meditation & brain science

Rewiring the brain to ease pain

Melinda Beck: How you think about pain can have a major impact on how it feels.

That’s the intriguing conclusion neuroscientists are reaching as scanning technologies let them see how the brain processes pain.

That’s also the principle behind many mind-body approaches to chronic pain that are proving surprisingly effective in clinical trials.

Some are as old as meditation, hypnosis and tai chi, while others are far more high tech. In studies at Stanford University’s Neuroscience and Pain Lab, subjects can watch their own brains react to pain in real-time and learn to control their response—much like building up a muscle …

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Participants required for research into meditation and mindfulness, in Liverpool

Liverpool John Moores University is looking for people interested in meditation and attention to take part in two separate research studies.

Researchers at the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology are currently conducting a number of research projects that aim to develop an understanding of the underlying processes of mindfulness and are looking for potential participants for these projects.

Mindfulness may be described as the ability to pay deliberate attention to our experience from moment to moment, to what is going on in our mind, body and day to day life and doing this without immediate judgment. Mindfulness may be inherent or trained by various techniques including meditation. It is increasingly being recognized that mindfulness has numerous everyday benefits.

A five-week study starting this autumn will be looking at the relationship between meditation and brain activity. Participants will be randomly assigned to a meditation group or non-meditating control group and must be willing and able to attend LJMU on five occasions to have their brain activity monitored while they complete questionnaires and tests of attention and receive meditation training. Participants will receive meditation training and gift vouchers worth £20 as thanks for their involvement with the study.

The second study aims to investigate the relationship between mindfulness and age-related changes in cognitive processes. Those involved in this study will attend one testing session to complete questionnaires and cognitive tasks. Participants should be aged 45 to 75 and will be reimbursed with a £10 gift voucher.

For more information about these studies and to find out if you are eligible to take part, visit www.ljmu.ac.uk/mindfulness

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How to have compassion

Compassion is essentially the wish that beings not suffer – from subtle physical and emotional discomfort to agony and anguish – combined with feelings of sympathetic concern.

You could have compassion for an individual (a friend in the hospital, a co-worker passed over for a promotion), groups of people (victims of crime, those displaced by a hurricane, refugee children), animals (your pet, livestock heading for the slaughterhouse), and yourself.

Compassion is not pity, agreement, or a waiving of your rights. You can have compassion for people who’ve wronged you while also insisting that they treat you better.

Compassion by itself opens your heart and nourishes people you care about. Those who receive your compassion are more likely to be patient, forgiving, and compassionate with you. Compassion reflects the wisdom that everything is related to everything else, and it naturally draws you into feeling more connected with all things.

Additionally, compassion can incline you to helpful action. For example, one study showed that motor circuits in the brain lit up when people were feeling compassionate, as if they were getting ready to do something about the suffering they were sensing.

How do we cultivate compassion?

Compassion is natural; you don’t have to force it; just open to the difficulty, the struggle, the stress, the impact of events, the sorrow and strain in the other person; open your heart, let yourself be moved, and let compassion flow through you.

Feel what compassion’s like in your body – in your chest, throat, and face. Sense the way it softens your thoughts, gentles your reactions. Know it so you can find your way back again.

Moments of compassion come in the flow of life – maybe a friend tells you about a loss, or you can see the hurt behind someone’s angry face, or a hungry child looks out at you from the pages of a newspaper.

Also, you can deliberately call in compassion a minute (or more), perhaps each day; here are a few suggestions:

  • Relax and tune into your body.
  • Remember the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
  • Bring to mind someone it is easy to feel compassion for.
  • Perhaps put your compassion into words, softly heard in the back of your mind, such as: “May you not suffer . . . may this hard time pass . . . may things be alright for you.”
  • Expand your circle of compassion to include others; consider a benefactor (someone who has been kind to you), friend, neutral person, difficult person (a challenge, certainly), and yourself (sometimes the hardest person of all).
  • Going further, extend compassion to all the beings in your family . . . neighborhood . . . city . . . state . . . country . . . world. All beings, known or unknown, liked or disliked. Humans, animals, plants, even microbes. Beings great or small, in the air, on the ground, under water. Including all, omitting none.

Going through your day, open to compassion from time to time for people you don’t know: someone in a deli, a stranger on a bus, crowds moving down the sidewalk.

Let compassion settle into the background of your mind and body. As what you come from, woven into your gaze, words, and actions.

Omitting none.

