Neuroscience Frontiers

News, Research Studies, and Developments in Neuroscience: The Mind-Brain/Body Continuum.   The following are current or recent developments, news, articles, reports, and blogs in the field of neuroscience, as well as related fields of scientific study and research on the mind-body continuum, that affirm, validate or support the teachings of mysticism and the practice of meditation or contemplation.  We encourage you to visit our site regularly for updates to this page.

Meditation can speed up the brain, researchers say

Graphic image for article at GlobalPostUCLA researchers have discovered that meditation may speed up brain processing by increasing something known as “gyrification.”

Researchers at UCLA have discovered that meditation may speed up brain processing.

The study that appears in the online edition of the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, suggests that long-term meditators have larger amounts of gyrification, essentially the folding of the cortex that helps speed up the brain, than those who don’t practice meditation, said ScienceDaily.  [Continue readingGlobalPost, March 15, 2012; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  Aside from speeding up the brain, I would emphasize also that meditation allows the brain to function more holistically, perhaps through a greater dominance of the right brain hemisphere’s intuitive functionality.  Think about it.

Brain Likely Encodes the World in Two Dimensions
Our internal representation of the world is flat

When we drive somewhere new, we navigate by referring to a two-dimensional map that accounts for distances only on a horizontal plane. According to research published online in August in Nature Neuroscience, the mammalian brain seems to do the same, collapsing the world into a flat plane even as the animal skitters up trees and slips deep into burrows.

Our subjective sense that our map is three-dimensional is illusory,” says Kathryn Jeffery, a behavioral neuroscientist at University College London who led the research. Jeffery studies a collection of neurons in and around the rat hippo­campus that build an internal representation of space. As the animal travels, these neurons, called grid cells and place cells, respond uniquely to distance, turning on and off in a way that measures how far the animal has moved in a particular direction.

Past research has focused on how these cartographic cells encode two-dimensional space. Jeffery and her col­leagues decided to look at how they respond to changes in altitude. To do this, they enticed rats to climb up a spiral staircase while the scientists collected electrical recordings from single cells. The firing pattern encoded very little in­formation about height.

The finding adds evidence for the hypothesis that the brain keeps track of our location on a flat plane, which is defined by the way the body is oriented. If a squirrel, say, is running along the ground, then scampers straight up a tree, its internal two-dimensional map simply shifts from the horizontal plane to the vertical. Astronauts are some of the few humans to de­scribe this experience: when they move in space to “stand” on a ceiling, they report a moment of disorientation before their mental map flips so they feel right side up again.

Researchers do not know yet whether other areas of the brain encode altitude or whether mammals simply do not need that information to survive. “Maybe an animal has a mosaic of maps, each fragment of which is flat but which can be oriented in the way that’s appropriate,” Jeffery speculates. Or maybe in our head, the world is simply flat.  [Read the original articleScientific American, January 29, 2012; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  Haven’t I been saying what mystics have said before that the world is illusory?  Think about it.

Mindfulness Meditation Is Rediscovered
Mindfulness meditation is being rediscovered as a very modern—and medical—path to personal nirvana.

In July 2008, I retired from my job as editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, a move that mystified a lot of people. Editors tend not to exit willingly. They’re usually ripped out of their magazines, like pages. Their sales go south, and so do they. A media reporter wasn’t buying my “retired” line. He called to get the real story. “You can tell me,” he said. “Are you being pushed out?” The truth, I told him, was that I’d been doing Buddhist meditation for years and ached to dive into practice. My job was getting in the way of my life.
Meditator on Cloud (Illustration by Jason Lee)
That answer didn’t explain anything to a business friend. “What is so compelling,” she asked, “that you would leave all this?”

“All this” encompassed powers and perks universally acknowledged to be worth killing yourself for. The magazine was a big hit. We were putting good ideas and good writing into the culture. We respected each other, we won awards, and we were paid well enough. I couldn’t have been happier.

And then things changed, as things do.

After decades of the monthly magazine cycle, the thrill of spotting a fresh idea, shaping it for our audience, commissioning the right writer.?.?.?that thrill had subsided to a small tickle. Instead I was finding challenge, purpose, and meaning offsite, in mindfulness meditation, the Buddha’s prescription to end suffering.  He discovered that if you pay attention to what’s going on, moment to moment—without trying to hold onto what feels good or push away what feels bad—your relationship to pain changes.

The key shift is in turning toward pain, when all your life you’ve turned away from it. You give it your full attention—you yield to it—and, paradoxically, its hold on you diminishes.  (The majority of chronic-pain patients in an eight-week meditation course are able to reduce their medications and become more active.)  You open to emotional pain as well. As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.

