meditation & brain science

Being mindful of pain, and the paradox of mindfulness

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Meditation offers us a powerful paradox: that becoming more mindful of our pain reduces the amount of pain we experience.

The use of meditation techniques to treat chronic pain is becoming increasingly common, largely as a result of the pioneering work in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction started by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s scientifically validated work has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people and helped to establish meditation as a highly respected tool in the treatment of chronic pain, stress, and depression.

Some people initially find the idea of using meditation to deal with pain incongruous. After all, isn’t meditation about developing greater awareness? And wouldn’t that mean becoming more aware of the pain itself in an almost masochistic kind of way and therefore experiencing greater suffering? For others, who think about meditation as a technique for “tuning out” and turning attention away from the body, meditative techniques can be seen as a welcome, if almost unattainable, form of escapism.

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In fact, meditation is neither masochistic nor escapist. In meditation we do in fact become more aware of ourselves, but what is most important is that we become aware of and change the way that we relate to our pain. It is that change in relationship that makes meditation a potent tool in pain management.

So what is this change in the way that we relate to pain, and how does it have the effect of helping us to deal more effectively with it, or even to reduce the level of pain we experience? The quality we cultivate through meditation practice is mindfulness. Mindfulness is much more than simply being aware. We can be aware of pain without being at all mindful of it. Mindfulness is a particular kind of awareness, which is purposeful, focused, curious, and rooted in our moment-by-moment experience.

With mindfulness we purposefully observe our experience as it takes place, including any pain that may be present. The mind naturally tends to see pain as being a “thing,” and to give it a degree of solidity, permanence, and coherence that it doesn’t in fact have. In mindfulness meditation we train ourselves to see the many different sensations that we collectively label as “pain.” We may even gently make mental notes of the most prominent sensations that we notice. For example we may note the presence of “tingling,” “pulsing,” “throbbing,” “heat,” “cold,” “aching,” “tightness,” etc. When we let go of the rather crude label “pain” in this way and instead note what is actually present, we can find that each individual sensation is easier to bear. Sometimes we notice that there is no pain present, or that the sensations that we’re experiencing are neutral or even pleasurable.

Additionally, in exercising curiosity about our pain we are also gaining another important benefit in the form of the quality of acceptance. The mind, quite understandably, tends to see pain as something that is undesirable and therefore to be pushed away. This pushing away shows in the body as physical tension in and around the area of pain, causing additional discomfort and even intensifying the original pain. It’s as if, having accidentally touched a hot stove, we were to react by trying to push the stove away. In doing so we would of course simply intensify our pain. So, in mindfulness meditation an attitude of curiosity allows us to let go of our resistance and to see the pain for what it is: an ever-changing variety of interwoven sensations. Much of our resistance to pain is mental rather than physical. When we experience pain the mind can, like the body, try to push it away. We experience desire for the pain just to go away. We crave its absence. Unfortunately, as we all know, wishing that something were so does not make it so, and our frustrated desires do nothing but add mental suffering to our physical distress.

In mindfulness meditation we observe more than just any pain that may happen to be present. We become aware of the whole physical body, emotions, and thoughts, and of how each of these interacts with the others. One thing we can then begin to see is that although pain is present in our experience it isn’t the whole of our experience. Mindfulness gives us a sense of the physical and mental “landscape” within which our pain is experienced, and which helps to give a sense of perspective to our experience of it. At times of stress it may seem as if pain is the only thing that we experience, but this comes about because we have a kind of mental “zoom lens” that is closely focused on the pain. Change that zoom lens for a wide-angle lens and the pain seems much smaller and therefore more manageable.

Without mindfulness, our experiences tend to proliferate in an unhelpful way. We may experience physical pain, and this leads to thoughts such as “This is never going to end,” “This is just going to get worse,” “I can’t bear this,” or “I must be a bad person to deserve all this pain.” In turn, these thoughts lead to anxiety, despondency or anger, because we tend to believe the stories we think when we are unmindful, and this adds further to our suffering. The practice of mindfulness includes becoming aware of our thoughts and seeing that our thoughts are indeed just thoughts and are not facts.

