The Setting of Psychedelic Administration Affects the Obtained Psychological Benefits

The Setting of Psychedelic Administration Affects the Obtained Psychological Benefits

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

If you choose to take psychedelics, it is strongly recommended to have a sitter,” Gael said. “Ideally, this person is familiar with the psychedelic state and is someone you can trust to be a responsible, calm grounded presence.” – Sara Gael

 

Psychedelic substances such as peyote, mescaline, LSD, Bufotoxin, ayahuasca and psilocybin have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. Psychedelics produce effects that are similar to those that are reported in spiritual awakenings, a positive mood, with renewed energy and enthusiasm. It is easy to see why people find these experiences so pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. Even though the effects of psychedelic substances have been experienced and reported on for centuries, only very recently have these effects come under rigorous scientific scrutiny. The setting in which psychedelic drugs are taken in the real world varies widely and there is little research on the effects of these settings on the experiences and their effects.

 

In today’s Research News article “Psychedelic Communitas: Intersubjective Experience During Psychedelic Group Sessions Predicts Enduring Changes in Psychological Wellbeing and Social Connectedness.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8114773/ Kettner and colleagues recruited online adults who intended to attend a retreat where psychedelic drugs were used. They had them complete questionnaires at 5 time points; 2 weeks before and 3 hours before the retreat, the day after the psychedelic experience, after the retreat, and 4 weeks later. They were measured for experience details, preparedness, mental well-being, social connectedness, depression, anxiety, openness toward people, trait absorption, subjective psychedelic experiences, and retreat experiences. They used factor analysis to identify a combination of 8 questionnaire items that comprised a measure of communitas (experience of intense togetherness and shared humanity),

 

Psilocybin (80%) and ayahuasca (16%) were the drugs most frequently used at the retreats. They found that 4-weeks after the retreat social connectedness, well-being, and interpersonal tolerance, were significantly higher and anxiety and depression were significantly lower than at baseline. They also found that the higher the level of communitas the higher the levels of social connectedness and well-being. Using path analysis they found that overall communitas was associated with psychological well-being and social connectedness at follow-up and the overall communitas was associated with the communitas during the experience, trait absorption, rapport with the therapist, social support during the experience, and the level of self-disclosure.

 

This study was naturalistic in that it measured individuals who were engaged in naturally occurring psychedelic retreats. This provided varied retreat conditions in real world settings. This is distinct from laboratory research with psychedelics which provide for highly controlled circumstances. The results demonstrate very positive effects of psychedelic experiences even in varied environments like they have been shown to do in the laboratory.

 

The results suggest that the social conditions and setting surrounding psychedelic experiences affect the effects of the experiences on the mental and social well-being of the participants. In other words, the ability of psychedelics to produce positive effects on the participants does not happen in a vacuum. For optimum effectiveness there needs to be optimum social support conditions. Regardless, psychedelic experiences appear to promote social and psychological health.

 

So, the setting of psychedelic administration affects the obtained psychological benefits.

 

The science of how to use drug responsibly and effectively should be made accessible by educating the public on the principles of set and setting, a shared body of knowledge on the do’s and don’ts of responsible and effective drug use in a world where drug harms cannot be nullified but can doubtlessly be minimized.” – Ido Hartogsohn

 

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

 

Kettner, H., Rosas, F. E., Timmermann, C., Kärtner, L., Carhart-Harris, R. L., & Roseman, L. (2021). Psychedelic Communitas: Intersubjective Experience During Psychedelic Group Sessions Predicts Enduring Changes in Psychological Wellbeing and Social Connectedness. Frontiers in pharmacology, 12, 623985. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2021.623985

 

Abstract

Background: Recent years have seen a resurgence of research on the potential of psychedelic substances to treat addictive and mood disorders. Historically and contemporarily, psychedelic studies have emphasized the importance of contextual elements (‘set and setting’) in modulating acute drug effects, and ultimately, influencing long-term outcomes. Nevertheless, current small-scale clinical and laboratory studies have tended to bypass a ubiquitous contextual feature of naturalistic psychedelic use: its social dimension. This study introduces and psychometrically validates an adapted Communitas Scale, assessing acute relational experiences of perceived togetherness and shared humanity, in order to investigate psychosocial mechanisms pertinent to psychedelic ceremonies and retreats.

Methods: In this observational, web-based survey study, participants (N = 886) were measured across five successive time-points: 2 weeks before, hours before, and the day after a psychedelic ceremony; as well as the day after, and 4 weeks after leaving the ceremony location. Demographics, psychological traits and state variables were assessed pre-ceremony, in addition to changes in psychological wellbeing and social connectedness from before to after the retreat, as primary outcomes. Using correlational and multiple regression (path) analyses, predictive relationships between psychosocial ‘set and setting’ variables, communitas, and long-term outcomes were explored.

Results: The adapted Communitas Scale demonstrated substantial internal consistency (Cronbach’s alpha = 0.92) and construct validity in comparison with validated measures of intra-subjective (visual, mystical, challenging experiences questionnaires) and inter-subjective (perceived emotional synchrony, identity fusion) experiences. Furthermore, communitas during ceremony was significantly correlated with increases in psychological wellbeing (r = 0.22), social connectedness (r = 0.25), and other salient mental health outcomes. Path analyses revealed that the effect of ceremony-communitas on long-term outcomes was fully mediated by communitas experienced in reference to the retreat overall, and that the extent of personal sharing or ‘self-disclosure’ contributed to this process. A positive relationship between participants and facilitators, and the perceived impact of emotional support, facilitated the emergence of communitas.

