Researchers integrate meditation and science to develop targeted mental health treatments

Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science – and the reported mental health benefits – of the practice.

A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.

“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”

Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

Structuring the spiritual

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.

For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.”

Unifying experience and the brain

The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.

All You Need is Love, Gratitude, and Oxytocin: the Science of Romance

By Lauren Klein | February 11, 2014 

A new study finds a biological mechanism behind “thank you”—and reveals one way that it bonds couples together.

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, inviting us to think about what’s at the heart of our romantic relationships. Is there some sort of “glue” that binds us together with other people?

The GGSC’s coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

A recent study from GGSCGratitude Research Fellow Sara Algoe and colleague Baldwin Way, published earlier this month in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggests the answer may be gratitude.

It’s well-established that being grateful is a unique and powerful way to foster healthy relationships, but science is just now beginning to understand that there there’s a biological mechanism behind “thank you.”

The reason gratitude brings us together, the new study suggests, is because of its relationship to our big O. That’s right: We’re talking about our oxytocin system.

Gratitude will keep us together

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, popularly known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, generosity and affection. It’s involved in all kinds of human social interactions, from parenting to meeting a new acquaintance—but its baseline in the body is around zero and it needs a stimulus to cause its release.

So, the researchers, curious about the closer kinds of social bonds, sought out couples in ongoing romantic relationships and invited them into the lab, where they were given an opportunity to say “thanks” to their partner, a situation in which oxytocin would be particularly likely to reveal its influence.

These 77 couples—all heterosexual and monogamous—visited the lab twice, two weeks apart, and completed brief nightly questionnaires for each of the 14 nights between visits. At the beginning of the study, they were also asked to fill out a questionnaire on how satisfied they felt in their relationship.

Once in the lab, they were asked to choose something big or small—but something specific—that their partner did for him or her and for which he or she felt grateful. After he or she said thanks, both partners would privately rate their feelings of love, positivity, and responsiveness. While they filled out these self-reports, four “judges” submitted their own ratings on what they’d observed of these couples’ expressions of gratitude. Once everyone’s pencils were down, then the partners would swap roles and repeat.

Each partner, then, got to be part of two different interactions: one in which he or she expressed gratitude and one in which he or she received an expression of gratitude.

Then it was time to get physical. The researchers took a saliva sample, looking for a particular gene known as CD38—a key regulator of oxytocin release and therefore a big player in social interactions. Researchers were hoping to find a genetic basis for the pattern of effects they’d observed as their participants gave and received thanks. This step confirmed their hypothesis: CD38 is, in fact, significantly associated with a number of positive psychological and behavioral outcomes that are all intimately related to the expression of gratitude.

It means that participants reported that they felt more loving.  They also reported feeling more peaceful, amused, and proud. They perceived their partner as being more understanding, validating, caring, and generally more responsive. They were more likely to have reported spontaneously thanking their partner for something they’d appreciated on any given day. And they were more satisfied with the quality of their relationship overall.

CD38 is all you need

More on Love, Gratitude, and Oxytocin

These findings suggest there is something about the genes that control our oxytocin system, which systematically predicts our ability to experience positive moments with someone close to us.

Is there something specific about our oxytocin system, the authors wondered, that promotes social bonds? Or could it be the case that saying thanks, generally speaking, feels good enough to reinforce our relationship with the person with whom we’re sharing this joy?

The researchers ran a different study. They didn’t ask participants to say thanks. Instead, they asked for them to share a personal positive event. Like those in the first study, participants felt joy and enthusiasm. But, unlike in the first one, no pattern emerged at a genetic level. The presence of CD38, here, could not systematically predict the presence of these positive feelings.

Somehow, then, the oxytocin system isn’t just selective toward joy or feeling good. It’s really selective toward something about gratitude, perhaps to the extent that sharing gratitude—saying that my happiness is due to your role in my life—recognizes our interdependence. The authors say that the oxytocin system is associated with “solidifying the glue that binds adults into meaningful and important relationships.”

And while this study isn’t the first to suggest that we’re social creatures, it is perhaps the first to suggest that our emotional response to someone sharing a kind word or deed is deeply rooted in our bodies and is part of our evolutionary history.

Student’s origami-centered project wins 1st place at state Science Fair

McKinney student’s origami-centered project wins 1st place at state Science Fair

Photo courtesy of Tina Huynh – Faubion Middle School eighth-grader Carolyn Huynh shows off her first-place project last week at the state Science Fair in San Antonio. Huynh’s project won the junior division’s mathematical sciences category through its display of how math relates to origami.

By Chris Beattie,

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 4:43 PM CDT

Carolyn Huynh is passionate about math and origami. Science, not as much.

Yet, together the former fostered achievement in the latter. Huynh won first place for the mathematical sciences category at last week’s state Science Fair in San Antonio.

And she did it with parabolas and paper folds.

“The purpose was just to show the relationship between math and origami,” said Huynh, an eighth-grader at Faubion Middle School in McKinney. “Not many people know about that.”

Including Huynh until about a year ago. She won a Math Moves You scholarship with her essay about a hobby’s relation to math. Her assumed simple hobby since elementary school: origami.

Paper cranes and blow-up cubes come easy to Huynh, who admits to times folding the creations, bored otherwise. That’s not surprising, given her mastery of the project’s correlated companion. Huynh has skipped two levels in math and takes pre-calculus – a subject often for high school seniors.

