meditation & brain science

Should we be mindful of mindfulness?

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David Derbyshire,
The Observer: It has been prescribed by the NHS for depression since 2004 but recently mindfulness has spawned a whole industry of evening classes and smartphone apps. What is the evidence that the practice – part meditation, part CBT – works?

At just after 6.15pm in a brightly lit conference room in Oxford, 22 grown men and women are lying on the floor trying hard to focus on their left knee. From across the room a lilting, calm voice has already invited the group to explore their feet and ankles with “gentle curiosity” and is heading up through the body. “When your mind …

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Meditation helps pinpoint neurological differences between two types of love

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Bill Hathaway, Yale News: These findings won’t appear on any Hallmark card, but romantic love tends to activate the same reward areas of the brain as cocaine, research has shown.

Now Yale School of Medicine researchers studying meditators have found that a more selfless variety of love — a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others without expectation of reward — actually turns off the same reward areas that light up when lovers see each other.

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“When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all,” said Judson Brewer, adjunct professor of psychiatry at Yale now at the University of Massachusetts.

Brewer and Kathleen Garrison, postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Psychiatry, report their findings in a paper scheduled to be published online Feb. 12 in the journal Brain and Behavior.

The neurological boundaries between these two types of love become clear in fMRI scans of experienced meditators. The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.”

Such mindfulness meditations are a staple of Buddhism and are now commonly practiced in Western stress reduction programs, Brewer notes. The tranquility of this selfless love for others — exemplified in such religious figures such as Mother Theresa or the Dalai Llama — is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.

“The intent of this practice is to specifically foster selfless love — just putting it out there and not looking for or wanting anything in return,” Brewer said. “If you’re wondering where the reward is in being selfless, just reflect on how it feels when you see people out there helping others, or even when you hold the door for somebody the next time you are at Starbucks.”

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We need to take meditation more seriously as medicine

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Jacoba Urist, Time: To be fair, I’m not sure how I would have responded had my surgeon suggested I meditate before or after surgery to ease my anxiety or post-operative pain. My guess is, like many women, I would have been skeptical: what exactly did sitting in half-lotus pose or breathing deeply have to do with the tumor in my right breast? And why was a doctor— whose job and training and every measure of success is rooted in science and clinical outcomes— prescribing a spiritual or religious method of therapy?

But a new review study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, suggests that the ancient Eastern practice of mindful meditation can offer real help for patients with depression, anxiety, and pain. And researchers are increasingly demonstrating the measurable influence of meditation on the brain, proving that mindfulness programs can make us feel happier, have greater emotional resilience and take fewer sick days.

The problem? Many of us conflate meditation with yoga or other types of complementary medicine, overestimate the time it takes to meditate effectively, and discount the neurological evidence that mindful focus improves…

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What happens to the brain when you meditate (and how it benefits you)

Bell Beth Cooper, Lifehacker: Ever since my dad tried to convince me to meditate when I was about 12, I’ve been fairly skeptical of this practice. It always seemed so vague and hard to understand that I just decided it wasn’t for me. More recently, I’ve actually found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what huge benefit it can have for my day to day happiness.

As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minutes per day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with …

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Hug the monkey

Monkey and babyYour brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):

Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

The first post in this series – pet the lizard – was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one – feed the mouse – addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. This JOT is about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

In ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: exile was a death sentence in the Serengeti. Today, feeling understood, valued, and cherished – whether as a child or an adult, and with regard to another person or to a group – may not be a life and death matter (though studies do show that survival rates for cancer and other major illnesses are improved with social support), but it certainly affects one’s happiness and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, many of us have encountered significant shortfalls of incoming empathy, recognition, and nurturance – or experienced wounds of abandonment, rejection, abuse, dismissal, or shaming.

Therefore, both to satisfy an innate human need for connection and to remedy old pain, it’s important to “hug the monkey” (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.

How?

Try to routinely get a basic sense of feeling cared about. Check out this JOT for how to do this. Basically, imagine being in the presence of someone you know wishes you well; it could be a human, pet, or spiritual being, and in your life today or from your past; the relationship doesn’t need to be perfect as long as you matter to this person in some way, such as liking, appreciating, or loving you. Then, based on the fact that this person does care about you, open to feeling cared about in your body, heart, and mind. Savor this experience and really take it in. Help it sink down into you, all the way down into young, tender layers of your psyche . . . and really far down into those ancient primate parts in you and everyone else that desperately need to feel bonded with others, included in the band, recognized, and valued.

