As I mentioned in a previous post, I started an 8-week mindfulness meditation program on New Year’s Day. You could say that mindfulness has been on my mind lately.

One of the major benefits of a mindfulness practice is that it helps us understand that we are not our thoughts. Don’t get me wrong…thinking is not a bad thing! We use it to create, read, invent, speak, plan, and calculate. The thing is, even when we aren’t thinking on purpose, we are still thinking! And, if you’re like me, you have a constant parade of thoughts marching through your awareness from sun-up to sun-down, like a trail of little sugar ants.

That’s one of the reasons people find it so hard to meditate – they believe they have to exterminate the ants…but that’s not what mindfulness is all about. On the contrary, the point of mindfulness meditation (unlike some of its cousins) is to simply observe our thoughts (as opposed to getting rid of them), and allow whatever IS to Be. It is the practice of non-judgmental observation.

Let me share a little secret about thoughts: They are real but they’re not inherently true.

That’s right! Just because we think something, doesn’t mean we have to believe it! Why is that important? Because most of the time, our lives are so busy that we don’t stop to reflect upon the thoughts that we think…we just take them at face value, even though many of them aren’t good for us. What’s more, much of what we think – and therefore, believe – actually came from somewhere (or someone) else, like the media, our parents, advertisers, Hollywood, religious leaders, or politicians.

Becoming mindful allows us to pause and consider the thoughts that show up. We learn to take a moment to reflect rather than react, and we stop judging ourselves – and others – based on these random, unchecked thoughts. A daily mindfulness practice can help us cultivate kindness…for ourselves, for others, for the world.

It’s no secret that our society is becoming more polarized. As I’ve written before, every issue seems to give rise to an US vs THEM mentality. Because we humans are biologically wired to seek out folks who are similar to ourselves, we separate ourselves into little tribes based on (very often) superficial similarities. In an article for Wired Magazine, Robert Wright explains that “tribal psychology involves some obvious ingredients: rage, vengeance, loathing—the kinds of raw emotions you might imagine when you imagine tribes literally at war.”

If that’s not bad enough, these emotions are fueled by the use of a sneaky cognitive trick called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias occurs when we embrace information that validates a previously held belief, while ignoring or rejecting evidence that casts doubt on it.

Take “fake news,” for example. According to Wright, very often these stories are “spread unknowingly, by people who click ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ without first investigating what they’re sharing. And the reason they don’t do this critical investigation is because the information they’re sharing supports their world view – in other words, they are victims of confirmation bias.” Furthermore, he says, the act of “retweeting” is reinforced by a positive emotional response. IT FEELS GOOD!

“If, on the other hand, you see information that reflects unfavorably on your tribe, you may notice a negative feeling well up, and you’ll probably feel no urge to share the information; you’ll either dismiss it and move on or inspect it critically, looking for flaws. And if you find flaws, this will feel good, and will likely feed an urge to publicize them.” As you can see, this entire process is fueled by our emotions, even though it is called a “cognitive” bias.

Another problematic habit that reinforces the US vs THEM mentality is attribution error. When a member of our “enemy” tribe makes a mistake, we tend to assume it’s due to a character flaw, while our own mistakes are…well, just mistakes. So, if a member of the “other” tribe makes an inflammatory remark (perhaps in response to yet another fake news story), we write them off as being a big jerk – a bad egg. If one of our allies does the same thing, we make excuses for them – they must have had a stressful day or something. Unfortunately, once we are labeled an “enemy,” it tends to get reinforced through….you guessed it….confirmation bias.

Perhaps mindfulness meditation can liberate us from this downward spiral of tribalism. When we practice non-judgmental observation, we learn to be ok with whatever comes up.

Our brains are thought-producing machines; naturally, some of those thoughts are going to be unpleasant. Through mindfulness, we allow those thoughts to come and go; we develop a deep sense of compassion for our own humanness – the good and the bad. And, when we have compassion for ourselves, it’s much easier to extend that compassion to others.

The peace we seek begins within each one of us. I truly believe a regular mindfulness practice just might be the answer we are looking for.

(An awesome place to start is this free, online 8-week MBSR course: www.palousemindfulness.com)

For more on some of the science behind the cognitive biases that influence us, check out Angela Noel’s series on Cognitive Bias here.

Written by : drallisonbrown

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21 Comments

  1. Ritu Bhathal February 17, 2018 at 7:31 am - Reply

    I’m all for mindfulness…. I’ve even been mindful with Maltesers! Weve had a few mindfullness courses at school!

    • drallisonbrown February 17, 2018 at 7:53 pm - Reply

      HaHa, Ritu! I had to look up Maltesers, as we don’t have them here (that I know of)! That is fabulous that you encountered MF in schools. We need to start fairly early in order to get kids practicing automatically, as a way of life.

