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    Thread: Meditation and your brain

    1. #1
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      Meditation and your brain

      I thought that we don't have many threads that explain what happens to the brain during meditation and also what the long term effects of meditation are, hence decided to start a thread we can refer to in some of our other posts.

      I want to keep it as scientific as possible, so would include either info from studies or secondary sources that cite studies.

      For starters, here is part of an article from Scientific American.

      Also, if you are interested about various types of meditation and their effects, you might want to hurry to your local boothstand and grab the November copy of Scientific American, which as I happily ascertained today, features a long article on "The Neuroscience of Meditation".


      What does mindfulness meditation do to your brain?

      No fear
      MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

      As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.

      The “functional connectivity” between these regions – i.e. how often they are activated together – also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

      The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh.

      “The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” she says.

      In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.

      Lots of activities can boost the size of various parts of the pre-frontal cortex – video games, for example – but it’s the disconnection of our mind from its “stress center” that seems to give rise to a range of physical as well as mental health benefits, says Taren.

      “I’m definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease.”

      Feel the pain
      Things get even more interesting when researchers study mindfulness experts experiencing pain. Advanced meditators report feeling significantly less pain than non-meditators. Yet scans of their brains show slightly more activity in areas associated with pain than the non-meditators.

      “It doesn’t fit any of the classic models of pain relief, including drugs, where we see less activity in these areas,” says Joshua Grant, a postdoc at the Max Plank Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. The expert mindfulness meditators also showed “massive” reductions in activity in regions involved in appraising stimuli, emotion and memory, says Grant.

      Again, two regions that are normally functionally connected, the anterior cingulate cortex (associated with the unpleasantness of pain) and parts of the prefrontal cortex, appear to become “uncoupled” in meditators.

      “It seems Zen practitioners were able to remove or lessen the aversiveness of the stimulation – and thus the stressing nature of it – by altering the connectivity between two brain regions which are normally communicating with one another,” says Grant. “They certainly don’t seem to have blocked the experience. Rather, it seems they refrained from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.”

      Feeling Zen
      It’s worth noting that although this study tested expert meditators, they were not in a meditative state – the pain-lessening effect is not something you have to work yourself up into a trance to achieve; instead, it seems to be a permanent change in their perception.

      “We asked them specifically not to meditate,” says Grant. “There is just a huge difference in their brains. There is no question expert meditators’ baseline states are different.”

      Other studies on expert meditators – that is, subjects with at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt – discovered that their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person’s does when he or she is meditating.

      At this level of expertise, the pre-frontal cortex is no longer bigger than expected. In fact, its size and activity start to decrease again, says Taren. “It’s as if that way of thinking has becomes the default, it is automatic – it doesn’t require any concentration.”

      There’s still much to discover, especially in terms of what is happening when the brain comprehends the present moment, and what other effects mindfulness might have on people. Research on the technique is still in its infancy, and the imprecision of brain imaging means researchers have to make assumptions about what different regions of the brain are doing.

      Both Grant and Taren, and others, are in the middle of large, unprecedented studies that aim to isolate the effects of mindfulness from other methods of stress-relief, and track exactly how the brain changes over a long period of meditation practice.

      “I’m really excited about the effects of mindfulness,” says Taren. “It’s been great to see it move away from being a spiritual thing towards proper science and clinical evidence, as stress is a huge problem and has a huge impact on many people’s health. Being able to take time out and focus our mind is increasingly important.”

      Tom Ireland, Guest Blog, Scientific American
      Last edited by NyxCC; 11-22-2014 at 12:09 AM.
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    2. #2
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      Hey NyxCC

      I Googled "Meditation and the brain" and found this interesting 2 and a half minute Youtube:

      ★★★

      How Does Meditation Change the Brain? - Instant E…: How Does Meditation Change the Brain? - Instant Egghead #54 - YouTube

      ★★★(2:24) 60,119 views
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    3. #3
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      This is great stuff, thanks!

