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The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation Dr Shanida Nataraja. Structure . General introduction Bridging science and spirituality Peering into the meditating brain Health benefits of meditation. Structure . General introduction

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structure
Structure
  • General introduction
  • Bridging science and spirituality
  • Peering into the meditating brain
  • Health benefits of meditation
structure3
Structure
  • General introduction
  • Bridging science and spirituality
  • Peering into the meditating brain
  • Health benefits of meditation
the human brain
The Human Brain
  • First mentioned in Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus 1700 BC
  • Largely disregarded by the Egyptians
  • Aristotle proposed brain was cooling unit to lower blood temperature
site of human intellect
Site of Human Intellect
  • Importance first noted by Hippocrates in 5th Century BC
  • Supported by Galen of Pergamum: dissections and surgeries on Roman gladiators
  • Confirmed by Thomas Willis (1621-1673): founding father of modern brain science
the brain as a black box
The Brain as a Black Box
  • The brain efficiently controls behavior so we can run on “auto-pilot”
  • The brain possesses astounding and unrivalled range of abilities
  • The brain
    • weighs about 1 ½ bags of sugar
    • has the consistency of blancmange
    • contains 100 billion neurons
    • is highly interconnected
a dynamic network
A Dynamic Network
  • Each neuron is miniature processing unit
    • receiving information from other cells
    • processing information
    • relaying resulting data to other cells
  • Every person has unique configuration
  • Precise wiring of all the connections in the brain is continually changing, adapting with experience
brain complexity
Brain Complexity
  • When examined under microscope, brain tissue appears as tangled mess
  • Closer examination reveals it to be highly ordered
  • Cells with similar structure and function arranged in layers with common orientation
hierarchal structure of brain
Hierarchal Structure of Brain
  • Hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain
  • Newer brain regions laid on top of older regions
  • Older useful circuitry incorporated into newer, more advanced circuitry
the cerebral cortex
The Cerebral Cortex
  • Particularly predominant in humans
  • Highly folded external appearance
  • Mediate all of the cognitive skills associated with being human
  • Can be divided into four lobes: frontal; temporal; parietal; and occipital
left brain vs right brain
Left Brain vs. Right Brain
  • Both hemisphere have similar functions with respect to sensory processing and motor function
  • In other respects, the function of the two hemispheres is asymmetrical
    • The left hemisphere is associated with analytical, rational, and logical processing
    • The right hemisphere is associated with abstract thought, nonverbal awareness, visual–spatial perception, and emotions
reality or fantasy
Reality or Fantasy?
  • Right hemisphere:
    • more realistic impression of particular sensory experience
    • intuitively examines experience and stores it as images and emotions
  • Left hemisphere:
    • filters and rationally analyses the experience
    • stores it as a mental map
    • influenced by the individual’s experiences in the past (i.e. their conditioning)
thalamus and the senses
Thalamus and the Senses
  • Gateway for sensory information flowing into cortex
  • Where sensations are first consciously experienced
  • Important role in attention
  • Gateway for motor information flowing into cortex
  • Important role in motor intention
hypothalamus
Hypothalamus
  • Maintains constant internal environment
  • Modulates emotional responses with other limbic structures
  • Regulates arousal through action on autonomic nervous system

