Friday, December 6, 2013

Chronos, Chorus, Mindfulness

My Dear Husband thinks I'm obsessed with mindfulness -- or at least getting carried away with it as a panacea. Maybe. But today I personally discovered a new musical application of mindfulness, and read about research on yet another amazing payoff from the practice: controlling the passing of time.

First the research.

As described by Emily Nauman on UC Berkeley's "Greater Good" website, University of Kent researcher Robin Kramer and colleagues Ulrich Weger and Dinkar Sharma studied the effect of a single 10-minute mindfulness exercise on time perception.

The researchers trained students  to distinguish short (400 milliseconds) versus  long (1600 milliseconds) appearances of a shape on a computer screen. Participants then took a baseline test, estimating duration of appearance for a series of shapes presented to them.

Next, the participants were assigned to a control group or to an experimental group. The control group spent 10 minutes listening to an audiotape reading from The Hobbit. The experimental group listened to a 10 minute mindfulness exercise focusing attention on the breath.

The participants were then re-tested on duration of appearance for the series of shapes. The researchers found that participants who had done the mindfulness exercise rated the durations as being longer than they'd estimated on the baseline test. The control group showed no change in their estimates.

I haven't forked over the $36 to obtain a copy of the full research paper, so I have lots of questions about the study -- for example, how many participants were involved; whether assignment to the groups was random; whether the two groups differed in any important ways; and whether the difference seen between the groups on the second test was a fluke or statistically significant and repeatable. I am disappointed these details are missing from the abstract.

But assuming this was a reasonably large study, participants randomly assigned, groups comparable, and the end difference significant, the study would seem to suggest that even a very brief exposure to mindfulness can slow a person's perception of time.

Nauman's article gives more information about the researchers' view of their results:
"Because the mindfulness meditation exercise cued participants to focus on internal processes such as their breath, that attentional shift may have sharpened their capacity to notice time passing."
Kramer said the ability to slow perceived time could help people feel more in control in situations where it seems like time is running away from them.

Nauman reports that Kramer also speculated that a different mindfulness exercise could speed up perceived time:
"a mindfulness exercise that shifts attention to an external event could potentially make time feel like it’s passing more quickly. If this were true, mindfulness could have clinical applications for people who feel like time is moving too slowly, such as those experiencing depression, who tend to overestimate the duration of negative events."
The idea that we can intentionally slow time down or speed it up sounds pretty amazing, and until the research has more data to back it up, I won't rule out the possibility that it's too good to be true.
But it's not inconsistent with my experience. I've never been patient--I hate to wait. But waiting has become much easier since I took my mindfulness class. Or consider how time flies when you are in that mindful state known as being totally caught up in a favorite activity.

Today's personal discovery of a new application of mindfulness was completely accidental. I dedicate this discovery to my music-loving friend, the Living Anachronism.

For no good reason, I've had the song Paint with all the Colors of the Wind going around in my head today. Typical of my earworms, it's schlocky, melodic, and passionate--in a Disney sort of way. As much as it may shock the musical sensibilities of the LA, the songs from Pocohontas are one of my guilty pleasures.

Home alone, I threw myself into a full-throated run at the beautiful chorus:
Did you ev-er hear the wolf cry to the new-born moon? Or ask the grinning bobcat why he grins? 
Voi,  A Gentleman's
Canine Companion
By the third note, my voice shattered into a croak and tears filled my eyes. The wolf reference reminded me of my dear departed dog, Voi. And the moon reference made me think of my dear departed husband, Koz, an amateur astronomer who loved nothing better than gazing at the newborn moon.

Over the years, my propensity to dissolve into tears has prevented me from singing several beautiful hymns in public. I think the English have a special affinity for these. But I digress.

My mindfulness discovery was this: If I "did mindfulness" when attempting to sing the heart-wrenching bit -- intentionally focussing attention on the sound of my voice, rather than the emotional updraft of the melody and lyrics -- I could sing the chorus without breaking up.

I look forward to testing my discovery the next time one of those great anthems starts pulling on my heartstrings ...  This is my Song (sung to Sibelius' Finlandia tune ...This is my home, the coun-try where my heart is..." Shattering for an ex-pat). Or Hubert Parry's Jerusalem. Or Holst's I Vow to Thee my Country...

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