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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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Is it All in the Mind?

Gregory Stocker
“When you recognize your interdependence and changing nature, you no longer see yourself as separate from another person, and this is the foundation for building stronger communities.”
—Susan Smalley

TWO YEARS AGO, Susan Smalley was a self-described “left-brain, cynical scientist” who saw the world through the materialistic lens of cold reason. One day, Smalley, a professor at the Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI), had an epiphany that radically changed the way she viewed her life and her work, which revolves around genetic research on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Smalley went on to explore “mindful awareness,” an ancient Eastern meditative practice that she defines as the “moment-by-moment process of actively attending to, observing and drawing inferences from what one experiences.” The phenomenon has both biological and nonbiological roots, and it made Smalley realize two things that are also key concepts in her field of genetics: Humans are deeply connected to other forms of life on the genetic level, and that they are constantly changing on every level of their existence.

It might seem ironic that awareness would have any role to play in this high-tech era of genomics. But as science gets better at the early detection of risks for disease, prevention rather than intervention will become increasingly important, and that’s where self-help tools such as mindful awareness will be greatly needed. “The current treatment model of taking a pill or getting external help is shifting to a self-care, resilience-building model,” says Lidia Zylowska, a psychiatrist at NPI who works with Smalley on mindfulness research.

Being mindful has other advantages. “When you recognize your interdependence and changing nature, you no longer see yourself as separate from another person, and this is the foundation for building stronger communities,” says Smalley. “There are many people within NPI who believe one of the problems in the world today is the lack of connectedness with one another.” In fact, building stronger communities, both on and off campus, as well as disseminating self-help tools to promote emotional well-being, are key elements of a transition currently under way at NPI. As part of the new NPI, Smalley and her colleagues are scheduled in 2005 to launch a center devoted to research in mindful awareness. In addition, they have developed an interdisciplinary mindful-attention project aimed at using the principles of awareness to treat ADHD, initially in teenagers.

 

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