Can Meditation Change Your Brain? Contemplative neuroscientists believe it can

From CNN’s Dan Gilgoff:

Can people strengthen the brain circuits associated with happiness and positive behavior,  just as we’re able to strengthen muscles with exercise?

Richard Davidson, who for decades has practiced Buddhist-style meditation – a form of mental exercise, he says – insists that we can.

And Davidson, who has been meditating since visiting India as a Harvard grad student in the 1970s, has credibility on the subject beyond his own experience.

A trained psychologist based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he has become the leader of a relatively new field called contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation.

Over the last decade, Davidson and his colleagues have produced scientific evidence for the theory that meditation – the ancient eastern practice of sitting, usually accompanied by focusing on certain objects – permanently changes the brain for the better.

“We all know that if you engage in certain kinds of exercise on a regular basis you can strengthen certain muscle groups in predictable ways,” Davidson says in his office at the University of Wisconsin, where his research team has hosted scores of Buddhist monks and other meditators for brain scans.

“Strengthening neural systems is not fundamentally different,” he says. “It’s basically replacing certain habits of mind with other habits.”

Contemplative neuroscientists say that making a habit of meditation can strengthen brain circuits responsible for maintaining concentration and generating empathy.

One recent study by Davidson’s team found that novice meditators stimulated their limbic systems – the brain’s emotional network – during the practice of compassion meditation, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice.

That’s no great surprise, given that compassion meditation aims to produce a specific emotional state of intense empathy, sometimes call “loving-kindness.”

But the study also found that expert meditators – monks with more than 10,000 hours of practice – showed significantly greater activation of their limbic systems. The monks appeared to have permanently changed their brains to be more empathetic.

An earlier study by some of the same researchers found that committed meditators experienced sustained changes in baseline brain function, meaning that they had changed the way their brains operated even outside of meditation.

These changes included ramped-up activation of a brain region thought to be responsible for generating positive emotions, called the left-sided anterior region. The researchers found this change in novice meditators who’d enrolled in a course in mindfulness meditation – a technique that borrows heavily from Buddhism – that lasted just eight weeks.

But most brain research around meditation is still preliminary, waiting to be corroborated by other scientists. Meditation’s psychological benefits and its use in treatments for conditions as diverse as depression and chronic pain are more widely acknowledged.

Serious brain science around meditation has emerged only in about the last decade, since the birth of functional MRI allowed scientists to begin watching the brain and monitoring its changes in relatively real time.

Beginning in the late 1990s, a University of Pennsylvania-based researcher named Andrew Newberg said that his brain scans of experienced meditators showed the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain that houses attention – surging into overdrive during meditation while the brain region governing our orientation in time and space, called the superior parietal lobe, went dark. (One of his scans is pictured, above.)

Newberg said his findings explained why meditators are able to cultivate intense concentration while also describing feelings of transcendence during meditation.

But some scientists said Newberg was over-interpreting his brain scans. Others said he failed to specify the kind of meditation he was studying, making his studies impossible to reproduce. His popular books, like Why God Won’t Go Away, caused more eye-rolling among neuroscientists, who said he hyped his findings to goose sales.

“It caused mainstream scientists to say that the only work that has been done in the field is of terrible quality,” says Alasdair Coles, a lecturer in neurology at England’s University of Cambridge.

Newberg, now at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, stands by his research.

And contemplative neuroscience had gained more credibility in the scientific community since his early scans.

One sign of that is increased funding from the National Institutes of Health, which has helped establish new contemplative science research centers at Stanford University, Emory University, and the University of Wisconsin, where the world’s first brain imaging lab with a meditation room next door is now under construction.

The NIH could not provide numbers on how much it gives specifically to meditation brain research but its grants in complementary and alternative medicine – which encompass many meditation studies – have risen from around $300 million in 2007 to an estimated $541 million in 2011.

“The original investigations by people like Davidson in the 1990s were seen as intriguing, but it took some time to be convinced that brain processes were really changing during meditation,” says Josephine Briggs, Director of the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Most studies so far have examined so-called focused-attention meditation, in which the practitioner concentrates on a particular subject, such as the breath. The meditator monitors the quality of attention and, when it drifts, returns attention to the object.

Over time, practitioners are supposed to find it easier to sustain attention during and outside of meditation.

In a 2007 study, Davidson compared the attentional abilities of novice meditators to experts in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Participants in both groups were asked to practice focused-attention meditation on a fixed dot on a screen while researchers ran fMRI scans of their brains.

To challenge the participants’ attentional abilities, the scientists interrupted the meditations with distracting sounds.

The brain scans found that both experienced and novice meditators activated a network of attention-related regions of the brain during meditation. But the experienced meditators showed more activation in some of those regions.

The inexperienced meditators, meanwhile, showed increased activation in brain regions that have been shown to negatively correlate with sustaining attention. Experienced meditators were better able to activate their attentional networks to maintain concentration on the dot. They had, the study suggested, changed their brains.

