Why bingeing box-sets will kill Netflix

Goldilocks and Dopamine

Drug users know what desensitisation is.

Let me explain. “Homeostasis” is a cornerstone of all biological organisms. A simple way to think of it is the story of Goldilocks. For life to thrive, it needs things to stay at just the right level. Not too hot, not too cold. So there are thousands of complex yet elegant systems in place in every one of us to do exactly that. Sweating is one of them actually. When you start to get too hot, you sweat, and the heat lost through evaporation helps keep you at the optimal temperature.

There is a similar system in the brain to ensure your levels of neurotransmitters are appropriate. You’ve heard of dopamine – the reward neurotransmitter. It’s the one that you feel when something good happens. The one you enjoy and makes you want to repeat the behaviour to get that feeling again.

Now, there’s a subtlety at play here. Rather than trying to keep the amount of dopamine the same, the system actually wants to try to keep the strength of the effect of the dopamine the same. The strength of the effect can be simplified as:

Dopamine Amount x Density of Receptors = Strength of Effect

So, the average person is going about their daily life, and the normal good things – your favourite bagel for breakfast, a nice message from a friend you haven’t seen for a while, you beat your best time at sudoku – give you “normal” hits of dopamine, and the brain matches that with the right number of receptors for that amount of dopamine so that you get an effect strength in the normal window.

But many illicit drugs work by chemically forcing your brain to release an abnormally large amount of dopamine. And a huge amount of dopamine x normal receptor density = huge effect. This is the drug high.

But, of course, there is a consequence. The brain’s homeostatic mechanism kicks in, recognising an abnormally large effect has happened. Since the amount of dopamine released was so high, the only way to keep the effect size in the ‘normal’ window is to change the other part of the equation: the receptor density. So the brain reduces the number of dopamine receptors. And the next time the drug user has a hit, the same amount of drug, which releases the same amount of dopamine as before, results in less of a high, because there are fewer receptors. And so they take more of the drug to try to achieve the same huge high they felt the first time. This is desensitisation.

Binge-watching will end up with you cancelling your subscription

So what does this all have to do with Netflix and binge-watching??

When you watch a great show and you get to the end, that excited, happy, “I-want-to-watch-the-next-one” feeling is dopamine released in your brain. There are other things going on too: a well written story arc with an episode ending on a cliff-hanger makes you want to know what happens next, etc. But fundamentally, you’re feeling the effects of dopamine. So you watch the next episode. And the next. And the next. And over the course of an evening, what was originally a ‘normal’ level of dopamine released by one episode becomes an abnormally large level of dopamine in your brain, and Goldilocks kicks in.

And this is where it goes wrong. Netflix think that by letting you watch all the episodes, they’ll keep you using their service. And for a while, you do. You get to the end of the box-set, and you start looking for the next one. You find the one your friends told you about, and you binge that. But here’s the thing. Because of the unusually high amount of dopamine released in your brain by that last box-set, and the Goldilocks mechanism, your brain reduced the number of dopamine receptors to try to normalise the effect of the large dopamine dose.

So now, even though the new box-set is just as good as all your friends said, and objectively as good as the last one you watched, because of the smaller number of dopamine receptors, the second box-set is a bit more “meh”. So you look for another, and another, until you’re aimlessly scrolling through Netflix like an addict listlessly scratching around for their next hit.

Netflix has won, right? You’re spending more and more time on their service!

Wrong. Because you’re not an addict. So, after a while, you get bored of searching for, and not finding, anything “really good”, and you close Netflix and go on to your social media, or eat some food, or whatever. And over time, because Netflix keeps trying to make shows that give you more dopamine, and sometimes they get close to that first great box-set you watched – but not quite – you just start thinking that Netflix isn’t really all that great. Because there’s loads of stuff to watch, but you’ve watched everything that interests you, and nothing else ever quite lives up to its promise any more. And so you start to consider cancelling your subscription. And then, eventually, you do.

And the more Netflix tries to make great shows that give you more dopamine so that you keep coming back, the more you get desensitised, and the more likely you are to eventually cancel.

