Sara Lazar

How to grow your brain

The brains of highly successful people function differently from those of the average Joe, according to the authors of the new book, The Winner’s Brain.

Fortunately, they say, you can actually rewire your brain, even physically change it.

Assistant neuroscience professor Mark Fenske of the University of Guelph and cognitive behavioural psychologist Jeff Brown of Harvard Medical School sought input from other brain experts and a variety of individuals they deemed “winners” – from blues guitarist B.B. King to Aaron Fechter, the inventor of popular carnival game Whac-a-Mole.

They identified eight “win factors,” including self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care.

Here, Dr. Fenske explains that, with practice, it’s possible to boost these win factors and train your brain for success.

What are some of the physiological differences you see in a winner’s brain?

Well, they’re specific to the different areas that we find as being related to success. [For instance, London’s elite Black Cab taxi drivers] have to spend a couple of years gaining “The Knowledge,” which is essentially very detailed knowledge of the streets of London, the contingencies – if it’s 4:30, this road will be open, this one will be closed; if there’s construction at this point, what’s the best way around – all these things, so that they can pass this test to get a license.

The hippocampus, which is critical for spatial navigation and memory, is larger in these individuals than it is in people who don’t have this training and expertise in spatial navigation and remembering routes and things like this.

[A growing body of research shows that] what you do with your brain, how you engage your brain, can not only improve your ability to function at a given task, but can really change the physical landscape of the brain itself.

How does training your brain change it physically?

The idea is when you do a given task, you engage the parts of the brain that are involved in that task. The more you engage it, the more it seeks ways to be more efficient at what it’s doing, and so that encourages new synaptic connections between neurons.

Once you have new synapses being formed, that helps to recruit support cells. So you can have the neurons making the connections and doing the firing, but they need the blood, they need oxygen, they need fuel, and so these support cells come in and help out. The result is, in those areas that are receiving a lot of activity, they’re getting better blood supply … and it leads to a physical rewiring or change in the brain.

You can measure this in the thickness of the cortex, that outer wrinkled covering of the brain where most of the computational power is; that will get thicker. The cortex also gets more dense.

Is there a limit to how much you can improve your brain?

Well, there’s certainly a limit to how much you can physically change your brain…. Your skull doesn’t get any bigger, so it’s not like you can grow a whole new lobe, but there’s much more promise than what we had previously thought.

You recommend meditation as a technique for improving skills like memory and focus. What happens to your brain when you meditate?

From a scientist’s perspective, when you look at meditation, it essentially involves a bunch of practice where you’re shifting and controlling the focus of your attention. So in some forms of meditation, it’s about having a very broad focus of attention, or else really focusing on one thing, like focusing on your breath …

What Sara [Lazar, Harvard Medical School neuroscientist] found is that the key areas that are activated when people are meditating, areas like the insula, which is really important for self-awareness, and the cortex, got thicker versus people who didn’t meditate.

People who didn’t meditate showed the standard age-related thinning of the cortex.

You mention in the book there’s little evidence that brain teasers and memory games reverse brain aging. Are they a waste of money?

It’s not clear that you’re wasting your money. They certainly don’t hurt, and there is probably at least some small benefit from those things.

We talked to Art Kramer [professor of psychology at the University of Illinois]. What he’s seen so far is that those things are fine, and you tend to get better at least in [the games], but that physical exercise, overall, seems to have quite a broad improvement on brain function.

Exercise certainly seems to be one of those things that’s relatively easy to do that has really quite robust effects. Exercise releases what’s called neurotrophic factors, which you can kind of think of as fertilizer for the brain. They help to facilitate the sprouting of new synapses, new connections.

What lessons about a winner’s brain can we learn from the creator of Whac-a-Mole?

When we talk about the focus of attention, there’s some great [research] that has shown that sometimes we try too hard. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to really focus and really try to do our very best, but instead, just relax a bit and let the information come to us.

Whac-a-Mole inventor Aaron Fechter said to us, “I can still go into an arcade or into the carnival and there’ll be a Whac-a-Mole game, and I step up, and I can get perfect on the game. And kids will just look at me and say, ‘Wow, you must be the guy who invented the game or something.’ ”

Then he described his strategy. How do you get perfect at Whac-a-Mole? He said you don’t try. Trying is counter-productive. Instead, you sit back and let the moles come to you.

There’s certain parts of the brain and certain processes that we do that we’ve automated. We have enough experience, we have enough practice. When we apply the slower, controlled, cognitive effort, that can get in the way. So what we want to do is relinquish and turn down the cognitive control, and instead let these areas that are really specialized for this do their stuff.

