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Mindfulness: How Brown University is championing the cool trend

The Ivy League school's new Mindfulness Center will conduct and promote research on the impact of mindfulness on mental and physical health
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   17-10-2017
Head shot of Eric Loucks, director of Brown University's Mindfulness Center
Eric Loucks, director of the new Mindfulness Center, and an associate professor of epidemiology, at Brown University's School of Public Health (Picture courtesy Brown University)

Some say mindfulness is the best antidote to the chronically restless, fast-paced tech world we live in. Hollywood stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Emma Watson are fans of Buddhist meditation, which boosts regions of the brain linked to attention. And students craving ways to unplug gravitate to MedLabs, as they are called at Brown. These MedLabs are an integral part of an effort by the Ivy League university to incorporate the study and practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness techniques into its curriculum.

Nearly a decade ago, Brown launched one of the first formal undergraduate concentrations in the United States in contemplative studies. In it, students not only study philosophical and meditation approaches gleaned from Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism and Confucianism, but they try them and incorporate them into classroom lectures and discussions.

In keeping with the growing interest in contemplative studies, Brown launched its new Mindfulness Center in September to help scientists, health care providers and students better understand whether particular mindfulness interventions work, for which health concerns, and for whom.

“There are early research findings that mindfulness may positively impact mental health and physical health outcomes,” said Eric Loucks, director of the new Mindfulness Center and associate professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health.

“As a result, there is an increased market for interventions based in these practices. We are bridging across Brown’s fields of study, with an emphasis in epidemiology, to focus on methodological rigor in the field,” he added.

Launched with a $50,000 award from Brown’s Office of the Vice President for Research, the Mindfulness Center has the resources to launch pilot studies as it pursues further grants and other funds.

Loucks has studied the relationship between mindfulness and cardiovascular health for years. In 2015, he and two other professors received a $4.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study whether mindfulness-based interventions change people’s ability to “self-regulate” their attention and behavior and whether that can help people better follow medically recommended lifestyle changes.

Can mindfulness really help curb overeating and other unhealthy habits? “Practicing mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment. It helps you focus on what you are doing. Rather than rush through a sandwich while typing on a computer, practitioners learn to enjoy every bite. This helps you feel satiated, not overeat,” says mindfulness teacher Carol Becker.

While meditating is usually guided by sitting and breathing, mindfulness extends that practice into everyday life and focuses on cultivating awareness in the present. Described as “mental strength training,” mindfulness can be practiced while you are going about routine tasks. Experts say the point is to “prevent your mind from wandering,” projecting fears and worries from the past and training yourself to “enjoy the moment.” It offers a rest for the brain and thereby increases productivity.

Several US universities have started offering degrees in contemplative studies. The University of Virginia has a Contemplative Sciences Center in Charlottesville, while in Atlanta, there’s the Emory Collaborative for Contemplative Studies. New York University’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis has a Contemplative Studies Project. At Rice University, religious studies graduate students can concentrate in contemplative studies.
 

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