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You can think your way out of pain

Mark Fenske: Between the heavy mallet and the paving stone, my misplaced finger didn’t stand a chance. But it wasn’t the sight of the bloody, smashed-apart fingernail or split-open fingertip that first made clear my mistake. It was the pain. That searing, body-tensing, tears-in-the-eyes pain.

The basic function of pain is to interrupt whatever else is going on and draw our attention to the fact that something is wrong, that the body is facing or has already suffered some kind of damage. Sensory nerves, called nociceptors (i.e. danger receptors) detect elements capable of body-tissue damage, such as pressure or extreme heat. The nerves’…

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See the good in others

Many interactions these days have a kind of bumper-car quality to them. At work, at home, on the telephone, via email: we sort of bounce off of each other while we exchange information, smile or frown, and move on. How often do we actually take the extra few seconds to get a sense of what’s inside other people – especially their good qualities?

In fact, because of what scientists call the brain’s “negativity bias” (you could see my talk at Google for more on this), we’re most likely to notice the bad qualities in others rather than the good ones: the things that worry or annoy us, or make us critical.

Unfortunately, if you feel surrounded by lots of bad or at best neutral qualities in others, and only a sprinkling of dimly-sensed good ones, then you naturally feel less supported, less safe, and less inclined to be generous or pursue your dreams. Plus, in a circular way, when another person gets the feeling that you don’t really see much that’s good in him or her, that person is less likely to take the time to see much that’s good in you.

Seeing the good in others is thus a simple but very powerful way to feel happier and more confident, and become more loving and more productive in the world.

How can we learn to see the good in others?

  • Slow down. Step out of the bumper car and spend a few moments being curious about the good qualities in the other person. You are not looking through rose-colored glasses: instead, you are opening your eyes, taking off the smog-colored glasses of the negativity bias, and seeing what the facts really are.
  • See positive intentions. Recently I was at the dentist’s, and her assistant told me a long story about her electric company. My mouth was full of cotton wads, and I didn’t feel interested. But then I started noticing her underlying aims: to put me at ease, fill the time until she could pull the cotton out, and connect with each other as people. Maybe she could have pursued those aims in better ways. But the aims themselves were positive – which is true of all fundamental wants even if the methods used to fulfill them have problems. For example, a toddler throwing mashed potatoes wants fun, a teenager dripping attitude wants higher status, and a mate who avoids housework wants leisure. Try to see the good intentions in the people around you. In particular, sense the longing to be happy in the heart of every person.
  • See abilities. Going through school, I was very young and therefore routinely picked last for teams in PE: not good for a guy’s self-esteem. Then, my first year at UCLA, I gave intramural touch football a try. We had a great quarterback who was too small for college football. After one practice, he told me in passing, “You’re good and I’m going to throw to you.” I was floored. But this was the beginning of me realizing that I was actually quite a good athlete. His recognition also made me play better which helped our team. Thirty-five years later I can still remember his comment. He had no idea of its impact, yet it was a major boost to my sense of worth. In the same way, unseen ripples spread far and wide when we see abilities in others – especially if we acknowledge them openly.
  • See positive character traits – Unless you’re surrounded by deadbeats and sociopaths, everyone you know must have many virtues, such as determination, generosity, kindness, patience, energy, grit, honesty, fairness, or compassion. Take a moment to observe virtues in others. You could make a list of virtues in key people in your life – even in people who are challenging for you!

* * *

Last and not least: recognize that the good you see in others is also in you. You couldn’t see that good if you did not have an inkling of what it was. You, too, have positive intentions, real abilities, and virtues of mind and heart. Those qualities are a fact, as much a fact as the chair you’re sitting on. Take a moment to let that fact sink in. You don’t need a halo to be a truly good person. You are a truly good person.

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Drop the tart tone

Tone matters.

I remember times I felt frazzled or aggravated and then said something with an edge to it that just wasn’t necessary or useful. Sometimes it was the words themselves: such as absolutes like “never” or always,” or over-the-top phrases like “you’re such a flake” or “that was stupid.” More often it was the intonation in my voice, a harsh vibe or look, interrupting, or a certain intensity in my body. However I did it, the people on the receiving end usually looked like they’d just sucked a lemon. This is what I mean by tart tone.

People are more sensitive to tone than to the explicit content of spoken or written language. To paraphrase the poet Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. And we are particularly reactive to negative tone.

