Sunday, January 8, 2017

In defence of sometimes being in the moment

As you may be aware, I have an interest in mindfulness. I both practice mindfulness and research its effects in the context of chronic stress. 

A rather disgruntled piece from a couple of months back in the Sunday Review of the New York Times has been getting some ongoing attention on social media. My response to it is a bit delayed, but if you are interested, here is a link to the original article (which I quote at some length in italics in this post): 

Whippman opens:

I’m making a failed attempt at “mindful dishwashing,” the subject of a how-to article an acquaintance recently shared on Facebook. According to the practice’s thought leaders, in order to maximize our happiness, we should refuse to succumb to domestic autopilot and instead be fully “in” the present moment, engaging completely with every clump of oatmeal and decomposing particle of scrambled egg. Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. 

I'd probably be flattering myself if I called myself a "thought leader", but I can say that mindfulness is intended to be a non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. The "decomposing particle of scrambled egg" probably ain't aesthetically pleasing to the author, but I guess mindfulness is more about trying to get away from the judgment calls we naturally make. Easier said than done, but mindfulness is a practice, not something one is supposed to get overnight.

The point about mindfulness adding to our pressures is interesting though; I think a point that is implicit here is feelings about our own feelings. If one doesn't start to feel an effect from a practice like mindfulness after a few weeks, there is of course the risk that we might start to think that we are particularly resistant to psychological self-improvement. Some people take longer than others to "get into" mindfulness (and some will naturally give up on the practice over time). This is something a skilled mindfulness instructor should be able to pick up with clients. In any case, good mindfulness materials will be at some pains to reassure novices that they should not beat themselves up if their minds (naturally) start to wander as they engage in meditation (I know my own mind still wanders quite a lot mid-meditation after a few years of practice).

Perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present. The idea that we should be constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract and back to whatever is happening right now has gained traction with spiritual leaders and investment bankers, armchair philosophers and government bureaucrats and human resources departments.... 

Surely one of the most magnificent feats of the human brain is its ability to hold past, present, future and their imagined alternatives in constant parallel, to offset the tedium of washing dishes with the chance to be simultaneously mentally in Bangkok, or in Don Draper’s bed....What differentiates humans from animals is exactly this ability to step mentally outside of whatever is happening to us right now, and to assign it context and significance. Our happiness does not come so much from our experiences themselves, but from the stories we tell ourselves that make them matter.

Whether or not one is an "armchair philosopher" (capable of identifying "perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time"), one can indeed take great pleasure from mentally projecting oneself into the past or future (whether or not it is a realistic version of said past or future). However, to use this point to "refute" the way most people use mindfulness meditation is nothing more than the slaying of a straw man. Taking a moment at the end of the day to simply focus on your own breath, your own posture etc. is useful for people who would otherwise be prone to thinking about their anxieties about the future and/or their resentments about the past.   

But still, the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class....This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.”...This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.

It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality, and instruct exhausted office workers in mindful breathing rather than giving them paid vacation or better health care benefits.

Truly nothing makes me #triggered like the implication of neoliberalism being thrown at psychology. Never mind that I help to run free mindfulness classes for caregivers. (Okay, okay, I'm taking a broader social point too personally). Of course, if individual therapeutic approaches are treated as if they are going to solve all of society's ills then these ills will remain. We should be vigilant to the very real threat of psychological therapies being seen as a cure-all in this way. But I'm also reminded of Christopher Hitchens's sarcastic remark along the lines of "Oh well, we can't do everything, so let's do nothing". Even in fairer societies people will face challenges, and if a way thinking can help them to build resilience then this is a good thing.

I'm concerned there's an implication here that people think mindfulness will turn people into doormats. Being mindful doesn't mean that you can't recognise that you are being wronged, nor does it mean that you can't act to right this wrong or protect yourself or your community. 

In reality, despite many grand claims, the scientific evidence in favor of the Moment’s being the key to contentment is surprisingly weak. When the United States Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality conducted an enormous meta-analysis of over 18,000 separate studies on meditation and mindfulness techniques, the results were underwhelming at best. 

Although some of the studies did show that mindfulness meditation or other similar exercises might bring some small benefits to people in comparison with doing nothing, when they are compared with pretty much any general relaxation technique at all, including exercise, muscle relaxation, “listening to spiritual audiotapes” or indeed any control condition that gives equal time and attention to the person, they perform no better, and in many cases, worse.