Next, get a sense of your own caring nature. Think of someone you naturally care for, and explore what caring feels like in your body, emotions, thoughts, and inclinations toward action. In the same way, explore related experiences, such as being warm, friendly, affectionate, nurturing, encouraging, protective, acknowledging, or loving. Here too, really know and take in the sense of what it is like for you to “hug the monkey” in other people.

Now imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself that is involved with caring both for others – and for yourself. My own committee includes the plump fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, an internalized sense of my parents and others who’ve loved me, spiritual teachers, Gandalf, and tough-but-kind coaches on my journey through life.

Who (or what?!) is on your own committee? And how powerful is this committee in terms of caring for you compared to other forces inside your own mind? Since the brain is a giant network with many nodes, the psyche has many parts. These parts often coalesce into three well-known clusters: inner child, critical parent, nurturing parent. (Another way of describing these three clusters is: vulnerable self, attacker, protector.)

In most people, the inner nurturer-protector-encourager is much weaker than the inner critic-pusher-attacker. So we need to build up the caring committee by frequently taking in experiences of feeling cared about – and then to call on and listen to this committee!

So – get a sense of parts within you that want to feel seen, included, appreciated, wanted, respected, liked, cherished, and loved. Everyone has these parts. They often feel young, soft, or vulnerable. As you open to hearing from them, notice any dismissal of them, or minimizing of their needs, or even disdain or shaming. Ask your caring committee to stick up for these parts, and to tell them their longings are normal and healthy.

Imagine your caring committee soothing very young parts of yourself . . . praising and delighting in older parts of you . . . offering perspective and wisdom about tough experiences you’ve had . . . reminding you of your truly good qualities . . . pulling for the expression of the best in you . . . hugging you, hugging those soft longing parts inside you, giving them what they need . . . and feeling down to the soft furry little sweet monkey inside you and every human being, holding and loving and hugging it.

And meanwhile, your young, yearning, vulnerable, or bruised parts – and even your inner monkey – can feel that they are receiving what they’ve always needed, what everyone needs: recognition, inclusion, respect, and love.

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The neuroscience of mindfulness

We live in a world filled with material wealth, live longer and healthier lives, and yet anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and depression have never been more common. What are the driving forces behind these interlinked global epidemics? Professor Mark Williams examines the neuroscience of mindfulness in this short video.

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The neuro-benefits of meditation

DSC_0502(45).jpgMeditation is to the mind what aerobic exercise is to the body. Like exercise, there are many good ways to do it and you can find the one that suits you best.

Studies have shown that regular meditation promotes mindfulness (sustained observing awareness), whose benefits include decreased stress-related cortisol, insomnia, symptoms of autoimmune illnesses, PMS, asthma, falling back into depression, general emotional distress, anxiety, and panic, and increased immune system factors, control of blood sugar in type 2 diabetes, detachment from reactions, self-understanding, and general well-being.

In your brain, regular meditation increases gray matter (neuronal cell bodies and synapses) in the:

  • Insula – Handles interoception (sense of your own body); self-awareness in general; empathy for the emotions of others
  • Hippocampus – Key role in personal recollections, visual-spatial memory, establishing the context of events, and calming down both the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain) and production of stress hormones like cortisol
  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC) – Supports the executive functions, self-control, and guiding attention

Regular meditation also:

  • Increases activation in left PFC, which lifts mood
  • Increases the power and reach of very fast, gamma range brainwaves, which promotes learning
  • [in a three month retreat] Preserves the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA molecules; longer telomeres are associated with fewer age-related diseases
  • Reduces cortical thinning due to aging in the insula and PFC

Meditation is the quintessential training of attention. Since attention is like a vacuum cleaner – sucking its contents into your brain through what’s called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” – getting better control of your attention is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better. (For more information, see my slide set for psychiatrists that summarizes research on meditation and mindfulness; also see the references.)

The research summarized above just scratches the surface of the benefits of meditation. It is you saying to the world (and yourself): I’m going to step off the hamster wheel now. This time is for me. It is a way to center in being rather than doing (what a relief!). And a way to see the mind streaming along, transient and insubstantial, an unreliable basis for lasting happiness, not worth chasing after or struggling with.

The minutes I spend meditating are usually the best ones of my day. They feel like coming home. It’s good to be home.

How?

The best meditation of all is . . . the one you will do. So find what you like and will stick with. There are tons of books, talks, even videos about meditating, plus great teachers all over the place. Here I’ll offer a summary.

