Imagine a brain manipulation which gives children greater mental focus, improves empathy, and increases optimism.  And the cost is about $5 per child.  If you think this is a fantasy, you would be wrong.  The MindUP™ program, developed by actress Goldie Hawn and neurologist Judy Willis uses short bouts of mindfulness training to help elementary school children learn to regulate their own brains.  Supported by the Hawn Foundation for Mindful Education, the MindUP™ program is reaping great rewards for schoolchildren in Vancouver and beyond. I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours on an airplane yesterday speaking with UBC Associate Professor Kim Schonert-Reich, one of the lead researchers on the efficacy of the MindUP™ curriculum on schoolchildren. What she told me was nothing less than astonishing.

Three times a day, kids are given three minutes of a version of mindfulness training which, in aggregate, takes them through four 30 minute lessons: (1) Quieting the mind; (2) Our senses; (3) Practical Applications; (4) Mindfulness and ourselves in the world.  Because each session of the program is brief, children are not only able to manage it but love it, telling their friends & families about their experiences on a regular basis.

Kim is in the process of carrying out a proper experiment on the MindUP™ program, with some classes receive no training, others receiving sham training, and other getting the full MindUP™ curriculum. The results are not yet published, but even the non-quantitative results are compelling. When teachers who are not using the program see what a powerful positive effect it is having on kids in other classes, they clamour for having the curriculum included in their daily lesson plans.  High school teachers are starting to ask for a version of the program for their students.  It has turned into a full-fledged meme, spreading like wildfire in the absence of marketing. As an added benefit, MindUP™ is also making kids budding neurobiologists – each lesson is accompanied by a description of what goes on in the brain when one practices mindfulness, and kids apparently go home to their families and tell them about their brains.

Some testimonials from the MindUP™ website.

From a student:

“MindUP™ really upgraded my mind. It really helped me basically with a lot of things, like sleeping through the night, eating, being happier at school, making new friends and blocking out my little sister’s nagging!”

– William, age 12

From a teacher:

“A kindergarten student who was being bullied in school was moved to another class. Recently this student had contact with his previous class and classmates. Apparently he spent some time thinking about what had happened. While in the car, he told his mom he knew why the other boy bullied him…he said the boy did not use his pre-frontal cortex to make good decisions and he often acted that way because of his amygdala. His mom was amazed… and told the teacher and many parents at school.”

-Janice, Kindergarten Teacher

From a parent:

“My child is always talking about his prefrontal cortex and amygdala – he is so happy and has been teaching all of us MindUP™ at home.”

-parent of a MindUP™ student

The MindUP™ program has obvious roots in Buddhist meditation techniques but is decidedly non-religious.  What it does for kids is much like what mindfulness-based stress reduction does for adults: captures the advantages of ages-old meditation techniques and transposes so that it is applicable to the modern world.

A wonderful piece of brain technology indeed.

Link to the MindUP™ curriculum

Link to the Hawn Foundation

Image Credit: Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata


11 thoughts on “MindUP™

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention MindUP™ « Neuroethics at the Core -- Topsy.com

  2. If these children aren’t good enough as they are to meet our bloated needs and values, then yes, let’s do something about them… the kids, that is, never our values.

    Let’s face it. Something smells fishy about these improvement initiatives. But scientific advancement is about improvement, isn’t it? and who can be against that? Certainly Mengele wasn’t.

    And I’m sure we are glad to hear that these techniques aren’t really Buddhist, aren’t really religious, but are “brain technology”. What a relief. That means that, if we have to, we can, without moral censure, switch to brain-surgery to get this job done.

    Similar gloomy “improvement” promo’s, trumpeted as breakthrough’s, justify the medication of kids on the grounds that it offers more rational life-choices. But who’s choices?

    Just what the hell are we doing, tinkering with our kids?

