Quirks & Quarks

Former Headspace doctor on the science of mindfulness

The Headspace app is massively popular. The company's former chief medical officer explains what he thinks it can do for the mind.
More than 100 NYC commuters free their minds during a Meditation Moment in Flatiron Plaza led by Headspace Co-Founder Andy Puddicombe. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Headspace claims people can benefit from meditating 10 minutes a day. The company's former chief medical officer, Dr. David Cox, explains how that works.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bob McDonald:   Now we just heard about the science of breathing and the breathing coach that we just featured does what she calls breath meditation. So how different is that from mindfulness meditation or is it different at all?

David Cox: Mindfulness and meditation, the two words tend to get used together or interchangeably. And actually it's worth just disambiguating that slightly. So mindfulness is a state of mind and it's the state of mind of being continuously aware of what's going on in the here and now. 

So things you can feel in your body and your emotions and your thoughts. That is the state of mindfulness.

Meditation is the exercise that you do to build up the skill of mindfulness. So you know just like you might want to play tennis and you need to get stronger to be better at tennis. So you go to the gym and you use the weight machines there. 

The weight machines are not the skill, tennis is the skill, but the weight machines help you build the skill. So meditation is the exercise that helps you build the skill of mindfulness.

BM:   So does that mean you focus on the breath?

DC: Exactly. So the way I like to talk about that is meditation is a really simple loop with four steps. The first step is you focus on something that's happening right now. The second step is, at some point, after a few seconds or a few minutes, you'll get distracted by train of thought.

It could be you know memory it could be your shopping list it could be anything but you get distracted.  A little while after that you realize that you're distracted and you think "oh I was supposed to be concentrating on my breath but actually I'm thinking about whatever."

And then you bring your attention back to focusing on the thing that you started with, and that's that little cycle.

BM:  What do you see as the main benefits that someone can achieve through doing this kind of headspace?

DC:  I think of this in terms of level one benefits and level two benefits it's just names that I've given them. So the level one benefits typically somebody will feel in the first two to four weeks of doing meditation. They're quite quick.

And when you hear people who recently started meditating and saying "wow this thing has really made a difference to me, I feel less stressed, I feel clearer in my mind, I'm sleeping better." Those are level one benefits that they're describing and I'm talking a little bit about where they come from.

Then I like to make the point that there are actually level two benefits. They take quite a lot longer for you to start feeling them. I would say you probably have to do it at least three or four times a week for up to four to six months or so to start feeling the level two benefits.

And they are a lot more subtle. And you know they're to do with developing a awareness and perspective on your own thoughts.

And so these two different types of benefits are what underlie all the different claims that people make about how they feel that meditation is helping them.

BM:  When you say perspectives on your own thoughts what do you mean?

DC:  You need to know about two different areas of the brain. One is a really old part of the brain called the amygdala.  It's involved in the creation of emotion and it's the source of your fear fight or flight response.

And contrast that with another as your brain called the frontal cortex. And this is much younger in evolutionary terms and it's the place where you do your rational thinking   

The simple way to think about it is if you're a caveman. You're walking down the path and tiger jumps out at you. What's going to be your best course of action? That thing looks a little bit scary and it might have killed one of my tribe mates recently and maybe I should do something about it. Or, is it better for you to freeze, your amygdala takes over and shuts down your frontal cortex, and you react automatically, flooding your system with stress hormones on run.

BM: OK. So then how does meditation come into that in dealing with emotional situations?   

DC:  We don't tend to ruminate on the good stuff we tend to ruminate on the bad stuff. Now what's happening when you're ruminating is your amygdala is sensing a threat.  And it's just slowly trying to do exactly what we describe before which is shut down your frontal cortex inhibit the function of your frontal cortex and to release stress hormones into your body. 

So you've cut straight through that rumination feedback loop. And as a result of that, over time your stress hormones in your body go down you tend to feel like you sleep better, you feel clearer minded, because your frontal cortex is not being inhibited anymore.

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