meditation & brain science

Is meditation the push-up for the brain?

Study shows practice may have potential to change brain’s physical structure

Two years ago, researchers at UCLA found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. This suggested that meditation may indeed be good for all of us since, alas, our brains shrink naturally with age.

Now, a follow-up study suggests that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy. Having stronger connections influences the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals in the brain. And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas.

Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues used a type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, or DTI, a relatively new imaging mode that provides insights into the structural connectivity of the brain. They found that the differences between meditators and controls are not confined to a particular core region of the brain but involve large-scale networks that include the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and the anterior corpus callosum, as well as limbic structures and the brain stem.

The study appears in the current online edition of the journal NeuroImage.

“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” Luders said. “We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.”

The study consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects, who were matched by age and sex. The meditation and the control group each consisted of 11 men and 16 women. The number of years of meditation practice ranged from 5 to 46; self-reported meditation styles included Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen, styles that were practiced by about 55 percent of the meditators, either exclusively or in combination with other styles.

Results showed pronounced structural connectivity in meditators throughout the entire brain’s pathways. The greatest differences between the two groups were seen within the corticospinal tract (a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord); the superior longitudinal fasciculus (long bi-directional bundles of neurons connecting the front and the back of the cerebrum); and the uncinate fasciculus (white matter that connects parts of the limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, with the frontal cortex).

“It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level,” said Luders, herself a meditator.

As a consequence, she said, the robustness of fiber connections in meditators may increase and possibly lead to the macroscopic effects seen by DTI.

“Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction,” Luders said. “That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.”

But there is a “but.” While it is tempting to assume that the differences between the two groups constitute actual meditation-induced effects, there is still the unanswered question of nature versus nurture.

“It’s possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with,” Luders said. “For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.”

Still, she said, “Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Collecting evidence that active, frequent and regular meditation practices cause alterations of white-matter fiber tracts that are profound and sustainable may become relevant for patient populations suffering from axonal demyelination and white-matter atrophy.”

But, Luders said, more research is needed before taking meditation into clinical trial studies.

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Hug your inner monkey!

Monkey looking in a mirror

To simplify a complex process, your brain evolved in three stages:

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

This post 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. 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 [link] 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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Re-Wiring your brain for happiness: Research shows how meditation can physically change the brain

Dan Harris & Erin Brady (ABC News): A quiet explosion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways has started to push into mainstream.

Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed — even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication.

Meditation is an intimate and intense exercise that can be done solo or in a group, and one study showed that 20 million Americans say they practice meditation. It has been used to help treat addictions, to clear psoriasis and even to treat men with impotence.

The U.S…

Read the rest of this article…

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Meditation slows down age-related brain atrophy

Researchers at UCLA had earlier found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more grey matter than the brains of individuals in a control group.

Now, a follow-up study has suggested that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy.

Having stronger connections influences the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals in the brain. And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas.

Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and colleagues found that the differences between meditators and controls are not confined to a particular core region of the brain but involve large-scale networks that include the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and the anterior corpus callosum, as well as limbic structures and the brain stem.

“Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain,” said Luders.

“We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners,” added Luders.

The study consisted of 27 active meditation practitioners (average age 52) and 27 control subjects. Results showed pronounced structural connectivity in meditators throughout the entire brain’s pathways.

“It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level,” said Luders.

As a consequence, she said, the robustness of fiber connections in meditators may increase and possibly lead to the macroscopic effects seen by DTI.

“Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction,” said Luders.

“That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system,” added Luders.

The study is detailed in the online edition of the journal NeuroImage.

Original article no longer available…

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Local doctor studies the mystery behind meditation

Victoria Hansen: What are you thinking right now? Research shows the average person has 60,000 thoughts a day. Most are negative.

“Our attention is often caught with our own thinking”, said Dr. Baron Short at MUSC.

Short said that’s why he studies an ancient practice he believes can reduce stress. He found it worked in his own life and wants to prove it scientifically.

“We may find that meditation before (in the past) may have been an interest or pursuit of a few and it may become a necessity for many,” Short said.

