neuroscience of meditation

Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat — without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What Is Interoception?

Interoception is the ability to sense your internal states — sensations arising from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes an awareness of the heart.

Many people find it hard to detect their heartbeat at all, or can only do it with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers aren’t well developed. For others, detecting the heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not a lot of people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first encountered it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t come across it before.

You’re probably going to hear it a lot more in the future, because it’s become obvious that there are drawbacks to having poor interoception.

Not being able to sense the body’s inner states leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine you were driving a car with no fuel gauge. You’d probably keep running out of fuel, because vital information about the state of your vehicle wasn’t available to you.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body is giving you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. By the time you’re aware that you’re anxious, for example, you’re already really anxious. Being able to detect those signals sooner means you’re able to decide earlier to do something to help stay calm.

Interoception and Depression

Low interoceptive ability is related to depression. In a study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety), showed lower ability on the heartbeat test than a control group did.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they reported experiencing in their lives.

Interoception and Poor Decision-Making

And this had an interesting knock-on effect. Low interoceptive awareness is also correlated with difficulty in making decisions. The reason for this is that decision-making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake is more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not whether we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely on the basis of how we feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, then we can’t easily make decisions. In fact if we can’t feel our feelings, then we might well be more prone to making bad decisions — e.g. trusting someone who’s untrustworthy, or choosing a job that’s likely to make us unhappy.

Interoception and Anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do the heartbeat detection test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart at all. I don’t know if there’s research supporting this, but I suspect that certain people can only feel their heartbeat when they’re already anxious, and because they’re not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feeling their heart beat in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really wrong — which precipitates yet more anxiety.

She may be atypical, though: people who suffer from anxiety disorder typically are more aware than average of interoceptive signals from the body. What may be going wrong is that those signals (increased rate and strength of the heartbeat, intestinal queasiness, and so on) are misread, and taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It’s possible, in fact, to become anxious about being anxious.

Meditators are Better at Interoception

Meditation, in the Buddhist tradition at least, emphasizes awareness of the body, which means paying attention to the body’s sensations. Many meditators, myself included, will report that training in meditation has helped to sensitize them to the body.

For myself, this has been like going from a black-and-white line drawing of the body to a full-color image. Any time I bring my attention to the body now I experience currents of energy, tingling, and pleasure—which is called pīti in Pāli and prīti in Sanskrit. That’s very different from how my body used to be experienced. But that’s anecdotal evidence.

Dancers Versus Meditators

In one study I’ve long found fascinating, in a study in 2010, published in Emotion, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotive, film clips to experienced meditators (their average time practicing was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people, and also asked the study participants to indicate their ongoing feeling state (from very negative, through neutral, to very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess to what degree the self-reported experience of the members of each of the three groups matched (or was “coherent” with) their physiological states.

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It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of coherence (that is, their self-reported feelings matched what was going on in their bodies), with the dancers being intermediate, and the control group having the lowest coherence.

Additionally, when it came to self-reported visceral awareness (how well they could feel their feelings), the meditators reported the highest levels, the dancers were intermediary, and the controls reported the lowest levels.

So it does seem that meditation training does improve internal awareness, which is what you might expect. Of course it could be that people with greater visceral awareness are more likely to be drawn to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked to see if there was a correlation between length of practice and body awareness. They didn’t find any significant correlation, but then the sample size was too small for them to draw any definite conclusions.

Interoception Can Be Learned

More recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism tend not to be good at interoceptive tasks. For example they’re not good at counting their heartbeats. At the same time they tend to over-emphasize the internal sensations they do experience. In other words, they’re over-reacting to signals from the body.

The researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism to perform better on heartbeat detection tasks, and that this would in turn help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Amazingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of the participants no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for Interoception

Many approaches to mindfulness of breathing meditation tend to focus narrowly on the breath – that is, the sensations of air touching the passages as it moves in and out of the body. This helps with learning interoception in only a very limited way.