The fMRI scans also showed that experienced meditators had less neural response to the distracting noises that interrupted the meditation.

In fact, the more hours of experience a meditator had, the scans found, the less active his or her emotional networks were during the distracting sounds, which meant the easier it was to focus.

More recently, contemplative neuroscience has turned toward compassion meditation, which involves generating empathy through objectless awareness; practitioners call it non-referential compassion meditation.

New neuroscientific interest in the practice comes largely at the urging of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists, for whom compassion meditation is a time-worn tradition.

The Dalai Lama has arranged for Tibetan monks to travel to American universities for brain scans and has spoken at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest gathering of brain scientists.

A religious leader, the Dalai Lama has said he supports contemplative neuroscience even though scientists are stripping meditation of its Buddhist roots, treating it purely as a mental exercise that more or less anyone can do.

“This is not a project about religion,” says Davidson. “Meditation is mental activity that could be understood in secular terms.”

Still, the nascent field faces challenges. Scientists have scanned just a few hundred brains on meditation do date, which makes for a pretty small research sample. And some scientists say researchers are over eager to use brain science to prove the that meditation “works.”

“This is a field that has been populated by true believers,” says Emory University scientist Charles Raison, who has studied meditation’s effect on the immune system. “Many of the people doing this research are trying to prove scientifically what they already know from experience, which is a major flaw.”

But Davidson says that other types of scientists also have deep personal interest in what they’re studying. And he argues that that’s a good thing.

“There’s a cadre of grad students and post docs who’ve found personal value in meditation and have been inspired to study it scientifically,” Davidson says. “These are people at the very best universities and they want to do this for a career.

“In ten years,” he says, “we’ll find that meditation research has become mainstream.”

Originally Posted at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/26/can-meditation-change-you_0_n_774105.html?utm_source=chrome

Bullying: Physical and Cyber Equally Dangerous

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A telephone survey conducted by Rasumussen Reports found 69 percent of adult respondents said physical and cyber-bullying are equally dangerous. The same percentage believe cyber-bullying should be a punishable crime. Twenty-one percent said physical bullying is more damaging than the online version, but seven percent said they believe cyber-bullying to be worse than physical.

Eighty-five percent of adults are somewhat concerned about bullying in schools, while 57 percent are very concerned. Just three percent are not at all concerned. Fifty percent of the adults surveyed thought parents are the ones who should deal with bullying. Thirty-seven percent said they thought schools should be responsible for dealing with the problem. Only five percent said police are the ones who should be used for bullying problems.

Sixty-one percent of adults surveyed said bullying is more of a problem today than it has been in the past. The Rassmasuen Reports survey included 1,000 adults. You can see how their surveys are conducted here.

Cyber-bullying was the number-one fear of parents in a Care.com telephone survey of 384 American adult parents. Other parental fears scored for the survey were kidnapping, terrorism, and suicide. Cyber-bullying was selected by 3o percent of the respondents, while kidnapping was close behind at 27 percent.

A Harris Interactive poll found 9 percent of 13-15 year-olds surveyed had experienced bullying often or always, to the degree it made them feel very sad, angry or upset. Twenty-eight percent said they are sometimes bullied to the point of those feelings.

A news article from Flagler College stated one third of American teens have experienced cyber-bullying. A number of U.S. states have passed laws to punish cyber bullying and to raise awareness about the damage it can do. They were spurred to do so in part, by the tragic suicide of a thirteen-year old girl in Missouri.

Article was originally printed at: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/bullying-cyber-and-physical-equally-dangerous.html

Malnutrition Can Cause People With Alzheimer’s Disease To Deteriorate

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Many people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease are seeing their illness deteriorate because of bad nutrition and lack of care according to a report.

The report was launched by the National Association of Care Catering (NACC) this week. The report, which also found one in 10 older people in the UK are at risk of malnutrition, that malnutrition leads to many older people being forced into care homes and that lack of standard measures means older people face a lottery of services throughout the UK, has been published as part of Community Meals Week (11-17 October 2010).

The NACC and the British Dietetic Association are now calling on the government to support a new Nutrition Standard which will provide guidelines to those providing community meals services.

Alzheimer’s Society comment:
‘We all know how important a balanced diet is for maintaining good health. This is especially true for people with dementia. Malnutrition can have a serious impact on the symptoms of dementia and general well-being, potentially resulting in a person needing avoidable hospital admission or residential care earlier.’

‘As well as being distressing for the person and their family, malnutrition and poor care create huge and unnecessary costs for already stretched health and social care systems. Supporting people to live well in the community can help relieve this financial burden and hugely improve quality of life. Good nutrition must be at the heart of this care.’

Andrew Chidgey,  Head of Policy and Public Affairs
Source: Alzheimer’s Society

Why Pleasure Is Not Happiness

HappinessNo one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I wish I could suffer all day, and if possible my whole life.” We all strive, consciously or unconsciously, competently or clumsily, to be happier and to suffer less.