Thoughts are not facts. This can be a revolutionary discovery, and also a liberating one. When we learn to see thoughts as just another experience coming and going against the background of our overall physical and mental experience, we free ourselves from the kind of runaway thinking that is so characteristic of stress. We can see thoughts like “I can’t stand this” coming into being, realize that they are thoughts rather than facts, and instead of indulging in them and encouraging them we simply note them and let go of them.

Finally, mindfulness can help by reminding us that pain is not “the enemy.” Pain is the body’s naturally evolved way of letting us know that something needs attention, and can play a vital role in maintaining physical well-being. It’s easy to see how important pain is when we consider what life would be without it. There are medical conditions in which people can’t experience pain, and those people find that life is very hard indeed. Imagine, for example, trying to warm yourself at a fire without being able to tell when your skin was overheating: serious burns would be a distinct possibility. So we can see that pain is an essential part of being human. Of course when pain goes on for a long time, or when it’s particularly intense, it can be hard to remember that it evolved as a helpful function, and it’s easy to see it as an enemy. The meditative approaches outlined above help us to develop acceptance of our pain, but an even more powerful aspect of mindfulness that allows us to accept our pain is the quality of lovingkindness.

Mindfulness has a quality of appreciation and welcoming that can radically transform our relationship to difficult experiences. Buddhist meditation techniques can be used, for example, to cultivate an attitude of lovingkindness towards those people that we find difficult and towards whom we experience aversion, anger, and even hatred. Millions of practitioners over thousands of years have found that the cultivation of lovingkindness leads to the lessening of conflicts and the growth of love and appreciation for those who were previously enemies. Lovingkindness transforms our relationships.

The development of lovingkindness can also be used internally, by cultivating lovingkindness for painful experiences (or self-compassion) so that we can accept them as a part of life. Wishing our pain well can be a powerfully healing experience in which we let go of inner tensions and barriers on a deep level and come to see that our pain is a part of us, and a part of us moreover that is greatly in need of cherishing and love.

But do these approaches actually have medical benefits? Do they reduce pain, or do they simply allow us to handle our pain better? Clinical studies are unequivocal in demonstrating that the practice of mindfulness meditation both increases the ability to deal with the effects of pain and reduces pain overall. A study published in General Hospital Psychiatry followed 51 chronic pain patients who had not improved with traditional medical care. The dominant pain categories were low back, neck and shoulder, headache, facial pain, angina pectoris, noncoronary chest pain, and GI pain. After a 10-week program of meditation, 65% of the patients showed a reduction in pain of greater than 33%, and half of the patients showed a reduction in pain levels of more than 50%. It should be remembered that these were patients whose pain had shown no improvement with traditional medical care. In other words people with the most difficult cases of chronic pain still showed dramatic improvements in their condition.

A more recent study, at the University of Montreal, shows that Zen meditators were better able to detect painful stimuli than non-meditators, but that the sensations weren’t processed by the brain as “pain.”

The practice of mindfulness is particularly effective because it “decouples” the physical sensations of pain from mental and emotional processes that heighten suffering. Pain comes to be seen as “just another sensation” and the fear of pain is significantly reduced. The development of mindfulness, as Buddhists have known for 2,500 years, brings about mental and emotional freedom and a decrease in suffering.

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Andrew Newberg to direct studies in integrative medicine

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Trishula Patel, Philadelphia Inquirer: Andrew Newberg, 44, has been named director of research at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, a spokesman announced Friday. He leaves the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine after having served as an associate professor of psychiatry and radiology for the last seven years. Newberg, who hails from Bryn Mawr, spoke with Inquirer staff writer Trishula Patel.

Question: Why are you leaving Penn? What opportunities do you see at Jefferson that you couldn’t pursue at Penn?

Answer: As much as I’ve enjoyed doing research at Penn, my real passion and love is in the field of alternative medicine, and the more specific practice of meditation and other spiritual practices and how they relate to health care. I was able to pursue my research on complementary medicine on the side at Penn, but at Jefferson I can now make it my primary work.

Integrative medicine includes everything from traditional to alternative therapies. If you need antibiotics, we’ll give you those, but if it’s dietary changes that will be the best for you, we can help with that, too.

Q: What will the Myrna Brind Center become known for under your leadership?

