Change Your Brain’s Activity with Mindfulness

Change Your Brain’s Activity with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.” – Jennifer Wolkin

 

There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness practices have significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how meditation could do this. The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practices appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

If mindfulness training can alter the nervous system then perhaps simply being a mindful individual will be associated with differences in the same brain regions. This idea was examined in today’s Research News article “Resting Brain Activity Related to Dispositional Mindfulness: a PET Study.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5506209/, Gartenschläger and colleagues recruited normal and psychologically disturbed individuals and measured their levels of mindfulness, depression, and anxiety. The participants then underwent a brain scan for neural activity (Positron Emission Tomography, PET Scan).

 

They found that the higher the participant’s level of mindfulness, the lower the levels of both depression and anxiety. This is not surprising as mindfulness training has been shown repeatedly to produce lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also found that the higher the levels of mindfulness the higher the resting brain activity in the superior parietal lobule and in precuneus and superior parietal lobule and the lower the activity in the inferior frontal orbital gyrus and anterior thalamus.

 

These results are complex but the lower activity in the Thalamus may represent lower levels of general activation of the brain in mindful individuals. Also, the lower activity in the inferior frontal orbital gyrus may represent lower levels of language processing in mindful individuals, possibly indicating less internal language, thinking, with individuals high in mindfulness. In addition, the higher activity in the parietal lobe and precuneus may represent greater activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of which these structures are a part. The DMN is associated with a sense of self, self-referential thinking, and mind wandering. This suggests that mindful individuals while at rest, with their eyes closed, may be less activated (more at rest), have less internal language (thought), and have their minds wandering.

 

It may seem counterintuitive that mindful individuals’ minds may be wandering more as mindfulness has been shown to be associated with less mind wandering. But, the situation of lying in a scanner with eyes closed may be one in which discursive thought is perfectly appropriate. In any case, these are interesting results that add to our understanding of the brain systems involved in mindfulness. It will require considerable future research to paint a complete picture of the neural systems underlying mindfulness and being altered by mindfulness training.

 

So, change your brain’s activity with mindfulness.

 

The practice of mindfulness can train our brains to have a new default. Instead of automatically falling into the stream of past or future rumination that ignites the depression loop, mindfulness draws our attention to the present moment. As we practice mindfulness, we actually start wiring neurons that balance the brain in a way that is naturally an antidepressant.” – Alex Korb

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Gartenschläger, M., Schreckenberger, M., Buchholz, H.-G., Reiner, I., Beutel, M. E., Adler, J., & Michal, M. (2017). Resting Brain Activity Related to Dispositional Mindfulness: a PET Study. Mindfulness, 8(4), 1009–1017. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0677-2

 

Abstract

Mindfulness denotes a state of consciousness characterized by receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experiences. As a personality trait, it constitutes the ability to become aware of mental activities such as sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts, and to disengage from judgment, conditioned emotions, and their cognitive processing or automatic inhibition. Default brain activity reflects the stream of consciousness and sense of self at rest. Analysis of brain activity at rest in persons with mindfulness propensity may help to elucidate the neurophysiological basis of this important mental trait. The sample consisted of 32 persons—23 with mental disorders and 9 healthy controls. Dispositional mindfulness (DM) was operationalized by Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). Brain activity at rest with eyes closed was assessed by fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (F-18-FDG PET). After adjustment for depression, anxiety, age and years of education, resting glucose metabolism in superior parietal lobule and left precuneus/Brodmann area (BA) 7 was positively associated with DM. Activity of the left inferior frontal orbital gyrus (BA 47) and bilateral anterior thalamus were inversely associated with DM. DM appears to be associated with increased metabolic activity in some core area of the default mode network (DMN) and areas connected to the DMN, such as BA 7, hosting sense of self functions. Hypometabolism on the other hand was found in some nodes connected to the DMN, such as left inferior frontal orbital gyrus and bilateral thalamus, commonly related to functions of memory retrieval, decision making, or outward attention.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5506209/

Correct Brain Rhythms and Reduce Depression with Mindfulness

Correct Brain Rhythms and Reduce Depression with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness, or paying full attention to the present moment, can be very helpful in improving the cognitive symptoms of depression.  . . Through mindfulness, individuals start to see their thoughts as less powerful. These distorted thoughts – such as “I always make mistakes” or “I’m a horrible person” – start to hold less weight. . . We ‘experience’ thoughts and other sensations, but we aren’t carried away by them. We just watch them come and go.” –  Margarita Tartakovsky

 

Clinically diagnosed depression is the most common mental illness, affecting over 6% of the population. Major depression can be quite debilitating. It is also generally episodic, coming and going. Some people only have a single episode but most have multiple reoccurrences of depression.  Depression can be difficult to treat and usually treated with anti-depressive medication. But, of patients treated initially with drugs only about a third attained remission of the depression. After repeated and varied treatments including drugs, therapy, exercise etc. only about two thirds of patients attained remission. But, drugs often have troubling side effects and can lose effectiveness over time. In addition, many patients who achieve remission have relapses and recurrences of the depression. Even after remission some symptoms of depression may still be present (residual symptoms).

 

Being depressed and not responding to treatment or relapsing is a terribly difficult situation. The patients are suffering and nothing appears to work to relieve their intense depression. Suicide becomes a real possibility. So, it is imperative that other treatments be identified that can be applied when the typical treatments fail. Mindfulness training is another alternative treatment for depression. It has been shown to be an effective treatment for depression and is also effective for the prevention of its recurrence. Mindfulness training is also known to change the nervous system.

 

The brain shows synchronous activity where large numbers of neural cells are active together in burst. This activity can be recorded in the electroencephalogram (EEG). They appear as oscillations (waves) in the electrical signals that occur at certain frequencies. Over time these frequencies are fairly stable which is reflected in a correlation over time of the waves. This is called Long-Range Temporal Correlations (LRTC). This signal changes with mental illness and brain disease. So, it is reasonable to study the LRTC in depressed patients and the effect of mindfulness training on it.

