neuroscience of meditation

Buddhism and the Blues (, 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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The tortuous path to ‘pretzel karma’ (Boston Globe)

A while ago, I had what writer James Thurber would have called “a permanent case of the jumps.”

“Meditation versus medication,” a friend advised me.

So, I pulled a chair up to a blank patch of wall, and relaxed from my forehead down to my toes, letting everything but my spine go soft. I endeavored to quiet the mind and, like a Buddhist monk, be open to whatever sensations and emotions arose, without reacting. I visualized thoughts as autumn leaves or taxi cabs blowing past and didn’t try to catch them. I aspired to lighten up.

And I signed up for a correspondence course with the Central Chinmaya Mission Trust in India. “Blessed Self” began the letters accompanying the lessons in stamp-strewn envelopes from Mumbai. Eventually I called Chinmaya’s Washington Regional Center, in Silver Spring, Md., to enroll in a Sanskrit class. A man from the center returned the call, ending his message on our answering machine with a pleasant “Hari Om.”

My husband raised an eyebrow. “Heidy ho.”

In hindsight, this captured the tenor of my meditative.. .

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endeavors as, time and time again, nerve failed me in the vestibules of various spiritual traditions. I couldn’t stay put, even though meditation is supposed to reorient the brain from a stressful flight-or-fight response to a calmer mode of acceptance and contentment.

Using modern technologies to study the minds of Tibetan Buddhist monks, University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has shown that meditation decreases stress, anxiety and depression while boosting the immune system and increasing concentration and happiness. Deepak Chopra, in “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,” promises that meditating for 20 minutes twice daily will make us look three years younger.

According to the Aug. 4 issue of Time magazine, 10 million American adults now say they meditate regularly, “twice as many as a decade ago.” Cumulatively that could lead to a lot less need for skin-repair cream.

My own lurches into meditation groups, however, only added gray hairs. At Chinmaya, women in brilliant saris slipped off their shoes, revealing lovely be-ringed toes. Mortified of tracking talcum-powdered, big-foot-sized prints onto the carpet, I bolted.

At Baltimore’s Zen Meditation Center, a student with an Eastern name and a Philadelphia accent demonstrated the sturdiness of the full lotus posture. I couldn’t quite achieve “pretzel karma,” but, for some reason, the attempt made me salivate like a Saint Bernard. I fainted briefly taking a deep cleansing breath. Collecting my shoes, I fled.

Meanwhile, I continued to meditate at home and experienced subtle shifts in perception. Colors were vivid. Stuck in traffic, I suddenly would be intensely aware of the beauty of the sky — the clouds, folded like egg whites — or enchanted by a handful of wrens on a median strip. Once, coming off an elevator, I was flooded with tenderness for a woman, a stranger, getting on. Maybe it was not such a great idea to stare at a wall by myself.

Earlier this year, I lurched into yet another group, signing on for a weekendlong introductory meditation program. A Friday-night lecture, and periods of seated and walking meditation from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. “How relaxing.” friends intoned.

“I have a feeling I’ve just paid to be tortured,” I said, writing a check for the suggested $110 donation.

Immediately, the uncomfortable cushion-on-floor seating arrangement engendered an irritation with all of meditation and life. The posture of a dignified Buddhist “warrior” — straight-spined, gaze downward cast, head positioned levelly “as if resting on a shelf” — eluded me. I fantasized about fashioning an armchair out of spare pillows.

During walking meditation, other participants mindfully circled the room, aware of their breathing and of their feet touching the ground. Meanwhile, my thoughts were: “For people who routinely go shoeless, Buddhists ought to own better socks.”

When the prayer clackers signaled that it was time for a return to our cushions, I jostled past everyone as if we were playing musical chairs for cash. Saturday, I missed breakfast, shrugged, and said: “Late Buddha.” At lunch, I suggested to the meditation teacher that the center’s carpet could use a good shampooing. I was, as a Zen Buddhist might say, “the worst horse.”

Maybe I was a candidate for medication after all. Some pill that hopefully wouldn’t involve drooling. My primary-care doctor suggested regular massages.

The masseuse, Ruth, was originally from Taiwan. “Let go!” she said grimly, stretching my arms behind my back. “Let go! Relax!” A Buddhist would understand her communication to be sacred.

