Improve Brain Processing of Emotional Stimuli with Mindfulness

Improve Brain Processing of Emotional Stimuli with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“If you’re a naturally mindful person, and you’re walking around very aware of things, you’re good to go. You shed your emotions quickly,” Moser said. “If you’re not naturally mindful, then meditating can make you look like a person who walks around with a lot of mindfulness.” – Jason Moser

 

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.

 

Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve emotion regulation. Practitioners demonstrate the ability to fully sense and experience emotions, but respond to them in more appropriate and adaptive ways. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control their responses to emotions. This is a very important consequence of mindfulness. Humans are very emotional creatures and these emotions can be very pleasant, providing the spice of life. But, when they get extreme they can produce misery and even mental illness. The ability of mindfulness training to improve emotion regulation is thought to be the basis for a wide variety of benefits that mindfulness provides to mental health and the treatment of mental illness especially depression and anxiety disorders.

 

One way to measure emotional responses is to record brain activity with the electroencephalogram (EEG) that occurs in response to visual stimuli that reliably evoke emotional responses. In particular, the late positive potential (LPP) response in the EEG is a positive going electrical response to an emotion laden picture that occurs between 0.3 to 0.6 seconds following stimulus presentation. The LPP response has been associated with the presence of emotional information. As such, these electrical responses can be used to measure the brains response to emotional laden stimuli and can perhaps measure brain process of emotion regulation. It may be that simply being a mindful individual may be associated with different processing of emotional stimuli by the brain and this can be seen in the LPP response.

 

In today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness and the attenuation of neural responses to emotional stimuli.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3541486/ ), Brown and colleagues recruited college students and measured their enduring levels of mindfulness (trait mindfulness), attentional control, neuroticism, and levels of positive and negative emotions. They measured the electroencephalogram (EEG) changes in the students that occurred in response to pictures that evoked pleasant or unpleasant emotions at a high level (e.g. skydiving, erotica, vs. mutilations) or at a low level (e.g. flowers vs. pollution).

 

They found, confirming prior research, that the late positive potential (LPP) response in the EEG was larger after pictures that evoked strong emotions regardless of whether they were pleasant or unpleasant than after pictures that evoked weak emotions. Importantly, they found that the trait mindfulness of the participants modulated the response. Students high in mindfulness had smaller LPP responses to images that evoked strong emotions both pleasant and unpleasant than low mindfulness students. Hence, mindfulness was shown to lessen the brains response to emotion laden stimuli.

 

This is interesting research that suggests that mindfulness changes the brains processing of emotional stimuli, reducing the strength of the response. The LPP is indicative of the very early stage of brain processing of emotional material. So, the results suggest that the brains of mindful people improve their ability to regulate their emotions and that this occurs at a very early stage of neural processing. It reduces the magnitude of the initial response to emotions. This may make difficult or extreme emotion easier to handle.

 

So, improve brain processing of emotional stimuli with mindfulness.

 

“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

 

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

 

Brown, K. W., Goodman, R. J., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness and the attenuation of neural responses to emotional stimuli. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 93–99. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss004

 

Abstract

Considerable research has disclosed how cognitive reappraisals and the modulation of emotional responses promote successful emotion regulation. Less research has examined how the early processing of emotion-relevant stimuli may create divergent emotional response consequences. Mindfulness—a receptive, non-evaluative form of attention—is theorized to foster emotion regulation, and the present study examined whether individual differences in mindfulness would modulate neural responses associated with the early processing of affective stimuli. Focus was on the late positive potential (LPP) of the event-related brain potential to visual stimuli varying in emotional valence and arousal. This study first found, replicating past research, that high arousal images, particularly of an unpleasant type, elicited larger LPP responses. Second, the study found that more mindful individuals showed lower LPP responses to high arousal unpleasant images, even after controlling for trait attentional control. Conversely, two traits contrasting with mindfulness—neuroticism and negative affectivity—were associated with higher LPP responses to high arousal unpleasant images. Finally, mindfulness was also associated with lower LPP responses to motivationally salient pleasant images (erotica). These findings suggest that mindfulness modulates neural responses in an early phase of affective processing, and contribute to understanding how this quality of attention may promote healthy emotional functioning.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3541486/

Improve the Ability to Control the Brain’s Activity with Prayer and Meditation

Improve the Ability to Control the Brain’s Activity with Prayer and Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym. Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly.” – Ritchie Davidson

