Mindfulness has gained enormous popularity during the last few years. But while many think it’s just a passing fad, mindfulness is actually a very powerful tool that’s here to stay. For the past two decades, American psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Jud Brewer has been working on a unique system based on the positive impact that mindfulness can have on our overall wellbeing and health. He has developed the app Unwind Anxiety where ancient practices meet modern-day science to help users feel less anxious. We had a chat with Dr. Brewer to find out more about how we can implement mindfulness in our everyday lives and how we can reap the benefits of being aware of ourselves and our actions.
What is mindfulness?
I think of mindfulness as bringing awareness with an attitude of curiosity to whatever’s happening. This awareness gives us space to skillfully respond to what’s happening, rather than getting caught up in needs and cravings.
Mindfulness has a reputation of almost being “hippy-dippy”… like it’s not for me, it’s for someone else, someone more spiritual. If someone would ask, what would you tell them why they should get involved in mindfulness?
Well, my one-word answer would be… science?! [laughs]
The historical origins of mindfulness go back thousands of years. Some consider the Buddhist psychologists to be the first scientists to really look at the mind. There’s been a lot of hippy-dippy-ish relationship to meditation, but this was really about understanding our minds and using that understanding to help us change our behavior, not get caught up in things and suffer less. I have been studying this for 20 years, and my lab has uncovered a lot of the things that line up between the ancient practices and modern-day science.
Do you think that in a way modern-day science is to blame that we’re so obsessed with modern medical solutions, drugs, operations? If a scientist confirms something, we just accept it without questioning it.
Yes, sometimes people think of science as a modern-day religion. If someone did a study on something, then it must be true. Science is helpful for proving and disproving things, but just because somebody does science that doesn’t mean it’s true. We can all see this as a middle road between science and religion. Practices help us understand the mind, modern science helps us prove and disprove theories and hypotheses. We can actually bring these two together to take the best of both.
Are there any positive effects that come from mindfulness that immediately jump to mind?
There are a number of positive effects, and some of them have been pretty rigorously researched. For example, mindfulness training for depression has been shown to have really nice efficacy, it’s even incorporated into the National Health System in the UK. Also anxiety and chronic pain to name a few.
Is mindfulness something that you’re born with or is it something that you could develop?
I think awareness itself and the attitude of curiosity that comes with awareness is something that we’re all endowed with. Mindfulness is actually bringing these two conditions and their rewarding properties together. When I discovered this and started to understand how my mind worked, I could naturally concentrate on things for hours at a time without any effort at all. Curiosity is like a superpower in that respect. In the past, I had struggled for years to try to force myself to meditate because I was using my willpower and a Western kind of mindset. This is how I got through college. I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t much about willpower but actually being interested in the subject and being really interested in learning. This is really at the heart of mindfulness and the essence of the practice, I just didn’t know it.
It’s really interesting how curiosity is an amazing quality. When you are a kid, you should be curious but when you’re an adult, you should just grow up and do your job. What was that led you to curiosity as an adult?
There were a couple of things. One was that some of these ancient psychology writings, even back from the early times of the Buddha, had talked about that interest or curiosity as creating the conditions that support concentration in a way that’s not effortful. I didn’t understand it until I really got it experientially. We started looking at this in my lab and I started realizing that curiosity actually feels much better than things like cravings or getting caught up in anxiety. That lined up beautifully with how we understand reward-based learning and these differential rewards that come from different parts of the brain. When I started seeing people in our app-based mindfulness training programs actually talk about the power of curiosity themselves, I was seeing this play out in real life. The more we teach it, the more people say this is like a superpower.
When it comes to mindfulness, it’s hard to measure if you’re making progress. Are there any particular signs or symptoms that people may experience that will suggest that they are making progress?
We see it in our Eat Right Now and Unwinding Anxiety programs (app-based mindfulness training) that there’s a general framework where cravings and anxiety feel more closed down, whereas curiosity, kindness and connection feel more opened up. From a very simple standpoint, when we feel fear, we feel closed and when we feel joy or curiosity, we feel open. This is something that we all know, it’s something we can look at in our own experience and see.