Hypothalamus

Pituitary Gland

Autonomic NervousSystem

autonomic nervous system
Autonomic Nervous System
  • Sympathetic (“fight or flight” responses): increases heart rate and breathing rate; slows digestion; dilates pupils
  • Parasympathetic (“rest and digest” responses) nervous systems: decreases heart rate and breathing rate; stimulates digestion
structure17
Structure
  • General introduction
  • Bridging science and spirituality
  • Peering into the meditating brain
  • Health benefits of meditation
religion versus science
Religion versus Science
  • Assumed that reality could be given a single, complete, and unambiguous description in human language
  • Neither Science nor Religion alone can provide a complete description
science and spirituality
Science and Spirituality
  • 1997 survey of US scientists revealed 40% believed in a personal God
  • Quantum pioneers, including Einstein and Bohr, have been described as mystics
  • Importance of the integration of scientific and spiritual knowledge
  • Complementary aspects of a greater whole, each capturing a differing and partial representation of a greater reality
neurotheology
Neurotheology
  • Patients with temporal lobe epilepsy
    • Have hallucinations with a religious content
    • Have seizure-induced feelings of religious ecstasy
    • Report spontaneous religious conversions
  • There is even evidence that some mystics may have had temporal lobe epilepsy
the god module
The “God Module”
  • Ramachandran (1997) proposed that the temporal lobe played an important role in mystical and religious experiences
  • Media and scientists alike declared that “God module” had been found in the human brain
persinger s helmet
Persinger’s Helmet
  • Persinger proposes mystical experiences are result of microseizures in the deep structures of the temporal lobe
  • These are provoked by personal life crises and near-death experiences
  • An individual’s susceptibility to these microseizures depends on excitability of the temporal lobe
  • Healthy individuals, as well as epileptic patients, can also display these microseizures
transcranial magnetic stimulation
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Subjects stimulated by a weak magnetic field over the right hemisphere
  • Using a specially designed helmet of magnets
  • 80% of subjects reported the sense of a presence
artefacts of brain function
Artefacts of Brain Function
  • Persinger proposed “religion is a property of the brain, only the brain, and has little to do with what’s out there”
  • Taken as proof that God doesn’t exist; God and all religious thought are artefacts of brain function
  • Inherent limitations of scientific method ensure that we will never be able to definitively prove or disprove the existence of God
mystically hard wired
Mystically Hard-Wired
  • Stimulation of certain areas of the brain to evoke certain experiences is not best way of investigating these experiences
  • These artificial experiences can rightly be viewed as being artefacts of brain function
  • The artificial stimulation experiments merely reinforce belief that humans are hard-wired to be receptive to mystical or religious experiences
subjectivity
Subjectivity
  • Humankind has created a rigid conceptual map of our World that
    • acts as a framework to communicate details of our experiences to others
    • limits our ability to describe and understand our experiences
  • This mental map is
    • formed by the cumulative experience of a person’s lifetime
    • an imprint of all of our personal, societal, and cultural conditioning
conceptual map
Conceptual Map
  • Our conceptual map
    • Defines our goals and expectations
    • Dictates the way in which we perceive the world and our relationship to it
    • Provides an explanation for our experiences
  • Everyone’s conceptual map is slightly different
structure28
Structure
  • General introduction
  • Bridging science and spirituality
  • Peering into the meditating brain
  • Health benefits of meditation
definition of meditation
Definition of Meditation
  • Countless different meditative techniques
  • Meditation
    • involves a specific technique that is both clearly defined and taught to the practitioner
    • involves, at some stage, progressive muscle relaxation
    • involves, at some stage, a reduction in logical processing
    • is self-induced
    • involves a skill, referred to as an anchor, that allows the practitioner to effectively focus their attention
types of meditation
Types of Meditation
  • Can be passive and active
  • Passive meditation
    • empties mind of thought and is attentive on entire experience, usually by using an anchor, such as the breath
    • involves a widening of attention and includes techniques such as mindfulness
  • Active meditation
    • focuses attention on a specific mantra or image
    • involves a narrowing of attention and includes techniques such as TM and Zen meditation
newberg and d aquili
Newberg and d’Aquili
  • Observed meditators in controlled conditions
  • Release of a radioactive tracer into the blood system triggered by meditator pulling on string
  • SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography): blood flow in different regions of the brain can be visualized
transcendental experiences
Transcendental Experiences
  • Associated with specific patterns of brain activity, in specific regions of the cerebral cortex
  • Key features
    • Increase in activity in frontal cortex: attention
    • Decrease in activity in parietal cortex: dissolving of self/non-self boundary
frontal cortex attention
Frontal Cortex: Attention
  • Meditation begins with the intent to practice followed by a re-focusing of the attention
  • The intention of the practitioner to sit “meditate” triggers thalamus to re-focus the the attention either inwards or outwards
  • Focused attention acts to “clear the mind” through redundancy
  • Reflected in increase in activity in frontal cortex
parietal cortex orientation
Parietal Cortex: Orientation
  • Meditative practice associated with dissolving of self/non-self boundary
  • Meditation involves decrease in activity in region of brain that constructs our self/non-self boundary, in both the left and right hemisphere
  • This decrease can partially explain the expansion of awareness that can be experienced during meditation
shift from left to right brain
Shift From Left to Right Brain
  • Effect on self/non-self boundary can also be understood in terms of initial shift in meditation from left to right brain activity
    • Left brain: ego-centered thinking
    • Right brain: holistic, non-ego thinking
  • Attention is a right brain function; focused attention thus involves shift from left to right brained thinking
passive meditation
Passive Meditation
  • Practitioner begins with intent to clear mind of thoughts
  • Then attention is focused on gap between thoughts or on the breath
  • Attention
    • triggers shift to right brained activity
    • makes practitioner less aware of redundant sensory information and thoughts
switch from left to right
Switch From Left to Right
  • Fundamental to the shift in thinking that accompanies contemplative practice
  • It also underlies the power of myths
  • All myths have a common framework
    • Existential question is posed: e.g. “How was the Universe created”
    • The issue raised is presented in terms of conflict between two apparently irreconcilable opposites: e.g. good–evil, life–death
    • A possible resolution is presented, usually in terms of the reconciliation of polar opposites
myths and brain function
Myths and Brain Function
  • The first stage triggers activity in the left hemisphere; comprehension of language and the comparison of concepts are left-brained activities
  • The second stage triggers activity in the right hemisphere; comprehension of unity and reconciliation of polar opposites requires right-brained activity
  • The progression from first to second stage involves a switch between left- and right-brained thinking
a quest for meaning
A Quest for Meaning
  • Activity in the left hemisphere drives activity in the right hemisphere
  • The quest for meaning to our experiences triggers a shift in brain function that allows us to perceive the “big picture”
passive meditation41
Passive Meditation
  • Practitioner thus becomes less aware of their orientation in the spatial dimensions and in time
  • Decrease sense of orientation is reflected in decreased activity in parietal lobe that leads to
    • a sense of no or infinite space and/or time
    • an inability to convey the experience efficiently through language
simplified meditation process
Simplified Meditation Process