 

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. For example, the brain area that controls the right index finger has been found to be larger in blind subjects who use braille than in sighted individuals.  Similarly, cab drivers in London who navigate the twisting streets of the city, have a larger hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation, than predefined route bus drivers. 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, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

Prayer and meditation can be quite similar. It is possible that they can both produce changes to the brain. Since, both involve a degree of self-control, it is possible that they both change the brain to enhance self-control mechanisms. In today’s Research News article “Ability to Gain Control Over One’s Own Brain Activity and its Relation to Spiritual Practice: A Multimodal Imaging Study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442174/ ), Kober and colleagues studied the ability of meditation and prayer to alter the nervous system and improve self-control. They recruited healthy adults who reported either a low or a high frequency of prayer or meditation. They were measured for spirituality and religiousness, mindfulness and locus of control. In addition, the participants had their brains scanned with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

 

The participants had their brain activity measured with an electroencephalogram (EEG). They were shown a display with three bars the height of which was determined by brain activity in the 4-7 hertz (Theta), 12-25 hertz (SMR- Sensory-motor rhythm), and 21-35 hertz (Beta) range respectively. They received rewards (points) whenever their SMR was above a prescribed threshold and both their Theta and Beta were below a certain threshold. In other words, whenever their EEG reflected a specific prescribed pattern. If the participant was able to increase their SMR and decrease their Theta and Beta rhythms over training, it indicated and ability to control their brain activity.

 

They found, not surprisingly, that the high frequency group had higher levels of religiosity and mindfulness than the low frequency group. Importantly, they found a significant difference in the groups in their ability to control their brains. In particular, they found that the high frequency of meditation or prayer group was able to significantly increase their SMR while decreasing their Theta and Beta rhythms over training, while the low frequency group was not. When asked about their mental strategies to control their brain waves, the high frequency group reported significantly more “doing nothing”, similar to meditating or praying, than the low frequency group. Hence, the group who meditated and prayed often showed an ability to control their brains activity by employing a meditative strategy.

 

These are striking results. It has been known that with reward (biofeedback) people could learn to change their brain activity. But, it has never been shown before that people who prayed or meditated often would be significantly better at it than those who didn’t. The high frequency group is “assumed to be experts in focusing attention on inner states and self-referential processes.” This suggests that focused meditative practice improves the individual’s ability to control their brain activity. In other words, spiritual practice made them better at “doing nothing” and preventing thoughts from disrupting control of brain activity.

 

So, improve the ability to control the brain’s activity with prayer and meditation.

 

“The idea that there’s something specific about religious practices that changes your brain is just ridiculous. Everything changes your brain. Your brain is changing now, as is mine, as we’re having this conversation. There’s nothing special or magical about engaging in religious practices and showing certain changes in brain structure or function.” – Richard Sloan

 

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

 

Kober, S. E., Witte, M., Ninaus, M., Koschutnig, K., Wiesen, D., Zaiser, G., … Wood, G. (2017). Ability to Gain Control Over One’s Own Brain Activity and its Relation to Spiritual Practice: A Multimodal Imaging Study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 271. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00271

 

Abstract

Spiritual practice, such as prayer or meditation, is associated with focusing attention on internal states and self-awareness processes. As these cognitive control mechanisms presumably are also important for neurofeedback (NF), we investigated whether people who pray frequently (N = 20) show a higher ability of self-control over their own brain activity compared to a control group of individuals who rarely pray (N = 20). All participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and one session of sensorimotor rhythm (SMR, 12–15 Hz) based NF training. Individuals who reported a high frequency of prayer showed improved NF performance compared to individuals who reported a low frequency of prayer. The individual ability to control one’s own brain activity was related to volumetric aspects of the brain. In the low frequency of prayer group, gray matter volumes in the right insula and inferior frontal gyrus were positively associated with NF performance, supporting prior findings that more general self-control networks are involved in successful NF learning. In contrast, participants who prayed regularly showed a negative association between gray matter volume in the left medial orbitofrontal cortex (Brodmann’s area (BA) 10) and NF performance. Due to their regular spiritual practice, they might have been more skillful in gating incoming information provided by the NF system and avoiding task-irrelevant thoughts.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442174/