 

In today’s Research News article “Aberrant Long-Range Temporal Correlations in Depression Are Attenuated after Psychological Treatment.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5488389/, Gärtner and colleagues recruited depressed and healthy control patients and randomly assigned them to receive either 2 weeks of mindfulness training or education on stress reduction. Mindfulness training consisted of two 25-minute guided meditation per day for 6 days per week. The stress reduction education group was asked to rest on the same schedule. Before and after training they were measured for mental illness, depression, and rumination, and the EEG recorded at rest with eyes closed.

 

They found that the there was a significant elevation of the Long-Range Temporal Correlations (LRTC) in the depressed patients in the frontal and temporal cortices. In addition, mindfulness training, but not stress reduction education, produced a significant reduction in both depression and rumination. Further, after mindfulness training there was a significant reduction in the LRTC signal and the larger the reduction in the LRTC the greater the reduction in depression. Hence, they found that depression was associated with heightened neural synchrony and that mindfulness training reduced that synchrony to normal levels while relieving depression. These appeared to be related, as the larger the reduction, normalizing, in the synchrony the greater the reduction in depression.

 

These are interesting results that suggest that mindfulness training changes the brain in beneficial ways for depressed patients, normalizing the brain activity and the depressive symptoms. Mindfulness training has been previously demonstrated to reduce depression. The present results suggest how the training may be altering the brain to relieve depression by correcting aberrant brain activity in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. These results, however, only demonstrate that both brain activity and depression change after mindfulness training and does not demonstrate a causal connection between the brain activity and depression. It will remain for future research to investigate whether they are causally connected.

 

So, correct brain rhythms and reduce depression with mindfulness.

 

“Mindfulness practices of MBCT allowed people to be more intentionally aware of the present moment, which gave them space to pause before reacting automatically to others. Instead of becoming distressed about rejection or criticism, they stepped back to understand their own automatic reactions—and to become more attuned to others’ needs and emotions. Awareness gave them more choice in how to respond, instead of becoming swept up in escalating negative emotion.” – Emily Nauman

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Gärtner, M., Irrmischer, M., Winnebeck, E., Fissler, M., Huntenburg, J. M., Schroeter, T. A., … Barnhofer, T. (2017). Aberrant Long-Range Temporal Correlations in Depression Are Attenuated after Psychological Treatment. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 340. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00340

 

Abstract

The spontaneous oscillatory activity in the human brain shows long-range temporal correlations (LRTC) that extend over time scales of seconds to minutes. Previous research has demonstrated aberrant LRTC in depressed patients; however, it is unknown whether the neuronal dynamics normalize after psychological treatment. In this study, we recorded EEG during eyes-closed rest in depressed patients (N = 71) and healthy controls (N = 25), and investigated the temporal dynamics in depressed patients at baseline, and after attending either a brief mindfulness training or a stress reduction training. Compared to the healthy controls, depressed patients showed stronger LRTC in theta oscillations (4–7 Hz) at baseline. Following the psychological interventions both groups of patients demonstrated reduced LRTC in the theta band. The reduction of theta LRTC differed marginally between the groups, and explorative analyses of separate groups revealed noteworthy topographic differences. A positive relationship between the changes in LRTC, and changes in depressive symptoms was observed in the mindfulness group. In summary, our data show that aberrant temporal dynamics of ongoing oscillations in depressive patients are attenuated after treatment, and thus may help uncover the mechanisms with which psychotherapeutic interventions affect the brain.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5488389/

Improve Brain Processing of Cognitive Conflict with Mindfulness

Improve Brain Processing of Cognitive Conflict with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have” for executives. It’s a “must-have”:  a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress. When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.” – Christina Congleton

 

There is a tremendous amount of information present at any moment. It is a challenge to the nervous system to sort it out and pay attention to only the most significant information. This involves ignoring competing or conflicting stimuli and concentrating on only the most salient and pertinent stimuli. Mindfulness training can help. It involves a greater emphasis on attention to the immediate stimulus environment. So, it builds the capacity to focus on what is transpiring in the present moment. Mindful people generally have better attentional abilities and have fewer intrusive thoughts and less mind wandering. As a result, mindfulness has been shown to be associated with differences in thought processes.

 

One indirect method to monitor cognitive functions is through recording the electrical signals from the brain with the electroencephalogram (EEG). Electrical activity occurring at different frequencies is representative of the nature of the activity in the underlying brain tissue. The theta rhythm occurs in the frequency region of 4-7 cycles per second (Hz.). Recordings of Theta, particularly in the frontal regions of the brain have been shown to increase when attention is focused and mind wandering is minimized. Hence, the effects of mindfulness practice on the nervous may be seen in alterations to the Theta Rhythm in the frontal areas of the brain and the structures connected to them.

 

In today’s Research News article “Frontal Theta Dynamics during Response Conflict in Long-Term Mindfulness Meditators.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5461248/, Jo and colleagues recruited adult long-term (> 5 years) meditators (average 13.1 years) and non-meditators matched on gender and age. All participants had EEGs recorded while performing a flanker task, a measure of executive cognitive function, in which the participant has to respond to the direction of an arrow, when it is surrounded by distracting arrows that point either in the same (no-conflict) or opposite (conflict situation) directions.

 

They found that the meditators responded more accurately on the flanker task, making significantly fewer errors, particularly when the conflict situation was present. Hence, meditators demonstrated superior cognitive control and attentional ability. The Theta Rhythm power over the frontal areas was found to be higher for both groups during the conflict but not the no-conflict situation. The synchrony of the Theta Rhythm over the frontal areas and especially between the frontal areas and the motor cortex was greater for both groups during the conflict situation, but was significantly greater in the meditators. In addition, the greater the level of synchronization during the conflict situation the fewer the error made on the flanker task.

 

These are interesting results and suggest that long-term meditation practice enhances the individual’s cognitive and attentional ability particularly when conflicting stimuli are present. In addition, long-term meditation practice appears to alter the frontal areas of the nervous system enhancing their ability to resolve conflicts. So, meditation practice improves the brain and as a result the meditators cognitive attentional processing.

 

So, improve brain processing of cognitive conflict with mindfulness.