Sometimes the old ways are better

When I grew up, there was no streaming. And TV only had 4 channels. Series aired an episode once per week. I used to spend all week looking forward to the next episode, and when it was over, I had to wait another week for the next one. In the meantime, I didn’t get to search a catalogue to find something else to watch while I was waiting. Whatever was on, was on. If I wasn’t interested in it, I had to go and find something else to do.

This was great for my brain. It forced me to broaden the range of things I did. It made me practice being creative by inventing things to do. And, even when I got a big hit of dopamine from my favourite show, and my brain responded by reducing the number of receptors, I then had a week for things to normalise: Goldilocks goes in both directions, so if your brain isn’t getting much of an effect from the amounts of dopamine being released by your everyday activities, it will increase the amount of receptors accordingly, to get the effect back in the normal range.

And then the next episode would come round, and I’d get my hit of my favourite show, and the cycle would repeat. I didn’t get bored of the show. I watched for years like this. And I loved every episode so much because I had to wait for each one, with my anticipation growing day by day.

The unintended consequence you should care about

So here’s the thing. Almost everything that you want, almost everything that you do, almost everything that you enjoy, involves the effect of dopamine in your brain. And, as I’ve explained above, when you binge-watch, you release an abnormally large amount of dopamine. Nature’s response, to try to keep you in the Goldilocks zone, is to reduce the number of dopamine receptors in your brain. And with a smaller number of receptors, everything else you do or enjoy doesn’t feel as good as it used to. Food isn’t as tasty, things you buy aren’t as exciting, rewards don’t feel as great.

You may be thinking this is nuts, but really think about it. It might not be a night and day difference. It’s just little by little by little. But the mechanism is the mechanism. The machine works the way it’s meant to. You’re hard-wired that way by millions of years of evolution. Binge-watching makes you enjoy your whole life less. There’s no escaping it.

So what should you do? It’s simple. When you get to the end of the episode, don’t let the next one start. Turn it off. Go and do something else. And wait – a day, a week – before you watch the next episode. Better yet, make watching the episode a reward for doing something else you don’t enjoy as much. There are great scientific studies that show that people go to the gym more when they make listening to a podcast episode or watching a box-set episode the reward for having gone. (You can even put your device in your locker at the gym and physically only watch/listen to it while you’re actually at the gym.)

And if Netflix want to keep their business model from collapsing – because you can’t just keep putting up prices or reducing costs and expect to deliver bigger and bigger dopamine hits – they could do a lot worse than letting you set a timer so that, once you’ve watched an episode, you can’t watch the next one until the timer has run down.

PS – do yourself an instant favour – turn off Netflix’s autoplay features (yes, you can!) It’s in your account settings. Just follow these instructions.


Mindfulness without meditation

The last post in my current series on mindfulness. The beginning of the series is here.

Let’s face it, not everyone wants to sit and meditate.

Formal sitting meditation is the best way to develop the skill of mindfulness, to stengthen your mindfulness muscle, but there are other ways to perform the meditation cycle. All you need is something to focus on that’s going on right now, and then off you go – focus, get distracted, notice, come back to focusing.

Every day I walk to the tube station (subway) 15 minutes from my house. On the way, I focus on the sensation of my feet alternately making contact with, and then pushing off from, the floor. I can manage about 100 yards before I get lost in a train of thought. But then I notice it’s happened, and I bring my attention back to my feet. I’m meditating by walking! And this means I can do two 15 minute meditations (there and back) every day. No more remembering another thing to fit into my busy morning schedule or worrying if I really have time to spend 15 minutes sitting doing nothing!

And it’s not just walking. If you think about it, there are so many opportunities every day – brushing your teeth, having a shower, washing dishes, preparing food, exercising in the gym. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can even meditate while you’re driving on the motorway (though I wouldn’t recommend this for absolute novices!)

Even just short check-ins remind you to focus on the present – helping to give you Level 1 benefits. You can stick a sticker on your computer screen to remind you to check in when you see it. You simply spend 30-60 seconds tuning in to your body, your environment, the sights, sounds and smells. And for that short minute, you’re accessing the Level 1 benefits and interrupting whatever you happened to be ruminating on at the time. Sure, you’re not going to develop stable awareness if this is all you ever do (at least, if you do, it’s likely to take quite a long time!) but who doesn’t want an immediately available stress relief? A regular alarm on your phone is also a good reminder.

