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The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation

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1 The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation
Dr Shanida Nataraja

2 Structure General introduction Bridging science and spirituality
Peering into the meditating brain Health benefits of meditation

3 Structure General introduction Bridging science and spirituality
Peering into the meditating brain Health benefits of meditation

4 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

5 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 ( ): founding father of modern brain science

6 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

7 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

8 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

9 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

10 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

11 Cerebral Lobes

12 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

13 Reality or Fantasy? Right hemisphere: Left 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)

14 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

15 Autonomic Nervous System
Hypothalamus Maintains constant internal environment Modulates emotional responses with other limbic structures Regulates arousal through action on autonomic nervous system Hypothalamus Pituitary Gland Autonomic Nervous System

16 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

17 Structure General introduction Bridging science and spirituality
Peering into the meditating brain Health benefits of meditation

18 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

19 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

20 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

21 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

22 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

23 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

24 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

25 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

26 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

27 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

28 Structure General introduction Bridging science and spirituality
Peering into the meditating brain Health benefits of meditation

29 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

30 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

31 Expanding or Restricting Attention

32 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

33 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

34 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

35 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

36 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

37 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

38 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

39 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

40 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”

41 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

42 Simplified Meditation Process
Decrease in activity Increase in activity

43 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

44 Simplified Meditation Process
Decrease in activity 1 1 2 1 Increase in activity 3

45 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

46 Simplified Meditation Process
Decrease in activity Increase in activity

47 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

48 Simplified Meditation Process
Decrease in activity 5 1 2 1 Increase in activity 4 3

49 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

50 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

51 Subjective description
Different Brain Waves Brain Wave Trace Frequency Subjective description Delta 0.5 and 4 Hz Active thought, attention, or problem solving Theta 4 and 7 Hz Creativity and imagination Alpha 8 and 13 Hz Relaxation and the meditative state Beta 13 and 30 Hz Intuitive thought, empathy, and instinctual insight

52 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

53 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

54 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

55 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

56 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

57 Structure General introduction Bridging science and spirituality
Peering into the meditating brain Health benefits of meditation

58 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

59 Neuroendocrine System

60 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

61 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

62 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

63 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”

64 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

65 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

66 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

67 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

68 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

69 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

70 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

71 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

72 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

73 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

74 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

75 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

76 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

77 GSR Trace

78 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

79 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

80 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

81 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

82 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

83 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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