Shamatha Project

Mindfulness training helps lower stress hormone

Zee News, Washington: Focusing on the present rather than letting the mind drift may help to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

The ability to focus mental resources on immediate experience is an aspect of mindfulness, which can be improved by meditation training.

“This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale,” said Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and first author of a paper describing the work.

High levels…

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How meditation might ward off the effects of ageing

Jo Marchant: High in the mountains of northern Colorado, a 100-foot tall tower reaches up through the pinetops. Brightly coloured and strung with garlands, its ornate gold leaf glints in the sun. With a shape that symbolises a giant seated Buddha, this lofty stupa is intended to inspire those on the path to enlightenment.

Visitors here to the Shambhala Mountain Centre meditate in silence for up to 10 hours every day, emulating the lifestyle that monks have chosen for centuries in mountain refuges from India to Japan. But is it doing them any good? For two three-month retreats held in 2007, this haven for the eastern spiritual tradition opened its doors to western science. As attendees pondered the “four immeasurables” of love, compassion, joy and equanimity, a laboratory squeezed into the basement bristled with scientific equipment from brain and heart monitors to video cameras and centrifuges. The aim: to find out exactly what happens to people who meditate.

After several years of number-crunching, data from the so-called Shamatha project is finally starting to be published. So far the research has shown some not hugely surprising psychological and cognitive changes – improvements in perception and wellbeing, for example. But one result in particular has potentially stunning implications: that by protecting caps called telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, meditation might help to delay the process of ageing.

It’s the kind of claim more often associated with pseudoscience. Indeed, since researchers first started studying meditation, with its close links to religion and spirituality, they have had a tough time gaining scientific credibility. “A great danger in the field is that many researchers are also meditators, with a feeling about how powerful and useful these practices are,” says Charles Raison, who studies mind-body interactions at Emory University in Atlanta. “There has been a tendency for people to be attempting to prove what they already know.”

But a new generation of brain-imaging studies and robust clinical trials is helping to change that. Scientists from a range of fields are starting to compile evidence Read the rest of this article…

that rather than simply being a transient mental or spiritual experience, meditation may have long-term implications for physical health.

There are many kinds of meditation, including transcendental meditation, in which you focus on a repetitive mantra, and compassion meditation, which involves extending feelings of love and kindness to fellow living beings. One of the most studied practices is based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or being aware of your own thoughts and surroundings. Buddhists believe it alleviates suffering by making you less caught up in everyday stresses – helping you to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.

“You pay attention to your own breath,” explains Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation at Massachusetts general hospital in Boston. “If your mind wanders, you don’t get discouraged, you notice the thought and think, ‘OK’.”

Small trials have suggested that such meditation creates more than spiritual calm. Reported physical effects include lowering blood pressure, helping psoriasis to heal, and boosting the immune response in vaccine recipients and cancer patients. In a pilot study in 2008, Willem Kuyken, head of the Mood Disorders Centre at Exeter University, showed that mindfulness meditation was more effective than drug treatment in preventing relapse in patients with recurrent depression. And in 2009, David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that it slowed disease progression in patients with HIV.

Most of these trials have involved short courses of meditation aimed at treating specific conditions. The Shamatha project, by contrast, is an attempt to see what a longer, more intensive course of meditation might do for healthy people. The project was co-ordinated by neuroscientist Clifford Saron of the Centre for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. His team advertised in Buddhist publications for people willing to spend three months in an intensive meditation retreat, and chose 60 participants. Half of them attended in the spring of 2007, while the other half acted as a control group before heading off for their own retreat in the autumn.

It sounds simple enough, but the project has taken eight years to organise and is likely to end up costing around $4m (partly funded by private organisations with an interest in meditation, including the Fetzer Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation). As well as shipping laptops all over the world to carry out cognitive tests on the volunteers before the study started, Saron’s team built a hi-tech lab in a dorm room beneath the Shambhala centre’s main hall, enabling them to subject participants and controls to tests at the beginning, middle and end of each retreat, and worked with “a village” of consulting scientists who each wanted to study different aspects of the meditators’ performance. “It’s a heroic effort,” says neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni, who studies meditation at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy.

