Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mind over Matter

This certainly qualifies as my personal bias, but scientific progress is often what makes today’s world remarkable. Recently, psychologists have been making ground-breaking discoveries about the relationship between psychological traits and the length of telomeres. Telomeres are the “caps” on the end of your chromosomes and essentially serve the purpose of keeping the genetic material in each of your cells from unraveling. If you can remember from 7th grade science class, our cells are dividing constantly from conception to death in order to keep us active, alert, immune to diseases, and alive. In short, young cells have longer telomeres while older cells have shorter telomeres. In fact, the length of an individual’s telomeres have been related to whether and how long a person will survive following a diagnosis of cancer, such that longer telomeres lead to longer survival and shorter telomeres were related to mortality. Recent research has shown that high levels of stress in life are related to telomere shortening, while other studies have shown that the enzyme that protects telomere length, telomerase, can be increased through meditation training. Meditation training is believed to improve biological and immune functioning by improving the ability to attend to the present moment. What the evidence continues to tell us is that the environment and how we choose to live within that environment influences our aging, which we all knew; but now we have evidence that this occurs at the cellular level, which most people didn’t. 
          In a fascinating study published this year, Dr. Elissa Epel and her colleagues at UCSF asked the very important question, “Do people who spend more time fully engaged in the present and less time engaged in negative mind wandering have a slower rate of biological aging?” To answer this question they measured the telomere length of 239 healthy women from San Francisco (between the ages of 49 and 66) and asked them about the stress in their lives, any symptoms of depression, and their mind wandering tendencies. They defined mind wandering as “the discrepancy between being focused on tasks and the tendency to have thoughts about other things or being elsewhere.” Mind wandering was assessed through questions such as, “how often in the past week have you had moments when you felt totally focused on or engaged doing what you are doing at the moment?”  and “how often in the past week have you had any moments when you felt you didn’t want to be where you are, or doing what you are doing, at the moment?” They found that having trouble with mind wandering was related to shorter telomere length, or more biological aging (independent of depression symptoms or stress in the lives of these women). 
          While what we know today about the relationship between mind wandering and cell aging is certainly remarkable, what we still don’t know is noteworthy as well. For example this study is correlational, so there is no answer to which came first (the wandering mind or the shorter telomere) or whether one actually caused the other. However, the fancy statistics, careful conceptual framework, and methodological rigor of the study make it much more likely that either mind wandering lead to telomere shortening or a lack of mind wandering led to telomere protection. We also don’t understand much of the development of mind wandering, or when the ability to focus on the present moment begins to influence cellular aging. This finding could be an artifact of mental abilities learned in childhood, or skills gained through specific professions or life experiences. These are just some more remarkable questions that we can look forward to answering in the future. 
          If you’re anything like me, you spend your time jumping between the many tasks at hand for the day, week, season, and year; you make mental lists, and worry about whether it’s even possible to get it all done. There are a few things I do that really help me focus on the task in front of me, and help me maintain a level head when the pile in front of me becomes seemingly unmanageable. Some of these are yoga, jogging, reading Vogue and great novels, and cooking complicated recipes for the first time. They all have 2 things in common. First, each one requires my undivided attention and focus. Second, all of these activities are frequently neglected at times when I need them most because they take up valuable time that I don’t have. Attention and focus are skills, just like typing or playing the piano, which need to be practiced, maintained and adapted to our busy lives. The message here isn’t to begin practicing mindfulness and meditation, which wouldn’t hurt, but is actually more practical than that. This remarkable research is a reminder that making time for regularly practicing our focus on the present moment is not only for our sanity but also for our physical well-being and furthermore, that failure to do so can’t be fixed by any number of spa vacations or pricey moisturizers.


Epel, E. S., Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., Lazaro, A., & Mendes, W. B. (2013). Wandering Minds and Aging Cells. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(1), 75–83. doi:10.1177/2167702612460234

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