Tag Archives: meditation

Meditation is a good ally against coronavirus anxiety

The world is facing unprecedented challenges that translate into unprecedented anxiety. The coronavirus outbreak disrupted everyone’s life, forcing to change their routines and bringing social tensions over health, the economy, and many more areas – with no clear answers in many cases.

It’s ok to feel anxious. But these researchers have some advice for you.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Meditation can turn out to be a good ally to calm the nerves. Practicing it every day for eight weeks can bring a decrease in negative moods and anxiety, while improving attention, working memory and recognition memory, according to a new study.

Meditation is a mental exercise through which we can observe our interior and the way in which we conceive what is happening around us. There are many ways of doing it but all with the main goal of having a calmer state of mind. While there are studies about it, not many have looked at the effect of doing short and practical sessions. There are many myths and legends to meditation, but according to this study, there is definite scientific merit to meditation.

Julia Basso and a group of experts from New York University worked with a group of 42 non-experienced meditators between 18 and 45 years-old. They were divided into two groups, one doing a daily 13-minutes mediation session over eight weeks, while the other one listened to a meditation podcast with the same regularity.

As they went through the study, participants had to do neuropsychological tasks, testing their cognitive functioning and answering questionnaires. They also had to provide saliva cortisol samples to test their stress levels.

The data was collected at the start, the middle and the final part of the study, comparing the results between the different groups.

Then, when they finished the study, the participants had to do a Trier Social Stress Study, which is meant to produce social stress. They were given levels of state anxiety before the test, immediately after and 10, 20 and 30 minutes after measuring their response to stress.

After four weeks of the exercise, the research showed no major changes in cognitive function or mood between the group that listened to the podcast and the group that did meditation classes. Nevertheless, the scenario changed drastically when reaching the eight-week mark.

The participants that went through mediation classes saw a drop in the levels of anxiety, fatigue and mood disturbance when compared to the group that listened to the podcast. They even showed a better working and recognition memory and improved attention.

“This study not only suggests a lower limit for the duration of brief daily meditation needed to see significant benefits in non-experienced meditators, but suggests that even relatively short daily meditation practice can have similar behavioral effects as longer duration and higher-intensity mediation practices,” the researchers wrote.

Doing a live class can be tricky in times of self-quarantine but as an alternative health and wellness apps are offering free meditation exercises. The app Headspace is now offering free services to US health care professionals, while Simple Habit, a mindfulness app, is doing the same for the ones that can’t afford it. No doubt, there are a myriad of apps and solutions and free courses going on now — and they might be an excellent way to calm yourself in this trying time.

The study was published in Behavioral Brain Research.

Simple meditation app can make people more attentive in less than two months, new study finds

The app, which was not released to the public, improved the attention span of young adults in only 6 weeks.

Modern life has changed in a number of ways. It’s less physically intensive but more mentally tiring. We’re often forced to multitask, to jump from one thing to another in a brief period of time, and shift environments with unprecedented speed. It’s not surprising that in this modern world, meditation has been making a slow resurgence.

Research on meditation is often contradictory — although hundreds of studies on meditation have been carried out since the 1950s, most of them were flawed or offer limited information. More recently, studies using modern instruments such as fMRI and EEG have shown that meditation induces some changes in the brain, although the effects of those changes are still a matter of debate. According to these, there is moderate evidence that meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and pain.

Researchers led by David Ziegler and Adam Gazzaley wanted to see if a meditation app can have a positive impact on concentration and attention. They developed a meditation training app and offered it to 22 users, aged 18-35. The participants used the app for a few minutes a day over a 6-week period, while at the same time, a control group used unrelated meditation apps for the same amount of time.

For the app, they used ‘East meets West’ approach, integrating “key aspects of traditional focused-attention meditation with a neuroplasticity-based, closed-loop approach to cognitive enhancement”. When they tested the participants, they observed an improved ability to focus on their breathing, as well as improved sustained attention and working memory in specialized tests carried after the 6-week period.

Attention is a fundamental cognitive process, higher for all real-world activities. Improving the attention in young adults would have obvious benefits, but this has proven to be notoriously difficult. The users’ self-reported mind-wandering also went down significantly. These improvements were also reflected in brain activity as measured by an EEG. The control group, which used other meditation apps, did not exhibit such improvement.

The team acknowledges that further research is necessary to confirm the findings in a larger group and to assess whether the results stand over a longer period of time.

The authors found that participants using their app showed improved ability to focus on their breathing—from an initial average of 20 seconds per day to 6 minutes by day 30. They also showed transfer benefits in separate tests of sustained attention and working memory conducted 1–2 weeks following the 6-week trial. These improvements were also reflected in brain activity measured by electroencephalogram (EEG). Comparatively, the control group did not demonstrate such improvements.

The authors acknowledge that further research is needed in a larger study to determine whether the positive findings reported in this paper are applicable to the broader population and whether they last longer than 1-2 weeks after training.