My own approach has been increasingly to encourage an awareness of the movements and sensations of the breathing in the whole body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” helps you to sense the entire body breathing — including subtler sensations you might habitually ignore. Please try it, and see how you get on.

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The self-compassionate way to get things done

A parent shaming us by comparing us unflatteringly with a sibling; a boss humiliating us in front of colleagues when a task isn’t up to their expectations; a partner repeatedly complaining about some household task we haven’t done yet: these are all attempts to “light a fire under our ass” in order to get us to achieve more. Most of us have had this ploy used against us so many times over the course of our lives that we’ve internalized this motivational strategy.

Our inner critic punishes us verbally when it thinks we’ve under-performed. It castigates us for being lazy when we haven’t gotten around to starting some task. Yet despite all this internal criticism, most of us still have a hard time motivating ourselves to do things. When self-criticism fails, the answer is usually more self-criticism. “How,” we might wonder, “would I get anything done if I didn’t give myself a hard time?”

Self-Compassion = Less Procrastination

Yet many studies have shown self-compassionate individuals to be more effective than people who are self-critical. They are also less prone to procrastination. Psychologists at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, compared college students who preferred to begin their assignments early to those who tended to leave them to the last minute. By now you may not be surprised to learn that those with high levels of self-compassion had much less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Procrastination is, in fact, not really a problem of time management but a problem of emotional management. Think about what it’s like just to contemplate a challenging task. Often we’ll find that feelings of anxiety, restlessness, or dread arise. When we’re unable to handle those feelings we try to avoid them by avoiding the task itself. Learning to support and encourage ourselves in the face of discomfort allows us to face challenging tasks rather than avoid them.

Developing Self-Compassion for Your Future Self

One fascinating way that self-compassion helps us to be more motivated is when we develop compassion for our future self, treating it as a friend. I stumbled across this practice while trying to motivate myself to deal with household tasks. Often I would be about to head to bed when I would realize that there were still dirty dishes on the kitchen counter. I was simply too tired to deal with them, so I’d shrug and leave them until the morning. But it was very unpleasant to wake up to the mess I’d left myself.

Faced with my resistance to do late-night cleaning, I started thinking about how Morning Bodhi (I gave him a name to make him more real to me) would feel about waking up to this messy kitchen. From past experience I knew he’d find the mess dispiriting. I also knew that Morning Bodhi would feel happy and grateful waking up to a clean kitchen. So I would wash the dishes, feeling good knowing I was helping Morning Bodhi. Morning Bodhi, of course, was grateful to Evening Bodhi. Having empathy for our future self makes self-discipline easier, turning it into an act of self-care.

No Self-Empathy, No Self-Control

This compassionate approach to self-control is supported by neuroscience. When Alexander Soutschek of the University of Zurich in Switzerland used magnetic fields to shut down a part of the brain long known to be involved in empathy—the rear part of the right temporoparietal junction—he found that he’d also disrupted his subjects’ ability to exert self-control. Impulsiveness, or lack of self-discipline, arises when we’re unable to relate compassionately to our future self.

Self-Compassion Looks At What Benefits You Long-Term

Self-compassion involves considering whether or not your actions will contribute to your long-term happiness and well-being.

Short-term thinking leads to us letting ourselves off the hook and giving up easily; this feels unpleasant now, so I’ll stop doing it. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about what will benefit you in the long term: this feels unpleasant now, but how will I feel later?

It’s a myth that self-compassion reduces our motivation. In fact the opposite is the case. Self-compassion is one of the most effective ways to motivate ourselves.

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Tune your brain for happiness and effectiveness

A huge amount of research over the last few years has given us a better idea of what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation brings us long term benefits. Meditation, for example:

  • Helps to slow down aging of the brain
  • Increases thickness in parts of the brain to do with memory and learning
  • Reduces mind-wandering and unhappiness
  • Increases the thickness of parts of the brain connected with emotional regulation
  • Improves concentration
  • Reduces our susceptibility to anxiety and depression
  • Helps us tolerate pain
  • Reduces feelings of isolation

It may seem rather staggering that one activity can lead to such a varied range of benefits. It is clear in fact that meditation has not just one effect on the brain, but generally helps it to run optimally. Indeed, meditation could almost be defined as “a series of exercises that help us to optimize our brains.”

