Brain

Opinion: Meditation can remedy your sleepless nights

Opinion: Meditation can remedy your sleepless nights

From the series Working Out Happiness
Andrew Fleming, Columnist
Fri Sep 27, 2013
Andrew Fleming

Your prefrontal cortex is a blessing and a curse.

Located under your forehead, mankind’s hugely developed prefrontal cortex enables creativity, foresight and strategy. However, that same prefrontal cortex is responsible for those nagging thoughts that keep you up at night – the “what if” scenarios that become increasingly terrifying as their exigency approaches.

While these imaginary situations where you fail the test and lose the girl – or boy, depending on your anatomical preference – may not ever play out, the long term effects on your body from these thoughts actually can. When the brain invents a stressful situation (or replays something horrific that just happened), the sympathetic nervous system engages in very real fight-or-flight responses. These adrenaline pumping, heart-racing reactions are great at making you jump away from a moving car, but they can have incredibly detrimental effects in the long run. Our bodies are incapable of sustaining the stress we are capable of providing it. Stress can eventually lead to organ failure and death in mysterious and insidious ways.

Whether an increased risk for heart attack, coronary heart disease, arrhythmias or even just “sudden death,” you can, quite literally, stress yourself to death.

Hopefully you’re still reading, because there is hope. Now, meditation has long been frowned upon by Western culture as some sort of Eastern cultish religious nonsense. That being said, quieting your thoughts has nothing to do with religion, chi, Zen or anything else on a physiological level (and I mean that with absolutely no ill-words towards religions of any kind).

It has come to light in recent years that meditation is one of the healthiest things you can do for your brain, and subsequently, the rest of your body. This is coming from real neuroscientists doing real research on real brains – this is not the hippie stuff your parents warned you about.

The Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin produced hard data that short amounts of mindfulness meditation lead to increased influenza resistance. Akira Kasamatsu, M.D., went as far as monitoring the electronic activity of 48 priests and disciples of Zen Buddhism, a religious sect known for meditation. Their brain activity showed increased levels of what are known as alpha waves. These waves are heavily associated with being relaxed.

These long-time practitioners of meditation were literally able to tune their brains to a relaxed wavelength, regardless of how stressful a situation may be. Imagine being able to make stress go away with a conscious decision – these individuals don’t have to imagine that power. They already have it.

Countless scholarly articles reinforce this sentiment, explaining how mindful meditation can be used to manage chronic pain and reign in anxiety disorders.

To approach “mindfulness” from ground zero can seem difficult. The whole point of the exercise is to quiet the mind – something I struggle with on a daily basis. To begin, you need a mental focal point. Some people like to use the word “mantra,” but if that seems hokey, call it a focal point. Sometimes I just use the word “focus” as a constant reminder of what I’m trying to do. Relax every muscle in your body. Sit upright so you don’t fall asleep. See if you can sit there and do nothing but think less and less for 10 minutes. Use a timer on your phone so you don’t feel the need to peek at the time. It takes practice, but even if you don’t get it your first time, you’ll be amazed how good quiet time feels. It’s the kind of habit that takes little time and less planning. Do it in the library if you’re stressed and until you fall asleep when you’re antsy.

It’s your brain; learn to make it work for you.

Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at aflemin8@utk.edu.

Kripalu : Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain

By Angela Wilson, MA, RYT

One of the most well-known and utilized tools in meditation and yoga is the practice of self-observation without judgment, or mindfulness. Swami Kripalu called self-observation without judgment “the highest form of spiritual practice.” Likewise, if you go to any yoga or meditation class you’re likely to hear words like mindfulness and nonjudgmental awareness repeated throughout the class. But what do these terms really mean?

Mindfulness meditation has been defined by Jon-Kabat Zinn as “the ability to pay total attention to the present moment with a nonjudgmental awareness of the inner and/or outer experiences.” Kripalu Yoga teacher Shobhan Richard Faulds describes self-observation without judgment as “restraining the mind’s tendency to grasp what is pleasant and push away what is painful — and produce a flowing state of choice-less awareness that enables you to remain intimate with what’s going on inside you.”

