meditation & brain science

Meditation study aims to leap over mental barriers (Sacramento Bee, California)

Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, Sacramento Bee, California: Volunteers will spend one year exploring minds.

For more than a year, researchers at UC Davis have been trying to find the best way to frame a provocative question: How good can human beings get – how focused, how calm, how kind?

In seeking the answer, they plan to use an audacious tool. Think of it as a little like brain science meets reality television.

They will gather 30 people for a yearlong meditation retreat and then watch what happens. With electroencephalogram (EEG) caps, attention measurements, emotion testing and a form of meditation practice called Shamatha, researchers hope to answer a key question about the brain systems that regulate attention and emotion. How much can those systems change with effort, how much – in the Silly Putty neuroscience term applied to our malleable brains – is plasticity at work?

“Is attention plastic? We have a hunch that it’s trainable, but there is very limited research on training of attention,” said Clifford Saron, an assistant research scientist at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron is coordinating the project, which at this early stage is already a simmering esoteric brew.

There is the encouraging note from the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary. There is a French filmmaker who wants to chronicle the effort for her “Monks in the Lab” documentary. There is seed money from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which got it through a donation from actor Richard Gere.

And there is interest from other researchers, who have seen the project mentioned in the journal Science or heard about its scope through the grapevine.

“We have people clapping us on the back,’ ” said G. Ron Mangun, head of the Center for Mind and Brain. “It’s like when you say, ‘Well, I want to go to the moon,’ and they say, ‘Well yeah, it’s gotta be done. … Good luck, pal.’ ”

Dr. Bennett Shapiro, who follows meditation research as a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration of scientists and Buddhists, calls the upcoming study “pioneering work.”

It’s uncommon to sequester 30 people for a year and probe them so intensively, said Shapiro, a retired physician.

At least another 30 people will be monitored equally closely as a control group, although they won’t be taken away from their daily lives.

Researchers will look for differences between the groups as meditators are trained in a technique of refining their attention that has its roots in India and is known in Tibet as Shamatha.

The claims for Shamatha – that its practitioners can increase the stability and vividness of their attention as a way to improve their emotional balance – makes it especially fascinating for some neuroscientists.

Attention is vital to who we are and how we cope with the world.

The act of paying attention to something, picking it out of the stream of sensations that bombards our brains, is critical to remembering it, said Ewa Wojcuilik, a UC Davis assistant professor who specializes in visual attention.

But paying attention can be tough. Give people something simple and boring to do, and their distractibility zooms. Ask them to be alert to small, sporadic changes in a stream of data, and they manage for 10 or 20 minutes, then fumble badly.

But is this truly the best we can do, or can some specially trained individuals go further, breaking through mental barriers the way Olympic athletes surge past physical ones?

“Within the science of attention, we have formed certain ideas about what our limits are,” Wojcuilik said. “If the cognitive apparatus can be pushed beyond what we expect … we are on to a new beginning.”

She is among more than a dozen researchers who have met regularly to design the Shamatha project, a collaboration of a half-dozen arms of UC Davis and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

While the group’s primary focus is on attention, it also will explore whether meditators become calmer, kinder and more compassionate, as tradition holds.

Phil Shaver, who chairs the UC Davis psychology department and specializes in the study of emotions, will look at how quickly meditators get their equilibrium back after viewing upsetting movie scenes, whether disturbing words disrupt their focus and whether their health seems to indicate lower stress.

With the team still nearly two years away from its target start date of Sept. 22, 2006 – the autumnal equinox – many details remain to be resolved, but some general outlines are emerging.

B. Alan Wallace, who has trained as a Buddhist monk and has a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford, will take 30 people to some quiet corner of California.

There, they will rise at 6 a.m. for cycles of group and private meditation that continue until 10 p.m., punctuated by silent meals and a couple of two-hour breaks of unstructured time.

Their goal will be to cultivate a stable, vivid attention, because “this is going to bring you to a much, much higher platform of mental balance, mental well-being,” Wallace said.

