ARI: Now I'm speaking with Shannon Mayhew who is the blogger and inspiration
behind [sic] PresenceAndPose.com (transcription note: the blog is actually
http://www.presenceandprose.com/) and a mother, a yogi, a neuroscientist of sorts that we're
going to talk about and, um it's really great to talk to you.
SHANNON: Thank-you, Ari, good to be here.
ARI: So, I - I'm sorry, I just called you a neuroscientist and you just corrected me
before this - you are a cognitive scientist.
SHANNON: That's right.
ARI: So, let's - what --
SHANNON: Not - not actually doing brain scans myself, but working with people, trying
to help find ways for them to learn.
ARI: So, how did you - how did you become a cognitive scientist? Let's start with
that. What - and - what does that, I mean, entail?
SHANNON: Okay, well, I've always been fascinated with how people learn and – and
before getting into cognitive science research I worked as a, um, education researcher for Sesame
SHANNON: And I also did some freelance writing for The Learning Channel and then I,
um, I went to receive my Master's degree in Education from Harvard University where I focused
on neuroscience, um, as well as technology and after that I worked for a little over a decade at a
research and development company as a cognitive scientist and I worked on developing new
methods, um, teaching methods and technology methods to help people with learning disabilities
to learn in alternative ways.
ARI: Gotcha. Okay, and how did you get from – how did you get to Sesame Street,
first of all? ‘Cause that’s awesome, so.
SHANNON: How to get to Sesame Street?
SHANNON: Exactly. Um, yes, well, that was – that was a dream job for me and I – I
studied in, um, at Penn State and that was my undergraduate degree. I studied Film and
Television and I minored in Child Development and Spanish and Sesame Street was really where
I always wanted to, uh, where I wanted to go.
ARI: And – and were you a parent when you were there, or?
SHANNON: No, I was there, um, you know, well before – before having kids. That was
one of my first jobs in my, you know, in my twenties and, um –
ARI: I just think that’s really cool! Sorry. (laughs)
SHANNON: Yeah, yeah, in – what we do is take the show and go into daycare centers in
the Bronx and show Sesame Street to the preschool kids there and try to find out what they were
learning and whether or not the themes and script were – were working for the kids and then we
would go and share these findings with the writers. So, and, actually, that ties in pretty, um, it
kind of led – led me to where I am now in a lot of ways because, you know, um, I, you know, I
said that that was really a dream job for me and it was a – an exciting time living in New York
and I was in a love – loving relationship. I had great friends and we were going to parties in the
tv industry, um, you know, was really an exciting time. But, every morning I would wake up
with this, kind of, this sickness in my heart and I would feel like I have – I have this life and –
and I can’t feel happy and I would wonder what was wrong with me? So, every morning I would
get up and I would just lay there in bed and I would say, “You don’t have to go through the
whole day. All you have to do is just get in the shower.” And, so, I would get in the shower and I
would say to myself, “All you have to do is get dressed. You don’t have to do anything else.” I
would get myself dressed and then I would be, “You only have to get on the subway and that’s –
that’s all you have to do.” And, so, every morning I would get myself to my dream job like that
and wonder what was wrong and, you know, didn’t have to do a good job, the people that I
worked for were wonderful and it was, you know, it was fun. I also got to put together packages
– educational packages and do some editing and work actually with the Muppets. So – so, yeah, I
really wondered what was wrong with me? The problem was, was that I was depressed.
SHANNON: Um, and it doesn’t have to – depression doesn’t really have to deal with your
external circumstances, um, you know, it’s very chemical thing going on inside of your body. So,
and – and, I had told you before about – we have a little bit of a similar background with healing,
um, healing digestive problems. I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome for, you know, most of my life
and, at that time, it was really also, um, causing me a lot of pain. So, at some point I found
myself at a yoga class because I heard that yoga can help you with pain and deal with stress and
so I thought all of that would be good, um, helping me with what was going on, on a lot of
levels. And with yoga I learned how to relax the smooth muscles that line my gut and to stop
that, you know, that painful cycle of spas – spasms and, um, start to feel better in my body and
then I started to make healthier choices about my life and that’s when I went and got – decided to
be a full-time graduate student – ‘cause I was actually at NYU at the time, part-time, adding
more, you know, which is more stress it was all good stuff, but it, you know, still stress. And, so,
I went and just dove into, um, my Master’s program. I went to Harvard and that was – so I
moved – I left the city and I got more sunshine and spent more time in nature and just all these
things that kind of, um, snowballed together.
