meditation & brain science

Meditation: Even a little helps

You don’t have to be a monk.

Scientific literature is brimming with research showing that meditation literally changes the structure of the human brain, at least among persons who practice “mindfulness,” as it is sometimes called, for many years.

But new research shows that even 20 minutes a day, four days a week, can produce an impressive increase in critical cognitive skills.

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

Zeiden led the study while finishing his doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is now a researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Benefits Unlikely to Last Long Unless You Keep at It

If other scientists replicate his work, it means it may not be necessary to lock yourself in a closet for hours at a time to benefit from this Far Eastern therapy.

That said, however, this research does not suggest that more would not be better, and Zeidan cautioned that while a modest effort can produce big results, they are not likely to last long unless you keep it up over an extensive period of time. Like years.

And while there are many books out there explaining “do-it-yourself” techniques, the participants in the North Carolina study were trained professionally, although for a total of only 80 minutes. Those who received the training were as much as 10 times better in their ability to remain focused on a subject while retaining other information.

All 63 participants were students, and only 49 completed the experiment, suggesting this may not be as easy as it sounds. The students were divided into two groups, and all were subjected to a broad range of behavioral tests on mood, memory, visual attention, and vigilance. Then one group listened to a reading of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit.”

Meditation Training Was Basic Buddhist Meditation

The other group received the meditation training for an equivalent period of time.

The two groups were equal on the behavioral tests at the beginning of the experiment. Both scored about the same on mood testing in the second phase, but the students who received the meditation training scored significantly higher on cognitive tests.

In one test, students were shown an image, called a stimulus, on a computer monitor and told to identify it every time the stimulus appeared. If they got it right, the images would speed up, making it more difficult.

The students who received the meditation training averaged about 10 consecutive correct answers while the group that listened to the reading averaged only about one.

The training itself was pretty basic Buddhist meditation. Participants were told to relax, keep their eyes closed, and focus on the flow of their breath at the tip of their nose. If their thoughts strayed, they were instructed to note the thoughts, and resume concentrating on their breath.

Sounds preposterous, right? Why would something that simple change the brain?

Meditation Changes Structure of the Brain, Research Shows

Numerous studies by very serious scientists show at least partly why it works, at least over the long haul.

— Buddhist Insight meditation, practiced 40 minutes a day, literally changed the structure of the brain, according to a study by researchers from Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That 2005 study was based on functional magnetic resonance imaging that showed an increase in thickness of regions of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. The changes are expected to be “long lasting,” the researchers said.

— Brain imaging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 showed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were “dramatically changed” in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation. That suggests we can train ourselves to be compassionate, much like we train to play a musical instrument. The participants in this study, by the way, were Tibetan monks with at least 10,000 hours of meditation.

— Can it reduce pain? Yes, according to research in London involving 12 monks with 30 years experience. Brain scans showed the monks had a 40 to 50 percent lower brain response to pain than 12 persons who had no training in transcendental meditation. But here’s the surprising finding. When the 12 untrained persons were trained for five months, they also lowered their pain response by a comparable 40-50 percent.

Continued Practice Needed for Long-Term Stable Changes

Numerous other studies have shown real physical changes ranging from enhanced immunity to a slowing of the aging-related atrophy of some areas of the brain.

So this is big stuff, but in a telephone interview Zeidan offered a few words of caution.

“By no means will four days of practice be it. This just suggests that the effect of meditation can be directly perceived and there are some short term benefits,” he said.

“We were really surprised with the findings. There are some dramatic differences in cognition, but it’s kind of like going to the gym and working on a bicep. You go to the gym four days and you might be sore, there might be some muscle strength increase, but that’s it. If you stop, your muscle is going to go back.

“So you have to continue to practice to experience more long term stable changes,” he added. But you don’t have to become a monk.