Meditation may be shrouded in mystery. But Dr. Short believes it physically changes our brains.

So, he studies the brains of people who frequently meditate.

He places a hand held, figure eight shaped device over a particular part of the brain. He flips a switch. Electromagnetic pulses make their way through the brain. The subject’s fingers twitch.

It’s what Dr. Short calls excitability.

Short said he does this before Read the rest of this article…

and after the person meditates. He said he’s found, “some increases in activity in the front part of the brain that are involved with attention and regulation of emotion.”

Dr. Short said he has also performed MRI’s and found the brains of those who meditate are actually thicker. He believes his findings are just the beginning.

“There is research with mindfulness meditation to support a decrease in pain, a decrease in relapse of depression, a decrease in anxiety,” he said. Other researchers have even found those who meditate have better immune systems and are more compassionate.

‘Okay, if it’s so good for you, how do you do it?’

“It’s just one breath at a time” says Atmah Ja.

She teaches meditation and yoga at the Gallery of Iamikan in downtown Charleston.

Atmah Ja says simply sit, concentrate on your breath, and try to keep your mind from wandering.

Try it, it’s easier said than done. But if it works, well worth it. Imagine, silencing your inner critic with your breath.

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Meditation may help the brain ‘turn down the volume’ on distractions

The positive effects of mindfulness meditation on pain and working memory may result from an improved ability to regulate a crucial brain wave called the alpha rhythm, say researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This rhythm is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation may be helping the brain deal with an often-overstimulating world.

The researchers report that modulation of the alpha rhythm in response to attention-directing cues was faster and significantly more enhanced among study participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation program than in a control group. The report will appear in the journal Brain Research Bulletin and has been released online.

“Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall,” says Catherine Kerr, PhD, of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and the Osher Research Center at Harvard Medical School, co-lead author of the report. “Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”

Brain cells use particular frequencies or waves to regulate the flow of information in much the same way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. One frequency, the alpha rhythm, is particularly active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain’s outmost layer, called the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information between brain regions.

Previous studies have suggested that attention can be used to regulate the alpha rhythm and, in turn, sensory perception. When an individual anticipates a touch, sight or sound, the focusing of attention toward the expected stimulus induces a lower alpha wave height in cortical cells that would handle the expected sensation, which actually “turns up the volume” of those cells. At the same time the height of the alpha wave in cells that would handle irrelevant or distracting information increases, turning the volume in those regions down. Because mindfulness meditation – in which practitioners direct nonjudgmental attention to their sensations, feelings and state of mind – has been associated with improved performance on attention-based tasks, the research team decided to investigate whether individuals trained in the practice also exhibited enhanced regulation of the timing and intensity of alpha rhythms.

The study tested 12 healthy volunteers with no previous experience in meditation. Half completed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed at the University of Massachusetts. The other half were asked not to engage in any type of meditation during the study period. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), an imaging technique that detects the location of brain activity with extreme precision, the researchers measured participants’ alpha rhythms before, during and after the eight-week period. Specifically, they measured alpha rhythms in the brain area that processes signals from the left hand while participants were asked to direct their attention to either their left hand or left foot. Participants’ abilities to adjust the alpha rhythm in cortical cells associated with the hand, depending on where their attention was directed, were recorded during the milliseconds immediately after they received an attention cue.

Although all participants had showed some attention-related alpha rhythm changes at the beginning of the study, at the end of the eight weeks, those who completed the mindfulness meditation training made faster and significantly more pronounced attention-based adjustments to the alpha rhythm than the non-meditators did. “This result may explain reports that mindfulness meditation decreases pain perception,” says Kerr. “Enhanced ability to turn the alpha rhythm up or down could give practitioners’ greater ability to regulate pain sensation.”

The study also sheds light on how meditation may affect basic brain function, explains Stephanie Jones, PhD, of the Martinos Center, co-lead author of the paper. “Given what we know about how alpha waves arise from electrical currents in sensory cortical cells, these data suggest that mindfulness meditation practitioners can use the mind to enhance regulation of currents in targeted cortical cells. The implications extend far beyond meditation and give us clues about possible ways to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is dysregulated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.” Kerr is an instructor in Medicine and Jones an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

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Meditation makes people more rational decision-makers

Elizabeth Weise: Meditation, the ancient practice of mindfulness employed by all major religions, can actually reprogram the brain to be more rational and less emotional, researchers in Canada and the United States say.