I’m a particular fan of the way Zen is built into Japanese culture so that it triggers you to be mindful, even without noticing. One example is in Zen pottery, where the master potters deliberately introduce imperfections into the glaze. They spend years mastering how to do this in a way that looks accidental. But the point is that instead of having a bowl in your hands that is perfect, and thereby likely to go unnoticed as ‘just a bowl’, you notice the imperfection, and in that moment you’re pulled away from whatever inner dialog is running through your head, and your attention is focused on the bowl. What it looks like, how the imperfection in the glaze feels under your fingers. You don’t realise, but you’ve just had a mindful moment.

There’s one last way that you can train your mindfulness without meditating. At some point as you practice meditation and approach the Level 2 benefits, the penny will drop and you’ll have an ‘a-ha!’ moment. Suddenly you realise what if feels like to be aware of your thoughts and see them as thoughts. You’ll get what I’m talking about when I talk about watching a movie with the lights on. And once you’ve had a taste of that experience, you can start playing a new game. The game of trying to hold that feeling for as long as possible, as often as possible during the day. And, though meditation is still the best way of strengthening the mental muscle, you can do a lot by repeatedley flexing it wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

I was at an event the other evening launching the UK’s latest thinking on how to introduce mindfulness into workplaces, and during a Q&A session, someone in the audience made the point that the Sanskrit word that we translate into “mindfulness” is actually quite difficult to translate directly into English. But he prefered the translation “awareness”. I still like to think of it as having the lights on, but either way, that’s the real game. Meditation’s just one of the tools to get you there.

There’s another level…

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


So you’ve been meditating for 10-20 minutes a few times a week, for a few weeks. You’re stunned at how much clarity you feel after you meditate, and how much calmer you feel in general. People are even commenting on how you seem to be a bit more chilled in the office. But, secretly, you realise it doesn’t feel like it’s working as well any more. The difference before and after a meditation isn’t as distinct as it was. And you feel like worries that used to plague you, but vapourised when you meditated, have started creeping back in, and you can’t seem to budge them. What’s happening?

Well, you’re acclimatising to the new feeling. It isn’t as novel anymore, and so it doesn’t register so strongly. Just the same way as half the way through the bag of crisps you don’t get the same flavour explosion as you did with the first crisp.

It’s easy to give up on meditation at this stage. Not as an active choice, but simply because life gets in the way. And without a really big palpable benefit from the exercise, other things compete for your precious time.

But it’s important to keep going. Not just because if you give up things will revert to how they were before, but because there’s another level of benefits! I call these Level 2 benefits, and I think they’re much more fundamental and important than the Level 1 benefits. It’s just that they don’t get talked about as much because far fewer people experience them. They take a lot more meditation practice to achieve, and they’re more subtle. But they really can transform your life and help you to be the best person you can be.

I’m talking about what psychologists call ‘metacognition’. Simply put, this means conscious awareness of your own thoughts. At first this might seem a little odd. How can you be having thoughts and not be aware that you’re having thoughts?? Well, it’s not that we’re unconscious, but rather that we’re so caught up in the content of the thoughts themselves that we don’t appreciate that they are just … thoughts.

One analogy for this that I talk about is watching a horror movie at home. Imagine you’re alone at home, watching a horror movie on the TV, with all the lights off. You’re totally into the movie, and it has you gripped. Nothing else exists for you except the movie, and as a result, your emotions are putty in the director’s hands.

Contrast this with watching the same movie, at home, alone, but with the living room lights on. It’s still the same movie. You’re still paying attention to it. But now you also have a continual awareness of the context in which the movie is occuring: the safety and comfortable surroundings of your living room. As a result, you’re a little less emotionally ruled by the movie. When a particularly scary scene happens, you can say to yourself “it’s ok, it’s just a movie. I’m safe at home in my living room.”

