Mindfulness meditation is proven to contribute to well-being. But what are the physiological mechanisms that connects our bodies and brains, and how can we better understand it to make the benefits of mindfulness more accessible? Dr. Nava Levit-Binnun’s research is trying to crack this puzzle.
“Mindfulness meditation has been proven through research and practice to be beneficial to mental health and improve quality of life for many people,” says Dr. Nava Levit-Binnun. The problem is that many people won’t implement it successfully. It’s just like we know we should diet or exercise, but we don’t all do it.”
Dr. Levit-Binnun’s vision is to bring the benefits of mindfulness to as many people as possible, and she is working to achieving this vision in two ways: through research and through education and instruction.
Dr. Levit-Binnun founded and runs the Sagol Center for Brain and Mind – a unique research center operating at the School of Psychology at the IDC Herzeliya. Her current research at the Center, which is partially supported by Joy Ventures, focuses on the sense that connects the human body and the brain – this sense is called interoception. Recently, the popularity of this sense has sky-rocketed as scientists realize how important it is for a wide range of human abilities – from awareness and decision making to emotion regulation and empathy. In her lab, researchers measure the impact of mindfulness on physiological signifiers such as heartbeat, skin conductance, facial muscles and others. “We are learning how to fine-tune this channel of interoception, through mindfulness practice, to create change in how the body impacts the brain, and vice versa. When we will know more about the mechanism of mindfulness, it will open up exciting possibilities, such as different avenues, technologies, even products – that could bring people the benefits of mindfulness in different ways,” says Dr. Levit-Binnun.
Dr. Hagit Alon, VP Scientific Affairs at Joy Ventures, adds: “We are excited to partner with Dr. Levit-Binnun in her research, and we believe the exploration and understanding of interoception can eventually provide fruitful ground for the development of consumer products that will make the benefits of mindfulness more accessible to more people.”
Dr. Levit-Binnun has been practicing vipassana (the closest Buddhist practice to mindfulness) and yoga for 20 years. But not everyone has the access or mindset for this kind of intense and long-term practice. Mindfulness has been made more accessible and popularized through a protocol called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain, developed by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn.
In the pressure-cooker environment that is modern life in Israel, tools to reduce stress and improve well-being are sorely needed. To this end, 10 years ago Dr. Levit-Binnun founded the Muda Institute for Mindfulness, Science and Society at IDC Herzlyia. The Muds Institute was a vehicle to bring the research on mindfulness to Israeli society, through conferences, workshops, programs and lectures. Five years after its founding, the Muda Institute began “importing” MBSR to Israel. The Institute has trained 150 trainers in the MBSR method, who are today active throughout Israel and even in the Palestinian Authority. The Institute’s team has also worked with more than 1000 schoolteachers in Israel and recently launched the “Purple Schools” program – a whole-school approach that brings in mindfulness at all school levels.
Dr. Levit-Binnun is optimistic that better access to mindfulness – whether through the proliferation of programs like MBSR or through developments from research into mechanisms such as interoception – will improve people’s well-being. Her team’s research into the mechanism of interoception will likely spawn technologies and products that have the potential to bring the benefits of mindfulness to people in different ways. But together with this optimism, she urges a degree of caution, calling for an examination of the ethics of how we can impact interoception and develop solutions for mass use.
“I’m passionate about bringing as many people as possible the benefits of mindfulness to improve well-being. But all of us involved shoulder a great responsibility to do so in an ethical way. Research shows that people achieve true well-being when their sense of self is not condensed (as taught in Buddhism, but also as shown in modern science), when their cravings are low, and when they are feeling more caring, compassionate and connected to the world around them. The key is a paradigm shift that will increase our level of acceptance of ourselves and others and see the world in a less judgmental way. When we approach our research, or direct our entrepreneurial energy to the development of products that will improve people’s well-being, we need to make sure that we are providing a benefit that is not fleeting, but rather that we are committed to true and long-lasting well-being and are guided by a strong ethical code,” concludes Dr. Levit-Binnun.