Conclusion: Highlighting the importance of intersubjective experience, rapport, and emotional support for long-term outcomes of psychedelic use, this first quantitative examination of psychosocial factors in guided psychedelic settings is a significant step toward evidence-based benefit-maximization guidelines for collective psychedelic use.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8114773/

Maintain Vacation Benefits with Meditation

Maintain Vacation Benefits with Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

If you’re going to go on a vacation see if you can integrate meditation to really double up on that impact.” – Elisha Goldstein

 

A leisure vacation can rejuvenate the individual in body and mind. It decreases mental and physical fatigue and increases happiness. But unfortunately, its effects rapidly dissipate. It doesn’t take long for the positive benefits to wear off. Meditation retreats also rejuvenate the individual in body and mind, decreasing fatigue and increasing happiness. The effects of meditation appear have been generally found to be relatively longer lasting. Attending a meditation retreat or including meditation on vacation may help to sustain the effectiveness of the vacation for a longer period of time.

 

In today’s Research News article “Is a meditation retreat the better vacation? effect of retreats and vacations on fatigue, emotional well-being, and acting with awareness.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7869997/ ) Blasche and colleagues recruited adult participants in meditation retreats and also individuals who planned a vacation over the same period of time. They separated the vacation participants who did and did not include meditation in their vacation. They were measured before and after the retreat/vacation and

weeks later for acting with awareness, fatigue, emotional well-being, relaxation, control, and mastery.

 

They found that after the retreat/vacation all groups had significant reductions in fatigue and emotional well-being while on the retreat and vacation with meditation groups had significant increases in acting with awareness. Ten weeks later, however, only the retreat and vacation with meditation groups had maintained significant increases in acting with awareness and emotional well-being and decreases in fatigue.

 

These are interesting findings. But, it needs to be recognized that this was not a randomized study and the participants who chose to go on retreat or those who meditate during a vacation may be significantly different than those who do not meditate during the vacation. People who meditate may be the kinds of people who get the most out of their vacations.

 

Regardless, the results suggest that all types of vacations improve the physical and mental health of the participants, when meditation is not included the benefits fade over the next few weeks. But including meditation either in retreat of during a vacation significantly improves the longevity of the benefits. This further suggests that including some quiet reflective time in a vacation is important in maximizing the impact of the vacation on the well-being of the participants.

 

So, maintain vacation benefits with meditation.

 

So the “vacation effect” brings short term good news for everyone, and the “meditation effect” brings longer-lasting good news, especially when you keep at it!” – Crystal Goh

 

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

 

Blasche, G., deBloom, J., Chang, A., & Pichlhoefer, O. (2021). Is a meditation retreat the better vacation? effect of retreats and vacations on fatigue, emotional well-being, and acting with awareness. PloS one, 16(2), e0246038. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246038

 

Abstract

It is well established that leisure vacations markedly improve well-being, but that these effects are only of short duration. The present study aimed to investigate whether vacation effects would be more lasting if individuals practiced meditation during the leisure episode. Meditation is known to improve well-being durably, among others, by enhancing the mental faculty of mindfulness. In this aim, leisure vacations during which individuals practiced meditation to some extent were compared with holidays not including any formal meditation practice as well as with meditation retreats (characterized by intense meditation practice) utilizing a naturalistic observational design. Fatigue, well-being, and mindfulness were assessed ten days before, ten days after, and ten weeks after the stays in a sample of 120 individuals accustomed to meditation practices. To account for differences in the experience of these stays, recovery experiences were additionally assessed. Ten days after the stay, there were no differences except for an increase in mindfulness for those practicing meditation. Ten weeks after the stay, meditation retreats and vacations including meditation were associated with greater increases in mindfulness, lower levels of fatigue, and higher levels of well-being than an “ordinary” vacation during which meditation was not practiced. The finding suggests that the inclusion of meditation practice during vacation could help alleviate vacations’ greatest pitfall, namely the rapid decline of its positive effects.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7869997/

 

Enhance Attention and Attentional Brain Systems with Meditation

Enhance Attention and Attentional Brain Systems with Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention,” – Anthony Zanesco

 

There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. It even improves high level thinking known as executive function and emotion regulation and compassion. One of the primary effects of mindfulness training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of mindfulness training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. The importance of heightened attentional ability to the individual’s ability to navigate the demands of complex modern life cannot be overstated. It helps in school, at work, in relationships, or simply driving a car. As important as attention is, it’s surprising that little is known about the mechanisms by which mindfulness improves attention.

 

There is evidence that mindfulness training improves attention by altering the brain. It appears That mindfulness training increases the size, connectivity, and activity of areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention. In today’s Research News article “Enhanced Attentional Network by Short-Term Intensive Meditation.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03073/full?utm_source=F-AAE&utm_medium=EMLF&utm_campaign=MRK_1245141_69_Psycho_20200213_arts_A), Kwak and colleagues recruited healthy meditation naïve adults and randomly assigned them to a 4 -day 3-night structured residential retreat of either meditation practice (19 hours total practice) or relaxation.