Neuroscience offers us a more precise way of talking about the mechanisms of meditation. For example, we can recognize that in meditating we are exercising and thickening the parts of the brain that regulate the amygdala, which is involved in generating anxiety, and thus encouraging the amygdala to shrink, leading to long-term changes in our emotional being. Some of our older ways of talking about our experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to say that emotions are like hydraulic fluids that will leak or burst out if we don’t express them. This isn’t how the brain works! Neuroscience gives us more accurate metaphors and thus helps us to understand ourselves better.

Neuroscientists can actually see the changes I’ve described above taking place in the brain. Not only that, but they can see them happening over a timescale of a few weeks, rather than the years we might assume they might require. Most neuroscientific trials last only eight weeks. And in many of those trials, participants are meditating for an average of around 20 minutes. That isn’t a lot of time!

If you’re one of those people who assumes that somehow you’re not cut out for meditation, or believes that only certain people (the “spiritual” ones) will experience the kinds of benefits I’ve outlined, then perhaps you will find confidence in knowing that exercising the brain is, in many respects, exactly like exercising the body. Just as repeated physical exercise will inevitably promote muscle growth or flexibility, so repeated meditation will help promote brain growth and emotional resilience.

I’d like to add one caveat, which is that in talking about optimizing your brain I’m using a figure of speech known as a metonym. In metonymy, we use a part to represent a whole, or sometimes a whole to represent a part. So when we talk, for example, about combatting climate change in order to “save the planet,” we’re using a metonym. It’s not the planet we want to save, but the biosphere that lives on the planet. Similarly, when we talk about optimizing the brain, we really mean that we’re optimizing our entire being, or even our entire lives.

That’s what we’ll be exploring in the 28 sessions of my online course, Optimize Your Brain. We’ll be focusing on brain research and meditation in order to bring positive change in a number of aspects of our lives, including developing greater calmness and focus, enhancing our ability to experience happiness, boosting our creativity and intelligence, bringing into being greater interpersonal harmony, and cultivating insight.

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Enjoy life

Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

What’s a great way to lower stress, strengthen your immune system, and help you settle back down if you’ve been stressed or worried? Taking time to Enjoy Life.

In my new book Resilient I offer practical strategies for growing the 12 inner-strengths you need for lasting well-being in a changing world.

In the excerpt below, we’ll explore one of those: Enjoying Life.

If a drug company could patent enjoyment, there would be ads for it every night on TV. Enjoyable experiences – such as petting a cat, drinking water when you’re thirsty, or smiling at a friend – lower stress hormones, strengthen the immune system, and help you settle back down if you’ve gotten frustrated or worried.

As enjoyment increases, so does the activity of key neurochemicals, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and natural opioids. Deep in the brain, circuits in the basal ganglia use rising dopamine to prioritize and pursue actions that feel rewarding. If you’d like to be more motivated about certain things – such as exercising, eating healthy foods, or pushing through a tough project at work – focusing on what’s enjoyable about them will naturally draw you into doing them. Norepinephrine helps you stay alert and engaged. In a boring afternoon meeting, finding something, anything, to enjoy about it will keep you awake and make you more effective. Natural opioids, including endorphins, calm your body if you’re stressed and reduce physical and emotional pain.

Together, dopamine and norepinephrine flag experiences as “keepers,” heightening their consolidation as lasting resources inside your brain.

Let’s say you’d like to be more patient at home or work. To grow this inner strength, look for opportunities to experience some patience. Then focus on whatever is enjoyable about it, such as how good it feels to stay calm and relaxed. An experience of patience or any other psychological resource is a state of mind, and enjoying it helps turn it into a positive trait embedded in your brain.

