neuroscience of meditation

Mindfulness: the common thread

wildmind meditation newsGarrett Heaney, Montpelier Bridge: Over the past few years, in my quest to become a perfect human, I have sought a number of different therapies, therapists, counselors, and programming — each with its own specific agenda in attending to my mental health. Through it all has been a common thread that seems to tie together each of these individual disciplines in mental health. This thread, of course, is “mindfulness.”

It seems no matter where I was physically or mentally, whether battling depression, partying too much, or sitting in a weekly session of dialectical behavioral therapy, the concept of mindfulness was always right there in the …

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New neuroscience reveals four rituals that will make you happy

"I hate when it's dark, and my brain's like, 'Hey, you know what we haven't thought about in a while? Monsters.'"

Eric Barker, Barking Up The Wrong Tree: You get all kinds of happiness advice on the internet from people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Don’t trust them.

Actually, don’t trust me either. Trust neuroscientists. They study that gray blob in your head all day and have learned a lot about what truly will make you happy.

UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb has some insights that can create an upward spiral of happiness in your life. Here’s what you and I can learn from the people who really have answers:

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. You …

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What science says about meditation: it improves your focus and emotional control

wildmind meditation newsJoseph Stromberg, Vox: “Mindfulness meditation has been shown to cause distinct changes in brain structure and brain function,” says Yi-Yuan Tang, a Texas Tech neuroscientist who studies meditation and recently reviewed the state of the research for the journal Nature. In experiments, he and others have found that regular meditation seems to improve people’s focus and emotional control, in particular.

There are plenty of caveats to this research. It’s early on, and some of the studies include relatively few people. Many are controlled trials(which track how a period of regular meditation affects people, compared with a comparison group that doesn’t meditate), but others involve …

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How an intensive ten-day meditation retreat could transform your life for the better

wildmind meditation newsZoe Schlanger, The Independent: It was 5:30 in the morning on my third day of silent meditation when I noticed something in me take a sharp turn left. I was groggy, frustrated by my inability to sit still and hungry for the breakfast that was still an hour off. I got up from the spot on the floor of my bedroom where I’d been attempting to meditate and walked outside, to the new-growth woods behind the residential quarters at the Vipassana Meditation Centre in Shelburne, Massachusetts. It was springtime, and the outdoors seemed spring-loaded with potential: the buds on the trees were sharp little things …

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, and hundreds of fuzzy fiddlehead ferns dotted the forest floor, curled snug. I walked down a little looping path that stopped unsatisfyingly soon; “course boundary” signs curtailed my meandering to an area the size of a soccer field. Exercise, like so many things here, was not permitted.

For the past three days, a brass bell had woken me at 4am, along with the 129 others who had committed to this 10-day silent saga. We meditated, with guidance, for roughly 10 hours a day, broken up by meals and “free time”, which was free only in the sense that we weren’t meditating. We weren’t allowed to read or write, speak to one another, make communicative gestures or even look at one another in the eye. So we all paced the small loop in the woods, staring at trees, careful not to acknowledge one another’s existence. No nodding, no smiling.

During free time after lunch, I walked outside to find a cluster of women standing in the courtyard stock-still, eyes closed, faces tilted toward the sun, looking posed for alien abduction. One woman wore a Nirvana band T-shirt, presumably without irony. I began to giggle, a major transgression, but I couldn’t help it. It all seemed so ridiculous. What the hell was I doing here? There’s no way, I thought, that this silent sitting around, this utter lack of mental stimulation, could be benefiting my brain. I briefly entertained the idea that this was all one massive 2,500-years-running placebo effect. I went over my previous few days in my mind. I looked back at the women. Is this what it felt like to be brainwashed? Was I mid-brainwashing? Would someone being brainwashed question whether she was being brainwashed? No, I finally told myself, I wasn’t being brainwashed; I was being silly. I turned away and stood outside in the sun for a while, in silence, and resigned myself to the idea of another week of this.

