Meditation – Views of a neuro-scientist and an esteemed doctor …
A recent article by an esteemed US doctor looks at the extraordinary power of meditation.
She explains how meditation can “improve depressive symptoms in fibromyalgia and have lasting anti-anxiety effects after only eight weeks of group practice”. She also adds that meditation “may reverse chronic disease, eliminate the need for medications, and most importantly confer a greater sense of life satisfaction, happiness, and freedom to be here, in the present, where the wonder of this never-before-existent moment is unfolding before you”. Here is her article (please excuse her medical jargon) …
THE MONKEY MIND
By Dr. Kelly Brogan
I have a monkey mind. As a mother, wife, physician, writer, educator, and to-do-list-completer, I recommend that anyone enter my mental space with caution. Even if I played none of these roles, and was charged with sitting under a palm tree and relaxing, that chattering racket of a mind would follow me there.
The universality of this condition, however, is what makes the practice of meditation so vital. You may, like me, roll an internal eye when you hear the word meditation. The implied holier-than-thou practice seems, at times, to have been co-opted by a cult of hippiedom rather than a behavior ingrained in all religions, performance, and waking relaxation.
Perhaps you will be persuaded, as I was, by some of the compelling literature that suggests the simple act of breathing, and attending to that breath, may be panacea enough to replace your current anxiety prescription.
The Science of Meditation
Since we have come to appreciate the power of genetic expression as more than simply the 20,000 genes you’re born with, we can now harness tools that optimize the “good” and suppress the “bad.”
It turns out that our in-born DNA interfaces with elements in our environment, and our conscious behavior, dictating exactly how the book of you will actually be written. With one fell swoop, things like spices, exercise, and relaxation can accomplish what pharmaceuticals could only fantasize about.
Some diligent researchers out of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine1 in Massachusetts have begun to illuminate the mechanisms of meditation’s effects, specifically the relaxation response which can be achieved through various forms of meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery, and Qi Gong.
According to Dr. Benson, the relaxation response is, “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension)” and is characterized by:
- Metabolism decreases
- Heart beats slow and muscles relax
- Breathing slows
- Blood pressure decreases
- Levels of nitric oxide increase
Meditation Alters Your Genetic Expression
Forty years of research support these claims. Only recently have the tools to assess gene-based changes been available. Far from summoning their inner monks, subjects in the Institute’s studies simply pop in some ear buds and listen to a 20-minute guided meditation, passively. The Benson-Henry Institute has sought to quantify the benefits of the relaxation response by assessing gene expression before, after 20 minutes, after eight weeks of practice, and after long-term meditation routines.
In a series of papers, they walk us through the anti-inflammatory effects of this intervention. Genetic study of eight-week and long-term meditators demonstrated evidence of changes to gene expression – specifically antioxidant production, telomerase activity, and oxidative stress – as a result of the relaxation response.
They theorize that NF-kappa B gene sets may be the messenger between psychological and physical stress wherein the body translates worry into inflammation. It appears that the relationship between gene expression optimization and relaxation response is dose-related, so that increasing amounts confer increasing benefit. Even after one session, changes were noted, characterized by:
“Upregulating ATP synthase —with its central role in mitochondrial energy mechanics, oxidative phosphorylation and cell aging — RR may act to buffer against cellular overactivation with overexpenditure of mitochondrial energy that results in excess reactive oxygen species production. We thus postulate that upregulation of the ATP synthase pathway may play an important role in translating the beneficial effects of the RR.”
These changes represent an orchestra of base and high notes that synergize into a body-balancing harmony. The experience of the relaxation response also appears to change brain plasticity or cellular connections in areas of the brain associated with stress response.
These changes occur based on internal recalibration of the nervous system – with no manipulation of circumstantial conditions, meaning stressors remain the same. According to neuroscientist, Dr. Lazar, long-term meditation practice appears to be associated with preferential cortical thickening:
“…brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula” and that these findings were further validated by an eight-week intervention trial.
Clinically, mindfulness-based meditation practice has been demonstrated in randomized trials to improve depressive symptoms in fibromyalgia and to have lasting anti-anxiety effects after only eight weeks of group practice.
So, What Is Meditation and How Do I Do It?