The study was published in Nature Human Behaviour. DOI:10.1038/s41562-019-0611-9

Buddhist monk meditating.

Around one-quarter of those who meditate experience unpleasant symptoms — we don’t know why

About a quarter of those trying meditation report having at least one ‘particularly unpleasant’ psychological experience regarding this practice.

Buddhist monk meditating.

Image credits Sasin Tipchai.

Meditation gets a lot of attention these days, and there is some data to support their beneficial effect. But it’s not all mantras and roses, a new study found — a sizeable chunk of those who try their hand at the practice reported experiencing unpleasant effects.

The deep within

“These findings point to the importance of widening the public and scientific understanding of meditation beyond that of a health-promoting technique,” says first author Marco Schlosser, a researcher at the University College London (UCL) Division of Psychiatry.

“Very little is known about why, when, and how such meditation-related difficulties can occur: more research is now needed to understand the nature of these experiences. When are unpleasant experiences important elements of meditative development, and when are they merely negative effects to be avoided?”

These ‘particularly unpleasant’ experiences include feelings of fear and distorted emotions, the team reports. People who only practice deconstructive types of meditation — for example Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism) — were more likely to experience such effects, as were those with higher levels of repetitive negative thinking, the team reports. However, female participants and those with religious beliefs were less likely to go through an unpleasant meditation-related experience.

The team used an online survey through which they questioned 1,232 people across the world who had at least two months’ meditation experience. Researchers at Witten/Herdecke University, Germany, and the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, also participated in the study. They wanted to understand why some people experience unpleasant psychological effects during meditative practice — a trend illustrated by a growing number of research reports and case studies, they add. A collection of traditional Buddhist texts also tell of similar experiences in practitioners of yore, which further piqued the team’s interest.

Participants were asked whether they have “ever had any particularly unpleasant experiences (e.g. anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world), which you think may have been caused by your meditation practice?” They were also asked about how long they’ve been practicing meditation, the frequency with which they practice, whether or not they had attended a meditation retreat at any point in their life, and what form of meditation they practiced (attentional, constructive, or deconstructive). They also completed measures of repetitive negative thinking and self-compassion.

The results

Of the 1,232 participants:

  • 25.6% said that they had previously encountered particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences.
  • More male participants experienced a particularly unpleasant experience than female participants (28.5% vs 23% ).
  • More of those who did not have a religious belief had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to those who had a religious belief (30.6% vs 22%).
  • 29.2% of the participants who practiced only deconstructive types of meditation reported a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 20.3% who only engaged in other meditation types.
  • 29% of those who had been on a meditation retreat (at any point in life) had a particularly unpleasant experience, compared to 19.6%, who had never been on a retreat.

“Most research on meditation has focused on its benefits, however, the range of meditative experiences studied by scientists needs to be expanded,” Schlosser adds.

“It is important at this point not to draw premature conclusions about the potential negative effects of meditation. Longitudinal studies will help to learn when, for whom, and under what circumstances these unpleasant experiences arise, and whether they can have long-term effects. This future research could inform clinical guidelines, mindfulness manuals, and meditation teacher training.”

It’s important to note that the present study doesn’t provide any indication of what these ‘unpleasant experiences’ were. In other words, it doesn’t have any way to quantify their severity and impact — which is a common limitation of self-reported data. Furthermore, the team writes that their inclusion of a list of specific examples (i.e., anxiety, fear, distorted emotions or thoughts, altered sense of self or the world) in the questionnaire may have biased participants’ responses towards recalling these particular experiences over others. The study also didn’t assess possible pre-existing mental health problems, which could have confounded the prevalence estimate of particularly unpleasant meditation-related experiences.

In less-fancy, less-science speak, this study cannot and should not be used as an indication that meditation caused these unpleasant experiences. However, it does show that the two can go hand-in-hand, and do so for a meaningful number of participants. Exactly why, how, and what that means, however, is something we still have to work to understand.

The paper “Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Credit: Pixabay.

Transcendental meditation reduces PTSD in South African students

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world. For the sixth consecutive year, murder rates have increased in the country. Crime ranks as citizens’ top concern, second only to unemployment. Witnessing violence can be a severely traumatizing experience and a staggering 25% of South Africans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the South African Society of Psychiatrists. Adolescents and children in South Africa are particularly vulnerable to PTSD, with some studies estimating PTSD prevalence as high as 38%.

When the environment looks this bleak, solutions are hard to come by, but according to a new study, something as simple as practicing transcendental meditation for three and a half months could do wonders. Thanks to the practice, 34 tertiary-level students at Maharishi Institute (MI) –all of whom were initially diagnosed with PTSD — lowered their symptoms below clinical thresholds as measured by standard assessments. The students also experienced relief from depression.

