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Mindful : December 2016
Proponents of mindfulness meditation repeatedly celebrate living in the now, but being able to forestall gratification to a future time can also be a key element of mindfulness. You’ll become obese and possibly addicted to illegal drugs or painkillers, you’ll run out of money during retirement, you’ll become a compulsive gambler and an alcoholic. And all because you just couldn’t resist devouring the marshmallow right now, could you? For decades psychologists have dangled that grim future in front of people who choose immediate gratification rather than the post- ponement of same. The marshmallow reference is to the classic experiment in which researchers told 4-year-olds they could eat the tempting marshmallow in front of them now or, if they waited a bit, have two. The best postponers turned out to achieve greater academic success, higher emotional intelligence, and other accom- plishments than the eat-it-now children. That result has been generalized into psychological dogma: that how much of an “immediacy bias” you have is essentially innate and immutable, and that “I want it now” causes consequences like those above. New experiments and a new look at classic ones, however, are undermining that dogma, especially the “immutable” and causal parts. Instead, “an emerging body of evidence indicates that intertemporal choice is malleable and can be profoundly influenced by context,” psychologist Elizabeth Phelps of New York University arg ued in a 2016 paper. Just because you chose one → The Now Addiction Sharon Begley is senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 20 mindful December 2016 brain science Illustrations by Edmon De Haro