meditation and neuroplasticity

Optimize your brain, body, and life with meditation

Until not long ago, scientists studying the nervous system believed that the adult brain was incapable of growing new cells. That’s now known to be false. In fact new cells are being born in the brain all the time. If they’re needed (that is, if the part of the brain that they’re in is being used intensively) then those cells become wired in to the existing networks of nerves, and that part of the brain grows. On the other hand, if they’re not used, they’ll be reabsorbed.

Even without growing new cells, the brain is constantly developing and pruning connections, though. Every new memory you create, every thing you forget, every new piece of learning, changes the physical structure of your brain in a measurable way.

This ability of the brain to remodel itself is called “plasticity,” or “neuroplasticity.” That the brain physically grows in response to learning was first shown in the late 1700’s, but unfortunately that discovery was forgotten. Then, in the late 1990’s, it was found that London taxi drivers, who spend years memorizing the layout of the city’s streets, have enlargement of the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain involved in spatial navigation. Taxi drivers, it turned out, do not start out with an enlarged hippocampus, but develop this as a result of practicing their navigation skills.

In 2011, Sarah Lazar of Harvard found that after just eight weeks of meditation, there were observable increases in density in brain structures involved in learning and memory, emotional regulation, self-referential processing, empathy and compassion, and putting experiences into perspective. A later study by Lazar additionally showed shrinkage of the amygdala, which is involved in the fight or flight reflex. The change in the amygdala was correlated to a measurable reduction in stress levels.

It’s well-established that the brain’s cortex—the outer layer of the brain, which plays a key role in memory, attention, thought, language, and consciousness—shrinks as we get older, causing problems with slowed thinking and poorer memories. Lazar has found that regular meditators have a thicker cortex. In her studies she found 50-year-old meditators with the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

These findings are enormously encouraging, especially since they can be shown after an average of less than half an hour of meditation a day for just eight weeks. They have universal applicability: as far as I’m aware not a single participant in a neuroscience study has been found to have a brain that can’t change! Such a person, if they did exist, would be of enormous interest to scientists!

If we practice, the brain will change, and we will get better at regulating our emotions, become happier and calmer, and find ourselves less prone to anxiety and other unpleasant states. Isn’t that encouraging?

The brain, in its ability to grow, is like a muscle, and the practice of mindfulness—including, of course, meditation—is akin to physical exercise. Meditation practice helps the brain to be healthier and to work more effectively. It helps us to regulate our emotions and to avoid stress. And it slows the aging of the brain.

It’s wrong to think, though, that meditation only changes the brain. By changing the way that the brain functions, it promotes better physical health through reducing inflammation and by reducing the level of stress hormones circulating in the body. It reduces the perception of pain. It makes us feel calmer, more relaxed, and more in control of our lives. It also changes our emotional expression, bringing more emotional balance and greater optimism and positivity. All of these changes directly affect our lives, so that we’re more likely to experience support from others, rather than conflict. Meditation, in effect, changes our entire lives for the better, in a kind of positivity cascade.

In a course I’m leading, starting, March 1, we’ll learn about specific findings from science about the many ways in which we can benefit from meditation. We’ll also practically explore meditation, with at least 12 guided meditations I’ve recorded specially. This course, Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation, is suitable for those who are new to meditation as well as to experienced meditators who want to expand their repertoire of skills and to give themselves a better understanding what’s happening in the brain and body when they sit.

Click here for more information on Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation.

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How does meditation make you smarter?

wildmind meditation newsViatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, BrainBlogger: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you don’t need to be told about the relaxing effects of meditation. The practitioners vouch for it; and those who don’t, do not dispute it either. Those in the Far East have known for centuries that meditating brings mental peace and spiritual bliss. Now scientists claim that meditation can even alter the brain’s chemistry and functionality.

Over the years, neuroscientists have carried out brain imaging tests on long-term practitioners of meditation, including several Tibetan …

Read the original article »

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The art of self-forgiveness

Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody.