The formal structure for intense practice is a silent retreat, which can last anywhere from one morning to three years. No talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact. You’re stranded on the island of your mind. You’re sitting peacefully, or impatiently, or hungrily, when a thought suddenly jerks through your head and your inner world breaks into a riot—heart racing, muscles gripping, adrenaline pouring, breath speeding.

You bring your attention to the explosion: what is this? Ah, this time it’s anger…and it feels lousy.  You notice that it’s causing you pain—you, not X, the object of your anger. Focusing on the sensations of the emotion, you stop telling yourself the story of how X did you wrong.  Without the story, the anger runs out of fuel. Relief. Non-anger feels so good. You come to be less and less afraid of your own interior storms.

These treks through the mind became my idea of adventure travel, and I’d take off for a week a few times a year. But after a while, my return to “all this” no longer felt satisfying. In fact, it was dissatisfying. “All this” whips up your appetites. As much as you have, others have more…or less. That one-down feeling is a bitch, but so is that one-up feeling—you just don’t see how it isolates you, leaves you constantly, if subliminally, threatened.

My contract was coming up for renewal. I’d been working since a week after I graduated from college. Forty-five years. I had saved some money, I’d paid off my mortgage, and freedom was looking like the ultimate luxury good. Why not drop out now? I could read purely for pleasure, put people first rather than last, and wallow in practice.

So I dropped, and as I was landing, I found a new occupation—studying and teaching something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction…

The burgeoning field of neuroscience emits a fairly constant stream of evidence for meditation’s positive impact on immune response, cardiovascular functioning, the brain itself.  Meditation can change the brain—measurably. Scientists can see a thickening of the cortex areas where memory and empathy reside.  In one famous study, subjects who meditated showed less activity in an area associated with negative emotions like anger, depression, and anxiety, and more activity in the area associated with buoyancy, optimism, and confidence.  They also had a stronger immune reaction to flu vaccine than did those in control groups.  And all these differences show up in eight weeks.  [Continue readingThe Daily Beast, January 1, 2012; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  Mindfulness as a spiritual practice develops the unconditioned mind through a de-conditioning of the human mind.  The unconditioned mind becomes a transparency for the Spirit within to shine through and fill individual awareness with its inner light, resulting in the experience called “enlightenment” or “illumination.”  The problem is with the human mind: It is there where the illusion of material sense resides.  Think about it.

Dreaming Takes the Sting out of Painful Memories
They say time heals all wounds, and new research from the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that time spent in dream sleep can help us overcome painful ordeals.

UC Berkeley researchers have found that during the dream phase of sleep, also known as REM sleep, our stress chemistry shuts down and the brain processes emotional experiences and takes the edge off difficult memories.

The findings offer a compelling explanation for why people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as war veterans, have a hard time recovering from distressing experiences and suffer reoccurring nightmares. They also offer clues into why we dream.

“The dream stage of sleep, based on its unique neurochemical composition, provides us with a form of overnight therapy, a soothing balm that removes the sharp edges from the prior day’s emotional experiences,” said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study to be published on Nov. 23, in the journal Current Biology.  [Continue readingScienceDaily, November 23, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  The ancient mystery schools knew about the healing properties of sleep and dreaming. There were sleep or dream temples in ancient Egypt and Greece which functioned as the hospitals of their time.  Think about it.

Neuroscience Proves That Customers Are Irrational When Making Purchases
Image of mall shoppers.Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system. It’s a big deal in the academic world—and it could end up being a big deal in the business world, too. Here’s why.

In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to examine how the brain behaves and changes when buying and selling is taking place.

For example, there’s been research into brain activity suggesting that decision-making does not take place in the neocortex (where the brain processes language, abstraction, planning, and perception). Instead, it appears that people make decisions in the limbic system, the more-basic level of the brain that controls the hormones responsible for feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior.

Apparently, the limbic system is the source of the pleasure that people feel when they solve problems.  And that’s what happens when people buy things.

In other words, neuroscience is now proving what many sales professionals have long suspected: that decision-making, even among top executives, takes place mostly at a “gut” level.  [Continue readingBusiness Insider, November 18, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  The research finding reinforces the long-held view that we normally “react” emotionally to our daily situations, rather than respond to them objectively.  That’s how marketing advertisements and propaganda dupe people into buying a product, service, person, party or ideology — through the power of SUGGESTION!  Sheer mesmerism, mass hypnosis that appeals to the conditioned mind triggering a predictable emotional feedback pattern from us.  Think about it.