Eight tips for winning brains

Self-awareness: Train yourself to interpret other people’s facial expressions and body language by watching scenes from a movie on mute. Then watch the scene again, this time with volume, and compare how well your interpretations matched up. You can improve this skill over time.

Motivation: If you have a problem with procrastination, make large tasks feel more manageable by breaking them down into parts.

Focus: Like playing Whac-a-Mole, sometimes you can actually perform better when you’re not concentrating too hard. If something’s not coming to you despite your best efforts, try relaxing and letting the brain work on autopilot.

Emotional balance: Practice managing your emotions by changing your perspective of a situation. Research shows that if you think of a highly emotional event as a challenge rather than a problem, you can stay calmer and retain a better memory for details.

Memory: “Edit your brain,” the authors say. Recognize and consciously purge useless information. Imagine sweeping it away, so you can concentrate on more useful data.

Resilience: When you’re in a tough spot, think of a “resilience role model,” a parent, teacher or mentor, and ask yourself what they would do in your situation. That way, you’ll have more than your own resources to draw upon.

Adaptability: Try a few minutes of meditation a day to calm your thoughts. Studies show “regular yoga and meditation can increase cortical thickness in as little as eight weeks.”

Brain care: Research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, three times a week, can help strengthen your mind.

[via Globe and Mail]
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Meditation may protect your brain

For thousands of years, Buddhist meditators have claimed that the simple act of sitting down and following their breath while letting go of intrusive thoughts can free one from the entanglements of neurotic suffering.

Now, scientists are using cutting-edge scanning technology to watch the meditating mind at work. They are finding that regular meditation has a measurable effect on a variety of brain structures related to attention — an example of what is known as neuroplasticity, where the brain physically changes in response to an intentional exercise.

A team of Emory University scientists reported in early September that experienced Zen meditators were much better than control subjects at dropping extraneous thoughts and returning to the breath. The study, ‘Thinking about Not-Thinking:’ Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing During Zen Meditation, published by the online research journal PLoS ONE, found that “meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.”

The same researchers reported last year that longtime meditators don’t lose gray matter in their brains with age the way most people do, suggesting that meditation may have a neuro-protective effect. A rash of other studies in recent years meanwhile have found, for example, that practitioners of insight meditation have noticeably thicker tissue in the prefrontal cortex (the region responsible for attention and control) and that experienced Tibetan monks practicing compassion meditation generate unusually strong and coherent gamma waves in their brains.

“There are a lot of potential applications for this,” said Milos Cekic, a member of the Emory research team and himself a longtime meditator. He suspects the simple practice of focusing attention on the breath could help patients suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other conditions characterized by excessive rumination.

Meanwhile, a meditation-derived program developed at the University of Massachusetts called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is gaining popularity for treatment of anxiety and chronic illnesses at medical centers around the U.S.

As far back as the 1960s, Japanese scientists who used electroencephalograms (EEG) to measure the brain waves of Zen monks found characteristic patterns of activity. But the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the 1990s gave researchers a chance to see brains functioning in real time. Functional MRIs measure the blood flow in different parts of the brain, which correlates with how active they are.

The Emory team, which also included Giuseppe Pagnoni and Ying Guo, wanted to see whether Zen meditators were indeed better than novices at controlling the flow of thought, as meditators themselves report. Cekic and Pagnoni asked a dozen seasoned Zen meditators — including several monks — and a dozen control subjects to perform a simple cognitive task while undergoing an fMRI scan. The Zen practitioners all had at least three years of daily practice experience, while the control group members had none.

Inside the scanner, the subjects were all asked to follow their breathing while looking at a screen on which words or wordlike combinations of letters were flashed at irregular intervals. Students had to decide whether they were seeing a real word or a made-up word and signal by pressing a button and then return to focusing on their breathing.

The random word or letter combinations engaged what is sometimes called the “default semantic network,” a resting state in which words and thoughts arise spontaneously — what we experience as mind wandering, Cekic said. Practitioners of zazen (seated Zen meditation) are taught to notice when the mind has started to wander and quickly return attention to the breath.

When the word or letter combinations flashed on the screen, the experienced meditators were quickly able to leave the default state and return to their breathing, Cekic says. “You have these extended reverberations in the semantic network after you give people a word,” Cekic said. “The meditators pretty much turn it off as soon as it’s physiologically possible, while the non-meditators don’t.”

This is the second set of findings to have come from the fMRI experiments, Cekic said. Although people lose neurons — gray matter — and have more trouble concentrating as they age, the study published last year by the Emory team found this wasn’t true of the Zen practitioners.

