meditation and the brain

Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

Medical Xpress: Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” denote a variety of mental training techniques that aim at the cultivation of various different competencies. In other words, despite growing interest in meditation research, it remains unclear which type of mental practice is particularly useful for improving either attention and mindfulness or social competencies, such as compassion and perspective-taking.

Other open questions are, for example, whether such practices can induce structural brain …

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Meditation helps tame the brain’s emotional response

Alice G. Walton, Forbes: Of all the reasons people have for trying meditation, being less emotionally reactive is usually pretty high up. “Being mindful,” or “being zen,” is synonymous these days with rolling with the punches, and being non-reactive (or less reactive). And there’s definitely something to it: Neuroscience is starting to back up the subjective emotional changes we notice by illustrating what’s going on in the brain when people are confronted with stressors. A new study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that people who naturally lack mindfulness can achieve at …

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Suck at meditation? You may just be doing it right

David Ferguson, The Guardian: I suck at meditating. I’m one of those perennially distracted people who knows they need to meditate, has meditated in the past with some success and who knows they should meditate more, but who finds it so much easier to do things like dishes, laundry and exercising than to schedule time to do nothing.

When I read this Forbes article touting mindfulness meditation as the “next big business opportunity”, my initial impulse is to grind my teeth in frustration. Co-opting a centuries-old spiritual practice as the engine of your hip new startup strikes me …

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People who meditate are more aware of their unconscious brain

Clare Wilson, New Scientist: People who meditate are more aware of their unconscious brain activity – or so a new take on a classic “free will” experiment suggests.

The results hint that the feeling of conscious control over our actions can vary – and provide more clues to understanding the complex nature of free will.

The famous experiment that challenged our notions of free will was first done in 1983 by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. It involved measuring electrical activity in someone’s brain …

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Brain changes seen in veterans with PTSD after mindfulness training

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Like an endlessly repeating video loop, horrible memories and thoughts can keep playing over and over in the minds of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. They intrude at the quietest moments, and don’t seem to have an off switch.

But a new study in veterans with PTSD shows the promise of mindfulness training for enhancing the ability to manage those thoughts if they come up, and not get “stuck”. Even more surprising, it actually shows the veterans’ brains changed — in ways that may help them find their own off switch for that endless loop.

The findings, published in Depression and Anxiety by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, come from a study of 23 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them got some form of group therapy. After four months of weekly sessions, many reported that their PTSD symptoms eased up.

But only in those who got mindfulness training – a mind-body technique that focuses on in-the-moment attention and awareness – did the researchers see the brain changes that surprised even them.

Shifting brain connections
The changes showed up on functional MRI, or fMRI, brain scans that can visualize brain activity as different areas of the brain “talk” to one another through networks of connections between brain cells.

Before the mindfulness training, when the veterans were resting quietly, their brains had extra activity in regions involved in responding to threats or other outside problems. This is a sign of that endless loop of hypervigilance often seen in PTSD.

But after learning mindfulness, they developed stronger connections between two other brain networks: the one involved in our inner, sometimes meandering, thoughts, and the one involved in shifting and directing attention.

“The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being “stuck” in painful cycles of thoughts,” says Anthony King, Ph.D., a U-M Department of Psychiatry researcher who led the new study in collaboration with VA psychologists.

“We’re hopeful that this brain signature shows the potential of mindfulness to be helpful for managing PTSD for people who might initially decline therapy involving trauma processing,” he adds. “We hope it may provide emotional regulation skills to help bring them to a place where they feel better able to process their traumas.”

King, who has experience providing individual and group therapy for veterans from many conflicts, worked with a team of brain-imaging experts and PTSD specialists including senior author Israel Liberzon, M.D. They used an fMRI scanner at the VA Ann Arbor that’s dedicated to research.

In all, 14 of the veterans finished the mindfulness sessions and completed follow-up fMRI scans, and 9 finished the comparison sessions and had scans. The small size of the group means the new results are only the start of an exploration of this issue, King says.

A palatable option
Before they launched the study, the researchers weren’t sure that they could find enough veterans to try mindfulness-based training. After all, it has a reputation as an “alternative” approach and has a relationship to traditionally East and South Asian practices like meditation and yoga

But in fact, more of the initial group of veterans stuck with mindfulness-based therapy sessions – held each week for two hours with a trained mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist – than made it all the way through the comparison psychotherapy group that didn’t get mindfulness training.

“Once we explained the rationale behind mindfulness, which aims to ground and calm a person while also addressing mental phenomena, they were very interested and engaged – more than we expected,” says King. “The approach we took included standard elements of exposure therapy as well as mindfulness, to help lead veterans to be able to process the trauma itself.”

The comparison group received a VA-developed intervention that was designed for “control group” use. It included problem-solving and group support but not mindfulness or exposure therapy.

He emphasizes that people with PTSD should not see mindfulness alone as a potential solution for their symptoms, and that they should seek out providers trained specifically in PTSD care.The mindfulness group saw improvement in PTSD symptoms, in the form of decreased scores on a standard scale of PTSD severity, that was statistically significant and considered clinically meaningful, whereas the control group did not. However, the between-group effects in this small study were not considered statistically significant, and therefore King wants to explore the trend further in larger groups, and in civilians.