Consequently, tart tone hurts others. This is bad enough, but it also often triggers others to react in ways that harm you and others.

On the other hand, paying attention to tone puts you more in touch with yourself, because you have to be aware of what’s building inside – which also promotes mindfulness and builds up its neural substrates. Containing negative tone prompts you to open to and deal with any underlying stress, hurt, or anger. It reduces the chance that the other person will avoid dealing with what you say by shifting attention to how you say it. Cleaning up your style of expression puts you in a stronger position to ask people to do the same, or to act better toward you in other ways.

As the Buddha said long ago, “Getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.” Much the same could be said about throwing tart tone.

How do we change our tone?

Shifting your tone doesn’t mean becoming sugary, saccharine, or phony. Nor does it mean walking on eggshells, becoming a doormat, or muzzling yourself. Actually, when people shift away from being snippy, curt, snarky, derisive, or contentious, they usually become stronger communicators. They’re now more grounded, more dignified when they bring up something. They haven’t squandered interpersonal capital on the short-term gratifications of harsh tone.

Sometimes people are tart with each other in playful ways, and that’s OK. But keep watching to see how it’s landing on the other person.

Be mindful of what’s called “priming”: feeling already mistreated or annoyed irritated – or already in a critical frame of mind. Little things can land on this priming like a match on a pile of firecrackers, setting them off. Maybe simply take a break (e.g., bathroom, meal, shower, run, gardening, TV) to clear away some or all of the priming. And or try to deal with hurt, anger, or stress in a straightforward way (if possible), rather than blowing off steam with your tone.

Then, if you do in fact get triggered, notice what comes up to say. If it’s critical, acerbic, cutting, etc., then slow down, say nothing, or say something truly useful. Watch those eye rolls or the sharp sigh that means “Duh-oh, that was kind of dumb” (my wife has called me on both of these). Give a little thought to your choice of words: could there be a way to say what you want to say without pouring gasoline on the fire? Look for words that are accurate, constructive, self-respecting, and get to the heart of the matter. Be especially careful with an email; once you push the “send” button, there is no getting it back, and the receiver can read your message over and over again, plus share it with others.

If you do slip, clean it up as soon as possible – which could be a minute after you say it. Sometimes it works to explain – not justify or defend – the underlying reasons for your tart tone (e.g., you’re fried and hungry and it’s been a tough day) to put it in context. Take responsibility for your tone and its impacts, and recommit to a clearer, cleaner, more direct way of expressing yourself.

At the end of an interaction, you may not get the result you want from the other person – but you can get the result of self-respect and feeling that you did the best you could.

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Using mindfulness to reduce the pressure

Things come at us with so much urgency and demand these days. Phones ring, texts buzz, emails pile up, new balls have to be juggled, work days lengthen and move into evenings and weekends, traffic gets denser, financial demands feel like a knife at the neck, ads and news clamor for attention, push push push PUSH.

On top of these external pressures, we deal with internal ones as well. These include all the inner “shoulds,” “musts,” and “have-tos,” like: “I gotta get this done today or my boss’ll get mad.” Or: “I must not look bad.” Or: “I can’t leave the house with dishes in the sink.” A pushy sub-personality prods us to be better, do better, and have more. Harsh, often unfair self-criticism cracks the whip to keep us going and avoid its lash. Also, we form rigid ideas – often unconscious – of what we just have to have to be successful, look good, own the right car, etc. We develop similar kinds of insistence about how it needs to be for others or the world (e.g., how one’s children must do in school, how the country has to be run).

Whether the pressure comes from outside or inside us, it activates ancient motivational circuits that use the neurotransmitter, dopamine. In a nutshell, dopamine tracks expected results (e.g., emails finished, sales goals attained). If the result actually occurs, dopamine rises, which helps us feel relieved while other neurotransmitter systems such as natural opioids give us a sense of pleasure. But here’s the catch: on the way to that desired result, dopamine levels sink some, which brings an unpleasant sense of stress, unease, pushing, and pressure . . . and if we meet delays or roadblocks or flat-out failure, then dopamine plummets, which feels like disappointment, frustration, even despair. To avoid the pain of dopamine dropping, we drive hard toward our goals, caught up in wanting and desire.

This dopamine system – and related but more evolutionarily recent and sophisticated emotions and thoughts layered upon it – was very effective in keeping our ancestors alive in the wild. And it works well today to keep us motivated during emergencies or necessary marathons of effort, from finals week in college to long runs of advocacy on behalf of a loved one.