  2. Steffi February 17, 2018 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Lovely post, a lot to think about.

  3. Rurh February 17, 2018 at 7:50 am - Reply

    Lots of things, appropriately, to think about. I enjoyed considering the points about tribalism. Being able to view other’s experiences or viewpoints as ‘different’ rather than ‘wrong’ is a valuable lesson to learn.

  4. Angela Noel February 17, 2018 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Well this is just plain amazing! We BOTH wrote about cognitive biases and confirmation bias in particular this week! You explained it beautifully and incorporating attribution error brought another dimension to the strange brain elves that take over and run the show. I think your recommendation on mindfulness as the tool to gaining awarensss of these errors in an excellent suggestion. Even before I knew where you were going with the bias references I thought, “Gosh, that would be a great way to become aware of belief vs perception.” And then you made the connection! I think I’ll add a note at the end of my post to reference yours as well. I think it adds another way to think about these issues and a tactical response. Nicely done!

    • drallisonbrown February 17, 2018 at 7:51 pm - Reply

      Angela, it’s interesting how that worked! When I start writing on a topic, I let inspiration flow. So, when I start, I’m very often not sure where I will end up. And, typically, it isn’t where I would have predicted!!

  5. […] For further reading, and a suggestion on a tool that may help anyone looking to curb the impact of cognitive bias in their lives, check out Dr. Allison Brown’s post on mindfulness.  […]

    • drallisonbrown February 17, 2018 at 7:05 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Angela!

    • drallisonbrown February 17, 2018 at 8:29 pm - Reply

      PS, I love your idea of linking the two posts….I just added a teaser for your series at the bottom of my post, as well!

  6. Katie February 17, 2018 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    I love the idea of mindfulness! I really do. I’m a huge proponent of Social Emotional Learning in schools. The problem I have is, how do you truly teach being mindful to young children? How do you know your methods have worked?

    • drallisonbrown February 17, 2018 at 7:49 pm - Reply

      Well, the Palouse Mindfulness website has lots and lots of research evidence about the effectiveness of MF for not only mental and emotional health but also for actual physical ailments. So, I guess you would follow the practices and rest on the knowledge that it works (based on research since 1979 at UMass Medical school). As far as teaching it, there are lots of websites with suggestions, as well as positive anecdotal evidence that it works. The practices can be so simple that it certainly couldn’t hurt to try it (things like simply taking 30 sections to focus on breathing, for example). You know, as an educator myself, whatever we are doing now isn’t working. I’d think we (as a society) would be ready to try most anything that could help our children stop hurting themselves and others.

  7. Shannon February 18, 2018 at 11:29 pm - Reply

    It sure doesn’t help that media is geared towards igniting our emotions (reptile brain), those pesky things. I have to constantly remind myself, “BACK AWAY FROM THE SHARE BUTTON” when something gets me going. There hasn’t been a bit of regret yet. On another note, the link to Palouse Mindfulness includes the link to this post so it gives a 404 message. :)

  8. Erin - Unbound Roots April 5, 2018 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Your post reminded me of a book I read after I got my Celiac diagnosis – Trust Your Gut by Gregory Plotnikoff MD and‎ Mark B. Weisberg PhD ABPP. I read this book in hopes speeding up the healing in my stomach. In this book they discuss being mindful of the way your stomach is feeling and to just sit back and observe the feelings. If we do this – we can learn from our body and quiet our minds.

    You mention at the end of this post “Through mindfulness, we allow those thoughts to come and go; we develop a deep sense of compassion for our own humanness – the good and the bad. And, when we have compassion for ourselves, it’s much easier to extend that compassion to others.” I truly to believe that my mindfulness journey through healing has taught me to be more patient and compassionate towards others. Even though I was sick for years, I learned much through the experience. Every experience is a chance for growth.

    Thanks for another brilliant, thought-provoking post, Allison!

    • drallisonbrown April 5, 2018 at 4:05 pm - Reply

      Wow, that example is a perfect analogy of how this whole thing works! Listening, whether it be to our body, our friends, or our enemies, is the first step in healing!

  9. Hayley April 5, 2018 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    This perfectly summarises how I feel about our increasingly segregated society, Allison. Sadly, I am guilty of doing a lot of these (cognitive & confirmation bias) and hate it when I see others doing the same. You’ve inspired me to be more mindful. I hope as many people as possible read this post.

    • drallisonbrown April 5, 2018 at 4:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much Hayley! We are all guilty of this on some level. But recognizing it is the first step to healing. Thanks for reading!

  10. Janet April 6, 2018 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    Excellent post. You got me at “like a trail of little sugar ants.”. In a similar vein, I’ve written of the backfire effect and cognitive dissonance.

    I alternate between morning meditation and morning journaling. I’m in journaling mode these past few months.

    Pleased to have found your site.