Many of the tests focused on changes in cognitive ability or regulation of emotions. Soft white caps trailing wires and electrodes measured the meditators’ brain waves as they completed gruelling computerised tasks to test their powers of attention, and video recordings captured split-second changes in facial expressions as they watched images of suffering and war.

But psychologist Elissa Epel, from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), wanted to know what the retreat was doing to the participants’ chromosomes, in particular their telomeres. Telomeres play a key role in the ageing of cells, acting like a clock that limits their lifespan. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, unless an enzyme called telomerase builds them back up. When telomeres get too short, a cell can no longer replicate, and ultimately dies.

It’s not just an abstract concept. People with shorter telomeres are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And they die younger.

Epel has been collaborating with UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the 2009 Nobel physiology or medicine prize for her work on telomeres, to investigate whether telomeres are affected by psychological factors. They found that at the end of the retreat, meditators had significantly higher telomerase activity than the control group, suggesting that their telomeres were better protected. The researchers are cautious, but say that in theory this might slow or even reverse cellular ageing. “If the increase in telomerase is sustained long enough,” says Epel, “it’s logical to infer that this group would develop more stable and possibly longer telomeres over time.”

Pagnoni has previously used brain imaging to show that meditation may protect against the cognitive decline that occurs as we age. But the Shamatha project is the first to suggest that meditation plays a role in cellular ageing. If that link is confirmed, he says, “that would be groundbreaking”.

So how could focusing on your thoughts have such impressive physical effects? The assumption that meditation simply induces a state of relaxation is “dead wrong”, says Raison. Brain-imaging studies suggest that it triggers active processes within the brain, and can cause physical changes to the structure of regions involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and cognitive processing.

The question of how the immaterial mind affects the material body remains a thorny philosophical problem, but on a practical level, “our understanding of the brain-body dialogue has made jaw-dropping advances in the last decade or two,” says Raison. One of the most dramatic links between the mind and health is the physiological pathways that have evolved to respond to stress, and these can explain much about how meditation works.

When the brain detects a threat in our environment, it sends signals to spur the body into action. One example is the “fight or flight” response of the nervous system. When you sense danger, your heart beats faster, you breathe more rapidly, and your pupils dilate. Digestion slows, and fat and glucose are released into the bloodstream to fuel your next move. Another stress response pathway triggers a branch of the immune system known as the inflammatory response.

These responses might help us to run from a mammoth or fight off infection, but they also damage body tissues. In the past, the trade-off for short bursts of stress would have been worthwhile. But in the modern world, these ancient pathways are continually triggered by long-term threats for which they aren’t any use, such as debt, work pressures or low social status. “Psychological stress activates these pathways in exactly the same way that infection does,” says Raison.

Such chronic stress has devastating effects, putting us at greater risk of a host of diseases including diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression – and death. It also affects our telomeres. Epel, Blackburn and their colleagues found in 2004 that stressed mothers caring for a chronically ill child had shorter telomeres than mothers with healthy children. Their stress had accelerated the ageing process.

Meditation seems to be effective in changing the way that we respond to external events. After short courses of mindfulness meditation, people produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, and mount a smaller inflammatory response to stress. One study linked meditators’ lower stress to changes in the amygdala – a brain area involved in fear and the response to threat.

Some researchers think this is the whole story, because the diseases countered most by meditation are those in which stress plays a major role. But Epel believes that meditation might also trigger “pathways of restoration and enhancement”, perhaps boosting the parasympathetic nervous system, which works in opposition to the fight or flight response, or triggering the production of growth hormone.

In terms of the psychological mechanisms involved, Raison thinks that meditation allows people to experience the world as less threatening. “You reinterpret the world as less dangerous, so you don’t get as much of a stress reaction,” he says. Compassion meditation, for example, may help us to view the world in a more socially connected way. Mindfulness might help people to distance themselves from negative or stressful thoughts.