[via ABC News]
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Meditation isn’t for me (it’s for everybody)

As meditation practices rely less on mysticism and more on practical application, more and more people are flocking to it every year. In addition, the scientific community has done their share of studies and concur, it’s healthy. Meditation has been credited with helping manage post traumatic stress disorder, promoting anti-aging, and speeding up physical rehabilitation. There is no need for incense, a yogi, wind chimes, gongs, or synthesized new age music. You just need yourself, a quiet place (not mandatory), and the will to give it a try.

Having taught meditation for years, I have come across many people who tell me, “I can’t meditate, every time I sit down my mind goes crazy thinking about everything. Meditation isn’t for me.” Actually it is one of the only things that can be for everyone. In its most simple form it guides you to relax and engage yourself in a more direct and nurturing way. Who is it for, if not for you. Then if it’s so good for me then why doesn’t it feel good? It will when you understand what is happening during meditation.

The kaleidoscope of random thoughts and emotions that race through our minds visit all of us, whether we meditate or not. This is because of the times we live in. Life today is fast, radically changing, and intense. The stakes seem to get higher the further we move forward. The difference between meditators and non-meditators is our ability manage instead of respond; choose instead of react.

When you close your eyes to meditate and the freight train of impulses comes rushing in, don’t get on. Stand on the deck watch the train as it races by. Notice what it looks like. The clearer you see it, the clearer you see that it is separate from you. Some of us will see our fears come to life right in before us. We may see a boss writing a bad review of our work, our friends talking behind our backs, our children failing in their aspirations. Other people will see their dreams and wishes coming true. You will imagine winning the lottery, finding the person of your dreams, hitting a home run in the World Series.

Whatever it is that decides to show itself won’t bother you if you are clear about what it is. Label what you see. Give it a name. Make a clear distinction between what you see and yourself. These things are just aspirations and anxiety, dreams and fears, nothing more. They are as normal as breathing. But just as we can choose to breath fast or slow, we can choose not to follow the whims of random thoughts and transient emotions.

Like anything worthwhile, this process takes effort but bit by bit you will gain more and more control of your mind. If you are a person more prone to impulse, quick response, and being reactionary then your brain is often operating from its amygdala. This region of the brain is responsible for initiating our fight or flight responses. This is reserved for life threatening situations and rapidly taxes the resources of our bodies. Unfortunately today many of us find ourselves developing habits and whole personalities that continually operate this way.

When we consciously make any choice we use a different part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. This area is associated with organizational thought, decision making, and positive feelings. When we meditate and organize our thoughts and make decisions, no matter how small we not only use this area of our brain but we can develop it. This is why many meditators meditate. To gain more control of themselves and to enjoy the positive feelings that come from nurturing ourselves with breath and kind attention.

Keep in mind a few simple things. Nothing worthwhile is easy. The more you do, the easier it gets. The less you do, the harder it is. Whatever you learn on your journey, be responsible to the pearls of knowledge that come along the way.

[Zenon Dolnycky, Epoch Times]
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How to grow your brain

The brains of highly successful people function differently from those of the average Joe, according to the authors of the new book, The Winner’s Brain.

Fortunately, they say, you can actually rewire your brain, even physically change it.

Assistant neuroscience professor Mark Fenske of the University of Guelph and cognitive behavioural psychologist Jeff Brown of Harvard Medical School sought input from other brain experts and a variety of individuals they deemed “winners” – from blues guitarist B.B. King to Aaron Fechter, the inventor of popular carnival game Whac-a-Mole.

They identified eight “win factors,” including self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care.

Here, Dr. Fenske explains that, with practice, it’s possible to boost these win factors and train your brain for success.

What are some of the physiological differences you see in a winner’s brain?

Well, they’re specific to the different areas that we find as being related to success. [For instance, London’s elite Black Cab taxi drivers] have to spend a couple of years gaining “The Knowledge,” which is essentially very detailed knowledge of the streets of London, the contingencies – if it’s 4:30, this road will be open, this one will be closed; if there’s construction at this point, what’s the best way around – all these things, so that they can pass this test to get a license.

