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Posts Tagged ‘gray matter’

17 May 2012 In Sitting Still, a Bench Press for the Brain

John Hanc
 May 9, 2012
The New York Times

 

Katherine Splain, who is 63 and goes by Surabhi, has been practicing meditation for 43 years. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

In 1969, Katherine Splain, then a student at the College of New Rochelle, saw the dark side of drug use among her peers. So she sought a different — and legal — path on her inward journey.

“I had read that meditation was actually another way of achieving the kind of ‘high’ that you might experience if you did drugs,” said Ms. Splain, who is now 63.

She heard about a class in meditation being offered near the school, decided to visit and was impressed with the students she met. “There wasn’t a lot of peace in the world in 1969, but these people seemed very much at peace,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This looks good to me.’ ”

Forty-three years, one retirement and a second career later, Ms. Splain, who lives in Massapequa, N.Y., and goes by the first name Surabhi, is still practicing. And like many other meditators, she says she believes that it has not only expanded the boundaries of her consciousness, but that it has also had beneficial effects on her brain.

The role that meditation plays in brain development has been the subject of several theories and a number of studies. One of them, conducted at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that long-term meditators like Ms. Splain had greater gyrification — a term that describes the folding of the cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain.

Published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal in February, the study is the latest effort from the U.C.L.A. lab to determine the extent to which meditation may affect neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to make physiological changes. Previous studies found that the brains of long-term meditators had increased amounts of so-called gray and white matter (the former is believed to be involved in processing information; the latter is thought of as the “wiring” of the brain’s communication system.)

It follows other studies examining possible links between meditation and physical benefits. In 2009, for example, a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting suggested that the mental relaxation produced by meditation has physiological benefits for people with established coronary artery disease.

The U.C.L.A. study, like previous ones, is inconclusive but intriguing. “You could argue that more folds mean more neurons,” said Dr. Eileen Luders, the recent study’s lead author, who practices meditation herself. “These are the processing units of the brain, and so having more might mean that you have greater cognitive capacities.”

The subjects — 28 men, 22 women — had a median age of 51 and had all been practicing meditation of various types for 20 years on average. The oldest subject was 71; the longest practitioner had been meditating regularly for 46 years.

Dr. Luders and her team used M.R.I. scans to measure the features of the subject’s brains and compare them to a control group of nonmeditators.

A striking finding of the study was that the degree of cortical gyrification appeared to increase as the number of years practicing meditation increased.

“We used to believe that when you were born, your brain would grow and reach a peak in the early 20s and then start shrinking,” Dr. Luders said. “It was thought there was nothing we could do to change that.” Her research suggests that there might be. As a meditator for four years, Dr. Luders understands the degree of mental discipline involved. “People ask, ‘What do you do? Just sit there with your eyes closed?’ It’s actually hard work, because you have to make a constant mental effort.”

Others caution that the results of these experiments do not necessarily mean that meditation conclusively caused the adaptations in the brain or that the increased folds meant improved cognitive performance for these older adults.

“I don’t think there’s enough evidence yet to say that,” said Dr. Josephine P. Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health. But she said that challenging the brain was often cited as a good way to maintain cognitive health as people age, and meditation is indeed such a challenge.

“This is an example of learning a new mental skill,” she said. And “it’s something that with practice people can get better at.” (She also noted that other studies had shown that meditation could be beneficial in pain relief).

In the 2009 study presented to the heart association, researchers followed about 200 high-risk patients for an average of five years. Among the 100 who meditated, there were 20 heart attacks, strokes and deaths; in the comparison group, there were 32. The meditators tended to remain free of disease longer and also reduced their systolic blood pressure. That study was conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, in collaboration with the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute based at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. The institute’s director, Dr. Robert H. Schneider, suggested that the stress reduction produced by the meditation could cause changes in the brain that cut stress hormones like cortisol and damp the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis.

Ms. Splain’s practice of meditation has, over the years, deepened into something far more than a way to flex her cognitive muscles. In 1970, she became a devotee of the Queens-based Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, a vegetarian and a marathon runner, and later worked for the United Nations. Now a devout Buddhist, she is planning a trip to Tibet next year for the culmination of an intense, seven-year course of spiritual enlightenment that involves mediating three hours a day.

In 2005, at age 57, she embarked on a rigorous graduate program in the interdisciplinary approach to schooling known as Waldorf education. Working full time and taking classes at night, she finished the program at Sunbridge Institute in Spring Valley, N.Y., in three years. She retired from her United Nations job in 2008 and teaches in the early childhood program at the Waldorf School of Garden City on Long Island. She credits the discipline developed through four decades of meditation for her ability to handle the intellectual workload of graduate school — and begin a second career at age 60.

