Posts Tagged ‘MBSR’

Meditation

April 11, 2020

This post is the ninth on an essential book by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D. titled Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing. The following is a quote from the cardiologist Hebert Benson: “We can either change the complexities of life—an unlikely event, for they are likely to increase—or develop ways that enable us to cope more effectively.”

The importance of meditation was brought to the attention of Dr. Benson by practitioners of transcendental meditation. They believed that they could lower their blood pressures, but had no proof. Benson hooked practitioners up to sphygmomanometers and monitored their blood pressures as they entered and sustained a meditative state. They not only lowered their blood pressure, but their heart rates fell. Their breathing became slower and deeper, and their metabolisms slowed and stabilized. Essentially, they were able to manage the part of their nervous systems that allows the body to rest and relax.

Initially critics of the research argued that the drop in blood pressure was small since it fell by only a few points at most during meditative sessions. Benson responded that these were people who meditated daily, practicing and “toning” their meditative abilities the way you would tone a muscle through exercise. Their resting blood pressures were already extremely low—much lower than an average person’s. Their unusually low blood pressures were a direct result of their diligent daily practice of the relaxation response. Benson argued that these people, simply through meditation, could produce a wave of positive physiological changes in the body.

Dr. Benson wrote an important book, The Relaxation Response. There is a healthy memory blog post titled “The Relaxation Response,” as well as many additional posts on this topic. Here are instructions: “Close your eyes. Relax all your muscles, Breathe through your nose, slowly and evenly, in and out, while focusing on a word, phrase, or sound in your mind—a mantra that can keep unwanted thoughts a bay and get us out of the “monkey mind,” or our repetitive thoughts and fears. For the mantra, one could use words that are personally soothing and meaningful, or associated with one’s own particular or religious practice. In his many presentations on the topic, Benson is quick to reassure audiences that unwanted thought will come (HM attests to this)—this doesn’t mean failure. The important thing is to refocus and continue. He recommends keeping the session going on for ten to twenty minutes.”

At the time of this posting there is a coronavirus pandemic. We are supposed to stay in our homes except for exercising outside or trips to the grocery or pharmacist. Being restricted like this can cause interpersonal problems. Advice on coping with psychological difficulties is published. But except for rare exceptions, the relaxation response is not mentioned, and it is the most effective technique. Plus there are additional advantages that follow in this post.

Dr. Benson writes, “We know now that meditation can literally change the shape of the brain. Sara Lazar and other colleagues at Harvard ran an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program and found that it measurably increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain in charge of memory, feelings, and regulation of emotions. Not only that, but it actually shrank the amygdala, the part of the brain that dispenses fear hormones and triggers the fight-or-flight response.”

Dr. Rediger writes, “when it comes to spontaneous healing our focus is mainly on the autonomic nervous system—the branch that runs the brain to all your essential organs, full of billions of neurons and nerve fibers. This aspect of your nervous system runs silently, not really under your conscious control. Unlike, say, deciding to lift your hand and then lifting it, the organs, blood vessels, glands, and other systems controlled by the autonomic, nervous system are run by the subconscious mind.” Meditation is a means of affecting the autonomic nervous system and the subconscious mind.

Mind, Body, & Genome

December 4, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” None of the many forms of meditation studied in this book was originally designed to treat illness. Nevertheless, today the scientific literature is replete with studies assessing whether these ancient practices might be useful for treating illnesses. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; see the healthy memory blog post “Improving Selective Attention” for more information) and similar methods can reduce the emotional component of suffering from disease, but not cure the maladies. But mindfulness training— as short as three days—results in a short-term decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the molecules responsible for inflammation. With extensive practice this seems to become a trait effect, with imaging studies finding in mediators at rest lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, along with an increased connectivity between regulatory circuitry and sectors of the brain’s self system, especially the posterior cingulate cortex.

For experienced meditation practitioners, a daylong period of intensive mindfulness down regulates genes involved in inflammation. The enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular aging, increases after three months of intensive practicing of mindfulness and loving-kindness (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation).

Long-term meditation may lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Current evidence is inconclusive as to whether such effects emerge with relative short-term practice, like MBSR, to only become apparent with longer-term practice. Taken together, the hints of neural rewiring that undergird altered traits seem scientifically credible, although further studies for specifics are needed.

Attention

December 2, 2017

This title is the same as a title in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits:  Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”  William James, the founder of American psychology wrote: “The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will; an education which should improve this faculty would the the education par excellence.”

At its root meditation retrains attention, and different types boost varying aspects of attention. MBSR strengthens selective attention, while long-term vipassana (analytic meditation will be described later in the series of posts) practice enhances this even more. Five months after a three-month shamantha retreat meditators had enhanced vigilance, the ability to sustain their attention. But the beginnings of this enhancement also showed up after just seventeen minutes of mindfulness in beginners. This was no doubt a transitory state for the newcomers, and a more lasting trait for the experienced meditators. The same practice-makes perfect maxim likely applies to some other quickie meditation: just ten minutes of mindfulness overcame the damage to concentration from multi-tasking—at least in the short term; only eight minutes of mindfulness lessened mind-wandering for a while. About ten hours of mindfulness over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory. This also led to substantially improved scores on the graduate school entrance exam. Although meditation boosts many aspects of attention, these are short-term gains; more lasting benefits require ongoing practice.

A Mind Undisturbed

November 30, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Goleman and Richardson’s book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” A key node in the brain’s stress circuitry, the amygdala, shows dampened activity from just thirty or so hours of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (enter MBSR into the search box of the Healthymemory Blog to learn more about MBSR). Other mindfulness training shows a similar benefit, and there are hints the these changes are trait like: they appear not simply during the explicit instruction to receive the stressful stimuli mindfully but even in the “baseline” state, with reductions in amygdala activation as much as 50%. More daily practice seems to be associated with lessened stress reactivity. Experienced Zen practitioners can withstand higher levels of pain and still have less reaction to this stressor. A three-month meditation retreat brought indicators of better emotional regulation, and long-term practice was associated with greater functional connectivity between the prefrontal areas that manage emotion and the areas of the amygdala that react to stress, resulting in less reactivity. An improved ability to regulate attention accompanies some of the beneficial impact of meditation on stress reactivity. And finally, the quickness with which long-term meditators recover from stress underlines how trait effects emerge with continued practice.