Mindfulness, something once practiced only in more closeted meditation circles, has recently become a greater mainstream interest. Perhaps for this reason, research on mindfulness meditation has increased considerably over the last decade. Even the National Institutes of Health has grown increasingly more interested in mindfulness meditation, funding a number of large studies which investigate the effects of mindfulness on emotional and physical health outcomes.

Mindfulness Improves Physical, Mental, and Emotional Health

While mindfulness is in many ways a simple practice, it benefits are numerous. Physically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce cortisol and blood pressure, and to improve the immune system. Cognitively, mindfulness has been shown to decrease rumination and boost attention. Emotionally, mindfulness reduces emotional reactivity and improves resilience. While many of these studies are preliminary, they nonetheless begin to paint a powerful picture of the overall health benefits of mindfulness.

However tenuous these preliminary studies are, they are augmented by current neuroscientific research that reveals how mindfulness meditation can significantly change the brain. And these changes are not just seen in cave-dwelling monks — they also occur in average hardworking, child-raising folks — like most of us.

The Brain on Mindfulness

Research shows that, even in a short time, mindfulness meditation can change the brain. What kinds of changes in the brain does mindfulness produce? Well, first, mindfulness fortifies our ability to manage difficult emotions. Second, it alters the way we experience our sense of self. It is arguably these changes that contribute to many of the benefits reported by current research. Let’s take a closer look at how this occurs.

Mindfulness training has a notable impact on the limbic system, or the emotional system of the brain. Specifically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that determines how much stress we experience and that is central in modulating our fear responses. For example, people with very active amygdalae tend to experience more depression and anxiety.

Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is that mindfulness can actually change the size the amygdala. One study on overstressed businesspeople found that after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training, the size of the amygdala actually shrunk compared to those who were not practicing mindfulness. This reduction was correlated with less perceived stress. In those eight weeks, subjects were actually able to change their brain and, consequently, reduce their stress.

Findings also show that mindfulness practices help the person reduce emotional reactivity by increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC, a brain region particular to homo sapiens, which is in charge of activities such as decision-making, planning, abstract thinking, and regulating emotions. People with post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, have an overactive amygdala and an underactive PFC. The result is high emotional arousal, and a low ability to manage it.

Several studies have indicated that mindfulness meditation improves PFC functioning. Specifically, a study showed that mindfulness practice increased activity in the PFC such that attention span improved. Another study revealed that mindfulness increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex — a part of the brain that is closely connected to the PFC and is correlated with empathy and decision-making. As these regions show more activation, subjects tend to report greater emotional stability and less reactivity.

Neuroscientific research has also found that mindfulness meditation changes how we experience ourselves in the world. Generally, we spend a lot of our day in the personal narrative of our life. We obsess about the future, we dwell on that conversation we had with our spouse last week, or last year, and we remain entrenched in the storyline of our life. Researchers call this the “default network” and it’s dominated by cortical midline structures (CMS). While this “default network” has its benefit, when we spend too much time in self-referential thinking, especially if we are caught up in negative thinking, it can lead to poor emotional and behavioral outcomes, including depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness practice is about attending to the present moment. It teaches us to notice how the body feels, right now, paying attention to the breath and observing, without grasping onto our current state of mind. By definition, mindfulness moves us away from our personal narrative about how our life should be and into how life actually is, moment to moment.

It was no surprise to researchers that this practice would impact the brain. Through mindfulness practice, activity in the CMS, the part of the brain related to our personal narrative decreased, and activity in the insula, the part of the brain related to subjective awareness and body awareness, increased. Researchers postulate that this may contribute to some of the subjective benefits of mindfulness practice: When we move out of the story of our lives and into the actual lived experience of it, we feel better.