“Math has always been my favorite subject, so this all came easily to me,” she said of her project, calculations strewn across a Science Fair presentation board. “I still had to spend a lot of time understanding the proofs and writing it in my own language.”

Making it scientific, in other words. Margaret Parry, her eighth-grade science teacher at Faubion, tasked Science Fair participants with a year of prep time. Her parameters fit Huynh’s idea.

“The only guidance I gave them was what the requirements were, and because this was so in-depth, they needed to pick something they were really passionate about,” said Parry, who accepted Huynh’s award last Friday.

Huynh enhanced last year’s essay idea and researched origami’s mathematical and real-life connections. From a technical side, she discovered its relation to axioms – folds used in the art – and their ability to explain Euclidean postulates, how a line can be formed from any two points. Outlined on her project are diagrams and related explanations for solving cubic equations.

Parry helped her “make it more science,” Huynh said, through organizing the information amidst material lists and proofs – Science Fair musts – and Huynh’s father aided with a few necessary math components like derivatives and parabolic slopes. Algebra, angle trisecting, trigonometry – that was all Huynh.

“Wow,” Parry said of her initial reaction to the project. “Just the complexity and the math formulas, and even the originality. That’s what judges are looking for these days – those original thought patterns, not just a basic cut-and-paste Science Fair project that comes out of a book.”

Huynh’s ingenuity was enough to win first at Faubion, hers the only math project. She got third place at the regional level, where her project went up against school winners from districts around North Texas. In ensuing weeks, she improved and added onto her project, further expanding its scientific look and mathematical nuances.

Last Thursday was state competition, a gathering of hundreds of participants who’d placed in their respective regions. Huynh’s category alone had 20 to 30 participants, she said.

Still, her unique, albeit math-heavy topic proved beneficial for the junior division decision-makers.

“One of my judges was already studying color-folding and stuff that has to do with origami, but he didn’t know you could solve cubic equations,” Huynh said. “So he was really interested in my project idea.”

His co-judges shared his interest and voted the project tops among all middle school participants in the category. Parry texted Huynh’s mother, Tina, once her victory was announced.

Huynh is the first McKinney ISD student to place at the state Science Fair at least since Parry began taking participants five years ago.

“I was shaking like a leaf; it was amazing,” Parry said. “It reiterates the need for having science fair. It’s kind of taken a backseat role in our district, and I still promote it every year.”

Only high school-age participants compete at the national and international levels, Parry said, so Huynh’s run this year is likely over. She’s got plenty of time to think of something new.

Or simply build – rather, fold – more into her origami connection. In her pursuits, she learned of famous origamists who’ve created software to make fold patterns for complex objects. Solar panels and airbags follow a similar foldable concept, techniques necessary for large-scale transport.

Origami really is math – and science – at work.

“I really liked folding origami because it was relaxing and fun,” Huynh said. “Now I have a whole new appreciation for it because of how it’s related to real life.”

via Star Local News > Mckinney Courier-gazette > News > McKinney student’s origami-centered project wins 1st place at state Science Fair.

The Workyard Kit: Teaching science & math through play | KaBOOM!

Posted by Kerala Taylor on January 3, 2013

How do you recreate the value of playing with sticks and dirt? When it comes to playing, industrial designer Cas Holman admits, “You really can’t beat letting kids play in nature.” But that hasn’t stopped her from trying.

The Workyard Kit, Holman’s latest invention, riffs on the idea that “play is children’s work.” Consisting of wooden planks, ropes, pulleys, hooks and pails, the kit is designed for deeply engaging, open-ended play. Or, as Holman puts it: “cooperative, constructive imagining.”

Photo by Rowa Lee, courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Photo by Rowa Lee, courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

A key creative force behind Imagination Playground, Holman was approached by Friends of the Highline and asked to come up with a way to engage families and kids in New York City’s High Line Park, which converted an old railroad into green space. She wanted to take advantage of the narrow park’s many nooks and crannies and harness its industrial spirit.

Photo by Rowa Lee, courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Photo by Joan Garvin, courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

And so the Workyard Kit was born. Seeing its success, Holman realized that the kit could have potential beyond The High Line and set about designing it for mass production.

The kit is currently being tested at a number of pilot schools around the country, where Holman hopes it can enhance STEM curricula. In fact, Holman says, STEM should really be STEAM, because without an ‘A’ for ‘art,’ how can children flex the creative muscles they need to excel in science, technology, engineering and math?

The Workyard Kit has no “right” solution. It’s not a puzzle. It’s designed for open-ended prompts that help children think spatially, use their imaginations, and work collaboratively. Examples include:

With these parts, how can you make something that would hold a 10-pound bag of potatoes?

How can you make something that would fly to the moon?

What can you build with 10 parts?

Left photo by Rowa Lee, right photo by Adriana Stimola. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

If we here at KaBOOM! got our way, every classroom would have a Workyard Kit and every schoolyard would have an Imagination Playground. Because when it comes to true learning, hands-on, creative, collaborative play beats a standardized test any day of the week.

Cas Holman teaches Industrial Design at Rhode Island School for Design and is part of its STEM to STEAM initiative. For more information about the Workyard Kit and to learn about a backyard version, visit To see Cas Holman’s other projects, visit To find the Workyard Kit on the High Line, visit

via The Workyard Kit: Teaching science & math through play | KaBOOM!.