psychology and meditation

Experiment shows brief meditative exercise helps cognition

Some of us need regular amounts of coffee or other chemical enhancers to make us cognitively sharper. A newly published study suggests perhaps a brief bit of meditation would prepare us just as well.

While past research using neuroimaging technology has shown that meditation techniques can promote significant changes in brain areas associated with concentration, it has always been assumed that extensive training was required to achieve this effect. Though many people would like to boost their cognitive abilities, the monk-like discipline required seems like a daunting time commitment and financial cost for this benefit.

Surprisingly, the benefits may be achievable even without all the work. Though it sounds almost like an advertisement for a “miracle” weight-loss product, new research now suggests that the mind may be easier to cognitively train than we previously believed. Psychologists studying the effects of a meditation technique known as “mindfulness ” found that meditation-trained participants showed a significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills (and performed significantly higher in cognitive tests than a control group) after only four days of training for only 20 minutes each day.

“In the behavioral test results, what we are seeing is something that is somewhat comparable to results that have been documented after far more extensive training,” said Fadel Zeidan, a post-doctoral researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and a former doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where the research was conducted.

“Simply stated, the profound improvements that we found after just 4 days of meditation training– are really surprising,” Zeidan noted. “It goes to show that the mind is, in fact, easily changeable and highly influenced, especially by meditation.”

The study appears in the April 2 issue of Consciousness and Cognition. Zeidan’s co-authors are Susan K. Johnson, Zhanna David and Paula Goolkasian from the Department of Psychology at UNC Charlotte, and Bruce J. Diamond from William Patterson University. The research was also part of Zeidan’s doctoral dissertation. The research will also be presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s annual meeting in Montreal, April 17-20.

The experiment involved 63 student volunteers, 49 of whom completed the experiment. Participants were randomly assigned in approximately equivalent numbers to one of two groups, one of which received the meditation training while the other group listened for equivalent periods of time to a book (J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit) being read aloud.

Prior to and following the meditation and reading sessions, the participants were subjected to a broad battery of behavioral tests assessing mood, memory, visual attention, attention processing, and vigilance.

Both groups performed equally on all measures at the beginning of the experiment. Both groups also improved following the meditation and reading experiences in measures of mood, but only the group that received the meditation training improved significantly in the cognitive measures. The meditation group scored consistently higher averages than the reading/listening group on all the cognitive tests and as much as ten times better on one challenging test that involved sustaining the ability to focus, while holding other information in mind.

“The meditation group did especially better on all the cognitive tests that were timed,” Zeidan noted. “In tasks where participants had to process information under time constraints causing stress, the group briefly trained in mindfulness performed significantly better.”

Particularly of note were the differing results on a “computer adaptive n-back task,” where participants would have to correctly remember if a stimulus had been shown two steps earlier in a sequence. If the participant got the answer right, the computer would react by increasing the speed of the subsequent stimulus, further increasing the difficulty of the task. The meditation-trained group averaged aproximately10 consecutive correct answers, while the listening group averaged approximately one.

“Findings like these suggest that meditation’s benefits may not require extensive training to be realized, and that meditation’s first benefits may be associated with increasing the ability to sustain attention,” Zeidan said.

“Further study is warranted,” he stressed, noting that brain imaging studies would be helpful in confirming the brain changes that the behavioral tests seem to indicate, “but this seems to be strong evidence for the idea that we may be able to modify our own minds to improve our cognitive processing – most importantly in the ability to sustain attention and vigilance – within a week’s time.”

The meditation training involved in the study was an abbreviated “mindfulness” training regime modeled on basic “Shamatha skills” from a Buddhist meditation tradition, conducted by a trained facilitator. As described in the paper, “participants were instructed to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of their nose. If a random thought arose, they were told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought and to simply let ‘it’ go, by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath.” Subsequent training built on this basic model, teaching physical awareness, focus, and mindfulness with regard to distraction.

Zeidan likens the brief training the participants received to a kind of mental calisthenics that prepared their minds for cognitive activity.

“The simple process of focusing on the breath in a relaxed manner, in a way that teaches you to regulate your emotions by raising one’s awareness of mental processes as they’re happening is like working out a bicep, but you are doing it to your brain. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to release sensory events that would easily distract, whether it is your own thoughts or an external noise, in an emotion-regulating fashion. This can lead to better, more efficient performance on the intended task.”

“This kind of training seems to prepare the mind for activity, but it’s not necessarily permanent,” Zeidan cautions. “This doesn’t mean that you meditate for four days and you’re done – you need to keep practicing.”


The paper, “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training” is available on Pubmed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20363650.

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P.G. Wodehouse: “If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is!”

PG WodehouseWe spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend impermanence isn’t real, but the strange thing is that when we embrace impermanence we become happier, Bodhipaksa argues.

Here’s a very “queer thing” about life: sometimes the things that we think will make us miserable actually make us happier. When Professor Eric D. Miller of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology asked people to imagine the death of their partner they reported that they felt more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.

 I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
—P.G. Wodehouse  

We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind. Wary that thinking about impermanence will be too much of a “downer” we try not to think about these things too much. And yet, ironically, when we do happen to experience the fragility of existence we often find our appreciation of life is enhanced.

Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s just the sheer joy of being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting pleasure to pay attention to those that do.

Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and wellbeing. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world that we can absolutely rely upon. True, it’s pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it.

 The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate?  

An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. In studies it has been found that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island in the midst of a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.

Another common strategy is that we imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing that we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we engage in grasping for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.

 We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us.  

Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us, and that including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.

We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. The self that we imagine to be separate and unchanging is not that way at all. The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline that we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river starts. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.

The Buddha pointed to an alternative way of living, which is that we radically embrace impermanence. In his path of training, we systematically notice all acts of holding on, all acts of trying to resist impermanence, and learn to let go. In doing so repeatedly, we start to see the disadvantages of clinging, and the advantages of non-clinging. Training the mind in this way, we cling less, we experience more freedom and expansiveness, and we find we can face impermanence with less fear.

