The New Yorker:
In the mid-nineteen-seventies, the cognitive psychologist Ellen Langer noticed that elderly people who envisioned themselves as younger versions of themselves often began to feel, and even think, like they had actually become younger. Men with trouble walking quickly were playing touch football. Memories were improving and blood pressure was dropping. The mind, Langer realized, could have a strong effect on the body. That realization led her to study the Buddhist principle of mindfulness, or awareness, which she characterizes as “a heightened state of involvement and wakefulness.”
But mindfulness is different from the hyperalert way you might feel after a great night’s sleep or a strong cup of coffee. Rather, Langer writes, it is “a state of conscious awareness in which the individual is implicitly aware of the context and content of information.” To illustrate the concept—or, rather, its opposite—Langer often recounts a shopping experience. Once, when Langer was paying for an item at a store, a clerk noticed that the back of her credit card wasn’t signed. After asking her to sign it, the clerk compared the scrawl on the receipt with the one on the card, to insure that no fraud was being committed. That, says Langer, is perfect mindlessness.
One of the first cognitive scientists to study mindfulness in an experimental setting, divorced from its spiritual trappings, Langer remained for years a lonely voice. But the past decade or so has seen a tremendous uptick in empirical research, as scientific collaborations with nontraditional schools, like the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute, have become more mainstream. We now know, for instance, that even brief mindfulness practice—typically, a kind of meditation that focuses on a particular aspect of the present moment, like your breath, your body, or a particular sensation—has a substantial positive effect on mental well-being and memory. It also appears to physically improve the brain, strengthening certain neural structures that are tied to heightened attention and focus, and bolstering connectivity in the brain’s default mode network, which is linked to self-monitoring and control.
Read the whole story: The New Yorker