“The mentor of our master’s program acknowledged the challenge of doing this while working full time,” she said. “But when I was able to hand in an 80-page thesis well ahead of the class, he attributed it to the fact that, quote, ‘She’s a meditator.’ ”

 

8 March 2012 Meditation May Be the Key to Business Leadership

Nikita Singhal and Suken Vakil
March 5, 2012
The Independent Newspaper of Harvard Business School Community

 

Meditation @ HBS, Photo by Reena Gautam

What do Steve Jobs, Ray Dalio, Bill George, Marc Beinoff and Phil Jackson have in common? They are visionaries, have been known to lead and inspire teams, and have achieved significant success in their professional lives. They have one more thing in common – meditation. Could their focus on contemplative practices have something to do with their huge successes?

Suken Vakil & I (Nikita Singhal), both OG, are looking to answer that exact question, and we’ve designed an independent study under the guidance of Prof. Sandra Sucher, titled Meditation & Business Leadership.

How did we get interested? This past summer, I was fortunate to take a meditation workshop with the Art of Living Foundation in New York City. I have been meditating every day since, and have found that 25mins of meditation makes me think more proactively about my priorities, focus better, see issues from a new vantage point i.e. more objectively, and not get stressed about inconsequential events. Suken learned about contemplative practices through traveling in India with family.

We began to share our thoughts with friends and faculty on campus, and were surprised by the openness and interest amongst all. There seems to be an increasing awareness for contemplative studies at Harvard.

A study led by psychologist Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School, was the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter, in areas associated with attention and emotional integration[1].

At Harvard Law School, The Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, founded by Erica Fox, teaches mindfulness practices as essential to the art of conflict resolution. Meditation, Fox asserts, is central to achieving the Initiative’s mission, “…but is also enabling negotiators to be more successful in getting to yes.” [2]

HBS Professor Sandra Sucher is part of a cross-university study that looks at contemplative dimensions of leadership and leadership education, and they have invited guests such as Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, author of several scientific papers on mindfulness and co-author of The Mind’s Own Physician.

In A Powerful Silence, author Maia Duerr suggests that we are “in the midst of a massive demystification and democratization of contemplative practices”. At least 135 companies offer employees some form of meditation and/or yoga and the number of hospitals/clinics that provided mindfulness based stress reduction training for patients increased from 80 in 1993 to 250 in 2003.

So what does this mean for HBS? Suken and I aim to look into whether meditation can help business leaders increase self-awareness, mental clarity, focus and emotional intelligence. It is often also claimed that meditation helps a leader develop more authenticity, tolerance and empathy, which leads to a greater sense of belongingness and responsibility for the communities they live and work in.

We hope to gain some insights via a review of academic and popular literature, interviews with business leaders who practice meditation, and by meditating ourselves over the course of the semester to examine any impact.

7 August 2011 Meditation stronger than morphine and drugs

EMZscience
Aug 3, 2011

Meditation can have pain reliefing effects much greater than even morphine, one of the strongest drugs, according to a recent study.

We are only beginning to understand the deep effects that meditation has on our bodies, and researchers are baffled, to say the least. It calms and relieves pain with unbelievable efficiency, reducing the pain by more than half, and also providing long term results.

“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Dr Fadel Zeidan, lead author at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

For this study, 15 volunteers who have never meditated before attended four 20 minute classes where they were thought how to meditate using a technique called focused attention. Mind you, ordinary people with only 80 minutes of training. Both before and after this training, their brain was monitored using a special type of imaging called arterial spin labelling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI).

For the purpose of this study, a pain inducing stimulae was applied on the volunteers, and the results showed that the amount of pain was reduced by approximately half after the meditation. The research also showed that meditation increased brain activity in areas including the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex.

“We found a big effect – about a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness,” said Dr Zeiden. “Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 per cent.”

Of course, the advantages of such a technique are numerous: it’s easy to learn, free, offers tremendous pain relief, non invasive, and also has other benefits.

2 May 2011 Brain power through meditation and prayer

By Tom Heneghan

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 17, 2009 (Reuters) — Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns boost their brain power through meditation and prayer, but even atheists can enjoy the mental benefits that believers derive from faith, according to a popular neuroscience author.

The key, Andrew Newberg argues in his new book How God Changes Your Brain, lies in the concentrating and calming effects that meditation or intense prayer have inside our heads.

Brain scanners show that intense meditation alters our gray matter, strengthening regions that focus the mind and foster compassion while calming those linked to fear and anger.