This post is an edited extract from Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book, “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” to be published by Sounds True in October, 2010.

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Mind Power

Harvard professor Ellen Langer’s research transformed psychology. Now she wants it to transform you.

The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is housed in a former Jesuit seminary built in the 1950s, on a rise with broad views of the Berkshires. The long hallways have the institutional feel of a high school, except that everyone is speaking in respectful tones, and rolled yoga mats are everywhere, like baguettes in Doisneau’s Paris. On the walls are limited-edition photographs of lean people doing yoga in front of moss-dappled Indian shrines. At the gift shop on an early February weekend, visitors could have their tarot read, or a photographic portrait taken of their aura. And one of the featured speakers, offering a weekend-long seminar, was a senior professor at Harvard University, Ellen Langer.

Langer is a famous psychologist poised to get much more famous, but not in the ways most researchers do. She is best known for two things: her concept of mindlessness – the idea that much of what we believe to be rational thought is in fact just our brains on autopilot – and her concept of mindfulness, the idea that simply paying attention to our everyday lives can make us happier and healthier. She was Harvard’s first tenured woman professor of psychology, and her discoveries helped trigger, among other things, the burgeoning positive-psychology movement. Her 1989 book, “Mindfulness,” was an international bestseller, and she remains in high demand as a speaker everywhere from New York’s 92d Street Y to the leadership guru Tony Robbins’s Fiji resort. And now a movie about her life is in development with Jennifer Aniston signed on to star as Langer.

While other researchers might blanch at the Hollywoodization of their work, for Langer it’s almost an organic development – part of a long journey to bring the message of her research to the masses. Langer’s reputation in the field of social psychology rests on a set of ingenious experiments that expose the strange power of the mind to fool itself and to transform the body. In one of her best-known studies, she found that giving nursing home residents more control over their lives made them live longer. In more recent work, she made hotel maids lose weight simply by telling them that their work burned as many calories as a typical workout. And in the study at the center of the Aniston movie, a team led by Langer found that instructing a group of elderly men to talk and act as if they were 20 years younger could reverse the aging process.

Today, Langer’s studies are required reading in introductory psychology courses, and her work has inspired a generation of leading behavioral researchers who are rethinking human thought itself. But Langer herself has taken a different tack. As her intellectual successors publish research studies, she has transformed herself into almost an advertisement for her own work, setting out to spread the word about the power of mindfulness. Nearly a decade ago, she took up painting, pursuing it, as she pursues everything, as mindfully as possible; today her canvases, many of them whimsical portraits of her pet dogs, show in well-reputed galleries and sell for thousands of dollars. She has long been at work on a book on mindfulness and tennis, a sport she plays avidly. And her recent books are concerned less with how mindfulness works than how we all might better use it to improve our lives.

“Things are not good or bad,” she repeated to her audience at Kripalu, “What’s good or bad are the views we take of things.”

For some psychologists, mantras like these make Langer less a social scientist than a guru. She treats research and writing – the day-to-day work of most psychologists – with a pronounced cavalierness, neglecting to publish results even when they strike her as interesting. At times she sounds suspicious of the very idea of scientific evidence. What she is practicing, she says, is a different brand of psychology, “the psychology of possibility.”

“I do research, but my research is not designed to be a description. It rarely says what is, but what can be,” she told me at Kripalu.

“I don’t think I’ve ever envied anybody. If someone has something, I can, too,” Langer announced to her Kripalu seminar during the Saturday morning session. Dressed in slim black slacks and a black, tunic-like cardigan, she stood before 65 people, mostly women, in a lofty, barn-shaped room that had once been the seminary’s main chapel.

The night before, Langer had asked participants to think of someone or something that bothered them. She started the morning by asking what they had come up with. One woman said her husband was always late for breakfast, another described her child’s “defying” behavior, another made what sounded like a veiled complaint about her in-laws.

In responding to each, Langer returned to a similar point: Each of these complaints was born of mindlessness. They were instinctual responses rather than thoughtful engagement. Why not see the time alone at breakfast as a gift? Would the young mother rather have a child who blindly followed orders? And surely there was something interesting and redeemable to be found in the in-laws.

As advice, it was not revolutionary. But as the morning went on, and Langer described the research on which she had built her particular worldview, a sense emerged of just how powerful she thought the mind could be.

As Langer sees it, it’s the pervasiveness of mindless behavior that makes mindfulness so powerful, and her earliest research focused on the former. Her doctoral dissertation, at Yale, grew out of a poker game with some colleagues. One round, the dealer accidentally skipped someone. “Everyone went crazy,” Langer recalls. It was out of the question, she learned, to simply give the skipped person the next card and proceed with the deal. She began to wonder why people were so attached to “their” cards even when they had no idea whether they were good or bad.

At the time, the dominant view in the field of psychology assumed that human decision-making was a thoroughly logical process, driven by a constant calculation of probabilities and costs and benefits. The reaction to that botched deal made Langer suspect something very different.

To test this, she ran a study in which she set up a lottery and varied the terms by which people got their tickets. She found that subjects valued their tickets much more when they were allowed to choose them, even though that did nothing to increase their chances of winning. She called this “the illusion of control.”

Langer followed this up by looking at the often meaningless factors that determine how people evaluate information. In one study, conducted with Benzion Chanowitz and Arthur Blank, she had experimenters approach people who were using a Xerox machine and ask to cut in to make copies. They found that people were more likely to let someone cut if offered a reason – but, intriguingly, it did not matter if the reason made sense. People were as receptive to a meaningless reason (“to make copies”) as a valid one (“I’m in a rush”).

“It is not that people don’t hear the request,” Langer wrote in “Mindfulness,” “they simply don’t think about it actively.”