The Neuroscience of Barbie
A fascinating experiment that lets people experience reality as dolls–or giants

In science fiction and fantasy tales, there is a long running fascination with the idea of dramatically diminishing or growing in stature. In the 1989 classic, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Rick Moranis invents a device which accidentally shrinks both his own and the neighbor’s children down to a quarter-of-an-inch tall. Preceding this by more than 100 years, Lewis Carroll wrote about a little girl who, after tumbling down a rabbit hole, nibbles on some cake and then grows to massive proportions. Nearly 300 years ago, Jonathan Swift described the adventures of Gulliver while on the island of Lilliputan, on which he is a giant, and then on the island of Brobdingnag, where everyone else is a giant.

These kinds of experiences, however, have been limited to the world of fictional stories. The world around us does not actually change in size. Nor, with the exception of too many late-night Chinese deliveries, do our bodies become appreciably larger or smaller.

Or at least, they were mythical until recently. A research group at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has managed to make people feel as though they actually inhabited bodies of vastly different size — either that of dolls or of giants.  The researchers showed that this fundamentally changed the way people perceived the physical world. Those in smaller bodies felt as though they were in a world populated by giant hands and pencils the size of trees, while those in giant bodies felt the same objects to be tiny, toy-sized versions of the real thing.

In order to accomplish this trick of self-displacement, participants in the experiments lay on a bed and wore a head-mounted display connected to two video cameras. These cameras faced a fake body lying on a bed next to the participant; thus, when participants looked down toward their own bodies, they instead saw artificial bodies where their own should have been. These artificial bodies were either huge (a 13-foot form made of chicken wire) or very small (a Barbie Doll).

In order to make participants feel ownership over these false bodies, researchers employed a technique well known to those interested in body perception. Participants would place their hands out of view, perhaps under a table, while an artificial hand sat atop of the table. The experimenter then stroked both the obscured real hand and the visible fake hand synchronously. As a result, participants would witness a hand in roughly the same position as their own being touched in precisely the manner that they felt themselves to be touched. This had the effect of making the majority of participants feel the false hand to be their own. This method has been shown to work with whole bodies -– it even allows a participant to feel as though he or she is sitting in another person’s body, shaking hands with their self!

For this set of experiments, after demonstrating that people could experience an extremely large or small body as their own, the researchers then investigated the consequences. Specifically, do participants feel as though they are actually living at a different size? Or do they feel body size to remain constant, while the size of the world around them changes?

The researchers used a number of measures to answer this question. They had participants estimate their distance from a box on the ground, and had them open their hand to the width of the box as if they were going to grasp it. Participants in small bodies consistently estimated the box to be farther away, and tended to use a wider grip, as if preparing to pick up a box much larger in size. Conversely, participants in large bodies estimated the box to be much closer, and used a much smaller grip, as if the box had actually shrunk. Thus, in addition to showing that people can feel ownership over differently sized bodies, this research is also another empirical example that our perceptions of the world and our perceptions of our bodies are closely linked.

Though to some, these experiments may seem to be no more than glorified parlor tricks, findings from this line of research have a very useful application. The same principles behind this body-swapping illusion were recently established to be an effective treatment for arthritis pain, since they allow sufferers to feel as though their cramped fingers are being stretched to impossible lengths, thus providing relief from their pain.

This research also adds to a growing body of literature that demonstrates that the world we perceive is not an identical copy of the physical world.  Hills appear steeper when we are wearing heavy backpacks, objects appear closer when we desire them, and, as shown here, the world appears larger when we are in a smaller body. Although the world does not actually physically change in these ways, our mind seems to be constructed in such a way that allows a surprising degree of flexibility in perceiving the physical nature of the world.  As scientists work to determining the limits and uses of this flexibility, we will likely be treated to an assortment of findings which may seem to come straight out of fiction.  [Read the original articleScientific American, November 8, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  Doesn’t mysticism teach us that physical or material forms are illusory in that a material sense of reality is being held and entertained in the mind only, as a holographic projection by our human state of consciousness?  It’s all consciousness!  Think about it.

Believing in “Bad Vibes”
Exploring the science of emotional residues

Imagine that your co-worker has just moved into a new office. Photograph of depressed woman.The woman who used to work there spent many unhappy months in the office complaining about her job. In fact, she ended up quitting in a fit of rage. Upon moving into the office, your co-worker tells you that she senses some “bad energy” leftover from the previous employee. Would you believe her? Or would you think she’s a tad crazy?

Or imagine instead that you’re choosing between two apartments. They are identical with one exception: you happen to know that the former tenant in one of the apartments was an extremely happy, joyful person. Would you be more inclined to choose that apartment, based on an expectation that you might experience some lingering good feelings?

Your answers reflect how much you believe in “emotional residue,” which is the idea that emotions can hang around a physical environment, long after their owners have left. New research suggests that at a gut level, most of us believe that emotional residue exists. However, the culture we’ve grown up in determines the extent to which we consciously and openly endorse those beliefs.  [Continue readingScientific American, November 1, 2011]

Marc says:  There is such a thing as “emotional residue.”  Emotions are a form of mental energy.  And when you consider that mind and body (physical or material forms) form a continuum and that mind is a seamless matrix that connects all things, the notion of “emotional residue” makes perfect sense. Think about it.