 

“Importantly, research has shown mindfulness to increase activity in brain areas associated with attention and emotion regulation. Mindfulness also facilitates neuroplasticity — the creation of new connections and neural pathways in the brain.” – Carolyn Gregoire

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Jo, H.-G., Malinowski, P., & Schmidt, S. (2017). Frontal Theta Dynamics during Response Conflict in Long-Term Mindfulness Meditators. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience11, 299. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00299

 

Abstract

Mindfulness meditators often show greater efficiency in resolving response conflicts than non-meditators. However, the neural mechanisms underlying the improved behavioral efficiency are unclear. Here, we investigated frontal theta dynamics—a neural mechanism involved in cognitive control processes—in long-term mindfulness meditators. The dynamics of EEG theta oscillations (4–8 Hz) recorded over the medial frontal cortex (MFC) were examined in terms of their power (MFC theta power) and their functional connectivity with other brain areas (the MFC-centered theta network). Using a flanker-type paradigm, EEG data were obtained from 22 long-term mindfulness meditators and compared to those from 23 matched controls without meditation experience. Meditators showed more efficient cognitive control after conflicts, evidenced by fewer error responses irrespective of response timing. Furthermore, meditators exhibited enhanced conflict modulations of the MFC-centered theta network shortly before the response, in particular for the functional connection between the MFC and the motor cortex. In contrast, MFC theta power was comparable between groups. These results suggest that the higher behavioral efficiency after conflicts in mindfulness meditators could be a function of increased engagement to control the motor system in association with the MFC-centered theta network.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5461248/

Improve Creativity with Mindfulness

Improve Creativity with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness meditation is a great technique to learn to help improve creativity. There have been studies done specifically to measure the cognitive rigidity of people who meditate and their ability to solve problems in novel ways. The research shows non-meditators had greater cognitive rigidity than regular meditators, and they also had a tendency to apply difficult or outdated solutions to easy problems based on their past experiences, this was not the case for people who meditated.”Bianca Rothschild

 

The problem solving ability of humans has been a key to their dominance of their environment. So, it’s important that we understand it and discover how to train it and maximize it. Problem solving most frequently involves logic and reasoning, sometimes along with mathematics. In this case focused attention is the key. The mind wandering off topic interferes with the concentration required for obtaining the solution. But, when a solution does not occur and the individual fails to solve the problem a completely different process transpires producing insight. If logic and reason fail, then fanciful and out-of-the box thinking may be needed. In this case mind wandering, taking the thought process away from the failed logical strategy, is superior, often producing a solution in a flash, an “aha” moment. In this case focused attention prevents the individual from seeing an unusual or creative solution. While the mind wandering off topic increases the discursive thinking that is required for obtaining the insightful solution.

 

Mindfulness is the ability to focus on what is transpiring in the present moment. It involves a greater emphasis on attention to the immediate stimulus environment. Mindful people generally have better attentional abilities and have fewer intrusive thoughts and less mind wandering. As a result, mindfulness has been shown to be associated with differences in thought processes. Most of the time these differences are associated with beneficial results, but sometimes they can lead to negative outcomes including a greater tendency to have false memories. So mindfulness should improve problem solving involving logic, reason, and focused attention, while it should interfere with insightful, creative problem solving.

 

These two forms of problem solving are, in general, associated with different neural systems. Focused attention involves a number of brain structures centered in the frontal lobes. Creative, discursive thinking involves a system of structures known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) involving the parietal lobe, cingulate cortex, and insula. One way to investigate the influence of mindfulness on creative problem solving is to look at the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN) during creative problem solving and insight in practitioners with varying amounts of mindfulness training.

 

 

In today’s Research News article “Creativity Is Enhanced by Long-Term Mindfulness Training and Is Negatively Correlated with Trait Default-Mode-Related Low-Gamma Inter-Hemispheric Connectivity.” (See summary below). Berkovich-Ohana and colleagues recruited non-meditators and meditators with short (180-1430 hours), intermediate (1740-2860 hours), and long-term (3870-23,000 hours) meditation practice. Divergent creative thinking was measured with the alternative uses task which requires participants to generate as many and unusual uses of conventional, everyday objects. While the participants were engaged in the creativity measurements the Electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from the scalp.

 

They found that the intermediate and long-term meditators, compared to the non-meditators and short-term meditators, had significantly greater performance on the creative thinking task including a greater number of alternative uses (fluency) and a greater number of categories (flexibility) of alternative uses. Further, they found that the lower the EEG activity in the gamma frequency range between brain hemispheres the greater the creative thinking. These results suggest that meditation practice alters brain processing, changing the interhemispheric connectivity of the DMN to improve creative thinking.

 

The study found that meditation practice improves creative thinking which is related to lower functional connectivity for the Default Mode Network (DMN). This, in turn, suggests that the lower ability of the mind wandering system of the brain to affect other brain regions the better the creative thinking. Hence, suppressing mind wandering while engaged in the alternative uses creative thinking task improves creative thinking.

 

So, improve creativity with mindfulness.

 

“A central aspect of creativity is divergent thinking, which refers to the ability to come up with lots of different ideas. . . .  there is a small influence of mindfulness techniques on divergent thinking. That is, people who engage in mindfulness exercises tend to do a better job of generating more ideas than those who do not. They are better, but not much better.” – Art Markman

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Berkovich-Ohana, A., Glicksohn, J., Ben-Soussan, T.D., Goldstein, A. Creativity Is Enhanced by Long-Term Mindfulness Training and Is Negatively Correlated with Trait Default-Mode-Related Low-Gamma Inter-Hemispheric Connectivity. Mindfulness (2017) 8: 717. doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0649-y

 

Abstract

It is becoming increasingly accepted that creative performance, especially divergent thinking, may depend on reduced activity within the default mode network (DMN), related to mind-wandering and autobiographic self-referential processing. However, the relationship between trait (resting-state) DMN activity and divergent thinking is controversial. Here, we test the relationship between resting-state DMN activity and divergent thinking in a group of mindfulness meditation practitioners. We build on our two previous reports, which have shown DMN activity to be related to resting-state log gamma (25–45 Hz) power and inter-hemispheric functional connectivity. Using the same cohort of participants (three mindfulness groups with increasing expertise, and controls, n = 12 each), we tested (1) divergent thinking scores (Flexibility and Fluency) using the Alternative Uses task and (2) correlation between Alternative Uses scores and DMN activity as measured by resting-state gamma power and inter-hemispheric functional connectivity. We found that both Fluency and Flexibility (1) were higher in the two long-term mindfulness groups (>1000 h) compared to short-term mindfulness practitioners and control participants and (2) negatively correlated with gamma inter-hemispheric functional connectivity (frontal-midline and posterior-midline connections). In addition, (3) Fluency was significantly correlated with mindfulness expertise. Together, these results show that long-term mindfulness meditators exhibit higher divergent thinking scores in correlation with their expertise and demonstrate a negative divergent thinking—resting-state DMN activity relationship, thus largely support a negative DMN-creativity connection.

