neuroscience of meditation

Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health

Eureka Alert, Press Release: Over the past decade, mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve a broad range of health and disease outcomes, such as slowing HIV progression and improving healthy aging. Yet, little is known about the brain changes that produce these beneficial health effects.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University provides a window into the brain changes that link mindfulness meditation training with health in stressed adults. Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study shows that mindfulness meditation training, compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker, in high-stress, unemployed community adults.

The biological health-related benefits occur because mindfulness meditation training fundamentally alters brain network functional connectivity patterns and the brain changes statistically explain the improvements in inflammation.

“We’ve now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and this new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits,” said David Creswell, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

For the randomized controlled trial, 35 job-seeking, stressed adults were exposed to either an intensive three-day mindfulness meditation retreat program or a well-matched relaxation retreat program that did not have a mindfulness component. All participants completed a five-minute resting state brain scan before and after the three-day program. They also provided blood samples right before the intervention began and at a four-month follow-up.

The brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation training increased the functional connectivity of the participants’ resting default mode network in areas important to attention and executive control, namely the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Participants who received the relaxation training did not show these brain changes.

The participants who completed the mindfulness meditation program also had reduced IL-6 levels, and the changes in brain functional connectivity coupling accounted for the lower inflammation levels.

“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health,” Creswell said.

This work bridges health psychology and neuroscience and falls under the new field of health neuroscience, which Creswell is credited with co-founding. It also is another example of the many brain research breakthroughs at Carnegie Mellon. CMU has created some of the first cognitive tutors, helped to develop the Jeopardy-winning Watson, founded a groundbreaking doctoral program in neural computation, and is the birthplace of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Building on its strengths in biology, computer science, psychology, statistics and engineering, CMU launched BrainHub, an initiative that focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors.

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Dodging sticks and chasing carrots

photo-1442782844694-d3cb0de38fd4Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.

And that’s just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or yourself (e.g., personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).

Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.

In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes – by any means necessary. She doesn’t care if we happen to suffer along the way – from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger – or create suffering for others.

The result: a brain that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.

But you don’t have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you merely level the playing field.

You’ll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you’ll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.

And now, tilted toward absorbing the good, instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they’ll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others. It is among the top five personal growth methods I know. In addition to being good for adults, it’s great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.

Here’s how to take in the good – in three simple steps.

1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.

Good facts include positive events – like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it.

Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It’s private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don’t deserve to, or that it’s selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen.

Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable – but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.

It’s like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it—taste it!

2. Really enjoy the experience.

Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else.

As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.

You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.

3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.

People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together.

Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.

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Meditation, mindfulness may affect way your genes behave

Ben Locwin, Genetic Literacy Project: In the world of psychotherapy and biopsychology, mindfulness has experienced a tremendous amount of attention recently — mostly because in many of the challenges of the mind it is put up against, mindfulness has fared very well — performing as well as (or better than) drug therapies in some cases.

Mindfulness is endorsed by the American Heart Association (AHA) as a preventive therapy for cardiovascular disease and they also recommend mindfulness as a strategy for overeating.

However, for physicians and patients to fully unlock …

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Brain study reveals mindfulness could help prevent obesity in children

EurekAlert: Mindfulness, described as paying attention on purpose and being in the present moment with acceptance, could be an effective way to help children avoid obesity. New research published in the journal Heliyon suggests that the balance in brain networks in children who are obese is different compared to healthy-weight children, making them more prone to over-eating.

Long-lasting weight loss is difficult; this may be because it requires changes in how the brain functions in addition to changes in diet and exercise. The authors of the study, from Vanderbilt University, say identifying children at risk for obesity early on and using mindfulness approaches to control eating may be one way to approach weight management.

Mindfulness has been shown to increase inhibition and decrease impulsivity. Since obesity and unhealthy eating behaviors may be associated with an imbalance between the connections in the brain that control inhibition and impulse, the researchers say mindfulness could help treat or prevent childhood obesity.

“We know the brain plays a big role in obesity in adults, but what we understand about the neurological connections associated with obesity might not apply to children,” explained lead author BettyAnn Chodkowski, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “We wanted to look at the way children’s brains function in more detail so we can better understand what is happening neurologically in children who are obese.”

Chodkowski and her mentors, Ronald Cowan and Kevin Niswender, defined three areas of the brain that may be associated with weight and eating habits: the inferior parietal lobe, which is associated with inhibition, the ability to override an automatic response (in this case eating); the frontal pole, which is associated with impulsivity; and the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward.

They used data collected by the Enhanced Nathan Kline Institute – Rockland Sample from 38 children aged 8-13. Five of the children were classified as obese, and six were overweight. Data included children’s weights and their answers to the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire, which describes the children’s eating habits. The researchers also used MRI scans that showed the function of the three regions of the brain they wanted to study.