It’s important to acknowledge mistakes, feel appropriate remorse, and learn from them so they don’t happen again. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they’re unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me might set the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise . . . and then when it goes off, another part of me could grumble: “Who set the darn clock?” More broadly, there is a kind of inner critic and inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn’t credit you for your efforts to make amends.

Therefore, you really need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to keep getting back on the high road even if you’ve gone down the low one, and – frankly – to tell that inner critic to Shut Up.

With the support of your inner protector, you can see your faults clearly with fearing that will drag you into a pit of feeling awful, clean up whatever mess you’ve made as best you can, and move on. The only wholesome purpose of guilt, shame, or remorse is learning – not punishment! – so that you don’t mess up in that way again. Anything past the point of learning is just needless suffering. Plus excessive guilt, etc., actually gets in the way of you contributing to others and helping make this world a better place, by undermining your energy, mood, confidence, and sense of worth.

Seeing faults clearly, taking responsibility for them with remorse and making amends, and then coming to peace about them: this is what I mean by forgiving yourself.

How?

Start by picking something relatively small that you’re still being hard on yourself about, and then try one or more of the methods below. I’ve spelled them out in detail since that’s often useful, but you could do the gist of these methods in a few minutes or less.

Then if you like, work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch, as best you can, with the feeling of being cared about by some being: a friend or mate, spiritual being, pet, or person from your childhood. Open to the sense that aspects of this being, including the caring for you, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, list some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don’t need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.
  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone’s downfall – whateverit was – acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others. Notice any facts that are hard to face – like the look in a child’s eyes when you yelled at her – and be especially open to them; they’re the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.
  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.) You could ask others what they think about this sorting (and about other points below) – include those you may have wronged – but you alone get to decide what’s right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., never done again) without self-flagellation.
  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it. Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself. Next, decide what if anything remains to be done – inside your own heart or out there in the world – and then do it. Let it sink in that you’re doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.
  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to that “still quiet voice of conscience,” so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, including maybe the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that’s alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

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Personalities are not fixed, and that’s great news

Children's yoga. The little boy does exercise.A mountaineering friend of mine used to remark that when he’d meet a rock or other obstruction while coming down a mountain, and was faced with choices — go left, or right? — each choice would lead to other, different, choices. In this way, two different decisions early on — although seemingly insignificant — could result in profoundly different outcomes.

Views we hold can be like that as well. A view like “personalities are fixed” leads to very different results compared to a view like “personalities are fluid.”

A new study illustrates how easily views about our personalities can be changed, and how powerful the effect of changing them can be.

David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, working with a graduate student from Emory University, Adriana Sum Miu, wondered whether the belief that people’s personalities are malleable would have an impact on bullied teens, perhaps reducing their levels of hopelessness, despair, and depression.

Yeager observed, “When teens are excluded or bullied it can be reasonable to wonder if they are ‘losers’ or ‘not likable,'” and he wondered whether teaching teens that people can change would reduce those thoughts, and if so, could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?

At the start of a school year, roughly 600 ninth grade children were assigned to an intervention group or to a control group. Neither the children nor the teachers and staff at the three schools involved were aware of the purpose of the exercise, so that their attitudes wouldn’t differentially affect either group.

The intervention group read a passage about how personalities are subject to change, and how being bullied is not the result of a personality defect. It was also emphasized that bullies are not inherently “bad.” There was reinforcement in the form of information about brain plasticity (the idea that our brains, and thus our skills, attitudes, and behaviors can change and evolve). Endorsements from older students were given, and the group members were asked to write an account of how personalities can change.

The control group did similar exercises, focusing not on personality but on athletic ability.

Nine months later, the symptoms of clinical depression, including negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem, had risen by 39% in the control group, while there was no increase in the intervention group. This was true even for students who had been bullied.

