meditation & brain science

Why everyone should begin to meditate

wildmind meditation newsAnant Naik, Minnesota Daily: Over the past several centuries, saints and mystics around the world have encouraged people to meditate to find inner peace. Even scientists have recently found evidence to suggest that everyone could benefit from more meditation. As a result, a practice once used as a mystical way to understand the forces of life is becoming a popular method to relax and to attain a peaceful state of mind.

Though there are many kinds of meditation, almost all of them involve concentrating on an object. The object might be a thought, image, internal energy or God. However, the act of concentration and self-withdrawal remains the same.

Zoran Josipovic, a professor from New York University, published a study in which he observed Tibetan Buddhist monks’ brain activity while they were meditating. He found that the monks had higher brain connectivity, which means that their brains are able to communicate between different lobes more effectively than they normally would…

This confirmed an earlier study conducted by Eileen Luders at the UCLA School of Medicine. Her research suggested that long-term practitioners of meditation have the capacity to change the physical structure of their brains by repairing white matter and forming new neurological connections. Test subjects were given a cognitive exam, and researchers examined whether the time the subjects spent meditating impacted how well they scored. The cognitive test measured the efficacy of the neurological connections between the different lobes of the brain.

This research has many implications. It suggests that meditation could help repair parts of the brain and thus help treat or prevent mental disorders. With meditation increasing the neuroplasticity of white matter, the brain experiences an improvement in its self-regulatory mechanisms. Michael Posner of the University of Oregon explains that most mental disorders are due to the brain’s inability to self-regulate.

Research has also indicated that meditation can improve concentration. The University of North Carolina showed in a study that students at the school were able to increase their concentration by meditating for about 20 minutes a day for four days.

Furthermore, meditation has been shown to reduce stress. The University of Ottawa found that meditation was effective in lowering patients’ stress levels in the hospital setting.

Although meditation might not completely remedy our daily anxieties, it is definitely an area that all people, including college students, should explore. As University of Minnesota students return to their studies, stress levels are likely to increase. Meditation is a good way to remedy this.

Students can achieve significant increases in focus simply by meditating for 20 minutes each day. In our own ways, all of us are scientists. We should all experiment to see whether meditation has any place in our lives.

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Is mindfulness an emerging treatment for addiction?

wildmind meditation newsJudson Brewer, Rehabs.com: Why do young mothers buy a daily pack of cigarettes instead of spending this money on nutritious food for their children? Why are treatments that help roughly 33 percent of people overcome their substance use and have a 70 percent relapse rate hailed as “gold standard” by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA)? In other words, why are addictions so hard to overcome?

Our brains are set up to learn. From an evolutionary perspective, when we come upon a good source of food or water, it is helpful to remember where it is. When we discover something dangerous, that memory is …

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Emotional hijacking

Young woman cryingIn light of the machinery of survival-based, emotional reactivity, let’s look more narrowly at what Daniel Goleman has called “emotional hijacking.”

The emotional circuits of your brain – which are relatively primitive from an evolutionary standpoint, originally developed when dinosaurs ruled the earth – exert great influence over the more modern layers of the brain in the cerebral cortex. They do this in large part by continually “packaging” incoming sensory information in two hugely influential ways:

  • Labeling it with a subjective feeling tone: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is primarily accomplished by the amygdala, in close concert with the hippocampus; this circuit is probably the specific structure of the brain responsible for the feeling aggregate in Buddhism (and one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness).
  • Ordering a fundamental behavioral response: approach, avoid, or ignore. The amygdala-hippocampus duo keep answering the two questions an organism – you and I – continually faces in its environment: Is it OK or not? And what should I do?

Meanwhile, the frontal lobes have also been receiving and processing sensory information. But much of it went through the amygdala first, especially if it was emotionally charged, including linked to past memories of threat or pain or trauma. Studies have shown that differences in amygdala activation probably account for much of the variation, among people, in emotional temperaments and reactions to negative information.

The amygdala sends its interpretations of stimuli – with its own “spin” added – throughout the brain, including to the frontal lobes. In particular, it sends its signals directly to the brain stem without processing by the frontal lobes – to trigger autonomic (fight or flight) and behavioral responses. And those patterns of activation in turn ripple back up to the frontal lobes, also affecting its interpretations of events and its plans for what to do.

It’s like there is a poorly controlled, emotionally reactive, not very bright, paranoid, and trigger-happy lieutenant in the control room of a missile silo watching radar screens and judging what he sees. Headquarters is a hundred miles away, also seeing the same screens — but (A) it gets its information after the lieutenant does, (B) the lieutenant’s judgments affect what shows upon the screens at headquarters, and (C) his instructions to “launch” get to the missiles seconds before headquarters can signal “stand down!”

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How addiction can affect brain connections

wildmind meditation newsDeborah Becker, WBUR: As much of the country grapples with problems resulting from opioid addiction, some Massachusetts scientists say they’re getting a better understanding of the profound role the brain plays in addiction.

Their work is among a growing body of research showing that addiction is a complex brain disease that affects people differently. But the research also raises hopes about potential treatments.