The Shamatha project used a mix of mindfulness and compassion meditation. The researchers concluded that the meditation affected telomerase by changing the participants’ psychological state, which they assessed using questionnaires. Three factors in particular predicted higher telomerase activity at the end of the retreat: increased sense of control (over circumstances or daily life); increased sense of purpose in life; and lower neuroticism (being tense, moody and anxious). The more these improved, the greater the effect on the meditators’ telomerase.

For those of us who don’t have time for retreats, Epel suggests “mini-meditations” – focusing on breathing or being aware of our surroundings – at regular points throughout the day. And though meditation seems to be a particularly effective route to reducing stress and protecting telomeres, it’s not the only one. “Lots of people have no interest in meditation, and that’s fine,” says Creswell. Exercise has been shown to buffer the effects of stress on telomeres, for example, while stress management programmes and writing emotional diaries can help to delay the progression of HIV.

Indeed, Clifford Saron argues that the psychological changes caused by the Shamatha retreat – increased sense of control and purpose in life – are more important than the meditation itself. Simply doing something we love, whether meditating or gardening, may protect us from stress and maybe even help us to live longer. “The news from this paper is the profound impact of having the opportunity to live your life in a way that you find meaningful.”

For a scientific conclusion it sounds scarily spiritual. But researchers warn that in our modern, work-obsessed society we are increasingly living on autopilot, reacting blindly to tweets and emails instead of taking the time to think about what really matters. If we don’t give our minds a break from that treadmill, the physical effects can be scarily real.

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Meditation has the power to make dramatic changes in your physical and psychological health

Many people see meditation as an exotic form of daydreaming, or a quick fix for a stressed-out mind. My advice to them is, try it.

Meditation is difficult, at least to begin with. On my first attempt, instead of concentrating on my breathing and letting go of anything that came to mind, as instructed by my cheery Tibetan teacher, I got distracted by a string of troubled thoughts, then fell asleep. Apparently, this is normal for first-timers. Experienced meditators will assure you that it is worth persisting, however.

“Training allows us to transform the mind, to overcome destructive emotions and to dispel suffering,” says Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. “The numerous and profound methods that Buddhism has developed over the centuries can be used and incorporated by anyone. What is needed is enthusiasm and perseverance.”

It all sounds very rewarding, but what does science have to say on the subject?

Stories abound in the media about the transformative potential of meditative practice, but it is only in recent years empirical evidence has emerged. In the past…

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decade, researchers have used functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of experienced meditators, such as Ricard, as well as beginners, and tested the effects of different meditative practices on cognition, behavior, physical and emotional health and brain plasticity.

A real scientific picture of meditation is now coming together. It suggests meditation can indeed change aspects of your psychology, temperament and physical health in dramatic ways. The studies are even starting to throw light on how meditation works.