Wallace, who heads the Santa Barbara institute, has recruited participants from shorter retreats he leads in Europe, Mexico and the United States.

They will be people with a contemplative bent, eager to pay $1,000 a month to be sequestered for a year, away from homes and jobs, family and friends, to explore the reaches of their own consciousness.

As often as every two weeks, live-in research assistants will take some study participants to an on-site lab to probe their minds and hearts, their health and behaviors.

Their performance will be tracked on standard attention tasks and on some created specifically for the project.

Sometimes, they’ll be plugged into EEG caps that monitor electrical impulses in their brains, listening to the simultaneous firing of millions of nerve cells. Their blood or saliva will be checked for stress hormones and their immune systems subjected to allergens to see how robustly they respond.

And in a twist that brings a whiff of being voted off the island, they may be asked to report on each other, assessing who is the most compassionate or how fellow participants’ behaviors change over time.

With so many measures, over so many months, “you’re going to have a very, very rich data set,” said Emilio Ferrer, an assistant professor whose specialties include quantitative psychology.

First, though, the research team has more groundwork ahead, in refining the experimental design, conducting pilot studies and nailing down funding. The team is hoping to raise $1.5 million to $2 million from foundations, the National Institutes of Health and donors.

While the thrust of the project is pure science, simply to learn what a highly trained brain may be capable of, it someday could have implications for attention deficit disorders or other ills – if the project finds that training can make a difference.

It is a big if.

“Most research comes to naught. That’s the rule. Getting definitive results is the exception,” said Paul Ekman, an expert on emotional expression and deception.

“This is really an extremely exciting adventure that UC Davis is taking,” he said. “This collaboration between top-rank neuroscientists, psychologists concerned with behavior and a Buddhist scholar and practitioner is in many ways quite unique.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be productive, but if you knew it was going to be productive, then it wouldn’t be exciting.”

Original article no longer available.

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Meditation may bolster brain activity (WebMD Medical News)

Meditation may not only produce a calming effect, but new research suggests that the practice of Buddhist meditation may produce lasting changes in the brain.

Researchers found that monks who spent many years in Buddhist meditation training show significantly greater brain activity in areas associated with learning and happiness than those who have never practiced meditation.

The results suggest that long-term mental training, such as Buddhist meditation, may prompt both short and long-term changes in brain activity and function.

Buddhist Meditation May Change the Brain

In the study, which appears in this week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers compared the brain activity of eight long-time Buddhist monks and 10 healthy students.

The average age of the monks was 49, and each had undergone mental training in meditation for 10,000 to 50,000 hours over the course of 15 to 40 years.

The students’ average age was 21. They had no prior experience in meditation and received one week of meditative training before the start of the study…

Both groups were asked to practice compassionate meditation, which does not require concentration on specific things. Instead, the participants are instructed to generate a feeling of love and compassion without drawing attention to a particular object.

Researchers measured brain activity before, during, and after meditation using electroencephalograms.

They found striking differences between the two groups in a type of brain activity called gamma wave activity, which is involved in mental processes including attention, working memory, learning, and conscious perception.

The Buddhist monks had a higher level of this sort of gamma wave activity before they began meditation, and this difference increased dramatically during meditation. In fact, researchers say the extremely high levels of gamma wave activity are the highest ever reported.

The monks also had more activity in areas associated with positive emotions, such as happiness.

Researchers say the fact that the monks had higher levels of this type of brain activity before meditation began suggests that long-term practice of Buddhist or other forms of meditation may alter the brain.

Although age differences may also account for some of the differences found by this study, researchers say that the hours of meditation practice, rather than age, significantly predicted gamma wave activity.

Researchers say more studies are needed to look at whether differences in brain activity are caused by long-term meditation training itself or by individual differences before training.

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Meditate the stress away (Los Angeles Daily News)

Mariko Thompson, L.A. Daily News: David Perrin couldn’t let go of his anxious thoughts. If he dealt with a cranky guest at the hotel where he works, the encounter weighed on him for the rest of the day.

Now when that happens, he just says, “Om.”