In the past few years, the human quest for self-optimisation has collided with improving mobile technology to produce more than 100,000 health apps for smartphones. The mobile market research firm Research2Guidance estimates that mHealth apps, as they’re called, will be a $26bn industry by 2017. Other popular apps claim to make you smarter. Then there’s the burgeoning field of DIY biohacking, led by trans-cranial direct-current. This involves strapping electrodes to one’s head and running a low dose of electricity through the brain. The therapeutic potential appears enormous, and for the DIY crowd, a central appeal is neuroenhancement – the potential to prompt clear-headed focus and amp up cognitive functions. But all these interventions are temporary, rely on devices and paid services, and are relatively unproven. What if the ultimate neuroenhancing biohack is 2,500 years old and costs nothing?

A few years ago, a computer scientist and a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona enrolled 45 human resources managers in a trial: a third took eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third took eight weeks of body relaxation training and the rest had no training at all. All three groups were given “stressful multi-tasking” tests before and after the eight-week period; and those in the mindful-meditation group were able to sustain their focus longer than the other groups and reported feeling less stressed.

The brain changes functionally and structurally all the time, taking in lessons from and responding to the stimulus of daily life. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity. But what if you could determine the way your brain changes? For years, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, has referred to the neurological effects of meditation as “rewiring the brain”.

Most of the time, he says, “our brains are constantly being shaped by forces around us of which we are really not aware or dimly aware”. But research suggests that meditators (he’s one) are able to intentionally guide that process – and such research has exploded in recent years. In 1980, there were just three papers published on the topic. In 2014, there were 535. One found that meditators appear to lose less grey matter over time than their non-meditating counterparts. Another suggested regular meditation may “reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal ageing”. A third, from 2012, found that long-term meditators may develop more gyrification, or “folding,” of the cortex, which is associated with faster mental processing – and the more years a person meditates, the higher the degree. A fourth found evidence of increased thickness in the areas of the brain associated with attention and awareness of sensations and emotions in oneself and others. A fifth went so far as to suggest that regular meditation might help you grow more brain.

One technique seems especially promising. Vipassana is the Buddhist meditation technique on which the now wildly popular Westernised concept of “mindfulness” is based. Henepola Gunaratana, an influential Buddhist monk, once described it as “looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing”.

More than anything else, Vipassana meditation is about training the brain to quieten down – to not react on impulse alone. (You might think you’re not impulsive, but the next time a fly lands on your neck, watch how fast you swat it.) These sorts of knee-jerk reactions extend into the emotional realm. When something negative happens, or whenever we crave something, be it a cigarette or the approval of a peer, we react without thinking. And that creates habit patterns that ensure the mind will react in exactly the same way the next time a similar scenario arises.

Here’s where meditation begins to show itself as a biohacking marvel. Learning how to interrupt one’s reaction pattern – and then doing that over and over – can reshape behaviour. And if behaviour is changing, then the brain is changing, says Katie Witkiewitz, a clinical psychology researcher who has studied the potential for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to cure addiction among prison inmates.

The crux of MBSR is learning to pause when one ordinarily wouldn’t, observe what’s happening in one’s body and then move forward. Witkiewitz set up three randomised medical trials in which people suffering from various addictions enrolled in MBSR programmes modelled on a secularised version of Vipassana – no stories about the life of the Buddha – and the results, she says, were “amazing”. Meditation led to “significant reductions in drug use, heavy drinking and cravings, and significant improvement in mental health”.

I found out about Vipassana in the winter of 2014, in the midst of a break-up of the sort that upends every part of one’s life. I was hungry for anything that might stabilise me when a cousin came back from a Vipassana retreat exuding an enviable sense of calm. She listened quietly as I babbled over brunch about the minutiae of my relationship drama and ticked off all the ways I needed to radically change my life. She said the retreat taught her to “be OK with what’s going on now”. I shrivelled a little. Was my distress that obvious?

I had never meditated before, but I enrolled for the course. (The retreat, like all Vipassana programmes, was free, funded by donations from and run by a rotating cast of former students.) While I waited, I watched “mindful living” – based on Vipassana traditions – have its media moment. And six months later, I got the call.