A: There are two main things: the first is to make the center the premier research facility and program for the study of integrative medicine. The other is to expand on the research I’ve been doing over the past two decades. It’s important to look at the mechanisms and biology of what’s going on with integrative therapy, and not just use acupuncture to alleviate pain, but understand why it helps too.

Q: A lot of money has been spent on alternative medicine trials and some would argue that we haven’t seen much gain from it. How will you change that?

A: Obviously when looking at research dollars, we have to make sure they’re distributed properly. I also think what happens often is that we forget about the patient in all these big trials. We need to understand an individual not just on a biological level, but on a social and spiritual level too.

And so many of these integrative therapies are actually very cheap. If we can work with something simple, we don’t need to spend billions on treatments that have no effect. This will be useful especially when it comes to disorders where there aren’t treatments, like irritable bowel syndrome; integrative therapy may be the best treatment.

Q: Tell me about the study of neurotheology, which you used in the title of your recent book.

A: It’s a very exciting field that, simply put, is the study of the intersection between religious phenomena and the human brain. On the neurological side, there’s neuroscience, the study of effects on the body, and ultimately overall health. On the theological side, there are all the aspects of religion and spiritual phenomena.

The question then is, how do we bring them together to help us better understand who we are as people? Ultimately, the brain is a very important player in religious practices, and trying to understand this relationship is the key to understanding the nature of our whole existence.

Q: What happens to the brain during spiritual practices like meditation? How is this beneficial for our health?

A: We’ve found a very large number of changes that go on in the brain during meditation and prayer – a whole network of structures that appear to become active depending on what the person is actually doing. The simple answer is that when one engages in these practices, activating different parts of the brain, it improves the efficiency and function of the brain. People have reported remembering better and thinking clearer, and this helps with cognition and emotional health. In turn, it affects the body by lowering the level of stress, which in turn lowers stress hormones, which then lowers blood pressure.. . .

So it translates back into an overall healthier person, provided it is something that works for the person. You can’t tell someone to pray in one way if they don’t want to, or if they don’t understand, or if it conflicts with prevailing religious or spiritual beliefs.

Q: Do you meditate daily?

A: I don’t have a formal practice to what I do. As I pushed myself to try and find the answers to the big philosophical questions as I grew up, it became more of an internal contemplative process where, as I began to ponder those questions, I was able to derive a much better understanding of what people mean when they say they had a mystical experience. I continue to pursue that development of what you could call my own spiritual path, but I don’t have a formal religious practice that I follow.

Q: Do you think alternative therapies will change medicine, or will medicine change alternative medicine?

A: I think that alternative medicine will probably change medicine, rather than the other way round. Alternative therapy really looks at a person on a biological and social and spiritual level, and many physicians have come to the understanding that we need to work with all these levels. And the crucial part is to know when it’s right to prescribe antibiotics or get a CAT scan, or when to address social issues.

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Meditation for a stronger brain

Researchers say a type of meditation called integrative mind-body training can strengthen connections in certain areas of the brain, even when practiced for as little as 11 hours. Psychologist Michael Posner describes the study, and explains the brain changes he documented.

IRA FLATOW, host: For the rest of the hour, take a deep, cleansing breath for a look at the science of meditation, because this week, researchers say a certain form of meditation can actually change the wiring in your brain. Students who practice the meditation for just 11 hours over a period of a few weeks had changes in brain connectivity that could be seen on a brain scan. The work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Joining me now to talk more about those changes and what they mean is my guest, Michael Posner. He is a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He’s also a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He joins us from Eugene today. Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. MICHAEL POSNER (Psychologist, Weill Cornell Medical College): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: What kind of meditation are we talking about? You said in your paper that it’s not the kind that we practice here in the West.

Dr. POSNER: Well, it is to some extent. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation that was developed from traditional Chinese medicine by my colleague, Yi-Yuan Tang. And we don’t know how unique this form of meditation is, but it does have changes that occur within just a few days. So it’s possible to do a random assignment of subjects both to the meditation group and to a plausible control group, which in our case is relaxation training. And relaxation training is a common part of cognitive behavioral therapy as practiced in the West. So we have a pretty plausible control group. And we can ask, what are the differences between practicing a form of mindfulness meditation, IBMT, or integrated body-mind training, compared to the relaxation training?