Improve Calmness with Alternate Nostril Yoga Breathing

Improve Calmness with Alternate Nostril Yoga Breathing

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“alternate nostril breathing . . . it’s thought to harmonize the two hemispheres of the brain, resulting in a balanced in physical, mental and emotional well-being. While science has yet to really explore what might be going on in terms of hemispheric functioning during this practice, recent studies have confirmed some pretty powerful effects of this practice.” – Paula Watkins

 

Yoga practice is becoming increasingly popular in the west, for good reason. It has documented benefits for the individual’s psychological and physical health and well-being. It has also been shown to have cognitive benefits, improving memory. Yoga, however, consists of a number of components including, poses, breathing exercises, meditation, concentration, and philosophy/ethics.  So, it is difficult to determine which facet or combination of facets of yoga are responsible for which benefit. Hence, it is important to begin to test each component in isolation to determine its effects.

 

Alternate nostril yoga breathing is a regulated breathing alternating between the left and right nostril. Breathing through each nostril is thought to affect its respective hemisphere in the brain producing differential effects. In today’s Research News article “Hemisphere specific EEG related to alternate nostril yoga breathing.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5525313/ ), Telles and colleagues examine the effects of alternate nostril yoga breathing on brain activity and the emotional state of the practitioner. They recruited healthy adult practitioners of alternate nostril yoga breathing. They were randomly assigned on different days to either practice alternate nostril yoga breathing, breath awareness, or quiet sitting for 18 minutes. Before, during, and after each practice the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from the scalp of the practitioners.

 

They found that during alternate nostril yoga breathing there was significantly decreased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain in both the Beta frequency band (13-30 cycles per second) of the EEG and the Theta frequency band (4-7.5 cycles per second). On the other hand, during quiet sitting there was increased Beta activity and decreased Alpha band (8-12 cycles per second) activity.

 

Theta activity in the EEG of the frontal lobe is associated with positive emotional states and memory activity. Beta activity is associated with increased alertness, excitement, and arousal. Alpha activity is associated with complex cognitive (thought) processes. Hence, during alternate nostril yoga breathing the EEG activity suggests that the practitioner goes into a state of relaxation (reduced arousal) while during quiet sitting the practitioner goes into a state of arousal with decreased thinking.

 

This study demonstrates that the different components of yoga practice may have strikingly different effects on the nervous system and the state of the practitioner. The results are interesting and verify that alternate nostril yoga breathing produces different changes in brain activity than breath awareness or quiet sitting. The results suggest that alternate nostril yoga breathing produces a relaxed, calm state. This further suggests that this technique might be useful for treating anxiety disorders. Indeed, there is evidence that alternate nostril yoga breathing calms the anxious individual.

 

So, improve calmness with alternate nostril yoga breathing.

 

““alternate nostril breathing,” is a simple yet powerful technique that settles the mind, body, and emotions. You can use it to quiet your mind before beginning a meditation practice, and it is particularly helpful to ease racing thoughts if you are experiencing anxiety, stress, or having trouble falling asleep.” – Melissa Eisler

 

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

 

Telles, S., Gupta, R. K., Yadav, A., Pathak, S., & Balkrishna, A. (2017). Hemisphere specific EEG related to alternate nostril yoga breathing. BMC Research Notes, 10, 306. http://doi.org/10.1186/s13104-017-2625-6

 

Abstract

Background

Previously, forced unilateral nostril breathing was associated with ipsilateral, or contralateral cerebral hemisphere changes, or no change. Hence it was inconclusive. The present study was conducted on 13 normal healthy participants to determine the effects of alternate nostril yoga breathing on (a) cerebral hemisphere asymmetry, and (b) changes in the standard EEG bands.

Methods

Participants were randomly allocated to three sessions (a) alternate nostril yoga breathing (ANYB), (b) breath awareness and (c) quiet sitting, on separate days. EEG was recorded from bilaterally symmetrical sites (FP1, FP2, C3, C4, O1 and O2). All sites were referenced to the ipsilateral ear lobe.

Results

There was no change in cerebral hemisphere symmetry. The relative power in the theta band was decreased during alternate nostril yoga breathing (ANYB) and the beta amplitude was lower after ANYB. During quiet sitting the relative power in the beta band increased, while the amplitude of the alpha band reduced.