“A high percentage of young people in South Africa, especially those living in the townships, suffer from PTSD,” said co-author Michael Dillbeck, researcher in the Institute for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. “To become successful students and productive members of society, they absolutely need help dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Our study shows, that after 3 months of meditation, this group, on average, was out of PTSD. It offers a way for others to effectively deal with this problem.”

Before the study started, the participants reported severe PTSD symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, and hypervigilance. Many also reported feeling angry and anti-social and self-destructive behaviors, including violence or abusing drugs and alcohol. If left untreated, PTSD can haunt individuals for their entire lifetimes. Depression and PTSD often go hand-in-hand.

After 15 days, the students’ PTSD symptoms dropped by 10 points on the PCL-C test — a standard clinical assessment where a score of 44 or more indicates likely PTSD. By day 105, the average group score dropped below the PTSD threshold of 34. Meanwhile, a control group of 34 students from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) showed no reduction in depression or PTSD symptoms, the authors reported in the journal Psychological Reports

“This study shows that there are new tools available for professionals to add to their tool bag,” says Zane Wilson, Founder and Chairman of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Previously, a program called Quiet Time involving two daily sessions of meditation helped tame some of San Francisco’s toughest schools. As a result of the program, suspensions fell by 45 percent, while daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent — well above the citywide average. Grades improved drastically, too. Studies have also shown that meditation acts as a painkiller, improves cardiovascular health, and lowers the need for healthcare.

meditation-effects

Meditation may not make you a better person after all

meditation-effects

Credit: Pixabay.

New research casts doubt on the claim that meditation makes us more compassionate and empathetic. According to an international team of researchers who performed a meta-analysis on more than 20 studies, the moderately positive effects reported by previous studies can be explained by poor methodology and bias.

“The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many. We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one’s feelings and behaviours towards others,” said Dr. Miguel Farias, from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, in a statement.

The scientists at Coventry University in the UK, Massey University in New Zealand, and Radboud University in the Netherlands only included randomized controlled studies in their analysis. All the studies involved in the meta-analysis involved secular meditation techniques like mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, rather than yoga or Tai-Chi, which are typically taught based on religious beliefs.

The researchers’ investigation found that while some studies seem to indicate an overall positive impact, as far as improving compassion and empathy is concerned, the effect is only moderate compared to those who did not perform an emotionally-engaging activity.

What’s more, when scrutinized, those studies which reported the more positive results had important methodological flaws. For instance, in some studies, compassion levels increased only when the meditation teacher was also an author of the published paper.

“Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found. Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation. We also found that the beneficial effect of meditation on compassion disappeared if the meditation teacher was an author in the studies. This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results,” Farias said.

Overall, the researchers concluded that the previous assessments, which reported a positive effect on people’s emotional engagement, may be the result of methodological flaws and biases. And while the new findings suggest that meditation doesn’t make you “a better person”, they do not negate the other positive impacts reported by other studies. A meta-analysis (a study of studies), which included 18 trials totaling 846 participants, found “mind-body practices” such as meditation or Tai Chi reduce the activity of genes related to inflammation. Another study found that meditation can act like painkillers, but doesn’t release opioids. There is also evidence that meditation techniques improves mood, reduces depression symptoms, improves cardiovascular health, alters cellular activity, and might even slow down the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

In other words, there are plenty of science-backed reasons to meditate. It’s just you shouldn’t expect to become more compassionate or tuned to other people’s feelings because of it.

“None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life-changing potential of its beliefs and practices. But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists,” Farias said.

“To understand the true impact of meditation on people’s feelings and behaviour further we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered—starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation,” he added.

Scientific reference: Ute Kreplin et al, The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-20299-z.

monk meditating

Meditation acts like a pain-killer, but doesn’t release opioids

Evidence suggests mindfulness meditation reduces both emotional and physical pain. Concerning the latter, we still don’t know the underlying mechanisms that cause meditation to have painkiller-like effects, but we’re getting there. We now know how it doesn’t work for instance after researchers found the effects of meditation do not involve opioids production in the body. This is good news for those with high tolerance for opioids, found both in illegal drugs like heroin but also in morphine, and just about any “serious” prescription painkiller.

monk meditating

Credit: Pixabay

Researchers at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center recruited 78 healthy and pain-free volunteers and divided them into four groups: meditation plus naloxone; non-meditation control plus naloxone; meditation plus saline placebo; or non-meditation control plus saline placebo. Naloxone is a substance that temporarily blocks the endogenous opioid system. Pain is good. It signals you to lay off a hot plate or stay away from pointy things. After the initial nudge, it’s this opioid system that floods the brain with opioids to shut down the pain.

Each day for four days, the volunteers went about their task (meditating or doing nothing) in 20-minute long sessions. At the end of the session, each participant was given a painful nudge using a thermal probe that heated a small area of the skin to 49 degrees Celsius. It’s painful enough for the body to start releasing opioids, the researchers said. To gauge pain, the volunteers used a sliding ruler to self-report it.