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The science of meditation

SciDev.comRecently, Western neuroscientists have flocked to study Buddhism. The attraction? Meditation, that introspective inquiry into the workings of the mind that Buddhists have practised for millennia. A key player in this quest is the Mind and Life Institute, created in the 1980s by businessman Adam Engle and the late neuroscientist Francisco Varela.

In this article, Marcia Barinaga reports on how the institute’s two-day conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has furthered this unusual meeting of minds. More than 1,000 Western neuroscientists and Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, focused on attention, emotion and mental imagery – subjects of interest to both.

One of the most fruitful areas explored was how Buddhist monks foster positive mental states through meditation, a technique of great interest to Western psychologists. Some of the scientists gave other phenomena short shrift. What ultimately emerged, however, was that both groups are fired by a very similar spirit of inquiry.

Link to full article in Science

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Buddhists able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts

Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts, research has shown.

According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe – an area just behind the forehead – which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.

Writing in today’s New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist’s brain.

Professor Flanagan said the findings are “tantalising” because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to “light up” consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation.

“This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood,” he writes. “The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.

“Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Tibetan Buddhists are born with a ‘happiness gene’. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek,” he writes.

Another study of Buddhists by scientists at the University of California has also found that meditation might tame the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with fear and anger.

Professor Flanagan writes: “Antidepressants are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness.”

The Independent (original article no longer available)

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Buddhists really are happier, study shows

Scientists say they have evidence to show that Buddhists really are happier and calmer than other people.

Tests carried out in the United States reveal that areas of their brain associated with good mood and positive feelings are more active.

The findings come as another study suggests that Buddhist meditation can help to calm people.

Researchers at University of California San Francisco Medical Centre have found the practise can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory.

There is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek

They found that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly, were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared to other people.

Paul Ekman, who carried out the study, said: “The most reasonable hypothesis is that there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.”

BBC: Read more

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The brain at prayer

Why do humans pray? What happens in our brains when we meditate? Are we genetically programmed to look for the spiritual experience? These are questions that have driven American scientists to scan the brains of meditating monks and nuns at prayer – in the hope of understanding the link between the religious experience and the workings of the brain.

Ever since he was five years old, Andrew Newberg has been asking himself the big questions – why are we here? Is there a God? How big is the Universe? Now as a neurologist and radiologist, Dr Newberg is still asking big questions about how the mind and brain work – and whether it is possible to “see” a spiritual experience as it happens in the brain. “We’ve been doing brain-imaging studies to look at what goes on when somebody is praying,” explains Dr Newberg, who is Director of Clinical Nuclear Medicine at Pennsylvania University in Philadelphia. “We wanted to find out how we as human beings experience certain types of spiritual events; how these spiritual experiences affect the different regions of the human brain and to ask important questions about the philosophical and theological implications of such research.”

Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns

So Dr Newberg invited local communities of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns into the laboratory where, using radioactive tracers, he could monitor any changes in blood flow to the different regions of the brain during meditation. For this, Dr Newberg used a state-of-the-art imaging tool called a SPECT camera – SPECT stands for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography – which detects radioactive emissions. “Our volunteers were certainly very happy to take part in these experiments,” explains Dr Newberg, “as we explained to them that we were not trying to diminish their experience or explain away a deeply personal and profound event.”

So what was Dr Newberg’s team looking for and what did they find? Dr Andrew Newberg: “Our theories about what goes on in the brain during spiritual practices is that many different areas of the brain are involved – that there’s not one spot. Some people have talked about a “God Module” but we don’t really feel that way. When one looks at the broad array of religious experiences, they involve our emotions, thoughts, sensations, feelings – I think it really has to involve many different regions all working together.”

The main areas of the brain which the team thought would be involved include the Frontal lobes, which allows us to focus our attention, and the Parietal lobes, which help us distinguish ourselves from the outside world.

Altered sense of self-image

“When we stared looking at the results, we saw that a lot of our hypotheses were correct, says Dr Newberg. “When people meditated, they activated this front attention-focussing area of the brain and turned off this orientation, parietal part of the brain – basically blocking the sensory input into that part of the brain, which would be associated with an altered sense of self-image. We also saw a very significant increase in activity in an area known as the thalamus which plays a key-role in allowing parts of the brain to ‘talk’ to each other.”

