Dacher Keltner Pause for a second. Now take in a deep breath through your nose; hold it, and then breath out through your mouth.
We breathe in and out over 20,000 times a day, but we rarely notice it.
I’m Dacher Keltner, and this is The Science of Happiness.
Today we hear about what happens when we try to pay attention to our inhales… and our exhales…—in really different environments.
Like at a truck car wash …
By the beach…
And by a freeway in Los Angeles.
I’ve meditated in one of those locations and you can guess which. But our guest, Nadia Kim, tried all three for our show today.
You weren’t on the freeway?
Nadia Kim No, no, no. I would never do that in L.A. Never. That’s just asking for death.
Dacher Keltner We’ll also learn what happens inside our brains that make us feel more calm and relaxed when we pay attention to our breath. Even when we see some really horrible stuff.
Anselm Doll We put them into this fMRI scanner, which we can use to image the brain.
Dacher Keltner There’s probably no act as simple or essential as the act of breathing. The influences of our breathing are deep, shaping things like blood pressure and vagal tone. But it’s so basic we rarely think about it – or what’s affecting it.
Our guest today, Nadia Kim, has thought about it a lot. Nadia is a Professor of Sociology and of Asian and Asian-American Studies at Loyola Marymount University and the author of Refusing Death: Immigrant Women in the Fight for Environmental Justice.
She tried a mindful breathing practice in three really different locations through Los Angeles to see how they would affect her ability to pay attention to breath.
Nadia, thanks for being on the Science of Happiness.
Nadia Kim Thank you.
Dacher Keltner So for our show you tried a Mindful Breathing practice, where you slow down and really pay attention to your breath.
And your first stop was outside a truck washing station near the biggest port in all of North America. So lots of freeways, lots of trucks, very high asthma rates.
Nadia Kim City of Carson. Yeah
Dacher Keltner Ok, tell us about that context.
Nadia Kim So I decided to go to a place where it wouldn’t seem really strange if people saw me with my eyes closed. Breathing deeply for 15 straight minutes, which is actually a very long meditation for me. I usually meditate half that amount. And so I decided to go to one of the elementary schools featured in my book, because it is nestled within that vortex, as you mentioned, of oil, the port, freeways, and then all the other ancillary companies that have to develop to support the movement of all the goods you and I buy or all the oil you and I use, right? So, truck washing companies, like plastics company, oil storage, I mean, it’s endless. One of the businesses that has polluted the elementary school is a truck washing company right next to it.
Dacher Keltner I have to ask you, how do you I mean, this is this is one of the you know, the foci of political protest is that, you know, the pollution caused in a truck washing station, it’s your research. And yet you’re doing a mindful exercise right next to it. What was your mind like during the practice?
Nadia Kim My mind was a little addled, I would say, because I kept thinking about, OK, should I be here? Am I looking like an idiot? So my mind was a little bit addled in the beginning, and then I would get a little bit distracted by the kids, but after a while, I finally got into the depth and intensity of it and the rhythm of it. And then that’s I think why when I completed it, I didn’t have those thoughts about all the knowledge I have about that particular area and of Carson and the conditions. I was really more in the zone.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, interesting. I mean, because it’s so deeply related to your work, it gives you a little break,
Nadia Kim Yes, exactly.
Dacher Keltner So, onward on your tour of mindful breathing throughout the L.A. area, you decide to do your next mindful exercise near a freeway.
Dacher Keltner And what was that like? Are you safe?
Dacher Keltner You weren’t on the freeway.
Nadia Kim No, no, no. I would never do that in L.A. Never. That’s just asking for death. But I was right next to the 405, which is arguably the busiest and most famous freeway in L.A. And I parked myself at a gas station in my car and I had my windows open and this meditation, it was very distracted and there was a lot of interruptions because first of all, there’s a lot of noise.
Noise pollution, right? And I thought to myself, if I had to hear this all the time, because my house and my window are literally a thousand feet, you know, from the freeway. And then you have to hear on top of that, probably three to four times the number of rumbling trucks. Then I have to hear trains. And then I had to hear all the construction noises because there’s often a lot of construction in and near freeways, oil refineries, ports, etc.. It would drive me crazy, right? So that was one of the first thoughts I had. The other thought I had was that I noticed that the air closer to the freeway, it felt warmer and thicker. And then research supports that, right? That if you’re even within one mile of a busy freeway, your chance of not just of asthma or bronchitis or cancer, but actually heart disease raises exponentially. So the air just felt warm and thicker and a little bit less breathable, if that makes sense.