Nevertheless, we often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable feelings. Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things. The universe is not a mail-order catalogue for our desires and fancies.

Happiness is often equated with a maximization of pleasure, and some imagine that true happiness would consist of an interrupted succession of pleasurable experiences. This sounds more like a recipe for exhaustion than for genuine happiness. There is no reason to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of a magnificent landscape, of swimming in the sea or of the scent of a rose, but we must understand that the experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes can soon become neutral or even unpleasant.

Unlike pleasure, genuine happiness may be influenced by circumstance, but it isn’t dependent on it. It actually gives us the inner resources to deal better with those circumstances.

Thus, happiness is rather an optimal way of being, an exceptionally healthy state of mind that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way. This way of being comes together with a cluster of human qualities, such as altruistic love, compassion, inner peace, inner strength, and wisdom, which can be cultivated. Happiness is a skill that requires effort and time.

It is the mind that translates good and bad circumstances into happiness or misery. So happiness comes with the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred, compulsive desire, arrogance and jealousy, which literally poison the mind. It also requires that one cease to distort reality and that one cultivate wisdom.

Moreover, we can never be truly happy if we dissociate ourselves from the happiness of others. The pursuit of selfish happiness is bound to fail. It is a lose-lose situation in which we make ourselves miserable and create misery around us. This in no way requires us to neglect our own happiness. Our desire for happiness is as legitimate as anyone else’s. We must realize that in the deepest part of ourselves, we fear suffering and aspire to happiness. We should then realize that all sentient beings want to avoid suffering just as much as we do. This should lead to the strong aspiration to do whatever we can to ease other’s suffering and contribute to their lasting well-being.

10 Tips for a Mindful Home

Karen Maezen Miller
Wife, mother, Zen priest and author of Hand Wash Cold

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The idea of mindfulness seems to be catching on. That’s good, but if we’re not careful, an idea is where it remains.

To be sure, mindfulness is a concept most of us like: to improve our lives with special contemplative consideration, a method for making saner choices and assuring better outcomes. To actually transform ourselves with the wisdom of mindfulness, we have to start with the lives we’re living from the moment we wake each day. We have to bring mindfulness out of our heads and into our homes. That’s where ideas become harder to handle.

Here are 10 simple and powerful ways to bring a day of mindful moments into your home.

Wake with the sun – There is no purer light than what we see when we open our eyes first thing in the morning. Resisting the morning’s first waking moment instantly adds stress to your day. Avoiding the sun, you commence a chase that lasts all day long: running short of time, balance, peace and productivity.

Sit – Mindfulness without meditation is just a word. The search for mindful living is always grounded in a meditation practice. Seated meditation is the easiest and fastest way to clear your mind of anxious, fearful and stressful thoughts. Meditation puts your overactive brain on a diet, so you have more attention to bring to the real life that appears before you. You will be far more productive in the ensuing hours if you begin the day by spending five minutes actively engaged in doing nothing at all.

Make your bed – The state of your bed is the state of your head. Enfold your day in dignity. The five minutes you spend making your bed slows you down from your frantic, morning scrambling and creates a calm retreat to welcome you home at night. Plus, making your bed means you’ve already achieved an even more challenging feat: getting out of it.

Empty the hampers – Do the laundry without resentment or commentary and have an intimate encounter with the very fabric of life. Doing laundry is a supreme act of personal responsibility. It requires maturity, attention and discipline, and it engenders happiness. Don’t believe me? See how you feel every time you reach the bottom of an empty hamper.

Wash your bowl – Rinse away self-importance and clean up your own kitchen mess. If you leave it undone, it will get sticky. An empty sink can be the single most gratifying sight of a long and tiring day.

Set a timer – If you’re distracted by the weight of what’s undone, set a kitchen timer and, like a monk in a monastery, devote yourself wholeheartedly to the task at hand before the bell rings. The time you’ll find hidden in a kitchen timer unleashes more of your attention to the things that matter most.

Rake the leaves – Take yourself outside to rake, weed or sweep. You’ll never finish for good, but you’ll learn the point of pointlessness. The repetitive motion is meditative; the fresh air is enlivening. Lose yourself in doing what needs to be done, without a thought of permanent outcome or gain. You’ll immediately alter your worldview.

Eat when hungry – Align your inexhaustible desires with the one true appetite. Coming clean about our food addictions and aversions is powerful and lasting medicine. Eating is so central to family life and culture that we can pass on our habits for generations to come. Mindless overeating feeds our sickness; mindful eating feeds the body’s intuitive, intelligent wisdom and nourishes life well past tonight’s empty plates.

Let the darkness come – Set a curfew on the Internet and TV and discover the natural balance between daylight and darkness, work and rest. Your taste for the quiet will naturally increase. When you end your day in accord with the earth’s perfect rhythm, you grant the whole world a moment of pure peace.

Sleep when tired – Nothing more to it.

Originally Posted on The Huffington Post: http://goo.gl/gHXv