“Time spent earnestly investigating the nature of your mind is bound to be helpful,” says Clifford Saron at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. And you don’t need a Buddhist or spiritualist worldview to profit from meditation. “One can be an empiricist (in meditation), just by working with the nature of your experience.” Saron should know. He’s leading the Shamatha project, one of the most comprehensive scientific studies of meditation ever.
In 2007, Saron and a team of neuroscientists and psychologists followed 60 experienced meditators over an intensive three-month meditation retreat in the Colorado Rockies, watching for changes in their mental abilities, psychological health and physiology. Participants practiced for at least five hours a day using a method known as focused attention meditation, which involves directing attention on the tactile sensation of breathing. The first paper from the project was published in June 2010 (Psychological Science).
Headed by Katherine MacLean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Md., the study measured the volunteers’ attention skills by showing them a succession of vertical lines flashed up on a computer screen. They then had to indicate, by clicking a mouse, whenever there was a line shorter than the rest. As the retreat progressed, MacLean and her colleagues found that as the volunteers became progressively more accurate and increasingly easy to stay focused on the task for long periods.
Other researchers have also linked meditation with improved attention. Last year, a team led by Antoine Lutz at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, which is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reported that after three months of training in focused attention meditation, volunteers were quicker at picking out different tones among a succession of similar ones, implying their powers of sustained concentration had improved (Journal of Neuroscience).
In 2007, Lutz’s colleague Heleen Slagter, now at the University of Amsterdam, published results from a study involving a combination of focused attention and “open monitoring” or mindfulness meditation, which involves the constant monitoring of moment-by-moment experience. After three months of meditation for between 10 and 12 hours a day her subjects showed a decreased “attentional blink,” the cognitive processing delay, usually lasting about half a second, that causes people to miss a stimulus such as a number on a screen when it follows rapidly after another (PLoS Biology).
The suggestion that meditation can improve attention is worth considering, given that focus is crucial to so much in life, from the learning and application of skills to everyday judgment and decision-making, or simply concentrating on your computer screen at work without thinking about what you will be eating for dinner. But how does dwelling on your breath for a period each day lead to such a pronounced cognitive change?
One possibility is it involves working memory, the capacity to hold in the mind information needed for short-term reasoning and comprehension. The link with meditation was established recently by Amishi Jha at the University of Miami-Coral Gables. She trained a group of American marines to focus their attention using mindfulness meditation and found that this increased their working memory (Emotion).
Feeling better
Along with enhancing cognitive performance, meditation seems to have an effect on emotional well-being. A second study from researchers with the Shamatha project concluded that meditation improves general social and emotional functioning, making study participants less anxious, and more aware of and better able to manage their emotions.
The ability to manage one’s emotions could also be key to why meditation can improve physical health. Studies have shown it to be an effective treatment for eating disorders, substance abuse, psoriasis and in particular for recurrent depression and chronic pain.
Last year, psychologist Fadel Zeidan, at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, reported that his volunteers noticed a decreased sensitivity to pain after just a few sessions of mindfulness meditation (Journal of Pain). He believes meditation doesn’t remove the sensation of pain so much as teach sufferers to control their emotional reaction to it and reduce the stress response. He is now using fMRI in an attempt to understand why that helps.
“There’s something very empowering about knowing you can alleviate some of these things yourself,” he says.
A gym for your mind
The suggestion people can become more empathic and compassionate through meditation practice has prompted psychologist Paul Ekman and Alan Wallace, a Buddhist teacher and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, to float the idea of mental training “gymnasiums.” Like physical exercise gyms, but for the mind, these would allow people to drop in and learn to improve their emotional balance, develop their capacity for compassion and even measure their stress levels.
Others have suggested meditation could become an alternative to medication. Although this seems like a good idea, Saron is dubious. He worries thinking of meditation as a quick fix will smother some of the subtleties integral to successful practice. “When you are returning your mind to the object in hand, you have to do it with a sense of gentleness and authority, rather than develop a sense of failure when your mind wanders.”
Anyone can do it
The great thing about meditation is anyone can practice it anywhere. What’s more, you don’t have to be an expert or spend five hours a day at it to reap the benefits. The novices in Zeidan’s pain experiment reported improvements after meditating for just 20 minutes a day for three days. In a second experiment he found that similarly brief sessions can improve cognitive performance on tasks that demand continuous attention, such as remembering and reciting a series of digits (Consciousness and Cognition).
“It is possible to produce substantial changes in brain function through short-term practice of meditation,” says Richard Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory. He says data from a new unpublished study by his lab shows “demonstrable changes in brain function” in novice meditators after just two weeks of training for 30 minutes a day. “Even small amounts of practice can make a discernible difference.”
Tribune Media Services
How to meditate
You needn’t be an expert to reap the benefits of meditation.
There are numerous meditation styles, but the two most commonly studied by researchers are focused-attention meditation, in which the aim is to stay focused on a chosen thing such as an icon, a mantra or the breath, and mindfulness or open-monitoring meditation, where practitioners try to become aware of everything that comes into their moment-by-moment experience without reacting to it.
n For focused-attention meditation, start by sitting on a cushion or chair with your back straight and your hands in your lap and eyes closed. Then concentrate your mind on your chosen object – say your breathing, or more particularly the sensation of your breath leaving your mouth or nostrils. Try to keep it there. Probably your mind will quickly wander away, to an itch on your leg, perhaps, or to thoughts of what you will be doing later. Keep bringing it back to the breath. In time this will train the mind in three essential skills: to watch out for distractions, to “let go” of them once the mind has wandered, and to re-engage with the object of meditation. With practice, you should find it becomes increasingly easy to stay focused.
n In mindfulness meditation the aim is to monitor all the various experiences of your mind – thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations – and simply observe them, rather than trying to focus on any one of them. Instead of grasping at whatever comes to mind, which is what most of us do most of the time, the idea is to maintain a detached awareness. Those who develop this skill find it easier to manage emotions in day-to-day life.

