A new study from Harvard University and an international team of researchers suggests that high levels of Internet use could affect the brain’s structure as well as our attentional capacities, memory processes and social interactions.
According to another, less scientific report from Microsoft, our digital-age attention spans have dwindled to a second shorter than that of a goldfish—or less than the time it might take to read this paragraph.
With seemingly never-ending demands at work and home, conditions such as anxiety, distraction, fatigue and depression can become constant companions for many people. Left unchecked, stress wreaks havoc on our bodies, and it contributes to health issues from high blood pressure and heart disease to obesity and diabetes.
How do we get back to a happy balance? Liz Pomerantz, administrator for the Systems, Synthetic and Quantitative Biology PhD program at Harvard Medical School, says for her the answer is simple: meditation.
“Almost everyone in society is dealing with this incredibly short attention span problem,” Pomerantz said. “Fifty percent of our time, we're wandering or thinking about something else, so we're wasting 50 percent of the time we could be spending fully focused.”
Managing the many complex aspects of an HMS/FAS cross-river PhD program—from recruitment to policy questions to finances—and supporting the needs of students—from admission to commencement—is mentally and physically taxing, she said. “I wanted to figure out ways to improve my lifestyle and feel better.”
“I tried to meditate for several years, but my mind was wandering a lot,” Pomerantz said. “SKY helps you go into meditation a lot easier because you change the pattern of your breath. It brings you, physiologically, into a calmer state…. It was effortless.”
What benefits has Pomerantz seen through her now twice-daily focused quiet time?
“So many,” she said with a broad smile, zipping through a list of the following outcomes: alleviated anxiety, no more insomnia, more energy with fewer hours of sleep, a better ability to manage the blues and to pass through difficult emotions quicker, increased confidence, greater focus, improved relationships at work and at home, more acute skills as an active listener and, in general, just more happiness.
Pomerantz backs up her personal experiences with research to make the case for integrating meditation into daily routines. She points to one of 36 peer-reviewed articles she’s come across that states, “there is mounting evidence to suggest that SKY can be a beneficial, low-risk, low-cost adjunct to the treatment of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, stress-related medical illnesses, substance abuse and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.”
“I feel like everyone has something to get from meditation, whether it's for mental health or just to recharge yourself,” Pomerantz said.
She’s now leading the way for the Harvard Longwood Community with reBoot, a weekly, 60-minute breath and meditation workshop that she established last year at HMS.
Members of the Harvard Longwood Campus are invited to give meditation a try under Pomerantz’s supportive, calm guidance. Workshops are free, no prior experience is needed and skeptics are welcome, she said. Some days, groups are as small as three, other times 14 or more attend.
“I just know I'm going to show up every Tuesday,” Pomerantz said. “Whoever wants to come, can come, and I'll be there.”
Pomerantz said she reserves 90 minutes a day to meditate, but believes benefits can be achieved with shorter daily practices. For those interested in an immersive launch into the foundations of meditation, she also offers a weekend program, the SKY Campus Happiness Program, which is held for 12 hours over three days.
“That's where people can learn a home practice to do by themselves every morning. That's, I think, where the real juicy benefits come in,” she said.
Pomerantz said she hopes to bring the SKY Campus Happiness Program to Harvard. Sky is a program of the International Association for Human Values in collaboration with The Art of Living Foundation. It aims to “teach students to thrive in life and lead with clarity of mind, resilience, purpose and belongingness.”
The program has been implemented at 42 university campuses in the United States, benefitting more than 50,000 faculty, staff and students over the last 10 years.
The well-being of the HMS community is top-of-mind for Pomerantz.
“Being at Harvard for a long time, I’ve seen people at all levels of the institution struggle,” she said. “Amazing, talented, bright people. The thing that gets in their way is the stress they're putting on themselves. If they had more tools and were more resilient, just think what they could be doing. If this [reBoot] is one way to support this community, that would be amazing.”
“I know it's helped me a ton. So, that’s my vision, that everyone feels healthy and happy, every single person at Harvard.”
To be added to the reBoot mailing list, to receive the upcoming schedule and locations, and to ask questions about the program, contact Liz Pomerantz. The schedule will also be included in the MyHMS e-newsletter, delivered on the first and third Friday of every month.