Enjoying life is a powerful way to care for yourself. Think about some of the things you enjoy. For me, they include smelling coffee, talking with my kids, and seeing a blade of grass push up through a sidewalk. What’s on your own list? Not so much the million dollar moments, but the small real opportunities for enjoyment present in even the toughest life: perhaps feeling friendly with someone, relaxing when you exhale, or drifting to sleep at the end of a long hard day. And no matter what is happening outside you, you can always find something to enjoy inside your own mind: maybe a private joke, an imagined experience, or recognizing your own warm heart.

These small ways to enjoy the life that you have contain a big lesson. It’s usually the little things adding up over time that make the largest difference. There is a saying in Tibet: If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

What’s the most important minute in life? I think it’s the next one. There is nothing we can do about the past, and we have limited influence over the hours and days to come. But the next minute – minute after minute after minute – is always full of possibility.

Are there opportunities to be on your own side, bring caring to your pain, accept yourself, and enjoy what you can? Is there something you could heal, something you could learn?

Minute by minute, step by step, strength after strength, you can always grow more of the good inside yourself. For your own sake, and the sake of others as well.

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Embrace your full potential by living skillfully

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, once asked him what the benefit of living skillfully was. The Buddha answered that skillful living leads to freedom from remorse, which in turn leads to joy. Joy then allows the mind to settle into concentration, and concentration leads to the arising of insight. That’s the path we’re following in Buddhist practice. And it all starts with learning to live skillfully.

The word “skillful” (that’s kusala in Pali, for those who are interested) is a fascinating vocabulary choice on the Buddha’s part. He didn’t generally talk about “good” and “bad” actions, although that terminology was, of course, available to him. Instead, he talked about us acting skillfully or unskillfully. Since this may seem like odd language for talking about morality or ethics, as if we’re being asked to perform some kind of trick, let’s take a closer look at what he might have meant by it.

You can think about “skill” as meaning, “actions that can accomplish an aim.” A skilled writer is one who aims to persuade or create pleasure, or whatever her aim might be, and can actually do so. Merely having the intent isn’t enough, or we’d all be good writers! Writing well is a craft, and has to be learned by the intelligent application of trial and error and well as by studying the works of other writers who are themselves recognized as having skill. An unskilled writer may have the same aim as a more skilled one but isn’t able to put those aims into action.

What’s the relevance of this to spirituality? We all have the aim, deep down, of finding peace of mind, happiness, and wellbeing. But do we have the skill to create them? Here too, just as with our example of a skilled writer, accomplishing this aim is a matter of intelligently approaching life in a trial-and-error way, while also learning from the life, example, and sometimes personal guidance of those who seem to be skilled at living well.

What stops us from finding peace of mind? We do! We contain skillful tendencies (compassion, kindness, mindfulness, etc) and unskillful tendencies (such as self-centeredness, aversion to discomfort. Both sets of impulses aim to keep us secure and happy, but all too often our unskillful tendencies create suffering for ourselves. We react, and these reactions cause suffering.

Our unskillful instincts advertise themselves as helpful when most of the time they’re not. So our trial and error process consists of observing that unskillful, reactive impulses do not bring happiness and that only a creative life based on living with mindfulness and kindness can achieve that aim.

This is something that we have to work at learning because our unskillful impulses have evolved to protect us. For example, being unpleasant to someone who annoys us is an instinct that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. If you’re a lizard, and you make a threatening display to another lizard who comes too close to you, you can chase the intruder away, protecting yourself and your food supply. But when the person we’re annoyed with is a colleague or close family member, we can’t simply remove them from our lives! Our aversion binds us in a conflicted and painful relationship. And so, in many ways, our “protective” instincts end up harming us.

Our more skillful attributes are rooted in our evolutionary biology as well. As mammals, we’ve evolved to value love and connection; a newborn baby’s first need is to be held, monkeys create social binds by grooming each other. We’ve evolved to have empathy. Even mice show distress when they see one of their fellows suffering. Scientists have observed rats trying to free each other from traps. Empathy is built into the structure of mammalian brains.