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UC Davis study finds that practicing meditation can improve perception

Om mani padme hum.

Repeat the ancient mantra—Om mani padme hum (“Hail the jewel in the lotus”), om mani padme hum—again and again until the chaos of your thoughts quiets, the thump of your heart becomes clearly evident and your attention turns to the easy movement of breath through your nostrils … in and out … in and out. You’re no longer lost in thought. You’re not spaced out. You’re paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment. You’re meditating.

Buddhists have been practicing meditations like this one and hundreds of variations for more than 2,500 years. It’s only in recent years, though, that the contemplative practice has moved into the mainstream. In 2007, more than 9 percent of Americans were meditating according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The fascination with meditation continues perhaps driven by a desire to gain health benefits, find spiritual comfort or to say “no” to high-velocity lives that leave us disconnected from ourselves and others.

Over the past 50 years, scientists have also been asking questions about the human mind and attempting to figure out the benefits of training it through meditation. Type “meditation” into the PubMed index, and it returns nearly 2,000 published research articles on the subject. Much of the early work is today considered too deeply flawed to be meaningful. But recent work provides evidence that meditation can offer relief for conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression, pain and insomnia. Functional MRIs reveal changes resulting from prolonged meditation in the brains of Buddhist monks.

Now, led by UC Davis researchers, the longest and most complex study of meditation ever undertaken is beginning to publish its first results after more than two years spent analyzing mountains of data.

The Shamatha Project sought to discover whether anyone can achieve the remarkable calm, focus and joyfulness that monks and yogis display often in the face of great hardship and suffering. It’s a question that hounded Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and leader of a team of 25 prominent neuroscientists and psychologists working on Shamatha, since meeting some of these extraordinary people through a study he organized in the 1990s.

Just how long or often someone would have to engage in meditative practice to gain these characteristics remains unanswered, although 60 people enrolled in two groups in the project appear to have made strides toward achieving enhanced states of calm, focus and joyfulness after three months of intensive meditation training at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. Progress was assessed using a variety of state-of-the-art measures, including electrophysiological testing using EEG/ERP and other standard psychological assessment tests.

The first official findings released from the Shamatha Project uphold a claim by meditators that the practice improves perception. An article published last month online in Psychological Science reports that study participants became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.

Lead author Katherine MacLean, who also works at the UC Davis Center and whose work on the project formed the basis of her doctoral dissertation, derived her tests from those used to assess vigilance in radar operators. It’s a lot more complicated than this, but simply put: People watched lines appear on a screen and clicked a mouse each time they spotted one that was shorter than the others. By midway through the study, those who meditate had become better at identifying a smaller difference between long and short lines and at sustaining attention.

Adults are usually lousy at paying vigilant attention, especially when the task is monotonous or boring. Most begin making mistakes on this test within 10 minutes. But as it became easier for meditators to pick out the shorter lines, they were able to sustain their attention for longer periods.

“To show that in just a month and a half of intensive mental training, that is a pretty remarkable feat,” MacLean said. “It’s encouraging to see that there can be changes well into adulthood.”