Relax. Rest. Intend to meditate. Come into a sense of presence with yourself. Know whether you are meditating in relationship to something transcendental (such as in prayer) or not. (I’ll describe a “secular” meditation here.)

Find something to anchor attention, such as the sensations of breathing, a word or phrase (e.g., “peace”), or an image. Use an anchor that is stimulating enough to keep yourself present; feel free to do walking meditation or use an audio program to guide you. Meditating with others can also help you stay focused.

Start by giving attention fully to the anchor, letting go of everything else. Center in it, becoming absorbed in it, even for just a few breaths or few minutes.

Then, with an ongoing awareness of your anchor, let your attention widen to include your body . . . thoughts . . . feelings . . . wants . . . and overall mental atmosphere. You’re not trying to make your mind blank. Let things come and go, just don’t jump on board of them. Without stress or strain, gently open to relaxing and quieting, and to an increasingly stable presence as experiencing, being a body breathing in peace.

Meditate for as long as you like. Even one minute is good – and ten, twenty, or even forty-five minutes could be even better. I suggest you join me in being committed to meditating every day for at least one minute.

Toward the end of meditation, let the benefits sink into you.

If you tend toward dissociation or getting flooded with painful feelings when you relax into yourself, then you may need to build up more inner resources before meditating. Also, try to not be self-critical; this is not a performance test! Meditation is a skill and like any other, you’ll get better at it over time, and its benefits for you will grow.

Most of all, find the enjoyment in meditation. Follow that enjoyment home.

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The power of concentration

Maria Konnikova, New York Times: Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together …

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Meditation changes experience of pain

Meditation can change the way a person experiences pain, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists.

The researchers found that during a pain experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them.

Images of brain regions linked to pain and anxiety may explain why. Compared to novice meditators, experts had less activity in the anxiety regions.

Not only did the experts feel less anxiety immediately before pain stimulation, they also became accustomed to the pain more quickly after being exposed repeatedly to it.

The scientists, based at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, run a robust program analyzing the effects of meditation. The new study adds to a growing body of knowledge in the young field.

The study involved an advanced form of mindfulness mediation called Open Presence, but other kinds of meditation also may provide benefits, says Antoine Lutz, first author on the paper appearing recently in NeuroImage.

“We predict that mindfulness-based stress reduction and related programs should also lead to a decrease in some of the elaborate brain processes that account for distress as people deal with pain,” he says.

People use many different strategies to handle pain, including trying to avoid it (blocking it out with music, for example), redefining it (“It’s not so bad today”) and changing the context of the experience (with hypnosis or a placebo pill).

Mindfulness meditation, which stresses attention to the present moment, has proven to be useful for chronic pain, but the UW researchers were interested in understanding the brain mechanisms underlying it.

They collected a group of 14 expert meditators who had meditated at least 10,000 hours and practiced Open Presence, which aims to cultivate an effortless, open and accepting awareness of whatever is occurring at the moment. Members of the control group had no previous experience with any type of meditation, but were given instructions on how to meditate and told to practice seven days before the test.

The test involved the application of heat to inside the forearm below the wrist. Participants were instructed to indicate when the level reached 8 on a scale of 1-10, then the heat was lowered. In each trial, subjects were given 45 seconds to settle into a meditation state, then were presented with warm heat, a cue that the real heat was coming. Immediately afterwards, participants’ brains were scanned with a functional MRI.

The researchers found that during a pain experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them.

The scans showed that during the pain application, experts had stronger activity than novices in the dorsal anterior insula and the anterior mid-cingulate, parts of a brain network sensitive to “saliency.”

“Saliency refers here to the internal or external information that is the most important at any given moment for the organism or person,” Lutz says. “Increased activation of the saliency network made the pain seem more vivid for experts than novices.”

Immediately before the delivery of pain, the experts had less activity in the saliency network and in the amygdala, an anxiety-related area, compared to novices.

“The pain didn’t bother the experts as much as it bothered the novices, in whom the anxiety of anticipation was stronger,” Lutz says.

Finally, experts had faster “neural habituation” to pain and its anticipation than novices. Habituation is a form of learning in which repeated exposure to a stimulus results in a decreased response.

Pain had a lower overall impact on the experts because they had less anxiety related to anticipation and they habituated to the pain more quickly, Lutz says.

The findings help explain how opening to pain, rather than avoiding it, can reduce the anxiety that can worsen the experience of pain.

“The goal would be to change your relationship to the pain, rather than changing the experience itself,” Lutz says.