Alter Brain Networks and Cognitive Ability with Tai Chi

Alter Brain Networks and Cognitive Ability with Tai Chi

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

” Another great benefit of Tai Chi is that it’s accessible to people of all ages and fitness abilities. It’s the focus on the subtle movements that exercise the brain and boost cognitive abilities.” – Karl Romain

 

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese practice involving mindfulness and gentle movements. It is easy to learn, safe, and gentle. Tai Chi has been practiced for thousands of years with benefits for health and longevityTai Chi training is designed to enhance function and regulate the activities of the body through controlled breathing, mindful concentration, and gentle movements. Only recently though have the effects of this practice been scrutinized with empirical research. This research has found that it is effective for an array of physical and psychological issues. It appears to strengthen the immune systemreduce inflammation and increase the number of cancer killing cells in the bloodstream, improve cardiovascular healthreduce arthritis painimprove balance and reduce falls. It also appears to improve attentional ability and relieve depression.

 

The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits. Hence, it would appear likely that Tai Chi practice may alter the brain networks underlying mindfulness.

 

In today’s Research News article “Mind-Body Practice Changes Fractional Amplitude of Low Frequency Fluctuations in Intrinsic Control Networks.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01049/full?utm_source=F-AAE&utm_medium=EMLF&utm_campaign=MRK_325025_69_Psycho_20170711_arts_A

Wei and colleagues recruited healthy long-term practitioners of Tai Chi (average 14 years of practice) and age, gender, and education matched non-practitioners. All participants performed a flanker task, a measure of executive cognitive function, in which the participant had to respond to the direction of an arrow surrounded by distracting arrows. They found that the longer the practitioners had been practicing Tai Chi the faster they responded in the flanker, executive function, task. This suggests that Tai Chi practice enhances cognitive function.

 

The participants then underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) brain scanning. The brain scans revealed that the Tai Chi practitioners had a significant reduction in amplitude of low frequency fluctuations in the brain areas called the Default Mode Network (DMN) which underlies mind wandering and self-referential thinking. There was also a significant reduction in amplitude of low frequency fluctuations in the brain areas called the frontoparietal network (FPN) and the dorsal prefrontal-angular network which are associated with cognitive control and executive function. These changes in the low frequency fluctuations suggest that Tai Chi practice produces changes in these networks increasing their functional connectivity.

 

These results are very interesting and suggest that Tai Chi practice can produce changes in the brain improving the connectivities within large-scale neural systems. At least in terms of the frontoparietal network (FPN) and the dorsal prefrontal-angular network these changes may underlie the ability of Tai Chi practice to improve cognitive control and executive function while the changes in the Default Mode Network (DMN) may underlie the ability of Tai Chi practice to reduce mind wandering and self-referential thinking. Hence, Tai Chi practice alters the nervious system and produces very beneficial effects

 

So, alter brain networks and cognitive ability with Tai Chi.

 

“Neuroplasticity may sound like an out of this world term to a normal Tai Chi practitioner but to those who pursue the path of the mind, Warriors of Intention, then this is the proven way of enabling our mind to permanently rewire the way we move.” – Mushin

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Wei G-X, Gong Z-Q, Yang Z and Zuo X-N (2017) Mind-Body Practice Changes Fractional Amplitude of Low Frequency Fluctuations in Intrinsic Control Networks. Front. Psychol. 8:1049. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01049

 

Abstract

Cognitive control impairment is a typical symptom largely reported in populations with neurological disorders. Previous studies have provided evidence about the changes in cognitive control induced by mind-body training. However, the neural correlates underlying the effect of extensive mind-body practice on cognitive control remain largely unknown. Using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging, we characterized dynamic fluctuations in large-scale intrinsic connectivity networks associated with mind-body practice, and examined their differences between healthy controls and Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) practitioners. Compared with a control group, the TCC group revealed significantly decreased fractional Amplitude of Low Frequency Fluctuations (fALFF) in the bilateral frontoparietal network, default mode network and dorsal prefrontal-angular gyri network. Furthermore, we detected a significant association between mind-body practice experience and fALFF in the default mode network, as well as an association between cognitive control performance and fALFF of the frontoparietal network. This provides the first evidence of large-scale functional connectivity in brain networks associated with mind-body practice, shedding light on the neural network changes that accompany intensive mind-body training. It also highlights the functionally plastic role of the frontoparietal network in the context of the “immune system” of mental health recently developed in relation to flexible hub theory.

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01049/full?utm_source=F-AAE&utm_medium=EMLF&utm_campaign=MRK_325025_69_Psycho_20170711_arts_A

Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

Do Spiritual Experiences Reveal Ultimate Truth or Merely Brain Activity?

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Spiritual experiences, be they called awakenings, mystical experiences, or enlightenments, involve a shift in how the individual perceives reality. This could be viewed as a spiritual revelation. But it could also be viewed as a change in the neural systems integrating and interpreting experiences. So, are spiritual awakenings revelations of a reality beyond physical reality or are they simply hallucinatory experience evoked by changes in the nervous system?

 

One way of investigating this question is to study the brain-spirituality connection. Research along these lines has revealed that there is a clear association between spirituality and the brain. Modern neuroscience has developed methods, such as neuroimaging, to investigate the relationship. Applying these techniques it has been demonstrated that spirituality is associated with changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/19/spirituality-mindfulness-and-the-brain/). So spirituality and changes in neural systems co-occur. But, this does not demonstrate a causal connection, whether spirituality alters the brain or brain alteration causes spirituality, or some third factor is responsible for both.

