The Optimist

While digging through a “Free Swap” area on campus I came upon a forcefully optimistic series of etchings laid out on some sort of a plaque situation

The Optimist Creed:

  • To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind
  • To talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet,
  • To make all your friends feel that there is something in them,
  • To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true,
  • To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best
  • To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own
  • To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievement of the future
  • To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile
  • To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others
  • To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble

Neat. A swirl of reactions shared that space behind my eyes after I located and skimmed over this. One reaction tasted like Wow this is psycho this is brainwashing and another reaction had some sort of a Yeah but you need it, you sick fuck type of overtone. Grabbed the thing, brought it home and made a commitment to memorize it. Thought I’d elect one item on the list as a area to focus on (optimistically, of course) & choose another that seems to be going ok. On typing out the list one jumped out as urgently in need of work and it was less clear which item I’m doing best with. Following that I’m curious to find/post at least an article or two on the neural substrates of positive/negative thinking.

Urgently in need of work: To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize othersThis one screamed at me.

Doing best: Maybe To make all your friends feel that there is something in them, or To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future? The former case makes me smile because I think friends would have good things to say about that. The issue with the latter would be the hours spent daily ruminating about past/current failures. But the feedback I often get from adults is that in the long game I am overwhelmingly more resilient and future-focused than the other young folks they run into. The discrepancy between that externally-imposed feedback and the actual inner experience/introspective assessment is really jarring but hey, that’s psychology.


Materials & readings on optimism, pessimism, & associated neural bonanza:

Richie Unplugged: My #1 role model explains to you how and why to keep your mind right. Had to start with this

  • Bonus- no powerpoint or reading necessary

Richie, plugged back in: A lovely overview of ~current research taking place in the Davidson lab back home in Madison. You’ll note some brief descriptions of research under WELL-BEING & BEHAVIOR that seem to dig most closely towards this gem called optimism

  • This is a pile of summaries about what Richie is working on in Madison. If you’re not salivating upon reading those studies (just consider all the other thousands of studies being funded in the biomedical sciences) you might not be optimistic enough!

From the NYT: Turning negative thinkers into positive ones

  • Mentions some neat research by a researcher by the name of Barbara Fredrickson (creates new bookmark) who I haven’t heard of before.

Good summary (on Oprah’s website! Ayyye!) of the merits of choosing happiness, featuring a boatload of neuroscience references

  • The article mentions a David Lykken, PHD, here in Minnesota at the U. Haven’t heard of him until now – (adds new bookmark to Brainman folder) – eager to see what he’s about and if he’s around these days. Bad news – on looking the guy up turns out he passed 12 years ago. Oh well.
  • Make sure to scroll all the way down in this reading – it’s actually 5 full pages long but one can easily get the impression it stops when the first page stops.

The association between resting functional connectivity and dispositional optimism (Ran, J. Yang, W. Yang, Wei, J. Qiu, Zhang)

  • Haven’t read this one all the way through but not surprisingly the abstract mentions the vmPFC. Heck!!!

“What is Unrealistic Optimism?” (Jefferson, Bortolotti, Kuzmanovic)

  • Absolutely necessary adjunct reading for anyone getting too hyped, biased, or fundamentalist about optimism
  • Uses the term positive illusion as an umbrella term encompassing their defined notion of unrealistic optimism. Positive illusion would be/is my overall characterization of optimism but it seems these authors demarcate between optimism as being rational/a proper assessment of circumstances (no illusion here) and optimism sometimes being irrational/an improper assessment of circumstances (illusory).

 

TOO MUCH NOISE

the rapidity with which the brain adjusts to circumstances is amazing. neuroplasticity is not the only far-out skill that nervous systems have, however: there are two extreme characteristics that somehow cozy up and find room together within our skull. these ubiquitous attributes are those tendencies of all brains that are at once coworkers and also contradictory:

brains are formless

the first extreme is the brain’s plasticity. this highly pliable, ultra-erasable, moment-to-moment functional wobbling of the teflon nature takes place at the cellular level. consider your conscious experience right now – it is changing, and changing rapidly. it would not conceivably follow from this observation that some stillness or lack-of-motion is present within your brain. far from it – movement in our experience must mean there is movement inside of your body. even the observation that our moment-to-moment experience changes immediately suggests an unseen organ operating that is as bodily as all the rest, and that must be undergoing minute and constant change. the colorful flickering of our momentary Right-Now-experience is simple proof that life is a film of many frames, and it by observing the bodies of others we can appreciate that underlying this is cellular mutability and impermanence.