 

Before and after the retreat the participants underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of their brains. While they were in the scanner attention was measured with an attention network task. This included a flanker task and a temporal and spatial cueing task. These tasks measure 3 attentional processes, alerting, orienting, and executive control.

 

They found that after the meditation retreat but not the relaxation retreat there was a significant improvement in executive attentional control. The fMRI revealed that the meditation retreat group in comparison to baseline and the relaxation group had significant increases in activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, both components of the so-called executive control network. They also found that the better the performance on the executive attentional control task, the greater the increase in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. Additionally, they found that the meditation group had significant increases in the activity of the so called attentional orienting network in the brain including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, superior and inferior frontal gyrus, frontal eye fields, and anterior cingulate cortex. Finally, they found that the meditation group had significant increases in the activity of the so-called attentional alerting network in the brain including the superior temporal gyrus and the insula.

 

The results demonstrate that an intensive meditation retreat significantly improves attentional processes. This can be seen both behaviorally and neurologically. Behaviorally there was improvement in the executive attentional control while neurologically there were increases in the executive, orienting, and alerting attentional networks. These results suggest that meditation practice alters to brain systems underlying attention resulting in improved attentional ability. These changes may underlie many of the benefits produced by meditation practice.

 

So, enhance attention and attentional brain systems with meditation.

 

With more distractions at your fingertips than ever before, focused attention has become “an endangered species.” Luckily, . . . as little as 10 minutes of meditation a day can help turn the tide, and these benefits can be observed from the moment a person begins their practice.” – Nicole Bayes-Fleming

 

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

 

Kwak S, Kim S-Y, Bae D, Hwang W-J, Cho KIK, Lim K-O, Park H-Y, Lee TY and Kwon JS (2020) Enhanced Attentional Network by Short-Term Intensive Meditation. Front. Psychol. 10:3073. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03073

 

While recent studies have suggested behavioral effects of short-term meditation on the executive attentional functions, functional changes in the neural correlates of attentional networks after short-term meditation have been unspecified. Here, we conducted a randomized control trial to investigate the effects of a 4-day intensive meditation on the neural correlates of three attentional functions: alerting, orienting, and executive attention. Twenty-three participants in meditation practice and 14 participants in a relaxation retreat group performed attention network test (ANT) during functional magnetic resonance imaging both before and immediately after intervention. The meditation group showed significantly improved behavioral performance in the executive control network in ANT after the intervention. Moreover, neural activities in the executive control network, namely, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), were also significantly increased during the ANT after meditation. Interestingly, neural activity in the right ACC was significantly predicted by behavioral conflict levels in each individual in the meditation group, indicating significant effects of the program on the executive control network. Moreover, brain regions associated with the alerting and orienting networks also showed enhanced activity during the ANT after the meditation. Our study provides novel evidence on the enhancement of the attentional networks at the neural level via short-term meditation. We also suggest that short-term meditation may be beneficial to individuals at high risk of cognitive deficits by improving neural mechanisms of attention.

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03073/full?utm_source=F-AAE&utm_medium=EMLF&utm_campaign=MRK_1245141_69_Psycho_20200213_arts_A

 

Change the Brain to Improve Resilience with Meditation

Change the Brain to Improve Resilience with Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally). Pausing and observing the mind may (help us) resist getting drawn into wallowing in a setback.” – Badri Bajaj

 

Psychological well-being is sometimes thought of as a lack of mental illness. But it is more than just a lack of something. It is a positive set of characteristics that lead to happy, well-adjusted life. These include the ability to be aware of and accept one’s strengths and weaknesses, to have goals that give meaning to life, to truly believe that your potential capabilities are going to be realized, to have close and valuable relations with others, the ability to effectively manage life issues especially daily issues, and the ability to follow personal principles even when opposed to society. But stress can interfere with the individual’s ability to achieve these goals.  When highly stressed, resilience is required to cope with the stress and continue on the path to psychological well-being.

 

One way that mindfulness practices such as meditation may improve resilience is by altering the brain. 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. The changes in the brain, however, that are responsible for increased resilience are unknown.

 

In today’s Research News article “The Immediate and Sustained Positive Effects of Meditation on Resilience Are Mediated by Changes in the Resting Brain.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6448020/), Kwak and colleagues recruited healthy adults to participate in a 4-day retreat. They were randomly assigned to a meditation retreat or a relaxation retreat. They were measured before and after the retreat and 3 months later for mindfulness, resilience, and religious preference. Also, before and after the retreat the participants underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f-MRI) of their brains.

 

They found that in comparison to baseline and the relaxation retreat participants, the meditation retreat participants at the 3-month follow-up had significant increases in both mindfulness and resilience. They also found that the meditation group had significantly increased functional connectivity between the left rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, precuneus, and angular gyrus. In addition, the greater the increase in the functional connectivity in the meditation retreat group the greater the increases in resilience and mindfulness. The increase in resilience was associated with the increase in mindfulness and this association was found to be partially mediated by the change in functional connectivity. In other words, increased mindfulness was associated with increased resilience directly and also indirectly by its association with the increased functional connectivity which was in turn associated with greater resilience.