And we’ve published a series of papers showing that there are strong behavioral changes that take place within just five days. And in this most recent paper, we found changes in the white matter, or the physical connectivity between a portion of the brain, which is important for self-regulation, and other parts of the frontal cortex and parts of the striatum and other parts of the brain.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could you see behavioral changes in the actions of the people at all?

Dr. POSNER: Yes. We found, in this previous report, after only five days of training, about half hour a day – and this was done with Chinese students, but we’ve replicated it here in the U.S. – we found changes in their ability to attend. We found changes in mood. And we found changes in their reaction to stress. You know, we secrete a stress hormone, cortisol, under stressful conditions, perhaps like being on this program.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

Dr. POSNER: And the cortisol secretions were lessened, following five days of training by IBMT, more than they were by the relaxation training.

FLATOW: So this is different from that famous relaxation response we’ve talked about decades ago?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, it is different because the control group in this case is relaxation. And the experimental group, presumably, produces a brain state that does something over and above relaxation. It may be that the relaxation training requires a lot of attention, preparing to relax one muscle group versus another. And that leads to some additional struggle which interferes with getting into a brain state conducive to the kinds of behavioral results we found.

FLATOW: And I think the most fascinating part of this work is that you actually see structural changes in the brain from this.

Dr. POSNER: We used diffusion tensor imaging, which is a way of looking at the white matter of the brain. And we found with 11 hours of practice over about a month, IBMT changed the white matter connectivity as measured by fractional anisotropy, the diffusion of water along the pathway…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POSNER: …so as to produce a more efficient connection between the anterior cingulate and these other areas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a tweet coming in. It says, are these changes all good? Are there any drawbacks? Do they make anyone less alert or less productive or less attentive after these were done?

Dr. POSNER: We haven’t found any reduced performance. Everything really has been either no change – some of the attentional networks do not change, but the most important attentional network, the one that is involved in self-regulation and control, does change. So we’ve either found favorable changes or, in some cases, there are no differences from relaxation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Michael Posner on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow. Can I do this myself? And where do I go to find out how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t have any commercially available practitioners trained in this particular method, and we don’t know how unique this method is. We have been able to get changes very quickly, but IBMT is like other mindfulness meditation, and there have been many favorable reports – perhaps not quite as well controlled because they take longer – about mindfulness meditation in general.

So people can try that, and we hope to make available more material on our particular method over the coming months as we get more experimental evidence.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If you do anything over and over again, wouldn’t that also create some changes in the brain wiring?

Dr. POSNER: It does. We have also done training, what I call attention training, which is actually practicing particular attentional networks over and over again. That’s the most frequent way of getting change, and it does produce changes. But it doesn’t produce as widespread a kind of change as this IBMT does, which is actually not practicing a particular network. But we believe relaxing into a brain state, which, when repeated over and over again, allows you to carry that brain state around even when you’re not practicing the meditation.

And for example, after 30 days of training, the subjects show a lowered stress level as measured by cortisol secretion even at baseline, even without practicing more meditation or being in the meditative state.

FLATOW: So this doesn’t extinguish itself after a while. It hung around?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t know that. This was tested immediately after the 30 days of training. We don’t know how long it lasts. That’s part of our current protocols to try to see how long it lasts. It may not matter as much because this kind of training is not difficult to continue.

FLATOW: Can you give us an idea since we don’t know anything or where to find it commercially? Can you describe the training a bit for us?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, this is done by a trained practitioner using a standardized CD, which tries to get the person to relax and keep his mind in the present state.

To do that, we use imagery. We use control of breath – all pretty standard meditation components. And they’re combined together to produce the kind of results that we have.

FLATOW: So there’s no chanting of a mantra or anything like that?

Dr. POSNER: No, there’s no particular focus on any kind of verbal process, just keeping the mind in the present state but preventing it from wandering around. And that seems to relax the person into a favorable brain state for processing information.

FLATOW: So do you sit there and close your mind and concentrate on one thing or whatever comes into your mind? Or how do you direct that?

Dr. POSNER: Well, you try to not get your mind wandering from the present state…

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Dr. POSNER: …do have to do – produce some control of breath and some control in that way. But otherwise, you keep your mind focused but not on a particular thing, just in the present.