Whether the meditator believes in the supernatural or is an atheist repeating a mantra, he says, the outcome can be the same – a growth in the compassion that virtually every religion teaches and a decline in negative feelings and emotions.

“In essence, when you think about the really big questions in life — be they religious, scientific or psychological — your brain is going to grow,” says Newberg, head of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu, or an agnostic or an atheist,” he writes in the book written with Mark Robert Waldman, a therapist at the Center.

NEUROTHEOLOGY

In his office at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, Newberg told Reuters that “neurotheology” – the study of the brain’s role in religious belief – is starting to shed light on what happens in believers’ heads when they contemplate God.

Science and religion are often seen as opposites, to the point where some in each camp openly reject the other, but this medical doctor and professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies sees no reason not to study them together.

“The two most powerful forces in all of human history have been religion and science,” he said. “These are the two things that help us organize our world and understand it. Why not try to bring them together to address each other and ultimately our world in a more effective way?”

Atheists often see scanner images tracking blood flows in brains of meditating monks and nuns lost in prayer as proof that faith is an illusion. Newberg warns against simple conclusions:

“If you see a brain scan of a nun who’s perceiving God’s presence in a room, all it tells you is what was happening in her brain when she perceived God’s presence in a room.

“It may be just the brain doing it, but it may be the brain being the receiver of spiritual phenomena,” said Newberg, whose research shows the short prayers most believers say leave little trace on the brain because they are not as intense as meditation.

“I’m not trying to say religion is bad or it’s not real,” he added. “I say people are religious and let’s try to understand how it affects them.”

NO “GOD SPOT”

Another notion Newberg debunks is the idea there is a single “God spot” in the brain responsible for religious belief: “It’s not like there’s a little spiritual spot that lights up every time somebody thinks of God.”

Instead, religious experiences fire neurons in several different parts of the brain, just like other events do. Locating them does not explain them, but gives pointers to how these phenomena occur and what they might mean.

In their book, Newberg and Waldman sketch out some of the “God circuits” in the brain and their effects, especially if trained through meditation as muscles are through exercise.

Meditation both activates the frontal lobe, which “creates and integrates all of your ideas about God,” and calms down the amygdala, the emotional region that can create images of an authoritative deity and fog our logical thinking.

The parietal-frontal circuit gives us a sense of the space around us and our place in it. Meditation suppresses this sense, giving rise to a serene feeling of unity with God or the world.

“Even 10 to 15 minutes of meditation appear to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation and psychological health,” the authors declare in the book.

Newberg, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family and has studied many religions, said his work might help both believers and atheists understand religious feelings, which he said were “among the most powerful and complex experiences people have.”

But he cautioned against expecting “neurotheology” to come up with surprising insights soon: “As good as our techniques are, they are still incredibly crude. We have a long way to go.”

9 December 2010 Meditation Increases Attention and Changes the Brain

Posted by Martin Bohn, on Nov 30, 2010 in suite101.com
A 2007 study by neuroscientist Richard Davidson suggests that meditation improves attention and may even help with attention deficit disorder.
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has conducted several studies on the effects of meditation on the brain. Being a regular meditator himself, Davidson is also a long time friend of the Dalai Lama. In this study, he was allowed to examine the brains of several Tibetan monks with a very long meditation practice and compare it to people without previous meditation experience.

The Study

In collaboration with colleagues Brefczynski-Lewis and Lutz, Davidson conducted a study that compared meditation novices to long time meditators. Both groups were asked to meditate while undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) of the brain. The meditation used was a practice where one focuses intently on a stimulus and then repeatedly goes back to the object of meditation whenever the mind has wandered.

Meditation as Seen on the MRI Scan

The MRI scans revealed an increased activity in the brain regions used for paying attention and making decisions. Thus, meditation seems to train the corresponding regions and functions of the brain. It was also found that the areas of the brain connected with attention and decision-making (such as the prefrontal cortex) were more activated in long-term meditators than in the meditation novices.

Most fascinatingly, however, an altogether different picture emerged when looking only at the most experienced meditators with at least 40,000 hours of experience (equivalent to meditating five hours per day for 22 years). In that group, the same areas of the brain only showed an increased activity at the beginning of the meditation. After that, the brain activity went back to baseline. The conclusion drawn by Davidson is that these persons were able to concentrate effortlessly, something that has often been described in classic texts on mediation.

Immune to Distraction

Another distinct feature of the study was examining the reaction to distractive noises. While meditating inside the MRI, the subjects of the study were periodically blasted with disturbing noises. Among the group of experienced meditators, these noises had much less effect on the brain areas involved in emotion and decision-making. And the most experienced meditators, with over 40,000 hours of meditation experience, were hardly affected at all. “They do hear the sound” Davidson pointed out, “we can detect that in the auditory cortex, but they don’t have the emotional reaction.”