 

A better way to demonstrate if brain activity cause spiritual experiences is to investigate what happens to spirituality when the brain changes. One place to look at this is with accidental brain injuries incurred by humans that afford an opportunity to glimpses associations between brain change and spirituality. In general people who have incurred damage to the right inferior parietal area show an increase in spirituality. So, brain alteration affects spirituality. But, increased spiritual beliefs and spiritual seeking is not the same thing as spiritual experiences. So, we cannot conclude that these changes in the brain are responsible for awakening experiences.

 

Another manipulation of the brain occurs with drugs. Indeed, various hallucinogenic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, etc. have been shown to produce experiences that are extremely similar to spiritual experiences. These drugs have been shown to alter the activity in specific neurochemical systems in the brain and when that happens, experiences that are very similar to spiritual awakenings are evoked. Many people who have used these drugs are altered spiritually but vast numbers of people find hallucinatory drugs as fun recreation but are not affected spiritually.

 

Spiritual seekers who have used psychedelic substances report that they experience something like but not the same as spiritual awakening experiences. The following quote from Alan Watts is illustrative.

“Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse         which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs           are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For         psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones.       The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away      and works on what he has seen…”

Also a quote from Ralph Metzner

            “While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits,     and one does not necessarily lead to the other.”

Hence, it appears that although there are great similarities between manipulation of brain chemistry with drugs and the experiences occurring with spiritual awakenings, they are in fact quite different.

 

So, what should we conclude regarding the clear relationship between the brain and spiritual experiences? It has been established that spirituality changes the brain and that changes in the brain are associated with spiritual experiences. Does this indicate that spirituality is nothing but a brain function? This would suggest that spirituality and spiritual experiences are nothing but physical events and don’t represent experience of true transcendence or an indication of a god. If this were true then it would suggest that there is nothing beyond the physical, that spiritual awakenings are nothing other than evoked changes in the nervous system.

 

It should be noted that reported spiritual experiences most frequently involve changes in sensory experiences. We know that sensory experiences are produced by the nervous system. So, it would be expected that if a spiritual experience occurs then there would be changes in the nervous system. As a result it is not surprising that nervous system changes would accompany spiritual experiences.

 

Neural changes may represent the effects of spiritual experiences on the physical body. After all, when we become aware of any kind of remarkable occurrence we react emotionally, physically, and thoughtfully. This would imply that the neural changes occur after the spiritual experience and not before it as a causal relationship would demand. In addition, changing the brain with drugs may simply induce the same effects as the sequela of spiritual experience and not the spiritual experiences themselves.

 

The most common report of spiritual experience is that everything is perceived as one. This oneness experience is not reported to be a change in the actual sensory information, but rather as a perception of the interconnectedness of all things such that they are seen as all a part of a singular entity, like seeing individual waves as all being part of one ocean. The more modern science studies events and their interconnections the more that the truth of oneness is revealed. The entire science of ecology has developed to study the interconnectedness among biological entities, meteorology has determined that atmospheric conditions over the entire planet are interconnected, and geology has revealed the interconnectedness of all movement of the planet’s surface and interior. Just think how interconnected everything is with sunlight. Without this energy, life could not exist and even the weather would not be changing. Everything about us and our planet is interconnected to the sun’s energy.

 

So, perhaps the oneness revealed in spiritual experiences may actually be a more accurate glimpse of the truth of existence. Perhaps, the changes observed in the brain may simply be the effect of this revelation rather than the cause. At this point we cannot reach a clear conclusion as to whether spiritual experiences are material and physical or true revelation of a non-physical reality. But the research is exciting and will continue to explore these ultimate questions regarding existence.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

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Improve Creativity with Mindfulness

Improve Creativity with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindfulness meditation is a great technique to learn to help improve creativity. There have been studies done specifically to measure the cognitive rigidity of people who meditate and their ability to solve problems in novel ways. The research shows non-meditators had greater cognitive rigidity than regular meditators, and they also had a tendency to apply difficult or outdated solutions to easy problems based on their past experiences, this was not the case for people who meditated.”Bianca Rothschild

 

The problem solving ability of humans has been a key to their dominance of their environment. So, it’s important that we understand it and discover how to train it and maximize it. Problem solving most frequently involves logic and reasoning, sometimes along with mathematics. In this case focused attention is the key. The mind wandering off topic interferes with the concentration required for obtaining the solution. But, when a solution does not occur and the individual fails to solve the problem a completely different process transpires producing insight. If logic and reason fail, then fanciful and out-of-the box thinking may be needed. In this case mind wandering, taking the thought process away from the failed logical strategy, is superior, often producing a solution in a flash, an “aha” moment. In this case focused attention prevents the individual from seeing an unusual or creative solution. While the mind wandering off topic increases the discursive thinking that is required for obtaining the insightful solution.

 

Mindfulness is the ability to focus on what is transpiring in the present moment. It involves a greater emphasis on attention to the immediate stimulus environment. Mindful people generally have better attentional abilities and have fewer intrusive thoughts and less mind wandering. As a result, mindfulness has been shown to be associated with differences in thought processes. Most of the time these differences are associated with beneficial results, but sometimes they can lead to negative outcomes including a greater tendency to have false memories. So mindfulness should improve problem solving involving logic, reason, and focused attention, while it should interfere with insightful, creative problem solving.

 

These two forms of problem solving are, in general, associated with different neural systems. Focused attention involves a number of brain structures centered in the frontal lobes. Creative, discursive thinking involves a system of structures known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) involving the parietal lobe, cingulate cortex, and insula. One way to investigate the influence of mindfulness on creative problem solving is to look at the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN) during creative problem solving and insight in practitioners with varying amounts of mindfulness training.

 

 

In today’s Research News article “Creativity Is Enhanced by Long-Term Mindfulness Training and Is Negatively Correlated with Trait Default-Mode-Related Low-Gamma Inter-Hemispheric Connectivity.” (See summary below). Berkovich-Ohana and colleagues recruited non-meditators and meditators with short (180-1430 hours), intermediate (1740-2860 hours), and long-term (3870-23,000 hours) meditation practice. Divergent creative thinking was measured with the alternative uses task which requires participants to generate as many and unusual uses of conventional, everyday objects. While the participants were engaged in the creativity measurements the Electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from the scalp.