brains are formed

the other tenant occupying the shadow of all experience, and the structure of your body, is regularity. your brain is shaped like [almost] all other brains. it cannot be understated how exactly similar your brain is in the overall sense to most peoples’ brains. there are no doubt anomalies – folks who have been injured, or born with developmental diseases, or other modifications. but we are mostly alike in our form. consider car engines. i’m no engine expert but do know that, like people, many types of engines are out there. so a brain is like an engine: unique, overall demonstrating commonalities so major they are almost forgettable. engines are regular in this way: an engine needs gas. it needs the oil changed every 3,000 miles. it needs a car with 4 wheels to roll well in order to bring itself to the dealership to get itself looked at, and if the driver is drunk shit might go poorly for the engine. engines will fall apart if they get too hot and they will absolutely turn to rotten caramel if you stick sugar inside of them. a brain has similar expectations and mandates that, no matter how unique the brain, must be met. things like heart rate, breathing, maintaining some muscle tone in your eyelids in order to observe the bear flying towards you – these are the basics expected of a working nervous system. it helps to have working hormones, air in your lungs, and maybe even a few simple movements in your limbs….and if you can’t choreograph an orchestra’s worth of complexity within your gut you won’t be digesting the bear meat from your hunt a moment ago. these are the deeply regular aspects of being a brain, and they somehow coincide with the plasticity aforementioned.

so brains are both extremely malleable and extremely regular. it distresses me on a daily basis that both of these opposite qualities occupy the same mess of tissue. the malleability [of our conscious mind] then takes place within a context and the structure of the brain shapes that regular context, our place in it, and somewhere down the line, on an irrelevant shelf: these both shape our conscious mind and day-to-day lives, relationships, and feelings.

there’s a little story from a children’s book that was special to me as a kid. it’s about a frustrated old man who lives by himself in a cabin and was written by author Ann McGovern. for anyone who has really fussed over concepts in sensation, perception, and neuroplasticity this story should be a silly one. most of us can relate to being frustrated by noise at one moment or another – it is a regular experience. but with a little help and a few sensory tricks we can get past it. Enjoy this brief little tale on frustration, patience, and change – in the meantime feel free to wonder what was happening in old Peter’s skull during this frustrating little story.

Too Much Noise!


 

Here are a few concepts (sorry for the watered-down sources) to play with when it comes to our rapid adjustment to novel or stressful experiences.

Habituation

Orienting response

Signal Detection & noise (R. H. Wiley)

Broadbent’s model of attention

Attenuation theory (Treisman)

Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity

Social influences on neuroplasticity

Shoutout to the wise man!

Exposure therapy

Contemplative Cops: Using Meditation in Law Enforcement

Should law enforcement officers engage in on-the-job meditation practices as a regular part of training or workflow? Might the use of certain contemplative exercises such as mindfulness training enhance the ability of police officers to perform their job safely (or recover afterwards)? Or, more simply: would meditating be good for cops? Should the police meditate? This note is written in response to a few online publications about this question that briefly describe the increasing osmosis between law enforcement and intentional, secular meditation practice. Only several online pieces from the early 2000s will be discussed [rather than the history/subject matters of police practice & contemplative practice in general]. If anyone doubts that exploring all possible strategies to reduce police violence is important, let’s just step into the comment area. Before initiating or joining any critical conversation about something as subjective as meditation (or something as serious as law enforcement) we might want to take a few things into consideration.

First, as your author, I am not [& never have been] ordained or certified as a meditation teacher — nor as a law enforcement officer. This places me in a position of relative inexperience when it comes to the following topics, and I encourage any and all from these communities to provide input (or contact me at iandoyleolson@gmail.com). My relevant expertise will be mentioned below but it is not of primary importance for our conversation anyway.

Second, both law enforcement and meditation are kind of hard to talk about with any truth or accuracy. This is because law enforcement and meditation are both quite common and and varied – they happen all over the place, and in a lot of different ways. This piece of writing you are looking at is coming from someone with no experience as a police officer and no authority on meditation. This means that we will fail in covering the breadth and scope of both of these practices…oh well.

Third, the observations to come are not meant to be judgmental or laden with approval/disapproval – they are simply observations. Those individuals working in both the meditation & law enforcement communities have my support, & it is from a place of interest that I enter the discussion about them.

