Mind & Life Institute

Visual perception heightened by meditation training

Intensive mental training has a measurable effect on visual perception, according to a new study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. People undergoing intensive training in meditation became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.

A paper describing the results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science and was posted on the journal website May 11. It is the first paper to be published from a major scientific study of meditation training, the Shamatha Project.

“These results show for the first time that improved perception, often claimed to be a benefit of meditation practice, underlies improvements in sustained attention,” said project leader Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron has been interested in meditation since the 1970s. In the 1990s, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama’s private office and of the Boulder, Colo. -based Mind and Life Institute, he organized a field study of adept practitioners. During that project he was inspired by meeting exiled Tibetan monks and yogis in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, who had achieved remarkable emotional calm, focus and joyfulness in their lives, sometimes despite great hardship and suffering.

Saron and his colleagues wanted to know: Can these states be achieved only by individuals with an unusually serene disposition? Or can they be achieved by most people through intensive training?

The Shamatha Project is an attempt to answer those questions. It is the first long-term, detailed, control-group study of the measurable effects of meditative training on physiology, mental functioning and emotional state, Saron said.

In the project, 30 participants attended a three-month meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. They received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, while attending group sessions twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day. Wallace had worked with Saron on the field study in India and brought the idea for the Shamatha project to Saron and his UC Davis colleagues in 2003.

At the beginning, end, and in the middle of the course, participants were tested on attention and cognition, psychological and emotional measures, and physical and physiological changes.

A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time. The control group did undergo identical training later.

The visual attention experiments were led by UC Davis graduate student Katherine MacLean. Based on tests long used to assess vigilance in radar operators and other professions requiring long durations of uninterrupted attention, participants had to watch lines appearing on a screen and click a mouse when they saw lines that were shorter than others.

By midway through the retreat, meditators had become better at making fine visual distinctions. They were able to identify a smaller difference between “long” and “short” lines, and were better able to sustain attention during the half-hour test. Those findings are consistent with Buddhist claims that meditation cultivates “attentional vividness.”

People who continued practicing meditation after the retreat still showed improvements in perception when they were retested about five months later.

Meditation training may free up mental resources so that attentional focus can be sustained more easily for extended periods of time, Saron said. Meditators may also be more aware of normally subtle changes in experience that others miss, and have better emotional regulation.

The Shamatha Project shows that women and men of diverse age, ethnicity, education, and meditation experience can achieve measurable changes in their mental state and capabilities if they can commit to intensive training, Saron said.

While few individuals have three months to commit to such training, other studies have shown improvements in aspects of health and well-being with a less demanding regime. The minimum level of training required to produce the perceptual improvements seen in the Shamatha study remains to be determined, Saron said.

While the Shamatha Project is the largest and most comprehensive attempt yet to study changes brought about by mental training, its results cannot capture the full, first-person subjective experience of meditation, Saron said.

“We’re not trying to bottle someone’s experience,” he said. The project may, however, give insights into the nature of the mind and the relation between psychological and physiological traits using data from both first- and third-person perspectives.

Papers describing the other results of the study are in press or submitted for publication. The other authors on the Psychological Science paper are graduate student Stephen Aichele, Associate Professor Emilio Ferrer, postdoctoral scholar Baljinder Sahdra, Professor Phillip Shaver, and Professor George R. Mangun from the UC Davis Departments of Psychology and Neurology; research specialists Anthony Zanesco and Brandon King, both now admitted graduate students at UC Davis; postdoctoral scholar Tonya Jacobs and consulting scientist Erika Rosenberg from the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain; and graduate student David Bridwell, Department of Cognitive Science, UC Irvine. MacLean is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Major support for The Shamatha Project comes from the Fetzer Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation. Additional support comes from numerous private foundations, individual donors, and a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowship to MacLean, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship to Sahdra.

[via UC Davis]
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Buddhists May Help Biotechies Solve Big Mental Health Woes

Xconomy Seattle: One of the big opportunities in biotech over the coming decades may come from neuroscientists who team up with Buddhists. That might sound odd at first, but it’s no joke. This is one of the big ideas on the radar of Bennett Shapiro, the former executive vice president of worldwide basic research at Merck, who lives in Seattle, and serves as a senior partner with Boston’s PureTech Ventures.

Researchers are beginning to get a stronger sense of physiological differences in the brains of Buddhists who have been practicing mind training techniques like meditation for years, as compared to, say, the average brain of a distracted American, Shapiro says. These insights, based partly on brain imaging tools like functional MRI, are sparking new ideas about how to combine meditation techniques with neurological drugs, offering potential to do a better job of treating mental health problems, he says.