But even at best, there is an inherent collateral damage in being motivated by need, urgency, and pressure. It narrows focus to a particular goal in the cross-hairs of tunnel vision. It feels tense, contracted, and uncomfortable – and usually triggers the stress-response system, whose chronic activation has many negative consequences for long-tem health and well-being. Many goals are just not reachable – so we feel bad if we are fixed on attaining them – and even if we do get the desired result, its gratifications are often less than promised, and in any case they fade eventually from awareness like sand slipping through the fingers of consciousness.

And at worst, inner and outer pressures drive us to pursue goals and desires that are bad for us and others. There we are: trying to live up to unrealistic standards, comparing ourselves to others, feeling like we’re falling short, putting the work-life balance on tilt, looking for love in all the wrong places, being hard on oneself or others, pushing to the edge of capacity, and sooner or later running on empty.

Whew. Enough already. Time to ease off the pressure!

There are lots of ways below to take the pressure off. Just find one or two that you like – there’s no pressure in dropping the pressure!

Remind yourself that you can act in competent, honorable, and successful ways even when there is no sense of pressure. You can give yourself over to wholesome aspirations, letting them carry you along with resolve and passion, staying true to your own North Star without straining and stressing along the way. You can be prudent, love others, rise in your chosen work, and nurture our planet without feeling like there’s a stick at your back.

When things come at you – phone calls, wants from others, a fevered pace – try to get a sense of a buffer between you and them, a kind of shock absorber, like you are seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. Slow things down a beat, a breath, a day. Offer yourself the gift of time – time to figure out if this is really a priority, and when it really needs to get done.

Listen to your body. Are you getting that pressed/squeezed/driven feeling again? Listen to your heart, like it’s a wise sweet being who loves you: what’s it saying?

Be aware of the “shoulds” and “musts” muttering – or shouting – in your mind. Are they really true? And are they really you rather than an internalized parent or other authority figure. What would happen if you dialed back one bit, slowed down by one step, or got one less thing done each day? Let it sink in that there’d be no disaster at all. In fact, probably no one but you would ever notice!

Be easier on yourself. Lower your standards a smidge – unless you’re doing brain surgery or something similar, you can likely afford to lighten up a little.

Be realistic about how long things really take, and how often there’s a slip ‘twixt cup and lip in the affairs of mice and men. Try not to make commitments that will be hard to fulfill; don’t write checks with your mouth that your body can’t cash.

Remember that you are a fundamentally good person. Even if you lower the pressure and a few things get done more slowly or not at all, you are still a good person.

Keep coming back to this moment – in which things are probably usually basically all right. Not perfect, but consider the Third Zen Patriarch’s teaching that enlightenment means (among other things) no anxiety about imperfection. In this moment, you are likely safe enough, fed enough, and loved enough.

You can lower the pressure.

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Catherine Kerr on the Science of Meditation

Alex Knapp, Forbes: Dr. Kerr received her BA in American Studies from Amherst College and her PhD in History and Social Theory from the Johns Hopkins University, but in 2006 received a K Award from the National Institutes of Health to be retrained as a neuroscientist. Since then, her research primarily focused on the effects of meditation the brain.

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Recently, I wrote up a paper that had some interesting results regarding the mechanisms through which the practice of meditation might lead to pain relief. Namely, the results suggested that meditation can lead to changes in alpha wave behavior, which in turn may lead to the pain relief through the inhibition communication in the brain. Since that time, I’ve had a chance to communicate with Catherine Kerr, formerly the Lab Director at the Neuroscience of Meditation, Healing and Sense of Touch Lab at the Osher Research Center at Harvard, and who is now associated with Brown University. Dr. Kerr received her BA in American Studies from Amherst College and her PhD in History and Social Theory from the Johns Hopkins University, but in 2006 received a K Award from the National Institutes of Health to be retrained as a neuroscientist. Since then, her research primarily focused on the effects of meditation the brain.

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Tell me about your background. What got you interested in studying meditation?

The route that I took on the way towards my study looking at the effects of meditation training on alpha rhythms in somatosensory cortex has been circuitous.

My interest arose out of my early work on the placebo effect in chronic pain. It’s sort of a long story that has to do with a specific theoretical interest that I developed. It began in 2001 with my earliest research, in which I investigated placebo effects, working closely with Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School. I helped Ted design and implement several large cutting-edge clinical trials that investigated placebo effects (published in BMJ in 2006 and 2008).