Another part of our mammalian conditioning, however, is the need to establish our position in a social “pecking order.” This can result in us competing, even with friends and family. This kind of conditioning goes against our need for connection, warmth, and intimacy.

But we also have a more distinctively human part of our brains — the most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex. This is the seat of reason, reflection, and self-awareness. The neocortex allows us to look at our reactive instincts and our more creative and skillful instincts. It helps us to see the disadvantages of the former compared to the latter. It also allows us to change our behavior, so that we choose to let go of unskillful impulses, and instead to think, speak, and act skillfully. In choosing to live skillfully, we’re choosing to live a more authentically human, happier, and meaningful life.

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Be lived by love

Feeling both the world and myself these days, one phrase keeps calling: lived by love.
Explicitly, this means coming from love in a broad sense, from compassion, good intentions, self-control, warmth, finding what’s to like, caring, connecting, and kindness.

Implicitly, and more fundamentally, this practice means a relaxed opening into the love—in a very very broad sense—that is the actual nature of everything. Moment by moment, the world and the mind reliably carry you along.

This isn’t airy-fairy, it’s real. Our physical selves are woven in the tapestry of materiality, whose particles and energies never fail. The supplies—the light and air, the furniture and flowers—that are present this instant are here, available, whatever the future may hold. So too is the caring and goodwill that others have for you, and the momentum of your own accomplishments, and the healthy workings of your body. Meanwhile, your mind goes on being, while dependably weaving this thought, this sound, this moment of consciousness.

It’s hard to sustain a felt knowing of this nature of everything. The brain evolved to keep our ancestors afraid to keep them alive. But if you look, and look again, you can see directly that right now, and in every now you’re alive, you’re cradled by the world and the mind like a child carried to bed by her mother. This cradling is a kind of love, and when you trust it enough to soften and fall back into it, there’s an untangling of the knots of fear and separation. Then comes both an undoing of the craving that drives suffering and harm, and a freeing and fueling love living through you and as you out into the world.

Imagine a single day in which you were often—not continuously, not perfectly—lived by love. When I try this myself, the events of the day don’t change much—but my experience of them, and their effects, improve dramatically. Consider this as a practice for a day, a week—or the year altogether.

More widely, imagine a world in which many people, enough people—known and unknown, the low and the mighty—were lived by love. As our world teeters on the edge of a sword—and could tip either into realistic prosperity, justice, and peace, or into growing resource wars, despotism, or fundamentalism—it seems to me that it’s not just possible for a critical mass of human hearts to be lived by love. It’s necessary.

How? The essence of this practice is a yielding into all that lives you. This is a paradigm shift from the typical top-down, subtly contracted, moving-out-from-a-unified-center-of-view-and-action way of operating … to a relaxed receptive abiding, feeling supported by the ocean of causes creating each momentary wave of awareness. Then on this basis, there is an encouraging of love in all its forms to flow through you. The suggestions that follow are different ways to do this, and you can also find your own.

Soften and open in the heart. Notice that you are alright right now: listen to your body telling your brain that you are basically OK. Feel the fullness that is already here, all the perceptions and thoughts and feelings pop-pop-popping in this moment of consciousness. Feel the buoying currents of nature and life, waves of gifts from over 3 billion years of evolution on our blue and green pebble. Look around and see objects, including your own hands and body, and consider the unfailing generosity of the material realm, blossoming for over 12 billion years from a seed of light.

Be aware of the warmth and good will from others toward you. Sense your connecting to others, how you are supported by a net of relationships. They don’t have to be perfect. Some people do care about you. You are almost certainly loved.

Feel carried by consciousness, the effortless knowing of perception and thought. When stress, worry, pressure, or pain appear in the mind, see that the fabric of this suffering—the underlying operating of the mind—is itself fine, is always already fine.