What does all this have to do with whether or not ordinary meditators can achieve the kind of joyful compassion that Saron witnessed in yogis and monks who’d spent a lifetime in meditative training?

Most of us have trouble tapping into what we’re thinking and feeling in the moment, or a few minutes later, or even hours or days later. That’s understandable since more than 99 percent of our experience is not in our conscious awareness. But what if through meditation we were able to rest between our thoughts and feelings long enough to identify them as they occur? We then might be able to gain control of our thoughts, learn to regulate our emotions, and improve our ability to act with kindness and compassion.

This is the potential some believe mediation has for transforming our lives. It’s what the Shamatha Project set out to examine: How does meditation practice affect people’s lives in the world?

Although the Shamatha Project was first conceived by Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies years ago, it didn’t officially begin until early 2007. That’s when two groups of 30 people ages 21 to 70 with varied experience with meditation—one served as a control group and later also took the training—were recruited. During the three-month experiment, they spent on average five hours a day practicing an array of meditation techniques taught by Wallace, including a focus on breath.

Did intensive practice help participants regulate their emotions or increase compassion? The scientists assessed emotional responses by showing the meditators graphic scenes of human suffering and recording the minute changes in facial expressions that reveal emotions. They will compare these observations with how the retreatants said they felt when viewing the images to evaluate awareness of emotions.

To get at emotion regulation and compassion from another angle, researchers showed documentary footage of soldiers bragging about getting psyched up to shoot Iraqis. These were followed by images of suffering—including children—and soldiers describing the difficulty of the war. Preliminary findings indicate that those who had been practicing intensive meditation were less likely than controls to show emotions that may be interpreted as distancing themselves from others.

In addition to the improvements in what Buddhists call “attentional vividness,” those receiving the intensive training overall experienced greater well-being and less anxiety than those who did not undergo the training. Reports that tie results together will be forthcoming.

Saron, who doesn’t maintain a regular meditation practice today but has participated in many retreats over the past 35 years, described observing the openness, warmth and joy among participants toward the end of the study as one of the high points of his life. He concluded: “I didn’t need any scientific evidence for the utility of seriously investigating one’s mind. But that’s me.”

[Nancy Brands Ward, NewsReview.com]

For more information on the Shamatha Project, go to the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain website at https://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu, or to www.shambhalamountain.org/shamatha.

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Visual perception heightened by meditation training

Intensive mental training has a measurable effect on visual perception, according to a new study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. People undergoing intensive training in meditation became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.

A paper describing the results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science and was posted on the journal website May 11. It is the first paper to be published from a major scientific study of meditation training, the Shamatha Project.

“These results show for the first time that improved perception, often claimed to be a benefit of meditation practice, underlies improvements in sustained attention,” said project leader Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron has been interested in meditation since the 1970s. In the 1990s, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama’s private office and of the Boulder, Colo. -based Mind and Life Institute, he organized a field study of adept practitioners. During that project he was inspired by meeting exiled Tibetan monks and yogis in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, who had achieved remarkable emotional calm, focus and joyfulness in their lives, sometimes despite great hardship and suffering.

Saron and his colleagues wanted to know: Can these states be achieved only by individuals with an unusually serene disposition? Or can they be achieved by most people through intensive training?

The Shamatha Project is an attempt to answer those questions. It is the first long-term, detailed, control-group study of the measurable effects of meditative training on physiology, mental functioning and emotional state, Saron said.

In the project, 30 participants attended a three-month meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. They received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, while attending group sessions twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day. Wallace had worked with Saron on the field study in India and brought the idea for the Shamatha project to Saron and his UC Davis colleagues in 2003.

At the beginning, end, and in the middle of the course, participants were tested on attention and cognition, psychological and emotional measures, and physical and physiological changes.

A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time. The control group did undergo identical training later.

The visual attention experiments were led by UC Davis graduate student Katherine MacLean. Based on tests long used to assess vigilance in radar operators and other professions requiring long durations of uninterrupted attention, participants had to watch lines appearing on a screen and click a mouse when they saw lines that were shorter than others.

