After my recent posts on mindfulness and emotional control, several clients approached me with questions. They all mentioned their anxiety and high stress during the day. They wanted to know if meditation would actually help. “Is it something I should do?” they asked with all sincerity. I will let someone much more qualified than me offer the answer.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has practiced meditation for nearly 50 years. He developed the widely used mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program employed in various settings across the country. “It’s not a big should,” he says. “They shouldn’t do it if it feels like a should – it’s a being.”
So what does being actually do for you?
Anderson Cooper sought out the answer and revealed his findings during a segment on 60 Minutes. Cooper didn’t just interview Kabat-Zinn for the piece. He attended a weekend mindfulness retreat with him in the mountains of northern California. Cooper entered the weekend respectfully but skeptical. Not one to part with his mobile device for more than half an hour, he had to surrender it for several days. It set the stage for something he said changed his life.
How Did Mindfulness Change Anderson Cooper’s Life?
In a candid post-production interview, Cooper shared just how much his time with Kabat-Zinn and his research for the segment affected him: “I realized on this story, sitting in that meditation retreat, this is exactly what I need. It really has changed my day-to-day life.”
When I came across the story in my own research, I naturally asked the question, “How? How did it change his life?” I can fully appreciate when someone experiences something that produces a powerful change in their lives. But I won’t readily adopt a behavior unless I can understand the science behind how it can affect my own life. Fortunately Cooper provides a real answer, in the form of an electroencephalography (EEG) machine.
Neuroscientist Judson Brewer, head of the University of Massachusetts’ Mindfulness Center, wired Cooper’s scalp with 128 electrodes to measure signals in his posterior cingulate. Could the machine give a visual verification of Cooper’s newly acquired skill in cognitive control? Once wired, you can see Coopers brain activity on the graph – mostly sporadic. When asked to think of a stressful situation, the activity spikes way above normal. When given the cue to use his mindfulness techniques, the signals drop below normal in a matter of seconds.
Even more convincing for the skeptic would have been to show Cooper’s brain activity before the retreat. But the results certainly appeared after he started practicing daily meditation. With a preponderance of research showing the benefits of meditation, Cooper provides yet another convincing case study.
So I suppose for my own sake, the question I want to ask isn’t, “Should I meditate?” The question I ought to ask is, “How much do I value cognitive control?”