These findings broke open the field of social psychology. “It was a huge corrective,” says John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale known for his work on “automaticity” and thought. He remembers reading the Xerox machine study as a graduate student: “That just lit me up. It opened my eyes and everything was off to the races after that.”

For Bargh and others, Langer’s research cleared the way for a whole new model of how people really think and decide, one that replaced the cold inner logician with a rich tangle that incorporated emotion, evolution, and the particularities of the human body. Researchers like Daniel Gilbert, Antonio Damasio, and Dan Ariely saw mindless behavior as a trove of clues, and in many cases, psychologists discovered that there could be a value to “mindlessness” – our seemingly irrational instincts were not only quicker, but often more accurate than our more considered ruminations.

Langer, on the other hand, thought mindlessness was harmful. Not paying attention to their lives, as she saw it, made people bored and careless, prejudiced and complacent; it stunted innovation and led to catastrophic errors among pilots and soldiers and surgeons. She didn’t see mindlessness as a window into the brain. She saw it as a condition to be cured.

So Langer began to study its opposite. She called it “mindfulness,” a term that was being independently adopted around the same time by doctors and therapists embracing the Buddhist practice of mindful meditation. Langer’s definition was something more everyday – that we simply need to go through life paying better attention to it. She began to focus her work on the question of what difference that might make.

Among other things, she argued, it could make us live longer. In 1976, working with Judith Rodin at Yale – a psychologist who would later become president of the University of Pennsylvania – she published a landmark field study that looked at what happened when nursing home residents were given more control over their lives. Langer and Rodin set up their experiment so that one group of residents was asked to make a few small decisions about their lives – where to receive visitors, what entertainment options they preferred, and how to care for houseplants placed in their rooms – and another group was not given these choices. A year and a half later, Langer and Rodin found that not only were the residents who had been given more choices happier, more social, and more alert than the other group, many more of them were still alive.

“Whenever you’re making a choice, you have to notice things, and that makes us engage,” Langer told me. “Mindfulness is figuratively enlivening, and it’s literally enlivening.”

Another set of findings by Langer suggests that, to a seemingly supernatural degree, simply believing something can make it so. In a study published in 2007 with her student Alia Crum, Langer found that telling hotel maids that their work satisfied the surgeon general’s recommendations for an active lifestyle led to a decrease in those maids’ weight, blood pressure, and body fat four weeks later, even though they reported no change in activity or diet.

The study that the movie will center on took place in 1979 and was, in its way, a feat of canny stagecraft. In an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., Langer and her students set up an elaborate time capsule of the world 20 years earlier, then sent two separate groups of men in their late 70s and early 80s to spend a week there. Each group spent the week immersed in the year 1959, discussing Castro’s advances in Cuba and the Colts’ victory in the NFL championship, listening to Perry Como and Nat King Cole, watching “North by Northwest” and “Some Like it Hot.” The only difference between the two groups was that one talked about the year in the present tense – they were pretending it was 1959 – and the other group referred to it in the past.

Before and after, the men in both groups were given a battery of cognitive and physical tests. What Langer found was that the men in both groups seemed to have reversed many of the declines associated with aging – they were stronger and more flexible, their memories and their performance on intelligence tests improved. But the men who had acted as if it really was 1959 had improved significantly more. By mentally living as younger men for a week, they seemed actually to have turned back the clock.

What was happening to those men? Today Langer says she’s not entirely sure. It may be that they believed, on some level, that they really were 20 years younger, and that their bodies reacted accordingly. Or it may be that the effort of maintaining the fiction engaged their minds in a way that rejuvenated them.

But ultimately Langer seems less interested in the question of how mindfulness works than how to harness it in practice. In her books – mostly written for a popular audience – and her many speaking engagements, she outlines a philosophy in which the right mindset can often literally transmute life’s ills.

Other researchers, however, are more cautious about Langer’s mind-over-matter effects, and wonder if other factors might be at work. There may be subtle behavioral changes that accompany the changes in mindset, unbeknownst to both subject and researcher.

“The question is how much does it help simply to have the feeling – or does the feeling help because it gets you motivated to try to do something,” says Julie Norem, a psychologist at Wellesley College.

Skepticism about Langer’s conception of mindfulness is fed by the fact that she doesn’t always publish her more provocative findings in academic journals, a tendency that can make her seem less interested in testing her ideas than publicizing them. The study of the older men is recounted anecdotally in multiple books, but was never published in a peer-reviewed research journal. (The movie was born when a screenwriter cold-called Langer and told her he had read “Mindfulness” on his mother’s recommendation.)

Langer readily concedes that her ideas have changed since her early career. “When I was first studying the illusion of control, I was doing it from a very rational perspective,” she says. Now, however, she says she is suspicious of the empirical approach that lies at the heart of scientific research. One of her favorite hobbyhorses is probabilistic thinking. (“You can tell me that there’s a 20 percent chance of it raining tomorrow, but tomorrow it will either rain or it won’t rain.”)

Instead, Langer’s “psychology of possibility” focuses not on how the typical person thinks, but on the special qualities of outliers and apparent oddities, and rests on a faith in the untapped potential of the mind. Her work reaches thousands of people, and, on the largest scale, she sees progress.

“I think the culture is headed toward an evolution in consciousness,” she told me.

The psychology of possibility can take Langer to some curious places. In a blog post last summer for the Psychology Today website, she told the story of a friend who on a long-ago trip took photos of an Indian guru only to find he didn’t show up on film. The inability of many people to believe the story, Langer suggested, was due to “our mindless adherence to longstanding views.”

But to Langer, among the strongest arguments for the psychology of possibility is the way it has enriched her own lived life: She is now a painter, a dispenser of performance-enhancing advice on the doubles court, and the basis for a Hollywood biopic. As she told the seminar at Kripalu, “I have fun when I make the paintings, I have fun when I write the books, I have fun when I speak to you. Because, why not have fun?”