The researchers looked at a classic psychological test called the Ultimatum Game. In this test, researchers propose this scenario: A friend or relative has won some sum of money and then offers the test subject a small portion of it – will they accept the money?

Surprisingly, despite the fact that it’s a windfall, multiple tests over 30 years show that only about a quarter of people say yes. The rest reply that it’s not fair because the person offering the money has lots and that they should get more.

People who practice Buddhist meditation behaved differently. Researchers found in their test that more than 50% of Buddhist meditators took the rational offer of free money, rather than rejecting it because it felt unfair.

The researcher involved 40 control subjects and 26 expert meditators. These were not Buddhist monks or nuns Read the rest of this article…

but simply people who practiced frequent Buddhist meditation “while maintaining a secular life incorporating a career, family, and friends.” according to the paper.

The study is in this month’s edition of the journal Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience.

When the researchers did MRI imaging of the Buddhist meditators brains, they found that they used different areas of their brain than other people when confronted with what could be construed as an ‘unfair’ choice, which allowed them to make decisions based more on facts and less on emotions.

Neuroimaging showed that Buddhist meditators engaged different parts of the brain than expected, the researchers found. Previous work showed that when people rejected the offer, there was activity in the anterior insula portion of their brains. This is linked to the emotion of disgust and plays a role in emotions related to violations of social norm violations, rejection, betrayal, and mistrust.

But meditators showed no significant activity for the anterior insula when offered a portion of the money. In fact they increased activity in the posterior insula, which has been linked to rational decision-making.

As the researchers note in their paper:

Siblings, schoolchildren, and CEOs have all been known to worry more about their competitors’ rewards than their own – with unhappy social consequences for everyone else. This study suggests that the trick may lie not in rational calculation, but in steering away from what-if scenarios, and concentrating on the interoceptive qualities that accompany any reward, no matter how small.

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Emotional Intelligence and the Brain: an interview with Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman’s new book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, is a fascinating round-up of the latest cutting-edge research into how emotions are processed in the brain, and how we can better regulate our emotional responses in order to be happier, less stressed, and more creative. This week Bodhipaksa had an opportunity to interview Goleman about the cross-over between Emotional Intelligence and meditative practice.

Bodhipaksa: When I was trying to think of who “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence” would be useful for, I found I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading it. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote the book?

Title: The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: 978-1-934441-11-4
Available from Amazon.com Kindle Store and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store.

Daniel Goleman: Anyone with a brain.

B: Well, I guess it would be good if everyone with a brain buys your book. Since you first started writing about emotional intelligence the workings of the brain have become much better understood. What research has most surprised you?

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

DG: I was delighted to discover the emerging field of social neuroscience, the new understanding of what happens in two brains while people interact rather than just in one brain alone. That ongoing surprise was why I went on to write Social Intelligence, and now “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence.” I’m particularly intrigued by the new findings on the different role the right and left hemispheres play in an “Aha!” moment of creative insight.

B: That was an especially interesting aspect of your book, especially in terms of insights arising when we’ve intensely focused on a problem and then let go of it and relaxed. A lot of meditators, of course, find that their meditation sessions become creative-thinking sessions. And the tradition doesn’t have much to say about this; I don’t think Buddhism offers any advice on how to think creatively or how to deal with creative thoughts that arise in meditation beyond “let them pass.” Do you have any advice — from your own practice or from your studies — of how to deal with creative thoughts arising in meditation?

DG: As a writer, I’ve long wondered about this. Especially because I like to have a period of writing just after my morning meditation session – I find the writing comes most easily then. And, of course, I get lots of good ideas while meditating – after all, the data suggests greater brain coherence during a session, and that fosters making new connections. This was pretty much settled for me by Anagarika Munindra, my first vipassana teacher, who advised me that when I got a great idea during a session, I just jot it down and let go of it. Over the years that pretty much has been a fall back – most often I just trust that the juicy ideas will come back to me after the session.