That’s because mindfulness sessions can sometimes actually trigger symptoms such as intrusive thoughts to flare up. So, it is very important for people with PTSD to have help from a trained counselor to use mindfulness as part of their therapy for PTSD.

“Mindfulness can help people cope with and manage their trauma memories, explore their patterns of avoidance when confronting reminders of their trauma, and better understand their reactions to their symptoms,” says King. “It helps them feel more grounded, and to notice that even very painful memories have a beginning, a middle and an end — that they can become manageable and feel safer. It’s hard work, but it can pay off.”

Network shifts
At the start of the study, and in previous U-M/VA work, the fMRI scans of veterans with PTSD showed unusual activity. Even when they were asked to rest quietly and let their minds wander freely, they had high levels of activity in brain networks that govern reactions to salient, or meaningful, external signals such as threats or dangers. Meanwhile, the default mode network, involved in inwardly focused thinking and when the mind is wandering, was not as active in them.

But at the end of the mindfulness course, the default mode area was more active – and showed increased connections to areas of the brain known as the executive network. This area gets involved in what scientists call volitional attentional shifting – purposefully moving your attention to think about or act upon something.

Those with the greatest easing of symptoms had the largest increases in connections.

“We were surprised by the findings, because there is thinking that segregation between the default mode network and the salience network is good,” says King. “But now we are hopeful that this brain signature of increased connection to areas associated with volitional attention shifting at rest may be helpful for managing PTSD, and may help patients have more capacity to help themselves get out of being stuck in painful ruts of trauma memories and rumination.”

REFERENCE: Depression and Anxiety, DOI 10.1002/da.22481, and a presentation April 1 at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America annual conference

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Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health

Eureka Alert, Press Release: Over the past decade, mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve a broad range of health and disease outcomes, such as slowing HIV progression and improving healthy aging. Yet, little is known about the brain changes that produce these beneficial health effects.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University provides a window into the brain changes that link mindfulness meditation training with health in stressed adults. Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study shows that mindfulness meditation training, compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker, in high-stress, unemployed community adults.

The biological health-related benefits occur because mindfulness meditation training fundamentally alters brain network functional connectivity patterns and the brain changes statistically explain the improvements in inflammation.

“We’ve now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and this new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits,” said David Creswell, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

For the randomized controlled trial, 35 job-seeking, stressed adults were exposed to either an intensive three-day mindfulness meditation retreat program or a well-matched relaxation retreat program that did not have a mindfulness component. All participants completed a five-minute resting state brain scan before and after the three-day program. They also provided blood samples right before the intervention began and at a four-month follow-up.

The brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation training increased the functional connectivity of the participants’ resting default mode network in areas important to attention and executive control, namely the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Participants who received the relaxation training did not show these brain changes.

The participants who completed the mindfulness meditation program also had reduced IL-6 levels, and the changes in brain functional connectivity coupling accounted for the lower inflammation levels.

“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health,” Creswell said.

This work bridges health psychology and neuroscience and falls under the new field of health neuroscience, which Creswell is credited with co-founding. It also is another example of the many brain research breakthroughs at Carnegie Mellon. CMU has created some of the first cognitive tutors, helped to develop the Jeopardy-winning Watson, founded a groundbreaking doctoral program in neural computation, and is the birthplace of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Building on its strengths in biology, computer science, psychology, statistics and engineering, CMU launched BrainHub, an initiative that focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors.

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Incorporating meditation, mindfulness into addiction treatment may enhance recovery

wildmind meditation newsPR Rocket: Mental health is an integral part of addiction recovery, and practicing meditation and mindfulness could help reduce risk of relapse, shares Chapters Capistrano.

There is no blanket solution to treating addiction. What works for one person may not work as well for another, making customized treatment programs even more essential. Focusing on both physical and mental wellbeing can help clients develop a more comprehensive recovery plan that addresses the numerous challenges they may face. Los Angeles-area rehab center Chapters Capistrano has released a statement to the press regarding the integration of mindfulness and meditation into recovery efforts and the benefits it can provide.

“Mental health plays a large part in the recovery process,” says Susie Shea, co-owner of Chapters Capistrano, a drug and alcohol rehab center. “Detox cleanses the body of any toxic substances, but it doesn’t change a person’s thought processes or address how their brain has been affected by substance use. That is where multiple therapy modalities and practices come into play, meditation being one of them.”

Meditation helps people to refocus and become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, notes Shea. They are able to identify negative thought patterns that can lead to triggers or temptation. According to the Huffington Post, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and training can benefit clients by affecting “areas of the brain associated with craving, negative effect, and relapse.”

By changing how people react to these situations, it can help them to push through addiction cravings and challenging issues without resorting to drug or alcohol use. Instead, they rely on healthier, more productive means of coping with these problems. “Changing your perspective and being more aware of your emotions can have a significant impact on your mental health and decision making,” says Shea.

