Harvard Neuroscience On Meditation


meditation

The Global Cosmetic/Beauty Industry’s revenue is set to reach $265 billion in 2017.

According to CMS our National Healthcare Expenditure (NHE) is projected to hit $3.207 trillion this year.

The U.S. Population is currently hovering at around 320 million, so 2015 looks to be the first year healthcare spending reached $10,000 per person.

We are quite a silly species spending phenomenal amounts of money on health, beauty, and spiritual advancement, when we can achieve homeostasis, wellbeing, natural beauty,

increased health, and spiritual growth for free; the method is called Meditation, it has been around for as long as man has.

Our fast-paced, materialistic, appearance-centered, outward-focused, culture obscures the simple, superlative method of the Inner Way.

It may take a bit of practice to feel and see results, yet it is oh so worth it! Meditation changes the brain within 8 weeks!

Ubiquitous scientific studies have and are proving the benefits. Check out the latest information from Harvard Neuroscientist Sara Lazar and her team’s findings on the glorious benefits of including daily Meditation into our routine:

Meditation imrs.phpIn a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.

Q: So, 40 minutes a day?

Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.

In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.

There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.

Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.

We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.

Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?

Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.

But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.

It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.

Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?

Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless

Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?

Lazar: Yes and yes.

Q: What difference has it made in your life?

Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress.

It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.

Q: What’s your own practice?

Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too.

I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans.

What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain.

Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?

Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch.

So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.

The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’

But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.

I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response.

But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.

At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.

stones-1058365_960_720

Q: How did you do the research?

Lazar: The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group.

We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense.

When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.

We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.

You’re missing out on your experiences: A meditation expert explains how to live in the moment.

It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things.

But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.

We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program.

In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.

We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are.

Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills.

But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.

Q: What did you find?

Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:

1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.

2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.

3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.

4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels. [Related: Science shows that stress has an upside. Here’s how to make it work for you]

Within IMG-20151231-WA0004One of the primary findings from meditation studies is an increase in quality of life.

Many people report that regardless of what happens with their symptoms, they feel happier and their symptoms don’t bother them as much as they used to.

It is not a cure-all but it does seem to benefit most people in some way. The one caveat is people with extreme psychological distress (e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or PTSD).

Just as cardiac patients should only exercise under the close supervision of their physician, these individuals should only meditate under the close supervision of their mental health provider and a highly experienced meditation teacher.

Many questions often arise when people meditate, and it is very easy to start thinking either that you are doing it wrong or that you have attained an exalted state.

Your teacher can ask you questions to help you figure out what is really happening and help you progress. They can also give advice about how to deal with difficult emotions that might arise while you practice.

How much do I need to practice in order to benefit from meditation?
There is not sufficient data generated yet to answer this question. Some studies suggest that practicing even 5-10 minutes a day can provide some benefits.

Some studies suggest that there is a correlation between change in symptoms and amount of practice (i.e. those that practiced more derived greater benefits).

However, results are highly variable and some studies have not found any correlation between amount of practice and outcome (perhaps due to the particular patient group or set of symptoms that were studied).

Most meditation teachers recommend attending one class a week in which you practice for 30-40 minutes, then practicing 5-45 minutes a day on your own.

Like exercise, its ok if you occasionally miss a few days, just do what you can and determine for yourself how much you need to practice to achieve the level of stress/symptom reduction that you want.

8 year oldThe Buddha compared the mind to the strings of a lute (a guitar-like instrument): the lute can not be played if the strings are too tight or too loose.

Similarly when attention is either too tight or too loose, you can’t properly meditate. When attention is too loose, the mind wanders and you get lost in thought.

Try narrowing your focus in different ways (e.g. just inhales instead of the whole breath, focus on a smaller area around your nose).

Some people do a few minutes of yoga or loving kindness (metta) practice at the start of their meditation period to focus the mind, before switching to breath awareness meditation.

Some people find focusing on sounds easier than focusing on breathing.

When attention is too tight, you start getting “unusual phenomena” including (but definitely not limited to): pain, itching, pulsing, tingling, heat/warmth, visual or auditory weirdness (ringing in the ears, spots floating in front of your eyes), or the sensation that part of the body is moving, spinning, or growing/shrinking.

These phenomena may seem pleasant or unpleasant, but they all have the same effect—they distract you from meditating.

Try increasing the area of awareness (e.g. a larger area around or in front of your nostrils/area of the phenmena; listen for sounds farther in the distance).

And of course be mindful of your thoughts and attitudes towards your wandering mind and any phenomena that may happen.

 

As one of my teachers says “The goal is not to try to change anything, but to be aware of the desire to change it and then see if we can just relax and be ok with it even if it doesn’t change.

 

Are we trying to quiet the storm, or are we trying to find peace within the storm?” Finally, remember to be compassionate towards yourself – these are very common issues, with patience and practice they will pass and you will progress. Now, find a teacher you can work with!!

What about other forms of meditation and yoga?
There are many ways to meditate, including doing yoga, tai chi, etc. There are not really any scientific studies that have directly compared two different forms of meditation, so we don’t know if one is better than another.

I suspect that it will be like exercise: all forms of exercise are good at promoting general health benefits, but there are some forms that may be better for specific conditions or desired outcomes (e.g. weight training vs. cardio, sprinting vs. endurance, swimming is gentler than running if you have a knee injury).

Similarly with meditation/yoga/tai chi, etc., I suspect that all will be good for general stress reduction, but there will likely be differences in terms of specific conditions or desired outcomes.

Also, personal preferences are important to consider for both exercise and meditation e.g. some people prefer to run while other prefer to swim, and some people prefer to chant while others prefer silent breath awareness meditation or the movement based traditions.

Finally, as with any form of learning, individual teachers vary tremendously in personality and teaching style. So one teacher may be a very good fit for your friend but a less good fit for you.

I suggest shopping around a little to get a sense of different teachers and meditation styles and find what works best for you.

Allow the fire within to consume you with light, love and life…Happy Meditating.

To your radiant health and spirit,

Suzen

 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


CommentLuv badge