FLATOW: And what do you call this kind of…

Dr. POSNER: Integrated body-mind training…

FLATOW: So if I…

Dr. POSNER: …because it affects both the body and the mind.

FLATOW: Yeah. So if I Google this, could I find a description in how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: You could, yes. Yuan Tang, who’s the creator of this, has a website, and you could get that through Google. Some of it will be available in English. Other would be available in Chinese.

FLATOW: Well, I’m going to go take a look at it myself. Thank you, Dr. Posner.

Dr. POSNER: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. Michael Posner is a psychologist and adjunct professor at Weill Cornell Medical College here in New York, also professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene.


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The busy mind on meditation

Alicia W. Roberts: Even brief sessions can help with multitasking, dealing with deadlines – and pain relief, too

Fadel Zeidan has proven that minimal training in meditation can lessen the perception of pain in research subjects.

He also has shown that similarly brief sessions of meditation can increase cognitive function – the ability to multitask, recall items in a series and complete tests on a deadline.

Now, he wants to find out why even short stints of meditation affect the brain that way.

As a post-doctoral fellow at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Zeidan is building on research he started at UNC Charlotte. Using…

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Brain scans show how meditation calms pain

People who routinely practice meditation may be better able to deal with pain because their brains are less focused on anticipating pain, a new British study suggests.

The finding is a potential boon to the estimated 40 percent of people who are unable to adequately manage their chronic pain. It is based on an analysis involving people who practice a variety of meditation formats, and experience with meditation as a whole ranged from just a few months to several decades.

Only those individuals who had engaged in a long-term commitment to meditation were found to have gained an advantage with respect to pain relative to non-meditators.

“Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as a way to treat chronic illness such as the pain caused by arthritis,” study author Dr. Christopher Brown, from the University of Manchester’s School of Translational Medicine, said in a university news release.

“Recently,” he noted, “a mental health charity called for meditation to be routinely available on the NHS [National Health Service of Great Britain] to treat depression, which occurs in up to 50 percent of people with chronic pain. However, scientists have only just started to look into how meditation might reduce the emotional impact of pain.”

The findings were released online recently in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Pain.

All the forms of meditation that Brown looked at included mindfulness meditation practices, which form the basis of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which has been recommended for recurrent depression since 2004.

By using a laser to induce pain, Brown and his team found that activity in certain parts of the brain seemed to dip when the study participants anticipated pain. With that observation he was able to establish that those with upwards of 35 years of meditation under their belt anticipated pain the least.

In particular, meditators also seemed to display unusual activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain that is known for regulating attention and thought processes when a person feels threatened.

“The results of the study confirm how we suspected meditation might affect the brain,” explained Brown. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse.”

However, he added that “although we found that meditators anticipate pain less and find pain less unpleasant, it’s not clear precisely how meditation changes brain function over time to produce these effects.

[via US News]
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Students use meditation to focus

Breathe in. Hold. Release. Repeat.

Do you feel calmer?

Some students have turned to meditation as a useful way to help study for finals and focus their attention.

Kylie Contreary picked up meditation and yoga at the beginning of the year to help her cope with an increased workload and the stress of starting college.

The first-year English student now repeats a meditative breathing exercise three times a week to help her focus for her upcoming finals and papers.

“Usually, if I’m stumped with a paper and my thoughts just aren’t happening, I’ll sit down and work on trying to clear my head,” Contreary said. “Once I do that I start to organize and I can write more smoothly.”

Regular meditation is a good way not only to focus your thoughts but also to increase attention span and promote a sense of calmness and relaxation, said Andrea Wagner, a yoga and meditation teacher at the John Wooden Athletic Center.

Wagner started the meditation class at the Wooden Center a year and a half ago after finishing her training, and since then she has implemented a variety of methods to help students to focus.

Wagner uses candles and meditative music to help students focus, as well as utilizing the body’s natural power centers in order to help them center and focus themselves.

Besides helping to clear the mind and focus thoughts, meditation has also been proven to be correlated with denser brain matter.

Researchers at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging found that daily meditation helped certain areas of the brain to grow denser.

