“Grow” your brain with yoga and meditation

hippocampusIf you’ve ever been on an elevator for nearly ten minutes you’ll appreciate the speed with which neuroscientist Dr. Sara Lazar gives one of the best “elevator speeches” on a complicated topic. She became interested in how yoga and meditation might effect the brain.

The following is an eight minute, high speed run down on some of her work. This is a TEDx event filmed in Cambridge, MA in 2011 where she explains the benefits of yoga and meditation in terms that are easy to understand and amazing to comprehend. In her research she has found that the size of some of the regions in our brain change with yoga and meditation and that the physical change is a thickening of our grey matter:

A link to the TEDx video: How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Background to her work, the research team and their approach: https://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/

Science continues to show the benefits of how by changing our thoughts we can literally change our minds. Neuroplasticity is a modern term that demystifies what may have been considered a fuzzy, fluffy “story” that yoga and meditation practitioners have been telling for centuries. A person can actually change the size, shape and condition of their brain by thinking thoughts – both good and bad.

Read more about the effects of meditation and yoga on trauma and neuroplasticity.

Trauma and being present in the body

The energy body is more than a metaphor used to describe the activity we associate with the concepts of the chakras and prana. Western science and Eastern philosophy merge with the phrase “energy body,” to refer to the actual, physical reactions to external stimulus. The brains of people who suffer from various levels of trauma exhibit a wide range of physical reactions that can be described as a disconnect with their bodies and are often marked by the inability to be “present” in a way that allows clear focus and concentration.

Trauma, like many complicated ailments that appear as a wide spectrum, is easier to spot in their extreme expression. Recent studies into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are a good illustration of trauma in the extreme because the experiences of people who suffer from PTSD are cut in such stark relief against those who experience mild depression or the stress of everyday life. PTSD can be looked at as  over-the-top trauma that is so extreme as to be  paralyzing in every way: socially, psychologically, physically, emotionally, etc.

It is with great interest to bring together a discussion of two ends of the spectrum – the extremes of either being present in the body or being unable to be present. What are the physical, chemical, energy body reactions that pull us between these opposite poles of being in the world?

Every moment of our lives is characterized by our physical reaction to the world around us. As it turns out (surprise!) we are primarily operating from the emotions and the physical response to our environment. It is a secondary response when we act from our brains logical response to emotional stimulus.

The following article by Bessel A. Van der Kolk, a psychiatrist from Boston University who speaks and writes on the topic of PTSD demonstrates surprising details of what goes on in the brain of the traumatized person.

Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD, Bessel A. Van der Kolk, 2006

Around numbered page 10-11 Kolk describes the parts of the brain affected by trauma and explains an actual shutting down of parts of the brain that would normally help us process/understand/integrate our emotions:

Specifically, neuroimaging studies of people with PTSD have found decreased activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The medial prefrontal comprises anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and medial parts of the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortices.  The anterior cingulate (ACC) specifically has consistently been implicated in PTSD. The ACC plays a role in the experiential aspects of emotion, as well as in the integration of emotion and cognition. It has extensive connections with multiple brain structures, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, and brain stem autonomic nuclei. Thus, the ACC is part of a system that orchestrates the autonomic, neuroendocrine, and behavioral expression of emotion and may play a key role in the visceral aspects of emotion. – B.A. Van der Kolk

Kolk goes on to discuss the effects of yoga, siting studies involving people practicing yoga. On page 12 he mentions the fascinating studies by Sarah Lazar involving yoga at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a related note, here is Sarah Lazar on TED Talk giving one of the best eight minute “elevator speeches” on the benefits of yoga and meditation and the physical change of thickening our grey matter:

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains, Sara Lazar

Bessel A. Van der Kolk is featured on the syndicated radio show, To The Best of Our Knowledge in their show titled “Super Senses,” a broadcast from September 28, 2014. The show is vignette based on the theme of the senses. Skip over to the time on the sound recording 26:35 to hear Van der Kolk describe his research and how we can heal from trauma, starting with the truest statement, “We ARE our bodies!”

