TIME Mental Health/Psychology

You Would Rather Endure Electric Shocks Than Sit Alone With Your Thoughts, Study Finds

If you’re crazy busy like most of us and crave some time — just a few minutes, please! — to stop and just think, be careful what you wish for. That’s the upshot of a new study just published in the journal Science. The summary is written in such plain English (very unusual!) that you might as well read it for yourself:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

Yes, people would rather stick their finger in an electric socket than sit quietly and think. Or rather, men would: 67% of male participants in one study “gave themselves at least one shock during the thinking period,” write University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his co-authors. On average, the study participants who elected to self-zap gave themselves 1.47 shocks in a 15-minute interval — “not including one outlier,” the paper says, in an impressively straightforward way, “who administered 190 shocks to himself.” (O.K., they didn’t involve actual electric sockets, but it’s still kind of surprising.) Women were far less likely to shock themselves, with only a 25% participation rate.

Why is just sitting and thinking so difficult and unpleasant, you probably wonder. So do the authors, in just those words. Perhaps, they say, “when left alone with their thoughts, participants focused on their own shortcomings and got caught in ruminative thought cycles.”

Another possibility, the authors suggest, is that thinking is just too complicated. In order to do it, you have to choose a topic to think about — a trip to the beach, for example — then mentally experience the trip. Exhausting!

But no. Questioning participants after the experiments revealed that neither explanation held much water. The reason we hate sitting and thinking, despite our fond hopes to the contrary, remains a mystery.

And yet, write the authors, stating the painfully obvious: “There is no doubt that people are sometimes absorbed by interesting ideas, exciting fantasies and pleasant daydreams,” and they do have an answer of sorts.

Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Which may not be good news — but it’s at least good to know.

 

 

 

 

TIME technology

Burnt Out? 7 Mindfulness Apps To Help You Refocus

Your smartphone doesn't always have to be a distraction

I kind of want to marry my iPhone, day planner, and computer. But, as with any relationship, sometimes I need a break. The other night I decided to leave my to-do list and phone upstairs for the night, and I had trouble sleeping. I worried about the incoming emails and Tweets that would go unanswered until morning. And, I fondly thought about a time when my phone was anchored to the wall with a cord and my sleep was uninterrupted by thoughts of hashtags, @ symbols, and perfectly crafted subject lines. Yes, life was simple then. My nights were spent reading a good book, or with my mom doing a guided meditation to help me snooze. As I thought about her telling me to inhale the spirit of the universe and to exhale stress, my mind flashed to my app store: I bet there was an app that could do that! I quickly jumped out of bed and began searching for relaxation apps and videos. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the thing that usually makes me super-productive and connected with the world could also help me meditate and block out the business (that could wait) around me. So here you go — my top 10 apps, videos, and tools for you to just be you.

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

  • Calm.com

    Courtesy of Calm.com

    Calm.com boasts a seven-step meditation process that can help you reduce anxiety, feel better, and create great ideas. The website and app are both really minimal and have beautiful imagery, music, and narration for you to find your happy place. You can choose different backgrounds to suit your mood, as well as different meditation lengths. By focusing on your breath and posture, Calm.com can help you escape the chaos around you and focus on your well-being. The yearly pro-access is available for $9.99, but the beginners edition is free.

  • Omvana

    Courtesy of Omvana

    Omvana is the life coach of meditation websites and apps. Not only will you learn how to relax and meditate, you’ll sharpen your ability to focus on your work, develop a goal-oriented mindset, and feel inspired to live in the moment. It has downloadable tracks for hypnosis, guided meditation, and sleep. There is also a huge library of inspirational speaking, poetry, and music tracks to choose from. Although the app is free, the tracks are not, so your mindfulness may cost you.

  • MINDBODY Connect

    Courtesy of MINDBODY

    MINDBODY Connect is the best app to help you find a physical place to block out the world around you. This app locates yoga classes, day spas, and meditation centers in your vicinity, and lets you book and pay for it right there on your phone. To boot, it has a user-friendly design and incorporates Google maps functionality to help you find your way to nirvana.

  • YouTube — RainBirdHD

    Courtesy of RainBirdHD

    Whether you’re trying to fall asleep or need to drown out the audible chaos of your office, the RainBirdHD YouTube channel has a ton of sounds for you to choose from. You can get up to 10 hours of thunder and heavy rain fall, airplane cabin white noise, arctic wind, winter snow, classical music, and more. But, don’t forget to pack your headphones if you’re going to listen to this at work. (I’m sure your boss doesn’t want to hear “rain on a metal roof” while conducting a budget meeting.)

  • Mindfulness Daily

    The Mindfulness Daily app allows you to set specific times that you’d like to practice your meditation: once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once at night. The app sends you a notification message at your specified time to start your meditation. It features a “lifelog” that will track your daily patterns, which allows you to reflect and make changes to make you more productive and less stressed. And of course, like most of the other meditation apps, Mindfulness Daily has relaxing sounds, breathing guides and imagery to help you block out the world around you.

TIME

Laughter Therapy Is The New Meditation

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Adrian Samson—Getty Images

Laughter may have some of the same benefits as meditation

No time to just sit and breathe? Then at least pull up a quick YouTube video of “goats yelling like humans”—a good laugh now and then may give you a mental boost similar to meditation, suggests new research presented today at the Experimental Biology 2014 conference in San Diego.

“Joyful laughter immediately produces the same brain wave frequencies experienced by people in a true meditative state,” says Lee Berk, lead researcher of the study and associate professor of pathology and human anatomy at Loma Linda University.

