The Neuropsychological Benefits of Meditation

The majority of studies involving the neurologic effects of meditation have been conducted using mindfulness-based programs (Samatha). That’s because it’s a lot easier and quicker to teach. As you will recall, Vipassana is a life-long journey while Samatha can have immediate effects. That’s not to say that Vipassana does not have an impact on brain structure. It’s just harder to find a large enough subject group of seasoned Vipassana meditators to study, or to wait long enough for subjects to become proficient in Vipassana meditation. I’m going to highlight two researchers in the area as a push for you to do your own research. I promise, it’s fascinating.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D. at Harvard University (https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/) initially conducted a study looking at the differences between the brains of individuals who had been meditating for a long time and individuals who had not meditated at all. Results revealed that the seasoned meditators had more gray matter in the insula and sensory regions of the brain, as well as in the auditory and sensory cortices. They also had more gray matter in the frontal cortex and, the 50-years-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as did 25-years-olds. This was striking in that the prefrontal cortex is known to shrink with age. While the results were significant, there was no evidence that the seasoned meditators did not have increased volumes in those brain areas prior to practicing meditation.

Dr. Lazar then conducted a second study, in which none of the subjects had ever meditated before. Brain volumes were measured at the beginning of the study and again at the end. Subjects were divided into one of two groups. One group was enrolled in an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction program and the other was not. Those in the stress reduction program also practiced meditation at home for an average of 27 minutes a day during the eight week study. After those eight weeks, differences in brain volume were revealed in five different regions of the brain in the group that was enrolled in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

Brain Area

Type of Change

Function

Posterior cingulate

Increase

Focus, self-reference

Left hippocampus

Increase

Cognition, memory, emotional regulation

Temporo-parietal junction

Increase

Perspective taking, empathy compassion

Pons

Increase

Neuroregulation

Amygdala

Decrease

Fight/flight, anxiety, fear, stress

Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. and his group at the University of San Diego (https://www.zeidanlab.com/) have found similar neurological changes as a result of mindfulness-based meditation. They also took it a step further and discovered a 22% reduction in anxiety after only 20 minutes of mindfulness-based meditation by first time meditators!

Dr. Jud Brewer (https://drjud.com/about/) has studied both Samatha and Vipassana meditators. Again, his results support those of Drs. Lazar and Zeidan.

Dr. Ronald D. Siegel, in conjunction with The Great Courses, has created a lecture series entitled The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-being. It’s a great place to start your scientific review of mindfulness.

Whether you look at it from a spiritual, psychological, or neurological angle, meditation works, and I encourage you to try it.

 

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.

 

Vipassana Meditation

Last week we looked at Samatha meditation. This week we’ll review Vipassana meditation and how it differs from Samatha meditation. As you will recall, Samatha meditation focuses on calming the mind, whereas Vipassana meditation focuses on clearing the mind and developing insight. The goal of Vipassana is not meant to bring about immediate change or alteration, but simply to gain better understanding and awareness. That’s not to say that no changes or alterations occur through Vipassana meditation. In fact, quite the opposite. With continued Vipassana meditation your entire world view changes. You are better able to accurately view and interpret situations while remaining emotionally separate from them. You are better able to see how your views and emotions affect and skew your interpretations of situations. You are better able to accept realityfor what it is, rather than frantically trying to change or rage against it. You are better able to just be. Unlike in Samatha meditation, in which your frontal lobes may remain engaged to an extent as you focus on or even count your breaths, in Vipassana meditation you learn to turn those frontal lobes off, if you will, so that you can go inward, to the very depths of your inner being. As you might imagine, Vippasana meditation is harder to do.

Wait…. meditation has something to do with neurology and vice versa? You betcha. Now, normally I spare you from my obsession with the brain and how it influences human behavior, but every once in awhile you have to pay the toll. Actually, I just realized that next week is the first of the month. Let’s change that to your rent is due!

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.

 

Samatha Meditation

By now I’m sure you’ve completed Dr. Muesse’s lecture series and have the foundations of meditation down pat. But did you know that there is more than one form of meditation? The oldest documented form of meditation, as discussed in Buddhist essays, is called dhyāna in Sanskrit and jhāna in Pāḷi. It is described as the process of detaching the mind from learned, automatic responses to stimuli, thereby creating a simultaneous state of perfect composure and consciousness. From this tradition, it is believed that Vipassana and Samatha meditation evolved, and even more forms of meditation have developed as offshoots of them. For now, were going to focus on these two core traditions. In brief, Samatha meditation focuses on calming the mind, whereas Vipassana meditation focuses on clearing the mind and developing insight. Both are valuable skills to learn. However, your personal goals will determine which you choose to utilize at any given time.

Let’s look at Samatha meditation first, as it’s the form with which most Americans are familiar. In Samatha meditation, one attempts to quiet the mind by focusing on one specific concept. Most of us are introduced to Samatha meditation by being told to focus on our breath. In doing so, even for a short period of time, we can calm the mind, the body, ourselves. Samatha meditation can assist us to better focus as well. It is one of the many tools recommended to immediately calm anxiety, quiet the mind and focus. If this is your goal, then Samatha meditation is right for you. Keep in mind, while Samatha meditation can assist you to calm your mind by focusing on something else; it may not assist you to develop an inherent, ever present inner peace. That’s where Vipassana mediation comes in. We’ll discuss it next week.