This change is rather stunning, given that the intervention was very brief, taking place in a normal class period. There was no counseling given, and the exercise used only computer and pen-and-paper activities. I’d estimate that achieving the same outcome, on that scale, through individual guidance and counseling would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The message being taught is very in line with Buddhist teachings on anatta (lack of fixed self). One of the things that Buddhism teaches us is that our mental habits are just that — they are habits, and subject to change, given the right circumstances.

You can read more about the study at the Association for Psychological Science website.

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Be mind full of good

Reaaching Up Into The SkyIt’s kind of amazing: right now, what you think and feel, enjoy and suffer, is changing your brain. The brain is the organ that learns, designed by evolution to be changed by our experiences: what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. This means that each one of us has the power to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better. To benefit oneself and other beings.

Using this internal power is more important than ever these days, when so many of us are pushed and prodded by external forces – the economy, media, politics, workplace policies, war on the other side of the world, the people on the other side of the dining room table – and by our reactions to them.

Life is often hard. To cope with hard things, to be effective and successful, or simply to experience ordinary well-being, we need resources inside, inner strengths like resilience, compassion, gratitude and other positive emotions, self-worth, and insight.

Some strengths are innate – built into your DNA – but most are acquired, woven over time into the fabric of your brain. These lasting traits come from passing states – experiences of the inner strength – that get installed into the brain. You become more grateful through internalizing repeated experiences of gratitude; you become more compassionate through internalizing repeated experiences of compassion; etc.

So far, so obvious. But here’s the catch: without this installation – without the transfer of the experience from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage – beneficial experiences such as feeling cared about are momentarily pleasant but have no lasting value. Yikes! There is no learning, no growth, no change for the better.

Meanwhile, your brain is rapidly and efficiently turning unpleasant, negative experiences – feeling frazzled, stressed, worried, frustrated, irritated, inadequate, hurt, etc. – into neural structure. To help our ancestors survive in harsh conditions, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it good at learning from bad experiences but relatively bad at learning from good ones – even though learning from good experiences is the main way to grow the inner strengths we all need.

In effect, today our brains have a well-intended, universal learning disability because they’ve been painstakingly built over millions of years for peak performance . . . in Stone Age conditions.

Most of us are pretty good at having beneficial experiences – but pretty bad at installing them in the brain. Similarly, most therapists, mindfulness teachers, coaches, parents, and human resources trainers are pretty good at encouraging beneficial experiences in others, but pretty bad at helping them get installed in those brains; this was certainly true for me.

In effect, most beneficial experiences are wasted most of the time. The result is a learning curve, a growth rate, that is a lot flatter than it needs to be.

Poignantly, because we are not internalizing most of our wholesome, beneficial experiences – authentic moments of feeling relaxed, capable, peaceful, glad, successful, contented, appreciated, loved, and loving – we feel emptier inside than we truly deserve to feel. And we become a lot easier to manipulate by fear, consumerism, and “us vs. them” conflicts.

What can we do?

We can use the mind to change the brain for the better.

How?

Here’s the essence: Have It, Enjoy It.

In other words, have a beneficial experience in the first place – usually because you simply notice one you are already having: you’re already feeling a bit of ease, relief, pleasure, connection, warmth, determination, confidence, clarity, hope, etc. And it’s fine to create beneficial experiences, such as deliberately thinking of things you feel thankful for, or calling up compassion for someone in pain, or recalling how it felt in your body to assert yourself with someone who was being pushy.

Then, once you’ve got that good experience going, really enjoy it: taking 5, 10, or more seconds to protect and stay with it, and open to it in your body. The longer and more intensely those neurons fire together, the more they’ll be wiring this inner strength into your brain.

This is positive neuroplasticity, the essence of self-reliance: taking in everyday experiences to develop more inner strengths such as grit, confidence, kindness, emotional balance, happiness, patience, and self-awareness.

I don’t believe in positive thinking. You’re not overlooking the pains, losses, or injustices in life. I believe in realistic thinking, seeing the whole mosaic of reality, the good, the bad, and the neutral. Precisely because life is often hard – and because we’ve got a brain that’s relatively poor at growing the inner strengths needed to deal with these challenges – we need to focus on the good facts in life, let them become good experiences, and then help these experiences really sink in.