What we learned from these studies was that healing is more likely to come about when there is a tactile or somatic “body-based” placebo (like a tactile-sham needle) administered by a warm, confident practitioner. What these placebo studies suggested to me was that there might be a common factor – something like body-based attention — that was being manipulated by confident healers in many different modalities such as acupuncture, light touch massage and other ritual treatments.

Interestingly, body based attention to touch sensations, and more generally the sense of touch, are disordered in chronic pain and IBS. And the disorder seems to be mediated by a cortical mechanism. So, what I intuited from my work on placebo was that many therapies may elicit healing by using the sense of touch, or more generally the manipulation of somatic attention in order to address a disordered somatic-attention system. One way of thinking about somatic attention is to think of it as a biasing system – in chronic pain patients, attention becomes biased towards the chronic pain percept so that the sensation intrudes on and interferes with everyday life. What acupuncture and other therapies may actually do is to help erase or undo some of these biases so that the sensation, while it might not disappear, is less intrusive and has less of an effect on daily activities.

How did you develop your brain-based approach to meditation?

Although my initial intuition about body-based attention and healing was interesting and promising, it was not framed as a scientific question at the level of brain mechanism. To reframe this idea as a testable brain science question, I was very lucky to work with an incredibly creative, brilliant brain scientist named Christopher Moore at MIT’s McGovern Institute. It turned out Chris had formed some of the same ideas, especially based on his experiences with acupuncture and light-touch massage, except that unlike me, Chris is (1) a sophisticated thinker about the brain and (2) a brilliant experimentalist who is deeply knowledgable about the somatosensory system in animals and humans.

Chris Moore, working with his colleague Steph Jones at Massachusetts General Hospital, helped me reframe my interest in the somatosensory attentional system as a problem in brain dynamics and brain rhythms: how does the brain constantly adjust its “biases” (ie, the likelihood of neurons to fire) in response to new situations? And, how might somatic-attention focused therapies help the brain respond more adaptively to new situations and shed pre-existing, maladaptive biases like those seen in chronic pain?

It turns out that alpha rhythms in the cortex may serve as a useful index for understanding how attentional biases are maintained—many studies have shown that alpha rhythms can be controlled in a precise “map-like” way by attention. That is, alpha rhythms can help to suppress or amplify sensory inputs in a specific location, for example, in your visual field when I cue you about a location where a stimulus is likely to appear.

What aspects of meditation has your research focused on and why did you choose that focus?

We chose mindfulness meditation because, it turns out that mindfulness meditation is not the same as napping or relaxing: instead, the practice actually involves a very strong attentional focus on the breath and body sensations—the cultivation of somatically focused attention is the critical factor for training the attentional system in the earty stages of practice. This is even spelled out in an early Buddhist sutra (which talks about “mindfulness of the body”) although I did not know this when we assembled our hypotheses.

In our brain experiment, we actually looked at what happens in the “body map” in the somatosensory cortex when you are asked to pay attention to your hand versus when you are asked to pay attention to your foot. We tested the effects of a specific, standardized form of mindfulness meditation called mindfulness based stress reduction. Our hypothesis was that after meditation training, meditators would have more attentional control over their brain rhythms in the brain’s map of the hand—meditators would be able to adjust their alpha rhythms more precisely depending on whether they were attending towards or away from the finger. Our hypothesis was proven correct as meditators demonstrated a higher ability to control their brain rhythms than nonmeditators and they were faster (after a cue) in exerting this control.

It’s important to mention that our study had a small sample size (given this size, it’s surprising how strong the statistical significance of the effect was), so this study should be viewed as a “proof of principle” that needs to be replicated in a larger study.

What about meditation research has surprised you the most?

Two things have surprised me and I think they are a little bit related.

First, I was surprised by my experience of the actual practice of mindfulness meditation. My experience came about because I felt that it was important, as a scientist, to actually undergo the same type of training as my subjects.

So after all of my subjects were done with the course, out of curiosity, I actually enrolled in the same 8-week standardized mindfulness course and, on a subjective level, I found it to be very transforming—this surprised me. The course involved daily sitting meditation practice, the core of which involved an attentional focus on the breath and body-related sensations for 20-30 mins per day. This attentional focus was more difficult than I thought it would be. The difficulty wasn’t so much in the beginning. Rather, it was about half way through the 8-week class, I found that the meditation practice actually brought up some charged unresolved emotions from different past experiences. What I found was that, at first these unresolved emotions were difficult but as I continued in the course, they actually became much more easy to deal with – and in general, I just felt more at ease, even in difficult or stressful situations.