The hippocampus, which is critical for spatial navigation and memory, is larger in these individuals than it is in people who don’t have this training and expertise in spatial navigation and remembering routes and things like this.

[A growing body of research shows that] what you do with your brain, how you engage your brain, can not only improve your ability to function at a given task, but can really change the physical landscape of the brain itself.

How does training your brain change it physically?

The idea is when you do a given task, you engage the parts of the brain that are involved in that task. The more you engage it, the more it seeks ways to be more efficient at what it’s doing, and so that encourages new synaptic connections between neurons.

Once you have new synapses being formed, that helps to recruit support cells. So you can have the neurons making the connections and doing the firing, but they need the blood, they need oxygen, they need fuel, and so these support cells come in and help out. The result is, in those areas that are receiving a lot of activity, they’re getting better blood supply … and it leads to a physical rewiring or change in the brain.

You can measure this in the thickness of the cortex, that outer wrinkled covering of the brain where most of the computational power is; that will get thicker. The cortex also gets more dense.

Is there a limit to how much you can improve your brain?

Well, there’s certainly a limit to how much you can physically change your brain…. Your skull doesn’t get any bigger, so it’s not like you can grow a whole new lobe, but there’s much more promise than what we had previously thought.

You recommend meditation as a technique for improving skills like memory and focus. What happens to your brain when you meditate?

From a scientist’s perspective, when you look at meditation, it essentially involves a bunch of practice where you’re shifting and controlling the focus of your attention. So in some forms of meditation, it’s about having a very broad focus of attention, or else really focusing on one thing, like focusing on your breath …

What Sara [Lazar, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist] found is that the key areas that are activated when people are meditating, areas like the insula, which is really important for self-awareness, and the cortex, got thicker versus people who didn’t meditate.

People who didn’t meditate showed the standard age-related thinning of the cortex.

You mention in the book there’s little evidence that brain teasers and memory games reverse brain aging. Are they a waste of money?

It’s not clear that you’re wasting your money. They certainly don’t hurt, and there is probably at least some small benefit from those things.

We talked to Art Kramer [professor of psychology at the University of Illinois]. What he’s seen so far is that those things are fine, and you tend to get better at least in [the games], but that physical exercise, overall, seems to have quite a broad improvement on brain function.

Exercise certainly seems to be one of those things that’s relatively easy to do that has really quite robust effects. Exercise releases what’s called neurotrophic factors, which you can kind of think of as fertilizer for the brain. They help to facilitate the sprouting of new synapses, new connections.

What lessons about a winner’s brain can we learn from the creator of Whac-a-Mole?

When we talk about the focus of attention, there’s some great [research] that has shown that sometimes we try too hard. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to really focus and really try to do our very best, but instead, just relax a bit and let the information come to us.

Whac-a-Mole inventor Aaron Fechter said to us, “I can still go into an arcade or into the carnival and there’ll be a Whac-a-Mole game, and I step up, and I can get perfect on the game. And kids will just look at me and say, ‘Wow, you must be the guy who invented the game or something.’ ”

Then he described his strategy. How do you get perfect at Whac-a-Mole? He said you don’t try. Trying is counter-productive. Instead, you sit back and let the moles come to you.

There’s certain parts of the brain and certain processes that we do that we’ve automated. We have enough experience, we have enough practice. When we apply the slower, controlled, cognitive effort, that can get in the way. So what we want to do is relinquish and turn down the cognitive control, and instead let these areas that are really specialized for this do their stuff.

Eight tips for winning brains

Self-awareness: Train yourself to interpret other people’s facial expressions and body language by watching scenes from a movie on mute. Then watch the scene again, this time with volume, and compare how well your interpretations matched up. You can improve this skill over time.

Motivation: If you have a problem with procrastination, make large tasks feel more manageable by breaking them down into parts.