“If you want to think about the future in biotechnology, you would want to think about how you can help people regulate their emotions and attention,” Shapiro says. “If one can employ mind training in combination with pharmacologic therapies, one might be able to enhance their efficacy and thereby relieve the suffering of millions of people.”

Shapiro, 70, a longtime Seattleite who I met at a coffee shop near his house in the Magnolia neighborhood, sees these unusual connections between neuroscientists and Buddhists at close range. He serves on the board of the Boulder, CO-based nonprofit Mind & Life Institute, alongside the Dalai Lama himself and top neuroscientists like Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin. The Institute is trying to encourage research beyond the current drug regimens, like with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac, which Shapiro calls “blunt instruments” aimed at treating the most complex, differentiated organ in nature, the brain.

Even though the current drugs don’t work for everybody, and placebos often do remarkably well in clinical trials, these “blunt instruments” still add up to a lucrative market for drug companies. Pfizer alone generated $6 billion last year from neurology drugs, a 17 percent gain from the prior year, making this a faster-growing product category for that company than cardiovascular disease, pain, or cancer treatments. If drugs could be made that were more effective, presumably the market would get a lot bigger. About one out of every four adults in the U.S. suffer a diagnosable mental disorder each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

But what Shapiro is talking about could go a lot further than just diagnosable mental disorders. He’s thinking much more broadly about combinations of mind training and drugs that can help millions of children and adults. He says this sort of mind-training would be self-initiated and driven, not the coercive, frightening stuff from the movies like “A Clockwork Orange.”

If this is done the right way, Shapiro says, “Think about how people who meditate can control their emotions,” as well as their attention spans, Shapiro says. This could transform the educational system, he says. “Children could be taught all the things they already learn, but also learn skills on how to deal with distractions and regulate their attention.”

No biotech company that Shapiro is aware of, and certainly none of the Big Pharma companies, have decided to take a serious swing at this concept. “This is more of a germ of an idea,” he says.

Global health is another big idea that Shapiro is fully embracing at this later stage of his career. He was eager to chat about the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI), a nonprofit in Geneva, Switzerland, where he serves on the board. This organization is pushing to develop six to eight new drugs for the major scourges of the developing world by 2014.

On global health, Shapiro sounded less scientifically audacious to my ear, and more focused on practical realities of how to deliver simple treatments that already exist. The DNDI isn’t fixated on discovering breakthrough drugs with novel ways of working, but instead lists one of its proudest accomplishments as creating a simple fixed-dose combination of existing drugs that costs less than $1, and is given in a simple blister packet that makes it easy for patients to comply with doctors’ orders, and therefore prevent the development of drug resistance.

Experience with the new drug formulation in the Amazon River basin in Brazil, where malaria infections are a part of life, showed that the treatment was able to cut down on incidence by two-thirds, and is now being used by Brazilian national authorities, Shapiro says. Another fixed-dose combination, made for malaria strains in sub-Saharan Africa, has been supported through a partnership with Paris-based drug giant Sanofi-Aventis. About 5 million doses of that drug were delivered in 2008, and that will quadruple to more than 20 million this year, according to the DNDI.

Besides all this nonprofit work, Shapiro spends a lot of time on the boards of for-profits through his role at PureTech. We didn’t talk much about it, although he noted that he was drawn to PureTech partly because it is trying to “bring the spirit back” of the early days of biotech, 25 years ago, when venture capitalists weren’t nearly as cautious as they are now.

This freedom to think about cracking big problems on the frontiers of biology sounded liberating to Shapiro, who spent 13 prime years of his career at one of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies. He walked away with a record of having a hand in the development of 23 new drugs that reached the marketplace, mixed in with the familiar frustrations of working in an industry with more than its share of groupthink and copycats. “One person finds something and everybody else piles on,” he says.

Now, he doesn’t have to run with the pack at all. If he’s anywhere close to the right track with the idea of combining behavior and neurological drugs, or if the anti-malarial drugs start putting a dent in incidence around the world, then he could have something more impressive on his resume than some big-selling drugs he helped develop at Merck.

“This is the best time of my life,” Shapiro says. “It’s fabulous.”

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Buddhism and the Blues (Phayul.com, Tibet)

Mediation techniques can help cure depression, and Buddhism’s core techniques of meditation and awareness may have much to offer ordinary Westerners, whose material comforts have not wiped out rampant emotional distress. Read more

Summary: Mediation techniques can help cure depression. Buddhist psychology offers more than a method of investigation. Its core techniques of meditation and awareness may have much to offer ordinary Westerners, whose material comforts have not wiped out rampant emotional distress.