[via Boston Globe]
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Study shows brief training in meditation may help manage pain

PsychOrg.com: Living with pain is stressful, but a surprisingly short investment of time in mental training can help you cope.

A new study examining the perception of pain and the effects of various mental training techniques has found that relatively short and simple mindfulness meditation training can have a significant positive effect on pain management.

Though pain research during the past decade has shown that extensive meditation training can have a positive effect in reducing a person’s awareness and sensitivity to pain, the effort, time commitment, and financial obligations required has made the treatment not practical for many patients. Now, a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte shows that a single hour of training spread out over a three day period can produce the same kind of analgesic effect. Read more here.

The research appears in an article by UNC Charlotte psychologists Fadel Zeidan, Nakia S. Gordon, Junaid Merchant and Paula Goolkasian, in the current issue of The Journal of Pain.

“This study is the first study to demonstrate the efficacy of such a brief intervention on the perception of pain,” noted Fadel Zeidan, a doctoral candidate in psychology at UNC Charlotte and the paper’s lead author. “Not only did the meditation subjects feel less pain than the control group while meditating but they also experienced less pain sensitivity while not meditating.”

Over the course of three experiments employing harmless electrical shocks administered in gradual increments, the researchers measured the effect of brief sessions of mindfulness meditation training on pain awareness measuring responses that were carefully calibrated to insure reporting accuracy. Subjects who received the meditation training were compared to controls and to groups using relaxation and distraction techniques. The researchers measured changes in the subjects’ rating of pain at “low” and “high” levels during the different activities, and also changes in their general sensitivity to pain through the process of calibrating responses before the activities.

While the distraction activity – which used a rigorous math task to distract subjects from the effects of the stimulus – was effective in reducing the subject’s perception of “high” pain, the meditation activity had an even stronger reducing effect on high pain, and reduced the perception of “low” pain levels as well.

Further, the meditation training appeared to have an effect that continued to influence the patients after the activity was concluded, resulting in a general lowering of pain sensitivity in the subjects – a result that indicated that the effect of the meditation was substantially different from the effect of the distraction activity.

The finding follows earlier research studies that found differences in pain awareness and other mental activities among long-time practitioners of mindfulness meditation techniques.

“We knew already that meditation has significant effects on pain perception in long-term practitioners whose brains seem to have been completely changed — we didn’t know that you could do this in just three days, with just 20 minutes a day,” Zeidan said.

In assessing the first experiment, the researchers were not terribly surprised to discover that meditation activity appeared to be affecting the experimental subjects’ perception of pain because the researchers assumed that the change was mainly due to distraction, a well-known effect. However, subsequent findings began to indicate that the effect continued outside of the periods of meditation.

” When we re-calibrated their pain thresholds after the training had started and we found that they felt less pain, compared to the control subjects,” Zeidan noted. “This was totally surprising because a change in general sensitivity was not part of our hypothesis at all.

“We were so surprised after the first experiment that we did two more. We thought that no one was going to listen to us because no one had done this before… and we got a robust finding across the three experiments.”

Zeidan stresses that the effect the researchers measured in the meditation subjects was a lessening of pain but not a lessening of sensation. The calibration results showed little change in the meditation subjects’ sensitivity to the sensation of electricity, but a significant change in what level of shock was perceived to be painful.

“The short course of meditation was very effective on pain perception,” Zeidan said. “We got a very high effect size for the periods when they were meditating.

“In fact, it was kind of freaky for me. I was ramping at 400-500 milliamps and their arms would be jolting back and forth because the current was stimulating a motor nerve. Yet they would still be asking, ‘A 2?’ (‘2′ being the level of electrical shock that designates low pain) It was really surprising,” he said.

Zeidan suspects that the mindfulness training lessens the awareness of and sensitivity to pain because it trains subjects’ brains to pay attention to sensations at the present moment rather than anticipating future pain or dwelling on the emotions caused by pain, and thus reduces anxiety.

“The mindfulness training taught them that distractions, feelings, emotions are momentary, don’t require a label or judgment because the moment is already over,” Zeidan noted. “With the meditation training they would acknowledge the pain, they realize what it is, but just let it go. They learn to bring their attention back to the present.”

Though the results are in line with past findings regarding mindfulness practitioners, Zeidan says that the findings are important because they show that meditation is much easier to use for pain management than it was previously believed to be because a very short, simple course of training is all that is required in order to achieve a significant effect. Even self-administered training might be effective, according to Zeidan.

“What’s neat here is that this is the briefest known way to promote a meditation state and yet it has an effect in pain management. People who want to make use of the technique might not need a meditation facilitator – they might be able to get the necessary training off the internet, ” Zeidan said. “All you have to do is use your mind, change the way you look at the perception of pain and that, ultimately, might help alleviate the feeling of that pain.”

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Happiness, craving, and the treadmill of expectations

Treadmill

Eric Weiner writes today in the New York Times about a recent report saying that the Danes are the happiest nation, and puts it down to their attitude of not having unrealistic expectations — something that he (rightly, I think) equates with Buddhism. It’s a post that’s worth reading in full, especially for his analysis of the "hedonic treadmill," but here’s an extract:

About once a year, some new study confirms Denmark’s status as a happiness superpower. Danes receive this news warily, with newspaper headlines that invariably read: "We’re the happiest lige nu." Lige nu is a Danish phrase that means literally "just now" but strongly connotes a sense of "for the time being but probably not for long." Danes, in other words, harbor low expectations about everything, including their own happiness. Though not an especially religious people, Danes would make good Buddhists. They live their lives as the Buddha advised: in the present tense, not grasping at some future happiness jackpot.

Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the "hedonic treadmill." That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment. If a B-plus grade made us happy last semester, it’ll take an A-minus to register the same satisfaction this semester, and so on until eventually, inevitably, we fail to reach the next bar and slip into despair.