ARI: It all – it all added up.
SHANNON: Yeah, I just felt better in my body and then that’s when I realize that feeling
better in my body was what made all of those happy, kind of, thoughts and the feeling of
gratitude become accessible to me. Whereas, before, they weren’t anywhere in reach.
ARI: Gotcha. So, okay, well, there’s a lot here, so –
SHANNON: I know …
ARI: No, no it’s great – this is perfect, uh, what is – well, I – I – okay, you know,
stop me if we get into – into too many details, or something, but, basically, do – we agree that
depression is definitely a chemical thing and there’s obviously – I think we can agree there’s a
gut component to that too because of all the neurons that we have in our digestive system and
everything. Do you believe you ever, sort of, found the source of the cause of the depression?
SHANNON: Um, if there’s – I think there are two things and th – the one that I actually
really thought, up until recently, just because of the work I’ve been doing, y – you know, with
yoga, I thought that it was because, even though that was a very good job for me, that I – my
soul, kind of, needed a little bit of a different path and I wasn’t – there was a part of me that I
wasn’t listening to, um, and just needing to – needing to be outside more and that’s a little bit of
a, I dunno, soul yearning, but, also, the very chemical parts of just getting vitamin D and – and,
uh, being with nature.
SHANNON: Um, so, I guess that – that’s part of it and I – I think I wasn’t digesting the –
my nutrients I was taking in. I wasn’t eating all the greatest nutrients either and, um, so, the
chemical things that need to happen in your cells and create neuropeptides that can lead to, you
know, helping you feel happier. I – I wasn’t probably having the right nutrients for that to
ARI: Okay, so, when did you, I mean, obviously yoga was helpful – and yoga was
helpful in my journey as well – what – how did the nutritional discovery, kind of, play into
SHANNON: Um, well, I – oh! – I also started to go see a nutritionist at the same time I
started yoga, so, I really did an overhaul in ’02 and –
ARI: Did that help or hurt? (they laugh)
SHANNON: That’s a good question. Because it doesn’t – it’s not necessarily always the,
uh, always the answer. It helped. It helped because I did a cleanse and, you know, um, was able
to – to learn what my body – get better in touch with my signals from my body, like, this – I
don’t digest certain kinds of fats very well and to stay away from those kinds of oils.
ARI: I’m – I’m curious: like what?
SHANNON: Um – um, basically, canola oil, um –
ARI: Oh. Okay.
SHANNON: Butter, even. Those kinds of fats. Avocados and seeds and nuts have been
really good for me.
ARI: Okay. Uh, so, and butter you don’t do well with, so, that’s – that’s interesting
to discover. So, one of the things that you just brought up which I’m always talking about – is
AIR: And, I feel like, unfortunately, we get into these situations where these bad
things start to happen or we start to go on a – a bad path, or whatever, but it’s – it’s so self-
worsening, you know, and – and – and everything you do that – that, sort of, makes it worse
makes it that much more worse and you lose that self-awareness even more and sometimes just –
and this is, sort of, the reason that I asked you if you identified the source in your mind – because
sometimes just identifying cause and effect is really – not only helpful, but empowering.
ARI: So –
SHANNON: Yeah, absolutely. Um –
ARI: Righ –
SHANNON: Go ahead.
ARI: No, no, no, please.
SHANNON: Um, I just, was able to, yeah, I did, I felt empowered whereas before was just
overwhelmed, you know, and – and not knowing what choices to make I felt empowered to – to
– to choose, um, the foods that would be nourishing to me and, you know, it doesn’t mean to – to
never, you know, have a treat, again, but just be a little bit more respectful of my body and just
feeling better in my body really made it possible for me to make those choices. When you’re not
– you’re just not feeling good about yourself and don’t have the energy, um, it’s, kind of, uh,
there’s a, y – your mind’s just kind of, like, “What the point?”