 

The results are interesting and suggest that the effect of meditation on resilience is due to increases in mindfulness that change the brain to produce greater resilience. In particular, meditation appears to increase the functional connectivity between brain regions, the cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex and the precuneus, and angular gyrus, and thus is partially responsible for increased resilience.

 

Resilience is very important for the individual to be able to withstand the stress and negative events in life. Meditation appears to change the brain to help people better cope with the stresses of life. This may underlie, at least in part, the psychological and physical benefits of meditation practice.

 

So, change the brain to improve resilience with meditation.

 

The emotional soup that follows a stressful event can whip up negative stories about yourself or others that goes on and on, beyond being useful. Mindfulness reduces this rumination and, if practiced regularly, changes your brain so that you’re more resilient to future stressful events.” – Shamash Alidina

 

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

 

Kwak, S., Lee, T. Y., Jung, W. H., Hur, J. W., Bae, D., Hwang, W. J., … Kwon, J. S. (2019). The Immediate and Sustained Positive Effects of Meditation on Resilience Are Mediated by Changes in the Resting Brain. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 101. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2019.00101

 

Abstract

While recent studies have explored the maintenance of the effect of meditation on stress resilience, the underlying neural mechanisms have not yet been investigated. The present study conducted a highly controlled residential study of a 4-day meditation intervention to investigate the brain functional changes and long-term effects of meditation on mindfulness and resilience. Thirty participants in meditation practice and 17 participants in a relaxation retreat (control group) underwent magnetic resonance imaging scans at baseline and post-intervention and completed the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale (CAMS) and Resilience Quotient Test (RQT) at baseline, post-intervention, and the 3-month follow-up. All participants showed increased CAMS and RQT scores post-intervention, but only the meditation group sustained the enhancement after 3 months. Resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC) between the left rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), precuneus, and angular gyrus was significantly increased post-intervention in the meditation group compared with the relaxation group. The changes in rACC-dmPFC rsFC mediated the relationship between the changes in the CAMS and RQT scores and correlated with the changes in the RQT score both immediately and at 3 months post-intervention. Our findings suggest that increased rACC-dmPFC rsFC via meditation causes an immediate enhancement in resilience that is sustained. Since resilience is known to be associated with the preventative effect of various psychiatric disorders, the improvement in stress-related neural mechanisms may be beneficial to individuals at high clinical risk.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6448020/

 

Improve Cognition and Reduce Age-related Cognitive Decline with Meditation

Improve Cognition and Reduce Age-related Cognitive Decline with Meditation

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“While we might expect our bodies and brains to follow a shared trajectory of development and degeneration over time, by actively practicing strategies such as meditation, we might actually preserve and protect our physical body and brain structure to extend our golden years and shine even more brightly in old age.” – Sonima Wellness

 

The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. This includes our mental abilities (cognition) which decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, and problem solving ability. It is inevitable and cannot be avoided. An encouraging new development is that mindfulness practices such as meditation training can significantly reduce these declines in cognitive ability. In addition, it has been found that mindfulness practices reduce the deterioration of the brain that occurs with aging restraining the loss of neural tissue. Indeed, the brains of practitioners of meditation and yoga have been found to degenerate less with aging than non-practitioners.

 

Most studies of age-related decline are cross-sectional, comparing groups of different ages. In today’s Research News article “Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1 ), Zanesco and colleagues perform a longitudinal analysis, following participants for up to 7 years to investigate the effects of a meditation retreat on cognitive ability.

 

They recruited experienced meditators and randomly assigned them to either a wait-list control condition or to receive a 3-month intensive meditation retreat. After completion of the first retreat, the wait-list control participants received the 3-month meditation retreat. All participants were measured before, during, and after the retreat and 6 months, and 1.5 and 7 years later with a response inhibition task. In this task, participants were asked to respond when a long line is present and not respond when an infrequent short line was presented. This task measures high level thinking including attention, response inhibition, discrimination, and vigilance.

 

They found that during and following the retreat there were large significant improvements in perceptual discrimination, response inhibition, vigilance, and response time variance as measured in the response inhibition task. Importantly, these improvements were maintained for as much as 7 years after the completion of the retreat. Overall, older participants had age-related declines in accuracy. But, older participants who reported large amounts of continued meditation practice, did not have declines.

 

This study documents that the effects of a 3-month intensive meditation retreat on cognitive ability are large and lasting. In addition, they demonstrate that age-related declines in cognitive performance can be prevented by continued meditation practice. In this study, these effects were observed longitudinally, in the same individuals over time, supplementing the previous findings with cross-sectional studies of groups of individuals of different ages. This suggests that the loss of high-level thought ability does not necessarily inevitably have to decline as we age. It can be improved and sustained with meditation practice.

 

So, improve cognition and reduce age-related cognitive decline with meditation.