B: As a meditation teacher I now find I talk much more in terms of the brain, neural pathways, the relationship of the frontal cortex to the amygdala, etc, than I ever did before. Have you see that happening widely, and if you have can you give some examples?

DG: You’re not alone. Jack Kornfield now teaches each year with Daniel Siegel, the UCLA neuroscientist who wrote The Mindful Brain. And as dharma teachers learn more about brain science, it will be natural to weave these findings into talks. The principle of teaching in the terms that people understand – as the Buddha urged – suggests that in the West this integration of science and Buddhism will strengthen.

B: I actually find myself wanting traditional Buddhist models for discussing mental states — the hindrances, jhanas, etc — to be better understood in terms of their neural correlates. Is anyone working on that kind of investigation, or has work been done that can help elucidate those Buddhist models?

DG: This, I hope will be part of the program in the new field of contemplative neuroscience being spearheaded by scientists like Richard Davidson at Wisconsin and contemplatives like Matthieu Ricard of Sechen Monastery, who work in close collaboration.

B: Do you know what kind of things they’re working on at the moment?

DG: I believe they are continuing to add to their database of meditation adepts –- people with more than 15,000 lifetime retreat hours — and also creating a large sample of longtime Western meditators, whose experience totals are lower that the adepts. I also hear Davidson has some neat new methods for tracking changes in neuroplasticity.

B: One of the things you point out in your new book is that some parts of the brain communicate with each other through ganglia in the gastro-intestinal tract. I found that particularly interesting because in my own teaching I emphasize the relationship between feelings (or vedanas, which are really gut feelings) and the whole complex of thought and emotion that follows from those feelings. Can you comment on that aspect of research a bit more?

DG: In sensing the feelings throughout the body, the insula is another structure of real importance. This nodule allows us to scan for gut feelings, or to sense what’s up with our big toe, for that matter. Such sub-cortical circuitry knows more than we can say –- our life wisdom is embodied, cognitive scientists now tell us –- and so vedana vipassana may be one way to tune up our inner sensing ability.

B: Vedana vipassana meaning clearly sensing our feelings?

DG: Yes –- as taught, for example, by Goenka-ji, who was an early teacher of mine.

B: Do you think that at some point scientific studies of meditation might be changing how we meditate, for example by showing that some techniques are more effective than others, or perhaps by incorporating new techniques, such as combining fMRI with visual feedback, as in a recent study at the University of British Columbia?

DG: If meditation starts to be determined by what a machine tells us rather than by a qualified teacher, I suspect we may start to veer off the path.

B: I’d be wary of that as well, although I’d imagine that for some people with low self-awareness who have difficulty being objective about their feelings these methods could be useful, at least initially.

DG: These mechanical aids may prove useful for people with trouble concentrating –- for example, those with ADHD.

B: I was taking the UBC study as an extreme example, though, and was wondering if there might be more subtle factors at play. After all, as you’ve said, the neuroscience is already changing how we talk about and teach meditation, and in your book you tie an understanding of neuroscience into the art of learning new habits — so is it possible that neuroscience might change how we do meditation?

DG: Perhaps.

B: So far the research has been quite validating for those of us who practice and teach meditation. Have there been any studies done that you think might make meditators look more deeply at their assumptions? For example, you point out that it can be beneficial to be in a bad mood because you look at things more critically. I think some Buddhists might be reluctant to see “negative mental states” as having a useful role to play; the ultimate goal after all is to get rid of them entirely!

DG: Buddhist practitioners would probably make bad bill collectors –- that’s one profession where people actually put themselves in foul moods to be more effective.

B: It’s probably not an example of Right Livelihood! Which leads me to my next question. Some people are concerned because meditation is often being studied — and taught —  detached from its traditional context of ethics. To what extent do you share this concern?

