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Mental Floss: How Meditation is Like Brushing Your Teeth

Mental Floss: How Meditation is Like Brushing Your TeethA colleague challenged me the other day while we were waiting for the elevator about the value of meditation. She gave me a very hard time.

“I don’t understand why you positive psychologists get your undies in a bunch about meditation,” she said, “I tried it and I think it is the stupidest thing in the world. Stop your mind — and breathe.”

“Well,” I began, “it really isn’t just about trying to stop your mind. Often it is about breathing, but I really think if you believe it is stupid it probably isn’t going to work.”

“See — you have an answer for everything. So if I think it is going to be stupid, then it is going to be stupid. You always put it back on the person. If meditation is going to work, why do I have to believe in it? Why doesn’t it just work?”

“How often have you tried to meditate?” I asked, trying to keep from responding.

“Twice,” she answered. “Once about four years ago for about six minutes. Most wasted six minutes of my life. Nothing happened. It was such BS — and then again yesterday. I read an article that said you could meditate about two or three minutes two or three times a day and that would have an effect. How stupid. How could doing anything a couple of times a day for two minutes help with anything?”

The elevator came and the two of us got in. I now had a captive audience.

Proof Positive

“Well, actually, it does work,” I began my argument. “It is the regularity of doing it that helps. Doing it for two minutes every four years probably isn’t going to have much of an impact, but it might be good if you did it regularly.”

“See, that’s what I mean,” she countered. “Why do I want to waste my time every day?”

“You have nice teeth,” I said flashing my own.

“Thanks,” she said with a puzzled look as the elevator door closed.

I put my right hand up in front of my teeth and shook it up and down with my imaginary toothbrush, and then stopped.

“You make that silly little motion two or three times a day for about two minutes and that one motion changes everything,” I said, climbing up on my soapbox.

“Brushing my teeth is nothing like meditation,” she countered.

“When you invest those few minutes on a regular basis it keeps tartar and plaque from building up, reduces the risk of cavities,” I said gathering momentum, “and it reduces the risk of heart disease and keeps you from getting infections that lead to diabetes.”

“It’s not the same,” she countered.

“Brushing your teeth regularly also reduces the risk of respiratory diseases like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and pneumonia,” I pointed out, “… and not brushing regularly has been associated with cognitive dysfunction associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said in disbelief.

“Also, did you know that brushing your teeth could also help couples get pregnant? It has been linked to lower sperm counts and erectile dysfunction. If you don’t brush your teeth, oral bacteria and plaque build up, enter the bloodstream and cause narrowing of the penile blood vessels. If you have gum disease the chances of erectile dysfunction go up.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said.

“…and,” I continued, “when you are pregnant, brushing helps ensure a safe pregnancy by preventing pregnancy gingivitis.”

“You made your point,” she said, looking at the numbers going up.

“And another thing,” I began again. “Brushing your teeth can actually help you lose weight. Brushing your teeth at night signals to the brain that you are done eating and anything you taste after that won’t taste right because of the mint and it can curb your appetite.

“Wow,” she said, recognizing I was a man with a mission. “Okay, so brushing your teeth is good.”

“And,” I said pushing the limit, “brushing your teeth for two minutes three times a day burns 3500 calories a year.”

“Okay, okay, but that doesn’t mean meditation is good. You can’t tell me it does all the wonderful things brushing your teeth does,” she replied.

The doors opened to her floor and she got out.

“To be continued,” she said.

I smiled, made the brushing motion in front of my teeth as the doors closed. She smiled and shook her head. Had she stayed with me until we got to my floor I would have told her it actually does more.

I would have explained that Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied loving-kindness meditation (LKM), the ancient Buddhist practice of fostering positive feelings toward the self and others. The practice involves an intention to become aware of others by hoping for them to experience the feelings of loving kindness, to feel safe and protected, to be healthy in mind and body and to be at ease and happy. The participants practiced less than an hour a week (less than 10 minutes a day). Their vagal tone compared to a control group soared after a few months of this daily practice. Those who had the largest increases in vagal tone had the most frequent positivity resonance experiences with others. The quality of her research on LKM was so impressive on improving vagal tone that the Dalai Lama invited her to talk with him.

The vagus nerve connects our brain to our heart. It is integrated in everything from the physiognomy of our smile and eye contact with others to monitoring the middle ear muscles so we can focus on another person’s voice. Fredrickson was able to determine that those who had the largest increases in vagal tone had the most frequent positivity resonance experiences with others. Why was her research so important? Before her studies vagal tone was thought to be as stable and as unchangeable as one’s height. You either had good tone or not.

In other words, she showed that in about the same amount of time it takes to brush your teeth each you change how you are in the world — and how people react to you, for the better.

I can’t wait to catch her in the elevator on the way home.

Further reading

Fredrickson’s Research:
Review of her latest book, Love 2.0.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013262

Facts about dental hygiene

Mental Floss: How Meditation is Like Brushing Your Teeth

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: http://www.dare2behappy.com/. He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.


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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Mental Floss: How Meditation is Like Brushing Your Teeth. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/mental-floss-how-meditation-is-like-brushing-your-teeth/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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