 

“What we do know is that long-term engagement in mindfulness meditation may enhance cognitive performance in older adults, and that with persistent practice, these benefits may be sustained. That’s great news for the millions of aging adults working to combat the negative effects of aging on the brain.” – B. grace Bullock

 

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

 

Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., MacLean, K.A. et al. Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training. J Cogn Enhanc (2018) 2: 259. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1

 

Abstract

Sustained attention is effortful, demanding, and subject to limitations associated with age-related cognitive decline. Researchers have sought to examine whether attentional capacities can be enhanced through directed mental training, with a number of studies now offering evidence that meditation practice may facilitate generalized improvements in this domain. However, the extent to which attentional gains are maintained following periods of dedicated meditation training and how such improvements are moderated by processes of aging have yet to be characterized. In a prior report (Sahdra et al., Emotion 11, 299–312, 2011), we examined attentional performance on a sustained response inhibition task before, during, and after 3-months of full-time meditation. We now extend this prior investigation across additional follow-up assessments occurring up to 7 years after the conclusion of training. Performance improvements observed during periods of intensive practice were partially maintained several years later. Importantly, aging-related decrements in measures of response inhibition accuracy and reaction time variability were moderated by levels of continued meditation practice across the follow-up period. The present study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across the lifespan.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1

 

Improve Connectivity of Brain Areas Underlying Executive Cognitive Function with Mindfulness

Improve Connectivity of Brain Areas Underlying Executive Cognitive Function with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Think of mindfulness practices as short routines or “gym” sessions that exercise your executive functions. Performed consistently, mindfulness practices strengthen your executive function muscles and help you to be more mindful when you need to be. “ – Casey Dixon

 

There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. It even improves high level thinking known as executive function. 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 thinking to mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how mindfulness training could produce such widespread and varied benefits. One possibility is that mindfulness practice results in beneficial changes in the nervous system.

 

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.

 

In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Meditation Training and Executive Control Network Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489372/ ), Taren and colleagues examine the effects of mindfulness training on the underlying brain systems responsible for high level thinking, executive function. They recruited “stressed unemployed job-seeking community adults” and randomly assigned them to participate in a 3-day residential retreat either of intensive mindfulness meditation training or of relaxation training. The meditation retreat was a condensed version of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that contains discussion, meditation, yoga, and body scan practices. The relaxation retreat called Health Enhancement through Relaxation (HER) included walking, stretching, and didactics performed in a relaxed manner. Before and after training the participants were measured for mindfulness and underwent brain scanning with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), while engaged in either meditation or relaxation respectively.

 

They found that following the retreat, in comparison to baseline and the relaxation group, the mindfulness group had increased functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal network consisting of the superior parietal lobule and supplementary eye field, and also increased functional connectivity with the ventral network consisting of the inferior frontal gyrus and the angular gyrus. These interconnected structures have been demonstrated to be important in high level, executive function, thinking. It’s quite striking that these changes in the brain can be produced by a relatively short-term, 3-day, mindfulness retreat.

 

Hence, mindfulness training appears to strengthen the connections between the brain structures that underly the highest levels of human thinking. These results suggest that intensive mindfulness training even over a relatively short period of time can produce neuroplastic changes in the brain that improve the sharing of information between these structures and these changes, in turn, produce improved thinking. This suggests the underlying neural mechanism by which mindfulness training improves thought processes.

 

So, improve connectivity of brain areas underlying executive cognitive function 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

 

Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., … Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation Training and Executive Control Network Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 79(6), 674–683. http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000466

 

Abstract

Objective

Mindfulness meditation training has been previously shown to enhance behavioral measures of executive control (e.g. attention, working memory, cognitive control), but the neural mechanisms underlying these improvements are largely unknown. Here, we test whether mindfulness training interventions foster executive control by strengthening functional connections between dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) – a hub of the executive control network – and frontoparietal regions that coordinate executive function.

Methods

Thirty-five adults with elevated levels of psychological distress participated in a 3 day RCT of intensive mindfulness meditation or relaxation training. Participants completed a resting state fMRI scan before and after the intervention. We tested whether mindfulness meditation training increased resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) between dlPFC and frontoparietal control network regions.

Results

Left dlPFC showed increased connectivity to the right inferior frontal gyrus (T = 3.74), right middle frontal gyrus (T = 3.98), right supplementary eye field (T = 4.29), right parietal cortex (T = 4.44), and left middle temporal gyrus (T = 3.97; all p<0.05) following mindfulness training relative to the relaxation control. Right dlPFC showed increased connectivity to right middle frontal gyrus (T = 4.97, p < 0.05).

Conclusions

We report that mindfulness training increases rsFC between dlPFC and dorsal network (superior parietal lobule, supplementary eye field, MFG) and ventral network (right IFG, middle temporal/angular gyrus) regions. These findings extend previous work showing increased functional connectivity amongst brain regions associated with executive function during active meditation by identifying specific neural circuits in which rsFC is enhanced by a mindfulness intervention in individuals with high levels of psychological distress.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489372/

 

Improve the Brain’s Attentional Ability with a Meditation Retreat

Improve the Brain’s Attentional Ability with a Meditation Retreat

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Here’s where meditation begins to show itself as a biohacking marvel. Learning how to interrupt one’s reaction pattern – and then doing that over and over – can reshape behaviour. And if behaviour is changing, then the brain is changing.” – Zoe Schlanger

 

Retreat can be a powerful experience. But, it is quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it can run from early in the morning till late at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in meditation repeatedly over the day is guaranteed to produce many aches and pains in the legs, back, and neck. But the real challenges are psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Retreat can be a real test.