Why would the police meditate? (We’re talking about on-the-job meditation – not any personal practice at home.) There have been a few internet publications about this recently [see list below]. There are at least some of us who are of the opinion that when it comes to police and law enforcement, the United States is in a crisis. This crisis, as described by Buddhist dharma teacher and former police officer Cheri Maples, is characterized by “[an] unnecessary use of force, racial profiling, militarization of police departments, lack of trust between communities and police departments, lack of strategies to address trauma and emotional health of police officers, unconscious and unspoken organizational agreements in police culture, and a lack of informal safety nets for people across the country….” All of these issues warrant immediate and honest speculation on how to improve our state of affairs. And for the past several years, especially in the midwestern United States, the quest for solutions has been a hot topic. Among existing thoughts on how to reform police practices is the idea of introducing and/or standardizing traditional mental and emotional training techniques for law enforcement.

A healthy amount of the existing chatter in this conversation comes in from the angle of affective neuroscience. Affective neuroscience is the multidisciplinary study of the nervous system in the context of mood, emotion, and affective processing. One of the pioneers in this field who has publicly offered thoughts about police work is the research psychologist Richard J Davidson, a Harvard-trained buddy of the Dalai Lama who does most of his brain research in Madison, Wisconsin. Richie is a righteous dude who gave me the chance to chat with him when I was 19 – not too long after I had some experiences at the hands of the Madison Police Department that were not ideal. A year later, just as my own personal Zazen practice was deepening, he let me volunteer in his laboratory in Madison. I am grateful both for his input on my experiences and career at that time, and for my current opportunity to reciprocate.

Because a lot of Davidson’s work has focused on the neurophysiology of mental illness, well-being, and other emotional states, it seems clear why he might be interested in the neural correlates of (and effective steps towards) compassionate police work. Not only do police officers deal with homelessness, mental illness, and behavioral crises on the job – they also go home with personal trauma. This is notwithstanding the myriad instances of police brutality in the news, including some shootings in Madison and some unfortunate practices in Dane County Jail. Mediating stress, fear, anxiety, and panic responses under pressure are certainly complex issues at the level of media social discourse, but also at the level of the central nervous system – Dr. Davidson seems to be interested in connecting the two. He is already helping to get the police to meditate. According to a 2015 article in the Atlantic he has been helping the police in Madison, Wisconsin to either learn some contemplative practices or to connect them with someone who can. (I’ve reached out to the handful of officers that I know in the MPD to see what they think about it – updates to come.)

This seems like a great idea to me…generally speaking. But what are the specifics? What benefit(s) to police tactics or police work overall might be found in sitting practice? As much as I love both topics I wonder why the MPD first chose to talk to Richie: in other words, I am skeptical about the immediate intersectionality between police practices and high-level neuroscience research. Certainly as a prominent researcher of meditation (and a personal meditator himself) Richie likely some great insights about how the practice works, as well as great connections in terms of teachers. But is he really the best (or only) individual to be providing such practices or consultation to the police? With no information about the program in place at the Madison Police Department I can’t say much. But my academic familiarity with Richie’s research, experiences in his lab, encounters with the Madison police, EMT training, my personal Zen practice, and role as a law enforcement instructor for the Barbara Schneider Foundation have given me a thought or two: I have some initial doubts about the application of “mindfulness” to law enforcement. My opinion is that the types of mindfulness practices – at least those being explored at the Center for Healthy Minds (previously the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds), where Davidson is in charge – are likely beneficial for the emotional stability of police officers, but perhaps less relevant during actual fieldwork or crisis intervention.  Elsewhere there are similar programs – a quick Google search shows that meditation programs are appearing in a variety of police departments. A mindfulness program in Oregon has been implemented for several years now, and some initial results and data shared at a conference in April 2014. There’s also some similar stuff happening in India. As a certified EMT and supporter of technology I have wondered about the possible efficacy of some type of an App for blending these skill sets – a mindfulness trainer for law enforcement and EMS that could fit in one’s pocket. Maybe that will be the subject of further research and another brief piece. Time will tell how these law enforcement/meditation programs play out and it is my modest prediction that the futures of neuroscience research, public interest, police work, and federal/municipal/private funding may continue to overlap in a big way.

-IV

 

sources

(9/30/2015) http://www.thewayofmeditation.com.au/blog/the-current-crisis-in-policing-and-how-buddhist-mindfulness-can-help/

(7/2014) http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/nov/07/india-police-yoga-meditation-police-crime-figures

(4/16/2014) http://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/index.ssf/2014/04/hillsboro_cops_meditation_trai.html

(early 2014) https://www.change.org/p/president-of-the-united-states-make-it-mandatory-that-police-officers-meditate

(3/4/2013) http://www.tm.org/blog/people/transcendental-meditation-helps-police-with-ptsd/

(fall 2011) http://www.ntoa.org/massemail/RyanFA11.pdf

(2/15/11) http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/from-police-officer-to-peace-officer-meditation-and-cops