 

They found that the intermediate and long-term meditators, compared to the non-meditators and short-term meditators, had significantly greater performance on the creative thinking task including a greater number of alternative uses (fluency) and a greater number of categories (flexibility) of alternative uses. Further, they found that the lower the EEG activity in the gamma frequency range between brain hemispheres the greater the creative thinking. These results suggest that meditation practice alters brain processing, changing the interhemispheric connectivity of the DMN to improve creative thinking.

 

The study found that meditation practice improves creative thinking which is related to lower functional connectivity for the Default Mode Network (DMN). This, in turn, suggests that the lower ability of the mind wandering system of the brain to affect other brain regions the better the creative thinking. Hence, suppressing mind wandering while engaged in the alternative uses creative thinking task improves creative thinking.

 

So, improve creativity with mindfulness.

 

“A central aspect of creativity is divergent thinking, which refers to the ability to come up with lots of different ideas. . . .  there is a small influence of mindfulness techniques on divergent thinking. That is, people who engage in mindfulness exercises tend to do a better job of generating more ideas than those who do not. They are better, but not much better.” – Art Markman

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Berkovich-Ohana, A., Glicksohn, J., Ben-Soussan, T.D., Goldstein, A. Creativity Is Enhanced by Long-Term Mindfulness Training and Is Negatively Correlated with Trait Default-Mode-Related Low-Gamma Inter-Hemispheric Connectivity. Mindfulness (2017) 8: 717. doi:10.1007/s12671-016-0649-y

 

Abstract

It is becoming increasingly accepted that creative performance, especially divergent thinking, may depend on reduced activity within the default mode network (DMN), related to mind-wandering and autobiographic self-referential processing. However, the relationship between trait (resting-state) DMN activity and divergent thinking is controversial. Here, we test the relationship between resting-state DMN activity and divergent thinking in a group of mindfulness meditation practitioners. We build on our two previous reports, which have shown DMN activity to be related to resting-state log gamma (25–45 Hz) power and inter-hemispheric functional connectivity. Using the same cohort of participants (three mindfulness groups with increasing expertise, and controls, n = 12 each), we tested (1) divergent thinking scores (Flexibility and Fluency) using the Alternative Uses task and (2) correlation between Alternative Uses scores and DMN activity as measured by resting-state gamma power and inter-hemispheric functional connectivity. We found that both Fluency and Flexibility (1) were higher in the two long-term mindfulness groups (>1000 h) compared to short-term mindfulness practitioners and control participants and (2) negatively correlated with gamma inter-hemispheric functional connectivity (frontal-midline and posterior-midline connections). In addition, (3) Fluency was significantly correlated with mindfulness expertise. Together, these results show that long-term mindfulness meditators exhibit higher divergent thinking scores in correlation with their expertise and demonstrate a negative divergent thinking—resting-state DMN activity relationship, thus largely support a negative DMN-creativity connection.

Improve the Brains Attentional and Relaxation Abilities with Qigong

Improve the Brains Attentional and Relaxation Abilities with Qigong

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Qigong is generally practiced in two major categories, “still” and “moving.” “Still” qigong emphasis is on quiet meditation, using methods of internal focus and regulation of breathing. It can be practiced in motionless postures such as the lying, sitting or standing positions. “Moving” qigong involves moving the body under the conscious direction of the mind, and since the movement is expressed externally, it is also known as external qigong.” –  Stacey Nemour

 

Qigong and Tai Chi have been practiced for thousands of years with benefits for health and longevity. Qigong and Tai Chi training are designed to enhance function and regulate the activities of the body through regulated breathing, mindful concentration, and gentle movements. Only recently though have the effects of these practices been scrutinized with empirical research. This research has found that they are effective for an array of physical and psychological issues. They appear to strengthen the immune systemreduce inflammation and increase the number of cancer killing cells in the bloodstream, improve cardiovascular health, reduce arthritis pain, improve balance and reduce falls. They also appear to improve attentional ability and relieve depression.

 

Qigong and Tai Chi are complex practices and research has not begun to address what components of these practices are responsible for which effects. They contain both physical exercise, albeit gentle, and mental mindfulness practice.  In today’s Research News article “EEG Brain Activity in Dynamic Health Qigong Training: Same Effects for Mental Practice and Physical Training?” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5293832/

Henz and Schöllhorn separate the physical and mental practices of Qigong and observe their effects on brain electrical activity.

 

They recruited experienced Qigong practitioners and measured their brain activity, electroencephalogram (EEG), for 2 minutes with eyes open and 2 minutes with eyes closed. They then had the participants perform a 30-minute Qigong exercise which was followed immediately with a second EEG measurement. Each participant was measured 3 times with 3 different practices administered in a randomized within-subjects order. They performed only the physical movements of Qigong in one condition, visualized the Qigong movements without actually moving in another, and watched a video of a Qigong practice in the third without movement or visualization.

 

They found that in comparison to baseline and the video conditions, both the visualization and physical movement Qigong practices, increased brain activity in the theta frequency region, 4-7 cycles per second, Hz. and in the Alpha-1 frequency region, 8-10 cycles per second, Hz. and the Alpha-2 frequency region, 10-12.5 cycles per second, Hz. The theta rhythm has been shown to occur when attention is focused and mind wandering is minimized. The alpha rhythm has been shown to occur when relaxation occurs. These results suggest that both the visualization and physical movement Qigong practices increase the activity of focused attentional systems in the brain. This should not be surprising as both the visualization and physical movement Qigong practices require focused attention. They also increase the activity of the brain’s relaxation systems.

 

Hence, the EEG results reflect Qigong’s ability to focus the individual’s attention and relax the individual. It is interesting that there was very little EEG difference between the visualization and physical movement Qigong practices. This suggests that engagement in Qigong practice either physically, mentally, or both have essentially equivalent effects. But, just watching Qigong practice is insufficient.

 

So, improve the brains attentional and relaxation abilities with qigong.