 

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, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

Hence, an intensive meditation retreat would be expected to produce neuroplastic changes in the brains of the participants. In today’s Research News article “Effects of a 7-Day Meditation Retreat on the Brain Function of Meditators and Non-Meditators During an Attention Task.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6004402/ ), Kozasa and colleagues recruited meditation naïve and long-term meditators ( > 3 years of experience) and had them engage in a 7-day intensive Zen meditation retreat. Sessions of sitting and walking meditation, yoga, text reading, and meals were scheduled nearly non-stop from 5:10 in the morning till 11:30 at night each day. Before and after the retreat the participants underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f-MRI) brain scanning while performing and attention demanding task (Stroop test).

 

They did not find any difference between the novice and experienced meditators in performance of the attention task either before or after the retreat. But, they found considerable differences in their brains. Prior to the retreat during the attention task with distraction the experienced meditators and not the novices had reduced activity in the anterior cingulate, ventromedial prefrontal cortex/anterior cingulate, caudate/putamen/pallidum/temporal lobe (center), insula/putamen/temporal lobe (right) and posterior cingulate. Following the retreat, the novices evidenced similar reductions in activity in these structures.

 

These structures are for the most part components of the so-called default mode network that is activated during mind wandering and self-referential thought. So, the experienced meditators with years of meditative attention training had differences in their brains suggesting better ability to concentrate on the task at hand, with less interference from mind wandering. Surprisingly, novice meditators had similar changes after only 7-day of participation in a meditation retreat. These results suggest that meditation changes the brain to improve concentration and attention. It does so, in part, by reducing the ability of the brain to let the mind wander away from the task at hand.

 

It is interesting that the neuroplastic changes in the brains of the novices essentially caught up to those of the experienced meditators with just 7 days of meditation training. This underscores the power of retreat. It also suggests that meditation can alter the brain relatively quickly. Hence, for improvement of attention, it doesn’t take years of training, it can be accomplished in an intensive week.

 

Improve the brain’s attentional ability with a meditation retreat.

 

“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” — Leonardo da Vinci

 

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

 

Kozasa, E. H., Balardin, J. B., Sato, J. R., Chaim, K. T., Lacerda, S. S., Radvany, J., … Amaro Jr., E. (2018). Effects of a 7-Day Meditation Retreat on the Brain Function of Meditators and Non-Meditators During an Attention Task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 222. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00222

 

Abstract

Meditation as a cognitive enhancement technique is of growing interest in the field of health and research on brain function. The Stroop Word-Color Task (SWCT) has been adapted for neuroimaging studies as an interesting paradigm for the understanding of cognitive control mechanisms. Performance in the SWCT requires both attention and impulse control, which is trained in meditation practices. We presented SWCT inside the MRI equipment to measure the performance of meditators compared with non-meditators before and after a meditation retreat. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of a 7-day Zen intensive meditation training (a retreat) on meditators and non-meditators in this task on performance level and neural mechanisms. Nineteen meditators and 14 non-meditators were scanned before and after a 7-day Zen meditation retreat. No significant differences were found between meditators and non-meditators in the number of the correct responses and response time (RT) during SWCT before and after the retreat. Probably, due to meditators training in attention, their brain activity in the contrast incongruent > neutral during the SWCT in the anterior cingulate, ventromedial prefrontal cortex/anterior cingulate, caudate/putamen/pallidum/temporal lobe (center), insula/putamen/temporal lobe (right) and posterior cingulate before the retreat, were reduced compared with non-meditators. After the meditation retreat, non-meditators had reduced activation in these regions, becoming similar to meditators before the retreat. This result could be interpreted as an increase in the brain efficiency of non-meditators (less brain activation in attention-related regions and same behavioral response) promoted by their intensive training in meditation in only 7 days. On the other hand, meditators showed an increase in brain activation in these regions after the same training. Intensive meditation training (retreat) presented distinct effects on the attention-related regions in meditators and non-meditators probably due to differences in expertise, attention processing as well as neuroplasticity.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6004402/

 

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

 

“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts

 

In a prior essay ‘The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence’ (https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/insights/?section=navPosts), the effects of the container in which retreat is conducted were explored. But, the point of retreat is not the container, it is what transpires within it. Meditation and contemplation are the primary practices of the retreat. The amount varies with different types of retreats. The one we just returned from the amount of meditation varied between 3 to 4+ hours per day occurring in 6 to 8 periods beginning at 7:30 in the morning through 9:30 in the evening. The retreat not only allows for deep meditative experiences that build over the course of the retreat, but it also allows for time for contemplation. Just sitting or walking while reflecting on our environment, immediate experience, or the insights occurring in meditation is as important as the meditation itself.

 

The specific type of meditation practiced can vary with different retreats (see links below for explanations of meditation techniques). But, all practices emphasize quieting the mind, reducing the internal conversation and chatter, in order to better see and understand the operation of the mind. The amount of meditation is important as it is a ‘practice’ and over time the mind gets quieter. When the mind quiets all sorts of things can emerge, some expected, some a complete surprise, some sublime, but some very uncomfortable and upsetting. Be forewarned, meditation can produce wrenching experiences. We’ve seen many people spontaneously break out in tears at any moment. Most deal with it effectively, confronting and experiencing troubling experiences and the attached strong emotions. This is actually a very good thing as it can help to heal inner wounds that may have festered for decades. But, some participants are overwhelmed and need assistance or need to leave the retreat. Don’t be put off, these are important experiences and may constitute breakthrough moments, leading to self-transformation.