ARI: Right, of course, and that’s, again, sort of like a self-worsening prophecy in a
way. (laughs) Um, so, alright, but, so, now one of your focuses now is what you’re calling “body
ARI: So, let’s talk about that.
SHANNON: Okay, so, that’s ties in pretty closely with, you know, the experience that I
had of feeling – starting to feel better about my body and then realizing, “Oh! It’s easier to find
happy thoughts!” And they, you know, it doesn’t really matter what your external circumstances
are, um, so much as – as what you’ve got inside, um, so, that and – combined with what I had
been learning about happiness research, you know, on the – on the – on the brain side, um.
There’s this researcher from UCLA named Rick Hanson and he has a book called [sic]
Hardwired for Happiness (transcription note: the title of the book is actually Hardwiring
Happiness) – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that?
ARI: Yup, yup.
SHANNON: And, so, his – his, kind of, popular phrase is “to take in the good” and the idea
is that when, um, well – first of all, our brains are, kind of, um, we’ve evolved to store quote
“negative” experiences in our long-term memory and that’s where important reasons like
survival and, you know, make sure to – to not, um, sleep out where the si – saber-toothed tigers
can get you and things like that and, um, so, we – we remember negative experiences as a – as a
survival mechanism. The brain places less value on the positive experiences because they
haven’t been as much important to our survival, you know, over time evolutionarily. So, so, his
recommendation – and he’s done brain scans and – and been able to show that when we
experience something happy – and it doesn’t have to be, you know, winning the Nobel Prize or
any huge peak moment – but just the little things during your day like you’re, you know, um, see
the – the smile on your child’s face or you’re hearing the birds sing, um, little things – to take
them in for about fifteen to seventeen seconds. To just really allow – just allow those things to
make you feel happy and enjoy them and, just, um, take that in for fifteen seconds. So, I – I
found that to be a really great practice and I’ve been combining that with what I’ve been doing in
yoga by – with body awareness and being present – because I still feel like, oh yeah, these –
these sweet things that happen throughout the day sometimes it’s all well and good to, say:
“Well, just allow yourself to feel happy about them.”
SHANNON: But if your body, if you’re not present, you know – and you know this – if
you’re not – if you’re not present in your body, um, you can be distracted or, just, you know,
“Okay, I should feel happy, but I’m not feeling it.” So, my component is to add to that, um, using
body awareness and presence. Using your senses to help you, um, “take in the good” through
your senses. You’re not using your brain so much as your body.
ARI: Right, I mean, it – it – it’s like telling someone, you know: “Just act
confident.” You know?
SHANNON: Yeah. What?
ARI: It’s – it’s – it’s not that simple. So, okay, well, so, then what are some actual
things that you have pe – that you recommend people, I mean, you know, I mean, you gave a
couple examples, but, sort of, or, actually – why don’t you tell us about, like, your daily routine a
little bit? What you do to – to, sort of, maintain that level?
SHANNON: Okay. Well, um, in the morning I – I usually just lay in bed and use my senses
“to take in the good”, as – as Rick Hanson says. So, I’ll feel the softness of my sheets and if my
dog happens to be at my feet on the bed, which she often is, I’ll – I’ll see if I can hear her
breathing or just feel, you know, slide my foot under her chin or, you know, just, whatever
senses are available to me – even if it’s just feeling my breath moving in and out and, just, feel
what’s good about that. Um, and a phrase that I’ve – that I’ve used in yoga sometimes is:
“What’s there to love here?” You can probably always find something to love. Sometimes the
word “love” is more accessible to people than “happiness”, um, sometimes “gratitude” is more
resonant or, um, you know, “presence” and they all, kind of, help bring people to that – into your
body and to your senses and finding what’s good about that and then – so I’ll just allow myself
to, sort of, just, um, bask in that for a little while and I’ll start my day with an intention of how I
want to, um, approach the day, so that when things come up I can come back to my intention and
say, “Wait, my intention was to ‘respond to things with wisdom and compassion’ and I’m not
sounding that way to my seven-year-old right now,” so let me take a breath and come back into
my body and – and (video file ends mid sentence at 14:45)