The meta-analysis Whippman discusses should certainly give pause to anyone who thinks that mindfulness is everyone's "key to contentment". However, the 18,000 studies she mentions are simply the titles that were screened in the systematic review-the conclusions of the article are actually based on evidence from 47 studies. This is still a lot of evidence, but although many studies focused on people with anxiety problems, the evidence came from people with really quite diverse clinical problems (the analysis did not include studies looking at mindfulness in healthy populations). It should also be noted that it is generally quite difficult to show effects that are greater than an active control. In particular, exercise has a strong antidepressant effect, so to suggest for example that mindfulness is "no better than" exercise is weak criticism. Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that the observed beneficial effects of mindfulness on anxiety and depression were mild-moderate. 

I think another point being lost in this quick overview is the strong individual variability in response to mindfulness. As with many other therapeutic approaches, a lot of people benefit but a few will experience negative effects; it should be noted that mindfulness comes with risks (it may be that people prone to panic attacks in particular should exercise caution). More common than an actively unpleasant reaction is the feeling that "mindfulness simply isn't of interest for me". This decision that it "doesn't float my boat" may happen after a few sessions (I suspect Whippman falls within this group) or oftentimes the minute someone hears a brief description of what mindfulness is. And if mindfulness doesn't make someone tick, and other activities do, then good for them. 

But perhaps the conclusion I'm most concerned that people will draw from this article is not that mindfulness will have no major effect overall in randomised controlled trials compared to a strong active control (which could happen due to strong individual differences in response), but rather that mindfulness does nothing at all-that it is a kind of homeopathy of the mind, when it fact it can have quite profound effects on the way people think, often for good, but sometimes in more ambivalent or even negative ways as well.

In any case, if the dishes are a pain in the neck, feel free to mentally travel wherever your imagination may take you. And if that is where your mind is at present, try to experience the fun as fully as you can!

Related posts:
Mindfulness and the mind
The breadth and depth of research impact

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A conversation concerning cognition and creativity

The following is an edited version of an interview appearing in

Europe's Journal of Psychology, 2016, Vol. 12(4), doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1323

Lynda Loughnane: Thank you very much for agreeing to meet me. To begin, you have mentioned Type 1 and Type 2 thinking in relation to creative thinking in your blog. Can you talk a bit more about this please?
Andrew P. Allen: Type 1 and Type 2 thinking are broad terms to describe levels of thinking. Type 1 thinking is thought to be quite fast or automatic, or if not automatic, at least heuristic. Type 2 thinking is considered more step by step and logical; often tied to more formal styles of thinking such as logic or mathematics. It is probably better to think of this as a continuum rather than two completely distinct boxes. I've been partly motivated by one cognitive psychologist who described various aspects of cognition and different ways of thinking about Type 1 and Type 2; Steven Sloman (1996) described how creative thinking and imagination would be archetypical of Type 1 thinking, so automatic. However, Kevin Thomas and I have argued that both types of thinking are quite important to creative thinking (Allen & Thomas, 2011); this can be linked to different stages of the creative process. Stage theory within creativity goes back to Wallas in the 1920s (Wallas 1926). It states that one would have, within the creative process, the initial stage of conceptualisation of what you want to do creatively. Then the person often reaches an impasse where they may have to stop for a while, which is a stage of problem solving or a subtype of creative thinking. There is an incubation stage where you leave the problem aside for a while. Perhaps they then get inspired later on by some other thing that they encounter in their life. They have insight where they start having new ideas. Beyond that, once they have these insights, there is a lot of leg work within the creative process generally. In fairness to Sloman, he did include verification as under the Type 2 thinking which has been included in stage theories of creativity as part of the creative process. The overarching idea behind this paper I was writing was to highlight how both types of thinking can be quite important to the creative process and how the differing roles during different phases of the creative process are important as well.
Lynda Loughnane: I absolutely agree with you, speaking from an artist's point of view. Of course Type 1 is that moment of 'Oh, I am inspired, I have an idea' but you also go through a lot of Stage 2! You slog through it ... to put it in layman terms!
Do you think that the heuristic Type 1 thinking is similar to affect? What I mean by affect is that gut reaction you have to something.
Andrew P. Allen: Let's look at the work of Paul Slovic (e.g. Slovic et al, 2002). He describes affect as being a form of heuristic thinking - that you can use your gut reaction, if you like, as a source of information about how you wish to deal with a particular aspect of your life or a decision that you want to make. For example, if you have a negative affect toward something; even if you are not able to articulate exactly why you feel negatively about it, you might, nonetheless take that affect and have a kind of heuristic reaction. This is a type of decision making rule, whereby if you have a negative response towards something or a negative affect, then you are going to ignore this option within your decision making plan. Whereas, if you have an initial positive affect, you might not choose that option immediately but you might seek more information about it rather than writing it off, which is quite often the case if you have the negative affective response. I certainly think affect and heuristics can tie together.
Lynda Loughnane: With my work, I would like to hope that the two types of thinking would be sparked in the viewer. First, the gut reaction, then the 'not quite sure what I am looking at but I want to figure out what it is' reaction. Do you think it is possible for an artwork to do this?
Andrew P. Allen: In your question, you've asked if the artwork itself can do it: let's start with the viewers themselves responding to it. A lot of people who move through busy galleries will only have so much time to engage in any particular piece. If something hits them at a gut level, they can then begin to think of it on a more ‘step by step’ level. If someone wishes to engage in this verification, if you like, as a consumer rather than a producer of a creative work - they can stretch the thinking out in a more step by step level of appraisal. That doesn't mean that that won't continue to be influenced by, for example, their initial negative response. Step by step thinking isn't always completely objective. It can still be coloured by their initial intuition about the piece of art. I should say when I talk about Type 1 and Type 2 thinking, even in themselves, there are differing theories about how these two forms of thinking interact in general. For example whether Type 2 can override Type 1 or, to some extent, that Type 1 comes back or can change in response to Type 2 and so forth. There is still a lot of debate in general about how these two forms of thinking can interact (e.g. Evans, 2007), particularly given that there is a probably a continuum between conscious processing involving some decision making and then something which is very logical and formal.
Lynda Loughnane: You had some very interesting blog reports about mindfulness, which states it has the ability to bring the attention to the present moment. Do you think it is possible to interact with a piece of art on its own terms, or do we always bring our own past projected self to this interaction?

