March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.
There’s an empty riverbed before me. It’s filled with shards of white stones, sloping downward at first and then slowly back up into the surrounding hills. I run through the flatness, looking around at the gray sky above, the rocks below, the horizon line which, pleasantly, never gets closer.
And then the song ends, and it’s over. I crank down the speed of my treadmill, and gratefully catch my breath while looking around at the weightlifters on the gym floor, the cars through the window outside. Here I am, back in the gym. Take a sip of water, walk for a bit, hop off the machine. Breathe.
This past fall, I began running in intervals on the treadmill at my gym. Until recently, I had never been able to run longer than 15 or 20 minutes, and I never much enjoyed running at all. A jog was always a struggle of staving off the eventual “now” answer to the question “when is this allowed to be over?”
To my surprise, that’s changed. The 45 minutes I spend on the treadmill running for intervals of 5-7 minutes, with one minute of rest in between, is something I look forward to, both for the feeling of accomplishment I get from pushing myself longer, farther, harder, and for something that happens in my mind, too.
In the middle of my intervals, I allow myself to stop worrying about time, stop worrying about most everything, really. The timer will beep when it beeps, and there’s bass filling up my eardrums. My mind is miraculously calm. As a person who struggles to achieve that state of decluttered, non-judgmental observation and awareness that has always been described to me as the , it feels like a miracle.
So how did this happen? My discussions with experts, and research on the connections between running, meditation, neuroscience, and images of nature, lead me to believe that there are a few things going on.
One has to do with the fact that the treadmills at my gym come equipped with screens that automatically play a visual loop of realistic but animated visuals that simulate the perspective of running through a physical environment. For a few minutes you’ll be running on a trail in a shady forest, then you’ll get transported to an urban park for a bit, maybe you’ll run through a town square, and then you’ll find yourself on an empty mountain. The videos are low-fi, even cheesy, but somehow, engrossing. Watching them feels like the healthy, adult version of gazing at the iTunes visualizer: abstractly soothing.
It turns out the combination of a nature scenes visualizer, time-guarded running, and a treadmill, has been a recipe for me to achieve a state of mind that has many names: the runner’s reverie, also known as transient hypofrontality, similar to meditation. Haruki Murakami described it as “void.” That last one’s my favorite. Writes Murakami:
“I just run. I run in void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”
There’s a name for that
Scientists have discovered over the years that different parts of the brain compete for resources with each other. If your brain is putting a lot of effort into one type of function, it can affect another part of the brain.
The prefrontal cortex governs a lot of our brain’s highest functions, like critical thinking. A on how exercise affects the brain in the short term has found that function in the prefrontal cortex decreases when a person is engaged with a repetitive athletic task, like running. When the brain is working hard to keep you performing a motor activity like running, the part of your brain that makes decisions and weighs arguments, quiets. That phenomenon is called transient hypofrontality, or as neuropsychologist Kylie Ladd explains in an article on the topic:
“During exercise, in an effort to conserve limited neural resources, the brain selectively directs these to the motor and sensory cortices and away from other areas. The result, researchers argue, is a state of ‘transient hypofrontality’ or defocused attention, where the inhibitory control of the prefrontal cortex is suppressed and new ideas and associations can flourish.”
In basic terms, the part of your brain that judges and weighs, dissects and inhibits, gets put on snooze. Damon Young is a philosopher at the University of Melbourne and author of the book in which he uses science and philosophy to dissect the interplay between body and mind. Young thinks that my pleasantly trance-like experience gazing into the digital wilderness while on a treadmill fits the bill for this phenomenon.
“You stop categorizing, you stop formalizing,” Young said. ”You’re still paying attention but it’s a different kind of attention, it’s a broader, blurrier, vaguer state of mind.”
However, I’ve never achieved this runner’s reverie while just running. It’s only been on the circumstance of intervals on the treadmill, and especially while I’m absentmindedly focused on the simulated landscape on the screen in front of me.
That actually made sense to Young. While talking, we realized that the interval aspect of my new running routine was enabling this state of mind.
“Time is constantly messing with us,” Young said. “One of the enormous benefits of exercise, and I’d include meditation, is that it gives us a break from time. Even if it’s only a moment, but it’s often a longer period, we’re not just thinking about the clock ticking.”
The fact that I use a treadmill, and I’m not out in the world, works in my favor, too. While running out in the world, I’ve had to keep an eye on my steps, pay attention to stoplights or the uneven ground beneath my feet. On a treadmill, the part of my brain that enables my body to engage in motor functions without putting active thought into it can kick in in a way it doesn’t (for me) while running on the street or in nature.
“The whole thing about transient hypofrontality is it can only happen in circumstances where everything’s cool, where you’re chill, you relax there’s no dangers,” Young said. “Hence, you know, jogging and walking, but not something like say riding a bike, because if you get into a state of transient hypofrontality on a bike you might get hit by a car.”
Finally, the nature videos could be enabling this experience, too. A that examined the relationship between exercise, meditation, and stress found that running in nature caused subjects to excrete stress reducing hormones, while running on a treadmill did not. However, have shown that just viewing images of outdoor spaces can reduce stress. It’s possible that even though I am on a treadmill, stimulating my mind with soothing images has a positive effect on my brain, too.
“If there’s no stimulation whatsoever, we get antsy, we get distracted,” Young said. “it may be that those trees are yet another cue for you to kind of chill out.”
That’s something that the makers of running simulation software are aware of.
“Running on a treadmill is a heck of a lot more about psychology than it is about fitness,” Gary McNamee, the CEO of running simulator software company Outside Interactive said.
McNamee’s company makes highly realistic simulations of actual races and running locations. His is not the software I use specifically — that’s called LifeScape, by LifeFitness, which was introduced in 2012. But the effects and intentions of both products are similar.
McNamee explained that Outside Interactive was born from the goal of trying to make running on a treadmill “suck less.” They’ve found that simulators that allow people to feel like they’re making progress, as well as have something engaging to look at, is the solution to the “suck less” quandry.
“It’s an all encompassing experience,” McNamee said.
What’s in a name?
I have likened the feeling I get while running on the treadmill and looking into the simulator to meditation. Both transient hypofrontality and meditation could be described as a peaceful state of awareness. And it turns out that the similarities between the state of mind running can enable, and meditation, works on a few levels.
Biologically, the study previously mentioned about the connection between exercise and meditation found that after meditating, and after running, people show evidence of increased levels of hormones that decrease stress.
“Two metabolically different activities can lead to similar positive emotional changes because they are related to similar endocrine changes,” Jane Harte, the study’s author and a former professor at James Cook University in North Queensland, Australia, writes. “These findings generally illustrate the interplay between psychological and endocrine variables in two emotion-eliciting activities.”
On a physical level, meditation and running affect the brain in a similar way.
More descriptively and subjectively, too, there are parallels. on how meditation affects attention defines meditation as “nonreactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment.” That certainly sounds like what I experience during those intervals. Meditation has also been proven to . In both meditation and the sort of exercise that induces transient hypofrontality, we can escape the stress of the ticking clock.
“Meditation is another kind of timelessness,” Young points out.
While McNamee very much took into account the psychological element of nature simulations in Outside Interactive’s software development, it was never intended to help enable a meditative state. However, he has seen that it can have that effect.
“A happy accident is a good way to think about it,” McNamee said. “We are all our own guinea pigs here. When we use the product for software testing, we’re human too.”
It doesn’t much matter whether what I experience while running is meditation, or mindfulness, or its own thing all together. In the void, I don’t need to categorize it, analyze it. Until the buzzer tells me to stop, it just is.
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