Most of the time you take in the good will be in the flow of life, maybe half a dozen times a day, usually less than half a minute at a time. You can also use more structured moments, such as at meals, after exercising or meditation, or just before bed.

Besides being more open in general to beneficial experiences, you can look for those specific experiences that will grow the particular inner strength(s) that will help you the most these days. For example, if you’re feeling anxious, look for authentic opportunities to feel supported, protected, resourced, tough-minded, relaxed, or calm. If life feels disappointing or blah, look for the genuine facts that naturally support experiences of gladness, gratitude, pleasure, accomplishment, or effectiveness. If you feel lonely or inadequate, look for the real occasions when you are included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved – and open to feeling appropriately cared about, and valued; also look for chances to feel caring yourself, since love is love whether it is flowing in or flowing out.

Our beneficial experiences are usually mild – a 1 or 2 on the 0-10 scale of intensity – but they are real. Any single time you let these experiences really land inside you won’t change your life. But much as a cup of water is filled drop by drop, you’ll be changing your brain synapse by synapse for the better – and your life for the better as well.

And with a mind full of good, you’ll have more to offer others. Growing the good in them, too, in widening ripples seen and unseen, perhaps reaching eventually around the whole world.

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New brain-based understanding of mindfulness & meditation strategies for addiction treatment

wildmind meditation newsPRWeb: Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to aid addiction recovery, but which strategy is best? Here Constance Scharff, PhD, Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, describes our evolving understanding of the brain-based effects of meditation and mindfulness.

When included in addiction treatment and relapse prevention programs, mindfulness and meditation strategies have been shown to reduce anxiety and help to prevent relapse. But mindfulness and meditation are separate practices and even within meditation, not all styles produce the same results. Which is best?

“Anxiety is universal to the human condition, but addicts experience it to an extreme because they have real problems. Meditation and mindfulness practices can help an addict stop worrying about the past, stop fussing about the future, and can help keep an addict from being caught up in racing thoughts about things they can’t control,” says Constance Scharff, PhD, Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center.

The more stress and anxiety your brain experiences, the more prone you are to addiction. The same is true of trauma – people who have experienced traumatic events are more likely to abuse substances than people without trauma histories. It’s these two challenges – stress and the influence of traumatic memories – that meditation or mindfulness training are thought to heal in people undergoing addiction treatment.

Scharff describes mindfulness as awareness of the present moment. Within meditation practices, there are two major schools – concentrative meditation in which a person focuses on a thought, a sound or on breathing, and nondirective meditation in which a person gently unfocuses his or her mind and lets thoughts wander.

“What we’re learning is that these practices physically change the way the brain works,” Scharff says.

For example, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience used fMRI imaging to look inside the brains of 14 experienced meditators. First, the researchers had people chant a sound while focusing their minds on the meditation syllables. Then researchers had people meditate again, but this time letting their minds wander. They also compared both meditation strategies to rest.

The group from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that unfocused meditation led to the most activation of brain areas that deal with the processing of memories and emotions. In fact, unfocused mediation far outperformed both focused meditation and rest in its activation of these areas essential for stress reduction and the successful processing of traumatic experiences.

The authors write that, “These techniques are thought to facilitate mental processing of emotional experiences, thereby contributing to wellness and stress management.”

Likewise, a host of studies show long-term changes in brain structures due to mindfulness and meditation practices, including increased gray matter density, increased neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to create new synapses), increased activation in brain areas that control attention, and even temperature changes in the brain. New research at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and elsewhere shows these visible, physical changes are sculpted by the practice of meditation – the more you meditate, the more your brain is changed.

“In addition to long-term changes in the mechanics of the brain, at Cliffside we see another, more short-term benefit – we see addicts making an effort to focus on the things that are happening right now and there’s a calm from making that effort,” Scharff says.