I once heard Joseph Goldstein make a nice distinction between aspiration and expectation. Both involve having an idea of things you would like to happen, but with expectation there’s a degree of clinging to the idea of achieving our goals, whereas with aspiration there isn’t clinging. The problem with clinging is that when we don’t get what we want we plummet from excited expectation to disappointment, and when we do get what we’ve been craving the tendency to crave hasn’t gone away, and so we’ll soon find ourselves craving more. This is the dynamic that Weiner so neatly describes.

I’d argue that all of our actions are strategies for attaining happiness. From that perspective craving is not “bad” but just a strategy that happens not to work. What does work are lovingkindness, equanimity, and an awareness of impermanence.

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What inspired a scientist to open a meditation center at UCLA?

Huffington Post:
I recently attended a gathering of supporters of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California, Los Angeles. During this event, I heard MARC founder (and Huffington Post blogger) Susan Smalley, Ph.D., speak. Dr. Smalley, a research scientist for 25 years, shared her fascinating journey of how she was inspired to create a center for mindfulness research. Her audience was completely captivated. I was so moved by Dr. Smalley’s story, I wanted to share it with the HuffPost audience. I was fortunate enough to track her down for an interview. Read more here.

Before I share the interview, I’d like to clarify what mindful awareness is. According to the MARC website:

Mindful Awareness – the moment-by-moment process of actively attending to, observing and drawing inferences from what one experiences. Mindful Awareness (also known as mindfulness) is an ancient concept with over 2,500 years of history and development that has recently been brought into health settings and has shown to have a powerful role on overall health promotion and healing for a variety of physical illnesses including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune disorders, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

PF: Sue, thanks for meeting with me to share your story. Let’s start with your background that, in a surprising way, seemed to lay the foundation for your interest in the study of mindfulness. How did you originally get involved in science, specifically in the field of genetics?

SS: My Ph.D. is in Anthropology, specifically Population and Behavior Genetics. I was interested in evolution, how genes change in frequency over time. Also, how genes influence human behavior. I did two years of post-doc work at UCLA in Medical Genetics, and am licensed as a medical geneticist.

I was fascinated with the gene mapping studies. I thought that if you found all the genes that influence human behavior, you could solve the world’s problems. I thought that once we understood the biology, we would be able to map out what are the environments that interact with those genes and we could cure everything. I thought that was the solution to end suffering.

I did autism research for ten years, and ADHD research for 13 years. As I really started studying ADHD, it became clear that, like every other psychiatric and behavioral condition, there’s not a single gene involved. There are many genes that interact. It’s not something you’re going to treat by altering genes; it will require a variety of approaches. I see ADHD as a way of brain processing that impacts many dimensions, not only attention but also working memory, probably personality, and other domains.

PF: So for 25 years you were immersed in fascinating research at UCLA. And now you are the founder and director of the MARC Center. Seems like a complete 360, but I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind the switch.

SS: Patricia, I received a real wake up call when I was diagnosed with an early stage melanoma. It was a big shock. I thought I was going to die. I really reevaluated my life. I realized that I was doing everything Western medicine said keeps you healthy (working out, diet, etc.) and yet I was not preventing myself from getting ‘sick’. The shock of the diagnosis and the fear of death really brought me to a heightened awareness.

PF: What was your life approach before this heightened awareness?

SS: I didn’t think about trying to heighten my sense of consciousness in any way. I thought, yeah, learn more, read more, study more, talk to people, everything’s in books, everything’s out there in a reason-based world. Just follow it.

I gave zero time to places that would increase intuition, or enhance insight, ignoring what is probably a core component of wisdom. I was just running around constantly doing, doing, doing, and trying to soak up knowledge from books and experiments and science.

PF: So prior to this new level of “awareness,” did you have any hobbies, escapes?

SS: Not really … I would go on vacation with my family every year but mostly I worked. And in addition to working, I was a mom, but I was a workaholic in motherhood and a workaholic in work. I constantly would try to do more.

I loved the role of being a mother. It was the one place that intuition naturally arose for me. In that sense, when I had my first child, I had more awareness. I wrote about it in my first post on Huffington Post; it’s called Mystic Mom. Motherhood was my first touch with being connected to something outside of myself. That was 24 years ago. I have three kids now, ages 18-23.

Back then, I had very few friends to be honest, except my husband who has been my closest friend for 35 years. I didn’t really open up that much to anyone outside my family. But I did go into therapy. That was a huge component to my self-discovery.

PF: You were in therapy before your “awakening”?

SS: I was in therapy for stress, worry, parenting. I felt stressed, and wanted to do the best I could do with my kids. Therapy helped me open up on one level.

PF: Did the cancer diagnosis and the “awakening” inspire you to make changes in your lifestyle?

SS: The medical treatment for my cancer was successful; however, I felt that there was something deeper going on with my overall health.

I decided to go back to an East-West doctor that my husband had recommended earlier. I had started going to him 10 years before, but I didn’t believe in him. I just would roll my eyes. I was so skeptical. He would give me suggestions of ways to improve my well being, and I didn’t follow through.

But when the melanoma was diagnosed, I thought, something’s not working. I thought I was doing everything right, but something’s off.

So for the first time, I listened to what he said and started doing everything he recommended. This included massage, acupuncture, taking herbs, different forms of yoga. On my own, I decided I would explore dietary changes, too. I looked into all of the diets and I went really hardcore into macrobiotic. I did all of those things simultaneously. And I started meditating.

I had learned TM (transcendental meditation) in the 70s, and kind of made fun of it. But I did have a mantra and I knew how to do it.

I took a little time off from work when I started doing all of those things, including meditating every day. I would drop the kids at school and come home. I’d spend the day doing things to improve my health: acupuncture, yoga, massage. Hour after hour of it. This was like a mega retreat on my own. Then I’d pick my kids up from school and do the normal mom stuff.

PF: So when you get into something, you really get into something.

SS: Yeah, I totally got immersed in it. But it was all new because I’d never done any of it, and I didn’t believe any of it before, so I was like, be open, be open.