The 29-year-old Glendale resident took up the ancient practice of meditation six months ago. By stilling the turbulent thoughts that preyed on his mind, Perrin took control of his emotions and discovered a sense of balance.

“I’m not as reactionary as I used to be,’ says Perrin, who studies meditation at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Silver Lake. “I’d blame the other person for making me feel upset. Now I’m much more calm and have more patience.’

Meditation still elicits its share of navel-gazing wisecracks and Zen-master jokes (just ask former Lakers coach Phil Jackson). But these days, meditation is seen as more than a spiritual tool. In a 24-7 society where stress overload has become a natural state, a mini-vacation for the mind might be just what the doctor ordered.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?’ says Dr. Gary Davidson, an oncologist who leads meditation classes at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. “Ever since Descartes split the mind and body, we’ve been trying to put them back together.’

Tools for tranquillity

Chronic stress has been linked to increased risk for hypertension, heart disease and other illnesses. Since most of us can’t retreat to a cave or a monastery, managing stress — not avoiding stress — has become the mantra. Most people try meditation, yoga or tai chi on their own, not from a doctor’s recommendation. Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, director of the UCLA Center for East West Medicine, would like that to change.

Hui says there’s plenty of evidence to show that mind-body therapies such as meditation are beneficial and should be recommended alongside conventional treatments. For example, a patient with hypertension who meditates might be able to take a lower dose of medicine, he says.

“Anything that increases our ability to handle different types of stress in our lives will be beneficial,’ Hui says.

Dr. Jeffrey Brantley of Duke University Medical Center credits Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson for laying the scientific foundation for mind-body medicine. Back in the 1970s, Benson studied the effects of meditation on the body, including heart rate and blood pressure. He coined the term “relaxation response,’ a deep, restful state that serves as a counterbalance to the adrenalin rush known as the fight-or-flight response.

Benson, who founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard, provided evidence on how meditation affects the body. Now scientific research is giving clues as to why meditation affects the body, says Brantley, a psychiatrist and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine.

A preliminary study in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin Medical School compared brain activity in participants who meditated to those in a control group. The meditation group showed an increase in electrical activity in the left frontal region of the brain. According to the researchers led by psychiatry professor Richard Davidson, this area of the brain is associated with low anxiety levels and positive emotional states.

In other words, the reason meditation makes people feel good may be based in biology.

Time to practice

Like learning to play the piano or golf, meditation takes dedication and practice. Beginners may not experience an immediate calming effect as they sit with their eyes closed. Some people experience discomfort at first because the flood of thoughts becomes more intense. By being still, the person is simply more aware of the anxious thoughts, says Brantley, author of “Calming Your Anxious Mind.’

“It’s the natural fruit of paying attention,’ he says. “We tell people who come to our program that the first few weeks might be more stressful.’

Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who teaches meditation at Khandakapala Buddhist Center, compares the novice’s experience to a radio blaring in the background. The noise has been there all along. With practice, the student learns to switch off the radio.

For the true student of meditation, calming the mind represents only the first step of the spiritual journey. But it’s a crucial one.

“We realize how many thoughts we have — and it’s a shock,’ she says. “We have to know we have the thoughts before we can let them go.’

Original article no longer available…

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The Science of Meditation (Psychology Today)

Cary Barbor, Psychology Today: Meditation may help squash anxiety. The practice brings about dramatic effects in as little as a 10-minute session.

In the highlands of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, people look at life differently. Upon entering the local Buddhist monastery, there is a spectacular sculpture the size of a large oak. The intricate carving of clouds and patterns are painted in powerful colors. But as soon as winter gives way, this magnificent work will melt to nothing. The sculpture, in fact, is made of butter, and it is one of the highland people’s symbols of the transient nature of life.