Again and again making this little but profound shift, this giving over to the carrying cradling of mind and matter, you can afford to let your own love flow freely. Bring this down to earth: if you lived from love in your first encounter with another person today, how would you be, what would you do, how would you speak? What would a week, a year, be like in which you lived by love? How about trying this? Who knows, if enough people share in this practice, the world could become a much better place.

Let love’s currents glide you home.

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Mindfulness and meditation need more rigorous study to identify impacts

Dependable scientific evidence has lagged worrisomely behind the rapid and widespread adoption of mindfulness and meditation for pursuing an array of mental and physical wellness goals, wrote a group of 15 experts in a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The article offers a “critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda” to help the burgeoning mindfulness industry replace ambiguous hype with rigor in its research and clinical implementations.

Recent years have seen a huge surge not only in media and scientific articles about mindfulness and meditation, the authors wrote, but also in the implementation of medical interventions for everything from depression to addiction, pain and stress. The widespread adoption of therapies has put the field at a critical crossroads, the authors argued, where appropriate checks and balances must be implemented.

“Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed,” they wrote.

Co-author Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University said: “We are sometimes overselling the benefits of mindfulness to pretty much any person who has any condition, without much caution, nuance or condition-specific modifications, instructor training criteria, and basic science around mechanism of action. The possibility of unsafe or adverse effects has been largely ignored. This situation is not unique to mindfulness, but because of mindfulness’s widespread use in mental health, schools and apps, it is not ideal from a public health perspective.”

Lead author Nicholas Van Dam, a clinical psychologist and research fellow in psychological sciences at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said that the point of the article is not to disparage mindfulness and meditation practice or research, but to ensure that their applications for enhancing mental and physical health become more reflective of scientific evidence. So far, such applications have largely been unsupported, according to major reviews of available evidence in 2007 and again in 2014.

“The authors think there can be something beneficial about mindfulness and meditation,” Van Dam said. “We think these practices might help people. But the rigor that should go along with developing and applying them just isn’t there yet. Results from the few large-scale studies that have been conducted so far have proven equivocal at best.”

Added co-author David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, “Sometimes, truly promising fields of endeavor get outstripped by efforts to harvest them before they’re really ripe; then workers there must step back, pause to take stock, and get a better plan before moving onward.”

A young, undefined field

Among the biggest problems facing the field is that mindfulness is poorly and inconsistently defined both in popular media and the scientific literature. According to the authors, there “is neither one universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers.” As a result, research papers have varied widely in what they actually examine, and often, their focus can be hard to discern.

“Any study that uses the term ‘mindfulness’ must be scrutinized carefully, ascertaining exactly what type of ‘mindfulness’ was involved, what sorts of explicit instruction were actually given to participants for directing practice,” the authors wrote. “When formal meditation was used in a study, one ought to consider whether a specifically defined type of mindfulness or other meditation was the target practice.”

“Without specific, well-defined terms to describe not only practices but also their effects, studies of interventions such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) cannot provide valid and comparable measurements to produce reliable evidence.” As part of its proposed remedy, the new article offers a “non-exhaustive list of defining features for characterizing contemplative and medication practices.”

Greater rigor

Along with specific, precise and standardized definitions, similar improvements in research methodology must also come, the authors wrote.

“Many intervention studies lack or have inactive control groups,” Van Dam said.

The field also has struggled to achieve consistency in what it is being measured and how to measure those things perceived to be of greatest importance to mindfulness.

Van Dam said the situation is akin to earlier psychological research on intelligence. This concept proved to be too broad and too vague to measure directly. Ultimately, however, psychologists have made progress by studying the “particular cognitive capacities that, in combination, may make people functionally more or less intelligent,” he and his co-authors wrote.

Thus, the authors wrote, “We recommend that future research on mindfulness aim to produce a body of work for describing and explaining what biological, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and social, as well as other such mental and physical functions, change with mindfulness training.”