And it really had a huge impact and I had what I now call a “mystical experience” – I had a huge shift in consciousness. And it wasn’t one that was incremental, day after day, increasing and increasing, but one of those, bam! Wow! The world, we’re all interconnected, I’m part of the oneness of the universe. I discovered this sense of deep interconnectedness of our dependent nature and posted a blog about it.

It was so profound that I couldn’t harm anything, and it was like all of a sudden. It wasn’t choosing not to eat meat anymore or choosing not to harm an insect because I thought it was a nice thing to do. It was because I felt to harm another animal, insect, even plants was like hurting a part of myself, as if I was chopping off my own left arm. I saw us all as one interconnected thing.

It was a really profound state, and along with this heightened state of consciousness, this incredible state of compassion, came a flood of rushing joy, bliss, calmness, happiness. I couldn’t even muster the old feelings I had that included the negative feelings of jealously, greed, anger … all of those things I couldn’t find in myself.

This state was so overwhelming that I didn’t know how to function. It was so different, this heightened state of bliss. I had no signs or symptoms of any kind of mental disorder, but I’m guessing it had qualities of what mania or hypomania might feel like in some ways. But not only was there this bliss, but creativity was just massive. So I started painting, I started creative writing, doing lots of things I hadn’t done before.

PF: How long did this feeling last?

SS: It was a really profound experience, then it kind of dissipated after about a month. The negative emotions didn’t come back but I started to lose that extreme feeling of everything as so connected, of that extreme sort of blissful state.

Then I started reading a lot, trying to figure out what just happened to me? What was this amazing experience?

Somehow I came across William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. Here
I had been an atheist, or an agnostic, my whole life. But what happened to me was a profound shift in consciousness which led me to relate to the universe in a very different way.

That experience sounded like what James described for people who had had what they called “religious experiences” except my experience had no ‘God’ associated with it.

But, when I began reading Eastern religions of Taoism and Buddhism, I saw many parallels with the profound ‘truths’ I experienced during my ‘epiphany’ in those 30 days, and writings of people from different religions, as well as philosophers, writers, poets, and others. I saw that a lot of truths that became apparent to me in meditation were commonly recognized universal truths that other people have seen and have written about throughout history.

My quandary became that I didn’t know how to go back to work, as I had a totally different view of the world. I felt that the insights I gleaned during that 30 day period were ones that we could each discover but how do you discover them if you don’t give time for yourself to try to uncover that stuff?

Before I didn’t think that this was anything I should value … to take time for myself, to reflect on things. Or to use any kind of tools that could help you to do that.

I didn’t know what to do next and I didn’t know if I could ever go back to UCLA because I just thought it was so inconsistent with this way of seeing the world – an alternative way of knowing – a first-person experiential way vs. a third person scientific way. Both are valuable and I used to think only one was valuable for real truth, until I realized they both are valuable.

Then I came across the Albert Einstein quote:

“The Intuitive Mind is a sacred gift, the Rational Mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

That was really profound to me because Einstein said it. It helped that my insight was validated by someone else who I knew was really smart.

Jonas Salk is another person who had a huge influence on me. I didn’t know Jonas Salk had written anything about ‘insight’ or ‘intuition’ until after my experience and then I discovered this Salk quote:

“Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”

This resonated a lot with me.

Then I read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, where even he, the great proponent of reason, argues for the value of ‘intuitive’ experiences; what he described as the sort of knowledge that makes reason pale in comparison.

So there was all this from highly intelligent, reason-based thinkers that I respected.

My analogy that I use all of the time to reflect the balance of these two modes of knowing (reason and intuition) is that of a coin rolling on its side, and I wrote a blog about it. One side is reason and one side is intuition. If you ever lean too far, the coin falls flats and can’t move. The only way to keep the coin rolling is to keep both sides in balance.

With all of this, I contemplated whether or not to go back to UCLA….

Stay tuned for Part II (next Wednesday), where you’ll read how Dr. Smalley created a university-based center to share her insights and processes with others.

Huff Post readers: Have you had an experience of heightened awareness – intuition – mindfulness – that affected you in a significant way? We’d love to hear from you.

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Getting High: On Drugs, Medication Or Meditation?

Huffington Post: We all seek that rush or high, the feel-good factor that turns us on and makes us feel that we can succeed and even conquer the world. Getting high is one of the great pleasures of life and that is why so many people find different ways to do it, whether through alcohol, the use of recreational drugs, such as marijuana, or prescription drugs, such as pain killers, all of which aim at altering our consciousness enough that our present reality becomes workable and even enjoyable.

In 2007 66% of high school seniors regularly drank alcohol, 31% smoked dope, while 10% used other opiates. Among adults, according to data from the 2006 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) 112 million Americans (45% of the population) reported illicit drug use at least once, 15% reported use of a drug within the past year, and 8% reported use of a drug within the past month. Vicadin is one of the most widely prescribed painkillers and it is used and abused by teenagers and adults alike.

This adds up to a lot of people and, as we all know, reported statistics are often very short of the mark. Most of us have “inhaled” at least once. Although pot is a party drug and in some cases considered sacred weed, there are also many known side effects, such as addiction (Ed remembers his friend Judy saying, “I’m not addicted; I’ve just been smoking grass for 20 years.”), mental disturbance, and erratic behavior. Vicadin is now likely to be banned, along with Percocet, because it is detrimental to the liver, while alcohol is damaging not only to the liver but also to relationships.

In his twenties in NYC, Ed was a part of the generation that took drugs freely and often. It was a time of Be Ins and Love Ins, when Ed hung out with Tim Leary and Ram Dass who promoted LSD, with poet Allen Ginsberg, and the author of One Flew Over The Cookoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey. Then he met Swami Satchidananda, who said that if the LSD pill can make you a saint then you should be able to take a pill to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist, because being a saint is much more difficult than those! Satchidananda then introduced Ed to yoga and meditation.