 

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.

Introduction to Meditation

As you begin to practice mindfulness, you may find that you are able to remain calm and focused for only brief periods of time throughout the day. Here’s where the practice of meditation comes in. Learning to meditate, while very beneficial, is not easy, and many find themselves frustrated or view themselves as failures. Trust me, you’re not! We practice meditation because we’re always learning and fine-tuning our skills. Can only sit still for three minutes? OK, so next time shoot for five. Have done thirty minutes in the past but could only meditate for ten minutes today? Fine, at least you did it. Just remember to give it your best every day, with the understanding that some days may be better than others.

Once again, we turn to a lecture series for support and guidance. Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D. is the W. J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Asian Studies Program at Rhodes College. He has developed a series of twenty-four thirty minute lectures introducing meditation as the foundational technique for fostering mindfulness. In this lecture series he covers the following topics:

Mindlessness—the default setting
Mindfulness—the power of awareness
Expectations—relinquishing preconceptions
Preparation—taking moral inventory
Position—where to be for meditation
Breathing—finding a focus for attention
Problems—stepping-stones to mindfulness
Body—attending to our physical natures
Mind—working with thoughts
Walking—mindfulness while moving
Consuming—watching what you eat
Driving—staying awake at the wheel
Insight—clearing the mind
Wisdom—seeing the world as it is
Compassion—expressing fundamental kindness
Imperfection—embracing our flaws
Wishing—may all beings be well and happy
Generosity—the joy of giving
Speech—training the tongue
Anger—cooling the fires of irritation
Pain—embracing physical discomfort
Grief—learning to accept loss
Finitude—living in the face of death
Life—putting it all in perspective

Again, this lecture series can be purchased through The Great Courses, which also sells on Amazon, or rented from various libraries.

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.

 

 

Practicing Mindfulness

In the past several weeks we’ve examined the basic principles and scientific evidence supporting the use of mindfulness. Now it’s time to put what we’ve learned into practice. In his book, The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now, Thích Nhất Hạnh describes in detail how he puts these principles into practice all day, every day.

As described by the publisher, “In troubled times, there is an urgency to understand ourselves and our world. We have so many questions, and they tug at us night and day, consciously and unconsciously. In this important volume Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh ——one of the most revered spiritual leaders in the world today——reveals an art of living in mindfulness that helps us answer life’s deepest questions and experience the happiness and freedom we desire.

Thích Nhất Hạnh presents, for the first time, seven transformative meditations that open up new perspectives on our lives, our relationships, and our interconnectedness with the world around us. Based on the last full talks before his sudden hospitalization, and drawing on intimate examples from his own life, Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how these seven meditations can free us to live a happy, peaceful and active life, and face aging and dying with curiosity and joy and without fear.

Containing the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s poignant, timeless, and clarifying prose, The Art of Living provides a spiritual dimension to our lives. This is not an effort to escape life or to dwell in a place of bliss outside of this world. Instead, this path will allow us to discover where we come from and where we are going. And most of all, it will generate happiness, understanding, and love, so we can live deeply in each moment of our life, right where we are.”

If you are serious about incorporating mindfulness into your lifestyle, I strongly recommend that you read it.

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.

 

Mindfulness

I like the writings of Thích Nhất Hạnh as they are relevant, relatable, and easily understood. You thought I was going to recommend another lecture series, didn’t you?! In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Thích Nhất Hạnh introduces the practice of meditation, with a focus on breathing. All of us breathe. Therefore, all of us can benefit from considering our breaths. How many times have you seen a decorative wall hanging that states, “just breathe”? The age-old remedy for hyperventilation is to breathe into a paper bag. Young children are told to pretend to blow out birthday candles to calm down, and adults to take a few deep breaths. Although aware of the importance of breathing, not just for physical survival, but for emotional survival as well, we often lose sight of the power of simply breathing. In addition to its focus on breathing, as described by the publisher, “In this beautiful and lucid guide, Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh offers gentle anecdotes and practical exercises as a means of learning the skills of mindfulness – being awake and fully aware. From washing the dishes to answering the phone to peeling an orange, he reminds us that each moment holds within it an opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness.”

We’ve already reviewed breathing techniques, as well as other forms of relaxation, in preparation for this. We’ll be focusing on mindfulness, and on breathing, for the next several weeks.

This blog is not designed to diagnose, treat, or prevent illnesses or trauma, and Dr. Emick is not responsible for your use of this educational material or its consequences. Furthermore, reading this blog does not create a doctor-patient relationship. The information contained within this blog is not intended to dictate what constitutes reasonable, appropriate, or best care for any given physical or behavioral health issue, nor does it take into account the unique circumstances that define the health issues of the reader. If you have questions about the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of a condition or illness, you should consult your personal health care professional. As always, consult with your personal health care professional before beginning or changing any fitness or nutrition program to make sure that it is appropriate for your needs. Dr. Emick reserves the right to modify her positions on a subject based upon new research or data as it presents.