So, it’s kind of very similar to in Carson towards the end there was kind of more of a white noise sort of a sensibility to the freeway traffic and even the rumbling of some of the trucks. Right, because the trucks that were rumbling across the 405 right there are coming from The Port of L.A. in Long Beach. So I was definitely mindful of all those things. But towards the end, I was able to kind of tune it out and focused mostly on my breathing. So even though I didn’t feel as good as the other meditations that I normally do in my life, I still felt relatively lighter.
Dacher Keltner You know, One of the things that we often underappreciated about just the difficulties of finding happiness is when you live in, you know, urban environments or places where it’s really noisy and polluted, it’s just hard to find physical health just because of those conditions. So then you finally did what most people would probably do, which is you went to a beach and, and you’re going to tell us that it was horrible. What happened at the beach?
Nadia Kim It was amazing. It was relatively empty that day because I went in at an off time. There were some distractions with some of the beachgoers that were really close to me or they would walk by and I was afraid they’re kicking sand in my face and they did a little. But, you know, again, if you’re there for 15 minutes and those are momentary, it’s just the incredible sea salt air which feels cleaner and is cleaner. Right. You’re right at the shore, and so it’s very easy to be lulled by the sounds of the waves in the ocean and the seagulls and, and again, those are the sounds I usually associate with meditative sounds.
Dacher Keltner I’m so grateful for how you approach this, because this is really a lesson for today, right? I mean, here in California, we have fire season and smoke and increasing pollution and hot temperatures. This is, you know, climate crises are here.
Nadia Kim Yeah, drought.
Dacher Keltner We need to practice mindfulness. What do you learn about doing the mindful breathing exercise in these three really different contexts?
Nadia Kim I think what I learned is that so much of the power of meditation is stopping your regular routine. Mm hmm. You know, just interrupting the drill. Right. And just taking the time out to be as present as possible. And the reason I say that is because I was in very noisy, distracting contexts. And, yes, those were not the most successful meditations. But in the end, even if it was just in the last few minutes or so, I did feel calmer amidst the chaos. So I do think that a major portion of it is obviously the focused breathing. But if I would sort of think more broadly, I also think it’s the focus breathing outside of the daily regular, monotonous pedestrian routine, because in the middle of my workday, when I’m sitting on my couch working on my laptop or, you know, I’m in my car driving, I do focus breathing, but I’m also doing other things right, like driving or, you know, I’m still thinking about, you know, kids or dog or whatever, so I do think it’s that stopping completely, you know, and doing the focus, breathing under those conditions that I think is the most important.
Dacher Keltner Absolutely. I’m really struck by two things about your freeway experiment, you know, and one is it really seems like noise costs people right and the opportunity for happiness. And what a compelling observation that is that you’re offering, and then the second, though, is that it was still possible, right, that you could even in that context, you found a little moment of repose. How do you think about that?
Nadia Kim When I am able to feel good and focus through the meditation, I’m reminded of how we have bodies, and even if we can’t always control what’s done to them, say, you know, we face disproportionate environmental hazards, we still have the ability to choose what we’re going to do with our body. And by that I mean also our mental and emotional states, not just the physicality of the body, right? Yeah. As a way to cope, or as a way to manage the stressors of urban life. And so the breathing, the closing of the eyes, the the attempt to kind of clear my mind or at least be nonjudgmental about what was going in and out of my mind, I think was a really deep reminder of how how can we take care of and cherish our bodies and exert some kind of control of our communities in our lives through, you know, our bodies and our feelings. And so, you know, that’s what they do.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, absolutely. Well, Nadia Kim, thank you so much for this really interesting experiment in mindful breathing. What an illuminating tour through three different contexts in Los Angeles to think about.
Nadia Kim Thanks for the great questions. Take care, Dacher.
Dacher Keltner So we’re going to go over how to do the Mindful Breathing practice that our guest did today. Our Senior Producer Shuka Kalantari will give us the rundown. Hey Shuka.
Shuka Kalantari Hi Dacher.
Dacher Keltner This is a pretty straightforward practice on our Greater Good in Action website.
Shuka Kalantari It’s pretty straight-forward. There are some more complex mindful breathing practices out there, where you’re breathing in throughout your nostril and out the other, but the one that Nadia Kim did, is pretty simple. You sit in a comfy position on the floor or a chair. Close your eyes or soften your gaze and just pay attention to your inhalation and exhalations. Try to relax your body. So drop the shoulders. And if your mind wanders that’s fine, it’s totally natural. It’s just our brains. Just keep going back to the breath. Don’t be mean to yourself about it. The goal is to do that for 15 minutes daily for at least a week to really get in the rhythm of it, but honestly, like I’m stoked if I can do it for five minutes once a week because, life.