    • John, I understand your concern – superfluity of the reductio ad Nazium aside – but I fail to see how this method of “tinkering with our kids” is substantively morally different from educating them in the first place. The whole enterprise of schooling is an improvement initiative; what exactly justifies the pronounced scrutiny and skepticism under which you place this particular program? Is it simply that it represents a foray beyond the level of the ‘normal’ – an arbitrary and rising watermark if there ever was one?

      Of course there is a line to be drawn as the relentless pursuit of human achievement encroaches upon our capacity for self-acceptance and being-oneself. It just seems to me that you’re drawing it in awfully benign territory. Would you draw a similar line for physical fitness as for mental acuity? There’s a whole host of innocuous (heck, beneficial!) things that your position seems to obligate you to stand against.

      If nothing else, mindfulness training might help balance against the cognitive consequences of the media-saturated (and hence distraction-rife) world we have come to live in.

    • Is it that children aren’t good enough (as you propose in your pessimistic response to this article)? Or, are some children ‘wired’ in a way that does not fit well with the demands of modern society? What is wrong with educating children and making them mindful of their biology, their choices and their responses to daily stimuli? If that is “tinkering” with our kids, sign me up for “tinkering” duty!

  3. Yes, I can see how it looks as though I was overboard with this.

    The definition of, or take on, child “improvement” changes from improving skills to improving the person. Hence the gross, but still valid, link to nazism …

    But it is not I who improve by learning to write; I simply learn to write. It is my writing that improves, not me. How I am, in myself, ought to be no-one’s business.

    But there is another cause for concern. Teaching people to cast “improvement” in terms of improved brain structures looks disingenuous and something of an audacity. By teaching the learner physical reductionism we hope to persuade the learner that our societal values are confirmed as material facts about the physical brain. Surely, this is dishonest, potentially dangerous, and simply bad logic. It also an attempt, mostly successful, to thwart analytic inquiry.

    Improvement ought to be instructive, not prescriptive. So I’m OK with teaching skills. I am not OK with teaching people to improve, where improvement is sold as a personal or “brain” achievement yet is really a measure of other people’s targets and values.

    Some teaching techniques, including the method used by MindUp, are good. But the folks behind MindUp misrepresent (via a misdirected reductionism, etc) a technique that is effective because of certain natural inclinations. They do this to assert a locally sourced prescriptive agenda. I am, in honesty, outraged by this, and not by the technique itself. I wouldn’t let my kids anywhere near the MindUp boys. If I had kids.

  4. It looks like I lost my post. I will have to retype it.

    It is not the technique of MindUp that I object to. It is the idea that the technique can be used for “self-improvement” where improvement is, in fact, not a measure of self improvenment (whatever that is) but a measure of how we are seen in the eyes of others. Hence my gross allusion to Nazism.

    I also object, am even outraged, by the fact that this precriptive take on “improvement” employs bad argument to convince the learner that these values are in fact, not prescriptive at all, but are the learners own values.

    Thus we see MindUps dishonest appeal to physical reductionism. Here, we are told, the brain itself is supposed to show improvement. Yet only by prescriptive default are any brain changes cast in the mould of “improvement”. Even honest reductionism suffers at their hands.

    My concern is that MindUp has found a natural technique that allows them to
    i) popularize a type of materialist brain-science-fundamentalism,
    ii) assert, in a new way, a prescriptive ethical/moral agenda and
    iii) discourage the employment of analytic skills that might collapse their theoretical structure.

    But the saddest image I retain is one of kids being misled and manipulated. Perhaps it is a fear of science that makes peole accept, without examination, such projects as these.

  5. Pingback: A Look at Goldie Hawn’s MindUp Program | Humane Exposures Blog

  6. Hey John:

    You might do some research and look at what Dan Siegel (whose work is the basis for Mind Up) says about materialist reductionism. He goes to great lengths in his work to avoid reducing mind to brain, which is actually quite brave for a mainstream scientist, as to even suggest such a thing is heresy in the field of neuroscience (if you don’t think heresy is relevant to the so-called “rational” world of science, just mention “mind” at a conference of neuroscientists and see what the reaction is).

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