“I was blown away with meditation as it didn’t have the side effects of dope — no laziness, munchies, or coming down. I realized this was a great alternative as I was getting just as high, but without the negatives. My mind was clear, alert and and focused.” Ed then went to India to train and his teacher there, Swami Satyananda, said how taking LSD was like shooting a bullet to Nirvana but not knowing how you got there, while meditation was like learning the route in detail.

The word meditation and the word medication have the same prefix derived from the Latin word medicus, meaning to care or to cure, indicating that meditation is the most appropriate medicine or antidote for stress; a quiet calmness is the most efficient remedy for a busy and overworked mind.

Our new book BE THE CHANGE – How Meditation Can Transform You and the World helps us to understand how we can become free without drugs — a natural high without the hangover!

Five Reasons Why Meditation is the Best Natural High

1. Rather than adding toxins into our system, meditation is a way to clean out.

2. Meditation purifies our nervous system and mind in such a way that we see our present reality with greater clarity. Creativity is enhanced and solutions to difficulties arise so we can be with whatever is happening, rather than trying to hide from it.

3. The madness of the mind is likened to a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. With meditation, this begins to calm down and we can make friends and peace with our mind, so we can be free of the craziness.

4. Meditation opens our heart to love, joy and compassion, and there certainly isn’t anything as high as the power of love!

5. Meditation gets us high on life. It enables us to enjoy life to it’s fullest, to enjoy breathing, walking, a sunset, and the simple beauty of being alive!

What high moments have you experienced? Do let us know, as we would love to hear from you! You can receive notice of our blogs every Thursday by checking Become a Fan at the top.

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Ed and Deb Shapiro’s new book, BE THE CHANGE, How Meditation Can Transform You And The World, forewords by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, with contributors such as Marianne Williamson, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Byron Katie, Michael Beckwith, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jane Fonda, Jack Kornfield, Ellen Burstyn, Ed Begley, Dean Ornish, Russell Bishop, Gangaji and others, will be published November 3rd 2009 by Sterling Ethos.

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Teaching the mind to treat insomnia

Web MD: Changing bad sleep habits and clearing the mind with meditation may offer drug-free alternatives to traditional insomnia treatments. Two new studies suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy to change people’s attitudes and actions about sleep and using meditation to encourage relaxation can help insomniacs get a better night’s sleep without pills. Read more here.

Researchers say that contrary to popular belief, insomnia is not a nighttime-only affliction but a 24-hour problem of hyperarousal. By teaching people how to relax and clear their minds during the day, they sleep better at night.

“Results of the study show that teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night,” says researcher Ramadevi Gourineni, MD, director of the insomnia program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in a news release.
Meditation to Treat Insomnia

Gourineni’s study examined the effectiveness of practicing meditation as an insomnia treatment in 11 people with insomnia.

The participants were divided into two groups. One group was trained in kriya yoga, in which meditation is used to focus internalized attention, and the other received general health education.

Two months later, the results showed that the meditation group experienced improvements in sleep quality and quantity, according to their sleep diaries. They also took less time to fall asleep, woke fewer times, and had fewer symptoms of depression.

Although the effects and study size were small, researchers say the findings suggest that meditation may be an effective alternative insomnia treatment.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Tames Insomnia

The second, larger study looked at the effects of a cognitive behavioral therapy-insomnia (CBT-I) program designed to treat insomnia in 115 people with insomnia. The program included evaluating the person’s habits, attitudes, and knowledge about sleep.

During the treatment sessions, participants learned about sleep scheduling, creating the proper environment for sleep, reducing stimuli that may interfere with sleep, relaxation training, and mindfulness training.

“CBT-I teaches strategies to ‘reset’ the bodily systems that regulate sleep,” researcher Ryan Wetzler, PsyD, of Sleep Medicine Specialists in Louisville, Ky., says in a news release. “Since these systems also play a role in regulation of mood, pain, and other bodily processes, skills developed through CBT-I may also have a positive impact on mood, anxiety, pain, and other associated medical or psychiatric conditions.”

The results showed that 50%-60% of those whose main insomnia symptom was trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both experienced improvement. Those who completed five or more cognitive behavioral therapy sessions also had improvement in other sleep quality measurements and needed less medication for their insomnia.

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“Guilt: An Exploration” by Caroline Brazier

Guilt: An Exploration, by Caroline Brazier A leading Buddhist teacher writes about the knotty problem of guilt, but chooses to do so through a blend of fictional narrative, autobiography, and commentary. Vajradevi reveals all.

Caroline Brazier is a Buddhist practitioner and a psychotherapist of many years standing. She is a course leader of the Amida Psychotherapy training program and lives in a Buddhist community in England. She brings these two aspects of training and experience to bear in her book, Guilt: An Exploration. The Buddhist aspect is implicit in the kindness and perceptiveness Caroline Brazier brings to her subject. You will find this book in the “Psychology” section of your bookstore and it is this perspective that frames the story she tells.

Unusually, Brazier has decided to approach this nebulous and pervasive topic through a blend of fiction, autobiography, and commentary. She deliberately relegates theoretical ideas to the far margins of her book. There is not a study or survey result to be seen. We don’t get to hear anything of how guilt generally affects human beings or who is most susceptible to its influence. Instead she focuses down on a group of young children and, to a lesser extent, their parents and tells their fictional story letting us witness the complex emotions that form part of growing into adolescence and adulthood.

Title: Guilt: An Exploration
Author: Caroline Brazier
Publisher: O-Books
ISBN: 978-1-84694-160-3
Available from: Amazon.com.

She places her characters in south London of the 1960’s. Not the England of the Beatles and mini-skirts and beehives but “a time of transition where traditions were still respected and radical new ways of thinking had yet to reach the majority of the general population.” A world characterized by freedom for children to roam away from familiar adults and create a realm of their own.

Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke guilty feelings.