The results revealed a preliminary link between weight, eating behavior and balance in brain function. In children who behave in ways that make them eat more, the part of the brain associated with being impulsive appears to be more strongly connected than the part of the brain associated with inhibition.

Conversely, in children who behave in ways that help them avoid food, the part of the brain associated with inhibition is more strongly connected compared to the part of the brain associated with being impulsive.

“Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more,” said Dr. Niswender, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “This is great from an evolutionary perspective – they need food to grow and survive. But in today’s world, full of readily available, highly advertised, energy dense foods, it is putting children at risk of obesity.”

“We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity,” said Dr. Cowan, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults, but so far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children.”

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Science and meditation: integrating a first-person experience into the scientific process

Marjorie Woollacott, Huffington Post: As a long time meditator and neuroscientist, my interest in the effect of meditation on brain function is both personal and professional. The benefits meditation has brought to my life mirror first-person accounts of other meditation practitioners–basically, a sense of greater peace and more joy.

In addition to being even-minded in the midst of life’s challenges, many meditators describe having experiences that might be called mystical–and not just in the state of meditation but also after their session of meditation has ended. Some individuals say that their …

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Optimizing your brain for happiness and effectiveness

Buddha portrait isolated on white

A huge amount of research over the last few years has shown more clearly what happens in the brain when we meditate, and how meditation benefits us. 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, or collection of related activities, 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 experience, by contrast, are based on faulty metaphors. For example we used to talk as if emotions were like hydraulic fluids that would leak or burst out if we didn’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 these 28 days. 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.

We’ll be looking both at the theory and the practice of these activities. In terms of practice we’ll start today with a simple mindfulness meditation, a video of which you’ll find embedded below.

This post is extracted from our forthcoming 28-day online course, Optimize Your Brain: Awaken Your Full Potential With Meditation, which starts January 1. Click here for more details.

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Mindfulness pain relief distinct from placebo effect

wildmind meditation newsJustin Karter, Mad in America: A new study demonstrates that the practice of mindfulness may ease pain in a way that is mechanistically distinct from the placebo effect. Research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that mindfulness meditation not only outperformed placebo and fake meditation for pain relief but that it also activated different brain regions than the placebo treatments.

There is an accumulating body of evidence that mindfulness meditation, defined in this study as “a cognitive practice based on developing nonjudgmental awareness of arising sensory events,” can reduce the subjective experience of pain in various settings. However, scientists have yet to determine …

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Mindfulness: helping youth learn to feel emotions and choose their behavior

wildmind meditation newsLynne Anderson, Youth Today: Neuroscience has revealed in recent years that trauma resulting from adverse childhood events can actually change the brain — for the worse — of a developing child. And their thought processes and behaviors can become impaired as a result. They may be less able to control their emotions than youth who have not been traumatized, and they may experience re-injury and disturbing flashbacks.

With about 17 million young people with a mental health disorder of some kind, according to the Child Mind Institute — and with this greater awareness about the lifelong effects of trauma — anxiety grows among youth workers who wonder how best …

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Mindfulness meditation trumps placebo in pain reduction

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Press release, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center: Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have found new evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain more effectively than placebo.

This is significant because placebo-controlled trials are the recognized standard for demonstrating the efficacy of clinical and pharmacological treatments.

The research, published in the Nov. 18 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation reported greater pain relief than placebo. Significantly, brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation produced very different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.

“We were completely surprised by the findings,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study. “While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion.”

The study used a two-pronged approach – pain ratings and brain imaging – to determine whether mindfulness meditation is merely a placebo effect. Seventy-five healthy, pain-free participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control.

Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants’ skin to 49 degrees Centigrade (120.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a level of heat most people find very painful. Study participants then rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response). The participants’ brains were scanned with arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.

“The MRI scans showed for the first time that mindfulness meditation produced patterns of brain activity that are different than those produced by the placebo cream,” Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).

Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers. By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation. The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.

“This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation,” Zeidan said.

“Based on our findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting. However, given that the present study examined healthy, pain-free volunteers, we cannot generalize our findings to chronic pain patients at this time.”

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This work was supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, R21-AT007247, F32-AT006949 and K99-AT008238; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NS239426; the Mind and Life Institute Francisco J. Varela Award; and the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine.

Co-authors are: Nichole M. Emerson, B.S., Suzan R. Farris, B.S., John G. McHaffie, Ph.D., and Youngkyoo Jung, Ph.D., of Wake Forest Baptist; Jenna N. Ray, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

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How meditation can reshape our brains

Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s amazing brain scans show meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improving our memory and making us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress.

Sara’s team at Harvard University uses neuroimaging techniques to study neurological, cognitive and emotional changes associated with the practice of meditation and yoga. They also incorporate measures of peripheral physiology (breathing, heart beat) in order to understand how meditation practice influences the brain-body interaction.

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