Q&A with Clemens Bauer, Post-doctoral Associate in the MIT GabLab

MITili Staff

Dr. Bauer is currently a research affiliate at the MIT GabLab. He has had a longtime interest in understanding the neural correlates of subjective first-person experiences, in particular, the mechanisms underlying the interactions between mind/brain and body. Bauer has recently done work in using a novel real-time neurofeedback system that is personalized and is able to enhance mental training and reconfigure brain function. This has proven helpful in patients with treatment resistant schizophrenia to learn how to regain control of their minds by means of meditation, thus helping them improve their psychopathology.

Bauer also believes there may be uses for mindfulness in the classroom to help students focus and make learning more effective. He and MITili Director John Gabrieli have done research on the subject including a recent publication regarding junior high school students.

When did you first become interested in mindfulness and mental well-being?

It was during my first years as a general practitioner in Mexico. I started to observe two phenomena that caught my attention, on the one hand patients would arrive at my practice with diverse bodily symptoms that ranged from moderate ones like anxiety, insomnia, gastritis or simple acne to more severe ones like high blood pressure, facial paralysis, panic attacks or even angina pectoris. On the other hand, I was struck by how patients’ beliefs and habits had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of treatment outcomes and their later well-being. In both groups, I noticed that what was going on in their minds was, or had a lot to do with the cause of their problem and the cure. This was the main motivation to try and understand the close interaction between mind and body from a neurobiological perspective.

This past year has been stressful on students in many ways and like no other time in recent memory. What advice do you have for struggling students during the pandemic?

Yes, indeed, it has been an unprecedented situation that has put us all out of our comfort zone. Many of us are facing challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and cause strong emotions. Although we perfectly understand that public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety. So, to start, I would recommend students to first identify signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety and then learn ways to cope with them in a healthy way. This will make them and the people they care about, and those around them become more resilient.

For example, stress and anxiety can cause the feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration. It can also change your appetite, energy, desires, and interests or make it difficult to concentrate and make decisions. Some may experience difficulty sleeping that then can lead to headaches, muscle tension or light skin rashes. Especially important would be to monitor the use of tobacco, alcohol or other substances.

Then, although it is good to be informed, hearing about the pandemic constantly can be upsetting. Thus, I would recommend students to consciously take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news, especially those on social media. Consider limiting news to just a couple times a day and disconnecting from phone, TV, and computer screens for a while.

Finally, to take care of your mind and body I would recommend to take at least once a day 10 minutes for yourself. Just go to a quiet place, it could even be the bathroom in a crowded apartment or go outside, sit on a bench or under the shade of a tree. Then, start with three deep breaths, letting your body and mind rest together for a while, just that, not doing or forcing anything, just resting and breathing. Just note how the breath goes in and goes out naturally, without effort, and just follow your breath in and out, in and out, and notice if the breath is short or long, and just let your body and mind return to its natural state, balance itself out. That's it, try to do this for 10 minutes. It might be hard at the beginning to keep at the breath and your mind might wander away several times, don’t worry, this is completely natural, just make a note of the thought and return back to the breath, again and again until the 10 minutes are up.

I would also recommend trying to eat healthy well-balanced meals, exercise regularly and try to get plenty of sleep.

Also, make time to unwind and try to do some other activities you enjoy. Connect with others and talk to your friends and family on a regular basis.

How do you define mindfulness in terms of educational effectiveness?

Mindfulness for students, even in small doses can lead to promising results. We have shown that just practicing mindfulness for 10 minutes a day or less for eight weeks can lead to noticeable emotional and cognitive changes. Not only is mindfulness one of the most popular anxiety relief strategies for elementary school students but, according to new research, it’s also the most effective. In classrooms the benefits of mindfulness for students range from academic to social-emotional improvements. Students who receive mindfulness training in class generally have higher test scores and grades than their peers. The more they practice mindful activities, the more their focus, social skills, self-esteem, and ability to regulate their emotions improve, too. Plus, students who learn mindfulness often have healthier sleep schedules and are better prepared for their day inside and outside of the classroom. Mindfulness in schools also helps to reduce unhealthy or disruptive behavior in classrooms and it has shown to reduce bullying rates in schools that implement mindfulness programs.

What can educators do on a daily or weekly basis to help with student well-being?

Mindfulness can improve stress management for teachers just as much as it does for students. Similarly, educators who practice mindfulness are better able to understand their own emotions, developing good teacher-student relationships, and establishing a positive classroom environment. So, besides practicing themselves, they could also implement short mindful breaks in or between classes. For example an educator could start reaping the benefits for himself and for his students by starting a class with five to ten minutes of recorded meditation or practice a few breathing exercises. They could end a class with a gratitude challenge, where students just say one thing they are grateful for right now, this is a great way to become more mindful while cultivating a positive attitude.

What is your favorite thing about studying and working at MIT?

MIT is such a wonderful place to be, my favorite thing is the possibilities it opens, they are just infinite in potential, with no restraint whatsoever, one can bring one’s dreams here and make them come true. That is my favorite part.