Andrew P. Allen: Within attention people talk about 'top down' attention which is driven by things such as previous experience or what our motivations are, like the baggage we bring to our thinking about things, versus 'bottom up' thinking, which can be more driven by sensory input. I understand why people might think that we always bring our past or projected self into an interaction with art. Although we might have certain sensory inputs which we don't control, for example, we turn one way in the gallery versus that way; our own sensory inputs are often motivated by our own decisions, in terms of whether we decide to look at particular forms of art or if we decide to pursue this particular genre, to consume this or that form of artistic input. The real question here is can we escape from that and to what extent. If we see something that for us is really quite novel, something that is quite new, then I think our cognitive baggage, within a few seconds, will have to have some impact upon that. I do think that within a certain amount of time, you are going to have to think about your past interpretations of other pieces of art and how it relates. At least in some limited sense, you can try to approach a piece of art on its own terms and try to have some kind of 'bottom up' attention, particularly with a complex piece of work; seeing the actual content in terms of what it is trying to portray, but I do think it is significantly difficult to try to break away from our past psychological baggage when consuming art.
You mentioned mindfulness as well in terms of bringing the attention to the present moment so yes, perhaps mindfulness is one potential way of dealing with current experience. With mindfulness, you focus on things like your own body, and your own sensations of your immediate body. I see no reason why it couldn't be used to focus your awareness on things that are external to you such as a piece of art to control your attention in such a way as to focus on the particular piece that you are trying to understand. If your mind wanders to previous pieces of art that you have seen or perhaps an emotional response, then using mindfulness techniques, you might be able to gently redirect your attention back to the piece of art itself, on its own terms without a runaway stream of consciousness about something else you have been ruminating on in the past.
Lynda Loughnane: The fact that the piece of art is produced by somebody else who has their own consciousness and their own set of agendas behind that piece of art, makes it quite hard to be with the art piece just as an object and not feel the draw of the person behind the art.
What are your thoughts on how the creative process affects the behaviour of a person and does the act of engaging in a creative process, or being exposed to a piece of art change the way the person 'sees' their reality? There are two very distinct questions within that one question; one is interacting with art and one is viewing art.
Andrew P. Allen: In terms of cognition generally, we can think of cognition as extended in terms of how we think, which does not simply draw on what is going on in our brains - we can interact with tools around us to augment cognition. Vlad Glaveanu (2014) has talked about this in more depth. Say you are a sculptor, in order to create a sculpture, you might be interacting with the different components of the piece. You may be turning them over in an attempt to perceive them from different perspectives and to ascertain how they can interact with the other components that make up the whole. In that sense, the process of going through, perhaps a Type 2 process, and how you respond to that on an affective level, can bring about different aspects of cognition. I think you might see the different components that you have chosen to study in a greater depth both in terms of their basic physical characteristics such as their mass, shape and form and your response to them, as well gauging the response of a potential audience. That would impact on how you see what you are interacting with. 
In terms of being exposed to art, from a consumer point of view, that is perhaps a trickier question because cognition may not be extended to the same level, unless the artist is actually encouraging you to poke about the sculpture. Perhaps it is not as strong or striking as the active process of creating art itself, but that depends to what extent the person is actually engaging with the art work. If they are actively engaged, then I imagine a lot of the same mechanisms would apply.
Lynda Loughnane: Do you think practices such as meditation or other activities which activate what is sometimes called the 'Inner Eye' such as chanting or praying have an effect on the cognitive or perceptive abilities of practitioners? What happens at a neurological level with such activities, in relation in particularly to sight, as this is my area of interest ... do practitioners see or perceive differently?