Among the findings of some University of Massachusetts Medical School scientists is that addiction appears to permanently affect the connections between areas of the brain to almost “hard-wire” the brain to support the addiction.

They’re also exploring the neural roots …

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Emotion in the brain

Young boy playing in the sprinklers outdoorsThe major brain regions that support emotional processing include the limbic system – particularly the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus – and the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), nucleus accumbens, and insula. Technical note: there are two hippocampi, one in each hemisphere of the brain; the same for the two amygdalae, ACCs, and insulae. Following common practice, we’ll mainly use the singular form.

By the way, as an interesting evolutionary detail, the limbic system seems to have evolved from the olfactory (scent) neural circuitry in the brain developed by our ancient mammal ancestors, living around 180 million years ago. They seem to have used their advanced sense of smell to hunt at night, while those cold-blooded reptiles were snoozing – and easier prey.

The conscious experience of emotion is just the top story – the penthouse floor – resting on many layers of neurological activity, both the firing of very complex and intertwining neural circuits and the tidal flows of neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Here’s a brief summary of each of these brain regions and its apparent role in emotion:

  • Hippocampus – This vaguely sea-horse shaped region helps store the contexts, especially visual-spatial ones, for important experiences, such as the smell of a predator . . . or the look of an angry parent. This region is necessary for forming personal memories of events, and is unfortunately damaged over time by the cortisol released by chronic stress (especially, high or even traumatic levels of stress).
  • Amygdala – Connected to the hippocampus by the neural equivalent of a four-lane superhighway, this small, almond-shaped region is particularly involved in the processing of information about threats. The subjective awareness of threat comes from the feeling tone of experience when it is unpleasant (distinct from pleasant or neutral). When it perceives a threat – whet her an external stimulus like a car running a red light or an internal one, such as suddenly recalling an impending deadline – the amygdala sends a jolt of alarm to the hypothalamus and other brain regions. It also triggers the ventral tegmentum, in the brain stem, to send dopamine to the nucleus accumbens (and other brain regions) in order to sensitize them all to the “red alert” information now streaming through the brain as a whole.
  • Hypothalamus – This is a major switchboard of the brain, involved in the regulation of basic bodily drives such as thirst and hunger. When it gets a “Yikes!” signal from the amygdala, it tells the pituitary gland to tell the adrenals to start release epinephrine and other stress hormones, to get the body ready for immediate fight-or-flight action. But keep in mind that this activation occurs not just when a lion jumps out of the bushes, but chronically, in rush-hour traffic and multi-tasking, and in response to internal mental events such as pain or anger. (For more on the stress response – and what you can do about it – see the Wise Brain Bulletins, Volume 1, #5 and #6.)
  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC) – If you whack your self on the forehead, the mini-shock waves reverberate through the PFC, which is “pre” because it is in front of the frontal cortex. The PFC is centrally involved in anticipating things, making plans, organizing action, monitoring results, changing plans, and settling conflicts between different goals: these are called the “executive functions,” and if the brain is one big village, the PFC is its mayor. Where emotion is concerned, the PFC helps foresee the emotional rewards (or penalties) of different courses of action. The PFC also inhibits emotional reactions; many more nerve fibers head down from the PFC to the limbic circuitry than in the other direction. The left PFC plays a special role in controlling negative affect and aggression: stroke victims whose left PFC is damaged tend to become more irritable, distraught, and hostile (the same happened for the unfortunate and famous Phineas Gage, the engineer who suffered an iron bar through his forehead in a mining explosion). On the other hand, differential activation of the left PFC is associated with positive emotions – and years of meditation practice!
  • Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – This sits in the middle of the brain, centrally located for communication with the PFC and the limbic system. It monitors conflicts between different objects of attention – Should I notice the bananas in this tree or that snake slithering toward me? Should I listen to my partner or focus on this TV show? – and flags those for resolution by the frontal lobes. Therefore, it lights up when we attend to emotionally relevant stimuli, or sustain our attention to important feelings – inside ourselves and other people – in the face of competing stimuli (e.g., trying to get a sense for what’s really bugging a family member underneath a rambling story and other verbiage).
  • Nucleus accumbens – In conditions of emotional arousal – especially fear-related – the accumbens receives a major wake-up call of dopamine from the tegmentum, which sensitizes it to information coming from the amygdala and other regions. Consequently, the accumbens sends more intense signals to the pallidum, a relay station for the motor systems, which results in heightened behavioral activity. This system works for both negative and positive feelings. For example, the accumbens lights up when a person with an addiction sees the object of his or her craving.
  • Insula – Deeply involved in interoception – the sensing of the internal state of the body (e.g., gut feelings, internal sensations of breathing, nausea) – the insula lets you know about the deeper layers of your emotional life. And it is key to sensing the primary emotions in others, such as fear of pain, or disgust.
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Is mindfulness the key to being a better boss?

wildmind meditation newsHCOnline: We’ve all done it. In a fit of fury or just plain annoyance, we’ve hastily typed a snarky email to a colleague and hit ‘send’ – without first thinking of the repercussions.

