Michael Posner

Why everyone should begin to meditate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Training, meditation can help people with cognitive disorders’

Can a regular training and proper exercises help in the assessment and treatment of cognitive disorders in the long run?

While psychologists and experts in cognitive science across the globe are looking at various methods to understand medical cognition and role of cognitive process in various types of mental health problems, senior scientist and pioneer expert in the field, professor Michael I Posner from US has found a strong connection between training and meditation with white matter in the brain that could lead to assessment and treatment of cognitive disorders in the long run.

Various research studies in US have found connection between the white matter and mindfulness exercises including meditation, said Posner, a professor emeritus from the University of Oregon, while talking to Times of India on Sunday.

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There are also strong evidences to show that training strategies and meditation actually regulate the secretion of cortisone, also known as stress hormone. Similarly, mindful exercises in different cultures have induced changes in behaviour besides affecting the cognition level, he added.

It may be mentioned here that Posner was in the city to inaugurate the 3-day international seminar on ‘recent advances in cognitive science’ organised by the department of psychology, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) that began on Saturday (December 18).

In 2009, Posner was awarded the US National Science Medal, the highest award for scientists in the country.

Saying that the development of advanced version of MRI including functional MRI has made it easier to examine the working human brain and its different neural network connections, the scientist also emphasised that efforts are being made to examine the neural network underlying attention that could be used to develop suitable cognitive intervention for various types of psychopathology. “We are also trying to develop training strategies that have compensatory mechanism for brain damage and rehabilitation. It could help people with cognitive disorders to lead a normal and respectful life.” he said.

Referring to the recent experiments to assess the cognitive level of school-going children using psycholinguistic tools, Posner said that experiments clearly showed that students had difficulty in understanding Chinese numerals in comparison to Arabic numerals, though numerals involved simple arithmetic. It is an interesting revelation that shows different behaviour of individuals or the group in different cultures in the world, he added.

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Meditation for a stronger brain

Researchers say a type of meditation called integrative mind-body training can strengthen connections in certain areas of the brain, even when practiced for as little as 11 hours. Psychologist Michael Posner describes the study, and explains the brain changes he documented.

IRA FLATOW, host: For the rest of the hour, take a deep, cleansing breath for a look at the science of meditation, because this week, researchers say a certain form of meditation can actually change the wiring in your brain. Students who practice the meditation for just 11 hours over a period of a few weeks had changes in brain connectivity that could be seen on a brain scan. The work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Joining me now to talk more about those changes and what they mean is my guest, Michael Posner. He is a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He’s also a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He joins us from Eugene today. Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. MICHAEL POSNER (Psychologist, Weill Cornell Medical College): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: What kind of meditation are we talking about? You said in your paper that it’s not the kind that we practice here in the West.

Dr. POSNER: Well, it is to some extent. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation that was developed from traditional Chinese medicine by my colleague, Yi-Yuan Tang. And we don’t know how unique this form of meditation is, but it does have changes that occur within just a few days. So it’s possible to do a random assignment of subjects both to the meditation group and to a plausible control group, which in our case is relaxation training. And relaxation training is a common part of cognitive behavioral therapy as practiced in the West. So we have a pretty plausible control group. And we can ask, what are the differences between practicing a form of mindfulness meditation, IBMT, or integrated body-mind training, compared to the relaxation training?

And we’ve published a series of papers showing that there are strong behavioral changes that take place within just five days. And in this most recent paper, we found changes in the white matter, or the physical connectivity between a portion of the brain, which is important for self-regulation, and other parts of the frontal cortex and parts of the striatum and other parts of the brain.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could you see behavioral changes in the actions of the people at all?

Dr. POSNER: Yes. We found, in this previous report, after only five days of training, about half hour a day – and this was done with Chinese students, but we’ve replicated it here in the U.S. – we found changes in their ability to attend. We found changes in mood. And we found changes in their reaction to stress. You know, we secrete a stress hormone, cortisol, under stressful conditions, perhaps like being on this program.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

Dr. POSNER: And the cortisol secretions were lessened, following five days of training by IBMT, more than they were by the relaxation training.

FLATOW: So this is different from that famous relaxation response we’ve talked about decades ago?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, it is different because the control group in this case is relaxation. And the experimental group, presumably, produces a brain state that does something over and above relaxation. It may be that the relaxation training requires a lot of attention, preparing to relax one muscle group versus another. And that leads to some additional struggle which interferes with getting into a brain state conducive to the kinds of behavioral results we found.

FLATOW: And I think the most fascinating part of this work is that you actually see structural changes in the brain from this.

Dr. POSNER: We used diffusion tensor imaging, which is a way of looking at the white matter of the brain. And we found with 11 hours of practice over about a month, IBMT changed the white matter connectivity as measured by fractional anisotropy, the diffusion of water along the pathway…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POSNER: …so as to produce a more efficient connection between the anterior cingulate and these other areas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a tweet coming in. It says, are these changes all good? Are there any drawbacks? Do they make anyone less alert or less productive or less attentive after these were done?

