Meditate to Improve Attention by Changing the Brain

 

“meditation may increase our control over our limited brain resources. To anyone who knows what it’s like to feel scattered or overwhelmed, this is an appealing benefit indeed. Even though your attention is a limited resource, you can learn to do more with the mental energy you already have.” – Kelly McGonigal

 

Meditation practice has many psychological, cognitive, and physical benefits. It has been shown to improve attentional abilities so that we can better maintain our attention when needed and reduce the strong human tendency for mind wandering (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/attention/), the enemy of focused attention. This allows us to better attend to the present moment, what’s happening now, rather than be dominated by thought, memories, and plans for the future.

 

In the last few decades, scientists have discovered that the brain is far more malleable than previously thought. Areas in the brain can change, either increase or decrease in size, connectivity, and activity in response to changes in our environment or the behaviors we engage in. This process is referred to as neuroplasticity. Alterations in the brain can be produced by contemplative practices. The brain appears to change in response to meditation and other contemplative practices. Indeed, mindfulness practices have been shown to not only alter how we think and feel but also to alter the nervous system (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/neuroplasticity/).

 

In today’s Research News article “Increases in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and decreases the rostral prefrontal cortex activation after-8 weeks of focused attention based mindfulness meditation”

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Tomasino and colleagues investigate neuroplastic changes to the brain when individuals who have no experience with meditation engage in an 8-week meditation program. The participants’ brain activity during meditation was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) before and after the meditation training. They found that at the end of training the participants showed greater activation of the right middle frontal gyrus and the left caudate/anterior insular cortex. They also found that the practice decreased activation in the rostral prefrontal cortex and in right parietal cortex. They further demonstrated that these altered brain activities were produced by the focused meditation component and not a body scan component of the practice.

 

The increased activity observed in the prefrontal areas makes perfect sense as meditation is an attentional practice and the prefrontal areas have been previously shown to be associated with attention. So, practicing attention alters the brain areas responsible for attention. The decreased activity observed in the rostral prefrontal cortex also makes perfect sense as focused attention is antithetical to mind wandering and the rostral prefrontal cortex has been shown to be involved in the “default mode network” that is activated during mind wandering. So, practicing attention also decreases activity in the brain areas responsible for its opposite, mind wandering. So, meditation practice was found to strengthen the activity of the exact areas of the brain that are known to be increased by attentional activity and reduced activity of the areas known to be increased during mind wandering.

 

Hence, meditation practice by naive individuals appears to alter their brains to better maintain attention and restrain mind wandering. The fact that the brain has been changes suggests that the improved attentional ability will be maintained even when the individuals are not actively meditating. This make the practice far more useful as it has more long-lasting effects.

 

So, meditate to improve attention by changing the brain.

 

“Meditation provides experiences that the mind can achieve no other way, such as inner silence and expanded awareness. And as the mind gains experience, the brain shows physical activity as well—sometimes profound changes. . . . the research has begun to show that meditation can also produce long-term structural changes in the brain. No longer is the “hard wiring” of neural circuits so dominant. The brain can alter its wiring in “soft” ways, thanks to a trait known as neuroplasticity, which allows new pathways and even new brain cells to appear.” – Deepak Chopra

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

Improve High Level Thinking with Mindfulness

 

“Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new.” – Og Mandino

 

In the modern world education is a key for success. Where a high school education was sufficient in previous generations, a college degree is now required to succeed in the new knowledge based economies. There is a lot of pressure on students to excel so that they can be admitted to the best universities and there is a lot of pressure on university students to excel so that they can get the best jobs after graduation. As a result, parents and students are constantly looking for ways to improve student performance in school.

 

The primary tactic has been to pressure the student and clear away routine tasks and chores so that the student can focus on their studies. But, this might in fact be counterproductive as the increased pressure can actually lead to stress and anxiety which can impede performance. A better tactic may be the development of mindfulness skills with contemplative practices. These practices and high levels of mindfulness have been shown to be helpful in coping with the school environment and for the performance of both students and teachers (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/school/). So, perhaps, mindfulness training may provide the needed edge in school.

 

In today’s Research News article “Effects of a Mindfulness Meditation Course on Learning and Cognitive Performance among University Students in Taiwan”

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http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4657094/

Ching and colleagues took advantage of the natural experiment provided in a private university which required a semester long mindfulness course as a core course for all students. The course taught meditation, body scan, and everyday mindfulness skills. They compared students who completed the course in the fall semester to those who were scheduled to take the course in the spring semester. They measured the students with the College Learning Effectiveness Inventory (CLEI) which measures psychosocial factors including thoughts, feelings, or behaviors related to academic outcomes and also measured performance on the cognitive tasks of vigilance, choice reaction times, spatial working memory, and memory scanning.