“Mind-Blowing” Sex Can Wipe Memory Clean
A 54-year-old woman showed up in the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital with her husband, unable to remember the past 24 hours. Her newer memories were hazy, too. One thing she did recall: Her amnesia had started right after having sex with her husband just an hour before.

Married Couple graphics from article.

A mysterious condition called transient global amnesia can leave people with gaps in their memory after strenuous activities such as sex.

While sex can be forgettable or mind-blowing, for some people, it can quite literally be both at the same time. The woman, whose case was reported in the September issue of The Journal of Emergency Medicine, was experiencing transient global amnesia, a rare condition in which memory suddenly, temporarily, disappears.

People with transient global amnesia suffer no side effects, and the memory problems usually reverse themselves in the span of a few hours. It’s a rare condition, affecting only about 3 to 5 people per 100,000 each year. But what makes transient global amnesia so eerie is that researchers aren’t sure what causes it, or why patients remain otherwise chatty and alert while missing large chunks of their memories.  [Continue readingLiveScience, October 11, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  I had a similar experience years ago.  Not over sex, but after a sumptuous meal.   I had a very satisfying early dinner meal at a restaurant one evening.  A few hours later, I utterly forgot what I had for dinner and where I had dinner.  The instant amnesia scared the hell out of me.  (I never forget great sex, though. ;-))  Think about it.

Can Mindfulness Really Rewire the Brain?
Neuroscience and Increasing AwarenessThe burgeoning field of mindfulness, neuroscience and psychotherapy just never gets old to me. I am on a panel with Ron Siegel, PsyD, author of The Mindfulness Solution and Ruth Buczynski, PhD, president of the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) talking about a recent series that explored the question, Can Mindfulness Really Rewire the Brain? The series is free to listen to.

The series includes Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson, Tara Brach, Sara Lazar and Ron Siegel on the current state of affairs of mindfulness and neuroscience.  The topics included the most current neuroscience research, how we can use it with trauma, chronic pain, depression, shame and even its potential benefits for aging.

The actual science that’s continuing to come out about mindfulness and its neurological benefits is incredibly motivating.

Did you know that mindfulness practice is showing that we can grow the area of our brain that’s responsible for learning and memory (the hippocampus)? So there’ll be less of the, “Honey, did you remember where I put my keys?”

Did you know that mindfulness practice is showing a reduction in the fear center of the brain (amygdala) and an increase in the rational brain (prefrontal cortex), so as you practice you literally rewire a steadier mind? [Continue reading → Blog posted by Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. at PsychCentral, October 2011; emphasis is mine.]  

(Watch the video of Elisha Goldstein below on “STOP: A Short Mindfulness Practice”. The video is embedded in Goldstein’s blog.)

Marc says:  The benefits you derive from spirit-mind-body healing in meditation are infinite, because you are coming in touch with your infinite source of wholeness and healing power.  Think about it.

Air pollution from traffic impairs brain
Picture of vehicular traffic and air pollution.Air pollution in cities and beside roads can impair the way the brain functions, two new studies have revealed.

Scientists have found living in areas with high levels of traffic pollution can reduce people’s performance in cognitive tests.

They found that people older than 51 who had lived in polluted areas had lower cognitive scores than those who had been exposed to lower levels of pollution during their life time even after their results had been adjusted for social and educative status.

A second study in animals has also revealed that fine airborne particulates that are typically emitted by diesel engines can lead to learning and memory problems by reducing the growth of neurons in the brain.   [Continue readingThe Telegraph, October 9, 2011]

Marc says:  I lived in Los Angeles, California, for about four years in the early 1990s.  I could never get used to the smog.  I guess my brain was telling me to move out and relocate, which I did.  Think about it.

Goldie Hawn Plunges into Brain Science
Photo of Goldie HawnAspen, Colorado. When I arrived at the Aspen Meadows Resort for the Second Annual Aspen Brain Forum last Thursday evening, Goldie Hawn was getting out of a vehicle near the entrance. I knew she was about to give the keynote address, but I was startled to practically run into the actress. A grandmother now, Hawn looked fabulous in over-the-knee black leather boots and a chunky silver belt strung around a black miniskirt. It wasn’t so much her looks, though, that made her instantly recognizable. Her trademark laugh and general effervescence mark her like a strobe light, quite visible even in the bright Colorado sun. I watched her stop to enthusiastically greet—hug, kiss—various other conference attendees, who seemed equally eager to chat her up, whether to advance their work or sidle up to celebrity, I couldn’t say.