Focus: Like playing Whac-a-Mole, sometimes you can actually perform better when you’re not concentrating too hard. If something’s not coming to you despite your best efforts, try relaxing and letting the brain work on autopilot.

Emotional balance: Practice managing your emotions by changing your perspective of a situation. Research shows that if you think of a highly emotional event as a challenge rather than a problem, you can stay calmer and retain a better memory for details.

Memory: “Edit your brain,” the authors say. Recognize and consciously purge useless information. Imagine sweeping it away, so you can concentrate on more useful data.

Resilience: When you’re in a tough spot, think of a “resilience role model,” a parent, teacher or mentor, and ask yourself what they would do in your situation. That way, you’ll have more than your own resources to draw upon.

Adaptability: Try a few minutes of meditation a day to calm your thoughts. Studies show “regular yoga and meditation can increase cortical thickness in as little as eight weeks.”

Brain care: Research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, three times a week, can help strengthen your mind.

[via Globe and Mail]
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Meditation and mental bandwidth

Neurons in the brain. Dr Jonathan Clarke

The mind has a limited ability to pay attention — as any meditator knows. But we can use the mind’s limited capacity to enter, quickly and easily, states of calmness, concentration, and contentment.

One thing that science has revealed to us with startling clarity is that the brain has a limited capacity for consciously processing information. On one end of the cognitive process our brains do have a very high storage capacity. And on the other end our senses are broadband — able to present to us several megabytes of information every second. But in between the brain’s ability to memorize vast quantities of words, skills, and names, and the senses’ ability to input large amounts of visual, auditory, and tactile information, there is an information bottleneck.

Just ask yourself how long a telephone number can you comfortably store in your short-term memory by repeating it over and over again — you know, between someone telling you the number and you dialing it. You probably have no difficulty in repeating a seven digit number. It’s considerably more difficult to remember a ten digit number (unless the area code is already familiar to you). At 12 or 15 digit telephone number? You can pretty much forget about it. For visual information, most people can only keep something like 3 to 5 pieces of information in short-term memory at one time. Which is why the following kind of scenario can take place:

We tend to look upon deficiencies of perception as being a weakness.

You’ve been asked to participate in a psychology experiment, the details of which are a little vague. It’s something about memory. But it will only take 10 minutes and you’re going to get paid. All you have to do is to present yourself at a reception desk in the psychology department and follow some simple instructions. You dutifully turn up at the appointed time and a young man behind the reception desk takes a look at your letter of invitation. He tells you that he just has to give you an information packet, and then you can go down the hall to another room where the experiments will take place. The young man ducks behind a desk, stands up, hands you the packet, and you go on your way. What about 80% percent of people fail to notice is that the person who ducked down behind the desk is not the same person who stood up and handed them the information packet. The two men are about the same age, but they had different colored hair, are dressed in different colored clothes, and have no facial resemblance to each other.

Why is it that so many people fail to notice that the person they were talking to has changed, mid-conversation, into someone else? It seems to be related to the difficulty we have in consciously processing the vast amount of incoming data that our senses present to us. There is a richly detailed world surrounding us, and while we think we notice much of this detail it seems that, actually, we don’t really take much of it in. To cope with the vast amount of data around us, it’s as if the brain simply labels “the young man behind the desk” as “the young man behind the desk.” Thereafter, as long as “the young man behind the desk” remains “the young man behind the desk,” and doesn’t change, say, into “the young woman behind the desk” or “the middle-aged man behind the desk,” we don’t notice the switch. Having labeled, we no longer have to pay conscious attention.

How can we fill the mind’s bandwidth with the object of concentration so that we can experience a respite from distracted thinking?