It’s known as action addiction – often when things happen we want to fix it, immediately. There’s even a neurological incentive to do so – we get a hit of dopamine from feeling like we’ve taken quick, decisive action.

It’s human nature to act before thinking, right? It is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The concept of mindfulness is not new – in fact as a concept it …

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Why is it so hard to pay attention? Or is it? Curiosity may be key to concentrating

wildmind meditation newsDr. Judson Brewer, Huffington Post: There is a new medication in early clinical trials that will likely revolutionize our ability to pay attention. Interested in learning more? Yes, we all are. The paradox here is that right now, because of this interest, you’re paying attention. We naturally pay attention when we are interested.

Given what we now know about the science behind how our brains learn best, what if we could tap into our natural interest to train ourselves to pay attention? Do I still have your attention?

Over 100 years ago, Edward Thorndyke described a neural process now known as reward-based learning. Many …

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What does mindfulness meditation do to your brain?

wildmind meditation newsTom Ireland, Scientific American: As you read this, wiggle your toes. Feel the way they push against your shoes, and the weight of your feet on the floor. Really think about what your feet feel like right now – their heaviness.

If you’ve never heard of mindfulness meditation, congratulations, you’ve just done a few moments of it. More people than ever are doing some form of this stress-busting meditation, and researchers are discovering it has some quite extraordinary effects on the brains of those who do it regularly.

Originally an ancient Buddhist meditation technique, in recent years mindfulness has evolved into a range …

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Mindfulness training program may help olympic athletes reach peak performance

wildmind meditation newsChristina Johnson, Imperial Valley News: Research suggests that meditation may help U.S. military personnel cope with the stresses of combat more effectively. Now, UC San Diego researchers are looking at whether strengthening the mental muscle of Olympic athletes could confer a competitive edge in the world of sports, too.

The early results, though not definitive, are promising: The first group of athletes to complete a mindfulness training program developed at UC San Diego won first, second and third place at the 2014 USA Cycling Elite BMX National Championships.

Though the podium sweep is not being directly attributed to the mind-focusing benefits of meditation, the …

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New brain-based understanding of mindfulness & meditation strategies for addiction treatment

wildmind meditation newsPRWeb: Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to aid addiction recovery, but which strategy is best? Here Constance Scharff, PhD, Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, describes our evolving understanding of the brain-based effects of meditation and mindfulness.

When included in addiction treatment and relapse prevention programs, mindfulness and meditation strategies have been shown to reduce anxiety and help to prevent relapse. But mindfulness and meditation are separate practices and even within meditation, not all styles produce the same results. Which is best?

“Anxiety is universal to the human condition, but addicts experience it to an extreme because they have real problems. Meditation and mindfulness practices can help an addict stop worrying about the past, stop fussing about the future, and can help keep an addict from being caught up in racing thoughts about things they can’t control,” says Constance Scharff, PhD, Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center.

The more stress and anxiety your brain experiences, the more prone you are to addiction. The same is true of trauma – people who have experienced traumatic events are more likely to abuse substances than people without trauma histories. It’s these two challenges – stress and the influence of traumatic memories – that meditation or mindfulness training are thought to heal in people undergoing addiction treatment.

Scharff describes mindfulness as awareness of the present moment. Within meditation practices, there are two major schools – concentrative meditation in which a person focuses on a thought, a sound or on breathing, and nondirective meditation in which a person gently unfocuses his or her mind and lets thoughts wander.

“What we’re learning is that these practices physically change the way the brain works,” Scharff says.

For example, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience used fMRI imaging to look inside the brains of 14 experienced meditators. First, the researchers had people chant a sound while focusing their minds on the meditation syllables. Then researchers had people meditate again, but this time letting their minds wander. They also compared both meditation strategies to rest.

The group from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that unfocused meditation led to the most activation of brain areas that deal with the processing of memories and emotions. In fact, unfocused mediation far outperformed both focused meditation and rest in its activation of these areas essential for stress reduction and the successful processing of traumatic experiences.

The authors write that, “These techniques are thought to facilitate mental processing of emotional experiences, thereby contributing to wellness and stress management.”

Likewise, a host of studies show long-term changes in brain structures due to mindfulness and meditation practices, including increased gray matter density, increased neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to create new synapses), increased activation in brain areas that control attention, and even temperature changes in the brain. New research at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and elsewhere shows these visible, physical changes are sculpted by the practice of meditation – the more you meditate, the more your brain is changed.

“In addition to long-term changes in the mechanics of the brain, at Cliffside we see another, more short-term benefit – we see addicts making an effort to focus on the things that are happening right now and there’s a calm from making that effort,” Scharff says.

Even outside the ways in which meditation changes the brain, and outside the effects of mindfulness practice on focusing attention on the present, the process of learning to the skill itself may provide a valuable forum in which to practice self change.

“For me, the important part is learning to be non-judgmental,” Scharff says. “A person may only go three seconds before a thought intrudes, and that’s OK. It’s the process of accepting current limitations and learning to fail safely without self-judgment that is beneficial.”

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