Meditation or Lifestyle?

Although he doesn’t completely rule out that these results may have something to do with the differences of lifestyle between the Buddhist monks and the ordinary American people observed in the study, Davidson doesn’t think so. Pointing out the correlation between the length of meditation practice and the amount of changes in the brain, Davidson assumes that the changes were indeed caused by meditation (rather than lifestyle factors such as isolation, eating habits or religious faith).

The Brain Can Be Changed

Another evidence for the neurological benefits of meditation comes from another study by Davidson. It shows that the ability to detect a brief visual signal that most people cannot detect is significantly improved in people who were trained in meditation over the course of three months. This study can be regarded as further evidence of the so called neuroplasticity of the brain – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.

While psychologists have long tended to consider an adult’s capacity to pay attention as relatively fixed, these findings suggest that attention can be trained in a similar way as other abilities. Just as regular workouts improve cardiovascular health, so the systematic practice of meditation can train and improve attention.

Meditation and Hyperactivity

With a view towards a growing prevalence in hyperactivity disorder among children, Davidson regards meditation or methods derived from meditation as possible tools for dealing with hyperactivity. He stresses, however, that it is not more than a possibility as yet.

Source

Brain scans show meditation changes minds, increases attention.” Online article on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s website.

Related Articles and Links

You might also be interested in the following articles on how meditation increases the size of the brain and on how meditation changes the brain. Furthermore, you can read about a related neuroscientific study by Antoine Lutz, called “Can meditation sharpen our attention?” (University of Wisconsin and Madison’s website).

23 November 2010 Meditation reverses aging in brains

Posted Sunday, November 21, 2010 by: Celeste Smucker, in Natural News

Studies of meditation have shown that its regular practice that helps individuals cope with issues such as anxiety, stress, chronic pain and high blood pressure. In addition, more recent studies facilitated by brain scan technology have found that regular meditation practice helps prevent or delay age related cognitive decline including memory loss. In fact, it appears that regular meditation practice can change the brain in a variety of profound and healthful ways.

If you spend any time with elderly people you know that cognitive decline is common. It is so common in fact, that we often make light of age associated memory loss referring it to “senior moments.” Brain researchers are now studying whether these declines are inevitable or whether they can be reversed. Many scientists now believe that the brain can change and even grow; that it responds to use much as our muscles respond to exercise. There are many examples of people who have recovered functions lost during stroke or other events.

Andrew Newberg, M.D., who specializes in the study of the brain and spirituality, reported on some of his meditation research in a recent book entitled How God Changes Your Brain. One of his studies was designed to determine if meditation could help slow or reverse certain age related declines in brain function including memory loss.

To conduct his study he taught non-meditators a technique that involved breath work, chanting, and repetition of simple hand movements called mudras in Eastern religious practice. He took baseline brain scans of his subjects and administered a test of cognitive skills. Study subjects were asked to practice this meditation technique twelve minutes a day for eight weeks, a relatively short period of time. This was followed by another brain scan and a new cognitive test. While the results varied, all subjects showed improvement in memory recall, concentration and verbal fluency. Overall improvement averaged between 10% and 20%. Brain scans confirmed that indeed changes occurred in the parts of the brain associated with these different functions.

Other research also supports the value of meditation in keeping brains young. For example, we know that ordinarily the gray matter in our brains thins as we age. However, brain scans show that meditation actually helps preserve and add to the thickness of the gray matter especially in areas of the brain associated with learning and motor skills. This suggests that a meditator’s brain may be healthier and more youthful than that of their non-meditating peers. Further, the growth of gray cells in the motor skills part of the brain may have implications for balance and movement, also problem areas for elderly people.

With all of these benefits, why don’t more people meditate? In a recent interview, Dr. Newberg suggested that it is because meditation requires a commitment of time and attention. He suggests that some forms of meditation such as mindfulness also require a facilitator. His advice to someone considering meditation is to evaluate your time and your lifestyle. Then select a form of meditation that fits so that you stick with it long enough to enjoy the benefits.

Sources:

How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman. Random House Publishing Group, 2009.

AARP Bulletin.

Dr. Newberg Interview
.

18 November 2010 How Meditation Affects the Gray Matter of the Brain

David R. Hamilton, Ph.D.

I like to meditate. It makes me feel at ease and I am convinced that the sense of calm it produces helps me to handle the daily challenges of my life. There are, of course, times when I don’t keep up my daily practice of sitting quietly for 10 or 15 minutes, but these are the times in my life when I experience more stress.