Having been trained in a very dichotomous New York-based paradigm wherein patients are either medicated or they are put on the couch indefinitely in service of psychoanalysis, the notion of returning agency to the patient to heal themselves is very appealing to me. Meditation can take many forms. It can mean stopping for a momentary monitored inhale and exhale; it can mean approaching conflict, tension, and stress with a renewed mindset; and it can even mean using biofeedback technology to recalibrate your nervous system.
The Heartmath Institute has played a vital role, for 20 years, in providing patients tools for the implementation of mind-body resonance. Their research uses heart rate variability, or the beat-to-beat changes that influence heart rhythms, to assess the coherence between the brain and the heart. I have written about the relationship between the brain and the gut, extensively, but here is another union worth considering.
As it turns out, summoning up a feeling of gratitude while breathing in a paced manner (typically six counts in and six counts out), can flip heart rate variability into the most optimal patterns associated with calm relaxation and peak mental performance. They have validated the effects on ADHD, hypertension, and anxiety including double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trials.
Developing ‘Witness Consciousness’ Could Change Your Life
Biofeedback devices such as the emWave2 can help personalize your interventions and improve progress toward toning that parasympathetic nervous system. For treatment of significant pathology, I recommend these more formalized interventions including computer-based coherence training. However, liberating oneself from the day-to-day perceptions of negativity, overwhelm, and loss may be far less complicated.
Perhaps, my favorite text on the matter of how to free ourselves from the effects of stress is by Michael Singer, called The Untethered Soul. He makes the bold assertion that happiness and freedom are the result of cultivating “witness consciousness,” a state of willfully observing one’s own mind, emotions, and behaviors, rather than feeling that you are these things.
He deftly argues that focus and awareness is what makes disturbances real – a hammer falls on your toe and your awareness moves there, then you hear a bang, and your awareness moves there. He implores the reader to experience pain as energy passing through before the eye of consciousness, and tasks us with the imperative to relax and release, stay centered, don’t get pulled in. Let the parade of thoughts and emotions pass by without running along with it to see where it’s going. You remain a quiet observer of your neurotic mind and eventually, the chatter starts to go quiet.
This is a means of defining our comfort zones more broadly, appreciating the limitations of our preferences, and the impossibility of matching up our external world with our arbitrary internal definitions of what should be. I particularly love his analogy of sitting by a river, noting a swirl in the water. You could try to frantically smooth out the surface of the water, continuously and senselessly, or you could reach in to pluck the rock out, only to notice that it is your other hand holding it there. We create our own distress, in many ways, and then we try to use our brains and emotions to resolve that stress. It doesn’t work.
Here’s What to Do When You Feel Stress
1. Notice and acknowledge your discomfort.
2. Relax and release it no matter how urgent it feels. Let the energy pass through you before you attempt to fix anything.
3. Imagine sitting back up on a high seat, in the back of your head watching your thoughts, emotions, and behavior with a detached compassion.
4. Then ground yourself. Connect to the present moment – feel the earth under your feet, smell the air, imagine roots growing into the earth from your spine.
Do this in a spirit of non-judgment because this isn’t an exercise done for mastery; it’s a decision that you make every time you feel disturbed inside.
Integrating these philosophies, practices, or movement-based routines into your life may do more than support longevity and optimal health. It may reverse chronic disease, eliminate the need for medications, and most importantly confer a greater sense of life satisfaction, happiness, and freedom to be here, in the present, where the wonder of this never-before-existent moment is unfolding before you.
About the Author
Dr. Kelly Brogan is boarded in Psychiatry/Psychosomatic Medicine/Reproductive Psychiatry and Integrative Holistic Medicine, and practices Functional Medicine, a root-cause approach to illness as a manifestation of multiple-interrelated systems. After studying Cognitive Neuroscience at M.I.T., and receiving her M.D. from Cornell University, she completed her residency and fellowship at Bellevue/NYU.
This article first appeared in www.mercola.com
Amanda came to Heartland in October 2013……and later really amazed us!!
Dear Les and Trudi,
I have done a small blog on my time at Heartland. I hope you will enjoy.
In January 2012 neuroscientist Sara Lazar gave a talk at TEDEX demonstrating via amazing brain scans visuals that meditation can actually change the size of key regions of our brain, improve our memory and make us more empathetic, compassionate, and resilient under stress. This is a transcript of her talk …
” Good morning.