Now, we tend to look upon these deficiencies of perception as being a weakness. Those of us who aspire to mindfulness are astonished at these lapses and hope that, as practitioners of meditation, we would be among the 20% who did actually notice the switch. Well, maybe we would and maybe we wouldn’t. But I think there’s a more important point to be drawn from this, which is that we can use the brain’s limited ability to consciously pay attention to help us still the mind and bring about a state of greater calmness, well-being, and mindfulness. So how do we do that?

First, we have to bear in mind that being distracted requires bandwidth. Having dreamy, or angry, or depressed, or anxious thoughts and images pass through the mind takes up some of the mind’s available bandwidth. When you’re meditating — or perhaps “meditating,” by which I mean that you’re kind of paying attention to the breath but there’s also a constant stream of thought that you’re also paying attention to — your bandwidth is being shared between what you consciously intent to be doing (the meditation) and what’s happening automatically (the distracted thinking).

In theory, what we should be doing is filling the mind’s bandwidth with the object of concentration. That’s what one-pointed concentration is. Our conscious attention should be fully taken up by the breath, say, so that there’s no bandwidth available for distraction. When that actually works, it’s great. Because our distracted thinking doesn’t have a channel through which to express itself, that kind of thinking temporarily ceases. We feel calmer. Since distracted thoughts are generally mixed up with negative emotion, which cause stress and suffering, the absence of those thoughts is experienced as a positive relief — a sense of peace and happiness. But most of the time we are distracted, and we don’t manage to get fully involved with the breath, and our distractions stop us from getting more involved with the breath.

So, how can we fill the mind’s bandwidth with the object of concentration so that we can experience a respite from distracted thinking (and the negative emotion that accompanies it)? I’d like to suggest a few “tricks” that will help overwhelm your mind’s limited bandwidth, and give you easier access to states of calmness and happiness.

1. “Eye-max”

One thing I often encourage people to do as the settle into meditation is to go into peripheral vision. By this I mean that I encourage people to start off with their eyes open, and to become consciously aware not just of the narrow spot in front of them that they normally pay attention to. Instead, they pay attention to their entire field of vision, right up to what they’re seeing out of the corner of their eyes. This act of paying attention to the entire field of vision overwhelms the brain’s bandwidth and brings about an immediate reduction in inner chatter. The exercise works even better when other sensory modalities (listening, our spatial senses) are involved. You can read more about the peripheral vision exercise and listen to a guided exercise elsewhere on this site.

2. The stretch

Another way to overwhelm your mind’s bandwidth is to pay attention to two different sensations at the same time. For example, you know you can pay attention to the breath and pay attention to distracted thinking at the same time. But what if you’re paying attention to the breath and also paying attention to the sensations in the hands? And if you’re noticing how the rising and falling of the breath changes your awareness of the hands? Then, it’s much harder to be distracted. The bandwidth available for thinking has been taken up with the meditation practice.

3. Outside the box

A third way to overwhelm your mind’s bandwidth is to look for the boundaries of the breath. In meditation we say we’re paying attention to the breath, but what do we actually mean by “the breath”? Inevitably we’re only paying attention to a small set of the sensations connected with the breathing. We may be paying attention, say, just to a certain collection of sensations connected to the rise and fall of the breath in the belly. But what’s immediately outside those sensations? Can you feel the movements of the breath in the upper legs, for example? Well, the legs are connected to the torso, so, yeah, maybe you can notice some sensations there, you find. How about the lower legs? Noticing those sensations is a bit harder, but the every act of trying to notice those sensations floods our mental bandwidth and reduces our ability to engage with distracting thoughts.

These three techniques are all quick ways to calm the mind. Once we’ve stilled the mind, it becomes much easier to remain in a state of calm concentration. Without the constant chatter of anxiety, anger, desire, etc., the mind becomes happier. A positive feedback loop can develop where we enjoy, more and more, being free from distracting thought, and where we enjoy, more and more, paying attention to the simple sensations of the body.