The bottom line? Mindfulness is an opportunity for the brain to strengthen and enhance itself — it’s like taking the brain to the gym. From our experience of working with health-care professionals — some of the most highly stressed individuals in today’s workforce — you don’t need to spend hours on a meditation cushion to reap the benefits of these practices. Our participants experience results with just five minutes a day of seated breath-awareness meditation or 10 minutes of mindful chair yoga. Ultimately, the impact comes from consistency of practice. Just as you wouldn’t expect to see much benefit if you went to the gym only once a week, the same is true of mindfulness training. It needs to be cultivated each day.

While the cushion is helpful in mindfulness meditation, mindfulness can be practiced at any time and in any situation. In every moment, we can choose to bring our attention back to the present and to know that when we do, we are actively involved in shaping our brains to foster more peace and inner ease. From this view, a touch of mindfulness practice each day becomes a tremendous investment in our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Kripalu : Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain.

Rebecca Lammersen: Silencing the Myth of Meditation: You Don’t Have to Sit Still to Be Present

“I can do this. Just 20 minutes. Just sit still. My shoulder itches. Stop thinking about it! My foot is falling asleep, almost numb. The numbness is always the opening act for the pins and needles. That would be a good name for a band, The Pins and Needles, and here they come, singing right up my leg. I’ve never been able to decide whether moving helps them go away faster or just makes it worse. I think I should go get more yogurt cups for the girls at Trader Joe’s. Oh, and I need more apples too. Okay, my shoulder really itches now, I’ve got to itch it. Just breathe a little longer. Speaking of, how long has it been? Don’t look, don’t do it!”

I peel my upper lid from my lower lid, just enough so no one will notice, even though the only living creature nearby is a quail squatting outside my door, and I doubt he can see past his beak.

“Really? It’s only been two minutes? Who am I meditating for? Why would I care if someone sees me open my eyes? I feel defeated. I can’t even sit for two minutes without a full chorus of complaints and to-dos.”

This is how it used to be.

For 10 years, I struggled my way through every meditation. I had the desire and the discipline, yet I couldn’t seem to be anywhere, but elsewhere.

A few years ago, I began asking the question, Why? Why do I meditate? and Why can’t I meditate? From the why came the how: How do I meditate?

Meditation is a science — the science of understanding the pathways of the brain and how they react to different situations, experiences and stimuli. Through this understanding, we can learn how to respond to these reactions and train the brain to focus.

Before we can have a purposeful meditation and yoga practice, we must first become a scientist fluent in the physics of the practice. It is impossible to bepresent in stillness for any amount of time without knowing how our brain functions.

Until we aquire this knowledge, sitting is ineffective — a waste of time, and detrimental to our well being due to the unnecessary pressure and expectation that breeds from our naiveté.

“Practice and all is coming.”

These are the wise words of the late Pattabhi Jois, the master of Ashtanga. I agree, as long as there is a method to the practice and guidance of the method.

Practice may bring a mastery that mimics perfection, but practice also creates suffering if one does not know what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Attempting to sit in meditation without learned technique is comparable to placing a 2-year-old on the floor of the NYSE and expecting him to navigate the system on his own while conducting the trades for the day.

Chaos amidst chaos. Chaos causes more chaos. My favorite description of enlightenment is, “Enlightenment is learning not to make more struggle of the existing struggle.”

In this situation, not making more struggle would be grooming and teaching a person how to traverse the trading floor with grace, discerning the viable trades within the noise and creating a profit.

Meditation is the same. We learn how the brain operates, cultivating the tools to manage it, before we sit down to listen to it. The profit bestowed to an educated meditator is a contented life, with an abundance of efficiency, discernment and intention. We respond more and react less, because we (the mind) have learned how to direct the brain as it keeps the trading floor open all day, every day.

The brain is the NYSE, the mind is the trader.