When I was in graduate school I was a runner and a friend and I decided that we’re going to run the Boston Marathon so we started training and we over-trained and I developed knee and back problems.
So I went to see a physical therapist and they told me that I had to stop running and instead I should just stretch.
As I was leaving the physical therapist’s office, I saw an ad for a vigorous yoga class that promised not only to promote flexibility, but also to promote strength and cardio-respiratory fitness.
So I thought, oh, well, this is a great way that I can stretch, but also remain in shape and maybe I could even still run the Boston Marathon.
So I went to the yoga class and I really enjoyed it, except when the teacher would make all sorts of claims, you know, all sorts of medical claims, but also claims about, oh, yes, it will help you increase your compassion and open your heart and I was just like…I remember my eyes would roll and…I think, yeah, yeah, yeah, I am here to stretch.
But what was interesting was that after a couple of weeks I started noticing some of these changes, I started noticing that I was calmer and I was better able to handle difficult situations, and indeed, I was feeling more compassionate and open-hearted towards other people, and I was better able to see things from other people’s point of view.
And, you know, I was like, hmm, how could this be? And, I thought, well maybe, you know, it’s just a placebo response, right? She told me I will feel this, so maybe that’s why I was feeling it.
So I decided to do a literature search to see if there’s any research on this. And low and behold, there was quite a bit showing both yoga and meditation are extremely effective for decreasing stress.
They’re also very good for reducing symptoms associated with numerous diseases including depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia.
And there’s a couple of very good studies demonstrating it can actually improve your ability to pay attention, and most interestingly, I thought, virtually every study has shown that people are just happier.
They report they’re more satisfied with their life, and they have a higher quality of life.
And so, this was interesting to me and so I decided to switch and start doing this sort of research.
So as a neuro-scientist, you know, how could this be happening?
How can something as silly as a yoga posture or sitting and watching your breath….how can that lead to all these sorts of different types of changes?
So, what we know is that whenever you engage in a behavior over and over again, that this can lead to changes in your brain…..and this is what’s referred to as neuroplasticity.
And what this just means is that your brain is plastic and that the neurons can change how they talk to each other with experience.
And so, there’s a couple of studies demonstrating that you can actually detect this, using machines like the MRI machine.
The first study was with juggling.
They took people who had never ever juggled before, and they scanned them, and then they taught them how to juggle, and they said, “Keep practising for three months.”
And they brought them back after three months, and they scanned them the second time, and they found that they can actually detect with the MRI machine changes in the amount of grey matter in the brain of these people in areas that are important for detecting visual motion.
So, I thought, OK, three months, you know…can meditation change brain structure too?
Something as simple as juggling……..what about meditation?
So the first study we did, we recruited a bunch of people from the Boston area, and these were not monks or meditation teachers, they’re just average Joes who on average practice meditation about 30-40 minutes a day, and we put them in a scanner, and we compared them to a group of people who were demographically matched, but who don’t meditate.
And what we found is this: that there were indeed several regions of the brain that had more grey matter in the meditators compared to the controls.
One of the regions I’m going to point out to you is here in the front of the brain, it’s the area that’s important for working memory and executive decision- making.
And what was interesting about it was when we actually plotted the data versus their ages – and this is something you see actually, it’s been well documented that as we get older – not just there, but across most of our cortex – it actually shrinks as we get older.
And this is part of the reason why as we get older, it’s harder to figure things out and to remember things.
And what was interesting was that in this one region, the 50 year old meditators had the same amount of cortex as the 25 year olds, suggesting that meditation practice may actually slow down or prevent the natural age-related decline in cortical structure.
So now, the critics, and there were many critics, said, well, you know meditators, they’re weird….maybe they were just like that before they started practising, right? A lot of them were vegetarian, so maybe it had something to do with their diet, or something else with their lifestyle, you know?
Couldn’t possibly be the meditation, it’s something else, right?
And to be fair, you know, that could be true.
This first study could not address that.
So we did a second study.
In this study we took people who had never meditated before, and we put them in the scanner, and then we put them through an eight-week meditation-based stress reduction program where they were told to meditate every day for 30 to 40 minutes.
And then we scanned them again at the end of the eight weeks, and this is what we found…….so what you see is that several areas became larger.