We may think that the brain’s limited bandwidth is a drawback, and in fact in some ways it is. Our brain’s narrow bandwidth makes is harder for us to notice change in the outside world — as with the psychology experiment above — and probably in our inner world as well. But once we understand the mind’s limited bandwidth, we can make use of it to enter, quickly and easily, states of calmness, concentration, and contentment.

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Brain waves and meditation

Forget about crystals and candles, and about sitting and breathing in awkward ways. Meditation research explores how the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination and intentional thinking. Electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed.

“Given the popularity and effectiveness of meditation as a means of alleviating stress and maintaining good health, there is a pressing need for a rigorous investigation of how it affects brain function,” says Professor Jim Lagopoulos of Sydney University, Australia. Lagopoulos is the principal investigator of a joint study between his university and researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) on changes in electrical brain activity during nondirective meditation.

Constant brain waves

Whether we are mentally active, resting or asleep, the brain always has some level of electrical activity. The study monitored the frequency and location of electrical brain waves through the use of EEG (electroencephalography). EEG electrodes were placed in standard locations of the scalp using a custom-made hat.

Participants were experienced practitioners of Acem Meditation, a nondirective method developed in Norway. They were asked to rest, eyes closed, for 20 minutes, and to meditate for another 20 minutes, in random order. The abundance and location of slow to fast electrical brain waves (delta, theta, alpha, beta) provide a good indication of brain activity.

Relaxed attention with theta

During meditation, theta waves were most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain.

“These types of waves likely originate from a relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences. Here lies a significant difference between meditation and relaxing without any specific technique,” emphasizes Lagopoulos.

“Previous studies have shown that theta waves indicate deep relaxation and occur more frequently in highly experienced meditation practitioners. The source is probably frontal parts of the brain, which are associated with monitoring of other mental processes.”

“When we measure mental calm, these regions signal to lower parts of the brain, inducing the physical relaxation response that occurs during meditation.”

Silent experiences with alpha

Alpha waves were more abundant in the posterior parts of the brain during meditation than during simple relaxation. They are characteristic of wakeful rest.

“This wave type has been used as a universal sign of relaxation during meditation and other types of rest,” comments Professor Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU. “The amount of alpha waves increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks.This is a sign of deep relaxation, — but it does not mean that the mind is void.”

Neuroimaging studies by Malia F. Mason and co-workers at Dartmouth College NH suggest that the normal resting state of the brain is a silent current of thoughts, images and memories that is not induced by sensory input or intentional reasoning, but emerges spontaneously “from within.”

“Spontaneous wandering of the mind is something you become more aware of and familiar with when you meditate,” continues Ellingsen, who is an experienced practitioner. “This default activity of the brain is often underestimated. It probably represents a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them into perspective and lays them to rest.”

Different from sleep

Delta waves are characteristic of sleep. There was little delta during the relaxing and meditative tasks, confirming that nondirective meditation is different from sleep.

Beta waves occur when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue. EEG showed few beta waves during meditation and resting.

“These findings indicate that you step away from problem solving both when relaxing and during meditation,” says Ellingsen.

Nondirective versus concentration

Several studies indicate better relaxation and stress management by meditation techniques where you refrain from trying to control the content of the mind.

“These methods are often described as nondirective, because practitioners do not actively pursue a particular experience or state of mind. They cultivate the ability to tolerate the spontaneous wandering of the mind without getting too much involved. Instead of concentrating on getting away from stressful thought and emotions, you simple let them pass in an effortless way.”

Take home message

Nondirective meditation yields more marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention, than just resting without any specific mental technique.

Journal Reference:

Lagopoulos et al. Increased Theta and Alpha EEG Activity During Nondirective Meditation. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2009; 15 (11): 1187 DOI: 10.1089/acm.2009.0113

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Zen meditation: Thicker brains fend off pain

Science Daily: People can reduce their sensitivity to pain by thickening their brain, according to a new study published in a special issue of the American Psychological Association journal, Emotion. Researchers from the Université de Montréal made their discovery by comparing the grey matter thickness of Zen meditators and non-meditators. They found evidence that practicing the centuries-old discipline of Zen can reinforce a central brain region (anterior cingulate) that regulates pain.

“Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to be underlie their lower sensitivity to pain,” says lead author Joshua A. Grant, a doctoral student in the Université de Montréal Department of Physiology and Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal. “We found a relationship between cortical thickness and pain sensitivity, which supports our previous study on how Zen meditation regulates pain.”

As part of this study, scientists recruited 17 meditators and 18 non-meditators who in addition had never practiced yoga, experienced chronic pain, neurological or psychological illness. Grant and his team, under the direction of Pierre Rainville of the Université de Montréal and the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, measured thermal pain sensitivity by applying a heated plate to the calf of participants and followed by scanning the brains of subjects with structural magnetic resonance imaging. According to MRI results, central brain regions that regulate emotion and pain were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators.

“The often painful posture associated with Zen meditation may lead to thicker cortex and lower pain sensitivity,” says Grant, noting that meditative practices could be helpful in general for pain management, for preventing normal age-related grey matter reductions or potentially for any condition where the grey matter is compromised such as stroke.

This study was supported jointly by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a Mind and Life Institute Varela Grant.

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Is This Your Brain on God?

National Public Radio: “More than half of adult Americans report they have had a spiritual experience that changed their lives. Now, scientists from universities like Harvard, Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins are using new technologies to analyze the brains of people who claim they have touched the spiritual — from Christians who speak in tongues to Buddhist monks to people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Hear what they have discovered in this controversial field, as the science of spirituality continues to evolve.” Read more here.

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A stroke of insight

jill bolte taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor was suddenly struck by an awareness of a deep connectedness with the world, a profound spiritual realization that her body blended with the world around her, that she was a being composed of energy, connected to other beings composed of energy. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria,” she later wrote.

And this all happened because of a stroke.

Taylor was well-placed to observe the changes taking place in her brain as a blood-vessel ruptured in her left cerebral hemisphere, because she was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center. Her first thought upon realizing that she was having a stroke was “Cool! How many brain scientists get to study a stroke from the inside?”

Taylor has written in a book, “My Stroke of Insight,” and spoken at a TED conference (see video) about her experiences.

She explains in the video how the brain is split into two hemispheres, and how each has a different personality. The right brain thinks visually and kinesthetically, and sees connections. It creates empathy and and creativity. The left brain sees details, and details about those details. It thinks in words. It creates the sense of ego and separateness.

On the morning of her stroke, Taylor’s left-brain was knocked out of action by a blood-clot the size of a golf ball. She lost the ability to speak, read, to use a telephone, or to recognize faces. At the same time she stepped into the right brain world of connectedness and empathy.

Fortunately for Taylor, her left hemisphere was not permanently destroyed, and over the course of eight years she made a complete recovery.

Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”

To Taylor, the experiences which she had, and which she can still have at any moment, are not mystical or supernatural, but are natural and part of the potential experience of each person.

This assessment rings true for practitioners of Buddhist meditation, who recognize that through their practice they are not exploring exotic realms or religion but are connecting with a different way of experiencing — a way of experiencing that is inherent to the mind and the brain’s capacities.

Taylor is of great interest to both meditators and scientists, although often in different ways. Meditators are excited to hear of a scientist who has shared their experiences and who can articulate in scientific terms how those experiences arise. Scientists tend to be more wary of anything that leads to “mystical” experiences, and can be suspicious that Taylor may be “losing it,” as a former colleague of hers put it.