The brain and the mind are two separate parts, as are the spirit and the soul. In order for them to work synergistically, they must be studied separately, understood individually and then, connected together.

Before we can be present in stillness, we may want to learn how to be present in action.

The other day, a woman approached me, and in one stressed breath she asked: “My friend told me you are a yoga teacher, and I’ve always wanted to meditate and be present, and I just want to learn how, how can I meditate?”

I asked, “You probably already do and you don’t even know it. What do you love to do that calms you?”

Her face relaxed and she replied quietly, “I like to run. I can hear myself breathe. I feel my feet and I notice my surroundings.”

“So you see? You already meditate. Just do it more, in other facets of your life. Turn any chore or repetitive action into a sensory overload, and see if you can separate each sense from the other. For example, when I vacuum, I am only vacuuming. I pay attention to the feel of the handle in my hand. The vibration and hum as I turn it on, how the vacuum resists as it stumbles across a crumb on the carpet, and the sound of the crumb as it is chewed inside the canister.

“I am completely there, in the experience, hearing, feeling, seeing — sensing. I am fixating my brain on a task as my mind remains concentrated in the experience. I extract myself from my surroundings, so that I may be in it, being in it, is being present.”

Her response began with a sigh of relief. “Oh my gosh, I can totally do that.”

“Yes you can,” I encouraged.

The “how to” begins with attention — paying attention and educating ourselves about the mechanics of the brain. That’s it.

Before we can sit still and meditate like a monk in a Nepalese cave, we need to learn how bathe within ourselves, in the active moment, without thinking of the next action.

This is presence, being present and I think it may even be a little something “they” like to call enlightenment.

Rebecca Lammersen: Silencing the Myth of Meditation: You Don’t Have to Sit Still to Be Present.

 

New Research on Meditation—It’s All About the Brain | NCCAM

We are planning a series of blog posts to highlight some exciting work from our research portfolio. Research we support has led to more than 3,000 peer-reviewed papers; hundreds are published each year. We plan to highlight a few here, choosing examples that illustrate both the promise and the challenges of research on complementary health practices.

Currently one intriguing area is the effect of meditation on the brain. Meditation can be viewed as a kind of ‘mental exercise.’ NCCAM has supported a fair amount of research on its potential health benefits. We still do not have all the answers, but a number of studies support the notion that this ‘mental exercise’ helps regulate attention and emotion and improves the sense of well being. New insights are coming from incorporation of brain-imaging studies into meditation research. In particular, studies suggest that meditation is accompanied by changes in activation of select regions in the brain, particularly the amygdala, a region associated with processing of emotion.

A new NCCAM study, by Desbordes and colleagues, goes further and concludes that the changes in brain function in the amygdala seen during meditation are persistent, enduring even outside meditation sessions. Results were published this month in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. You can read more about how the study was conducted in our research spotlight. This is a small, single study that fits into the larger body of evidence. I would agree with the authors who noted the need for further research, but I do think the findings provide additional insight into the effects of meditation on the brain—insights that may help to understand the determinants of mental states and the role of traditional practices like meditation in health.

via New Research on Meditation—It’s All About the Brain | NCCAM.

 

Feeling dumber? Meditate on it – The Edmond Sun

Feeling dumber? Meditate on it

Mike Hinkle Special to The Sun

EDMOND — There’s good news and bad news in the science world this week. On one hand, scientists tell us there’s evidence suggesting humans are becoming more stupid over time. That’s bad news. On the other hand, different scientists report that people with heart disease can lower their blood pressure, experience less stress and reduce death risk by practicing transcendental meditation. That’s good news for heart patients. There’s also good news for those without heart disease. A third group of scientists report that meditation techniques may have a beneficial effects on brain function that continues even after the meditation session ends.Assuming all this news is correct, we may all be gradually getting stupider, but if we meditate, we don’t have to be upset about it. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

via Feeling dumber? Meditate on it » Opinion » The Edmond Sun.