Researchers studied 22 test subjects who had been meditating on a daily basis for at least five years and compared their MRI scans to those of a control group who do not meditate. The study showed an increase in the density of the gray matter of those subjects who meditated, said Eileen Luders, Laboratory of Neuro Imaging researcher and head of the study.

“I think everybody should meditate because the threshold for being able to do it is so low,” Luders said. “You just need a comfy chair, some quiet and 15 minutes. It’s so simple, but it has huge effects.”

Although essentially a simple process, Wagner also suggested each student experiment with different styles before settling on the one they like.

“Meditation is very personal,” Wagner said. “Students must choose which method they enjoy the most, because you have to figure out which one is best for you.”

For Cara Acker, a student in the Anderson School of Management, straightforward meditation had never been an effective method.

“I wasn’t one of those people who could sit and just clear my mind,” she said. “My thoughts were always whirling, and I found it hard to focus.”

Instead, the active Acker turned to the more physically demanding forms of meditation like yoga and Pilates.

The physical act of manipulating her body and focusing on the movements helped her to clear her head and energized her.

“The physical activity allows me to leave all of my problems at the door,” Acker said. “I would feel the blood moving through my body and I felt a connection between my body and my mind.”

Acker also said she uses her meditation in order to elongate how late she can stay up and study.

“As a student, I found that on the days when I did yoga and meditated in the afternoon, I could focus for a longer time and stay up later,” she said.

For students who want to try meditation at home, Wagner said she suggests simple breathing exercises.

“Find a quiet place to sit, and then focus on your breathing. And every time your mind wanders to something that isn’t your breath, just refocus it,” Wagner said.

The key to meditation is regular repetition, Luders said. Repeating the exercise at least a few times a week can have immense benefits.

“It’s something very intense, very focused, and like exercising, something you do regularly,” Luders said.

[Alexi Boyarsky, Daily Bruin]
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Focus is key when training aging brains

Games geared toward working out the brain can improve cognitive functioning from middle age on. Most of us now know that we can keep our gray matter in peak form and even help stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s through mental exercises.

But change doesn’t come easy. Whether we are working on our memory or trying to meditate, brain-training exercises require a high level of mental focus to pay off in the end.

“It’s not easy to drive the brain’s connectivity,” said Michael Merzenich, an emeritus professor at UC San Francisco and a leading researcher in neuroplasticity. “You have to be engaged. I go nowhere if I’m not really paying attention to what I’m doing.”

The concept of retraining the brain as we age revolves around neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to grow and change by creating new neural connections. As we slowly master a new activity or exercise, the brain remembers each step, and neurotransmitters that carry that information through our brains forge new pathways. This ability is the basis for the idea that we can control whether our brains are on the up-slope or down-slope as we age.

While it’s often thought that age-related cognitive decline begins after we’ve hit middle age, researchers say it can start as early as 30. And the older we get, the more likely our brains are to succumb not just to the physical decline of age but also to the lack of external stimuli, since engaging in learning new information becomes less and less likely.

Researchers have looked closely at exactly what kind of mental games and exercises are necessary to combat the slow decline.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2006, researchers focused on three major cognitive areas that are believed to do the most damage to “instrumental activities of daily living” once they start deteriorating — memory, reasoning and speed of processing.

The researchers provided 10 brain-training sessions, each 60 to 75 minutes long, to nearly 3,000 participants over the age of 65. The training included basic mnemonic strategies for remembering lists or written passages, finding patterns in groups of letters and dividing attention between several tasks at once. Over the next five years, they periodically provided follow-up training to randomly selected subgroups. The goal was to track what kind of long-term impact, if any, this kind of cognitive training would have.

In all three areas, the researchers found that participants showed improvement immediately after starting training. Over the course of five years, those who received supplemental training periodically fared better than those who did not. They concluded that this cognitive improvement could indeed translate into performing daily tasks like remembering grocery lists, preparing a meal and understanding information on medication labels more easily.

In addition to these hands-on training tools, many researchers have theorized that cognitive training can take place without ever looking at a computer screen or a book — in fact, it can be done using only the mind.

To test this theory, researcher Antoine Lutz observed the brain activity of eight Buddhist monks during a meditation in which they concentrated on the idea of loving-kindness and compassion. He found that before, during and after meditating, the monks had higher gamma activity than novice meditation practitioners. Gamma activity has been associated with better memory and increased ability to process information — all concerns associated with aging.