So what does all this mean? Did God create the brain or does the brain create God? Dr Newberg remains open-minded; “We’ve tried to come down in the middle – to find ways to bring science and religion together and to provide information to allow people to open up a dialogue, so that we can start asking the really big questions that all human beings have asked throughout time.” Read the rest of this article…

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A monk in the lab

The Dalai Lama: These are times when destructive emotions like anger, fear and hatred are giving rise to devastating problems throughout the world. While the daily news offers grim reminders of the destructive power of such emotions, the question we must ask is this: What can we do, person by person, to overcome them?

Of course such disturbing emotions have always been part of the human condition. Some — those who tend to believe nothing will ”cure” our impulses to hate or oppress one another — might say that this is simply the price of being human. But this view can create apathy in the face of destructive emotions, leading us to conclude that destructiveness is beyond our control.

I believe that there are practical ways for us as individuals to curb our dangerous impulses — impulses that collectively can lead to war and mass violence. As evidence I have not only my spiritual practice and the understanding of human existence based on Buddhist teachings, but now also the work of scientists.

For the last 15 years I have engaged in a series of conversations with Western scientists. We have exchanged views on topics ranging from quantum physics and cosmology to compassion and destructive emotions. I have found that while scientific findings offer a deeper understanding of such fields as cosmology, it seems that Buddhist explanations — particularly in the cognitive, biological and brain sciences — can sometimes give Western-trained scientists a new way to look at their own fields.

New York Times: Read the rest of this article…

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Meditation improves immune-system function, study finds

For the first time, meditation has been shown to produce lasting beneficial changes in immune-system function as well as brain electrical activity, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study released Monday.

The study, which looked at a group of 25 employees of a Madison-area company who underwent an eight-week meditation training program, is the latest in a growing body of research into the mind-body connection.

As a part of the study at the end of the eight weeks, flu shots were given to the employees and a group of 16 other employees who did not receive meditation training.

When researchers checked for antibodies to the vaccine at one month and two months later, the meditators had significantly higher levels than the nonmeditators.

On average, the meditators had about a 5 percent increase in antibodies, but some had increases of up to 25 percent, Davidson said.

More importantly, the level of antibodies increased directly in relation to the level of increased brain-wave activity, he said.

To measure brain activity, electroencephalograms were done. Researchers found about 50 percent more electrical activity in the left frontal regions of the brains of the meditators. Other research has showed that part of the brain is associated with positive emotions and anxiety reduction.

The study’s findings will be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

While many researchers have presumed that the benefits of meditation endure, there has been a shortage of such research, said Andrew Newberg, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania who has done several neuroimaging studies involving meditation and prayer.

“The fact they can show long-term or chronic changes… is not completely surprising, but it’s important they were able to show that,” he said. “These kinds of studies, when done by high-quality researchers, are really what has been lacking in the field of alternative medicine.”

The meditation training for the study was done by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a noted meditation author who developed a stress-reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

Judith Stevens, one of the test subjects, said her training has helped her think more clearly and react less emotionally to stressful situations.

“The road rage went down,” she said, laughing.

She said she now practices meditation for about 10 to 20 minutes, five times a week.

A weakness of the study is the relatively small number of participants and use of EEG, which is considered a relatively crude measurement of brain function. Read more

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Finding happiness: cajole your brain to lean to the left

NY Times article by Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) on scientific explanations of how meditation acts as an antidote to stress:

All too many years ago, while I was still a psychology graduate student, I ran an experiment to assess how well meditation might work as an antidote to stress. My professors were skeptical, my measures were weak, and my subjects were mainly college sophomores. Not surprisingly, my results were inconclusive.

But today I feel vindicated.

To be sure, over the years there have been scores of studies that have looked at meditation, some suggesting its powers to alleviate the adverse effects of stress. But only last month did what I see as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky hypothesis, by revealing the brain mechanism that may account for meditation’s singular ability to soothe.

The data has emerged as one of many experimental fruits of an unlikely research collaboration: the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious and political leader in exile, and some of top psychologists and neuroscientists from the United States. The scientists met with the Dalai Lama for five days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to discuss how people might better control their destructive emotions.

One of my personal heroes in this rapprochement between modern science and ancient wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, in recent research using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis, has identified an index for the brain’s set point for moods.

The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed — the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the brain’s emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.

By contrast, when people are in positive moods — upbeat, enthusiastic and energized — those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

NY Times: Read the rest of this article…

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