By the third morning of meditating, my mind was still flailing wildly, jumping from one thought to the next to avoid being quieted. I felt as though I were being dragged around by a petulant child. The more I desired a quiet mind, the more wildly flamboyant my distractions became. As soon as I’d managed to banish the choruses of the last five songs I’d played on Spotify before the retreat began, up came a few bars from Christina Aguilera’s Spanish-language rendition of “Come on Over”.

Then my thoughts turned abstract. With eyes closed, I focused on the dark outline of my eye sockets inside my eyelids. Bad move. Within moments, swirls of blue and yellow gyrated around the vague form of two ovals. I was kind of impressed; resisting quietude with a psychedelic light show is downright slick, really.

As calmly as I could, I pushed the light show aside and began to observe my galloping thoughts with detached amusement. There they were, charging around. What a ridiculous spectacle. Slowly, the clamour dimmed. And after that, the meditation got easier.

Two days later, I walked outside. My morning meditation had gone relatively well, I thought, and I felt calm and concerned only with what was happening in the present. I saw a bird’s nest cradled in a crook of a large, leafless bush about my height a few yards from the door. As I leaned in to peer into the nest, the bare branches filled my field of vision. A second passed as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight and focused on the empty bowl of the nest. As soon as they did, dozens of fat black ants came into focus too, scuttling up and down the branches in every corner of my field of vision. I was watching the ants without shifting my gaze from the bird’s nest. The whole scene, peripheral vision included, was unnervingly crisp. It was like watching a scene in Imax, every corner in laser focus.

For the remainder of the retreat, walking in the woods was a sensory field day. I could see the fuzz on the slowly unfurling fiddleheads from yards away. For the first time in my life, I heard the dead leaves on the forest floor settling on one another. One afternoon, I watched a nuthatch land on a tree trunk, and I could hear its talons make contact with the bark. Nearby, water not more than an inch deep moved languidly along a ditch. I could hear that too.

When I got home, New York was briefly unmanageable. I felt daunted by conversation, and socialising was unappealing. But I soon readjusted to the speaking world, and started noticing little, perhaps permanent, changes. When I faced my morning commute, I was less filled with the sense of existential malaise that used to come when I was wedged between two sets of shoulders, my forehead knocking lightly against the backpack of the person ahead of me. Now it didn’t seem so bad. All these people were just trying to get to work too.

My impulse to fill pauses in conversations was toned down, and time slowed down a bit too, because I was paying more attention to things as they happened. My typical obsessive interest in thinking about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life also seemed reduced, along with my equally large drive to rehash recent social interactions and pick them apart for errors on my part. Perhaps biggest of all, the animosity toward my ex evaporated.

I decided to test out whether what I was feeling would translate to a real-life interaction, so I arranged for us to meet for a coffee a week later; the first meeting since our split. As we chatted, I prodded myself mentally, searching for the familiar hurt and ill will. It wasn’t there. Learning to let go of negativity sounds Hallmark-level trite, but there it was.

And there’s more. Before the retreat, someone suggested I get my thyroid and cortisol levels tested. Since both can be tied to stress, he hypothesised they might shift in a setting designed to train calmness. So I went to my doctor and discovered that my thyroid levels were slightly abnormal, and my levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, were four points above the upper threshold for normal. “Double what I’d like to see for you,” my doctor said.

Two days after the retreat ended, I went back. My thyroid levels had dropped one full point when, according to my doctor, it would take “at least six weeks” on thyroid medication to get that result. And my cortisol level fell almost 10 points, to squarely within the normal range. That would ordinarily “take months” on a stress-reducing supplement, he said. He sounded impressed.

At the retreat, the teacher warned us over and over not to look for major shifts in our lives when we got home. Any small changes – food that tastes a little better, the family interaction that seems a little less excruciating – are remarkable enough. But my constellation of little changes seemed just evidence, really, that with continuous effort, I could change the way my mind worked. I could decouple, however briefly, my sense of self from the meat sack of mind and body. And that decoupling gave me the ability to actually control where that sack was headed next.

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Why meditation should be taught in schools

wildmind meditation newsLea Waters, The Conversation: New research in the fields of psychology, education and neuroscience shows teaching meditation in schools is having positive effects on students’ well-being, social skills and academic skills.