Intervening negative thoughts and cravings before they have a chance to evolve into something more serious can keep clients in a more positive frame of mind, asserts Shea. They are able to step back and make more conscious decisions to support their continued sobriety, realizing that they don’t have to give in. They have choices. Meditation and mindfulness can be effective ways of helping to manage stress as well, especially over the holidays.

“In addiction recovery, it’s important to keep an open mind,” explains Shea. “Clients should be willing to try new things and open themselves up to experiences that could be beneficial to their progress. Even if they never pictured themselves as someone doing meditation, once they try it, they may find that it is a very rewarding experience. At Chapters Capistrano, we offer clients a wide range of options including meditation, massage, and hydrotherapy in addition to 12-step and non 12-step approaches so that they can figure out what works best for their recovery.”

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Train your brain to be happy: the many health benefits of meditation

wildmind meditation newsKriti Malik , NDTV: We live in a world marred by distraction. Our minds are always racing, and we constantly seek some thing or the other to meet our needs and desires. As Buddha says, we’re hurling from one pleasant experience to the next – “What’s for lunch?”, “how will my boss like the new proposal I printed out and left on his desk hours ago?”, “how do I want to plan my weekend?” – it’s an endless rant which doesn’t pipe down till you hit the pillow.

Eckhart Tolle refers to this as your inner voice, an inner narrator who constantly seeks perfection, validation or consciousness. …

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How mindfulness can stop the spinning

wildmind meditation newsDavid Mochel, Huffington Post: As human beings we have a tremendous capacity to respond positively and purposefully in the face of challenge. We have the ability to act on our goals and commitments even when we don’t feel like it. As a society, we have an unprecedented capacity to feed, clothe, educate, provide healthcare, and share useful information. Why then, despite our most sincere efforts, do we get stuck in repeated patterns and fail to follow through on our best intentions? Why does life sometimes feel like a struggle even when we have everything we need? The answer to these questions lies in …

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Giving is the most natural thing in the world

It’s clear that we spend a lot of time giving to others. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Most giving is small, in passing, hardly noticed, the breath and wallpaper of life. It’s not hard to overlook. And with all the attention paid in the media to images and words of destruction and horrible mistreatment, it is easy to conclude that the true home of humanity is on the dark side of the force.

Yet, while it is certainly true that we are animals atop the food chain and capable of great aggressiveness, it is even more true that we are genetically programmed to be cooperative and generous. The defining feature of human society is cooperation; notwithstanding the daily weird killing on the 6 o’clock news, harmful aggression is the exception, not the rule: that’s why it’s news.

Consider these facts about human beings – in other words, you and me:

• We evolved from a rarity in the animal kingdom: species composed of groups of individuals that routinely shared food with each other, even when they weren’t related.

• Our ancestors were unusual among animals in another way as well, in that they cooperated to gather and hunt.

• A third distinctive feature of humans is that males often stay involved after children are conceived to protect and share food with them and their mother. While we might wish this were even more common, it’s important to remember that in almost all animal species, fathers take zero interest in their young.

• Genetically, our nearest relative – the chimpanzee – has DNA that is about 98% similar to our own. That crucial 2% is largely directed at brain development, and the portions of the brain are especially affected have to do with language, expressing emotion and reading it in others, and planning – all at the heart of cooperative activity.

• Under stress, researchers have found that the fight-or-flight activations of the sympathetic nervous system are commonly channeled down “tend and befriend” channels for women. I haven’t seen a study on this yet, but probably there are comparable “fix and huddle” channels for men (sorry about the lack of rhyming for guys . . . ).

• Exotic game theory analyses have shown what’s evident in hunter-gatherer cultures, at the UN, and on the playground of the local elementary school: that there is an evolutionary advantage in being a trustworthy cooperative partner, one who gives at least as much as he or she receives. In particular, studies have shown that in an intensely harsh natural environment – such as was present on the plains of Africa – groups that have members who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group will over time come to dominate other groups that lack such altruistic and generous members.

• To quote Robert Sapolsky (Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2006): “Across the roughly 150 or so primate species, the larger the average social group, the larger the cortex [the portion responsible for higher order reasoning, communication, and social judgment] relative to the rest of the brain.”

In sum, over three or four million years, the groups of hominid ancestors that developed giving, generosity, and cooperation to a fine art were the ones that survived to pass down the genes that are our endowment today. As a result, we are “born and bred” to want to give, to contribute, to make a difference.

One way to see the centrality of that impulse in the human experience is to observe what happens when it’s thwarted:

• On the job, even well-paid workers who feel they lack ways to contribute and add value have much less job satisfaction.

• In mid-life, when the developmental task of what Erik Erikson called “generativity” (versus “stagnation”) is not fulfilled, depression and a sense of aimlessness are the result.

• In adolescence today, getting shunted off to quasi-reservations of high schools and malls – away from the world of adult work that was the natural province of teenagers throughout most human history – breeds a sense of alienation and irrelevance that in turn fosters poor motivation and a predilection for drugs and other risky behaviors. One reason so many adolescents are angry is that there’s no way for them to be useful.

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