DG: I remember voicing this very question to my first dharma teacher, Anagarika Munindra, in Bodh Gaya in 1970. He said,” Whatever gets people to meditate is beneficial.” The Dalai Lama seems to share this outlook, when he has encouraged neuroscientists to study dharma methods outside the context of Buddhism, rigorously evaluate their benefits, and if they prove helpful, to share them widely.

B: I tend to think the same way, and I assume that an interest in meditation will lead to an interest in living with mindfulness and compassion. Besides I’m already noticing that science is showing that some traditional notions of what constitutes ethical behavior — giving, expressing gratitude, having loving relationships with friends and family — bring about happiness. Is the neuroscience of ethical behavior something you’ve looked into?

DG: Not yet. But Sam Harris has done a good job in his book, “The Moral Landscape.”

B: Lastly (a big question, I know) neurologically speaking, can you see any way the traditional conception of enlightenment as a state entirely free from craving and ill will could actually work? Is the brain that plastic? Can the parts of the brain governing fear, anger, etc go permanently offline or be permanently kept in a state of regulation? Or do you think that Enlightenment is simply an extraordinarily well-regulated brain, but not a state of complete freedom from negative emotional states?

DG: A wonderful question –- the big question, really. The short answer is, We don’t know yet. I love what the Dalai Lama once told me: “Some day the brain scientist and the meditator whose brain is being studied will be one and the same person.” Maybe then we’ll get your answer.

B: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck with your book.

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“The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights,” by Daniel Goleman

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

Although Daniel Goleman’s breakthrough book was the classic Emotional Intelligence, it is his Destructive Emotions that has most impressed me. Destructive Emotions provides the edited highlights of one of the Dalai Lama’s periodic interdisciplinary conferences, and it was the first book to reveal to me the serious scientific work that was being done investigating how the the meditating mind works.

Destructive Emotions kicks off by describing an extraordinary study conducted on a western-born Tibetan monk, who agreed to meditate while having his brain’s functioning studied by functional MRI and EEG. These studies revealed the the monk had developed an extraordinary ability to remain focused in a distracting environment, that he was able to generate compassion at will, and that his experiences of compassion were accompanied by extraordinary shifts in brain activity that are known to accompany positive emotion.

Title: The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: 978-1-934441-11-4
Available from Amazon.com Kindle Store and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store.

This was my first introduction to these kinds of studies, and so I was delighted to hear that Goleman has a new book coming out that explores the implications of these, and more recent, studies on the brain and emotional regulation.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights is a short work, and it’s Goleman’s first digital-only book. It “provides updates on the key findings that further inform our understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply this skill set.” It’s aimed at those working in the emotional intelligence field, and who need to apply the concept in effective action — leaders, coaches, human resources officers, managers, and educators — but I believe it’s also a must-read for anyone interested in the overlap of science and spirituality.

In The Brain and Emotional Intelligence Goleman convincingly cites studies that support his contention that emotional intelligence is a phenomenon separate from IQ. As Goleman observes, echoing Howard Gardner,

“For an intelligence to be recognized as a distance set of capacities there has to be a unique underlying set of brain areas that govern and regulate that intelligence.”

Using the work of Reuven Bar-On, Goleman shows that it is in fact the case that there are distinct circuits in the brain for emotions and emotional regulation, and these are duly outlined, along with accompanying diagrams (which are unfortunately in black and white on the Kindle).

In highlighting the importance of self-awareness in emotional intelligence, Goleman recounts the fascinating case of a brain-damaged lawyer whose intellect was unaffected, but who was unable to make even simple decisions. Unable to connect his thoughts with his emotions, he was rendered unable to tell good decisions from bad. “In order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts.”

The most important decisions we make are those laden with ethical significance, and the mechanisms of these kinds of decisions are explored. One of the most extraordinary things I learned here was that some parts of the brain are unable to communicate directly with each other, and that they use nerve clusters in the gastrointestinal tract as a relay. It appears that “gut feelings” have a scientific basis. As someone who both relies on gut feelings and who teaches others their importance, this was an important validation.