Hawn spoke without notes, claiming to be a born communicator, a claim she backed up by her performance. As she talked, it occurred to me that vivaciousness and beauty did not alone propel her to stardom. Unlike most people who wing it, Hawn strung together rhythmic sentences that made sense. If the neuroscience community was going to be delivered an advocate, they could have done a lot worse.

She answered the obvious question first: Why is Goldie Hawn speaking at a brain conference?  I already partly knew the answer.  Just as any 7-year-old can now do, I had looked it up on the web.  Six years ago Hawn established a nonprofit group called The Hawn Foundation “to promote children’s academic success in school and in life through social and emotional learning.”  It is based on the notion that kids’ intellects do not exist in isolation from their emotions, their connections to others or the rest of their bodies.  The MindUp program, the Foundation’s signature educational initiative, is designed to address these oft-neglected components of learning.  It was a perfect fit for the forum, which this year addressed “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning: Implications for Education.”  But more on that in a bit.

Hawn’s version was more personal. Decades ago (in 1972 she said), when she became famous, she felt newly anxious and something hard to imagine happened: she lost her signature smile.  The change was foreign to Hawn—and not welcome. “When I was 11 years old, I decided that what I wanted to be in life was happy,” she said.  “I thought, ‘All I want to do is hold onto this joy, this tickle I had when I was little.’”  Having lost that tickle Hawn went spelunking, in her own psyche.  She saw psychologists and began meditating, embarking on a nine-year psychological journey.  Such an adventure might make lesser folks crazy or depressed in itself, but Hawn became surprisingly analytical about it.  It led, she said, to her first understanding of the brain, “what it can do, how it can change.”  She was particularly interested in neuroscience and spirituality, fancying questions such as “What is that God part of the brain?”

Hawn moved to rainy Vancouver, because her son, Wyatt, wanted to play hockey. While watching the rain outside her meditation room sometime in 2002, Hawn’s quest turned outward—in particular, to children.  “I was a happy child,” she recalled. “I signed all my 4th grade papers, “Love, Goldie.”  But in the wake of 9/11, she perceived U.S. children as being profoundly unhappy.  “And I thought why can’t we do something that gets kids to understand their potential?  Why don’t we teach our kids about the brain?”

Hawn was no brain expert, but she reasoned that teaching kids about the brain might make them more aware of their own thoughts and emotions.  It might help them to develop the ability to think about thinking, or metacognition. That awareness would then give them better control over their own mind—directing their attention more appropriately or calming themselves down—in ways that could improve learning. Hawn seems to give kids lots of credit.  I doubt most grownups would be similarly confident that kids could ably control their minds if shown how.  Hawn saw this mission as urgent, though.  She particularly wanted to prevent stress from shutting down executive function, the self-control of thought, action and emotion that is essential for learning.   [Continue readingScientific American, September 28, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  Goldie may have a valid point there, about teaching children mindfulness at an early age.  Start them young on the right track.  (Read an update on Goldie’s neuroscience advocacy.)  Think about it.

Image of Sleeping Female - © Valua Vitaly / FotoliaPeople Learn While They Sleep, Study Suggests
People may be learning while they’re sleeping — an unconscious form of memory that is still not well understood, according to a study by Michigan State University researchers.

The findings are highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

“We speculate that we may be investigating a separate form of memory, distinct from traditional memory systems,” said Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the project. “There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state.”   [Continue readingScienceDaily, September 27, 2011]

Zen Brain: Exploring The Connection Between Neuroscience And Meditation
This past August, more than 50 people gathered in the Circle of the Way temple at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to explore the connection between neuroscience and meditation. This is the fourth year we have done so.

Why? This is a Zen center that is inspired by the example set by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who nearly 30 years ago began a dialogue with Dr. Francisco Varela and myself that was to eventually become embodied in the Mind & Life Institute, an organization that supports and sustains dialogue and rigorous scientific inquiry into meditative states. [Continue readingHuffington Post, September 17, 2011]

Meditate on This: the Practice Can Heal You in Less Than 11 Hours
The sense of spiritual consciousness, connecting to something greater than oneself, is one of the most intoxicating realms a human can enter.  Across the millennia, such experiences have shaped the lives of individuals and, upon occasion, whole cultures. The question for science is not to deny them, but to seek to understand the processes by which they occur and the domain into which they lead us.  Central to these true stories is a special state of mindfulness, what the psychologist Charles Tart described in his classic 1972 Science paper as a state of consciousness.

Although these experiences, when they happen spontaneously, are often one-time events, almost every human culture on earth has developed practices, usually in a spiritual or religious context, for attaining this state.  Similarly, all the martial arts have this component of mindful discipline, a practice of focusing intentioned awareness. Collectively, we have come to call these practices meditation.