I grew up playing the violin. If I was trying to force myself to learn my part in a violin concerto, it got harder and harder as I clenched down and tried to do it. But later I realized if I just relaxed and opened to it, I could procedurally learn it much more easily. When I wasn’t worried about it, I could actually get into it and just enjoy playing in that expansive, more open, connected way. I found that this was especially the case when I was playing quartet music where there’s just a small group of people, completely connected.
As music makers, there are so many pitfalls we can fall into. The environment puts a huge amount of stress on the individual. From late-night gigs to extensive touring, the schedule is very unpredictable. Are there any specific benefits that you think music makers would experience by adopting mindfulness?
I think one of the most interesting areas where mindfulness could be helpful is performance anxiety. People have learned to associate anxiety with performing well. My PhD mentor used to call this “true, true and unrelated” as in we could have anxiety and we could perform well, but they might not actually be causally related to each other. We don’t necessarily need to be anxious to perform well. In fact, when we perform well, we’re not anxious, we totally lose our self-consciousness.
When we’re really in the flow, we merge with our environment and the music, we lose the sense of self. Mindfulness can be really helpful in helping us see when we’re starting to get caught up in worry or fear. It can also help us when we are trying to meet a deadline. The more we worry about deadlines, the harder it’s going to be to get those tasks done. Mindfulness helps us step out of that and enter the process of being.
We’ve spoken a lot about stepping back, being aware and being naturally curious. Are there any other things music makers could do in parallel with curiosity? Or is curiosity the main thing that feeds everything else?
I think the only other thing I would suggest is to bring in some kindness. It actually boils down to that anything that leads to contraction is not helpful, whereas anything that leads to expansion, is probably helpful. We can think of this as a kindness and curiosity checklist and ask ourselves if we are being hard on ourselves or on our team. We can ask ourselves if we’re actually being curious in the moment or we are trying to force something. The best thing about this is that we can get curious about the fact that we are not being curious.
You have done studies with heavy smokers and drinkers. What were your findings when you applied mindfulness and a curious mindset?
It taught us something really fundamental about how the mind works and kind of reinforced some of these theoretical concepts that I’ve learned in my scientific training, but hadn’t really landed clinically.
As a young addiction psychiatrist, I was trying to help my patients work with cocaine addiction, alcohol and smoking. Brute force wasn’t working so we started looking at other ways to approach these addictions, based on really understanding how our minds work.
Our minds work based on reward-based learning, not based on behavior. Otherwise, we could just stop overeating and stop using cocaine. What happens when we eat junk food or smoke a cigarette is based on the results of the behavior. We learn to smoke when we are 13, when we’re being rebellious and think we’re cool. Years later, we are not actually paying attention to the result anymore. We make people start by bringing awareness into the actual act of smoking and we make them pay attention. We ask them what it tastes like, what it feels like going into their lungs, and what it smells like. That’s when they realize that smoking actually tastes like shit. When this happens, the reward value gets updated in their brain in real-time.
So this helps people get rid of their addictions and bad habits?
I remember a person who reinforced the smoking process over 40 years, which is literally about 300,000 times. We had him pay attention and he was looking at his cigarette wondering how come he didn’t notice this before. He realized how unpleasurable it was to smoke a cigarette. This in itself helped him become disenchanted with the behavior so that he could start to break the habit in a non-effortful way. We see the same thing with overeating or stress eating.
This means that we need to pay attention to the process and how it makes us feel?
When people really pay attention, they realize that feeling guilty about eating and having a bloated stomach doesn’t actually feel good. After about 15 times the reward value goes from very high to almost zero. We can actually measure this as the reward value drops. Then it’s much easier for people to change that behavior because it’s not that rewarding anymore as they pay attention when they’re about to do it.
How to get started with mindfulness?
I think just keeping in mind that kindness and curiosity are key. It’s a great way for all of us to get started with this. We have packaged things into our app-based mindfulness training programs, but I think anybody could start by just waking up one moment and checking in to see how they feel.
Dr. Jud Brewer MD Ph.D. is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center, and Associate Professor in Behavioural and Social Sciences and Psychiatry at the Schools of Public Health & Medicine at Brown University. He’s also a research affiliate at MIT. His work has been featured on 60 minutes, TED Talks, Time Magazine, Forbes, BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, Businessweek, and others.
➞ Dr. Jud’s website