To most people Buddhism is an ancient Asian religion, although a very special one. It has no god, it has no central creed or dogma and its primary goal is the expansion of consciousness, or awareness.

But to the Dalai Lama, it’s a highly refined tradition, perfected over the course of 2,500 years, of analyzing and investigating the inner world of the mind in order to transform mental states and promote happiness. “Whether you are a believer or not in the faith,” the Dalai Lama recently told a conference of Buddhists and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you can use its time-honored techniques to voluntarily control your emotional state.

Yes, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. Yes, he is the head of the Tibetan government in exile. But in the spirit of Buddhism the Dalai Lama has an inquiring mind and wishes to expand human knowledge to improve lives. At its core, Buddhism is a system of inquiry into the nature of what is.

He believes that psychology and neuroscience have gone about as far as they can go in understanding the mind and brain by measuring external reality. Now that inner reality–the nature of consciousness–is the pressing subject du jour, the sciences need to borrow from the knowledge base that Buddhism has long cultivated.

A comprehensive science of the mind requires a science of consciousness. Buddhism offers what MIT geneticist Eric Lander, Ph.D., called a “highly refined technology” of introspective practices that provide systematic access to subjective experience. Yet Buddhist psychology offers more than a method of investigation. Its core techniques of meditation and awareness may have much to offer ordinary Westerners, whose material comforts have not wiped out rampant emotional distress.

Over the past 15 years, starting with his own personal interest, the Dalai Lama has set up discussions with Western scientists in an effort to further knowledge about the emotions. The recent meeting, held at MIT, was actually the eleventh in a series of annual conversations sponsored by the Colorado-based Mind & Life Institute. But it was the first one that was open to other participants.

The Buddhist view of how the mind works is somewhat different from the traditional Western view. Western psychology pretty much holds to the belief that things like attention and emotion are fixed and immutable. Buddhism sees the components of the mind more as skills that can be trained. This view has increasing support from modern neuroscience, which is almost daily providing new evidence of the brain’s capacity for change and growth.

Buddhism uses intelligence to control the emotions. Through meditative practices, awareness can be trained and focused on the contents of the mind to observe ongoing experience. Such techniques are of growing interest to Western psychologists, who increasingly see depression as a disorder of emotional mismanagement. In this view, attention is hijacked by negative events and then sets off a kind of chain reaction of negative feeling, thinking and behavior that has its own rapidity and inevitability.

Techniques of awareness permit the cultivation of self-control. They allow people to break the negative emotional chain reaction and head off the hopelessness and despair it leads to. By focusing attention, it is possible to monitor your environment, recognize a negative stimulus and act on it the instant it registers on awareness. While attention as traditional psychologists know it can be an exhausting mental activity, as Buddhists practice it it actually becomes a relaxing and effortless enterprise.

One way of meditation is to use breathing techniques in which you focus on the breathing and let any negative stimulus just go by–instead of bringing it into your working memory, where you are likely to sit and ruminate about it and thus amplify its negativity. It’s a way of unlearning the self-defeating ways you somehow acquired of responding catastrophically to negative experiences.

Evidence increasingly suggests that meditation techniques are highly effective at helping people recover from a bout of depression and especially useful in preventing recurrences. Medication may be needed during the depths of an acute episode to jump-start brain systems, but at best “antidepressants are a halfway house,” says Alan Wallace, Ph.D., head of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Study of Consciousness. But meditation retrains the mind to allow ongoing control over the content of thoughts and feelings.

Basic Meditation Exercise

1. Sit with an alert and relaxed body posture so that you feel relatively comfortable without moving. (You can sit either in a straight-back chair with your feet flat on the floor or on a thick, firm cushion three to six inches off the floor.)

2.Keep your back, neck and head vertically aligned, relax your shoulders and find a comfortable place for your hands (usually on your knees).

3. Bring your attention to your breathing. Observe the breath as it flows in and out. Give full attention to the feeling of the breath as it comes in and goes out. Whenever you find that your attention has moved elsewhere, just note it and let go and gently escort your attention back to the breath, back to the rising and falling of your own belly.

4. When you can maintain some continuity of attention on the breath, try expanding the field of your awareness “around” your belly to include a sense of your body as a whole.

5. Maintain this awareness of the body sitting and breathing, and, when the mind wanders, bring it back to sitting and breathing.

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