And life here is not easy. Villagers bicycle to work before dawn and return home long after sunset. Many live with nothing more than dirt floors and rickety outhouses. Upon entering these modest mud-brick homes, you’ll find no tables or chairs—just a long platform bed, which sleeps a family of eight. However, when the people invite you in for tea, their smiles are wide and welcoming. How do they possess such inner calm in conditions we would call less than ideal?…

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Study Shows Positive Impact of Meditation on Brain, Antibodies (Epoch Times)

Katherine Combes, The Epoch Times: A University of Wisconsin-Madison research team has found, for the first time, that a short program in “mindfulness meditation” produced lasting positive changes in both the brain and the function of the immune system. The findings suggest that meditation, long promoted as a technique to reduce anxiety and stress, might produce important biological effects that improve a person’s resiliency.

Richard Davidson, Vilas Professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, led the research team. The study, conducted at the biotechnology company Promega near Madison, will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

“Mindfulness meditation,” often recommended as an antidote to the stress and pain of chronic disease, is a practice designed to focus one’s attention intensely on the moment, noting thoughts and feelings as they occur but refraining from judging or acting on those thoughts and feelings. The intent is to deepen awareness of the present, develop skills of focused attention and cultivate positive emotions such as compassion.

In the UW study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The experimental group, with 25 subjects, received training in mindfulness meditation from one of its most noted adherents, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a popular author of books on stress reduction who developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This group attended a weekly class and one seven-hour retreat during the study; they also were assigned home practice for an hour a day, six days a week. The 16 members of the control group did not receive meditation training until after the study was completed.

For each group, in addition to asking the participants to assess how they felt, the research team measured electrical activity in the frontal part of the brain, an area specialized for certain kinds of emotion. Earlier research has shown that, in people who are generally positive and optimistic and during times of positive emotion, the left side of this frontal area becomes more active than the right side does.

The findings confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis: The meditation group showed an increase of activation in the left part of the frontal region. This suggests that the meditation itself produced more activity in this region of the brain. This activity is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.

The research team also tested whether the meditation group had better immune function than the control group did. All the study participants received a flu vaccine at the end of the eight-week meditation group. Then, at four and eight weeks after vaccine administration, both groups had blood tests to measure the level of antibodies they had produced against the flu vaccine. While both groups had developed increased antibodies – as expected – the meditation group had a significantly larger increase than the controls, at both periods.

“Although our study is preliminary and more research clearly is warranted,” Davidson said, “we are very encouraged by these results. The Promega employees who took part have given us a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate a real biological impact of this ancient practice.”

Davidson, who is integrally involved with the HealthEmotions Research Institute at UW, plans further research on the impact of meditation. He is currently studying a group of people who have been using meditation for more than 30 years. His research team is also planning to study the impact of mindfulness meditation on patients with particular illnesses.

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Buddhism and mind science

Deseret.com: Can concentration be controlled? Can attention be practiced and perfected? These are questions that are of increasing interest today to scientists but which Buddhist monks have been exploring for thousands of years.

With the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, sitting between them, the two sides gathered over the weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a search for common ground in their pursuit of understanding of the mysteries of the human mind.

The Dalai Lama, who is halfway through a 16-day tour of the United States, said he hoped science could provide answers in areas where inward contemplation can’t.

“I myself am not clear,” he said at one point, drawing laughs from the overflow crowd that included actors Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn.

The scientists want to pick the minds of the Buddhist scholars about how best to use technology such as brain imaging to study consciousness.

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The brain at prayer

Why do humans pray? What happens in our brains when we meditate? Are we genetically programmed to look for the spiritual experience? These are questions that have driven American scientists to scan the brains of meditating monks and nuns at prayer – in the hope of understanding the link between the religious experience and the workings of the brain.

Ever since he was five years old, Andrew Newberg has been asking himself the big questions – why are we here? Is there a God? How big is the Universe? Now as a neurologist and radiologist, Dr Newberg is still asking big questions about how the mind and brain work – and whether it is possible to “see” a spiritual experience as it happens in the brain. “We’ve been doing brain-imaging studies to look at what goes on when somebody is praying,” explains Dr Newberg, who is Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia. “We wanted to find out how we as human beings experience certain types of spiritual events; how these spiritual experiences affect the different regions of the human brain and to ask important questions about the philosophical and theological implications of such research.”

Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns

So Dr Newberg invited local communities of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns into the laboratory where, using radioactive tracers, he could monitor any changes in blood flow to the different regions of the brain during meditation. For this, Dr Newberg used a state-of-the-art imaging tool called a SPECT camera – SPECT stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography – which detects radioactive emissions. “Our volunteers were certainly very happy to take part in these experiments,” explains Dr Newberg, “as we explained to them that we were not trying to diminish their experience or explain away a deeply personal and profound event.”

So what was Dr Newberg’s team looking for and what did they find? Dr Andrew Newberg: “Our theories about what goes on in the brain during spiritual practices is that many different areas of the brain are involved – that there’s not one spot. Some people have talked about a “God Module” but we don’t really feel that way. When one looks at the broad array of religious experiences, they involve our emotions, thoughts, sensations, feelings – I think it really has to involve many different regions all working together.”

The main areas of the brain which the team thought would be involved include the Frontal lobes, which allows us to focus our attention, and the Parietal lobes, which help us distinguish ourselves from the outside world.

Altered sense of self-image

“When we stared looking at the results, we saw that a lot of our hypotheses were correct, says Dr Newberg. “When people meditated, they activated this front attention-focussing area of the brain and turned off this orientation, parietal part of the brain – basically blocking the sensory input into that part of the brain, which would be associated with an altered sense of self-image. We also saw a very significant increase in activity in an area known as the thalamus which plays a key-role in allowing parts of the brain to ‘talk’ to each other.”

So what does all this mean? Did God create the brain or does the brain create God? Dr Newberg remains open-minded; “We’ve tried to come down in the middle – to find ways to bring science and religion together and to provide information to allow people to open up a dialogue, so that we can start asking the really big questions that all human beings have asked throughout time.”

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A monk in the lab

The Dalai Lama: These are times when destructive emotions like anger, fear and hatred are giving rise to devastating problems throughout the world. While the daily news offers grim reminders of the destructive power of such emotions, the question we must ask is this: What can we do, person by person, to overcome them?

Of course such disturbing emotions have always been part of the human condition. Some — those who tend to believe nothing will ”cure” our impulses to hate or oppress one another — might say that this is simply the price of being human. But this view can create apathy in the face of destructive emotions, leading us to conclude that destructiveness is beyond our control.

I believe that there are practical ways for us as individuals to curb our dangerous impulses — impulses that collectively can lead to war and mass violence. As evidence I have not only my spiritual practice and the understanding of human existence based on Buddhist teachings, but now also the work of scientists.

For the last 15 years I have engaged in a series of conversations with Western scientists. We have exchanged views on topics ranging from quantum physics and cosmology to compassion and destructive emotions. I have found that while scientific findings offer a deeper understanding of such fields as cosmology, it seems that Buddhist explanations — particularly in the cognitive, biological and brain sciences — can sometimes give Western-trained scientists a new way to look at their own fields.

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Finding happiness: cajole your brain to lean to the left

NY Times article by Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) on scientific explanations of how meditation acts as an antidote to stress:

All too many years ago, while I was still a psychology graduate student, I ran an experiment to assess how well meditation might work as an antidote to stress. My professors were skeptical, my measures were weak, and my subjects were mainly college sophomores. Not surprisingly, my results were inconclusive.

But today I feel vindicated.

To be sure, over the years there have been scores of studies that have looked at meditation, some suggesting its powers to alleviate the adverse effects of stress. But only last month did what I see as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky hypothesis, by revealing the brain mechanism that may account for meditation’s singular ability to soothe.

The data has emerged as one of many experimental fruits of an unlikely research collaboration: the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious and political leader in exile, and some of top psychologists and neuroscientists from the United States. The scientists met with the Dalai Lama for five days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to discuss how people might better control their destructive emotions.

One of my personal heroes in this rapprochement between modern science and ancient wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, in recent research using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis, has identified an index for the brain’s set point for moods.

The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed — the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the brain’s emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.

By contrast, when people are in positive moods — upbeat, enthusiastic and energized — those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

NY Times: Read the rest of this article…

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