 

 “Yes, you can rewire your brain with Qigong. You can so alter your mental and emotional makeup that you’ll experience a profound tranquility.” – Longevity Sage

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

Henz, D., & Schöllhorn, W. I. (2017). EEG Brain Activity in Dynamic Health Qigong Training: Same Effects for Mental Practice and Physical Training? Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 154. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00154

 

Abstract

In recent years, there has been significant uptake of meditation and related relaxation techniques, as a means of alleviating stress and fostering an attentive mind. Several electroencephalogram (EEG) studies have reported changes in spectral band frequencies during Qigong meditation indicating a relaxed state. Much less is reported on effects of brain activation patterns induced by Qigong techniques involving bodily movement. In this study, we tested whether (1) physical Qigong training alters EEG theta and alpha activation, and (2) mental practice induces the same effect as a physical Qigong training. Subjects performed the dynamic Health Qigong technique Wu Qin Xi (five animals) physically and by mental practice in a within-subjects design. Experimental conditions were randomized. Two 2-min (eyes-open, eyes-closed) EEG sequences under resting conditions were recorded before and immediately after each 15-min exercise. Analyses of variance were performed for spectral power density data. Increased alpha power was found in posterior regions in mental practice and physical training for eyes-open and eyes-closed conditions. Theta power was increased after mental practice in central areas in eyes-open conditions, decreased in fronto-central areas in eyes-closed conditions. Results suggest that mental, as well as physical Qigong training, increases alpha activity and therefore induces a relaxed state of mind. The observed differences in theta activity indicate different attentional processes in physical and mental Qigong training. No difference in theta activity was obtained in physical and mental Qigong training for eyes-open and eyes-closed resting state. In contrast, mental practice of Qigong entails a high degree of internalized attention that correlates with theta activity, and that is dependent on eyes-open and eyes-closed resting state.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5293832/

Change the Brain with Different Meditation Practices

Change the Brain with Different Meditation Practices

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Most people tend to believe that all types of meditations are the same. It is common to hear about the benefits of “meditation,” but most people don’t know that there are different benefits to be obtained based specifically on the type of meditation practice pursued.“ – Mental Health Blog

 

Meditation training has been shown to improve health and well-being. It has also been found to be effective for a large array of medical and psychiatric conditions, either stand-alone or in combination with more traditional therapies. As a result, meditation training has been called the third wave of therapies. One problem with understanding meditation effects is that there are, a wide variety of meditation techniques and it is not known which type or which component produce which effects.

 

There are a number of different types of meditation. Many can be characterized on a continuum with the degree of attentional focus. In focused attention meditation, the individual practices paying attention to a single meditation object, learns to filter out distracting stimuli, including thoughts, and learns to stay focused on the present moment, filtering out thoughts centered around the past or future. On the other hand, in open monitoring meditation, the individual opens up awareness to everything that’s being experienced regardless of its origin. These include bodily sensations, external stimuli, and even thoughts. The meditator just observes these stimuli and lets them arise, and fall away without paying them any further attention.

 

One potential method to discern the different effects of these differing meditation techniques is to observe the effects of these techniques on the nervous system. There is evidence that meditation alters the brain. It can produce relatively permanent changes to the nervous system, increasing the activity, size, and connectivity of some structures while decreasing it for others in a process known as neuroplasticity. A common method to study the activity of the nervous system is to measure the electrical signal at the scalp above brain regions. Changes in this activity are measurable with mindfulness training.

 

In today’s Research News article “Increased Gamma Brainwave Amplitude Compared to Control in Three Different Meditation Traditions.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5261734/

Braboszcz and colleagues investigate the effects of three different kinds of meditation that differ on the degree of attentional focus on the electrical activity of the brain (EEG) under different mental states. They investigated the effects of a focused meditation employing mantra repetition (Himalayan Yoga), an open monitoring meditation focusing on body sensations (Vipassana) and a complete open awareness meditation technique (“Shoonya” meditation). They recruited experienced meditators who practiced one of the three techniques and also a group of comparable participants with no meditation experience. The Electroencephalogram (EEG) of the participants was measured during 20 minutes of meditation and 20 minutes of instructed mind wandering.

 

They found that regardless of the meditation or mind wandering condition the three meditation groups in comparison to the non-meditators had significantly larger amounts of high frequency waves (gamma – 60-110 cycles per second, Hz.) in the EEG. They also found that the amount of gamma activity was associated with the amount of meditative experience of the practitioners, with the more the experience, the greater the gamma activity. In addition, they found that the Vipassana meditation practitioners had significantly larger amounts of low frequency waves (alpha – 8-11 cycles per second, Hz.) than the other meditation groups or the controls regardless of condition.

 

The fact that the differences in the gamma activity in the EEG of the three groups of meditators compared to controls were present regardless of the meditation or the mind wandering condition, suggests that the increased gamma activity results from relatively permanent changes in the brain produced by the meditation training, neuroplasticity. Gamma activity is generally associated with an overall attentive state. Hence, the results suggest that meditation practice, regardless of type, strengthens attentiveness. This is compatible with the findings that meditation training improves attentional ability.

 

The fact that the differences in the alpha activity in the EEG of the Vipassana meditation practitioners compared to controls and the other two meditation groups were present regardless of the meditation or the mind wandering condition, suggests that the increased alpha activity also results from relatively permanent changes in the brain neuroplasticity. It is interesting that this group of meditators differed from the other groups in alpha activity. High levels of alpha waves have been associated with selective attention where the individual ignores most stimuli to focus on only a specific set of stimuli. Hence, this suggests that the Vipassana practice, which focuses on internal sensations of the body, may be superior to the other meditation techniques in developing selective attentional ability.

 

Regardless, the results suggest that practicing meditation produces relatively permanent changes in the brain that results in improved attentional ability and focusing on internal sensations during the meditation produces relatively permanent changes in the brain that results in improved selective attentional ability.