Decrease in activity

Increase in activity

activation of limbic system
Activation of Limbic System
  • Activation of hippocampus
    • confers emotional value to experience
    • triggers the autonomic nervous system
  • Maximal activation of autonomic nervous system lead to
    • a blissful, peaceful state via parasympathetic system
    • and then a mentally clear and alert state via sympathetic system
simplified meditation process44
Simplified Meditation Process

Decrease in activity

1

1

2

1

Increase in activity

3

active meditation
Active Meditation
  • Practitioner begins with intent to clear mind of thoughts
  • Then attention is focused on single object, image, or mantra
  • Attention filters out redundant sensory information and thoughts
  • Activity in occipital and frontal lobes fixes object in practitioner’s mind
simplified meditation process46
Simplified Meditation Process

Decrease in activity

Increase in activity

active meditation47
Active Meditation
  • Activation of hippocampus and autonomic nervous system
  • Peak response prompts hippocampus to dampen activity
  • This results in decrease in activity in parietal lobes and thus
    • sense of no or infinite space and/or time
    • a loss of the ability to comprehend the experience in rational terms
    • an inability to describe the experience using language
simplified meditation process48
Simplified Meditation Process

Decrease in activity

5

1

2

1

Increase in activity

4

3

important features
Important Features
  • Crucial role of intention
  • Role of thalamus in re-focusing attention
  • Role of attention in “clearing the mind”
  • Shift from left to right brain activity through sustained attention
  • Dependence of self/non-self boundary on activity predominantly in left parietal cortex
  • Widening of awareness and holistic thinking stemming from right-brained activity
  • Impact of meditation on body through activation of the arousal/relaxation systems
electrical brain recordings
Electrical Brain Recordings
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a non-invasive technique
  • Records combined electricity activity of large groups of neurons within the brain
  • In clinical practice, 19 electrodes are positioned on head
wave changes in meditation
Wave Changes in Meditation
  • Early stages of meditation:
    • increase in alpha waves; state of relaxed alertness
    • decrease in beta waves; reduction in intrusive thoughts
  • During transcendental experiences: increase in theta waves; feelings of bliss
  • In deeper stages of meditation: some practitioners display high frequency beta or gamma waves; assembly of fragments of information into single, coordinated picture
maxwell cade
Maxwell Cade
  • Proposed (1978) that different levels of consciousness could be correlated with different brain wave patterns
  • Meditative pattern involves absence of the beta waves and an increase in alpha and theta wave
  • Can be differentiated from lower states of consciousness by presence of multiple frequency bands (i.e. alpha and theta) rather than just one
relaxation response
Relaxation Response
  • Meditation superimposed on general relaxation response
  • Mediated by parasympathetic nervous system, this includes
    • decrease in oxygen consumption
    • reduction in the elimination of carbon dioxide
    • a reduction in heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and lactate levels in the blood, muscle tone, and blood cortisone levels
    • increase in the blood flow to the internal organs
    • increase in the temperature of the fingers
    • increase in skin resistance
facilitating relaxation
Facilitating Relaxation
  • Four different elements that facilitate the relaxation response during meditation
    • A mental device: shifts mind from logical and externally orientated, left-brained thinking to intuitive and internally orientated, right-brained thinking
    • A passive attitude: rating or judging the session can cause anxiety
    • A comfortable position: minimal muscular effort required to maintain an upright position without promoting sleep
    • Quiet environment: minimizes noises that may distract the practitioner or make them anxious
variable eeg signatures
Variable EEG Signatures
  • Not possible to give one EEG signature relevant to all types of meditation or all individuals
  • Precise changes in the EEG recording differ depending on meditative technique used
  • Fundamental differences between different techniques are reflected in different EEG signatures
structure57
Structure
  • General introduction
  • Bridging science and spirituality
  • Peering into the meditating brain
  • Health benefits of meditation
psychosomatic disorders
Psychosomatic Disorders
  • Psychosomatic disorders (i.e. those that involve physical symptoms, but have an emotional or psychological origin)