      Meditating really does have an unbelievable effect on your brain. It changes your state of mind to a more positive one. And just saying it clears your mind or relieves stress is not nearly enough. Because when your mind clears you get a more positive mood, you can see things more rationally and enjoy life much better. Something about 4 weeks ago hit me very hard and I was really pissed, for 2.5 weeks I was punching and kicking things, smashing things into the wall, I was raging for 2.5 weeks. Then I did some meditation because I realised I had to do something. After a few days and about 15-20 minutes a day of meditating I was browsing the internet and found people on forums with anger issues. I found it amusing and started laughing suddenly. Then I read some quotes about humor on Brainyquote.com and I started laughing even more, sometimes out loud. For no reason. The aggression is completely vanished and I am my old jolly self again, except it is enhanced through meditation. I now have a sense of humor about the world and myself that I didn't have before.

      It also makes a big difference for violin playing. Practicing violin can be extremely difficult and very taxing on your willpower because of the constant patience and concentration required if you want to practice properly. Meditation is one thing I really really have to keep doing if I ever want to properly play this cursed instrument. Why is it cursed, you ask? Well, once you realise the possibilities of beauty and joy it can bring, you can't stop yourself from trying. But before you start sounding good you have to put in crazy amounts dedication. Even though I sound like crap, I still enjoy it immensely because I know how far I came to play the way I do. So if it brings joy, isn't it a blessing? I don't know.. Maybe blessing and curse are the same.

      EDIT:
      "Other studies on expert meditators – that is, subjects with at least 40,000 hours of mindfulness practice under their belt – discovered that their resting brain looks similar, when scanned, to the way a normal person’s does when he or she is meditating."
      This is really really impressive! o.0 When I think about the state of mind I have when meditating, even though it is "just" 20 minutes, is quite powerful. I have a clarity I can only dream of the rest of the day.The clarity, focus, the potential.. I wonder what it feels like to have that 24/7
      Last edited by Ginsan; 11-22-2014 at 04:46 AM.
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    4. #4
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      @ EbbTide000

      That's a great video! Thanks for sharing!

      @ Ginsan

      I know what you mean. I've come to the point where I need to practice at least some meditation a day, as it makes a big difference for both my mood and my focus.

      Interesting you brought up your violin practice. There may be some overlap between meditation and activities like playing a musical instrument in terms of concentration, one's brain state and brain waves. Actually, both good musical performers and experienced meditators tend to produce high amounts of gamma brainwaves. Will try to find some more articles to post later on. Therefore, no wonder one activity may help the other or vice versa.
      Last edited by NyxCC; 11-23-2014 at 01:53 AM.
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    5. #5
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      In short:
      Meditation is similar to REM-sleep and power naps because it clears your brain and seems to strengthen neural connections

      long:
      Today while practicing I did 15-20 minutes of practice followed by counting 30 slow breaths, which is about 3-4 minutes. I got in about 2.5 hours of very
      fruitful practice. That's about 30 minutes of meditating. The few minutes of rest were very welcome and refreshing, without this I could not possibly have kept the focus I kept and got the results I got. I got the idea in the morning, I tried it and it worked! This is one of best ideas I've ever hard.

      You might think it's weird, but that's alright because I do too. Somehow my mind just gets foggy and tired and I can not concentrate on the movements after 20-30 minutes. And when I meditate the fog clears up. And there is a great TED-talk about how sleep literally clears the brain up. Your brain doesn't have a lymphatic system like the rest of the body. So waste products are just swimming around, inhibiting neural activity. Then when you sleep, some liquid is released into the brain, absorbs the dirt and gets it out of the brain. Providing you with a squeeky clean brain when you wake up. The TED-talker didn't say it but I think during a power-nap you get a quick cleanse.

      A quote from a video from Vcause about why we dream (it gets interesting at 2:30): "Many popular theories about why we dream are variations of the idea that while we sleep, the unconscious part of our brain is busy organising memories and strengthening (neural) connections from the day before, while getting rid of the junk that would otherwise clog the brain. Now, so the theory goes, these electrical impulses are detected by our conscious brain (I think they also call it the narrative part) , and the cortex freaks out and doesn't know what it mean, and tries its best to make create a cohesive story. Creating a dream."

