My presentation from the end of my fourth term at the RCA, where I’m at, where I’m going…
We live in a time where we can send and receive information instantly, travel the globe, we’ve automated boring, dangerous processes so we don’t have to do them anymore, we can explore far off galaxies or fantasies worlds, we can listen to a full orchestra whilst traveling underground to our destination, and we can see and hear our loved ones any time of day or night.
However despite all these huge technological advances and countless incremental improvements to our daily lives to make us more efficient, more comfortable and more “connected”, subjective well being levels in the west have not increased since the 1950s. Technology is a powerful tool that is driving its own propagation through the technology/economy loop, but technology isn’t, once it’s met our basic needs, making us feel any better, and I absolutely believe that it can, and that it should.
By 2030 depression is set to become the larger global disease burden, ahead of conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
In fact there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that not only is technology not making us feel better, it is actually making us feel worse. High levels of stress and anxiety have been observed in 8-18 year olds who use social media more then their peers, and in adult high Multi Media Index individuals, those who spend more of their time online and on their computers, reduced grey matter has been recorded in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, a part of the brain associated with higher functions like decision making and, scarily for our future, ethics.
But it’s ok, no need to panic, these advances in technology have also brought about a greater understanding of what is happening in our minds, we understand much better then before the nature of our brains. Technology is a double edged sword, and whether its a sword or a smart phone we can, if we bring clarity and understanding, choose to use the tool to our advantage.
We know our brains are incredibly plastic, what we think today is what we become, neurologically speaking, tomorrow. Technology is shaping our brains and so our future, we need to think carefully, now, what shape we want them to become.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to have numerous benefits to our mental health, including reduced stress and anxiety, increased levels of compassion and improved learning ability and memory.
Over the last term, and indeed the last three or so years, I have been trying to build up as complete a picture of Mindfulness meditation and the world it can create. I am currently in the middle of my 8 week MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a course developed by Jon Kabat Kinn, who is generally credited with having starting the Western Mindfulness movement. He took much of his program and techniques from the Eastern philosophies, including, most importantly, Buddhism. I have been attending classes at the West London Buddhist Centre, attending the Wednesday student group with-in university and researching, and where possible trying, alternative meditation techniques, for example Vedic, Zen, GyonYo and Tea Ceremony.
I have formulated my understanding into what I am calling the three C’s of Mindfulness, which are Code, Community and Clarity.
To very briefly introduce these; Code is the code of practise, the techniques of meditation, the neurological research that informs it. The Community is formed of the teachers and students, and also, for example, business owners and artists working in and around Mindfulness. Clarity is both a tool and the final aim, the ability to non-judgementally observe the world inside and outside of yourself.
All three inform and support each other. For example neuroscientists use Clarity, by clearly and scientifically observing what is happening in our brains they can help us improve our Code of practise whilst meditating. Many people find their Code greatly improved when they practise with-in a Community, whether that be a traditional class or an app that allows them to connect and compare with thousands of people across the globe.
We can contract the Three C’s down to a personal level, how they can be used by an individual to improve their mental health or become a better musician or athlete, or we can expand the Three C’s to think about what Mindfulness meditation could do for a larger community, or even our species as a whole. I am currently working on two projects which work with this expanded and contracted focus.
The first project is about facilitating an individual to improve their personal mindfulness.
So let’s imagine a user case, this is Dawn, she is a fellow meditator on my MBSR 8 Week course, she is starting to learn Mindfulness with a really specific purpose in mind, she is currently spending her days zipping around London on a motorbike trying to get ‘The Knowledge’ so she can become a black cab driver. We is using the Code of Mindfulness within the community of our class to bring Clarity to her memory so she can learn the roads of London.
She has never meditated before, and is trying to understand what it is she’s meant to be doing when she sits there with her eyes closed.
For this project I am working with Judson Brewer, Director at the Center for Mindfulness, MIT. Judson has been built up a fascinating body of work, especially with the concept of Flow State.
Flow is a mental state which can be achieved through meditation, and can also be experienced by musicians or athletes when they are totally absorbed and focused on their craft.
I have been meditating for around three years now, and it wasn’t until this summer through my research reading that I began to recognise Flow state, but as soon as I did my own practise significantly improved. To me it is a wonderful, expansive feeling… very… good…. and here we see the problem, it’s also very difficult to describe, the reason I’ve chosen this weird, obscure picture is because it doesn’t look like anything, or it may look and feel different to the different people.
This is exactly the power of technology to intervene and facilitate meditative practise, to help us take something ephemeral and personal and quantify it so we can objectively and usefully discuss it.
