There is significant scientific evidence that our brains are more malleable than was once believed, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. As far back as the 1970s, psychologist Ellen Langer demonstrated that mindful thought could change our brains for the better, leading to improvements on measures of cognitive and even vital function in adults. As The New York Times reported last December, recent studies have concluded that these benefits “may reach further still, and be more attainable, than Langer could have then imagined. Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think—and it does so at a basic neural level.”
Though he is intimately familiar with the research, Baime doesn’t bring it up much in class or include clinical studies in the course readings (though he’s happy to point interested students toward relevant material). He used to, “but they got in the way,” he says. “The science is all there, but we already ask a lot of our students in eight weeks. I think it is much more important to experience the benefits of mindfulness than to read about it.”
By the end of week eight, 30 more healthcare professionals have done just that.
Mark Nestor D’87 says the course has changed the way he practices dentistry. “About week three I started taking a minute at the beginning of each appointment to sit down, look at the patient and listen to them rather than flip through their file,” he explains. “I saw the bigger experience, rather than just what had to be done.”
But his most telling experience came when he found himself in the emergency room with a kidney infection. “The nurse handed me the remote for the television, and I told her I preferred to lie there and meditate. It truly helped with the pain,” he says.
Laydon finds herself using mindfulness “almost daily and on some days with almost every patient” in her psychotherapy practice. “I’ve had patients for whom this is what started the breakthrough process,” she emails about a week after the class ended.
Sharon Riser C’79, currently a psychiatric consultant in two practices, “went into the profession because I like people and hearing their stories. Somewhere, I stopped listening. Now I am reclaiming what I had forgotten I liked,” she says.
“I have been attempting to ‘slow down’ my interactions with patients (as much as time constraints will allow) and again be present with their emotional state, in a way that originally came naturally to me, but has eluded me to a great degree in the past few years,” she adds in an email. “Having now experienced the Mindfulness Program personally, it is now a program I can comfortably recommend to patients to consider in addressing their anxiety, chronic pain, etc.”
There are personal breakthroughs as well. One professional, who was “always propelled forward or ruminating in the past,” discovered she was very “good at containing patients feelings” but not her own. “After sitting with my own emotions for eight weeks, there is much less anger,” she says. Another reconnected with her passion for art, from which she had intentionally detached herself while pursuing her medical career. “I had such a heightened sense of visuals that reconnected me to such a pleasurable place that I had put the lid on,” she notes.
A pediatric oncologist realized she had “skipped the present and always been at the finish line.” The course helped her see that the “future will always be there.” Another participant shares that he hadn’t bitten his fingernails in eight weeks. A nurse practitioner found she could “breathe through” turbulence on an airplane. A recreational runner was able to run 10 miles instead of three.
All of these experiences are consistent with the research that has shown mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety, increases happiness, emotional intelligence, resilience, decision-making, and creativity. And while Baime has heard variations of these sentiments many times, he is always moved. “The truth is that each person undergoes a transformation that I find to be the most deeply satisfying thing in my life,” he says. “I see it and people tell me about it and it is the most compelling thing I have done.”
And helping colleagues achieve this transformation has special meaning. “This class has been close to my heart for 20 years,” he says. “We affect people not so much by what we do but by what we are. They feel it. They know it and they feel cared for. We can change the world in our own sphere, in our own square inch.”
Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 is a frequent contributor to the Gazette.
Sidebar: The Physician as Patient