Through these characters and particularly “Joanne,” a spirited 10 year old tomboy when we first meet her, Brazier shows the nuances and subtleties of the feeling of guilt. When feelings, thoughts and actions conflict how does a child make sense of them? What affects the decisions we make to act? How do we feel when we want to act in a way we think is wrong and will be disapproved of by those we love or are scared of? How do we grow and explore our world when it means pushing against the boundaries of those who love us, or keeping secrets from them? Brazier explores Joanne and her friends’ responses of guilt in relation to ethics. How does a child work out what is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do? What of the “moral uncertainty” of different value systems a child is exposed to? Or, she asks, does the child have a deeply felt sense of what is the correct way to be?

Some of these questions Brazier leaves open while she answers others by painting a picture of great delicacy. What I appreciated most about her book is that guilt is not made into a heavy, static entity but something that arises in the intersections of emotions and impulses to act, and that guilt can be seen as almost a natural part of maturing.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life. It is in these moments that guilt seems to lurk as well as in times that thrill and fascinate with new experiences. Through the story Caroline Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke such feelings. A boy who loses an expensive new coat is thrown into agonies of confusion and guilt by the unexpected forgiveness from his strict mother. A girl unable to understand her new desire for intimacy is unkind to a school friend. Another child feels “different” and ashamed because of family secrets about her mother’s affair and her own racial background. Parents’ religious values conflict with each other and their child is caught in the middle, guilty at his ability to play one parent against the other. Sexual exploration is one of the main themes in the book evoking a whole cocktail of strong emotions — especially guilt — for the pre-adolescent Joanne to get to grips with.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life.

Often these occasions are a doorway to a new freedom, a new step in understanding and maturity that enrich a child’s life. Caroline Brazier’s story paints a powerful picture of the complexities of growing up. I am of a similar age to the author and brought up in the UK so there were many parallels to our experience as children. She evokes the world of a child in this period very well. I found many of my own memories and feelings re-surfacing, of times spent with my brothers and sisters building dens in the local woods and playing vivid adventure fantasy games alongside a meandering stream, coming home wet, muddy and happy.

The life of a child and teenager in 2009 is radically different to that of a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Multiculturalism has given rise to many different ways of child-rearing within one society. Society itself is a more complex organism and children are at the same time more protected by parents but more exposed to danger especially from other young people. I have a question in my mind as to how well this book would translate to a reader from a different generation or culture. I suspect something would be lost but perhaps the central exploration would remain clear.

At times I would have appreciated a little more theory which would have helped to give the book more of a framework. As it stands, without many “hooks” from which a structure could hang, a cursory reading might lead to underestimating the value of “Joanne’s” story. This would be a shame as many areas such as independence, projections, conscience, choosing and testing loyalties are woven in to the book in a natural and informative way.

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Dalai Lama’s brain challenge produces split decision

New Scientist: If you’re going to challenge the Dalai Lama to a memory game, don’t do it just after he’s meditated. New research finds that meditation boosts visual memory, but only in the short term. The findings counter the claims of some monks who say that years of practicing a meditation technique that centres on creating an elaborate mental picture of deities can offer long-lasting improvements in visual memory and processing. Read more here.

“They claim they can do it all the time – they cannot,” says Maria Kozhevnikov, a neuroscientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who travelled to several monasteries in Nepal to test the Buddhist monks’ visual memory.
Holy challenge

In 2003, the Dalai Lama, who has a long-term interest in science and what he calls “the luminosity of being”, attended a neuroscience conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There he challenged Kozhevnikov’s then post-doctoral advisor, Stephen Kosslyn, to test the visual memory of Buddhist monks.

Kosslyn and most other neuroscientists claimed that working memory was too short to maintain an image for more than a few seconds. He found no difference in visual memory between moderately practiced monks and non-meditators who came to his Harvard lab.

The Dalai Lama suggested that Kosslyn test more experienced monks in Nepal, and Kozhevnikov took on the task while on sabbatical.

Her initial tests at Sechen Monastery in Kathmandu confirmed Kosslyn’s findings. She showed monks an array of six images – various animals, for instance – and then five seconds later another six images, five of which appeared in the first set and one new picture. Test subjects had to determine which image was new.

In another task, Kozhevnikov showed monks a three-dimensional shape next to a rotated version of the shape or its mirror image.
‘Unbelievable performance’

The Sechen monks proved no better at determining whether the second shape was identical to or the mirror image of the first shape, compared to people who don’t meditate. Their visual memories, too, seemed normal.

Then, by chance, Kozhevnikov tested a monk immediately after a meditation session. “He showed unbelievable performance. Suddenly, I realised that I need to give this test right after meditation,” she says.

On subsequent exams of 15 monks and experienced meditators in the US, she got the same results. Before meditation, they performed no better than anyone else. Yet after 20 minutes of meditation, their visual memory and spatial skills improved dramatically.

What’s more, only practitioners of a meditation style that emphasises visual imagery – called deity yoga – registered an improvement. Kozhevnikov also tested 14 people experienced in a form of meditation that does not focus on mental imagery – known as open presence meditation – and their visual memory and spatial skills saw no gains.
Artists too?

The team didn’t probe how long the improvement lasts after meditation, but Kozhevnikov suspects that it varies from person to person, depending on meditation experience, mood and the length of the meditation session.

She also speculates that heightened visual memory and processing isn’t unique to those who practice Buddhist meditation. Visual artists may also experience transient surges in visual awareness that allow them to maintain mental images for extended periods, Kozhevnikov says.

“I think that if she shows it’s not confined to these practitioners, but you find the same thing happening in these great visual artists that’s important,” says Jack Loomis, a neuroscientist at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

Their heightened mental images may not even be contained to two dimensions, Loomis speculates. Most people can maintain a coarse mental picture of their three-dimensional world and can roughly approximate different vantage points.

“What if these people have an incredibly dense representation of three-dimensional space,” he says. “That’s pretty amazing.”

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