A recent meta-review of the impact of meditation in schools combined the results from 15 studies and almost 1800 students from Australia, Canada, India, the UK, the US and Taiwan. The research showed meditation is beneficial in most cases and led to three broad outcomes for students: higher well-being, better social skills and greater academic skills.

Students who were taught meditation at school reported higher optimism, more positive emotions, stronger self-identity, greater self-acceptance and …

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What consciousness wants


What does consciousness want? I don’t mean what do “you” want. I mean, what is consciousness fundamentally about? What is it trying to do? What is its nature?

Consciousness is undefinable. We can look at the brain with fancy machines and see activity going on. We can study neurons and understand the physical processes by which, for example, vision takes place. But how actual experience comes to arise on the basis of this is something that isn’t understood. This has been called the “hard problem” of explaining consciousness because scientists and philosophers don’t even know how to begin to think about this.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Alva Noë has said that consciousness is co-extensive with life itself. This doesn’t define consciousness, since we can’t even define life. But Noë’s argument is that all life has some kind of awareness of and ability to respond to its environment.

I believe that the consciousness that animates an amoeba or a yeast cell is fundamentally the same as that of a human being. There is only one kind of consciousness.

Yes, there is a difference as well. Although there is only one kind of consciousness, it performs in different ways depending on the nature of the being in which it is manifesting. An amoeba lives in a relatively simple world that includes food and toxins. It moves toward and engulfs food, and avoids toxins. It almost certainly doesn’t have thoughts or emotions. A wolf has a more complex nervous system, sense organs, and body. It has things like feelings, a sense of social hierarchy, needs for affection and companionship, etc. It is capable of more developed memories than an amoeba. It can plan and anticipate the future. A human being is more complex still. Our nervous systems are capable of seeing meaning in life, for example, and we’re able to construct stories, culture and technology (memories passed from generation to generation).

But the same fundamental consciousness is expressing itself through these various channels. Consciousness is like water or electricity. The water that flows through a stream is the same “stuff” as the water that flows through the trunk of a redwood tree, and the electricity in lightning is the same “stuff” that flows through our nerve cells when we remember our first date. Similarly, consciousness is all the same “stuff” whether it’s manifesting in a paramecium or a person.

Consciousness will naturally try to express itself as fully as it can, within the confines of the physical structure in which it’s manifesting. But the way in which consciousness expresses itself is always going to be limited because of those structures.

Consciousness, I believe, fundamentally wants to flow with the least resistance possible. When I say that it “wants” this I don’t mean that this is a real desire, any more than water has desire when it flows downhill. Water, if given the “choice,” will flow along a wide straight channel rather than along a narrow, twisted one. Electricity does the same, “choosing” to flow along a wire with low resistance, rather than one with high resistance. “Choice” here is just an analogy. All we’re saying is that this is how water and electricity behave.

I believe that consciousness “wants” to “flow” freely. Unfortunately, in the human brain/mind it rarely gets a chance to do this. The structure of the human brain leads to internal conflict, because various “modules” have different strategies. For example, in order to promote survival (and thus continued wellbeing) the amygdala prompts us to behave aggressively when it detects a threat. On the other hand, the neocortex recognizes that aggression frequently creates conflict and thus threatens our wellbeing. These are mutually incompatible aims. Consciousness is thus like water where the flow is turned back upon itself, causing turbulence. We experience this disturbance as dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. Craving, aversion, and delusion are all sources of this turbulence.

The ultimate state of peace to which consciousness “aspires” is the calm state that Buddhism calls “equanimity,” where the mind has been harmonized, and consciousness doesn’t react to stimuli in ways that cause unnecessary disturbance. This state is also called “compassion” because relating compassionately to other manifestations of consciousness is the most peaceful way that it can function socially. This state is also called “wisdom,” because consciousness at rest recognizes that craving and aversion are simply flawed strategies for finding peace, and because consciousness expressing itself in one physical form recognizes how consciousness as it manifests in other physical forms is simply trying to find peace.

In a neurologically complex being, such as a human being, consciousness has the ability to observe and assess its own functioning. It also has the ability to change the physical structure through which it operates. When consciousness observes that, for example, compassion is a valid way to move towards a state of peace, and that aggression isn’t, the brain changes in ways which make compassion more likely to be expressed in the future. New habits create new neural pathways. Abandoning habits leads to neural atrophy in unused circuits.

