Our brain is one energy-intensive organ. Though weighing just three pounds, it consumes about one-fifth of the body’s energy supply. The human mind is a beautiful, massively-complex piece of work comprised of billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections.
The sheer processing power of the brain is on display wherever we look. Humans have built vehicles that can traverse space, create medicines to cure fatal diseases, and design tiny microchips capable of running just about everything imaginable.
But all of this comes at a high price. Namely, a brain that is always on, and that is never really at rest.
We experience this first hand as the voice in our head that never shuts up.
Try closing your eyes for five minutes and focusing on your breath. Unless you’re an experienced meditator, thoughts are going to pummel your mind. Emotions like anxiety and boredom will quickly make themselves at home.
Worse yet, we humans have somehow decided that this mental state is normal. We call it “The Human Condition.” In actuality, there’s nothing ordinary about it. It may be shared – perhaps even universal – but it isn’t normal by any sense of the word.
How Can We “Quiet” Our Brain?
The question then becomes: what can we do about this mind of ours? How can we take advantage of its formidable intellectual capability without being barraged by thoughts and emotions?
In this article, we’re going to discuss the immense benefits of learning to quiet your mind. To do so, we’ll take a quick but deep dive into the field known as contemplative science. Finally, we’ll break down a fascinating study capable of transforming how we think about mental activity.
The Wandering Mind Isn’t A Happy Mind
“…a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” ~Gilbert, D.T. and Killingsworth, M.A. (source)
In 2010 Harvard Psychologists Daniel T. Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth published a study in the journal Science titled “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” The objective of the paper was to ascertain the “emotional consequences” of mind wandering.
Therefore, the duo developed an iPhone application (‘app’), which asked participants about “thoughts, feelings, and actions … as they went about their daily activities” at random intervals. When subjects were “pinged” by the app, they answered three questions:
1) A happiness question: “How are you feeling right now?” answered on a sliding called from 0 (‘very bad’) to 100 (‘very good’).
2) An activity question: “What are you doing right now?” wherein the participants were to select one or more of 22 activities.
3) A mind-wandering question: “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” and were to select one of four potential answers: yes, something unpleasant; yes, something neutral; yes, something unpleasant; no.
The facts about this data
Following data analysis, Gilbert and Killingworth observed three essential points.
First, that people’s mind wandered often. Mind-wandering was taking place in 47 percent of all samples taken. Of these samples, it occurred in at least 30 percent of the time when doing any activity besides making love. In most cases, is percentage was much higher.
Second, people were most often unhappy when their mind was wandering – regardless of what they were thinking. On the plus side, people’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant than unpleasant or neutral topics (42.5 percent, 26.5 percent, and 31 percent, respectively).
However, “people were no happier when thinking about pleasant than unpleasant or neutral things.” Concerning the latter two, people reported being significantly unhappier when the topic to where their mind wandered was neutral or unpleasant.
Lastly, what the participants were thinking was a more precise indicator of their happiness than what they were doing! The happiness variance (on the sliding scale) was more influenced by mind wandering than the activity. The research attributes just 4.6 percent of someone’s subjective happiness to the action itself, and their presence of mind (or lack thereof) to around 11 percent.
Killingsworth adds, “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
Let’s briefly discuss a field that is emerging out of such findings: contemplative science.
What is Contemplative Science?
Contemplative science is a growing field of scientific inquiry that seeks to understand the effects of a meditative state on the human mind and brain. A term first coined by B. Alan Wallace – a former Tibetan Buddhism monk and founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies – contemplative science may also be called contemplative neuroscience.
Contemplative scientists often promote mental discipline to “[counteract] the effects of conative (intention and desire), attentional, cognitive, and affective imbalances” so commonplace in today’s society.
The chaos of modern living serves as the impetus of contemplative science. According to ancient Eastern wisdom traditions, the default mode of the human mind is way out of balance. It is out of balance because we haven’t learned how to settle and focus our thoughts. Such are the premises that form the foundation for contemplative science.
Three questions that every contemplative scientist and practitioner eventually ask themselves are:
- Why is my mind chattering all the time?
- How can I shut it up?
- What are the benefits of doing so?
Which leads up to the next point.
Study: People Who Quiet Their Minds Live Longer
“Here, we show that extended longevity in humans is associated with a … signature in the cerebral cortex … characterized by downregulation [of] … neural excitation and synaptic function.” ~Zullo, J.M., Et. al (source)
Last month, researchers from Harvard Medical School published a potentially groundbreaking study in the journal Nature. Per the research, neurons in our cortical networks show increased excitability and the curbing of inhibitory factors as we get older.
(In the human brain, there are two types of transmitters, excitatory and inhibitory. Excitatory transmitters promote the generation of electrical signals in the brain while inhibitory transmitters suppress it.)
The team’s experimentation involved the investigation of donated brain tissue of individuals aged 60 to 100 who had died. Those who lived the longest – age 85 and older – demonstrated lower neural activity than those between the ages of 60 and 80.
Further, REST (‘RE1-Silencing Transcription factor’) in the brain was found to be more active in people who live longer. Per Wikipedia, the REST gene is “expressly involved” with the non-neuronal cells or glia.
Non-neuronal cells protect and support nerve by maintaining a state of dynamic equilibrium (homeostasis) and forming myelin, a protective insulating layer or sheath that forms around neurons.
REST proteins are also thought to help protect against dementia and other brain stressors.
The team then had to try and ascertain association or causality in their findings (the whole “correlation does not imply causation” thing.)
To do so, they “conducted a barrage of experiments,” which involved cell and molecular testing and analysis of various organisms. Among them: earthworms, genetically-altered mice, and additional brain samples of deceased centurions (people who lived over 1oo years.)
The conclusion? That “altering neural excitation does indeed affect life span…”
These findings led the researchers to conclude that “neural excitation [is] linked to a shorter life, while suppression of overactivity appears to extend life span,” and that the REST protein “emerges as a key player” – or the driver – of these neural mechanisms.
“This study shows that daily periods of slowed activity, whether spent in meditation, unitasking, or simply being still or sleeping, are as important for brain health and longevity activity and exercise.” ~Gyatri Devi, M.D.
You probably did not need a scientific study to know those periods of rest and relaxation are beneficial for the mind and body. Not all rest, however, is created equal.
Namely, the ‘rest’ that’s no ‘rest’ at all — those periods of rest where the mind is still active. Resting the body does not necessarily imply that the brain is resting. You can be sitting on your duff doing nothing while your mind runs circles around itself.
The bottom line: do those things that you both enjoy and that quiet your self-talk.
It doesn’t matter if it’s golf, yoga, reading, napping, stretching, or meditation.
Here are a few other ideas:
– Mindful eating
– Playing sports
– Getting out into nature