Even outside the ways in which meditation changes the brain, and outside the effects of mindfulness practice on focusing attention on the present, the process of learning to the skill itself may provide a valuable forum in which to practice self change.

“For me, the important part is learning to be non-judgmental,” Scharff says. “A person may only go three seconds before a thought intrudes, and that’s OK. It’s the process of accepting current limitations and learning to fail safely without self-judgment that is beneficial.”

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The Mind, the Brain, and God – Part I

Universal MindWith all the research on mind/brain connections these days – Your brain in lust or love! While gambling or feeling envious! While meditating, praying, or having an out-of-body experience! – it’s natural to wonder about Big Questions about the relationships among the mind, the brain, and God.For instance, some people have taken the findings that some spiritual experiences have neural correlates to mean that the hand of God is at work in the brain. Others have interpreted the same research to mean that spiritual experiences are “just” neural, and thus evidence against the existence of God or other supernatural forces. These debates are updated versions of longstanding philosophical and religious wrestlings with how God and nature might or might not intertwine.What’s your own gut view, right now, as a kind of snapshot: Do you think that God is involved in some way in your thoughts and feelings? In your most intimate sense of being?

In this essay, we’ll explore what mind, brain, and God could be, how they might interact, and what studies on the neuropsychology of spiritual experiences can – and cannot – tell us.

What the Words Mean

The more profound the subject, the murkier the discussion. There’s a lot of fog and illogic in books, articles, and blogs about the potential relationships among the mind, the brain, and God. In this territory, it’s particularly important to be clear about key terms – like mind, brain, and God.

So – by mind, I mean the information represented by the nervous system (which has its headquarters in the brain – the three pounds of tofu – like tissue between the ears). This information includes incoming signals about the oxygen saturation in the blood and outgoing instructions to the lungs to take a bigger breath, motor sequences for brushing one’s teeth, tendencies toward anxiety, memories of childhood, knowing how to make pancakes, and the feeling of open spacious mindfulness. Most of mind is outside the field of awareness either temporarily or permanently. Conscious experience – sensations, emotions, wants, images, inner language, etc. – is just the tip of the iceberg of mental activity. The nervous system holds information much like a computer hard drive holds the information in a document, song, or picture. Hardware represents software.

Immaterial information is categorically distinct from its material substrate. For example, often the same information (such as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) can be represented by a variety of suitable material substrates (e.g., sound waves, music score, CD, iPod). Therefore, at one level of analysis, Descartian dualism is correct: information and matter, mind and body, are two different things. Nonetheless – as we will see – at another, higher level of analysis, it is clear that the mind and the nervous system arise interdependently, shaping each other, as one integrated process. (And perhaps at a lower level of analysis – that of quantum phenomena – information and materiality are inextricably woven together; but I’m not going there in this essay!)

Mind, as I define it here, occurs in any creature with a nervous system. Humans have a mind – and so do monkeys, squirrels, lizards, worms, and dust mites. More complex nervous systems can produce more complex minds. But just as there is a spectrum of complexity of the nervous system, from the simplest jellyfish 600 million years ago to a modern human, there is a similar spectrum of complexity in the mind. Or to put it bluntly, there is no categorical distinction between the mind of a millipede and a mathematician. The difference is one of degree, not kind. (And how many mathematicians – or anyone, for that matter – could move dozens of limbs together in undulating harmony?)

By God, I mean a transcendental Something (being, force, ground, mystery, question mark) that is outside the frame of materiality; materiality includes matter and energy since E=mc2, plus dark matter/energy, plus other wild stuff that scientists will discover in the future. God is generally described in two major ways: as an omniscient and omnipotent being “who knows when a sparrow falls,” or as a kind of Ground from and as which everything arises – with many variations on these two view, plus syntheses and divergences.
By definition, while God may intersect or interact with the material universe, it is in some sense other than that universe – otherwise we don’t need another word than “universe.” For example, if someone says that God is the same thing as nature, that begs the question of whether God exists, distinct from nature.

The Interdependent Mind and Brain

Let’s review three facts about the mind and the brain.