“What we saw in the meditators was pretty much a straight line,” Cekic said. “There was no decrease with age in their gray-matter volume.” There was also no decline in attention — in fact, the effect of meditation on gray matter was most pronounced in the putamen, a brain structure linked to attention. “We can’t say causally that meditation prevents cell death, but we did see in our sample that the meditators did not see a gray matter loss with age,” Cekic said.

Meanwhile, Harvard University researcher Sara Lazar made headlines in 2005 when she reported that Western practitioners of insight meditation — a non-judgmental awareness of present-moment experience that resembles zazen — had significantly thicker tissue in their prefrontal cortex and insula than non-meditators.

Lazar, who practices insight meditation and yoga, performed fMRI scans on 20 experienced meditators and 15 controls with no meditation experience. Lazar said that because earlier research had mostly been conducted on monks, she wanted to see whether the once-a-day meditation sessions typical of most American meditators might affect brain structures.

Unlike earlier research, which had focused on brain waves or measured neural blood flow, Lazar’s experiment yielded the first concrete evidence linking meditation practice to changed brain structure. “The nice thing about (studying) the structure is it’s something solid,” she said. “It’s not performance on a task. It’s your brain.”

Lazar says it’s too soon to tell whether meditation causes new gray matter to form or whether it protects against the normal decline of brain volume. The greatest contrasts were seen between the cortical tissue of meditators and control subjects who were in their 40s and 50s, she says, while the insula, which integrates sensory processing, was thicker in meditators of all ages.

Future research will require longitudinal studies — following subjects through time — to see whether or not meditation is causing the neural changes. “Maybe meditators are weird,” Lazar said, suggesting that perhaps people with unusual brains are especially drawn to meditation.

Where does all this lead?

Andrew Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who has written such popular books as Why We Believe What We Believe and who has conducted brain scans of meditating Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns engaged in contemplative prayer, believes the science shows meditation works.

“The overwhelming evidence is that meditation has benefits,” he said. “If it makes your mind clearer and helps you focus your attention better, it should help people.”

For more than a decade, Newberg has plumbed spiritual mysteries, using fMRI and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) to measure blood flow in the brains of not only meditators but people in the throes of other religious experiences, including speaking in tongues, as well.

“The fascinating thing to me is that when people have these mystical experiences, they not only describe it as real, but they describe it as more real than our everyday experience,” he said. It raises the question of just what is real.

“I recognize that studying some of the things I study may get me to an answer,” he added. “A lot of this has been my own spiritual journey, which has become a lot more meditative and contemplative.”

[via Miller-McCune News]
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Being young, here, now

Boston Globe: BARRE – Nestled in the woods of this small town, 96 young adults recently gathered at a quiet mansion for a weeklong sojourn, away from buzzing cellphones, humming iPods, and the myriad callings of human and cyber civilizations.

Keeping even the most basic forms of communication, like speaking and writing, to a minimum, they meditated in silence, practicing vipassana, or insight meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique that involves focusing one’s attention on the present, on the breath, mind, and body. Read more here.

“It was just meditate, eat, sleep,’’ said Kestrel Slocombe, 19, a student at Vermont’s Bennington College who spends much of her time rushing to class, worrying about a novel she’s writing, and painstakingly planning her days, sometimes weeks in advance.

“It was almost like being a child, she said. “You didn’t have to put together a puzzle of a complicated day.’’

At a time when homework or job pressures and the likes of Facebook and Twitter compete for attention throughout the day, meditation groups say an increasing number of young adults are signing up for retreats and classes, seeking a temporary escape, a haven to reconnect with their thoughts.

“Young people are much more stressed out than people 20, 30 years ago,’’ said Rebecca Bradshaw, one of the retreat leaders who also works as a psychotherapist. “We have a fast-paced and alienating culture.’’

Since the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist nonprofit, introduced the retreat specifically for 18- to 32-year-olds in 2004, the number of young adults attending to practice vipassana has steadily risen, said Bob Agoglia, the organization’s executive director.

This year’s retreat attracted more applicants than ever from 16 states, he said, and for the first time the group had to turn away more than a dozen applicants.

The Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, a nonresidential nonprofit, has also seen a stream of curious young adults at its weekly vipassana, or “mindfulness,’’ meditation sessions for beginners, said Peggy Barnes Lenart, the center’s operations coordinator.

Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy, a community for agnostics, atheists, and the nonreligious, started a free, open-to-all group this year that practices different forms of meditation, including Buddhist and Quaker, said Zachary Alexander, 26, the group’s founder. Half of its nearly 30 members are under 32, he said.