Those participants that meditated and were given the naloxone injection had a 24 percent reduction in pain from the baseline measurement. In the group that meditated, but were given a placebo injection, there was a 21 percent pain reduction. Those who didn’t meditate at all reported more pain regardless of whether they got the naloxone or placebo-saline injection.

“Our finding was surprising and could be important for the millions of chronic pain sufferers who are seeking a fast-acting, non-opiate-based therapy to alleviate their pain,” said  Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

“Our team has demonstrated across four separate studies that meditation, after a short training period, can reduce experimentally induced pain,” Zeidan said. “And now this study shows that meditation doesn’t work through the body’s opioid system.

“This study adds to the growing body of evidence that something unique is happening with how meditation reduces pain. These findings are especially significant to those who have built up a tolerance to opiate-based drugs and are looking for a non-addictive way to reduce their pain.”

Pain-killer addiction has reached endemic proportions in the United States. In 2012, enough painkillers were prescribed to keep every single citizen medicated around the clock for a month – or once every 12 days for an entire year. Tens of thousands die each year from overdosing on painkillers — a lot more than from heroin. Meditation could be used in conjunction with prescription drugs or alone, preferably if the pain isn’t deafening. Those who are addicted and have a high tolerance for painkillers might find meditation a godsend.

Meditation might not be able to help everyone, though. Which is why Zeidan and colleagues plan on studying next how mindfulness meditation can affect a spectrum of chronic pain conditions.

Findings  appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience. 

Meditation improves cardiovascular health almost as much as exercise

A new study, performed at Howard University Medical Center found that practicing the transcendental meditation technique seems to stimulate the production of telomerase, an enzyme associated with reduced blood pressure and heart disease. This correlates well with earlier research which  found that meditation techniques  reduce rates of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, as well as slowing of biological aging.

Image via wikimedia

Image via wikimedia

For this pilot trial, 48 African-American men and women who were diagnosed with stage I hypertension and participated in a larger randomized controlled trial volunteered for this study at Howard University’s Medical Center. African-American subjects were chosen for this study as they suffer from disproportionately high rates of hypertension and cardiovascular disease compared to other segments of the population.

They were divided into two groups; The first half attempted stress reduction thought transcendental meditation and were given either a basic health education course (the SP group). The others were assigned to a group that focused on bringing significant lifestyle changes to the participants, such as reducing salt intake, moderating alcohol, engaging in regular physical activity and reducing weight, by participating in a 16-week long extensive health education program (named the EHE group)

Both groups showed significant increases in telomerase gene expression and reductions in blood pressure.

“[This] suggests that stress reduction and lifestyle modifications may reduce blood pressure with an increase in telomerase,” said Otelio Randall, MD at Howard University College of Medicine and coauthor to the paper.

“The result is valuable new information, relevant both to cardiovascular disease and to the molecular mechanisms involved i Transcendental Meditation,” added John Fagan, professor of molecular biology at Maharishi University of Management and senior author on the study.

The authors note that “no statistically significant between-group changes were observed” either in the increase of the telomerase gene expression or reductions in systolic BP; the team also observed a significant reduction in diastolic BP in the 16-week program group, but not in the meditation group; EHE group members also showed a greater number of positive changes in lifestyle behaviors.

“The association between increased telomerase gene expression and reduced BP [blood pressure] observed in this high-risk population suggest hypotheses that telomerase gene expression may either be a biomarker for reduced BP or a mechanism by which stress reduction and lifestyle modification reduces BP,” the authors conclude.

While the study only included African-American volunteers, it’s likely that the findings apply to everyone, regardless of race. So if you’re looking for a way to stay healthy and just can’t run any more than you already do, why not take up some light meditation?

 

 

Read more about the study here.

Meditation

Is this the first Proof that Meditation alters Cellular Activity?

There’s an immense body of evidence that proves that meditation has significant beneficial effects for mental health, but it’s only recently that researchers in Canada discovered a link between mindfulness meditation and altered cellular activity in cancer patients.

Biology and meditation: no longer mutually exclusive

Meditation

Image: Huff Post

“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” said Linda E. Carlson, a psychosocial research and the lead investigator at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, in a press release. She conducted the study alongside scientists from the University of Calgary.

“It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the three-month period studied,” said Carlson. “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news.”

Telomeres are protein caps at the end of our chromosomes, sort of like the plastic tips at the end of a shoelace. These are essential for protecting our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or “senescent” or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death. So telomeres also have been compared with a bomb fuse.