First, when your brain changes, your mind changes. Everyday examples include the effects of caffeine, antidepressants, lack of sleep, and having a cold. More extreme examples: concussion, stroke, brain damage, and dementia.

Without a brain, you can’t have a mind. The brain is a necessary condition for the mind. And apart from the hypothetical influence of God – which we’ll be discussing further on – the brain is a sufficient condition for the mind. Or more exactly, a proximally sufficient condition for the mind, since the brain intertwines with the nervous system and other bodily systems, which in turn intertwine with nature, both here and now, and over evolutionary time; and as you’ll see in the next paragraph, the brain also depends on the mind.

Second, when your mind changes, your brain changes. Temporary changes include the activation of different neural circuits or regions when you have different kinds of thoughts, feelings, moods, attention, or even sense of self. For example, the anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex gets relatively busy (thus consuming more oxygen) when people meditate; the caudate nucleus in the reward centers of the brain lights up when college students see a photo of their sweetheart; and stressful experiences trigger flows of cortisol into the brain, sensitizing the amygdala (the brain’s alarm bell).

Mental activity also sculpts neural structure, so changes in your mind can lead to lasting changes in your brain. This is learning and memory (as well as lots of other alterations in neural structure below the waterline of conscious awareness): in other words, neuroplasticity, most of which is humdrum, like remembering what you had for breakfast, or getting more skillful at chopsticks with practice.

Examples of neuroplasticity include:

  • Meditators have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex and insula (a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body); a thicker cortex means more synapses, capillaries (bringing blood), and support cells.
  • Cab drivers have a thicker hippocampus (which is central to visual spatial memory) at the end of their training, memorizing the spaghetti snarl of streets in London.
  • Pianists have thicker motor cortices in the areas responsible for fine finger movements.

Within science, it has been long presumed that mental activity changed neural structure – how else in the world could any animal, including humans, learn anything? – so the idea of neuroplasticity is not news (though it’s often erroneously described as a breakthrough). What is news is the emerging detail in our understanding of the mechanisms of neuroplasticity, which include increasing blood flow to busy neurons, altering gene expression (epigenetics), strengthening existing synapses (the connections between neurons), and building new ones. This growing understanding creates opportunities for self-directed neuroplasticity, for using the mind in targeted ways to change the brain to change the mind for the better. Some of these ways are dramatic, such as stroke victims drawing on undamaged parts of the brain to regain function. But most of them are the stuff of everyday life, such as building up the neural substrate of well – controlled attention through meditative practice. Or deliberately savoring positive experiences several times a day to increase their storage in implicit memory, thus defeating the brain’s innate negativity bias, which makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. (You can learn more about self-directed neuroplasticity in Buddha’s Brain.)Third, the mind and brain co-arise interdependently. The brain makes the mind while the mind makes the brain while the brain makes the mind . . . They are thus properly understood as one unified system.

Stay tuned for the next two parts in this series where we’ll discuss the proofs and disproofs for God, the co-dependance of the mind and the brain, and neuropsychology’s role in understanding the existence of God.

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When your meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere…

Buddha StatueI often hear from people who are worried because their meditation practice doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I think it’s good to be aware of the different ways that change happens when we meditate since your practice hitting a plateau may not be a problem, but just part of a natural process.

Sometimes change happens rapidly. This may happen early on, or at any point in your practice. One striking example was told to me by a friend who owns a health club. One of his employees was very prickly and hard to work with, but my friend realize that this woman had really mellowed out, almost overnight. She was now relaxed and friendly. The prickliness and aggression had just gone. He asked one of his other employees if the woman was on medication, and was told, “No, it’s meditation!” This woman had only been meditating for a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s how it goes.

This isn’t just a phenomenon that affects beginners, though. Sometimes you’ll have a breakthrough in your practice and change happens rapidly. At those times there can be a sense of excitement about getting on the cushion.