  • Psoriasis, eczema, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart disease have all be shown to be triggered and exacerbated by psychological factors, such as stress and anxiety
  • In the West, the prevalence of psychosomatic diseases continues to increase in line with stress in our social environment
neuroendocrine system60
Neuroendocrine System
  • Stress can trigger long-term abnormalities in the neuroendocrine system
  • Individual is in state of permanent arousal; high cortisol levels
  • Stress can
    • impair memory and damage hippocampus (as in Cushing’s syndrome)
    • cause both depression and anxiety
    • compromise the immune system
health benefits of meditation
Health Benefits of Meditation
  • Physiological effects of meditation differ
    • from one individual to the next
    • depending on the specific meditative technique used
  • Meditation has been associated with a number of important physical and mental health benefits
  • The size of benefit increases with more frequent meditative practice, and are most pronounced in experienced meditators
frequently cited criticisms
Frequently Cited Criticisms
  • Few studies use the same rigorous methods routinely used in studies of investigational pharmaceuticals
  • Studies have produced highly variable, and often conflicting results
highly variable findings
Highly Variable Findings
  • It is difficult to accurately assess adherence to meditation program; it is impossible to provide participants a “fixed dose” of meditation
  • Meditation is an expansive term; it is therefore not valid to compare the findings of studies using different techniques
  • Subject differ psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually; it is therefore impossible to enrol a homogenous population
  • A specific meditative technique is not “for everyone”
mindfulness based stress reduction
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
  • Technique first proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues in 1979
  • Possible therapeutic option for patients suffering from physical, psychosomatic, and psychiatric disorders
  • Although taught independently of any religious or esoteric tradition, it is rooted in contemplative spiritual traditions
  • Trains practitioner to develop enhanced awareness of the moment-to-moment experience of emergent mental processes
meditation and stress
Meditation and Stress
  • Meditation
    • decreases cortisol levels in healthy subjects and patients with cancer
    • lowers activity in the sympathetic system
    • reduces lipid peroxide content of the blood
    • reduces coronary prone behaviour
mbsr and stress
MBSR and Stress
  • MBSR investigated in a wide range of patients (pain, cancer, heart disease, depression, and anxiety)
  • Overall, studies indicate MBSR is effective method of stress reduction associated with benefits in terms of
    • overall health and
    • the ability of these patients to cope with their condition
mbsr and stress67
MBSR and Stress
  • Carlson et al: improved overall QoL, stress symptoms, and sleep quality in breast and prostate cancer outpatients
  • Shapiro et al: reduced anxiety and psychological distress, including depression in med students
  • Roth et al: decreases need for primary care consultations
  • Kabat-Zinn et al: improves clearance of skin lesions in patients with psoriasis
meditation and the gsr
Meditation and the GSR
  • Effects of meditation on arousal system can be detected as changes in the Galvanized Skin Response (GSR)
  • Measure of skin resistance related to cortical arousal
    • High arousal = decreased resistance and GSR
    • Low arousal = increased resistance and GSR
  • Meditation triggers increase in GSR that stabilizes in 5–10 min; mean increase was 17.5% in one study of 50 meditators
meditation and immune system
Meditation and Immune System
  • Cortisol suppresses immune system
  • Meditation
    • Davidson et al: boosts immune response to a vaccine
    • Solberg et al: reduces immune response to stress
    • Antoni et al: increases immune activity after 10 weeks in patients with HIV; the result of meditation on reducing stress levels and depression
subjective psychological effects
Subjective Psychological Effects
  • Boost in energy levels
  • Increased self-acceptance
  • Release from tendency to self-blame
  • Increased acceptance of others
  • Increase ability to express emotions, both positive and negative
  • Less prone to bouts of irritability, impatience, and emotional or behavioural outbursts
  • Improved and expanded sense of identity
meditation and anxiety
Meditation and Anxiety
  • Meditators tend to be slightly more neurotic and anxious than the general population
  • Long-term meditators less anxious than novice meditators and non-meditators
  • Novice meditators show significant decreases in anxiety after training
  • Meditators also report reduce levels of neuroticism; reduction is related to frequency of meditative practice