Stress affects everyone. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t get stressed. But unfortunately, it plays a major role in illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, up to 90 percent of doctor visits in the U.S. may be stress related. Meditation is an antidote to stress, just as an aspirin can counter a headache. A regular practice can be a major boost to health.

It calms the nervous system. It’s good for the immune system. It’s also good for the heart; it helps produce nitric oxide (not nitrous oxide — that’s laughing gas!) in the arteries, dilating them and reducing blood pressure. It also smooths heart rhythms.

But thanks to an explosion of brain research we now know that it also physically impacts our gray matter.

One study to show this was led by scientists at the Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience at Aarhus University in Denmark. Comparing MRI scans of the brains of meditators with the brains of non-meditators, they showed that meditation causes actual physical changes in the gray matter of the lower brain stem. Meditation makes the gray matter grow.

In another study, scientists Giuseppe Pagoni and Milos Cekic, from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, compared the volume of gray matter in the brains of people performing Zen meditations with another group who were not meditators.

The volume of our gray matter normally reduces as we get older and this is what the scientists found in the group of non-meditators. But for the meditators, their gray matter hadn’t reduced at all with age. According to the scientists, meditation had a ‘neuroprotective’ effect on the meditators: It protected the brain from some of the effects of aging.

This mirrors some 2008 Harvard research that analyzed the genes of meditators against non-meditators. It was the first study of its kind to measure the genetic impact of meditation and found that 2,209 genes were differently activated in long-term meditation practitioners compared with non-meditators. And even looking at novice meditators, they found that 1,561 genes were affected after only eight weeks of meditation practice. They concluded that the genetic effects of meditation may have long-term physiological consequences, one of which was a slowing down of the rate of aging.

We have all heard the stories of people under extreme stress whose hair turns white in a matter of weeks. We know that stress can speed up aging. So why should it be a surprise to us that a technique to combat stress should be able to slow aging?

There are many different forms of meditation. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the impact of the Buddhist ‘Insight’ meditation on the brain. Insight meditation is a technique of moving our attention over the body or focusing on our breathing. The study found that it caused an increase in thickness of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, the part just above the eyes and associated with attention.

Several areas of the brain are active when we meditate, but most pronounced is the prefrontal cortex because when we meditate we are focusing our attention on something — whether that be the body, our breathing, a word, a candle or even a spiritual ideal. When this area is active, just like a muscle being exercised, it grows.

Neuroscientists use this analogy to describe the way the brain changes. When we exercise a muscle it becomes larger and denser with muscle mass. In a similar way, when we exercise any part of the brain, which we do when we meditate, it becomes larger and denser with neural mass — gray matter. The phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity and describes how the brain actually changes throughout life.

When I attended university I learned that the brain is hardwired once we reach young adulthood. The analogy used is that when we are young, the brain is a bit like dough, which can be kneaded into various forms, but when we reach young adulthood we put the dough in the oven and it comes out with a bread crust on it. The brain is then ‘hardwired,’ we were taught.

But this analogy has since been abandoned. We now know that we never put the dough in the oven. Our gray matter is ever-changing as we experience life; as we learn, walk, run, dance, and when we concentrate, as we do when we meditate.

Our gray matter is changing until the last seconds of our life. It grows even with our last breath.

References:

For the study where meditation caused changes in the gray matter of the lower brain stem, see: P. Vestergaard-Poulsen, M. van Beek, J. Skewes, C. R. Bjarkam, M. Stubberup, J. Bertelsen, and A. Roepstorff, ‘Long-Term Meditation is Associated with Increased Gray Matter Density in the Brain Stem’, Neuroreport, 2009, 20(2), 170-174.

For the study where Zen meditation impacted gray matter, see: G. Pagoni and M. Cekic, ‘Age Effects on Gray Matter Volume and Attentional Performance in Zen Meditation’, Neurobiology of Aging, 2007, 28(10), 1623-1627.

For the study where meditation produced effects at the genetic level, see: J. A. Dusek, H. H. Otu, A. L. Wohnhueter, M. Bhasin, L. F. Zerbini, M. G., Joseph, H. Benson, and T. A. Liberman, ‘Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response’, PLoS ONE, 2008, 3(7), e2576, 1-8.

For the effect of the Buddhist Insight meditation on the prefrontal cortex, see: S. W. Lazar, C. A. Kerr, R. H. Wasserman, J. R. Craig, D. N. Greve, M. T. Treadway, M. McGarvey, B. T. Quinn, J. A. Dusek, H. Benson, S. L. Rauch, C. I. Moore, and B. Fischi, ‘Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness’, Neuroreport, 2005, 16(17), 1893-1897.

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