      If that is true then it might mean that meditation is a bit like sleeping. Because when I also have something like a movie playing of the movements I just practiced. It is not visual, but I am aware of it, it's like I can almost feel my hand and fingers doing the movements. Close your eyes and imagine doing something physical that you can vividly remember/imagine. Like swimming or walking, you can almost feel yourself doing the movements while actually staying still. Or maybe throw a punch, jump up and down, then sit down, close your eyes and review the movement in your head, you'll know what I mean. This might be the result of your brain strengthening neural connections (the same thing happens during sleep), somehow resulting in neural/electrical activity.

      It may sound far-sought but I think it makes sense..

      Here are the videos:
      TED-talk about why we sleep


      Vcause about why we dream (start at 2:30)
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    6. #6
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      Meditation allows for lateral thinking and creative problem solving. It can give you the ability to make connections that provide new insights into your life and the reality you inhabit.

      From what I've been able to gather in my own meditation (which is probably rather unorthodox in method) is that being awake for too long, without a break in cognition causes the feedback loops your brain operates with to force a tighter loop and like with psychedelics can cause you to go in circular patterns of thought, you get stuck in a loop, lol. You wind up using a single part of your brain more than the others, and this deprives you of information that the other parts of the brain can provide you with, severely hampering your ability to see and paint the big picture. The big picture includes information from all parts of the brain and it balances the system out. Rather than focusing on linear thought too much, which would indicate making over use of the frontal lobe and the prefrontal cortex, you open up to the more intuitive parts of the brain that allow you to feel situations out, which allows your senses to cross over and stimulates your natural system of checks and balances.

      Sometimes inhibiting other brain regions is useful, but do it for too long and you begin to fall into thought traps and logical fallacies. The parietal lobe is responsible for the sense of self and where you are located, give it too much control and you stop receiving or at least stop processing information that allows you to remove yourself from a scenario and keeps you from functioning well in social situations and judging what is going on in the world around you. The temporal lobe is heavily implicated in the sense of time, rhythm, language, and hearing. Too much of these may hinder your ability to process visual information or social information. Too little and your sense of time flies out the window, as does your ability to perform time and rhythm associated skills. If the occipital lobe receives too much stimulation, you focus too much on what you see, and hopefully by now you get the picture. Overstimulate the amygdala, and your fear and negativity responses are heightened and it temporarily short circuits the frontal lobes, which allow you to think more logically and inhibit input from the amygdala and other older brain regions. Same goes for smell, and the other senses, and all other portions of the brain, like the cerebellum and your motor coordination, etc.

      The key is to strike a balance between all portions of the brain and selectively inhibit and stimulate certain regions at different times, while on the whole trying not to go too far in any one direction. This allows a much fuller sense and picture of the world around you and allows the different parts of the brain to work in conjunction to form new neural path ways and prevent excitotoxicity in any one region, because no part is too stimulated.
      Last edited by snoop; 11-24-2014 at 10:48 PM.
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    7. #7
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      snoop, that's very interesting. Is it enough to just live a balanced life. Exercise some, have some social action, some indulgence/entertainment (food/sex/movies/games/whatever), read a book, study something difficult for intellectual action. Or is it really necessary to do it through meditating? Or are you saying that by meditating you free yourself from the thing you focus too much on and allow yourself to be open-minded and try other things, making you more balanced?

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      It means that you should strive to always strike a balance. Meditation is like exercise for your mind, at least the way I do it, just like you need exercise for your physical body. What's cool is how it all ties in together, because the body and the mind are linked as well. What you do physically will affect what you do mentally, and vice versa. Proper sleep, diet, social interaction, etc. It's a balancing act of proper social health, mental health, and physical health.

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      I don't have a lot to add to what's already been posted, however here's an interesting video on meditation and consciousness.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TeWvf-nfpA

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