But my experience was so complex: were these effects captureable through the brain imaging paradigm that I designed? Having more control over the cortical dynamics of attention should lead to having more ability to regulate cognition, including cognitions related to emotionally charged issues. But, of course, I did not directly test this question.

One reason I tell this story is to emphasize there is always going to be a gap between the subjective effects that people report experiencing during meditation and the putative objective brain mechanisms that are put forth to explain the effects. Skeptics deal with this gap by simply dismissing the subjective experience as “woo.” I understand why they do this – but I think this dismissal is actually quite unscientific since one of the things that’s so fascinating about a practice like mindfulness meditation is the fact that it seems to reliably induce these complex, transformational subjective experiences. In their exit interviews, my subjects spontaneously offered different accounts of personal transformation). Isn’t that interesting?

Of course, the flip-side of this impulse to reject subjective experience that you see in the skeptic community can be seen in meditation enthusiasts and their uncritical embrace of neuroscience—this embrace has been my second surprise.

There has been a kind of mania or madness surrounding the brain and meditation that I see most strongly in studies reporting on brain plasticity. Take the wonderful work (on which I am a coauthor), led by Sara Lazar at MGH, on structural changes in the brain that are correlated with meditative practice. This research is fascinating and very promising but it is also fraught with uncertainty.

When we see differences between experienced meditators and controls on structural MRI images we don’t actually know what is causing that difference. It could be changes in vasculature or in dendritic arborisation. And these differences matter a lot as we consider how structural changes might relate to any possible changes in how the brain processes information. For instance, since these brain changes are not correlated with any measure of function, we don’t know if the reported changes in brain structure are a good thing, since there can be pathological increases in brain structure which have been observed in some diseases!

Yet people take this idea that “meditation grows your brain” (which we never claimed in our early report and which Sara Lazar still approaches cautiously although she has published new data on this question) and run with it, to the point of absurdity—the idea that meditation might change brain structure appears to exert some kind of magnetic power (for an example of this, check out the coverage of Sara Lazar’s recent study in Gawker or a recent Huffpo piece that I flagged on Twitter). Some of the ways in which our 2005 study have been summarized point to a shocking lack of scientific literacy about brain imaging and a poor understanding of what a correlational brain study in experienced meditators can actually tell us.

Stepping back a little bit to meditation in general, it seems to attract a lot of pseudoscience to it. How much do we really know about meditation right now, and what needs to be studied?

I think my two surprises are related to one central problem: because subjective experiences like those felt in meditation practice can be very powerful, there is a strong impulse to try to capture or “bottle” these experiences in a brain image. While I think brain imaging will be and has already been very informative about these practices, it’s important to understand that (1) brain imaging cannot do away with the basic gap between subjective experience and objective measurement (2) complex subjective experiences like those felt in meditation are likely made up of a complex array of brain mechanisms that cannot be captured by the simple sets of hypotheses that can be tested in a single brain experiment.

That being said, I do think that we can draw some conclusions about how mindfulness meditation practice might affect brain processes related to attention and emotion regulation. Work by our group on attention regulation and somatosensory brain dynamics comes in addition to fine work by Amishi Jha showing that mindfulness meditation appears to exert specific effects on well-defined attentional dynamics related to basic sensory processes. Work by Philipe Goldin and coauthors suggests that mindfulness practice may exert effects on the reactivity of the amygdala to emotional challenge. And, work by Sara Lazar and others (including her subsequent study) in replication of her brave initial effort, suggest meditation causes changes in brain structure. I think the most important idea underlying all of these studies, that is now well-established is that the standardized form 8-week format of mindfulness meditation training called MBSR that we and others have studied (which is reported to reduce distress in many patient groups) involves an active process of attentional training and is not the same as relaxing or napping. Although some skeptics might wish this was not true.

What kinds of claims about meditation do you see in your work that don’t seem to be backed by science?

My experience with media coverage of my alpha meditation study has been a little different from that which I observed in coverage of the Lazar meditation-brain-structure study. The mechanism and the paradigm used to test the mechanism are both complex. While the implications of my study are far-reaching (especially the notion that meditators exert more precise attentional control over the “volume knobs” in sensory neurons in the brain) , many media outlets have had trouble understanding really basic aspects of the experiment (what we tested, who were our subjects, etc). There is not much I can do about this.