Well, the movie is like your train of thoughts. When you’re not aware of them as being thoughts, they own you, and your emotional reactions are correspondingly strong. But when you can see them for what they are – thoughts, passing through your head at this moment, with a beginning, a middle and an end – you maintain a bit more emotional balance. People sometimes call this being ‘centred’. It’s the opposite of cognitive fusion, and it’s therefore a much more psychologically healthy way to live your life. It also means you’re less likely to react emotionally to whatever is going on, and rather respond in a considered way that is more likely to achieve the outcome you want.

So how do we get to this wonderful state? Actually, it’s simply by clocking up the meditation minutes. Or, more specifically the reps round the meditation cycle. Remember that the cycle involves focusing on something. Then at some point you’ll get distracted and caught up in a train of thought. But then you notice that you’ve gotten distracted, and you return your attention to the original object of focus. Well, in order to notice that you’re distracted, you have to notice that you’re thinking about something other than the object of focus. And you can’t do that without noticing whatever it is that you’re actually thinking about. The more you do this, the more get to see where your thoughts keep going. You start to see patterns. When I’m in this mood, I tend to think about that. When this is going on in my life, my thoughts tend to be dominated by that. And by seeing that patterns in you thoughts, and what influences them, you also start to appreciate that they are simply thoughts. Right now you have this one, but in the same situation on a different day, perhaps when you’ve had a better night’s sleep, you might have a different thought.

And slowly but steadily, you start to get a sense of what it’s like to see your thoughts as thoughts, even while you’re having them. That’s metacognition. It’s the light in the living room slowly coming on while you’re watching the movie.

At first, the light’s only on for a short time, before you’re caught up in the day-to-day and swept away until a later time when you spontaneously notice that it had been off (and in that moment it turns on again.)  Over time, these moments when you notice your thoughts happen more frequently, and your awareness of your thoughts on each occasion lasts a little longer before you’re swept away again.

But you realise you’re on to something new. And then you start paying attention to how much you’re maintaining awareness of your thoughts, and you start to try and hold on to those periods of awareness for as long as possible.

The ideal would be to have total control over you awareness – to be able to maintain it for as long as you want to whenever you want to. (There are times when you might not want to be aware of your thoughts, such as when you’re in the cinema and you actually want to allow yourself to be swept away by the movie!) But the reality is that this takes a huge amount of practice. I’m nowhere near there yet, and I find my ability to maintain awareness changes from day to day. For instance the more tired I am, the harder it is to maintain awareness, and the more likely I am to be swept away by my thoughts and emotions.

But I can see why it’s a desirable place to reach. When you’re effortlessly and constantly aware, you can nip rumination in the bud, every time. You can see when your amygdala is being triggered, and defuse it before you descend into an emotionally-led state where you react automatically, rather than resonding in a considered manner.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let my emotions get the better of me, and said or done something that immediately after I felt ashamed and foolish about having done. Wouldn’t it be nice for that to be a very rare exception? To be confident that, no matter what’s going on, you’re likely to always respond in the most helpful, constructive manner?

Awareness of our thoughts is a subtle, slow-to-develop, but incredibly powerful skill that can bring so much benefit to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. And the great thing is that it’s an inevitable by-product of doing reps round the meditation cycle.

In the next post, I’ll talk about some simple ways to build meditation into your life, without always having to take time out and sit down with your eyes closed, so that it’s easier to stay on the path to attaining the Level 2 benefits.

Ready Player One

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


One of the things you hear regularly about mindfulness is how quickly it works. There are even scientific studies showing various benefits after just one 20 minute meditation session. From one perspective, this is great news – you can do this simple practice for just a few minutes and experience benefits almost immediately.

But from another perspective, surely nothing that’s really good for you is so quick and easy?! I wouldn’t be surprised if many people think mindfulness is snake oil simply due to an understandable distrust for anything that seems like a silver bullet.

So, what’s going on here? Is there really any benefit to be had from just a small amount of mindfulness meditation? And why do people fervently announce that they feel a night-and-day difference after only a few sessions?

Well, I like to think of the benefits of meditation as having levels. Level 1 benefits are felt quickly and are quite noticeable. There are also Level 2 benefits, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

I’ve already talked about rumination, and how it has both a psychological and a physiological impact. So it makes sense that, simply by interrupting the continuous cycle of negative thoughts and bringing your attention to the present moment, you’re going to feel the benefit of no longer reliving whatever it is you’re ruminating about. For one simple moment, the noise in your head disappears, the anger or worry or sadness in your stomach dissipates, your brow relaxes. You feel better. (And your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, decrease too.)