Andrew P. Allen: In terms of the neuroscience, Michael Posner and his colleagues recently wrote an interesting review about neuroscience and mindfulness (Tang et al., 2015). There is evidence that mindfulness can alter activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with more complex cognition such as conflict monitoring. For example, if you are responding to a task where you have to attend to multiple aspects of different stimuli. Then with a particular trial, you have to respond to one particular aspect of that stimuli, but there is another aspect that makes you want to respond in a different way, you then have to monitor that kind of conflict. It seems mindfulness can help with that as well as with sustained attention, which I am particularly interested in. This is the ability to remain processing a particular steam of information without being distracted, essentially. There is evidence that the frontal cortex activity can be enhanced by mindfulness practice. It is intuitive that this would be the case, because when you are engaged in mindfulness practice, you are trying to sustain your attention on sensations within you. For example, if you are doing a body scan, you specifically want your attention on your breath. If you then start to think about what you are going to have for your lunch, that is a distraction, so you try to gently bring your attention back to your breath. In this way mindfulness is a practice of sustained attention. In that sense it is encouraging to see that regions of the brain associated with these kind of processes, can be enhanced by engaging in mindfulness practice.
What is also interesting about mindfulness is that it can be used in stress reduction. Mindfulness based stress reduction is quite a widely practiced form of mindfulness. One of the areas I am interested in is the interaction between stress and cognition. For example, with conditions of chronic stress (e.g. caring for a relative with dementia) you might anticipate that over time this can have a negative impact on the brain through, for example, excessive cortisol activation. If there are ways of attenuating stress, it might have a positive knock-on effect on cognition. Indeed, there is evidence that interventions to reduce stress can improve cognitive performance in dementia caregivers (c.f. review by Allen et al., 2016).
Lynda Loughnane: Speaking from an artist's point of view, you can get so involved in being present with the creative process that involvement with an art activity can be hugely stress relieving; you are so focused on the present moment that nothing else permeates the process. It's an effective tool for mindfulness, I personally find.
Andrew P. Allen: Csikszentmihalyi (1996) talks about 'flow'. It seems to be quite a mindful kind of state where you become very absorbed in a particular activity. This idea of 'flow' came from the study of the psychology of creativity. It seems to be an archetypical part of creative work, an archetypical example of flow state.
Lynda Loughnane: When you get into a state of flow it's an amazing place to be! Thank you again very much. 
Andrew P. Allen: Thank you.

References [TOP]

  • Allen, A. P., Curran, E., Duggan, Á., Cryan, J. F., Ní Chorcoráin, A., Dinan, T. G., . . . Clarke, G., (2016). A systematic review of the psychobiological burden of informal caregiving for patients with dementia: Focus on cognitive and biological markers of chronic stress. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 73, 123-164.
  • Allen, A. P., & Thomas, K. E. (2011). A dual process account of creative thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23(2), 109-118. doi:10.1080/10400419.2011.571183
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY, USA: Harper Collins.
  • Evans, J. S. B. T. (2007). On the resolution of conflict in dual process theories of reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning, 13(4), 321-339. doi:10.1080/13546780601008825
  • Glăveanu, V. P. (2014). Distributed creativity: Thinking outside the box of the creative individual. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
  • Sloman, S. A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 119(1), 3-22. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.119.1.3
  • Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). Rational actors or rational fools: Implications of the affect heuristic for behavioral economics. Journal of Socio-Economics, 31(4), 329-342. doi:10.1016/S1053-5357(02)00174-9
  • Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225. doi:10.1038/nrn3916
  • Wallas, G. (1926). The art of thought. New York, NY, USA: Harcourt Brace.

Related posts:
Creativity and two modes of thought
Mindfulness and the mind