 

The intent of meditation is not to elicit thinking or emotions, even though thinking and emotions occur frequently during meditation. The intent is to allow inner silence to prevail. At the retreat we attended we all wore tags stating “I am observing silence.” This can be viewed very practically as a message to everyone around who may not be participating in the retreat, that we’re not open to conversation, or even everyday niceties. But, it’s true meaning is deeper. It suggests that we are observing silence itself, the silence within that is ever present and the foundation upon which all experiences emerge. It is a wonderful experience to be deeply immersed in the silence.

 

A powerful component of retreat is the commitment and intention that the participants bring. Most people coming to a retreat are very committed. The investment of money and especially a week’s time is a concrete expression of that commitment. The week taken away from work and everyday activities is dear to many. It could have been used to take a cruise, tour a foreign country, go to a beach or theme park, visit friends and family, etc. So, the choice to go on retreat instead is meaningful. This commitment provides the motivation for the individual to focus on the work of the retreat and particularly on their intention. Most come with an intention to work on self-understanding, which may paradoxically include a loss of self! In addition, the fact that there is a group of committed individuals with a shared intention present energizes the retreat.

 

For many the intention is for spiritual development. Some come to retreat with a specific intention to experience spiritual awakening or to experience a union with God. But, even those who come for personal development reasons often migrate toward spiritual development. This is a natural outgrowth of meditation. It is impossible to look deeply inside, particularly at the silence and emptiness and not be spiritually affected, to not glimpse the deeper aspects of existence. In fact, it is common in retreat for people to have awakening experiences. These frequently occur not in the meditation itself but during the contemplative time. That’s frequently where the fruits of meditation ripen. Additionally, the supportive environment of retreat can promote awakenings as the individual knows that these unusual experiences will be accepted and understood, whereas in everyday life they are not.

 

Silent meditation retreat is an opportunity to move away from our everyday lives. Some may see this as an opportunity to escape them but the power of retreat is not to escape our lives but to provide perspective on them. Yes, work, chores etc. must be done. But, by putting perspective on their true importance we become less stressed and anxious about them and don’t ruminate about unfinished tasks. Rather, we can begin to live our life with balance, making sure that we take care of what constitutes the to do list of our happiness and growth. It has been pointed out that absolutely no one, on their death bed, wishes that they had spent more time at work. Retreat can provide this same kind of perspective. We come away from retreat with a clear realization that we must give higher priorities and more time to our emotional and spiritual lives. We must invest the precious time of our lives in rest and contemplation. We must devote ourselves more to others and especially, to caring for ourselves. We can see how important our relationships, family and friends are to our inner reality. Retreat can provide this perspective for us and is part of its life-altering power.

 

We highly recommend retreat, especially silent retreat, for those who wish for personal or spiritual development. But, be prepared. It is often not the pleasant relaxing time off that many envision. It can be emotional and spiritual dynamite that needs to be approached with caution.

 

As gold purified in a furnace loses its impurities and achieves its own true nature, the mind gets rid of the impurities of the attributes of delusion, attachment and purity through meditation and attains Reality. – Adi Shankara”

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

Retreat for Health

Retreat for Health

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“retreat confirmed the importance of taking time out of our busy lives to quietly reflect and connect with ourselves. I learned countless lessons that could have only happened through direct experience. Perhaps most importantly, I deeply accepted myself and vowed to continue leaning into my fears.” – Alyssa Siefert

 

Retreat can be a powerful experience. But, in some ways, is like being on vacation. Everything is taken care of, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared, and time is dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All the individual has to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. The retreatants are terribly spoiled! That seeming ease, however, is deceptive.

 

Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it can run from early in the morning till late at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in sitting meditation repeatedly over the day is guaranteed to produce many aches and pains in the legs, back, and neck. But the real challenges are psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Retreat can be a real test. The darkness can descend. Deep emotional issues can emerge and may even overwhelm the individual. Many participants will spontaneously burst out in tears. Others may become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and break out in cold sweats, and still others are sleepless and tormented. How can this be, that something so seemingly peaceful as silent retreat can be so emotionally wrenching? The secret is that the situation removes the minds ability to hide and distract.

 

Humans have done a tremendous job of providing distractions for the mind including books, movies, magazines, music, television, sports, amusement parks, surfing the internet, tweeting, texting, etc. Any time troubling thoughts or memories of traumatic experiences begin to emerge in everyday life, the subject can easily be changed by engaging in a distraction. So, the issues never have to truly be confronted. But, in silent retreat there is no escape. Difficult issues emerge and there is no place to hide. They must be confronted and experienced. With all these difficulties, why would anyone want to put themselves through such an ordeal and go on a meditation retreat? People go because they find that retreat produces many profound and sometimes life altering benefits.