meditation and addiction
Meditation and Addiction
  • Meditation plays important role in treatment of addictive behaviour
  • Meditation reduces alcohol and nicotine consumption and use of illegal substances, tranquillizers, prescribed medications, and even caffeine
  • These reductions
    • suggest decreased reliance on external means of altering the physical and mental state
    • reflects reduction in attention given to the intrusive thoughts that elicits desire to consume addictive substance
meditation and coping strategies
Meditation and Coping Strategies
  • Promising supportive intervention for patients who need to learn coping mechanisms for chronic pain
  • Mindfulness of movement produced improvements in symptoms in patients with multiple sclerosis
  • Reduces psychological distress in patients with variety of chronic physical or psychosomatic disorders, including chronic fibromyalgia
possible adverse effects of meditation
Possible Adverse Effects of Meditation
  • Shapiro et al: possible adverse effects of meditation in 27 long-term meditators
  • About 2/3 of subjects reported at least one adverse effect, including
    • relaxation-induced anxiety and panic
    • decreased motivation
    • confusion and disorientation
    • Depression and feeling “spaced out”
  • The positive effects of meditation outweighed the negative effects
increasing awareness of unconscious behaviour
Increasing Awareness of Unconscious Behaviour
  • Galvanized Skin Response (GSR)
  • Psychophysiological response measured in skin containing sweat glands
  • GSR can be
    • visualised as a moving trace on a computer monitor
    • translated into an auditory tone
    • encoded in changes in the frequency of a flashing light or indeed the colour of that light
    • combined with computer gaming wizardry to allow the subject to play a video game
interpreting the gsr
Interpreting the GSR
  • High level of arousal is indicated by a fall in skin resistance (and a drop in the GSR reading)
  • Low level of arousal or relaxation is reflected in an increase in skin resistance (and a rise in the GSR reading)
  • Neural processes remain undefined, but sympathetic nervous system is involved; opening of sweat glands in a state of “fight or flight” leads to fall in skin resistance, and thus drop in GSR meter reading
biofeedback and the acc
Biofeedback and the ACC
  • The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a small structure tucked in between the hemispheres
  • The ACC
    • is involved in decision-making and evaluating “how well things are going” after we make a particular decision
    • becomes activated during biofeedback
    • is intimately related to the sympathetic arousal system, playing a role in the intentional modulation of bodily arousal
using biofeedback
Using Biofeedback
  • Primary interest has revolved around its ability to increase an individual’s awareness of unconscious, automated behaviour
  • Often individuals are unaware that they are in a constant state of arousal
  • Constant state of arousal gives rise to elevated stress levels, and thus a wide range of different stress-related diseases
visualizing physiological changes
Visualizing Physiological Changes
  • Individual can visualise physiological changes occurring to different stimuli, both external and internal
  • By visualising the effects of these stimuli on the level of arousal, the individual becomes consciously aware of these physiological responses
  • Conscious awareness of these responses permits the individual to bring arousal under voluntary control
how does it work
How Does it Work?
  • The GSR displays information about physiological processes as a visual cue
  • The practitioner uses this cue to keep their arousal at a steady level and to change it at will
  • The individual learns to modify their behaviour to elicit a pre-defined goal
  • Control over the biofeedback instrument translates into control over arousal
  • With time, the individual can control arousal without the need for the visual cue
using the gsr in meditation
Using the GSR in Meditation
  • Relaxation plays an important role in the preparatory stages of meditation
  • Practice should begin with
    • a gradual and progression relaxation of the muscles of the body
    • an unforced and progressive quietening of the mind
  • Both physical and psychological elements lead to a reduction in arousal
  • The effects of different strategies on arousal can be quantified and compared
using the gsr in meditation83
Using the GSR in Meditation
  • By recording arousal during meditation, the individual can examine how changes to arousal correlate with their subjective experiences
  • The GSR recording can also be examined by the meditator’s guide who can then offer the practitioner additional feedback
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