As a scientist, how do you respond to people who use your research to bolster non-scientific claims?

I don’t respond since response would involve me in endless distraction and since I know that whoever has misunderstood my study has probably been triggered by the current brain-meditation mania rather than the specific details of my own work.

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Your Brain on Meditation: Researchers study how ­meditating helps improve focus and minimize pain

Studies have shown that ­meditating regularly can help relieve chronic pain, but the neural mechanisms ­underlying the relief were unclear. Now, ­researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General ­Hospital have found a possible explanation.

In a recent study published in the journal Brain Research Bulletin, the researchers found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves, called alpha rhythms.

“These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, PhD…

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How to live without causing fear

We evolved to be afraid.

The ancient ancestors that were casual and blithely hopeful, underestimating the risks around them – predators, loss of food, aggression from others of their kind – did not pass on their genes. But the ones that were nervous were very successful – and we are their great-grandchildren, sitting atop the food chain.

Consequently, multiple hair-trigger systems in your brain continually scan for threats. At the least whiff of danger – which these days comes mainly in the form of social hazards like indifference, criticism, rejection, or disrespect – alarm bells start ringing. See a frown across a dinner table, hear a cold tone from a supervisor, get interrupted repeatedly, receive an indifferent shrug from a partner, watch your teenager turn her back and walk away . . . and your heart starts beating faster, stress hormones course through your veins, emotions well up, thoughts race, and the machinery of fighting, fleeing, freezing, or appeasing kicks into high gear.

The same thing happens in the other direction: when you send out any signal that others find even subtly threatening, their inner iguana gets going. That makes them suffer. Plus it prompts negative reactions from them, such as defensiveness, withdrawal, counter-attacks, grudges, dislike, or enlisting their allies against you.

Thus the kindness and the practical wisdom in the traditional saying, “Give no one cause to fear you.”

You can – and should – be direct, firm, and assertive. Without needing to fear you, others should expect that if they break their agreements with you or otherwise mistreat you, there will be consequences: you reserve the right to speak up, call a spade a spade, step back in the relationship if need be, take away the privileges of a misbehaving child or the job of a dishonest employee, and so on. But this is simply clarity. Rocks are hard; you don’t need to fear rocks to take their hardness into account: I know this as an aging rock climber!

Much of the time the fear – the anxiety, apprehension, unease – we trigger in others is mild, diffuse, in the background, maybe not even consciously experienced. But studies show that people can feel threatened by stimuli they’re not actually aware of. Think of the little bits of irritation, caustic tone, edginess, superiority, pushiness, nagging, argumentativeness, eye rolls, sighs, rapid fire talk, snarkiness, demands, high-handedness, righteousness, sharp questions, or put downs that can leak out of a person – and how these can affect others. Consider how few of these are necessary, if any at all – and the mounting costs of the fears we needlessly engender in others.

Think of the benefits to you and others of them feeling safer, calmer, and more at peace around you.

Assert yourself for the things that matter to you. If you are sticking up for yourself and getting your needs met, you won’t be as likely to get reactive with others.

Appreciate that the caveman or cavewoman brain inside the head of the person you’re talking with is automatically primed to fear you, no matter how respectful or loving you’ve been. So do little things to prevent needless fears, like starting an interaction by expressing whatever warmth, joining, and positive intentions are authentic for you. Be self-disclosing, straightforward, unguarded. Come with an open hand, weaponless.

As you can, stay calm in your body. Get revved up, and that signals others that something bad could be coming.

Slow down. Fast talk, rapid instructions or questions, and quick movements can rattle or overwhelm others. Sudden events in our ancient past were often the beginning of a potentially lethal attack.

Be careful with anger. Any whiff of anger makes others feel threatened. For example, a crowded and noisy restaurant will suddenly get quiet if an angry voice is heard, since anger within a band of primates or early humans was a major threat signal.

Consider your words and tone. For example, sometimes you’ll need to name possible consequences – but watch out, since it’s easy for others to hear a threat, veiled or explicit, and then quietly go to war with you in their mind.

Give the other person breathing room, space to talk freely, a chance to preserve his or her pride and dignity.

Be trustworthy yourself, so that others do not fear that you will let them down.

Be at peace. Know that you have done what you can to help prevent or reduce fears in others. Observe and take in the benefits to you – such as others who feel safer around you give you less cause to fear them.

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