 

In today’s Research News article “The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761096/ ), Naidoo and colleagues review and summarize the effects on health of attending a retreat. They discovered 23 scientific studies of the health effects of retreat of which 8 were randomized controlled trials. These studies included a wide range of participants including healthy individuals and people with mental and physical disorders. The retreats lasted from 2.5 to 15 days with most around a week.

 

They found that without exception the studies reported statistically significant improvements following the retreat in some outcome measures of mental or physical health. These benefits included significant improvements in quality of life, perceived physical health and health symptoms, as well as psychological and spiritual well-being, and even genetic markers of longevity. These benefits appear to last long after the completion of the retreat. So, retreat appears to produce substantial and lasting health benefits.

 

It is very difficult to find appropriate comparison conditions for a retreat or have a retreat with blind participants or researchers. So, there is a considerable risk of bias in all of these studies. Nevertheless, the universal findings of the scientific studies that have investigated the effects of participating in a retreat find significant psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits for healthy or sick individuals.

 

So, retreat for health.

 

“A 1-month Vipassana meditation retreat may yield improvements in mindfulness, affect and personality, even in experienced meditators.” – Montero Marin

 

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

 

Dhevaksha Naidoo, Adrian Schembri, Marc Cohen, The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2018; 18: 8. Published online 2018 Jan 10. doi: 10.1186/s12906-017-2078-4

 

Abstract

Background

Unhealthy lifestyles are a major factor in the development and exacerbation of many chronic diseases. Improving lifestyles though immersive residential experiences that promote healthy behaviours is a focus of the health retreat industry. This systematic review aims to identify and explore published studies on the health, wellbeing and economic impact of retreat experiences.

Methods

MEDLINE, CINAHL and PsychINFO databases were searched for residential retreat studies in English published prior to February 2017. Studies were included if they were written in English, involved an intervention program in a residential setting of one or more nights, and included before-and-after data related to the health of participants. Studies that did not meet the above criteria or contained only descriptive data from interviews or case studies were excluded.

Results

A total of 23 studies including eight randomised controlled trials, six non-randomised controlled trials and nine longitudinal cohort studies met the inclusion criteria. These studies included a total of 2592 participants from diverse geographical and demographic populations and a great heterogeneity of outcome measures, with seven studies examining objective outcomes such as blood pressure or biological makers of disease, and 16 studies examining subjective outcomes that mostly involved self-reported questionnaires on psychological and spiritual measures. All studies reported post-retreat health benefits ranging from immediately after to five-years post-retreat. Study populations varied widely and most studies had small sample sizes, poorly described methodology and little follow-up data, and no studies reported on health economic outcomes or adverse effects, making it difficult to make definite conclusions about specific conditions, safety or return on investment.

Conclusions

Health retreat experiences appear to have health benefits that include benefits for people with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, heart conditions and mental health. Future research with larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods are needed to investigate the health impact of different retreat experiences and the clinical populations most likely to benefit. Further studies are also needed to determine the economic benefits of retreat experiences for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policy makers.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761096/

No Escape

No Escape

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Contemplative practice is, for the most part, a wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful endeavor. Engaging in it makes us feel refreshed and rested. This is wonderful, but can be a trap. We can use it as another in our arsenal of tactics to escape from a reality. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity.

 

Our lives are generally full of problems, from work, to family, to relationships, to health, to the challenges of getting it all done in a 24-hour day. In addition, we bring baggage from the past in the form of unresolved issues from childhood, or traumatic experiences, or deep emotional hurts. We also are confronted with fears and anxieties about an uncertain future. The totality of all of these problems can be overwhelming.

 

A frequent response is to try to escape them through various distractions such as the media, the internet, sports, alcohol and drugs, etc. It is useful to give ourselves a break once in a while and relieve some of the stress. But, if this is all we do, then it prevents us from addressing the problems and these distractions become an additional problem.

 

Our contemplative practice should not be added to the list of escape tactics. Indeed, contemplative practice is not an escape. Many people believe that spiritual awakening, aka enlightenment, will be an escape from their human problems. That is simply not the case. After awakening, all our problems are still there.

 

Contemplative practice should be employed to quiet the mind and allow for space for the emotions to be fully and honestly experienced. This sets the stage for being able to confront our problems, contemplate resolutions, and work through unresolved issues with a calm clarity. With the mind’s incessant chatter at least slightly muted and the emotions reduced to manageable intensity, we have to opportunity to honestly address our problems.

 

Contemplative practice is not the time to try to address the problems. It is the time to set the stage for addressing the problems. So, do not enter contemplative practice with the intent of thinking about the issues. Enter it as a time to allow the mind and physiology to settle and to enter into a present moment mindset. Regardless, the mind will inevitably wander and our deepest issues will emerge.

 

This can be seen in the amplified context of a silent meditation retreat. Here we cannot escape from our problems. They frequently emerge with full force and we are forced to confront them. Retreat can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Most can deal with it and benefit greatly by bringing them into the light of day and confronting them. But others can be overwhelmed. Retreat must be entered into with caution and with the presence of an understanding and experienced staff, to help us when the emotions become too strong to handle.

 

Hence, contemplative practice is not another escape but a means to get us prepared to fully address our deepest issues.

 

So, engage in contemplative practice and engage in dealing with the problems of life. The two endeavors complement each other.

 

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