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2012-05-04

Sweden’s first researcher in mindfulness

Torbjörn Josefsson originally planned to be a psychotherapist. Instead, he began researching in psychology at Halmstad University, becoming the first researcher in the country to study mindfulness. Now, he is almost finished with more than four years of studies, and believes that many people would benefit from practicing mindfulness.
Torbjörn Josefsson started working as a psychology teacher in 2001 at Halmstad University, after having completed his master’s degree in the subject.

“I was offered a job at the University after my degree, and I’ve been there since then. I’ve always been interested in major philosophical issues, such as: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? – I’ve been seeking answers but haven’t found any that work for me.”

When Torbjörn Josefsson completes his dissertation work this spring, his title of a PhD in philosophy, with mindfulness as his dissertation topic, will be unique in Sweden.

Mindfulness fit his worldview
At first Torbjörn Josefsson read books about spirituality, New Age, and religion, but he didn’t feel that any of those alternatives fit in with his worldview. When he started collaborating with a psychologist, he met a spiritual guide and meditation teacher in Halmstad.

“When mindfulness came up—it’s something that has been growing and growing in recent years—it felt just right. I had long been wanting to combine rational Western scientific methods with Eastern philosophies.”

So what is mindfulness? It’s not so easy to explain.

“It’s not a matter of being in trance. Instead, I usually say that it’s like sitting in front of a fire or by the sea. When all you’re doing is looking, and after a while your head becomes completely quiet—a condition that lasts until you start thinking again. Mindfulness is about practicing that state,” explains Torbjörn Josefsson and continues:

“It might be a matter of simply sitting on a chair with your back straight, as is often done in classical meditation exercises. Of course, mindfulness can be achieved in various ways. It might occur when we’re doing the ironing or tasting wines. It’s an individual thing.”

National graduate school enabled studies
In 2007 Torbjörn Josefsson started a doctoral studentship at Halmstad University and became part of an interdisciplinary national graduate school in Entrepreneurship–Health. He received funding from the Sparbanksstiftelsen Kronan foundation and is now in the final phase of a three-part study.

“People’s ability to pay attention is usually related to their mental wellbeing. In the first two studies I compared people who meditate with people who do not meditate, to see if their ability to pay attention differed.”

The ability to pay attention is usually divided into two parts — sustaining attention and executive attention.

The latter is when you are exposed to multiple stimuli and have to choose what to focus on. This is something that often fails among the elderly; for example, when they’re out driving and have to direct their attention to several different things in traffic. Sustaining attention is when you only have to pay attention to one thing.

Torbjörn Josefsson carried out two computerised tests in which reactions were measured in the different groups. The conclusion of the first part of the study was that the attention that is practiced in mindfulness primarily entails increased awareness and insights into your patterns of thought, feelings, behaviour, and reaction.

The conclusion drawn from the second part of the study was that meditation leads to a higher degree of self-reported mindfulness, which in turn leads to a higher degree of mental wellbeing.
In the third phase of the study Torbjörn Josefsson studied three groups: one that had practiced mindfulness, one that had focused on relaxation exercises, and a third group that had not done anything special.

“I measured different variables in the participants. For instance, they were asked to take attention tests on a computer and to complete a questionnaire about depression, anxiety, and coping, that is, how well people can deal with various situations, before and after having practiced mindfulness.”

Great potential for further mindfulness research
When Torbjörn Josefsson has completed his dissertation work this spring, his title of a PhD in philosophy, with mindfulness as his dissertation topic, will be unique in Sweden.

“I would really like to continue my research in the field. There are studies that show that mindfulness has an alleviating effect on anxiety and depression, and it has also been seen that it can have a positive impact on people who suffer from chronic pain. But there’s so much more to be studied in this subject.”
Compared with pure relaxation exercises, mindfulness has something more to offer, according to Torbjörn Josefsson.

“Relaxation is about relaxing muscles. Mindfulness is more about how things feel, getting to know your inner self and raising your awareness, training yourself to see your thoughts and feelings.”

Torbjörn Josefsson believes that many people would benefit from practicing mindfulness.

“Since I started, I’ve become better at what I do. I can focus in another way. You train yourself to see things as they are, without bringing in preconceived judgments.”

“I believe we thirst for quietude—we’re starved for it in today’s information-based society. We can’t go around totally splintered the way we are, with information from all directions—telephones, computers … This has created brain stress, and in order to get our brains working again, I believe we need mindfulness.”

Text: HANNA JOHANSSON  Photo: LINDA LUNDELL

National Graduate School in Entrepreneurship–Health

The National Graduate School in Entrepreneurship–Health was founded in 2006 and was funded by Sparbanksstiftelsen Kronan Foundation and Halmstad University between 2006 and 2010 and directed by Professor Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand.

As of 2011 the graduate school is organisationally part of the research environment Center for Research on Welfare, Health, and Sports (CVHI) and is directed by Professor Natalia Stambulova.

“The overarching goal is to strengthen and increase collaboration among doctoral students in the fields of innovation, entrepreneurship, and health technology,” says Nicholas Wickström, assistant professor of computer system technology and one of the researchers involved in the National Graduate School in Entrepreneurship–Health.

The graduate school provides both seminar activities and an interdisciplinary environment where doctoral students have the opportunity to present their research. Future plans are to run entire research projects jointly.

“This is an important research field, not least against the background of our aging society. New solutions in health technology will be required, and there will be a need for closer collaboration across disciplines like engineering, innovation, and medical and health care,” says Nicholas Wickström, who points out that the national graduate school is unique in that there are few other forums where doctoral candidates in different disciplines and subject areas meet and get to know each other systematically.

“To be able to sustain and develop this forum for interdisciplinary research, it’s now crucial for the national graduate school to secure long-term funding.”

Updated 2012-05-04