Contemplative education emphasizes mindfulness and focus

Mental overload can wreak havoc on the developing mind

Who knew there were multiple ways to eat a raisin? Though it may sound a bit strange, the concept of “mindful” eating is firmly based on neuroscience. In the case of 10th-grade math teacher and nationally known mindfulness advocate, Richard Brady, raisin-eating meditation is just one form of contemplative education.

Professor of Education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Kathryn Byrnes, defines contemplative education as an approach that integrates knowledge “through the senses and the mind.”

In keeping with this rationale, Brady’s mindful eating task allots students five minutes to consume three raisins, while focusing on taste and texture. The objective is to fully commit to the present moment, relishing each experience as it occurs. Brady urges students to employ the same concentration to nighttime homework assignments, and consciously delve into their work.

Although it may sound like mere whimsy, contemplative education is rooted in scientific fact. Behavior depends on brain activity, which in turn is tied to neural structure. Yet this structure is always changing, as lifetime experiences prompt neurons to make and break synaptic connections. This phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity.

Recent findings support the notion that the brain can be altered by purely internal activity (i.e. mindful practices), and educators are designing curricula more conducive to this method of learning. After all, childhood is the best time to instill enduring mental habits; the brain is never more malleable than in its early years.

Contemplative education emphasizes physical and mental focus (through yoga, meditation, attention to specific objects and stream of consciousness, etc.). The aim of mindful practice is to foster concentration, manage stress, improve self-understanding, and gain emotional control. Despite traditional origins, these skills are increasingly relevant to our fast-paced society. “Contemplative education opens the potential to deeper, longer-lasting, integrative learning,” Byrnes said. “It connects the external world of sciences, arts, social sciences, languages and physical activity with the internal world of mind, emotions, and sensory awareness.”

For instance, mindfulness has been shown to enhance concentration, an attribute especially relevant in a world where competing technological sound bites vie for our attention. Mental overload can wreak havoc on the developing mind, and full schedules often deny students the luxury of fully mastering concepts before speeding on to new material. Fast-paced lifestyles lead to stress early on, which may have negative, structural repercussions. Mindfulness training, on the other hand, reduces anxiety and combats these negative consequences.

In addition, modern education often promotes detachment and objectivity, rather than cultivating ways of learning that rely on an interior “psychological space.” By comparison, contemplative methods promote insight into internal events as a way to manage and understand external experiences.

“Neuroplasticity describes how our brain changes due to experience,” Byrnes said. “Contemplative education harnesses this capacity of the brain to become less habitual and more flexible, so individuals can respond more skillfully — and face their internal and external environments.”

This idea is consistent with mounting support that mindfulness training improves neural circuitry involving emotion and attention, empathy and compassion, not to mention resiliency to stress. Research has demonstrated that contemplative practices have a positive impact on the hypothalamus, an area of the brain involved in hormone regulation. Specifically, mindfulness prompts the hypothalamus to decrease the release of cortisol (a hormone that initiates the “fight or flight response” and is tied to feelings of stress).

These benefits extend to hippocampus as well. A region involved in learning and memory, the hippocampus is highly sensitive to hormone levels. Too much cortisol reduces the creation of new neurons while increasing the likelihood of developing certain psychological conditions. Thus, contemplative practices can prevent this cascade of detrimental events.

Beyond hormonal implications, mindfulness also augments the amount of neural connections within areas like the prefrontal cortex, involved in emotional and cognitive development. As a result, mindful habits continue to improve working memory and attention, even as we age. This decline in stress is attributed to enhanced connectivity within other brain regions involved in emotional processing and stress, like the amygdala. Thinking requires information exchange between neurons, so the more lines of communication, the better.

These are small-scale changes with immense effects. But how exactly are mindfulness skills applied to the classroom? One method requires students to concentrate on specific objects (such as breathing, sounds, or physical movements), before starting their classwork.

Additionally, some teachers have introduced short periods of yoga or meditation prior to quizzes. This “receptive awareness” to fleeting feelings and thoughts mentally prepares children for upcoming tasks, improving academic performance. Public and private journal writing is yet another mindfulness technique. Similarly, implementation of a “peace corner” — an appointed physical space — encourages expansion of mental space. Students retreat to this corner when in need of respite or calm.

In this way, Byrnes said, children and educators alike are learning to mesh the internal with the external.

“Students and teachers with a contemplative approach to learning cultivate the capacity to understand how the body (including the brain) and mind (as well as emotions) operate,” Byrnes said. “Deepened self-awareness can lead to an awareness of others and the external world.”

Although there is much to be said on the topic of contemplative education, Brady summed up the concept of mindfulness in a nutshell — though in this case, a raisin might be the more relevant metaphor. He wrote in Learning to Stop, Stopping to Learn: Discovering the Contemplative Dimension in Education, “Chew each homework problem thoroughly. Digest it fully before going on to the next one. In that way you’ll receive the full nourishment that the problem has to offer you.”

It may be true that you are what you eat, but when it comes to your brain, neural structure most certainly depends on what you experience. Make sure to stop and smell the raisins once in a while. And everything else, too.

Categories: Behavior and Learning, Mind and Body