Dacher Keltner Have you tried to do this in unusual places? Like, I always try it when I’m in traffic or waiting in line. You know somebody’s fumbling for change to pay for a grocery bill.
Shuka Kalantari I once did it in a bathroom of a restaurant when I was having a panic. But…
Dacher Keltner How did that go?
Shuka Kalantari It made me not panic!
Dacher Keltner There we go!
Shuka Kalantari I found it as a really good tool in the moment, if I’m feeling stressed, just to recenter myself.
Dacher Keltner You know it’s interesting, Shuka, I used to have a lot of panic attacks too and that’s where I really learned about the benefits of this kind of practice is, like, just calming the body down. And the science really converges with that. Just a little bit of mindful breathing has a lot of different benefits for health and happiness. A really dramatic study a couple of years ago from Munich, Germany put this to the test when he taught university students how to do a mindful breathing technique – and then they were shown some really disturbing images.
Anselm Doll Pictures that nobody would not care about, like pictures of car accidents, of dead people, of threatening violence.
Shuka Kalantari Oh my god.
Dacher Keltner I know. More on why they did that, and what happened, after this break.
Welcome back to the Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’re talking about mindful breathing today, how to do it and why to do it. What’s amazing, is that this simple method has been linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety, and a stronger ability to regulate your emotions.
Researchers at the Technical University of Munich in Germany really put this to the test by showing students some horrible pictures.
Anselm Doll Pictures of car accidents, of dead people, of threatening violence. So these are really terrible pictures.
Dacher Keltner Anselm Doll is the clinical psychologist who led this study. He and his colleagues wanted to see if mindful breathing could help people better handle seeing the images.
Anselm Doll We brought twenty-six healthy young students into the lab, and we taught them this basic technique of attention-to-breath.
Dacher Keltner Students were taught how to focus their attention on how they inhaled and exhaled, simply observing the breath.
Anselm Doll And at the same time, you want to be nonjudgmental with everything that happens in your body during this process.
Dacher Keltner They left the lab with instructions to practice the mindful breathing technique once a day for two weeks, so they could really get the hang of it.
Anselm Doll And then after these two weeks, we put them into this fMRI scanner, which we can use to image the brain. We can watch the brain at work.
Dacher Keltner This is where the pictures come in.
Half the group was instructed to do the breathing practice while they looked at the photos. The other half was told instead to just watch the disturbing photos like they would watch TV.
Anselm Doll Once everybody was done, we asked them to rate how strongly they felt negative or positive towards these pictures.
Dacher Keltner No one liked the images, but the people who focused on their breath didn’t have as strong of a negative reaction to them.
When Anselm’s team analyzed the fMRI scans to figure out why, they found that part of the brain that processes emotions and responds to threats, the amygdala, was connecting to another part of the brain it normally doesn’t connect with: the prefrontal regions. The ones that help us get through tasks in everyday life.
Anselm Doll So these prefrontal regions, they are used for tasks where you need to focus on something like cooking or building something, wherever you need some form of control or focus.
Dacher Keltner There’s usually a divide between this emotional part of the brain and the task-oriented part. But not when we’re breathing mindfully.
Anselm Doll When you do attention to breath practice, these two regions, they talk to each other much, much more. So this interconnection between the regions that you use for focusing on a task and perceiving your own emotions, it helps the amygdala to understand that there is no real threat right now.
Dacher Keltner Anselm says one explanation for his results could be that focusing on their breath distracted people from the disturbing photos. They were thinking about something else.
But there’s another possible reason
Anselm Doll The other one could be that people were more focused on their own emotions and were more accepting towards their own emotions while watching these pictures and were more involved with processing their own experience. And if you have more attention for this on their own experience, you have maybe also more compassion with yourself, or you can more relate to what is going on in your brain and in your body. And so then this is not as threatening anymore because you understand that this is just a picture in front of you and you are still in this other position so that the threat is actually outside and not so strongly inside your body. So it helps you to relax.
Dacher Keltner On our next episode of The Science of Happiness:
Atsuko Okatsuka I was at a gig that I wasn’t stoked about. And, sometimes you have to, like, be somewhere you really don’t like to be at to realize, “I really love that person that’s not here right now.” And so I told him I loved him after that gig.
Dacher Keltner We look at what happens when we imagine life without someone we love.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
What did playing look like for you as a child? And as an adult, how do you play now? Share with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or using the hashtag #happinesspod.
Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our Associate Producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor-in-Chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.