How to Make Kindness Your Default Response
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Scientists are working furiously these days on testing therapies and vaccines to treat the coronavirus, but it will take time and focused effort before they’re ready. In the meantime, we’re all wrestling with a lot of emotion. Fortunately, there is already a way to vaccinate ourselves against panic, anxiety, and selfishness. It’s called loving-kindness.
How does it work? Here’s the science.
There is a component of our brain called the default mode network that gets activated when we think about ourselves — especially when we regret the past or worry about the future. It also gets activated when we get caught up in craving things like cigarettes. My lab has found that the feeling of getting caught up in our experience — the closed down, contracted feeling that arises when we’re afraid or anxious — aligns with increased activity in the default mode network. Meditation, by contrast, makes this same network quiet down.
60 Minutes visited my lab a few years ago, and you can actually watch Anderson Cooper’s default mode network getting activated on camera. His brain activity went off the charts when he remembered a stressful situation and then calmed right down when he started meditating. We’ve also found that app-based mindfulness training can target the default mode network and help people quit smoking.
When circumstances become acutely uncomfortable, why do some people panic and do things they later regret while others pitch in and help?
As I’ve discussed in earlier columns, anxiety and panic make our thinking brains go offline so that we have to fall back on the older parts of our brains to help us survive. At moments like this, we act automatically without thinking. This is well illustrated in the movie Contagion, which I know a lot of us have watched (or revisited) recently. Perhaps you recall the scene in which Matt Damon’s character is standing in line for food when it is announced that the day’s…