In this slide we can see the hippocampus, and in the graph, the controls are in blue and the meditation subjects are in red, and what we see is that the hippocampus, this is the area that’s important for learning and memory (it’s also important for emotion regulation) and it was interesting it was less grey matter in this region in people who had depression and PTSD.
Another region we identified was the temporo-parietal junction which is here above your ear, it’s important for perspective taking and empathy and compassion.
And again, these are both functions which people report changing when they start practising meditation and yoga.
Another region we identified was the amygdala. And the amygdala is the fight-or-flight part of your brain and here we actually found a decrease in gray matter.
And what was interesting was that the change in grey matter was correlated with the change in stress.
So the more stress reduction people reported, the smaller the amygdala became.
And this was really interesting, because it’s sort of opposite and parallel of what some animal studies have shown.
So colleagues using rodents, they took rodents who were just happy, normal rodents, and they had them in their cage, and they measured their amygdala, and then they put them through a ten- day stress regimen. And at the end of the ten days, they measured their amygdala and this exact same analogous part of the rat brain grew.
So we found a decrease with stress, they found an increase with stress.
What was interesting was that then they left the animals alone, and three weeks later they went back and tested them again.
And three weeks later, that same part of the amygdala was still large, and the animals, even though they were in their original cages where they were happy, were still acting stressed out, so they, you know, they were cowering in the corner, and they just weren’t exploring the space the way they had before.
And so, this is the exact opposite of what we saw with the humans, because with the humans nothing has changed with their environment……they still had their stressful jobs, all the difficult problems were still being difficult and the economy still sucked but yeah, their amygdala got smaller, and they were reporting less stress.
And so, together these really show that the change in the amygdala is not responding to the change in the environment, but rather it’s representing the change in the people’s reaction or relationship to their environment.
And then the other thing that the study shows is that it wasn’t just the people were saying, “Oh, I feel better.” or that it was a placebo response, or that they’re trying to please us but there was actually a neuro-biological reason why they’re saying they felt less stressed.
And so the idea that I’d like to share with all of you today is that meditation can literally change your brain.
Nicola, a well known Personal Trainer, came in October 2013 and later wrote on her blog …
Dear Les and Trudi,
Retreat’s… what are they all about anyway??
November 4, 2013
Okay, so as a person who hasn’t much ventured into the “time-out” scenario for my own greater good, I have reserved the fact about venturing to a retreat just because I probably didn’t really understand the necessity!
Buuuuutt, how wrong was I!
In the last few weeks I was to’ing and fro’ing with what kind of retreat I was after (there are soooo many!!), but I quickly decided that if I was going to do a retreat, I didn’t feel compelled to follow a “program” and I didn’t want to spend most of my time doing “down-ward-dog” because I didn’t think that would really give me some quality “me” time.
So a quick google search I discovered “Heart-land”. WOW. What a place. I can safely and (affordably say) that it was the best $900 I have ever spent.
So what was it you say? Okay where do I start….
Firstly Les and Trudi (both Personal Development leaders) are brilliant in what they do. It’s a down-to-earth, supportive, loving environment where you automatically feel at peace to be who and what you are today with NO JUDGEMENTS.
Secondly, the “life” education is priceless. They help you understand and process life lessons and assist you to transform the love you may have for everyone else to YOU.
Thirdly the program is flexible to you. You may want to attend all the sessions (that’s right they hold meditation, art /music and personal development workshops) or you may find yourself floating and attending only some of the workshops… it’s up to you.
Fourth… the food is AMAZING (Thanks Wayne!). I’m waiting for their cookbook, but seriously, besides all the amazing advice they provide, I could have just stayed longer for the food!
Five, the accommodation is beautiful with comfortable amenities. The retreat also sits on a hill, providing beautiful surroundings amoung tree’s, birds and rolling hills).
Six, they also have on the property, beautiful animals (horses, donkeys) for you to befriend, or take time out with… If you go, take time to say hi, because they are perfect for bringing you back to the present moment!
Lastly but not by any means the least, the other people also doing the retreat are absolutely beautiful and will show and teach you other things… they will share stories, laughter and moments that will fill your heart.
Okay so it may sound all soppy but it isn’t… it’s just real. I can’t recommend it enough…….It will reward you, ground you and if anything else it will get you set …