ZME Science previously reported how meditation can be a powerful tool to alter our mood, providing a proxy that later indirectly tackles cognitive dysfunctions like Alzheimer’s or help relieve pain. It’s effects on biological functions have been more or less discusses, and always under debate. We’ve all heard stories – maybe you personally know someone – about people who left to a retreat, relaxed by the beach, surf and meditate, then spontaneously cured from cancer. These stories, heart warming as they may be, are very difficult to test and as such must be regarded under a skeptical lens. But now have the first evidence that suggests mediation directly alters cellular activity, meaning that it might actually be involved in regulating bodily functions and maybe even help cure diseases. Cancer too, why not?

Does meditation prevent aging?

Meditation-Yogapants

Image: Terri Paddock

The team studied 88 breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatment at least three months were monitored, aged 55 years on average. All of the participants had to have experienced significant levels of emotional distress. The volunteers were grouped into three segments:

  • Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group: participants attended eight weekly, 90-minute group sessions that provided instruction on mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga, with the goal of cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Participants were also asked to practice meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily.
  • Supportive Expressive Therapy group: participants met for 90 minutes weekly for 12 weeks and were encouraged to talk openly about their concerns and their feelings. The objectives were to build mutual support and to guide women in expressing a wide range of both difficult and positive emotions, rather than suppressing or repressing them.
  • Control group: participants attended one, six-hour stress management seminar.

Before and after the study, each participants had their blood drawn and telemores measured. Lab reports show that both groups that underwent group therapy maintained their telomere length, while for the third group this had shortened.

[ALSO SEE] Scientists prove ‘immortal worms’ can regenerate indefinitely and stay forever young

Allison McPherson was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. When she joined the study, she was placed in the mindfulness-based cancer recovery group. Today, she says that experience has been life-changing.

“I was skeptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus,” says McPherson, who underwent a full year of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries. “But I now practise mindfulness throughout the day and it’s reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others.”

Study participant Deanne David was also placed in the mindfulness group.

“Being part of this made a huge difference to me,” she says. “I think people involved in their own cancer journey would benefit from learning more about mindfulness and connecting with others who are going through the same things.”

Next, the researchers plan on replicating the findings over a much longer period of observation than three months. While the research is definitely exciting on oh so many levels, we advise caution in receiving these findings.

Scientists scan a woman’s brain during out of body experience

It’s a little out of this world – a psychology graduate student at the University of Ottawa says she can voluntarily enter an out-of-body experience. While scientists are generally skeptical when it comes to this kind of claims, they were thrilled by the possibility to scan her brain during the experience – and the results were indeed spectacular.

An unusual experience

Usually, outer body experiences accompany extreme situations – for example a life threatening accident, where one “floats” above his/her body as the doctors are working, it’s usually something along these lines. The experience is also usually attributed to the drugs in a patient’s system, or the hormones released into their system by trauma.

This study passed the peer review and was published in Frontiers of Neuroscience, so it’s not just some shenanigans. Andra M. Smith and Claude Messier from the University of Ottawa talk about how this went:

“She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane. She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving “real” body… “

… and an unusual participant

The participant, whose name was not disclosed, is a right-handed woman, age 24, who was a psychology graduate student at the time of testing. She signed an informed consent approved by the University of Ottawa Research Ethics Board. Her story is a very interesting one: she was in an undergraduate class that presented data on body representation hallucinations in patients that report experiences of their body outside their physical body (Blanke and Arzy, 2005). She spontaneously reported after class that she could have a similar “out of body” experience. She appeared surprised that not everyone could experience this – describing that she developed the technique in kindergarten, trying to find something to do while she was asked to nap. She claimed she believed that everyone can do this, and was surprised to learn that this is not nearly the case.

“I feel myself moving, or, more accurately, can make myself feel as if I am moving. I know perfectly well that I am not actually moving. There is no duality of body and mind when this happens, not really. In fact, I am hyper-sensitive to my body at that point, because I am concentrating so hard on the sensation of moving. I am the one moving – me – my body. For example, if I ‘spin’ for long enough, I get dizzy. I do not see myself above my body. Rather, my whole body has moved up. I feel it as being above where I know it actually is. I usually also picture myself as moving up in my mind’s eye, but the mind is not substantive. It does not move unless the body does.”

The brain, out of the body

So what did the results actually show? Researchers did a fMRI before and after asking her to enter her out-of-body state to find out what that looked like in the brain. They compared these to when she was imagining, but not actually entering, the state. Interestingly enough, the pathway that seemed to be activated during her out-of-body experience is also involved in the mental representation of movements. So basically, when she was “out of her body” and simply imagining this, some of the same pathways were activated – but there were also clear differences.

fmri out of body 2

From a neurological and psychological perspective, this whole thing seems to be a sort of hallucination that she can turn on and off, at will – and researchers are pretty sure about one thing: she’s not faking it. There’s obviously something happening in her brain that is making her experience the world in a different way, stimulating the supplementary motor area, the cerebellum, the supramarginal gyrus, the inferior temporal gyrus, the middle and superior orbitofrontal gyri. Some parts were actually turned down, which is expected with this kind of experience, as shown below:

fmri out of body

So what does this mean?