But people are equally likely to find that change comes slowly, or appears not to be happening at all. The meditation itself may be OK, but there’s no sense of it going anywhere. And that can be boring, or downright worrying.

So here’s what I think’s going on during those phases of fast and slow change.

First, we often have untapped resources in the mind. For example there may be pathways that allow us to regulate our emotions, but we’re not aware that they’re there, or that we can use them, or we simply forget to use them. Perhaps quite suddenly, we realize that we have choices about how we think, act, and feel. Perhaps a word that we can drop into the mind, or the sensations in a particular part of the body remind us to come back to this mindful state of awareness in which we are able to regular ourselves and in which we feel more relaxed, spacious, calmer, kinder — whatever it is that’s changing.

But after this period of rapid change, things settle down. They might settle down in a good place, but there isn’t the excitement of rapid change.

Second, there’s the slow, gradual change of developing a habit, in which new pathways are being established in the brain, old pathways and habits are being unlearned. Some parts of the brain are developing new neurons, while other parts of the brain, because they’re being misused, are shrinking away. This is the result of regular practice — working at developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, for example. Day by day, habits becoming, on the whole, stronger.

Some people are fine with slow, gradual progress. The Buddha described this as being like a tool wearing away over time. In any given day you don’t see much change, but over a longer timescale you see transformation taking place. But some people feel frustrated, and think that there’s something wrong with them or with their practice.

So you can accept that change is sometimes slow. If you’re putting any effort at all into your meditation practice then it’s working. Change is happening, but on a slow scale. If you glance at the hour hand of a watch you don’t see it change, do you? It looks like it’s just sitting there, unmoving. You need to look away and them look back a while later if you want to see any change. So you can learn to trust the practice; trust that effort plus time equals progress.

If you think that meditation should be exciting, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Nothing in life is always exciting.

Slow change and fast change are not unrelated. Sometimes the slow change of laying down new pathways in the brain takes you eventually to a “tipping point.” Possibly what happens is that you realize that you’ve developed new abilities, or you have a new-found clarity about what you’re working on in your practice — and so we’re back to the fast change of realizing that we can act and feel differently. Then that’s exciting for a while, but then inevitably things settle down again, and you’re back to the slow construction project of daily meditation.

But you need to make sure that you are, in fact, making an effort. You need to make sure you are clear about what you’re doing in meditation. You need to have a purpose, or goal. And you need to be making some effort to realize that purpose or goal. Without that, you may not even be on a plateau; you might just be coasting downhill.

So the takeaway message is this: practice will have its ups and downs. It’ll also have flat, boring stretches. Don’t thing there’s something wrong because you’ve hit a boring patch, but do make sure you have a clear purpose and are actually engaging with your practice rather than just coasting. Things will change.

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Grow inner strengths

Hanson_thI’ve hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

I’m using the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contributions to others.

The idea of inner strengths might seem abstract at first. Let’s bring it down to earth with some concrete examples. The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze-so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating-so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work-so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around-so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner-so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self-awareness.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act-both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations-is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety, but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them. To me this is wonderful news, since it means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.

How?

Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain-for better or worse.

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be to say that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?

In effect, what you pay attention to-what you rest your mind on-is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention-such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry-on the whole you have a lot of influence over where your mind rests. This means that you can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape your brain for the better.
hardwiring
This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you – and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways. Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it a dozen seconds or more in a row, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it. (Hardwiring Happiness gets into the details of this process.)

In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. And see for yourself what happens when you do.

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A simple practice to a happier balanced brain

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., PsychCentral: “Take a moment to look around. Where is the good in this moment? Look inside and out. What’s the good within you, what’s the good outside of you?

The gifts of life are truly here; we just need to come to our senses from time to time to notice them.”

The fact is our brains aren’t wired to be happy; they’re wired to keep us safe. That’s why left to its own devices the brain isn’t going to be aware of all the good that is around.

There are many writers, psychologists and mindfulness teachers who speak about the essence of our true nature being good, being happy, and being compassionate…

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