Meditation and Two Wings of a Bird

TwoWingsOfABirdSmallMeditation and Two Wings of a Bird

The image of a bird is the perfect metaphor for the gifts we receive through meditation. In meditation, there is an intention to gain freedom from the thoughts and patterns that keep us stuck and static in life. The bird symbolizes the freedom of lifting out of our troubles, gliding to a new horizon and moving peacefully through life wtih free-flowing grace.

Alongside the image of the bird as representing freedom, the concept of symmetry and balance and the effort of the flapping wings is the other side of the story. It takes wings and it takes skillful maneuvering. The wings must work in tandem because flight and landing both require that the bird have the knowledge as to the proper way to flex, tilt and lift the wings.

There are many misconceptions about meditation in the western culture and a lack of understanding of the requisite two wings. One of the most pervasive myths is that in meditation we are somehow supposed to stop the mind and prevent thoughts from entering our mind. Nothing could be farther from the truth! You cannot stop the mind from thinking but you can change its focus.

The myth of emptying the mind may be an outgrowth of our frustration as we struggle to control the natural duality of our minds. We have the thinking mind with its logic and reasoning and the emotional body with its ever-firing neurons and totally wired energy system. The two wings of the bird are representative of our mind’s ability to become aware and our body’s ability to modulate our emotional systems.

A curious aside to the concept of the two wings of a bird needs mentioning here. Large, exotic pet birds that live out most of their lives in cages often escape with fabulously strong wings with perfectly formed flight feathers. As anyone who has ever tried to catch an escaped pet bird knows, the bird finds it very easy to fly up but has no real knowledge of how to fly down! This is not another bird metaphor. Wings are tools that require skill and knowledge.

Learning to meditate is a practice of balancing our tools of mind and body. It is achieved through a process of paying attention to the two wings of a bird.

A Few Words on a Wing

Mindfulness             Loving-kindness

Wisdom                     Calmness

Insight                       Compassion

Thought                     Relaxation

Observation              Intention

Clear-seeing              Compassion

 

Neuroscience and Meditation

Highlights of the research of Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscience professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • Develop a more consistent state of calmness
  • Control reaction to unpleasant stimuli
  • Return to calmness more quickly

Dr. Davidson is at the center of a field of research involving meditation and its effect on the brain. His numerous studies utilize structural and functional brain imaging technology performed in a state-of-the-art facility focused on neuroscience, psychology, physics and statistics.

One such study involving Tibetan Buddhist monks, with tens of thousands of hours of experience meditating suggests the actual structure and the function of the brain can be altered through the practice of meditation. The concept of “neuroplasticity,” the ability of the brain to change throughout our lives in response to our experiences is at the core of understanding the effects of meditation.

MonkWithElectrodesDavidson first studied Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk from India by hooking up 128 electrodes to his head and recording his brain activity as Ricard meditated on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” Two strikingly unusually results were immediately apparent: Ricard produced powerful gamma brain waves oscillating at 40 cycles per second and oscillations from other areas of his cortex were in synchrony in a fashion similar to that of patients under anesthesia. Gamma brain waves are often faint and hard to pickup but in Ricard’s meditative state they appeared unusually strong, indicating his ability to maintain intensely focused thought.

These results led Davidson to expand his study to include more monks and to include college students with little or no experience at meditation. The end result was that the monks produced gamma waves 30 times as strong as the students. The other finding was that the monks had larger active areas in their brains as compared to the students. Of significance was the area of the brain responsible for positive emotions, the left prefrontal cortex.

After a negative event or emotionally charged situation meditators recover and return to a calm state faster than individuals who have not developed calming skills. The monks are an example of this skill where they have learned compassion mediation. Their ability to activate the prefrontal cortex in response to the situation and modulate areas of the amygdala helps them to reduce reaction and quickly return to a state of calm. The ability to “down regulate” the amygdala is key because that is the area of the brain that forms and stores memories associated with emotional events and is concerned with vigilance and threat detection.

Note: image of monk with Electrodes comes from National Geographic, photograph by Cary Wolinsky and associated with this story by James Shreeve: Beyond the Brain