Judson and his team use a piece of technology called an EEG Mirror to help train meditators recognise and return to flow state. A set of sensors are wore over the cranium which pick up faint signals in the brain, a computer then uses these signals to plot which parts of the brain are active. Judson’s research shows that when a part of the brain called the Post Cingular Cortex becomes quiet during meditation it indicates that the meditator is experiencing flow state. A feedback mechanism then tells the meditator ‘this! this feeling right now, that IS flow state!’ so they can recognise it.
This is an essential step in successful training, to know what it is you are aiming for so you can get back there more efficiently next time.
Judson and his team are currently working on a clinical iteration for their tool, and I am attempting to help design what this will look and feel like.
There are two main sides to this design project, firstly to redesign the EEG Cap to fit with their new brief.
I have been exploring new kinds of forms and fits to create a more comfortable, attractive headset.
Secondly there is the feedback method, the way the user is notified about how deep into Flow state they are. The current method is a visual graph on a computer screen, my initial reaction to this is that as I meditate with my eyes closed, it would be somewhat distracting.
I want to investigate broadly what kind of cue will be the ‘best’ for communicating with a meditator during meditation. By ‘best’ I mean the least distracting and most enjoyable whilst still being accurate. Is there a preferable type of sense to engage? Sight? Smell? Tactile?
For this I am working with Professor Joydeep and his PhD student Jasmine at Goldsmiths, we will be running experiments next term to try and answer this question.
The timing has all worked out well, I will be taking my work out to show Judson at MIT just after the Work In Progress Show.
At that time I will have at least three broad form proposals to share with the team.
Sao hopefully we can select one to carry forward and develop further.
Hopefully I will have some of the research from Jasmine and myself to help indicate that best form of feedback method.
It may be one…
Or perhaps a combination of two…
So I can develop a design which would help someone like Dawn gain greater meta-cognition and improve her meditation practise so she can become a Black Cab Driver.
The second project is about expanding Mindfulness meditation out to consider the potential benefits for a larger group or comunity.
I and others believe that true Mindfulness meditation may be one possible path to a species wide shift in perception.
We are seeing the two traditionally opposed concepts, or science and spiritually, find some common ground. Helping us to shift away from seeing ourselves as lonely and isolated individuals pitted against each other and our environment…
..into a perspective where we have more a sense of ourselves as unique and complex instances of energy which are part of a vast, and potentially incomprehensible to the individual, net of interconnectivity.
Ok so how is Mindfulness meditation going to do that? Well let’s contract it back down to the more individual level. Here are two people trying to connect and see each other more clearly to discuss an problem, let’s say it’s Climate Change. There are some things in the way which stops them being able to effectively communicate, and it doesn’t matter how much time they spend on social media, how many smart phones they have, they are never going to see each other’s point of view with clarity.
Firstly let’s take the problem of stress, or anxiety/fear, fear causes people to go into a protective position, where they are not listening to the others argument, but are rather focusing on protecting their own position. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce grey matter in the Amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotions like fear and stress, so we can hope that both people lose a little of their defensive position and are about to see each a little more clearly.
In the given example, Climate Change, for the two to have a useful discussion they both need a basic understanding of science. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve learning and memory, both of which are important for understanding, forming and challenging a rational linear argument.
And lastly let’s discuss personal perception. We have all evolved to build and function with-in our own subjective reality, things may taste different to me then to you, to one person a wedding ring is a meaningful object imbued with important memories and value, to another it’s just a small circle of metal. Subjective realities are very useful at allowing us to interact with our surroundings in many ways, but it can make it hard for two individual to discuss a subject, because neither is able to understand what the other one is talking about, they just don’t see it that way. Mindfulness meditation trains us to non-judgementally perceive the world, so we can more often inhabit the same Objective reality, which is very useful to discuss and agree on issues like Climate Change.
So we can perhaps say that Mindfulness meditation is the ultimate tool of connectively, allowing people to overcome the obstacles which prevent them from making meaningful connections with each other and their environment.
I want to create a game or experience to try and teach this basic, but far-reaching, concept. I want to use live data from the participants brains to cause some kind of change in their environment, so they can see the way they think has a huge effect on the world around them. I may use some off the shelf brain scanning technology like the Muse Headband to generate this data.
I’m currently considering some kind of integration where two players are initially physically separated from each other by some kind of barrier. They are then both invited to meditate, and they both wear Muse Headbands.
As they become calm the barrier will begin to expand or dissolve.
Once they have both reached a set level of calm the barrier will have completely disappeared so they can clearly perceive each other and the world around them.
This may take the form or a piece of interactive furniture, or perhaps some kind of wearable… early days on this one, but that’s where I’m at.