Picture of Little Boy MeditatingOf all the things that you can do to know yourself, nothing will serve you as well as developing the practice of meditation.  Although meditation is often associated with Asian cultures, it is not Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Satanic or any faith at all. It can be done in the name of any of these faiths, or without faith in a religion — as distinct from a spiritual sense.  Meditation is a single term defining many practices.

More than 1,000 papers have been published on meditation in the peer-reviewed literature between 2006 and 2009…  Much of the research focuses on stress reduction, sleep problems and attention issues.  But the emerging evidence on the lasting effects meditation has on our neuro-anatomy, and particularly our brains is, perhaps, the most fascinating research of all.

This work has documented a kind of deep “stillness” that affects the entire brain.  When this occurs, the frontal and temporal lobe circuits — which track time and create self-awareness — seemingly disengage.  The mind-body connection dissolves.  These studies show us that the limbic system is responsible for assigning emotional values to persons, places, everything in our total life experience.  Since the limbic system, among other things, regulates relaxation and ultimately controls the autonomic nervous system, heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism, it produces both emotional and physiological effects when you react to a specific object, person or place. This is why your hair “stands on end,” your skin “crawls,” your stomach “lurches” or your heart “beats faster.”

Because meditation affects the limbic system, developing the discipline allows one to become more volitionally in control of these responses.  The practice has a calming effect that leaves us relaxed and physiologically more evenly regulated. This, in turn, allows us to be coherently focused, because we are less distracted by our inner dialogue and emotions as well as our physiological responses.  And this literally changes your brain.

meditation literally changes one’s brain, noting that the changes occur very quickly, in as little as 11 hours.

So if you are seriously interested in self-improvement and want to change your brain, meditation could be the answer.  Its reward is a kind of mental coherence that is hard to achieve in any other way, and it is this coherence that seems to bestow spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health on longtime meditators.  If you commit to a daily practice for just 90 days, I believe you will find good reasons for continuing.
[Read the full articleHuffington Post, September 4, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Why Meditation And Orgasm Feel The Same To The Brain
Image of Tantric Buddha with YoginiSpiritual teachers have been on to this for years, but research is now showing that orgasm and meditation create much the same effect in our brains.

According to a recent article in Scientific American, both meditation and orgasm decrease our sense of self-awareness.  Bliss, says author Nadia Webb, whether through the experience of meditative contemplation or through the bodily experience of sex, “shares the diminution of self-awareness, alterations in bodily perception and decreased sense of pain.”  In other words, both experiences lead to a temporary stoppage in the incessant flow of our internal commentary. Even if for only a few minutes, we are able to see ourselves as something other than the ego.   [Continue readingHuffington Post, July 13, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Marc says:  They call it “ecstacy” or “bliss” when felt at the level of the soul, “orgasm” when it is experienced in and through the body.  Same energy at work, same thing at play.  The Hindu mystics got it right when they developed “tantra“: tantric yoga and tantric sex.  Think about it.

The Neurobiology of Bliss — Sacred and Profane
In studies that observe the brain in action, the right hemisphere seems to be the sexy hemisphere.  It lights up during orgasm—so much so that, in one study, much of the cortex went dark, leaving the right prefrontal cortex as a bright island. Photograph of woman shouting with joy. New research suggests the right hemisphere is also hyperactive amongst the “hypersexual,” a symptom of brain injury loosely defined as groping, propositioning or masturbating in public without shame.

What is surprising about this is that pleasure is classically thought of as the province of the left hemisphere, not the right.  The left is most active when recalling happy memories, meditating on love for another, and during the expansiveness of grandiosity or mania.

The left hemisphere is even preferentially more active among people free of depression and less active among the unhappy.  If the brain were a simpler and more cooperative organ, the left hemisphere would be lit up like the Fourth of July during an orgasm. Instead, it is surprisingly silent.  Why might this be so?

Until eight years ago, neuroscience had little scientific basis from which to comment on bliss, sexual or otherwise. Despite our public fascination with things sexual, as researcher Gemma O’Brien put it, “orgasm is not impersonal and third person enough for the sciences.” Neuroscience was hobbled by the avoidance of such squashy topics, even if it meant setting aside important parts of human experience.  However, a clearer portrait of pleasure is now emerging.  Bliss, both sacred and profane, shares the diminution of self-awareness, alterations in bodily perception and decreased sense of pain.  And while the left frontal lobe may be linked to pleasure, the other three characteristics are bilateral.

Absence of pain is predictably akin to pleasure, but the other two — losing a sense of identity and of bodily limits — are less obvious. Self-awareness, apparently, is no picnic. William James described the self as that kernel of consciousness that persists throughout various experiences and sensations.  The self is divided between the stream of consciousness and an internal observer—except in those rare moments when we dissolve into mysticism.