First of all, we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions. This doesn’t, in an way, imply a paranormal experience. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a “soul” which can leave the body at will. So then… what does it mean?

Well, anyone can imagine themselves flying around their body and claim they have an out of body experience. What the researchers went for is figuring out, first of all, if this experience is real and not simulated, and second of all, what happens in the brain during this experience. By comparing her brain activity in all of these conditions they tried to see whether her out-of-body experiences produced detectably different patterns of brain activity than her imaginary movements – and as it turns out, there are major differences.

But this is only one woman’s experience – we need to study more before we draw any definite conclusions. The fMRI revealed changes which are comparable to meditation, so that’s definitely interesting. Is this something more common than previously thought, is it something which can be trained, like meditation? Science – and time – will tell.

Barry Zito, David Lynch, Russell Brand meditate with students during Quiet Time at Burton High. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Roughest San Francisco schools tamed through meditation

For school teachers working in some of San Francisco’s toughest schools, giving everyday to work isn’t some new opportunity to shape minds, but another ruthless battle in losing war. An impressive and unlikely initiative seems to have changed things for the better, where conventional wisdom – be it in the form of social programs, tests or surveys – failed.

A pilot program introduced in several San Francisco schools so far, Quiet Time serves as a stress reduction strategy that aims to bring peace into the lives of troubled souls through meditation. Twice each day, a haunting gong gives the signal for adolescents that it’s time to shut their eyes and empty their minds.

Empty the mind first, fill it later

 

I’m as surprised as you – let me start by saying this. How can kids with today’s limited attention span willingly go along with this? We’re not talking about any other school in a quiet suburb. The Visitacion Valley Middle School used to be one of the worst scoring schools in the whole city, and it’s no real surprise why. Gunshots are depressingly common in the school’s neighborhood, and in the past month alone nine shootings have been reported. So many kids know someone who’s been shot or someone who fired the shot, that the schools had to employ a permanent grief counselor. Absenteeism rates were among the city’s highest and so were suspensions. If you strolled through the school’s corridors you’d have been met by walls littered with graffiti and, chances have it, you would have even witnessed a fight or two. Teachers were beginning to call in sick unusually often, battered by the ordeal. That’s how tough the situation used to be.

Superintendent Richard Carranza didn’t see the idea of Quiet Time as some new age bull. Instead, he agreed to give it a try – why the heck not? The program was first introduced in 2007 at Visitacion and a couple of other schools. Now, students here are doing a whole lot better. Suspensions fell by 45 percent, daily attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, well above the citywide average and grades improved drastically. In fact, some 20% graduates are admitted to Lowell High School – an elite high school which only used to welcome a handful of Visitacion students before Quiet Time.

Peace of mind

 

These positive results seem to be consistent at the other locations where Quiet Time was introduced. Burton High School students, for instance, report far lower levels of stress than before and better self-esteem. Grads rose dramatically, especially for the students who used to underachieve the most. The San Francisco Gate reports that twice as many kids have become proficient in English compared to kids from similar schools, where Quiet Time hasn’t been introduced. Similar results for math. As for teachers, they’ve become less stressed and more inclined to do their jobs.

“The research is showing big effects on students’ performance,” says Superintendent Carranza. “Our new accountability standards, which we’re developing in tandem with the other big California districts, emphasize the importance of social-emotional factors in improving kids’ lives, not just academics. That’s where Quiet Time can have a major impact, and I’d like to see it expand well beyond a handful of schools.”

Personally, I’d love to see this in other schools as well. Quiet Time has been introduced in just a few schools, and while the number may be too low to infer a forecast on how well a whole district might do academically, the results we’ve been shown so far are more than promising. For some of these confused and frightened kids, however, a moment’s peace may have been all they wished for.

Meditation Could Slow the Progress of Alzheimer’s

Meditation has been shown to have an impact on brain activity, decreasing beta waves and impacting each part differently. Activity in the frontal and parietal lobe slows down, while the flow of information to the thalamus is reduced. This can lead to positive side effects such as improved focus, better memory, and a reduction in anxiety. According to a new study conducted at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre, meditation’s impact on the brain could play an important role in slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders.

Stress, Anxiety, and Dementia

 

Image via Sukadev Bretz, @Flickr.

As people age, their cognitive ability may deteriorate. This can range from mild forgetfulness indicative of aging, to more serious signs of dementia. According to researcher Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH, approximately 50% of those diagnosed with a mild cognitive impairment may go on to develop dementia within five years of this diagnosis. There is also a link between stress and Alzheimer’s disease. This study was conducted to determine if the practice of stress reduction through meditation might help to delay or stop this progression.