Dr. POSNER: We haven’t found any reduced performance. Everything really has been either no change – some of the attentional networks do not change, but the most important attentional network, the one that is involved in self-regulation and control, does change. So we’ve either found favorable changes or, in some cases, there are no differences from relaxation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Michael Posner on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow. Can I do this myself? And where do I go to find out how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t have any commercially available practitioners trained in this particular method, and we don’t know how unique this method is. We have been able to get changes very quickly, but IBMT is like other mindfulness meditation, and there have been many favorable reports – perhaps not quite as well controlled because they take longer – about mindfulness meditation in general.

So people can try that, and we hope to make available more material on our particular method over the coming months as we get more experimental evidence.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If you do anything over and over again, wouldn’t that also create some changes in the brain wiring?

Dr. POSNER: It does. We have also done training, what I call attention training, which is actually practicing particular attentional networks over and over again. That’s the most frequent way of getting change, and it does produce changes. But it doesn’t produce as widespread a kind of change as this IBMT does, which is actually not practicing a particular network. But we believe relaxing into a brain state, which, when repeated over and over again, allows you to carry that brain state around even when you’re not practicing the meditation.

And for example, after 30 days of training, the subjects show a lowered stress level as measured by cortisol secretion even at baseline, even without practicing more meditation or being in the meditative state.

FLATOW: So this doesn’t extinguish itself after a while. It hung around?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t know that. This was tested immediately after the 30 days of training. We don’t know how long it lasts. That’s part of our current protocols to try to see how long it lasts. It may not matter as much because this kind of training is not difficult to continue.

FLATOW: Can you give us an idea since we don’t know anything or where to find it commercially? Can you describe the training a bit for us?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, this is done by a trained practitioner using a standardized CD, which tries to get the person to relax and keep his mind in the present state.

To do that, we use imagery. We use control of breath – all pretty standard meditation components. And they’re combined together to produce the kind of results that we have.

FLATOW: So there’s no chanting of a mantra or anything like that?

Dr. POSNER: No, there’s no particular focus on any kind of verbal process, just keeping the mind in the present state but preventing it from wandering around. And that seems to relax the person into a favorable brain state for processing information.

FLATOW: So do you sit there and close your mind and concentrate on one thing or whatever comes into your mind? Or how do you direct that?

Dr. POSNER: Well, you try to not get your mind wandering from the present state…

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Dr. POSNER: …do have to do – produce some control of breath and some control in that way. But otherwise, you keep your mind focused but not on a particular thing, just in the present.

FLATOW: And what do you call this kind of…

Dr. POSNER: Integrated body-mind training…

FLATOW: So if I…

Dr. POSNER: …because it affects both the body and the mind.

FLATOW: Yeah. So if I Google this, could I find a description in how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: You could, yes. Yuan Tang, who’s the creator of this, has a website, and you could get that through Google. Some of it will be available in English. Other would be available in Chinese.

FLATOW: Well, I’m going to go take a look at it myself. Thank you, Dr. Posner.

Dr. POSNER: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. Michael Posner is a psychologist and adjunct professor at Weill Cornell Medical College here in New York, also professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene.


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Chinese meditation technique boosts brain function

A Chinese-influenced meditation technique appears to help the brain regulate behavior after as little as 11 hours of practice, according to a study released Monday.

Researchers at the University of Oregon and Dalian University of Technology charted the effects of integrative body-mind training (IBMT), a technique adapted in the 1990s from traditional Chinese medicine and practiced by thousands in China.

The research to be published in the upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences involved 45 test subjects, about half of whom received IBMT, while a control group received relaxation training.

Imaging tests showed a greater number of connections in the anterior cingulate — the part of the brain which regulates emotion and behavior — among those who practiced meditation compared to subjects in the control group.

“The importance of our findings relates to the ability to make structural changes in a brain network related to self-regulation,” said The University of Oregon’s Michael Posner, a lead author on the study.

“The pathway that has the largest change due to IBMT is one that previously was shown to relate to individual differences in the person’s ability to regulate conflict,” he said.

Deficits in activation of the anterior cingulate cortex also have been associated with attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression, schizophrenia and many other disorders.

And researchers said the experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue than students in the control group.

“We believe this new finding is of interest to the fields of education, health and neuroscience, as well as for the general public,” said Dalian University’s Yi-Yuan Tang, who led the team of Chinese researchers.

IBMT emphasizes body-mind awareness using breathing techniques and mental imagery to achieve a state of “restful alertness.”

Scientists hypothesized that the changes resulted from a reorganization of white-matter tracts or by an increase of myelin that surrounds the connections.

The researchers said the findings suggest that IBMT can be used as a vehicle for understanding how training influences brain plasticity.

[via AFP]
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