Taylor has changed as a result of her experiences. She no longer experiments on live animals, since she now has a greater sense of empathy. And she’s keen to spread her message: “I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”

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Buddha on the brain (Salon.com)

Steve Paulson, Salon: The debate between science and religion typically gets stuck on the thorny question of God’s existence. How do you reconcile an all-powerful God with the mechanistic slog of evolution? Can a rationalist do anything but sneer at the Bible’s miracles? But what if another religion — a non-theistic one — offered a way out of this impasse? That’s the promise that some people hold out for in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself is deeply invested in reconciling science and spirituality. He meets regularly with Western scientists, looking for links between Buddhism and the latest research in physics and neuroscience. In his book “The Universe in a Single Atom,” he wrote, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

B. Alan Wallace may be the American Buddhist most committed to finding connections between Buddhism and science. An ex-Buddhist monk who went on to get a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford, he once studied under the Dalai Lama, and has acted as one of the Tibetan leader’s translators. Wallace, now president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, has written and edited many books, often challenging the conventions of modern science. “The sacred object of its reverence, awe and devotion is not God or spiritual enlightenment but the material universe,” he writes. He accuses prominent scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins of practicing “a modern kind of nature religion.”

In his new book, “Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge,” Wallace takes on the loaded subject of consciousness. He argues that the long tradition of Buddhist meditation, with its rigorous investigation of the mind, has in effect pioneered a science of consciousness, and that it has much to teach Western scientists. “Subjectivity is the central taboo of scientific materialism,” he writes. He considers the Buddhist examination of interior, mental states far preferable to what he calls the Western “idolatry of the brain.” And he says the modern obsession with brain chemistry has created a false sense of well-being: “It is natural then to view psychopharmaceutical and psychotropic drugs as primary sources of happiness and relief from suffering.” Wallace also chastises cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists for assuming the mind is merely the product of the physical mechanics of the brain. And he talks openly about ideas that most scientists would consider laughable, including reincarnation and a transcendent consciousness.

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Samuel Johnson: “The fountain of content must spring up in the mind…”

Samuel Johnson

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove”

There are some things in life we can change. There are some things in life we cannot change. Knowing which is which is the key to our well-being.

Dr. Johnson was not a man to mince his words, and offers us one of his typically bracing edicts. It may strike us at first as being somewhat of an overstatement to suggest that desiring to change something other than ourselves will bring unhappiness rather than the happiness we seek, but the good Doctor, as usual, is very astute.

When we begin by assuming that the cause of happiness or unhappiness lies outside of the mind, we make a fundamental and tragic error. This is a viewpoint that has been held by religious and philosophical leaders for millennia and which is also borne out by scientific research.

It seems that each of us has a “happiness set point” — a kind of hedonic thermostat — to which the mind tends to gravitate. From day to day our happiness may fluctuate on either side of this set point, so that one day we are pleased or elated while the next we are disgruntled or depressed. But on the whole our level of happiness will tend to settle down around our hedonic set point, just as water slopping around in a shaken glass will find its own level.

So although we may direct our energies to “fixing” the outside world in order to remove sources of irritation or to fulfill our desires, in the long term this will make no real difference to our level of happiness. We may be ecstatic to win a fortune in the lottery, but a year later we’ll be back at that set point of happiness. Similarly, we may be devastated by an injury or illness, but some time later we’ll adapt and be just as happy (or unhappy) as we were before.

Our individual hedonic set point may well be influenced by our genes, but genes are not destiny and our attitudes also play a major role in how we experience life. It is within that we must look if we are to find greater levels of happiness in the long run.

Those who meditate have been shown to demonstrate long term increased levels of well-being and rewiring of the brain with increased activity in those parts of the frontal cortex associated with happiness.

We can’t choose the things that happen to us in life, but we can learn — through developing mindfulness — to respond differently to those events. By developing more patience, kindness and, perhaps above all, a greater appreciation of impermanence, we can learn to adapt to life’s challenges more elegantly and in ways that lead to less suffering. This is not to say that we can’t make changes in the outside world or that such changes will make no difference to our sense of well-being. But if we seek to change our environment without changing ourselves, then we are in for a difficult time.

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