I was fascinated to learn, in the chapter “Self-Mastery: The Right Brain State for the Job,” about the pros and cons of various positive and negative mental states. In positive states of mind we are more creative, but may also be less discriminating. In negative moods we may be unpleasant to be around, but we also pay more attention to detail, are more able to stick with boring tasks, and are more inclined to think for ourselves.

A chapter on “The Creative Brain” discusses the neurophysiology of creativity, and gives important suggestions about how to make creative insights more likely to arise.

The chapter on “Self Mastery” explores the territory of emotional regulation, and how the amygdala, responsible for the “fight or flight” reflex can hijack the entire brain, leading to stress and panic. Goleman identifies the top five “amygdala triggers” in the workplace: Condescension and lack of respect; being treated unfairly; lack of appreciation; believing that you’re not being listened to; and being held to unrealistic deadlines. Simply being aware of these is helpful, but Goleman goes on to suggest strategies and tools that make an amygdala hijack less likely. These include self-awareness, self-talk, empathy, and (naturally enough) meditation.

Goleman goes on to summarize important research on various topics such as motivation, stress (including how much stress is the right amount), how rapport emerges, why it is that online interactions can be so much more contentious than real-life encounters, gender differences in the brain regarding empathy (and here Goleman rightly stresses that the differences may be true in general, but do not apply to every individual), and sociopathy (a condition suffered by those who do not care about the effects of their actions on others). In most cases the approach is not merely theoretical. The theory is fascinating, but Goleman’s drawing out of the implications for all this on our lives and for practice are, for me, the key element.

Very appropriately, for such a practical book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence ends with chapters on “Developing Emotional Intelligence,” and on how Emotional Intelligence practices are being used to reduce misbehavior in schools.

The chapter on schools is fascinating, and left this reader with a warm glow. That on developing emotional intelligence emphasizes that the brain grows new cells throughout life, and that the brain is plastic. It also walks us through the difficult task of learning new skill and, more importantly, of unlearning old skills, by looking at the underlying changes in circuitry that take place during learning. Here Goleman draws together lessons from his own book, stressing how we can generate commitment, use self-awareness to develop detailed learning plans, and tap into the brain’s capacity for mental rehearsal.

In a way I thought that the order of the final two chapters should have been reversed, leaving us with practical advice rather than with the discussion of how emotional intelligence techniques are being used in schools, but I’m sure that there is research somewhere showing that books are more effective when they leave you with the pleasant feelings that result from a human interest story that is also a success story. And I’m sure Daniel Goleman knows about that research!

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights is a book I’ll be returning to over and over. I’d highly recommend it for anyone, and not just the businesspeople and trainers at whom it seems to be primarily aimed.

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Meditation causes changes in brain structure

A study by scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany found that deep meditation for 27 minutes a day for eight weeks produced changes in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress.

Dr. Britta Hölzel was the lead author of the study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging on Jan. 30. She says, “It’s fascinating to see the plasticity of the brain, and the practice of meditation can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase prosperity and the quality of life.”

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of tranquility and physical relaxation, doctors have long argued that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says Dr. Sara Lazar, a coauthor of the study.

Sixteen people participated in the study. They underwent a brain scan two weeks before and two weeks after the study. The magnetic resonance images of the brain structures of…

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the individuals showed an increase in gray-matter density in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that deals with memory, emotions, spacial orientation, and navigation.

Currently, meditation is seen as a great tool for reducing anxiety, improving health and well-being, and increasing the capacity of internal and external perception.

Meditation’s major benefits are being discovered by those who practice in a continuous, disciplined, and dedicated manner.

Meditation is done by sitting comfortably with one’s back straight and tension-free and having a positive, sincere, and respectful attitude. A suitable environment and proper position is essential for successful meditation. It’s helpful to have a good guide or instructions from a master.

Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese practice of mind, body, and spirit, includes exercises and meditation that refine the body and mind, allowing one to enter deep tranquility. Falun Gong, also called Falun Dafa, is a form of qigong, which has roots in China’s ancient culture.

The aim of many forms of meditation practice is to awaken one’s inner wisdom and to live harmoniously with others.

In July 1977, the American Psychological Association recognized meditation as an important healing agent and a facilitator of the therapeutic process.

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