Lutz also discovered that the monks — all of whom had clocked at least 10,000 hours of meditation practice — had developed neural connections that spanned greater distances in the brain than is typical, meaning that regions of the brain that don’t usually connect were communicating. By focusing the mind in a deliberate way, Lutz concluded, the brain can physically change. The results of the study were published in 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

For those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to participate in these studies, or to have devoted 10,000 hours to meditation, there is still hope. In fact, there are a number of competing software programs designed to replicate some of these exercises — as well as some from the JAMA study — at home.

At the forefront of making brain training accessible to the public is Posit Science, a company founded in 2005 by Merzenich. The company offers three different training packages to help with auditory and visual processing, as well as driving skills to reduce car accidents.

“The goal is to drive the brain in a variety of complicated ways, so that it’s operating more efficiently, rapidly and accurately,” Merzenich said.

In the book “Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain,” author Patt Lind-Kyle builds off Lutz’s research by outlining ways to focus the mind in everyday activity. She advocates four main steps to harness the mind deliberately: intention, including focusing on goals to accomplish; attention, or conscientiously processing outside stimuli; receptivity, or letting your mind accept whatever it encounters; and awareness — simply being mindful of everyday moments.

Merzenich speculates that programs soon will be developed to maintain the effects of brain training and that once optimal cognitive functioning has been achieved, it will require only short periods of maintenance to sustain the effects.

Once that’s happened, and once these exercises find their way into the mainstream, he said, “There is a tremendous prospect for really helping older people.”

[via Jewish Journal]
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Meditation helps build stronger brains

A new study has confirmed what many people believed: meditation helps increase gray matter.

A research team from University of California, Los Angeles scanned the brains of people who meditate and found that certain regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger than in a similar control group.

Meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the hippocampus and areas within the orbito-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal gyrus – all known for regulating emotions.

“We know that people who consistently meditate have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability and engage in mindful behaviour,” said Eileen Luders, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.

“The observed differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue why meditators have these exceptional abilities,” Luders added.

During the study, the research team looked at 44 people. Half were asked to practice various forms of meditation such as Zazen, Samatha and Vipassana and the other half acted as the control group.

More than half of all the meditators said that deep concentration was an essential part of their practice, and most meditated between 10 and 90 minutes every day.

The brains of the meditators showed larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased gray matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, the right thalamus and the left inferior temporal lobe.

Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to emotion, Luders said, “these might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators”” the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way.”

The study is published in the journal NeuroImage.

[via Times of India]
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Visual perception heightened by meditation training

Intensive mental training has a measurable effect on visual perception, according to a new study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. People undergoing intensive training in meditation became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.

A paper describing the results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science and was posted on the journal website May 11. It is the first paper to be published from a major scientific study of meditation training, the Shamatha Project.

“These results show for the first time that improved perception, often claimed to be a benefit of meditation practice, underlies improvements in sustained attention,” said project leader Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron has been interested in meditation since the 1970s. In the 1990s, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama’s private office and of the Boulder, Colo. -based Mind and Life Institute, he organized a field study of adept practitioners. During that project he was inspired by meeting exiled Tibetan monks and yogis in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, who had achieved remarkable emotional calm, focus and joyfulness in their lives, sometimes despite great hardship and suffering.

Saron and his colleagues wanted to know: Can these states be achieved only by individuals with an unusually serene disposition? Or can they be achieved by most people through intensive training?

The Shamatha Project is an attempt to answer those questions. It is the first long-term, detailed, control-group study of the measurable effects of meditative training on physiology, mental functioning and emotional state, Saron said.

In the project, 30 participants attended a three-month meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. They received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, while attending group sessions twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day. Wallace had worked with Saron on the field study in India and brought the idea for the Shamatha project to Saron and his UC Davis colleagues in 2003.

At the beginning, end, and in the middle of the course, participants were tested on attention and cognition, psychological and emotional measures, and physical and physiological changes.

A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time. The control group did undergo identical training later.