“It’s something that people find can be a break from their stressful lives,’’ said Alexander, who considers himself an atheist.

“It can be something that leads to personal insight.’’

While traditional Quaker meditation emphasizes hearing divine messages, the humanist meditators focus on impulses toward love and truth, and try to accept the events of their lives to gain greater inner calm, said Alexander, a lab administrator at the Harvard Center for Brain Science.

Joshua Beckmann, 28, of Allston, who practices insight meditation, said he enjoys the flexibility Buddhist teachings provide.

“No one’s asking me to profess anything or asking me to call myself Buddhist,’’ said Beckmann, a public health researcher at Boston University who was raised Catholic. “I really appreciate the opportunity to explore.’’

The benefits of meditation, supported by scientific research, might attract younger populations, according to Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital who conducts meditation research.

Lazar said her team recently studied the brains of about 30 adults – some as young as 18 – before and after they underwent an eight-week insight meditation course.

The results showed that in most participants, the portion of the brain that responds to fear, anger, and stress – the amygdala – became smaller. In animals, the amygdala has been shown to get larger in stressful situations, Lazar said.

About a year ago, the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness at MIT Medical began offering stress-reduction classes that incorporate meditation, said Lauren Mayhew, a program manager at the center.

“A lot of people have a hard time going from their frenetic lives to sitting still,’’ Mayhew said, noting that the classes, discounted for students, tend to fill up on the first day.

“The really crucial age is mid- to late-20s,’’ she said.

“That’s when students wake up and realize that they are mortal beings and that their bodies are affected by stress.’’

Some are drawn to meditation out of sheer curiosity about how their lives might change both during and after meditation.

Angela Borges, 26, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Boston College, turned to insight meditation about two months ago, though she was skeptical of its tangible benefits.

Many have told her she looks much happier, she said.

“I actually have a sense of empowerment,’’ she said.

“I’m running around crazy but there’s just a little part of my attention . . . that sort of says ‘Look what’s happening, notice how I’m living.’ It’s just opened up this new way of being.’’

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‘Mindfulness’ meditation being used in hospitals and schools

Marilyn Elias, USA Today: Challenges are landing fast and furious on Capitol Hill. So Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, feels he has to arrive at the top of his game every day. And Ryan says he has found a way to do that: He meditates for at least 45 minutes before leaving home.

Ryan, 35, sits on a floor cushion, closes his eyes, focuses on his breath and tries to detach from any thoughts, just observing them like clouds moving across the sky — a practice he learned at a retreat. “I find it makes me a better listener, and my concentration is sharper. I get less distracted when I’m reading,” he says. “It’s like you see through the clutter of life and can penetrate to what’s really going on.”

Once thought of as an esoteric, mystical pursuit, meditation is going mainstream. A government survey in 2007 found that about 1 out of 11 Americans, more than 20 million, meditated in the past year. And a growing number of medical centers are teaching meditation to patients for relief of pain and stress.

More than 240 programs in clinics and hospitals teach the same type of meditation that Ryan learned, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction 30 years ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Other types, such as transcendental meditation, use a mantra or repeated phrase.

‘A colossal shift in acceptance’

Some kind of meditative practice is found in all the world’s religions, says Shauna Shapiro of Santa Clara (Calif.) University, co-author with Linda Carlson of the new book The Art and Science of Mindfulness. Most include focusing attention and letting thoughts and emotions go by without judgment or becoming involved.

Kabat-Zinn credits “a colossal shift in acceptance” to accelerating research on the benefits of meditation.

Studies suggest the practice can ease pain, improve concentration and immune function, lower blood pressure, curb anxiety and insomnia, and possibly even help prevent depression. Newer research tools, such as high-tech brain scans, show how meditation might have diverse effects.

In a brain-scan study of long-time meditators compared with a control group that never meditated, the meditators had increased thickness in parts of the brain associated with attention and with sensitivity to internal sensations of the body. “These are people who would notice their muscles tensing when they’re angry or butterflies in their stomach if they’re scared,” says study leader Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

And a UCLA study out in May found that, compared with a non-meditating control group, meditators’ brains have larger volume in areas important for attention, focus and regulating emotion. They also have more gray matter, which could sharpen mental function, says study leader Eileen Luders, a neuroscientist.

Of course, nobody knows whether these meditators’ brains were different to begin with. And that’s the problem with much of the meditation research so far. Although studies have improved, most still aren’t large and lack good control groups, says Richard Davidson, a pioneering meditation researcher and neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin.