The Study and its Results

The study evaluated 14 adults already diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, who were broken into two groups. One group met for two hours each week to participate in meditation and yoga, over a period of eight weeks. They were also encouraged to practice at home each day, and participated in a day-long mindfulness retreat. The second group received normal treatment, without the meditation and mindfulness practice. All of the participants had an MRI at the beginning of the study, as well as after eight weeks to see if there were changes in brain activity.

Memory tests were also conducted at the beginning and end of the study. Although there were few differences between the two groups in memory, there was a difference in the MRI imaging results. Although both groups experienced some atrophy of the hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and memory, those who practiced meditation experienced this to a lesser degree. This suggests that an intervention with practices such as meditation and yoga could potentially impact the areas of the brain that are most vulnerable to cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

Future Implications

While this study was small in scope, it backs up what many alternative therapy practitioners believe; that meditation can improve brain function and significantly reduce stress. If you look at aged care courses at Now Learning or in many universities, meditation is often suggested as a possible therapy for aging patients. Meditation is a simple intervention, with extremely minimal negative side effects. If it could help delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s even for a short period of time, this can improve the quality of life of aging patients. At the moment, there are no therapies to prevent the progression to dementia, which makes this link worth investigating in greater depth.

Tibetan local community waiting for the Dalai Lama to renew his visit at Emory University. (c) New York TImes

What Dalai Lama followers can learn from science and viceversa

Tibetan local community waiting for the Dalai Lama to renew his visit at Emory University.  (c) New York TImes

Tibetan local community waiting for the Dalai Lama to renew his visit at Emory University. (c) New York TImes

Reconciling modern western science, which deals with matters pertaining to the external, physical realm, and ancient monastic studies, which delve into the inner self , can be daunting task if not … impracticable. For the past three years, however, the Dalai Lama and a group of Tibetan monks have been making multiple stays at Emory University, learning from science scholars there, while teaching their culture and practices at their own turn.

“It is quite rich material about what I call the inner world,” said the Dalai Lama. “Modern science is very highly developed in matters concerning the material world. These two things separately are not complete. Together, the external and the internal worlds are complete.”

The Dalai Lama,  an energetic 78-year-old who rises at 3:30 every morning for four hours of meditation, has made countless efforts throughout the years to educate the general population about meditation. Buddhist teaching offers education about the mind, he says, and with this partnership he aims to both advance Tibetan monastic studies, largely unchanged for the past 600 years, and help science transcend some seemingly intractable problems at the same time.

Science and meditation

A great deal of efforts was required for this partnership to work. For one, translating certain concepts and scientific phrases that simply do not have an equivalent word or even phrase in Tibetan was daunting. Photosynthesis, clones, DNA, even atoms or electrons. These are hard to convey in an one-to-one linguistic parity.

“Much of our work is to make new phrases novel enough so students won’t take them with literal meaning,” said Tsondue Samphel, who leads the team of translators.

But the effort won through eventually, in part at least.

“We understand impermanence of things as simply existing through our traditions,” said Jampa Khechok, 34, one of the new monks on campus. “We are now challenged to understand the nature of impermanence through the study of how fast particles decay.”

So far an initial batch of six monks who first arrived in 2010 have exchanged studies, while dozens of monks and nuns have taken lectures from Emory professors who traveled directly to Dharamsala, India, to instruct them, and 15 English-Tibetan science textbooks have been developed for monastic students.

Synergy between the two might help answer some difficult questions, like what is the nature of the mind and consciousness, can artificially develop consciousness, and much more. Even quantum science might have something to learn from Buddhist teachings. Follower so the Dalai Lama believe everything in the Universe happens for a reason, everything is connected in a beautiful karma cycle. More or less, this is how classic, deterministic physics works as well – at a macro level, every action has a reaction, and events can be predicted based on this. At a quantum level, though,  an inherent randomness in the behavior of quantum particles is presented. This may suggest our very existence is the product of absolute randomness. Some claim that this is due to an incomplete understanding of nature — that there are hidden variables and even at the quantum level, causality holds true.

There are also practicable applications to the Dalai lama-science partnership. Linda Hutton, a social worker, has a longstanding clinical practice treating sexually abused children and families in Greenville, S.C.  During Dalai Lama’s sixth visit to Emory, she attended some of the meetings there.  Now, using meditation, she teaches children with a child abuse past to cope with trauma. “I draw from a lot of medical research,” she said, “but what I have found here transcends that.”