Clinical care

A wide variety of contemplative practices have been studied for an even larger variety of purposes, yet in both basic and clinical studies of mindfulness and meditation, researchers have rarely advanced to the stage where they can confidently conclude whether particular effects or specific benefits resulted directly from the practice. Measured by the National Institutes of Health’s stage model for clinical research, only 30 percent of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) have moved past the first stage, and only 9 percent have tested efficacy in a research clinic against an active control.

“Given the absence of scientific rigor in much clinical mindfulness research, evidence for use of MBIs in clinical contexts should be considered preliminary.,” the authors wrote.

The proposed agenda for future research is rigorous and extensive, Van Dam said.

“Replication of earlier studies with appropriately randomized designs and proper active control groups will be absolutely critical,” the authors continued. “In conducting this work, we recommend that researchers provide explicit detail of mindfulness measures, primary outcome measures, mindfulness/meditation practices and intervention protocol.”

Researchers and care providers involved with delivering MBIs have begun to become more vigilant about possible adverse effects, the authors wrote, but more needs to be done. As of 2015, fewer than 25 percent of meditation trials actively monitored for negative or challenging experiences.

Contemplating contemplative neuroscience

Van Dam said recent efforts to assess the neural correlates of mindfulness and meditation with technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetoencephalography, may perhaps have the potential to bring new rigor to the field. Nonetheless, he and his co-authors also express concern in the article that these technologies so far have not fulfilled this potential.

The authors note that technologies such as MRI depend on subjects remaining physically still while being tested, and image quality can be affected by subjects’ rate of breathing. Experienced meditators may be better suited to maintaining ideal physiological states for MRI studies than are inexperienced individuals or non-meditators. Due to such problematic factors, between-group differences in brain scans might have little to do with the mental state researchers are attempting to measure and much to do with head motion and/or breathing differences.

“Contemplative neuroscience has often led to overly simplistic interpretations of nuanced neurocognitive and affective phenomena,” the authors wrote. “As a result of such oversimplifications, meditative benefits may be exaggerated and undue societal urgency to undertake mindfulness practices may be encouraged.”

Ultimately that’s the authors’ shared concern: Insufficient research may mislead people to think that the vague brands of “mindfulness” and “meditation” are broad-based panaceas when in fact refined interventions may only be helpful for particular people in specific circumstances. More, and much better, scientific studies are needed to clarify these matters. Otherwise people may waste time and money, or worse, suffer needless adverse effects.

“This paper is a coordinated effort among concerned mindfulness researchers and meditation scholars to rectify this gap to maximize benefit and minimize harm from MBIs,” Britton said.

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Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

Medical Xpress: Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” denote a variety of mental training techniques that aim at the cultivation of various different competencies. In other words, despite growing interest in meditation research, it remains unclear which type of mental practice is particularly useful for improving either attention and mindfulness or social competencies, such as compassion and perspective-taking.

Other open questions are, for example, whether such practices can induce structural brain …

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Science and Buddhism agree: there is no “you” there

Lori Chandler, Big Think: Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia has verified the Buddhist belief of anatta, or not-self. Neuroscience has been interested in Buddhism since the late 1980s, when the Mind and Life Institute was created by HH Dalai Lama and a team of scientists. The science that came out of those first studies gave validation to what monks have known for years — if you train your mind, you can change your brain. As neuroscience has begun studying the mind, they have looked to those who have mastered …

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Meditation and neuroscience: new wave of breakthroughs in research on meditative practices

Koyama Tetsuya, Nippon.com: Zen, mindfulness, and meditation in general are believed to promote psychological and physical well-being. But why? An emerging generation of neuroscientists is fast unveiling the hidden workings of meditation.

Legs in tights, extending from leotards and terminating in pointe shoes, briskly cut through the air. Instructions are called out as the dancers, faces aglow, carry their arms in delicate arcs and place their feet in deliberate motions. Leading the ballet class at a dance studio in Tokyo is a 27-year-old woman whom we will call Murano Kozue. The students would …

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