 

The study demonstrated that the mindfulness training produced significantly higher scores on the CLEI suggesting improved attitudes and behaviors impacting learning and academic performance. In addition, the mindfulness training produced improved performance on the cognitive tasks, including increased accuracy in the vigilance, choice reaction time, and spatial working memory tasks. These results suggest that mindfulness training can improve cognitive performance in college students and improve their psychosocial attitudes toward and adjustment to college life. Although actual grade performance was not investigated, the improved skills would predict better academic performance.

 

There are a number of known effects of mindfulness practice that could be responsible for the improved cognitive and psychosocial skills in the college students. Mindfulness training has been shown to directly affect cognitive skills (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/cognition/), social skills (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/social-behavior/), and psychological well-being (see   http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/well-being/). In addition, mindfulness training is known to reduce the physiological and psychological responses to stress (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/stress/) which may reduce the anxiety produced by the pressures of college. Finally, mindfulness training is known to improve sleep (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/sleep/) which is known to be a problem for college students. So, it appears clear that mindfulness training has many desired effects that promote school performance and thus mindfulness training should be considered for incorporation in school curricula.

 

So, improve high level thinking with mindfulness.

 

“Education is that whole system of human training within and without the school house walls, which molds and develops men.” – W. E. B. Du Bois
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Feeling Feelings: Getting in Touch with the Body

Most of us spend the majority of our lives lost in thought. Even when we become aware of our surroundings it is principally of the sights and sounds surrounding us. It is usually only when something is very wrong that we become aware of our bodies, what is called interoceptive awareness. We are generally unaware of the signals from our bodies such as the breath, movements in the GI tract, heart beats accompanied with surges in blood pressure, the sensations from our muscles and joints, even the sensations from our skin. Adding to the lack of awareness of our bodies we are also unaware of our implicit beliefs and attitudes about our bodies and the emotions that accompany these attitudes.

To exemplify this, just for a moment start paying attention to the sensations coming from the contact of your clothing with your skin. You were in all probability totally unaware of these sensations until your attention was directed toward them. Now notice the feelings from your facial muscles. Are they tense, relaxed, or something in-between. You probably were not aware of their state yet they can be good indicators of stress and your emotional state.

This can be a real problem as interoceptive awareness is extremely important for our awareness of our emotional state which is in turn needed to regulate and respond appropriately to the emotions. Being aware of the state of our bodies is also important for maintaining health, both for recognizing our physical state and also for making appropriate decisions about health related behaviors. Interoceptive awareness is even fundamental to our sense of self and world view.

Obviously it is important that we find ways to improve our poor body awareness. Most contemplative practices focus attention on our internal state and thus should improve our body awareness. But, in fact there is little empirical evidence on the issue. In today’s Research News article “Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training”

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http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4284997/

Bornemann and colleagues examine the effect of a 3-month training employing focused meditation and body scan meditation on interoceptive awareness. They found significant increases in five of the eight scales of interoceptive awareness compared to a control group.

It was found that meditation and body scan practice improved the regulatory aspects of interoceptive awareness. These include Self-Regulation which is the ability to control distress by paying attention to sensations from the body, Attention Regulation which is the ability to focus in a sustained way on the sensations from the body, and Body Listening which is the ability to gain insight into the physical and emotional state by listening to the signals from the body. These are important skills involved in being able to not only be aware of body sensations but to use these sensations to better understand and control their internal state and physical wellbeing.

Contemplative practice also improved Emotional Awareness, which is the ability to be aware of and understand the connection between body sensations and emotions, and Body Trusting, which is experiencing one’s own body as a safe place. These are also important abilities as they allow us to trust in the usefulness of the information from the body to better understand and control our emotions.

It is interesting that the contemplative practice did not increase Noticing of body sensations such as heart beat and breathing. Rather it appears to markedly improve our ability to use the information from our bodies to understand and regulate our emotional or motivational state. This is very important to our wellbeing both mental and physical. It puts us better in control by providing the signals we need to be better able to regulate our state.

These improvements in interoceptive awareness could also explain to some extent how mindfulness practices produce their well-documented significant improvements in physical and psychological health and wellbeing. It simply makes us better able to respond to and control our bodies and our emotions.

So engage in contemplative practice and learn how to feel your feelings and benefit your body’s signals.

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Get your Calm on!

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is one of the first secular based mindfulness training programs in the west. In fact, it could be argued that the development of MBSR was what launched the mindfulness movement in the west. The movement took off probably because MBSR was shown to be so very effective in the treatment of a wide range of physical, psychological, and emotional issues that plague western culture.

Stress is rampant in competitive western culture producing physical and psychological damage. MBSR’s effectiveness at calming the reactions to stress and reducing anxiety has made it a very popular.

MBSR is not a single practice. Rather it is a combination of practices including meditation, yoga, and body scan meditation. Whether all of these components are necessary for effectiveness or if some components are more effective for some conditions while others are superior for others has yet to be established with empirical evidence. This is an important issue for the understanding of the exact mechanisms by which MBSR has its effects.

It is also not known how much MBSR or how much of each component is needed to have a maximum impact. In more scientific words, a dose response study is needed. This is important to produce optimum effectiveness.