By midway through the retreat, meditators had become better at making fine visual distinctions. They were able to identify a smaller difference between “long” and “short” lines, and were better able to sustain attention during the half-hour test. Those findings are consistent with Buddhist claims that meditation cultivates “attentional vividness.”

People who continued practicing meditation after the retreat still showed improvements in perception when they were retested about five months later.

Meditation training may free up mental resources so that attentional focus can be sustained more easily for extended periods of time, Saron said. Meditators may also be more aware of normally subtle changes in experience that others miss, and have better emotional regulation.

The Shamatha Project shows that women and men of diverse age, ethnicity, education, and meditation experience can achieve measurable changes in their mental state and capabilities if they can commit to intensive training, Saron said.

While few individuals have three months to commit to such training, other studies have shown improvements in aspects of health and well-being with a less demanding regime. The minimum level of training required to produce the perceptual improvements seen in the Shamatha study remains to be determined, Saron said.

While the Shamatha Project is the largest and most comprehensive attempt yet to study changes brought about by mental training, its results cannot capture the full, first-person subjective experience of meditation, Saron said.

“We’re not trying to bottle someone’s experience,” he said. The project may, however, give insights into the nature of the mind and the relation between psychological and physiological traits using data from both first- and third-person perspectives.

Papers describing the other results of the study are in press or submitted for publication. The other authors on the Psychological Science paper are graduate student Stephen Aichele, Associate Professor Emilio Ferrer, postdoctoral scholar Baljinder Sahdra, Professor Phillip Shaver, and Professor George R. Mangun from the UC Davis Departments of Psychology and Neurology; research specialists Anthony Zanesco and Brandon King, both now admitted graduate students at UC Davis; postdoctoral scholar Tonya Jacobs and consulting scientist Erika Rosenberg from the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain; and graduate student David Bridwell, Department of Cognitive Science, UC Irvine. MacLean is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Major support for The Shamatha Project comes from the Fetzer Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation. Additional support comes from numerous private foundations, individual donors, and a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowship to MacLean, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship to Sahdra.

[via UC Davis]
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Meditation study aims to leap over mental barriers (Sacramento Bee, California)

Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, Sacramento Bee, California: Volunteers will spend one year exploring minds.

For more than a year, researchers at UC Davis have been trying to find the best way to frame a provocative question: How good can human beings get – how focused, how calm, how kind?

In seeking the answer, they plan to use an audacious tool. Think of it as a little like brain science meets reality television.

They will gather 30 people for a yearlong meditation retreat and then watch what happens. With electroencephalogram (EEG) caps, attention measurements, emotion testing and a form of meditation practice called Shamatha, researchers hope to answer a key question about the brain systems that regulate attention and emotion. How much can those systems change with effort, how much – in the Silly Putty neuroscience term applied to our malleable brains – is plasticity at work?

“Is attention plastic? We have a hunch that it’s trainable, but there is very limited research on training of attention,” said Clifford Saron, an assistant research scientist at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron is coordinating the project, which at this early stage is already a simmering esoteric brew.

There is the encouraging note from the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary. There is a French filmmaker who wants to chronicle the effort for her “Monks in the Lab” documentary. There is seed money from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which got it through a donation from actor Richard Gere.

And there is interest from other researchers, who have seen the project mentioned in the journal Science or heard about its scope through the grapevine.

“We have people clapping us on the back,’ ” said G. Ron Mangun, head of the Center for Mind and Brain. “It’s like when you say, ‘Well, I want to go to the moon,’ and they say, ‘Well yeah, it’s gotta be done. … Good luck, pal.’ ”

Dr. Bennett Shapiro, who follows meditation research as a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration of scientists and Buddhists, calls the upcoming study “pioneering work.”

It’s uncommon to sequester 30 people for a year and probe them so intensively, said Shapiro, a retired physician.

At least another 30 people will be monitored equally closely as a control group, although they won’t be taken away from their daily lives.

