Sunday, June 14, 2015

Mindfulness update: Weeks 1-4

"Much of the practice is simply a remembering, a reminding yourself to be fully awake" 
Jon Kabat-Zinn

In a previous post I discussed mindfulness. I’m putting my time where my mouth is and doing an 8-week course in mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR). Here’s the story up to half-time:

WEEK 1: At the first class we perform body scan. With our eyes closed, we slowly bring our attention to different parts of the body. If our minds wander off, we are encouraged to bring the focus back to what’s going on with our body. No need to have a go at yourself for letting your mind wander-just bring the focus back to the body scan. After the first meeting we are encouraged to engage in body scan 5-6 times over the coming week.

To have an experience that we can use as a practice of acting mindfully, we very slowly eat a sweet. (I pick up a piece of fudge that’s stuck to another piece of fudge-yuusssss). The activity’s a chance to really focus on the sensation of eating. Our instructor makes the analogy of how many young children act when they eat an ice cream-poring over its texture and appearance as they enjoy it. Probably not something we do every day if we’re in the habit of “grazing”. I know I often nosh a sandwich at my desk while in the midst of swearing at the desktop screen.

Back home, at my first attempt at doing a body scan by myself I have a false start when a funny thought makes me laugh too much. The next few attempts I avoid laughter, but it’s definitely difficult to avoid daydreaming when doing the body scan. As suggested in the classes, I try to picture a spotlight shining on the different parts of my body as I move from the toes upwards.

WEEK 2: At the class we describe the steps and sensations involved in making a cup of tea. With our eyes closed, we take turns in describing a different step involved in the whole process. Must say that I’m tempted to shout out something silly like “and then I make the tea and drink the tea and then go for a walk with my granny”, but maintain my composure. The avoiding judgment thing is probably even harder when other people are involved in one’s mindfulness-I can’t help but think some people are jumping too far ahead in the tea-making process to allow the rest of the group enough material to work on. I'd like to bring more maturity to my mindfulness, but then again, I should withhold judging myself too harshly. 

After a whopping 7-8 days, my initial enthusiasm for homework practice wanes slightly. With a lot going on at work I'm not doing quite as much mindfulness practice as I did before. So much for not judging myself as well! 

WEEK 3: At the classes we are expressing frustration about need being able to sustain attention to the present when we do things like body scan, but the instructor reminds us that what is key is our intention to become more mindful, and our the adaptation of a non-judgemental approach to our own thoughts (including judgement about whether or not they are "mindful enough").

We're starting into mindful yoga, a gentle form of yoga. Essentially it involves gentle stretching of the limbs. Like the body scan, you try to keep the attention on your body and its sensations.

Outside class, toothache strikes, bringing my attention forcefully back to my present bodily sensations on a regular basis. With my the rest of my body bringing the brain’s attention to it, as opposed to my brain deciding to focus on the rest of my body, I’m reminded to do the mindful yoga most days.  

As I'm getting more into watching the recommended videos, I'm learning about non-striving, an attitude related to not trying to get anything out of one's awareness of the current moment (perhaps tricky when most people want to get something out of mindfulness).

WEEK 4: One thing I note one or two other people at the class saying is that they want to have an “emptier” mind when doing meditation. I don’t think that’s really what mindfulness is about. Your attention still has content, it’s simply that you adopt a different attitude towards it.

A 4-day weekend knocks my mindfulness schedule off somewhat, although I work some body scan into moments between awakening and getting out of bed. I also do more of the “informal practice”. Part of our informal practice is to note unpleasant experiences. One particular moment was an email I received that induced a mix of annoyance at myself and the person sending it. My heart rate probably increased, although with hindsight I doubt I noticed as much when it actually happened, wrapped up as I was in the possible implications of what was being said to me. However, after the initial wave of negative feeling I decided to focus on how I felt at that moment, and then what I could do step-by-step to respond. Whether or not my thoughts were “mindful enough”, a little bit of focus on the actual present killed of the perils of an imaginary future.

Stay tuned next month for the second half of my Mindfulness Odyssey!

For an intro to the ideas behind mindfulness-based stress reduction, you could check out the following resource: 

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Conference review: CINP Thematic Meeting 2015

Early June. I am back where I first studied psychology, Trinity College Dublin. Crossing the historical front square for the unapologetically brutalist architecture of the Arts Block. It’s the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology (CINP)’s thematic meeting, and the theme of the meeting is stress, inflammation and depression.

The charm of a thematic meeting is that one knows that there’s going to be a lot of work that’s of interest to you. I make no secret of the fact that I’m not a big fan of enormous, “GloboConference” type meetings. I can recall a least one occasion when I was presenting in a session where the theme was clearly “a bunch of studies that have nothing to do with each other, but couldn’t be matched up with anything else on this day”. Ah well, maybe I’m just bitter because a 1,000-strong poster session can confront you with your own insignificance as a little researcher star in the vast galaxies of Science.

When I heard my poster number was to be P001 I was nervous that this meeting would have the opposite problem: a lack of other posters. However, these nerves were unjustified. There’s an active session of over 100 posters, with topics of interest to me such as depression, ketamine and probiotics being covered.  

With a keen focus to the meeting there is a risk of repetition at the talks. However, although some introductions do cover some common ground, this is a complex enough topic for there to be plenty to cover, and each researcher brings something different to the party. NB: they also (generally) skip through stuff that previous speakers have covered already in their earlier intros-let that be a warning not to spend an entire conference prior to your own talk locked in your hotel room practicing your PowerPoint! The speakers often differ in their presentation style, but all are accomplished researchers with plenty to show.

A highlight is getting a chance to meet and hear from Ron Duman, an influential figure in the idea that neurotrophic factors in the brain might be implicated in depression. At his talk he discusses new pathways linking inflammation to depression that he is interested in. Like most researchers at the event he turns out to be a very approachable person too, as we find out at the social evening in Temple Bar. (The touristy trad band at the venue wind up some of the indigenous crew, but what are you gonna do? Better that than the wave of Weatherspoon’s about to descend upon our poor capital.)

Another talk of interest is by Phil Burnet of Oxford. He discusses recent findings that prebiotics (fibres that help the growth of friendly bacteria) can lead to a reduction in cortisol output, as well as changes in processing of emotional stimuli. These findings chime nicely with some results that Timothy Dinan presents, indicating that probiotics can lead to a subtle reductions in stress. Speaking of senior figures from our group, the mighty John Cryan also gives a highly engaging talk covering broad ground, taking in stress as well as hunger-related hormone ghrelin.

Future thematic meetings from CINP will be worth watching out for people interesting in neuropsychology and mental disorder, although be warned that the talks can have a heavy focus on molecular pathways and preclinical work. If you want the "globo" equivalent, than check out next year's World Congress

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