Consciousness does not take place within a self, but the self—or the idea of the self—takes place within consciousness. One of the things that happens in a complex consciousness is that stories are created in an attempt to explain the past and predict the future. One of those stories is that there is a “self” which contains consciousness, owns consciousness, and of which consciousness is a part. In reality, of course, the “self” happens within consciousness, as a simulation.

When a consciousness recognizes that one of the limits that has been hindering its expression is this imagined self, it can then begin to test the illusion. It can look and see that there are no stable experiences. All experiences are impermanent. Thus, there is no way for a stable self to exist. Eventually the imagined self is seen as what it is, a story representing something that doesn’t exist. At that point there is a major shift in how consciousness operates, and in its ability to move toward a state of rest and peace. We call that shift “Awakening.”

Other aspects of the functioning of the being are also questioned—not just whether craving and aversion can ever work at bringing about peace (it’s been largely seen that they don’t), but whether in fact there is any “thing” to be grasped or avoided. Progressively, craving and aversion cease to function, because they’re no longer taken seriously. The very idea of separateness (I versus the world, me versus you, experiencer versus experienced) fades away.

Gradually, consciousness is able to express itself more and more freely, without painful turbulence, and just as gradually, consciousness moves toward a state of graceful expression characterized by wisdom and equanimity, and expressing itself as compassion.

We can summarize all this by saying that when the physical universe becomes complex enough, life (and consciousness) arise. Give a star enough time, and it starts to wonder why it isn’t happy. Part of the universe ponders the rest of the universe, and wonders what it’s all about. Why am I here? What happens then I die? How can I become happier? How can I have more of the experiences I like and fewer of those I don’t like? It thinks of itself as separate.

Give this apparently separate part of the universe a bit more time and it’ll learn to untangle, unwind, and relax the habits that have created its sense of separateness. It then becomes simply another part of the universe, flowing, clearly aware, without delusions of separateness, and with the compassionate desire to help other deluded expressions of consciousness to reach the same state of rest, peace, and wisdom.

Just Sitting is an important part of this process. It allows consciousness the time and space to become aware of its own functioning, to create the conditions for removing the “turbulence” of craving, aversion, and delusion, and so to come to a state of pure, unobstructed flow.

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How to mind your feelings

wildmind meditation newsDaniel Goleman, Lion’s Roar: While we can’t control when we feel anger or fear—or how strongly—we can gain some control over what we do while in their grip. If we can develop inner radar for emotional danger, we gain a choice point the Dalai Lama urges us to master.

When I asked the Dalai Lama how to find this inner choice point, he suggested one method: questioning destructive mental habits. Even though there may be a bit of legitimacy to our griev­ances, are the disturbing emotions we feel way out of proportion? Are such feelings familiar, recurring again and again? If so, we …

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Becoming mindful can help to deal with trauma

wildmind meditation newsBrian Levine, The Star: Pushing away bad memories can be unproductive.

Imagine learning about the death of your father, but then feeling the surprise and pain freshly each time you hear about it for years afterwards. That was the experience of the world’s most famous amnesiac, Henry Molaison, the subject of the book Permanent Present Tense.

These days, we’re constantly being encouraged to “live in the present” to reduce anxiety and improve well-being. It’s good advice, but pushing away bad memories — or being cut off from them like Henry Molaison — is unproductive. Nobody would enjoy living in the permanent present tense …

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The benefits and advantages to meditation in your life

wildmind meditation newsDavid McMillian, Shreveport Times: There is an abundance of scientific research that is being published to confirm the values of meditation and that’s encouraging people to take up the practice, along with people like your friend at work talking firsthand about their experiences. You don’t have to join a group to learn to meditate, although some find that helpful; there are many good books and resources available on the internet. Be aware that meditation can be discouraging especially for our packed “western minds” because it’s not easy to stop the thoughts, calm your mind, and get into a space that is quiet. Since …

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Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

wildmind meditation newsBrigid Schulte, The Washington Post: Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:

A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real …

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