Researchers will look for differences between the groups as meditators are trained in a technique of refining their attention that has its roots in India and is known in Tibet as Shamatha.

The claims for Shamatha – that its practitioners can increase the stability and vividness of their attention as a way to improve their emotional balance – makes it especially fascinating for some neuroscientists.

Attention is vital to who we are and how we cope with the world.

The act of paying attention to something, picking it out of the stream of sensations that bombards our brains, is critical to remembering it, said Ewa Wojcuilik, a UC Davis assistant professor who specializes in visual attention.

But paying attention can be tough. Give people something simple and boring to do, and their distractibility zooms. Ask them to be alert to small, sporadic changes in a stream of data, and they manage for 10 or 20 minutes, then fumble badly.

But is this truly the best we can do, or can some specially trained individuals go further, breaking through mental barriers the way Olympic athletes surge past physical ones?

“Within the science of attention, we have formed certain ideas about what our limits are,” Wojcuilik said. “If the cognitive apparatus can be pushed beyond what we expect … we are on to a new beginning.”

She is among more than a dozen researchers who have met regularly to design the Shamatha project, a collaboration of a half-dozen arms of UC Davis and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

While the group’s primary focus is on attention, it also will explore whether meditators become calmer, kinder and more compassionate, as tradition holds.

Phil Shaver, who chairs the UC Davis psychology department and specializes in the study of emotions, will look at how quickly meditators get their equilibrium back after viewing upsetting movie scenes, whether disturbing words disrupt their focus and whether their health seems to indicate lower stress.

With the team still nearly two years away from its target start date of Sept. 22, 2006 – the autumnal equinox – many details remain to be resolved, but some general outlines are emerging.

B. Alan Wallace, who has trained as a Buddhist monk and has a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford, will take 30 people to some quiet corner of California.

There, they will rise at 6 a.m. for cycles of group and private meditation that continue until 10 p.m., punctuated by silent meals and a couple of two-hour breaks of unstructured time.

Their goal will be to cultivate a stable, vivid attention, because “this is going to bring you to a much, much higher platform of mental balance, mental well-being,” Wallace said.

Wallace, who heads the Santa Barbara institute, has recruited participants from shorter retreats he leads in Europe, Mexico and the United States.

They will be people with a contemplative bent, eager to pay $1,000 a month to be sequestered for a year, away from homes and jobs, family and friends, to explore the reaches of their own consciousness.

As often as every two weeks, live-in research assistants will take some study participants to an on-site lab to probe their minds and hearts, their health and behaviors.

Their performance will be tracked on standard attention tasks and on some created specifically for the project.

Sometimes, they’ll be plugged into EEG caps that monitor electrical impulses in their brains, listening to the simultaneous firing of millions of nerve cells. Their blood or saliva will be checked for stress hormones and their immune systems subjected to allergens to see how robustly they respond.

And in a twist that brings a whiff of being voted off the island, they may be asked to report on each other, assessing who is the most compassionate or how fellow participants’ behaviors change over time.

With so many measures, over so many months, “you’re going to have a very, very rich data set,” said Emilio Ferrer, an assistant professor whose specialties include quantitative psychology.

First, though, the research team has more groundwork ahead, in refining the experimental design, conducting pilot studies and nailing down funding. The team is hoping to raise $1.5 million to $2 million from foundations, the National Institutes of Health and donors.

While the thrust of the project is pure science, simply to learn what a highly trained brain may be capable of, it someday could have implications for attention deficit disorders or other ills – if the project finds that training can make a difference.

It is a big if.

“Most research comes to naught. That’s the rule. Getting definitive results is the exception,” said Paul Ekman, an expert on emotional expression and deception.

“This is really an extremely exciting adventure that UC Davis is taking,” he said. “This collaboration between top-rank neuroscientists, psychologists concerned with behavior and a Buddhist scholar and practitioner is in many ways quite unique.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be productive, but if you knew it was going to be productive, then it wouldn’t be exciting.”

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