Conclusion

The results suggest that ANYB was associated with greater calmness, whereas quiet sitting without specific directions was associated with arousal. The results imply a possible use of ANYB for stress and anxiety reduction.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5525313/

Reduce Depression by Improving Brain Responses with Mindfulness

Reduce Depression by Improving Brain Responses with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“If we accept that you can’t control your thoughts or feelings, but rather focus on cultivating your awareness of them, and regulate their impact, without getting caught up with them, then life can be far less stressful. The important thing is to realize that the content of our thoughts and emotions is less important than how we let them affect us.” – Ray Williams

 

Clinically diagnosed depression is the most common mental illness, affecting over 6% of the population. Depression can be difficult to treat. It is 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.

 

One of the characterizing features of depression is flat affect. Depressed individuals do not appear to react emotionally to either positive or negative events in their lives. Good things do not improve their mood and bad things don’t worsen it. This lack of reactivity tends to interfere with recovery from depression. Mindfulness training is an 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. This suggests that mindfulness training may help to reverse the flat affect, the lack of emotional reactivity.

 

In today’s Research News article “Brief training in mindfulness may normalize a blunted error-related negativity in chronically depressed patients.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709439/ ), Fissler and colleagues employed an electrical response of the brain to the commission of an error, error related negativity, to measure non-reactivity in depressed patients and the effects of mindfulness training on this response.

 

They recruited adult depressed patients and healthy individuals as control participants. They were measured for depression both by clinical interview and self-report. Participants were asked to perform a sustained attention to response task in which single digits were presented and the participants were asked to press a space bar for all digits except the number 3. During the task, the Electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from the scalp to measure brain responses. The brain frontal lobe electrical response on correct trials was compared to that when errors were committed to measure error related negativity. After baseline measurement, the depressed patients were randomly assigned to either receive 2 weeks of mindfulness training or rest. The mindfulness training consisted of 25 minutes of meditation twice a day for 6 days per week. Resting depressed patients were asked to schedule rest periods on a similar schedule.

 

They found that the depressed patients were slower and made more errors on the sustained attention to response task than the health controls. In addition, the depressed patients had a significantly lower error related negativity in the EEG from the frontal lobe than controls, signifying less reactivity in these patients. They further compared the depressed patients who meditated to those who rested and found that both groups had decreased depression levels, but the meditators had significantly greater reductions in depression. Importantly, the depressed patients who meditated had an increased error related negativity response while the depressed patients who rested did not. This indicates that meditation improved depression and the brains electrical responses to events.

 

These are interesting and important results. It is well established that mindfulness training (meditation) significantly improves depression and this effect was repeated in this study. But, the results also suggest that meditation changes the brain of depressed patients, making it more responsive to environmental events. This suggests that meditation training may, to some extent, reverse the flat affect of depressed patients and that this occurs in combination with decreased depression. It cannot be established from this study if there is a causal connection between the flat affect and depression improvements. But, it is clear that mindfulness training (meditation) improves both.

 

So, reduce depression by improving brain responses with mindfulness.

 

“When unhappy or stressful thoughts occur, rather than taking them personally and merely reacting, mindfulness teaches you to observe such thoughts with friendly curiosity. You learn to catch negative patterns of thinking before they put you into a downward spiral. Over time, mindfulness can bring about long-term changes in mood and increased levels of happiness.” Sylvia Brafman

 

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

 

Fissler, M., Winnebeck, E., Schroeter, T. A., Gummbersbach, M., Huntenburg, J. M., Gärtner, M., & Barnhofer, T. (2017). Brief training in mindfulness may normalize a blunted error-related negativity in chronically depressed patients. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 17(6), 1164–1175. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-017-0540-x

 

Abstract

The error-related negativity (ERN), an evoked-potential that arises in response to the commission of errors, is an important early indicator of self-regulatory capacities. In this study we investigated whether brief mindfulness training can reverse ERN deficits in chronically depressed patients. The ERN was assessed in a sustained attention task. Chronically depressed patients (n = 59) showed significantly blunted expression of the ERN in frontocentral and frontal regions, relative to healthy controls (n = 18). Following two weeks of training, the patients (n = 24) in the mindfulness condition showed a significantly increased ERN magnitude in the frontal region, but there were no significant changes in patients who had received a resting control (n = 22). The findings suggest that brief training in mindfulness may help normalize aberrations in the ERN in chronically depressed patients, providing preliminary evidence for the responsiveness of this parameter to mental training.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709439/

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

 

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