Also, not only are you not thinking about something distressing, the chances are that whatever you bring your attention back to in the present moment is actually quite pleasant. Remember how, as a child, everything was wondrous? But somewhere along the line it became, well, meh. Well, all that wondrous stuff is still wondrous. We’ve just acclimatised to it, and then stopped noticing it altogether. But if you take a moment to stop ruminating, and focus on something – even something you think you know really well – you can find details that delight.

Take that favourite scarf/pillowcase/towel/velvet jacket(!) of yours. Intellectually you know it’s soft to the touch. That’s one of the reasons it’s your favourite. But when was the last time you actually dedicated all of your attention to exactly how it feels under the skin of your fingertips? Or what about your favourite song? You play it regularly while you’re driving or catching up on emails on the subway into work, and sort of know that you like it, right? But when did you last really listen to it – the sound of the cymbals, the timbre of the singer’s voice, the insightfulness of the lyrics? And when was the last time you just stood and stared at that sunset/building/painting/object and really just take in how mesmerisingly beautiful the thing in front of your gaze is?

Interestingly, even when whatever’s going on in the present moment isn’t that pleasant, it turns out you’re still better off than if you allow yourself to continue ruminating. In a lovely simple experiment, Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at Harvard, found that even when people are sitting in traffic, they’re happier if they’re in the moment, than if they’re allowing their mind to wander (and therefore probably ruminate). Don’t believe me? Check out his TED talk

So when people who have recently started doing mindfulness enthusiasticly tell you how awsome it is, how much better they feel, it’s true! They’re suddenly feeling what it’s like to be able to interrupt their negative rumination. And because they’ve been letting their thoughts run away with them for so long, the difference when they start meditating feels huge.

And it doesn’t take a lot of meditation to start feeling the Level 1 benefits. In my experience, people who meditate for just 10 minutes a day, three or four times a week, will probably be feeling wonderful about it after as little as two weeks, which is a great motivator to continue!

Unfortunately, over time the Level 1 benefits start to feel a bit meh. Not because they’re getting any smaller, but just because they’re not so novel any more. And I think that’s often when novice meditators give up. Which is a shame, because if they stuck with it for a few months, they’d start to experience the Level 2 benefits, which is the topic of my next post…

I think, therefore I am…

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


In my last post I talked about rumination, and why it’s an understandable but nonetheless bad habit to get entrenched in. This post is about the second common unhelpful mode of thinking known to contribute to mental ill health: cognitive fusion.

Cognitive fusion means to be totally ‘fused’ with your thoughts – to take them as gospel, to believe and feel that they’re the absolute truth. We’ve all experienced this. A heated argument leads us to say something we regret, and then later on, when we’re ruminating on what happened, we think things like “I’m a horrible person”. And we feel awful.

Now, just take a step back and think rationally about that statement for a second. Are you really “a horrible person” because you said that thing? Or are you a perfectly decent person, trying to do their best in a difficult world, who occasionally says a regrettable horrible thing? I’m willing to bet you’re actually the second of those two options. But in the moment that you’re thinking “I’m a horrible person”, you believe it to be absolute and true. That’s cognitive fusion.

So why is cognitive fusion a bad thing? Well, for one thing it’s not very forgiving. And when you have a negative thought about yourself while you’re cognitively fused, it has a very strong impact. You believe it to be true, along with all the associated implications. Your self-worth, confidence and morale all suffer. Your brain goes into a state of defensiveness (activating the amygdala and inhibiting frontal cortex function), rather than one of problem-solving. Your mood falls.

And, annoyingly, our language primes us to do it. Consider the sentence: “I am sad”. Three words in which you have identified yourself, and fused your existence with a negative emotion. You have defined yourself through the emotion. Consider the alternative presented by the way grammar works in French: “I have sadness”. A very different situation. This implies a distinction between your and your emotion. It implies the emotion is transient (I have sadness now, but it will pass). On a side note, I’d love to look at incidence rates of depression in different countries, categorised by how their grammar handles negative emotions.