Another result has been the development of something called cognitively based compassion training, a secular mediation program proven to improve empathy. There had been a number of studies made using MRI scans on Tibetan monks that meditate, showing different brain activity. Certainly, there is much to learn for both parties. Hopefully other western and monastic scholar alike might follow suit and exchange experiences. Who knows what loose ends and knots might be finally tied.

via NY Times

Researchers show that a simple 20 minute yoga session greatly stimulates the brain

Yoga supporters have long claimed the benefits of the practice, both on the mind and the soul, but many skeptics underlined the lack of scientific studies in the field. Now, a team from Illinois University have shown that even a singulary, 20 minute session of Hatha yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control – two of the most relevant measures of a brain’s focus and ability to retain information. Participants performed significantly better not only than others who had done nothing, but also better than those who practiced vigorous aerobic exercise for the same amount of time.

yoga

“Yoga is an ancient Indian science and way of life that includes not only physical movements and postures but also regulated breathing and meditation,” said Neha Gothe, who led the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Gothe now is a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. “The practice involves an active attentional or mindfulness component but its potential benefits have not been thoroughly explored.”

The yoga session was not really special, consisting of traditional yoga postures, bot sitting and standing, concluding with a meditative posture and calm breathing. So it’s pretty much as simple as do yoga – it’s good for your brain.

“Yoga is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise in the U.S. and it is imperative to systematically examine its health benefits, especially the mental health benefits that this unique mind-body form of activity may offer,” said Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley, who directs the Exercise Psychology Laboratory where the study was conducted.

Gothe and her colleagues were also surprised to see an improvement in their reaction times and accuracy on cognitive tasks as well.

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” Gothe said. “The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”

So what is it that causes this improvement, exactly ?

“Enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational exercises is just one of the possible mechanisms. Besides, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which in turn can improve scores on some cognitive tests,” she explained.

The paper is available online.

meditation-music

Self-knowledge music for enlightenment

To know one’s self, pealed of all superficial, worldly thought, stripped to one’s essence and core is a state that few people truly reach. Chances are that most of the people you know that bluntly assert they fully know themselves are just as insecure as you or me; they’re just hiding under a cover of artificial self-confidence, based on external stimuli, rather than intrinsic. Knowing one’s self is the first step onward the path of enlightenment, the same path great wise men across history like Buddha, Jesus or Socrates took.

Once you truly know who you are within and become connected with the rest of the world, life will hold a different meaning. You will feel less inclined to race the world, like a salmon up-river, instead as you accept life as it is, you’ll soon find yourself following its course unaltered, like a leaf drifted by the Amazon’s current. Frustrations, self-conditioning, narrow purposes will cease to be adjoincent to you. This is what every man should reach; but, like I said, this is no easy task.

meditation-musicMost of the great, truly enlightened minds of the world went on a self-knowledge journey, which translated in an initial period of solitude. You don’t need to become a hermit or live in a cave to experience fragments of your inner, true self, however. A deep state of meditation, brought in by intense introspection, will certainly help you unravel certain aspects of your inner self that had been beforehand well protected under a shroud of social programming, fear, and comfort. Lucid dreaming is considered an excellent shortcut, although it generally requires training both to reach the state and manipulate it towards reaching vital answers, unique to every individual.

Back to meditation, however. A deep meditative state requires cleansing of the mind. It’s said that when one manages to become completely absent of thought, and  makes room for void, then enlightenment will shine. Now, since the passage requires a serene environment, a place where you feel very comfortable and is quiet would be perfect; however, against common expectation your meditation setting doesn’t have to be all that quiet at all. The sweet, calming rumble of a nearby river, the gentle sound of a branch slowly undulating at the caress of the wind, and of course music.

Self-knowledge music is all about an amalgam of sounds that resonate with the individual and helps him enter a relaxing, trance-like state. The idea that music helps meditation is far from new, and goes well beyond offering a relaxing state. Traditionally, in no buddhist lineage is it mentioned anywhere the use of music to accompany meditation sessions; it’s a modern approach, instead, commonly used by “healers” which employ it to induce serenity in sessions. It’s actually developed into a whole new genre, called “meditation music”, with a number of emerging artists and a slew of albums to select from.

Far from conventions and mainstream, meditation music is far from distracting or artificial sensations, instead it offers the forefront which might aid you in reaching self-knowledge.

Meditation stronger than morphine and drugs

Meditation can have pain reliefing effects much greater than even morphine, one of the strongest drugs, according to a recent study.

We are only beginning to understand the deep effects that meditation has on our bodies, and researchers are baffled, to say the least. It calms and relieves pain with unbelievable efficiency, reducing the pain by more than half, and also providing long term results.

“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Dr Fadel Zeidan, lead author at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

For this study, 15 volunteers who have never meditated before attended four 20 minute classes where they were thought how to meditate using a technique called focused attention. Mind you, ordinary people with only 80 minutes of training. Both before and after this training, their brain was monitored using a special type of imaging called arterial spin labelling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI).

For the purpose of this study, a pain inducing stimulae was applied on the volunteers, and the results showed that the amount of pain was reduced by approximately half after the meditation. The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.

“We found a big effect – about a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness,” said Dr Zeiden. “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 per cent.”

Of course, the advantages of such a technique are numerous: it’s easy to learn, free, offers tremendous pain relief, non invasive, and also has other benefits.