His research shows that even novice meditators have greater activation in a part of the brain tied to well-being. The more activation, the greater their antibody response to a flu vaccine, which makes the vaccine more protective. By changing the brain, meditation could affect many biological processes, he says.

Settling down, not lashing out

A cutting-edge approach to meditation practice starts with children. In scattered pockets across the USA, students are learning meditation at school.

Steve Reidman, a fourth-grade teacher at Toluca Lake Elementary School in North Hollywood, Calif., says teaching meditation to children has curbed fighting while sharpening their focus. “You can just watch them breathe deeply and settle down rather than lashing out.”

Susan Kaiser Greenland, whose InnerKids Foundation teaches in Los Angeles-area schools, works with Reidman’s class.

Preliminary research shows that Los Angeles preschoolers who were taught meditation improved in their ability to pay attention and focus. For early elementary school kids, improvement came only in those who had attention problems at the start, says Susan Smalley, a UCLA behavioral geneticist who did the research with psychologist Lisa Flook. Very young brains may be more malleable, she speculates.

As research expands, scientists expect to unlock more of the mysteries around meditation. Meanwhile, for those such as Ryan, proof of benefit is already evident. “I’m much more aware now than I used to be,” he says. “I enjoy my life more because you notice, and you really appreciate.”

Read the original article….

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Talking up enlightenment

Scientific American: Many years ago a curious boy looked through a telescope and, on seeing the shadows in the craters of the moon, realized that he had to make a choice. His religion taught him to respect the moon as a generator of light, but science taught him that the moon reflected the sun’s rays. The subtle clarification offered by science ultimately trumped the Buddhist interpretation for Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama.

Today when this political and religious leader is faced with conflicting explanations of life’s mysteries, the Dalai Lama still favors scientific evidence over classical Buddhist concepts. At a time when Americans are battling state by state for religion-free science education, he urges people to take a path of peace between the perspectives. Read more here.

An estimated 14,000 people attended his lecture on November 12, 2005, at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C., with most of them watching from overflow rooms where the talk was broadcast on large screens. Dressed in gold and crimson robes, he suggested a healthy dose of skepticism toward religious pronouncements. Although science can overturn spiritual teachings, people can benefit from scientific understanding without losing faith, he reasoned.

But the Dalai Lama also emphasized that religion can help science, not just hinder it. In particular, he urged neuroscientists not to discount the role of Buddhist traditions on the brain, specifically meditation. “Try to find reality with an open mind,” he said, referring both to investigations in science as well as to studies in Buddhist thought. “Without investigation we can’t see reality.”

The neuroscientists in the auditorium responded with approval, especially those who have examined the effects of meditation. One was Bruce F. O’Hara of the University of Kentucky, who has found that meditation improves the performance of sleep-deprived individuals about as much as drinking a cup of coffee does. O’Hara applauded the religious leader’s support of science, “especially given the issues with evolution and the [fundamentalist] Christian reluctance to accept evolution because it threatens their beliefs.” Olivia Carter of Harvard University found it fascinating to hear about the Dalai Lama’s personal interest in neuroscience and the importance he places on the scientific method of inquiry. “It should not matter that the observations associated with meditation arise through introspection or contemplation, as long as the observations can be used to generate objective testable predictions,” she says. Carter’s own work in the field examines meditation’s effect on perception.

Sara W. Lazar of Harvard Medical School remarks that not all scientists are equally as open to testing Buddhist meditation practices. “I have encountered mainstream scientists who do not meditate who are very curious and open, and those who are still unwilling to even consider the possibility that meditation might have some positive effects.” Lazar has found that meditation may help prevent the rate of cortical thinning with age. Brain scans show that as people get older, the white matter typically degenerates. This material envelops the neurons and helps them work more efficiently. Lazar discovered that older meditators had active cortical regions that were comparable to those of younger nonmeditators.

But such a discovery should not have been too surprising, according to neuroscientist Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco. The brain typically responds to repetitive use by thickening the cortex in the relevant area—for example, people who play the piano have more cortex associated with that skill. Moreover, recent studies indicate that “plastic changes driven by mental exercises in many respects parallel those driven by actual exercise,” Merzenich says.

Still, he finds the idea of science studying the influence of faith on the brain intriguing. Imaging work has shown that an area in the frontal cortex is activated in response to how strongly someone believes an answer to be correct. Merzenich adds that “this activation affirms the brain’s decision that one’s conclusion is correct, whether it is or not.” Such findings reinforce why the Dalai Lama places so much importance on maintaining an open mind.

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