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Meditation, memory loss, Alzheimer’s and aging

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Gordon Richman, WASHINGTON, November 12, 2012 – Alzheimer’s is devastating and terrifying. Our grandparents are fighting it now, our parents preparing to fight it, and we know that we’re next. A recent bittersweet  NPR piece explained that in order for most currently-conceived Alzheimer’s drugs to work effectively, patients would have to start treatment early— up to 20 years early.

Most of us, as much as we fear Alzheimer’s, don’t want to take a cocktail of drugs for something that may or may not happen in 20 years. Although there are brilliant scientists and physicians working on helping people with Alzheimer’s (and those who might suffer from it in the future), most of this is theoretical. Fortunately, there are some fairly innocuous, easy and relatively inexpensive things older and middle aged people can do to fight memory loss. One of those things is the opposite of a modern miracle drug—it’s a health practice that’s over 5000 years old. That practice is meditation.

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Age

Earlier this year, the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital released a very interesting study. According to Medical News Today, the study showed that meditation can indeed help with memory loss. 15 older adults meditated for 12 minutes a day for 8 weeks, and the results were remarkable. Blood flow increased in key areas of the brain, and cognitive function improved as well. They were less depressed, less stressed and less confused. They were holding on to their memories.

Older people often become depressed and detached as their lives change, and as the world changes around them. Modern Western society is moving in unexpected directions, and it’s doing so at an alarming rate— a rate that some seniors have a hard time keeping up with. All of that stress, confusion and depression can add up to apathy and despair, which can lead to lack of mental engagement and activity. That engagement deficiency is unhealthy for several reasons, but it can also contribute to Alzheimer’s. Meditation is all about nurturing your mind and moving you away from negativity. It makes sense, then, that meditation can fight against Alzheimer’s and improve overall health.

In a Huffington Post piece from last year, Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa put it succinctly, “…  This cutting-edge [neuroscience] research showed that stress, through the release in the body of a hormone called cortisol, could kill brain cells by the millions and lead to memory loss similar to Alzheimer’s disease. For me, this was an epiphany. I remember thinking that, if stress could cause memory loss, then why couldn’t anti-stress techniques, such as meditation, stop it from happening?”

Health

Some people, young, old or middle aged, refuse to try meditation. They think it’s a “new age” practice left to those who wear strange clothing and hold séances with their dogs. Meditation is actually good for just about everyone— it can help with stress, depression, anxiety, blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s free, it feels good and it doesn’t take much time out of the day. Those are huge selling points, especially for the suspicious. The biggest struggle in using meditation as a treatment for current and future Alzheimer’s patients might be getting them to actually try it. What sounds better, though—years of expensive pills or years of quiet, relaxed mindfulness?

If Dr. Khalsa and the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital are correct, it might only take minutes out of our day to fight a debilitating condition. The key, then, to utilizing meditation in the fight against memory loss is in building a daily routine.

Routine

The secret to successful meditation is to include it in a daily routine. Similarly, the key to successfully engaging your mind also lies in the realm of consistency. Older people, especially those who are retired, should have no problem adding meditation to their daily lives. Meditation, coupled with some regular social interaction, light exercise and other inexpensive, non-invasive techniques (such as Music for Memory are a gentle way to curb and reverse memory loss. They’re pleasant, productive and healthy—and they also don’t rely on expensive medications.

For middle aged people, finding a routine might be more difficult at first. The trick is finding about 15 minutes of uninterrupted time, preferably first thing in the morning, to sit down to meditate. There are many different meditation techniques available to suit any number of different personalities and preferences. The important thing is that it’s done daily.

Know that meditation is not for other people—it will work for you, and it can help you, especially if you’re worried about memory loss. It also doesn’t ask for anything in return. It’s there when you need it, and it will be ready when you are.

There will continue to be scientific breakthroughs in the realm of Alzheimer’s studies, but one surefire method has already been proven. Meditation might not be an instant cure-all, but it does help and it doesn’t pose any harmful side effects. Alzheimer’s is devastating, but it’s comforting to know that meditation works and that we don’t yet understand its full potential.

The Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine’s Dr. Andrew Newberg is extremely hopeful. Speaking with Medical News Today, he said, “This study is one of a growing body of neuroimaging studies to illustrate the neurological and biological impact of meditation, highlighting brain regions that regulate attention control, emotional states, and memory. It is a first step in understanding the neurophysiologic impact of this and similar meditative practices.”

We can take the first step anytime we’re ready.

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