 

“There are many systems of meditation that widely differ from one another in their procedures, contents, objects, beliefs, and goals.  Given these differences, it is not surprising that research has shown they have different subjective and objective effects.” – David Johnson

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

Braboszcz, C., Cahn, B. R., Levy, J., Fernandez, M., & Delorme, A. (2017). Increased Gamma Brainwave Amplitude Compared to Control in Three Different Meditation Traditions. PLoS ONE, 12(1), e0170647. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0170647

 

Abstract

Despite decades of research, effects of different types of meditation on electroencephalographic (EEG) activity are still being defined. We compared practitioners of three different meditation traditions (Vipassana, Himalayan Yoga and Isha Shoonya) with a control group during a meditative and instructed mind-wandering (IMW) block. All meditators showed higher parieto-occipital 60–110 Hz gamma amplitude than control subjects as a trait effect observed during meditation and when considering meditation and IMW periods together. Moreover, this gamma power was positively correlated with participants meditation experience. Independent component analysis was used to show that gamma activity did not originate in eye or muscle artifacts. In addition, we observed higher 7–11 Hz alpha activity in the Vipassana group compared to all the other groups during both meditation and instructed mind wandering and lower 10–11 Hz activity in the Himalayan yoga group during meditation only. We showed that meditation practice is correlated to changes in the EEG gamma frequency range that are common to a variety of meditation practices.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5261734/

 

Improve the Aging Brain’s Cognition with Mindfulness

Improve the Aging Brain’s Cognition with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“there is a small but growing body of evidence that regular meditation really can slow ageing – at least at the cellular level.” – James Kingsland

 

Human life is one of constant change. We revel in our increases in physical and mental capacities during development, but regret their decreases during aging. The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. This includes our mental abilities which decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, problem solving ability, and emotion regulation. It is inevitable and cannot be avoided. There is some hope for these age-related declines, however, as there is evidence that they can be slowed. There are some indications that physical and mental exercise can reduce the rate of cognitive decline and lower the chances of dementia. For example, contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi or qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline with aging.

 

Using modern neuroimaging techniques, scientists have been able to view the changes that occur in the nervous system with aging. In addition, they have been able to investigate various techniques that might slow the process of neurodegeneration that accompanies normal aging. They’ve found that mindfulness practices reduce the deterioration of the brain that occurs with aging restraining the loss of neural tissue. Indeed, the brains of mindfulness practitioners have been found to degenerate less with aging than non-practitioners.

 

Since the global population of the elderly is increasing at unprecedented rates, it is imperative to investigate methods to slow physical and mental aging and mitigate its effects. In today’s Research News article “Mindful Aging: The Effects of Regular Brief Mindfulness Practice on Electrophysiological Markers of Cognitive and Affective Processing in Older Adults.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241348/

Malinowski and colleagues recruited individuals between the ages of 55 and 75 years and randomly assigned them to either receive mindfulness training or to an active brain training. Mindfulness training consisted of breath following meditation practice. The brain training condition involved performing mental arithmetic problems that required effortful cognitive processing. Both mindfulness and braining training groups practiced for 10 minutes, 5 days per week, for eight weeks. Before and after training participants were measured for mindfulness, self-efficacy, and mental well-being and were assessed for cognitive and emotion regulation abilities by performance of an eStroop task while their brains’ electrical responses, Electroencephalogram (EEG), were recorded. In the eStroop task the participants viewed a computer screen where one to four words were presented simultaneously. The participants were asked to simply press one of four keys to indicate the number of words presented. There were four conditions; emotionally positive words (love), emotionally negative words (sad), emotionally neutral words (box), and incongruent words. In the incongruent condition the words, one, two, three, or four were presented, with the number of words different from the meaning of the words, e.g. the word three presented two times.

 

They found that from pre-test to post-test the mindfulness training, but not the brain training group increased in mindfulness and increased their response speed (reaction time) in the eStroop task under all conditions. So, the breath meditation increased mindfulness and made for quicker reactions in the cognitive task. The N2 negative going neural response occurring 0.27 to 0.34 seconds after the presentation of the words, was significantly stronger in the mindfulness than the brain training group. The electrical response was measured over the frontal central cortex, components of the network regulating attention. This result suggests that mindfulness training improves the brains ability to regulate attention.

 

This study is particularly strong because the control condition was active and required similar commitment of time and energy and belief that the treatment would produce improvements. As a result, the conclusions from the study are very clear. The results suggest that mindfulness training produces improved attentional ability resulting from improved neural responses. These effects were produced in an older group of participants. This suggests that mindfulness training may reduce the cognitive-attentional decline that normally occurs with aging.

 

This is an exciting proposition, that mindfulness training may improve our ability to cognitively age healthily. As the population continues to live longer and the number of older and elderly individuals increases, the problem of cognitive decline will place an increasing burden on caregivers and stress the healthcare system. So, being able to delay and reduce this decline could have profound effects on individuals and society. Hence, promoting mindfulness training for the elderly could reap substantial benefits for the elderly and the system that supports them in their declining years..

 

So, improve the aging brain’s cognition with mindfulness.

 

“Our modern assumptions, ideas, beliefs, and cultural narratives about growing old are too small for us to inhabit. Our thinking about aging is often hijacked by fear, negativity, and ageism. The authentic experience of aging is a source wonder, curiosity, and fascination. Mindful aging is a skillful means to embrace the process of growing older in order to cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural flow of all life.” – Brian Alger

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

Malinowski, P., Moore, A. W., Mead, B. R., & Gruber, T. (2017). Mindful Aging: The Effects of Regular Brief Mindfulness Practice on Electrophysiological Markers of Cognitive and Affective Processing in Older Adults. Mindfulness, 8(1), 78–94. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-015-0482-8

 

Abstract

There is growing interest in the potential benefits of mindfulness meditation practices in terms of counteracting some of the cognitive effects associated with aging. Pursuing this question, the aim of the present study was to investigate the influence of mindfulness training on executive control and emotion regulation in older adults, by means of studying behavioral and electrophysiological changes. Participants, 55 to 75 years of age, were randomly allocated to an 8-week mindful breath awareness training group or an active control group engaging in brain training exercises. Before and after the training period, participants completed an emotional-counting Stroop task, designed to measure attentional control and emotion regulation processes. Concurrently, their brain activity was measured by means of 64-channel electroencephalography. The results show that engaging in just over 10 min of mindfulness practice five times per week resulted in significant improvements in behavioral (response latency) and electrophysiological (N2 event-related potential) measures related to general task performance. Analyses of the underlying cortical sources (Variable Resolution Electromagnetic Tomography, VARETA) indicate that this N2-related effect is primarily associated with changes in the right angular gyrus and other areas of the dorsal attention network. However, the study did not find the expected specific improvements in executive control and emotion regulation, which may be due to the training instructions or the relative brevity of the intervention. Overall, the results indicate that engaging in mindfulness meditation training improves the maintenance of goal-directed visuospatial attention and may be a useful strategy for counteracting cognitive decline associated with aging.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241348/