Hopefully, you can see how being regularly or constantly cognitively fused, especially when things aren’t all going to plan in your life, can have a real impact on your mental ill health. And the combination of rumination and cognitive fusion is really tough. Even if you’re managing not to succumb to psychological ill health, the two represent a significant burden to your thinking and emotions.

So now that you have a good understanding of rumination and cognitive fusion, in the next post I’ll start to explain how mindfulness meditation works to halt the negative effects of these two thinking modes.


Chewing the cud

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explain how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


In the last post, I explained the fundamental component of mindfulness mediation – the meditation cycle. The more reps of the cycle you do, the stronger your mental muscle (the anterior cingulate cortex) gets. And you need to get distracted by a train of thought to complete a cycle, so those distracting trains of thought shouldn’t annoy you – they’re part of the process!

In order to understand why mindfulness meditation has such profound and wide-ranging benefits in your everyday life, I need to quickly explain a bit of psychology. Come with me, as, over the next couple of posts, we examine two of the most unhelpful modes of thinking that humans engage in – rumination and cognitive fusion.

Rumination (and why it’s better left to cows)

In the animal world, ruminants are the group of animals who eat plants by repeatedly regurgitating, chewing and re-swallowing them (“chewing the cud”) to aid in the breakdown of the difficult-to-digest cellulose – rumination.

This gives a clue as to its meaning in psychology. Coined in the 90’s by Nolen-Hoeksema, it refers to our tendency to replay negative feelings and experiences in our minds. We’ve all done it – the argument with a spouse, the unforeseen event that derails your project – whatever the trigger, we play it over and over in our minds. “If only I had…”, “I should have…”, “How could I have…” Why do we do this? We’re trying to solve the problem in our minds, as a self-defense mechanism. This may be an attempt to alleviate the upset by finding a different course of action that we can call upon should we ever face the same problem again in the future. It’s a basic survival instinct.

The problem is that it’s not without consequences. We think that by going over it again and again, perhaps we’ll find a better solution. But the truth is that’s unlikely. However in the meantime we’re subjecting ourselves to the negative emotions associated with whatever happened over and over again. It’s like cutting your finger, and instead of cleaning it and putting a plaster on it, you keep reopening the cut and making it bleed again. Do you think that’s going to help it heal?

And it’s not just that it’s unpleasant to keep feeling those feelings over and over. It’s actively bad for you. Remember that our brains are designed to get better at doing things you do a lot of? Well, if we’re doing a lot of negative thinking, guess what we’re getting better at doing! We’re rehearsing negative thoughts, and literally cutting a groove in the record. This is a major predictor of depression and anxiety.

Rumination has a physical impact too. The fear/fight/flight system in your brain is very sensitive, and doesn’t pay any attention to whether a threat is in the past, the present or the future. It also doesn’t differentiate between real or imagined (or remembered, as in this case.) It’s just on the lookout for ‘threat’. So when we’re ruminating, we’re repeatedly activating this system, which causes the release of the stress-hormone cortisol into our blood, artificially elevating its resting concentration. This has horrible consequences for our bodies – chronically elevated cortisol levels have been shown to depress our immune systems, elevate our risk of heart disease, cause premature atrophy of parts of the brain, and make us deposit fat around our organs and abdomen.

So, when we’re ruminating, although we think we’re trying to soothe or protect ourselves by finding a better (imagined) outcome, we’re actually damaging both our physical and psychological health. Which I think is a very good reason for why we should leave the rumination to cows!

In the next post, I’ll describe the other common unhelpful mode of thinking – cognitive fusion. And then I’ll explain how mindfulness meditation directly combats both of these psychological nasties.

The meditation cycle

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

So here’s the thing about meditation: It’s really really simple. And you should never feel bad that you can’t seem to be rid of the mental chatter. The chatter is an essential part of the meditation, and without it you wouldn’t make any progress!

But before I get in to that, I just want you to think about strengthening a muscle at the gym. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with a free weight, a resistance band, or a complicated machine, there are two things that have to be true for you to strengthen your muscle.

First, you need some sort of resistance pulling against the muscle. That’s what the weight or band is for. Without it, you’d just be moving your body against air, and that wouldn’t make you any stronger!

Second, you have to push/pull against the resistance many times over to build up strength. It’s the repetitions that actually build the muscle, whether you’re toning, bulking or strengthening. Nothing happens with only one rep!

OK, so meditation is like an exercise for your brain. It strengthens particular mental muscles. Now, there are different forms of meditation, and they can overlay different techniques like visualisation or mantras. But fundamentally, mindfulness meditation centres on a simple cycle of focusing your attention on something (often your breath), attempting to maintaining the focus, inevitably getting caught up in a train of thought, and noticing that you’ve gotten distracted and bringing your attention back to whatever you started on. This is the fundamental meditation cycle (see diagram). And each time round the loop is like one rep with a weight in the gym.


Hopefully, a couple of things are obvious from this. For one, anyone can do it. If you have the ability to pay attention to something even for just a few seconds, you can do meditation. Secondly, that mental chatter that always seems to interrupt your focus? That’s a necessary part of the cycle, and it will always happen (if it doesn’t, check whether you have a pulse.) And it’s a good thing, because without the thoughts that bubble up and distract you, you’d have no resistance for your muscle to work against. And just like working out in the gym, the more reps you do, the stronger you get. So getting distracted by a train of thought is a good thing. The more often you do it, notice it’s happened, and regain your focus, the stronger your mental muscle is getting.

What are these mental muscles I keep going on about? Well, that’s actually quite interesting. When you focus your attention on something, various networks in your brain’s frontal cortex are working together to give you that focus, and at the same time to block out other things – sounds in the background, feelings in your body and even unrelated thoughts. It turns out there’s a particular area, called the anterior cingulate cortex, whose job it is to monitor for conflicts between what you want to focus on and where your attention actually is. It’s like a red light / green light. When you want to focus on something, say your breath, and you are successfully doing that, the anterior cingulate shines green. But when you wanted to focus on your breath and you’re actually thinking about your latest Facebook update, it shines red. When you notice it’s red, you become aware that you’re not focusing where you wanted to, and you can then renew your focus. You can see this in the diagram following the  big arrows labelled ‘Focus’. From the moment you put (or return) your focus on to your breath (or whatever you’re focussing on) to the moment you get lost in thought, the anterior cingulate is shining green, like the arrow. When you become distracted by a train of thought, the anterior cingulate goes red, and stays red until you notice it and refocus your attention.

Fortunately, brains are very good at getting better at whatever we do a lot of. So, the anterior cingulate is strengthened by repetitions of the meditation cycle. Just like a muscle, the more often you use it, the stronger it gets – effectively the brighter the light shines red or green. As it gets brighter, you notice it sooner when it changes from green to red, which means you spend less time in each repetition of the cycle lost in thought.

The muscle analogy doesn’t just end there though. Just like how hard you can work out at the gym is affected by how well you’ve slept, how well nourished you are, and how much you’ve worked the muscle already, your anterior cingulate – in fact all your brain muscles – are affected by how frazzled/stressed/sleep-deprived/etc. you are. So some days you start to meditate and it seems effortless, and you get to the end and think yes, I’m definitely getting better at this. And then the next time you meditate, your thoughts are running rampant, and you start off focusing on your breath, only to get to the end of the session and realise you spent literally the whole session lost in thought. You didn’t even manage one rep! But that’s ok. Exactly like going to the gym, it’s not about seeing an improvement from one session to the next, every session. It’s about gradually seeing an improving trend.

So don’t get frustrated that the thoughts keep coming while you’re trying to meditate. Remember that that’s normal, and in fact you need them to give you the opportunity to go round the meditation cycle and strengthen your mental muscle.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to two of the most harmful modes of thinking that we all do, and explain how they damage our mental, and physical, health.

A window into consciousness?

Learning how things work by observing what changes due to damage

Phineas P. Gage earned his place in the history books when he survived a massive metal rod passing right through his brain in  1848.