More From Prevention: Your Brain on Laughter

To make this discovery, researchers measured the brain wave activity of 31 college students with an electroencephalograph (EEG) while they watched funny, distressful, or spiritual videos. During the funny videos, gamma waves were produced—the same ones achieved during a meditation session. The spiritual videos produced more alpha waves, which are associated with rest; and the distressful videos produced flat waves, similar to those experienced by people who feel detached.

“Gamma is the only frequency that affects every part of the brain,” says Berk. “So when you’re laughing, you’re essentially engaging your entire brain at once. This state of your entire brain being ‘in synch’ is associated with contentment, being able to think more clearly, and improved focus. You know, that feeling of being ‘in the zone’.”

More From Prevention: 10 Simple Ways To Relieve Stress and Improve Your Mood

And the more you laugh, the more you should notice these perks. “It’s similar to the way regular exercise reconditions and reprograms your body over time,” says Berk. “With regular laughter, you’re optimizing your brain’s response to this experience.”

Previous research shows that laughter also acts as an antidepressant, reduces risk of heart disease, and helps reduce the body’s inflammatory response. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be prescribed by doctors as part of a gamut of healthy lifestyle changes,” says Berk. “Unlike food and exercise, you can’t O.D. on laughter—at least I haven’t seen it!”

More From Prevention: 4 Moves To Feel Happier

This article was written by Stephanie Eckelkamp and originally appeared on Prevention.com

TIME medicine

We Need To Take Meditation More Seriously As Medicine

a young woman meditating
Getty Images

Deep breathing and yoga previously haven't been taken seriously as healing cures, but a new medical study found tangible benefits to the practice of meditation, leading to fewer sick days and reduced anxiety. So why aren't doctors prescribing it?

To be fair, I’m not sure how I would have responded had my surgeon suggested I meditate before or after surgery to ease my anxiety or post-operative pain. My guess is, like many women, I would have been skeptical: what exactly did sitting in half-lotus pose or breathing deeply have to do with the tumor in my right breast? And why was a doctor—whose job and training and every measure of success is rooted in science and clinical outcomes—prescribing a spiritual or religious method of therapy?

But a new review study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, suggests that the ancient Eastern practice of mindful meditation can offer real help for patients with depression, anxiety, and pain. And researchers are increasingly demonstrating the measurable influence of meditation on the brain, proving that mindfulness programs can make us feel happier, have greater emotional resilience and take fewer sick days.

(MORE: The 20 Minute Morning Routine Guaranteed to Make Your Day Excellent)

The problem? Many of us conflate meditation with yoga or other types of complimentary medicine, overestimate the time it takes to meditate effectively, and discount the neurological evidence that mindful focus improves brain functioning.

Dr. Madhav Goyal is a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, whose research focuses on the effects of meditation on chronic pain and stress, as well as low-cost means to improve health in rural India. As the lead author of the recent JAMA study, he reviewed 47 clinical trials involving more than 3500 participants with mild anxiety or depression, and found that those who practiced mindful mediation saw a 5-10% improvement in anxiety symptoms and a 10-20% reduction in depressive symptoms compared to placebo groups—on par with the effects other studies have shown for anti-depressants in similar populations.

Critics of the study basically argue that the 5-10% and 10-20% outcomes are insignificant, though they are willing to concede that doctors should consider “limited term mindfulness programs” in lieu of “pharmacological intervention” in some cases of anxiety and depression.

But what’s most striking about the JAMA findings is that people weren’t meditating for very long. Many in the underlying studies meditated for as little as 2.5 hours per week for two months. As Dr. Goyal points out, because meditation is a skill that’s learned over time, it’s unlikely the respondents reached a high level of expertise. So according to him, it’s plausible to think that people would experience even greater benefits with more rigorous training and practice.

Unfortunately though, it’s precisely those realities of meditation— that it is a state you can teach yourself to achieve and improve with discipline— that might undermine its validity with physicians and patients. For example, professor Mark K. Blum, a Buddhist Studies expert at the University of California, Berkeley, believes some medical professionals may doubt the value of meditation because our culture has shifted so heavily in favor of quantitative measurement. As Ben McAllister writes for The Atlantic, we’ve become a society addicted to data; problem is, some things are easier to measure than others.

“Medical doctors are practicing a form of science, and therefore expect to see scientific measurement,” Blum explains. “But how do you measure meditation?”

Berkeley is hosting a conference this spring to examine the question, Buddhism, Mind, and Cognitive Science, and to see if the complex relationship between meditative culture and Buddhism can be compatible with the “neurophysicalism” underlying scientific research.

In Dr. Goyal’s view, critics of complimentary or alternative medical research have a misunderstanding of what science is. It has nothing to do with molecules or drugs, he says Rather, medical science is a “systematic exploration of what is not known,” whatever that may be— and areas like meditation desperately need more exploration, and the funding to do it.

(MORE: Aaron Alexis and the Dark Side of Meditation)

Shanida Nataraja, a London neurophysiologist and author of The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation, explained that because there are many different types of meditation, what it actually means to meditate can differ from person to person. That lack of uniformity may be quite problematic for a medical community with established guidelines and review boards. But just because it’s hard to imagine one doctor telling you to use a candle as a meditation anchor, and another advocating a mantra-based approach, it’s not reason alone to dismiss the potential health benefits.

Jacoba Urist is a contributing health and lifestyle reporter for NBCNews, who also writes for The Atlantic. She received her JD from New York University School of Law and her MA from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Health and Social Policy.

MORE: Eat Better and Stress Less: It’ll Make Your Cells (and Maybe You) Live Longer

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