The visual attention experiments were led by UC Davis graduate student Katherine MacLean. Based on tests long used to assess vigilance in radar operators and other professions requiring long durations of uninterrupted attention, participants had to watch lines appearing on a screen and click a mouse when they saw lines that were shorter than others.

By midway through the retreat, meditators had become better at making fine visual distinctions. They were able to identify a smaller difference between “long” and “short” lines, and were better able to sustain attention during the half-hour test. Those findings are consistent with Buddhist claims that meditation cultivates “attentional vividness.”

People who continued practicing meditation after the retreat still showed improvements in perception when they were retested about five months later.

Meditation training may free up mental resources so that attentional focus can be sustained more easily for extended periods of time, Saron said. Meditators may also be more aware of normally subtle changes in experience that others miss, and have better emotional regulation.

The Shamatha Project shows that women and men of diverse age, ethnicity, education, and meditation experience can achieve measurable changes in their mental state and capabilities if they can commit to intensive training, Saron said.

While few individuals have three months to commit to such training, other studies have shown improvements in aspects of health and well-being with a less demanding regime. The minimum level of training required to produce the perceptual improvements seen in the Shamatha study remains to be determined, Saron said.

While the Shamatha Project is the largest and most comprehensive attempt yet to study changes brought about by mental training, its results cannot capture the full, first-person subjective experience of meditation, Saron said.

“We’re not trying to bottle someone’s experience,” he said. The project may, however, give insights into the nature of the mind and the relation between psychological and physiological traits using data from both first- and third-person perspectives.

Papers describing the other results of the study are in press or submitted for publication. The other authors on the Psychological Science paper are graduate student Stephen Aichele, Associate Professor Emilio Ferrer, postdoctoral scholar Baljinder Sahdra, Professor Phillip Shaver, and Professor George R. Mangun from the UC Davis Departments of Psychology and Neurology; research specialists Anthony Zanesco and Brandon King, both now admitted graduate students at UC Davis; postdoctoral scholar Tonya Jacobs and consulting scientist Erika Rosenberg from the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain; and graduate student David Bridwell, Department of Cognitive Science, UC Irvine. MacLean is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Major support for The Shamatha Project comes from the Fetzer Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation. Additional support comes from numerous private foundations, individual donors, and a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowship to MacLean, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship to Sahdra.

[via UC Davis]
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Brief meditation helps concentration

We have long believed that a cup of coffee every morning can make us more awake, yet a newly published study suggests that brief meditation can prepare us for the day just the same.

In past research, neuroimaging technology has shown that meditation techniques can promote significant changes in brain areas associated with concentration, but it was thought that the effect required extensive training to achieve.

However, according to the new research, the benefits may be achievable with much less effort. It suggests that the mind may be more easily trained to focus than we previously believed.

Psychologists found that participants who meditated for 20 minutes a day for four days showed an evident improvement in their critical cognition skills and performed significantly better in cognitive tests than a control group.

“In the behavioral test results, what we are seeing is something that is somewhat comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training,” said Dr. Fadel Zeidan in a press release. Zeidan is a post-doctoral researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and a former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where the research was conducted.

“Simply stated, the profound improvements that we found after just four days of meditation training are really surprising,” Zeidan noted. “It goes to show that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation.”

The study is published in the April 2 issue of Consciousness and Cognition.

The experiment involved 63 student volunteers. Participants were divided into two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit) being read aloud for equivalent periods of time.

Before and after the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.

Both groups performed almost equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved at the end of the experiment in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in cognitive measures. The meditation group scored as much as 10 times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus while holding other information in mind.

“The meditation group did especially better on all the cognitive tests that were timed,” Zeidan said. “In tasks where participants had to process information under time constraints causing stress, the group briefly trained in mindfulness performed significantly better.”

“Further study is warranted,” he stressed, noting that brain imaging studies would be helpful in confirming the brain changes that the behavioral tests seem to indicate. “But this seems to be strong evidence for the idea that we may be able to modify our own minds to improve our cognitive processing–most importantly in the ability to sustain attention and vigilance–within a week’s time,” he said.

Zeidan noted that brief meditation only prepares the mind for activity, but it’s not necessarily permanent. Therefore, in order to have long-lasting effect, regular meditations need to be performed.

[via Epoch Times]
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