Self-awareness exists as a running critique organizing conscious experience. Telling stories to ourselves (often about ourselves) is the cognitive default. [Continue readingScientific American, July 12, 2011; emphasis is mine.]

Teaching the Neurons to Meditate
In the late 1990s, Jane Anderson was working as a landscape architect. That meant she didn’t work much in the winter, and she struggled with seasonal affective disorder in the dreary Minnesota winter months. She decided to try meditation and noticed a change within a month. “My experience was a sense of calmness, of better ability to regulate my emotions,” she says. Her experience inspired a new study which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, which finds changes in brain activity after only five weeks of meditation training…

…People who had done the meditation training showed a greater proportion of activity in the left frontal region of the brain in response to subsequent attempts to meditate. Other research has found that this pattern of brain activity is associated with positive moods.

The shift in brain activity “was clearly evident even with a small number of subjects,” says Christopher Moyer, one of Anderson’s coauthors at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. “If someone is thinking about trying meditation and they were thinking, ‘It’s too big of a commitment, it’s going to take too much rigorous training before it has an effect on my mind,’ this research suggests that’s not the case.” For those people, meditation might be worth a try, he says. “It can’t hurt and it might do you a lot of good.”

“I think this implies that meditation is likely to create a shift in outlook toward life,” Anderson says. “It has really worked for me.”   [Read the entire articleScienceDaily, July 7, 2011]

Brain research the new “moon shot”
Editor’s note: Patrick Kennedy served 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the author and lead House sponsor of the Mental Health Parity & Addiction Equity Act of 2008, founder of the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus and 21st Century Health Care Caucus, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and is currently co-chairman of One Mind for Research. He discusses his battle with addiction, the pain of losing his father to brain cancer, and “One Mind” on “Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports: Patrick Kennedy: Coming Clean,” Sunday on CNN, 7 p.m. ET.

…50 years ago on May 25, my uncle, John F. Kennedy, ascended the rostrum in the House of Representatives’ chamber to do precisely that. His goal — “to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth,” and to do so within a decade — was not merely appropriate to a moment of national uncertainty.  It helped to resolve it.  It’s time to do so again.  This time the destination is closer to home, but the technical challenges may exceed even a moon landing.  So will the benefits.  All we need is to be of one mind as to the goal.  Hence the name of a collaborative initiative that aims to undertake the moon race of our time — a dramatic acceleration of the national commitment to neuroscience: The “One Mind” campaign.   [Continue readingCNN Opinion, May 20, 2011. Read a similar article at USA Today.]

Paralysed man stands tall
A PARALYSED hit-and-run victim has walked again after pioneering medics taught his spine to control his lower limbs.  Rob Summers was completely paralysed from the waist down after being run over in 2006.  But after cutting-edge treatment he has stood on his own and taken faltering steps on treadmill.   [Continue readingThe Sun, May 20, 2011]

Meditation instead of morphine — not so fast
Meditation appears to be a powerful way to take away pain — just a short session is more potent than even morphine, if we’re to believe the headlines — but let’s take a closer look.  In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, meditation rookies reported feeling less pain after meditation training than they had felt before the training.   [Continue readingLos Angeles Times, April 7, 2011]

Demystifying Meditation — Brain Imaging Illustrates How Meditation Reduces Pain
Meditation produces powerful pain-relieving effects in the brain, according to new research published in the April 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.   “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 Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “We found a big effect — about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.”   [Continue readingWake Forest Baptist Medical Center Web site, April 5, 2011]

Pain and heartache are bound together in our brains
Like a jab in the arm with a red-hot poker, social rejection hurts.  Literally.  A new study finds that our brains make little distinction between the sting of being rebuffed by peers — or by a lover, boss or family member — and the physical pain that arises from disease or injury.   [Continue readingLos Angeles Times, March 29, 2011]

Brain Waves and Meditation
Forget about crystals and candles, and about sitting and breathing in awkward ways. Meditation research explores how the brain works when we refrain from concentration, rumination and intentional thinking. Electrical brain waves suggest that mental activity during meditation is wakeful and relaxed…

Picture of head cap for measuring brain waves during meditation.Constant brain waves

Whether we are mentally active, resting or asleep, the brain always has some level of electrical activity. The study monitored the frequency and location of electrical brain waves through the use of EEG (electroencephalography). EEG electrodes were placed in standard locations of the scalp using a custom-made hat.

Participants were experienced practitioners of Acem Meditation, a nondirective method developed in Norway. They were asked to rest, eyes closed, for 20 minutes, and to meditate for another 20 minutes, in random order. The abundance and location of slow to fast electrical brain waves (delta, theta, alpha, beta) provide a good indication of brain activity.