In today’s Research News Article “Effectiveness of Brief Mindfulness Techniques in Reducing Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress’

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David Call and colleagues tested whether very brief, three weekly 45-min sessions of hatha yoga or body scan would be effective in reducing stress and anxiety in undergraduate students. Both practices reduced both anxiety and stress levels.

Interestingly, neither group showed a significant increase in mindfulness, possibly due to the lack of meditation practice and perhaps suggesting that yoga and body scan practices might act directly on stress and anxiety rather than by raising mindfulness that then reduced the symptoms. This contradicts the notion that mindfulness based increases in present moment awareness are the cause of the reduction in anxiety which is future oriented. It remains possible that the physiological effects of yoga and body scan on reducing the hormonal and neural responses to stress may be responsible.

The magnitude of the effects on stress and anxiety were quite large and clinically significant. It is amazing that such a brief treatment of 3 sessions of 45 minutes could have this large of an impact. It remains to be seen if the impact is lasting. Regardless, the fact that a brief simple intervention can markedly reduce stress and anxiety is exciting as it is highly scalable; rolling it out to large numbers of individuals.

So, practice yoga and/or body scan and get your calm on.

CMCS

Meditation Techniques – Body Scan Meditation

 

“It’s amazing to me that simultaneously completely preoccupied with the appearance of our own body and at the same time completely out of touch with it as well.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

In prior posts we discussed Breath Meditation

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http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/24/beginning-meditation-getting-started-3-breath-following-2/

Open Monitoring Meditation

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http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/25/beginning-meditation-getting-started-4-open-monitoring-meditation/

and Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) practice.

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http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/26/meditation-techniques-loving-kindness-meditation/

Today we will discuss another meditation technique, Body Scan Meditation. This technique is excellent for bringing present moment awareness to all of the sensations throughout the body. It can help to increase your awareness of precisely how each part of your body is feeling at the present moment. We’d appreciate hearing comments and suggestions from others. There are many paths!

Many people go through their day with very little awareness of the feelings and sensations from their bodies. This can be a major problem as these sensations carry important messages. They can reflect your state of health or even reveal emotions that you were unaware were affecting you. It can make you much more aware of when you’re experiencing stress, allowing you to better manage it. It can heighten your awareness of the non-verbal cues that you may be sending others, allowing you to better understand other peoples’ responses to you. As the proverb goes “know thyself” and Body Scan meditation can help.

To begin the meditation lie down on the floor on a mat or pad on stretched out on your back with your hands alongside your body. Gently close your eyes. There will be a tendency to fall asleep during the practice as the deep relaxation takes its toll on your awakeness. Don’t be concerned if you do fall asleep, many people do. But try to “fall awake” and really focus your attention. If you can feel yourself getting very sleepy you might try opening your eyes.

For a couple of minutes just relax and move your attention to the sensations from throughout your body, skin, muscles, joints, and internal organs. Feel the energy of life throughout. Now move your attention to the toes on your right foot. Feel the sensations from your toes, noting any tension, pain or discomfort, but particularly just become aware of everything you feel from your toes. Try to watch your breathing and imagine the air moving into and out of your toes on its way to the lungs with every breath. If you don’t feel anything, don’t worry, just note it and move on.

Now do the same thing for the bottom of your foot, moving your attention to the sensations from the top of your foot and then breathing through it. Take your time and fully appreciate the sensations. Then move on and repeat the process for the bottom of the foot, then the ankle, followed by the lower leg, the knee, the upper leg and thigh, the pelvis, and the hip. The entire process is then repeated for the left leg moving from toes to hip.

After completing the scan of the left hip repeat the process for the abdomen, the lower back, the upper back, the chest, the shoulder blades, the armpits and the shoulders. Then moving on to the sensations from the fingers on both the left and right sides simultaneously, back of the hands, front of the hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, and upper arms. Then move your attention to the sensations from the neck, the throat, the jaw, the lips, the nose, the cheeks, the ears, the eyes and eyelids, the forehead, the top of your head, and the back of your head.

After completing the scan, just relax like you did in the beginning, feeling the sensations from throughout your body. Just lie there for a few minutes silently enjoying the peace and quiet, with full awareness of your body and all the sensations from all over it. Experience the wonder of your body. Experience the awesome vehicle of your life. Feel the life everywhere throughout. Luxuriate in the sensations and simply enjoy being alive.

There are many variations of the body scan. You might do well to find a guided body scan meditation on the web and use it to guide you initially. But, eventually move on to doing your own body scan as you find it works best for you. Remember that this is a practice and must be repeated on a regular schedule. But if you do, you’ll be amazed at the relaxation and stress relief it brings, the ongoing awareness of the sensations from your body, and the appreciation for your living body.

So, practice the Body Scan meditation and get in touch with your body.

“Through practising body scan awareness meditation, we can greatly reduce the detrimental effects of stress and make our working lives pleasant and enjoyable.” ― Christopher Dines

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies