, sad, or angry and learn the research-backed way to be happier — and stay that way.
Let’s get to it…
Your Left Brain Is A Liar
My grandmother didn’t like the word “liar.” She felt it was too harsh. She used to say people were “telling stories.” And that’s what the left side of your brain does. Constantly.
The right side of your brain sees things pretty concretely. But that guy to his left is always weaving tales to try and make sense of the information coming in. That’s his job.
We need Lefty to give meaning to life. He interprets your experiences. If Lefty sees real patterns that others don’t, people call you creative. But there’s also a problem…
Lefty often screws up.
Michael Gazzaniga, one of the top cognitive neuroscientists, did some brain studies in the 1970’s with Roger Sperry (who would later win the Nobel Prize.) Gazzaniga discovered what Lefty’s job is — and just how bad Lefty is at it sometimes.
Gazzaniga discovered that the left side of the brain created explanations and reasons to help make sense about what was going on. It acted as an interpreter to reality… Over the last 30 years, several studies have shown that the left side of the brain, even in normal people, excels at creating an explanation for what’s going on, even if it isn’t correct.
As the old saying goes, “The map is not the territory.” Lefty doesn’t have perfect information. And sometimes he’s too clever for his own good. He’s part of you — and you are fallible. So sometimes this happens:
Right Brain: Everyone at the table is frowning. They’re not laughing at our brilliant jokes.
Left Brain: Obviously, they hate us and are plotting our death.
Lefty can be way off base sometimes. If he sees patterns where there aren’t any, you’re anxious, paranoid or schizophrenic. And if Lefty doesn’t see any patterns in life — no “meaning” — you’re clinically depressed.
Ever screw up bad and apologize by saying, “I wasn’t myself last night”? Think about it: that apology makes no sense whatsoever. What you’re trying to say is, “My actions did not line up with the story Lefty gave me about who I am.” Again, “the map is not the territory.”
The problem is you don’t even realize Lefty is there. You assume his voice in your head is you and that his stories are rock-solid reality.
But when Lefty isn’t detecting useful patterns, making accurate sense of things and giving meaning to the world, he can be a monster. He’s that jerk who has an opinion about everything, refuses to shut up and never admits when he’s wrong.
“If this doesn’t work out, my life is over.”
“Everything is awful.”
“I DON’T DESERVE THIS!”
This is Lefty gone haywire. When you pay too little attention to the right brain’s raw data (“She’s looking at her phone”) and give too much credence to Lefty’s sometimes-boneheaded interpretations (“Clearly, we’re boring her”), you can end up angry, sad, frustrated or anxious.
Nobody would ever shout, “Life is wrong for not lining up with my vision of how it should be!”
Just kidding. People do that about a thousand times a day. They just don’t realize it. That’s what’s happening when they punch the dashboard and complain about traffic. Expectations are just a story that Lefty tells you about the future.
And when reality is not lining up with expectations… it must be reality’s fault. Not Lefty’s, of course. So you get angry at reality. Which makes a whole heck of a lot of sense, right?
Well, stomping my feet and demanding that the universe bend to my will has not worked out very well for me. You can’t change reality. (Sorry.)
So what can you do to not get angry, sad, anxious or otherwise upset? This is where mindfulness comes in…
Watch Lefty Work
From a neuroscience perspective, mindfulness is about staying focused on the concrete in life and not getting too wrapped up in Lefty’s interpretations, categories, stories — and occasional fictions.
Lefty isn’t “you.” Like your liver or your spleen, he’s a part of you, doing his job… sometimes ineptly. But when you realize this and listen for his voice in your head, you can double-check his work.
From The Neurotic’s Guide to Avoiding Enlightenment:
Most live their lives as the interpreter, they are the interpreter, and the mind is a master they are not even aware of. They are angry, offended, happy or fearful and do not question the authenticity of these thoughts and experiences. The left-brain interpreter is always on and cannot be shut off but once it is recognized, things begin to change…
Listen to your brain as you go about your day and check what you hear against the concrete facts you notice. When you do this you can start to hear Lefty at work:
Right Brain: The boss seems agitated.
Left Brain: Better get the resume together. We’re getting fired.
And then you can step in and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, pal. There are many reasons El Jefe could be upset. Let’s wait until we have more info before we empty our desk.”
This kind of check on how practical and realistic Lefty’s interpretations are is the core of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
The essence of this new form of therapy is that anxiety and depression are caused by thinking problems, that is, distortions in thinking cause negative emotions. It focuses on the assumptions and interpretations of the patient; for example, the cognitive distortion called catastrophizing is when a person exaggerates the importance of some event like a job promotion. “If I don’t get this promotion, I’m a total failure.” or “If my relationship doesn’t work out, I’ll be alone the rest of my life and miserable.” The point of the therapy is to make explicit how these assumptions result in negative emotions and to make the thoughts and assumptions more realistic.
Getting rid of Lefty isn’t desirable or even possible. But since he can sometimes act like a child, you need to treat him like one. Lefty’s the kid. You must be the parent.
When you become conscious of the interpreter you no longer take these interpretations too seriously, you might catch yourself with a sensation like “Oh that’s just my interpreter doing its thing again.”… You might also find yourself emphasizing this is “Just my opinion” or “The way I see it” rather than “This is the way it is” and this is enough. This small difference is enough to change how we live with each other and ourselves.
Don’t immediately accept Lefty’s interpretations. Pause, and consider his opinion as if it was advice from a friend. Check it against the hard facts you can see. Is he jumping to conclusions again?
When I spoke with Sharon Salzberg, one of the leading experts on mindfulness and author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, she said this:
What we’re talking about with mindfulness is not in any way eradicating thoughts or annihilating them, but being able to have a little bit of space so we can make a clear decision: “Do I want to nurture this or do I want to let it go?”
That voice in your head isn’t always “you.” Often it’s Lefty. And sometimes he’s acting like a scared or angry child. Take a step back and be the parent.
So you’re not immediately accepting Lefty’s stories as truth. That’s good. But how do you help him be better at his job so he doesn’t overreact all the time?
Help Lefty Be A Better Storyteller
People who lose a limb sometimes experience “phantom limb pain.” You’ve lost an arm but your nonexistent-fist is clenching so hard it’s aching. How the heck do you stop pain in a part of your body that is no longer there?
Turns out the problem is in the brain. And the solution is similar to the issue you have with Lefty. The brain needs a better story.
So researchers set up a “mirror box” that the amputee could put their remaining arm in and the reflection would make it appear the missing arm was still intact. And by unclenching the fist of their one arm, the brain could now “see” the nonexistent-fist unclenching.
And in 60% of patients, this made their pain go away.
All the brain needed to see was the phantom hand open up its fist and the pain was gone.
You’re probably not missing an arm. But you can help Lefty with his storytelling ability and make your pain go away as well.
When you’re consumed by anger, what does neuroscience research say helps chill Lefty out? “Reappraisal.” Telling yourself a different story from Lefty’s about what’s going on: “She doesn’t hate me. She’s just in a bad mood.”
What do positive psychologists recommend when all of Lefty’s stories are depressing? Before you go to bed, write down three good things that happened that day. Make the positive more salient to Lefty and he can’t help but start to weave that into his tales about “how life is.”
When Lefty decides your work is meaningless, what can you do? Create a new job description. Researchers found that hospital cleaners who told themselves that their real job was “contributing to sick people getting better”, they found it engaging. Those who let Lefty tell them, “All you do is empty trash cans for a living” felt their role was boring and meaningless.
And what can you do when Lefty tells you you’re just no good?
Tim Wilson of UVA recommends the “do good, be good” method. When you spend more time helping others, like volunteering, the right brain tells Lefty and he starts to revise his story about what kind of person you are:
It capitalizes on the tried-and-true psychological principle that our attitudes and beliefs often follow from our behaviors, rather than precede them. As Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” People who do volunteer work, for example, often change their narratives of who they are, coming to view themselves as caring, helpful people.
We all love a good story. Help Lefty tell you more positive ones.
The taming of Lefty has begun. Let’s round all this up and learn the best thing that happens when you get that occasionally-troublesome-half of your brain doing his job the right way…
Here’s how to use neuroscience and mindfulness to get Lefty under control:
- Notice Lefty at work: Listen for his interpretations. That’s not you. That’s him.
- Correct him: Check his interpretations against the facts. Is he getting too creative? Going overboard?
- Help Lefty be a better storyteller: Give him a new story. Give him better information. Do good to be good. Help him help you.
On rare occasions, Lefty gets completely overwhelmed by the good data the right brain is giving him — and that creates one of the most wonderful feelings in the world.
The amazingness of the moment hits Lefty so hard he’s at a loss for words to create a story with and he’s speechless. You’ve experienced this, actually…
You call it “awe.”
Many astronauts have been psychologically changed by the experience of being in space, most notably Edgar Mitchell. In viewing earth from a distance, he had a radical experience that changed his life much more than walking on the moon. Here is his description: “What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity… The thought was so large it seemed inexpressible, and to a large degree it still is.” Again, one can see the difficulty of shrinking awareness down to the interpretive mind and then finding words to express what is beyond it.
But awe is rare. We can’t all travel to space. (Note to Elon Musk: GET TO WORK.) But there are other methods to stick a sock in Lefty’s mouth for a while and really engage with life in a moving and mindful way. You’ve probably heard of this one, too:
Flow is a type of that “be in the moment” stuff you hear about mindfulness all the time. Getting Lefty to shut up and take a coffee break while you fully engage with reality.
…described as “flow” by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has used this term to describe the experience that someone has while being totally absorbed in the doing of something. He defines flow as: “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Sometimes Lefty does a great job. He gives you accurate interpretations, sees insightful patterns and tells you a meaningful story about your life. But he needs to be kept in check.
Jokes aren’t funny when they’re explained. The magic trick doesn’t make you gasp when you’re told how it works. We don’t always need — or want — director’s commentary when we watch the movie of life. Sometimes we need to just be there in the moment.
Yes, you are now officially hearing voices in your head. But that’s okay. Just make sure they’re good ones.