Gage was a railway worker responsible for blasting rock to make way for new rail tracks. In an unfortunate accident, his tamping iron – 1 14 inches (3.2 cm) in diameter, three feet seven inches (1.1 m) long, and weighing 13 14 pounds (6.0 kg) – set off an explosion, and was shot, like a bullet, through his head, passing straight through the left side of his brain.


Remarkably, not only did he survive, but he “spoke within a few minutes, walked with little assistance, and sat upright in an oxcart for the 34-mile (1.2 km) ride to his lodgings in town” (Harlow, John Martyn (1868). “Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head”. Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society 2 (3): 327–47.)

He lived for 12 years after the injury, dying eventually from epilepsy. But he is noted medically for the gross personality changes associated with his injury, and as a resuly, his case “influenced nineteenth-century discussion about the mind and brain, particularly debate on cerebral localization, and was perhaps the first case to suggest the brain’s role in determining personality, and that damage to specific parts of the brain might induce specific personality changes”

This is also a lovely example of how, for much of the history of medicine, we have come to understand how the body works by observing what changes when it is damaged. This is particularly true in the study of the brain, where we have been able to correlate localised areas of damage (usually due to strokes) with the corresponding loss of neurological or cognitive function.

Shared experiences

So, consider the following descriptions of three different human experiences:

And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end,because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy — energy.

And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me? What is going on?” And in that moment, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight.

“But as I looked, this purely aesthetic, Cubist’s-eye view gave place to what I can only describe as the sacramental vision of reality. I was back where I had been when I was looking at the flowers-back in a world where everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance. The legs, for example, of that chair–how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness! I spent several minutes–or was it several centuries?–not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them—or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for “I” was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were “they”) being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.

To others again is revealed the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence, of the given, unconceptualized event. In the final stage of egolessness there is an “obscure knowledge” that All is in all–that All is actually each. This is as near, I take it, as a finite mind can ever come to “perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.””

Aldous Huxley: The Doors of Perception

People attempt to describe it [enlightenment] in many ways. Ramana Maharshi says that when you realise the Self (enlightenment), the sense of yourself as distinct from the world disappears.

Another person describes it by saying, ‘I was sitting opposite someone during an enlightenment intensive workshop. We had been posing the question for days – “Who are you?” Suddenly I realised that it was a silly question, because I was the answer. All thought stopped and I existed as the answer. My being had always been this. In this state there was an awareness of being connected with everything around me, in the beginning of creation.

Another person says, ‘Unexpectedly everything changed and my fundamental self was something that existed throughout all time. It didn’t have a beginning or end. There was no goal to achieve. I am.’

Slightly different but still the same enlightenment. ‘Everything seemed to slip away and I felt as if I melted back into the primal being of the universe. It didn’t seem as if my ego was gone, just melted into everything else. It was blissful.’

In her book Collision With the Infinite, Suzanne Segal writes, ‘In the midst of a particularly eventful week, I was driving north to meet some friends when I suddenly became aware that I was driving through myself. For years there had been no self at all, yet here on this road, everything was myself, and I was driving through me to arrive where I already was. In essence, I was going nowhere because I was everywhere already. The infinite emptiness I knew myself to be was now apparent as the infinite substance of everything I saw.’

Exerpts from a blog post by Tony Crisp

So, the first experience is brain damage due to a stroke. The second experience is a drug-induced ‘trip’. And the third experience is ‘enlightenment’ in different people’s words.

But do you notice the similarities between the descriptions of these three experiences? I do, and this interests me. In particular the last one. Why? Because these experiences seem to be glimpsing the same ‘state’, albeit arrived at by different routes. And I wonder whether, just as Phineas Gage’s injury and subsequent personality changes shed light on the nature and source of personality, this ‘altered consciousness state’ provides us with a tool to learn about the nature and source of consciousness.

Future research?

And what intrigues me most is that, whereas the previous two routes to a “state of one-ness with the universe” rely on an external trigger – an injury or a chemical – the meditation route involves people purely thinking themselves into this state without any exogenous stimulus.

Surely this marks meditation and enlightenment out as an avenue of potential research into the nature of consciousness which might be less plagued by ethical difficulties than using brain asphyxia or psychoactive drugs as an intervention!