Relaxed attention with theta

During meditation, theta waves were most abundant in the frontal and middle parts of the brain.

“These types of waves likely originate from a relaxed attention that monitors our inner experiences. Here lies a significant difference between meditation and relaxing without any specific technique,” emphasizes Lagopoulos.

“Previous studies have shown that theta waves indicate deep relaxation and occur more frequently in highly experienced meditation practitioners. The source is probably frontal parts of the brain, which are associated with monitoring of other mental processes.”

“When we measure mental calm, these regions signal to lower parts of the brain, inducing the physical relaxation response that occurs during meditation.”

Silent experiences with alpha

Alpha waves were more abundant in the posterior parts of the brain during meditation than during simple relaxation. They are characteristic of wakeful rest.

“This wave type has been used as a universal sign of relaxation during meditation and other types of rest,” comments Professor Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU. “The amount of alpha waves increases when the brain relaxes from intentional, goal-oriented tasks.  This is a sign of deep relaxation, — but it does not mean that the mind is void.

Neuroimaging studies by Malia F. Mason and co-workers at Dartmouth College NH suggest that the normal resting state of the brain is a silent current of thoughts, images and memories that is not induced by sensory input or intentional reasoning, but emerges spontaneously “from within.”

Spontaneous wandering of the mind is something you become more aware of and familiar with when you meditate,” continues Ellingsen, who is an experienced practitioner. “This default activity of the brain is often underestimated. It probably represents a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them into perspective and lays them to rest.”

Different from sleep

Delta waves are characteristic of sleep. There was little delta during the relaxing and meditative tasks, confirming that nondirective meditation is different from sleep.

Beta waves occur when the brain is working on goal-oriented tasks, such as planning a date or reflecting actively over a particular issue. EEG showed few beta waves during meditation and resting.

“These findings indicate that you step away from problem solving both when relaxing and during meditation,” says Ellingsen.   [Continue readingScienceDaily, March 19, 2010; emphasis is mine.]

How many friends do you need?
The title of Robin Dunbar’s recently published book asks a good question: How many friends does one person need? (

Dunbar suggests that a human being can’t have more than about 150 friends (or “acquaintances”, as the book itself somewhat revealingly puts it). But of course it all depends on who we count as a “friend”. If we are talking about people with whom one spends a good deal of one’s time, then the number would usually be significantly lower; whereas if we allow friends to include what Aristotle called philoi, it could be much larger. People are philoi when they have some kind of goodwill to one another, and are mutually aware of that goodwill (Nicomachean Ethics VIII.2). On this generous view, even Facebook “friends” one has never met might be genuine, if those extending and accepting the invitation do have some real concern for one another.

Aristotle’s profound and considered thoughts on friendship illustrate a conflict between two ideals: those of self-sufficiency on the one hand and community membership on the other. Solitary contemplation is the most self-sufficient of human activities, and indeed brings us closest to the divine. But human beings are political — that is, they live in poleis or cities — and the ideal human life will be one lived with parents, children, partner, and friends and fellow-citizens generally. So how many friends one needs will depend to some extent on one’s chosen mode of life. But we should not be over-impressed by the idea of the “solitary genius”. Even Simeon Stylites, who lived as an ascetic on his pillar for nearly forty years, allowed visitors to ascend his pillar, wrote letters, and gave lectures to the multitudes below.

The right number of friends also depends on what human well-being or happiness really consists in. On Aristotle’s view, happiness consists at least partly in the exercise of the virtues, and one will need friends as objects of and collaborators in one’s virtuous actions. And friends are often included in lists of allegedly objective human goods, alongside knowledge, accomplishment, and pleasure. But those who take a more subjective position — hedonists, for example — will see value in friendship only in so far as that friendship is something that brings some other benefit, such as enjoyment, to the friends. So friends whose company you no longer enjoy aren’t worth keeping.

Indeed some philosophers have gone so far as to suggest that friendship is positively bad, in its distracting us from the entirely impartial “point of view of the universe”, to use Henry Sidgwick’s phrase. In a world such as ours, where one can save someone’s eyesight for a few dollars, how can it be justifiable to spend time with close friends, let alone buy them gifts, when one could be putting one’s time and money into promoting the universal good? But it has to be said that such extreme views are rare. Even those who believe that ultimately what matters is the universal good recognize that any human being can effectively advance that good only with the psychological support of friends. Here friendship is not so much a constituent of virtuous activity as a necessary means to it.

Evolutionary theory, then, is only part of the answer to the question of how many friends we need, in so far as evolution puts certain constraints on what is possible. Also required is philosophical reflection on the nature of friendship, its role in human happiness, and the demands of morality.   [Read the originalUniversity of Oxford, published March 1, 2010 by Roger Crisp.]

Top of Page ↑  
← Previous Page Next Page →