Meditation’s effect on brain waves.

Meditation’s effect on brain waves.

A new study out of Brown University has found that a form of mindfulness meditation known as MBSR may act as a “volume knob” for attention, changing brain wave patterns.
What is MBSR?
Originally developed by a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) is based on mindfulness meditation techniques that have been practiced in some form or another for over two millennia. The 8-week MBSR program still follows some of the same principles of the original Buddhist practice, training followers to focus a “spotlight of attention” on different parts of their body. Eventually, it is hoped, practitioners learn to develop the same awareness of their mental states.

In the last 20 years, MBSR and a similar practice called mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have been included in an increasing number of healthcare plans in the developed world. Some studies have shown that these practices can reduce distress in individuals with chronic pain and decrease risk of relapses into depression.

In this study, Brown University researchers wanted to investigate whether MBSR could have a broader application beyond the clinical realm. Could MBSR impact the alpha brain waves that help filter and organize sensory inputs, improving attentional control?
Study design
Researchers divided the study’s 12 healthy adult participants into two groups: a test group that underwent MBSR training for 8 weeks, and a control group that did not. After 8 weeks, a brain imaging technique known as magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to measure alpha wave patterns in participants.

While hooked up to the brain scanning equipment, participants felt taps on their hands and feet at random intervals. On average, those who trained with MBSR demonstrated faster and greater alpha wave changes in response to these taps. These alpha wave surges indicated that participants were better able to quickly focus attention on the relevant body parts.
How alpha waves affect cognition
Alpha rhythms help filter irrelevant sensory inputs in the brain. Without proper filtering, the ability to carry out many basic cognitive operations can be crippled.

Imagine the simple task of backing a car out of the driveway. In order to reach the street safely, you must hold your destination in mind while steering and ignoring distractions from every modality: news on the radio, children playing at the end of the block, an itch on your foot, the glare of the sun in your eyes. Most people filter out these distractions subconsciously — but should irrelevant stimuli distract you, backing out can become a difficult ordeal.

This Brown University study is in line with other research on meditation, confirming previous findings that link enhanced attentional performance and fewer errors in tests of visual attention with meditation. While it’s still too early to declare meditation a cure-all for everything from attentional control to chronic pain, it’ll be fascinating to see what future research uncovers about this millennia-old tradition’s impact on the brain.

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Psychopaths and CEO’s

Psychopaths and CEO’s

In today’s selection — from “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed” by Kevin Dutton. I share some observations on the similarity between successful people, such as surgeons or CEOs, and psychopaths. In fact, one prominent venture capitalist states that the three characteristics most predictive of success in executives are determination, curiosity and insensitivity.

“Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers — a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others — are also shared by politicians and world leaders. Individuals, in other words, running not from the police. But for office. Such a profile allows those who present with these traits to do what they like when they like, completely unfazed by the social, moral or legal consequences of their actions.

“If you are violent and cunning, like the real-life ‘Hannibal Lecter’ Robert Maudsley, you might take a fellow inmate hostage, smash his skull in and sample his brains with a spoon as nonchalantly as if you were downing a soft-boiled egg. (Maudsley, by the way, has been cooped up in solitary confinement for the past 30 years, in a bulletproof cage in the basement of Wakefield Prison in England.)

“Or if you are a brilliant neurosurgeon, ruthlessly cool and focused under pressure, you might, like the man I’ll call Dr. Geraghty, try your luck on a completely different playing field: at the remote outposts of 21st-century medicine, where risk blows in on 100-mile-per-hour winds and the oxygen of deliberation is thin. ‘I have no compassion for those whom I operate on,’ he told me. ‘That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. When you’re cutting loose and cheating death high above the snowline of the brain, feelings aren’t fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy — and seriously bad for business. I’ve hunted it down to extinction over the years.’ …

“Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. Far from its being an open-and-shut case — you’re either a psychopath or you’re not — there are, instead, inner and outer zones of the disorder: a bit like the fare zones on a subway map. There is a spectrum of psychopathy along which each of us has our place. …

“[In a test designated as Case 1, subjects were told they could save five lives, but to do so they had to flip a switch that would kill one person. In Case 2, they could also save five lives, but they could only do so by pushing another person to his death.] Just like most normal members of the population, psychopaths make pretty short work of the dilemma presented in Case 1. Yet — and this is where the plot thickens — quite unlike normal people [who have difficulty with Case 2 because it is more personal], they also make pretty short work of Case 2. Psychopaths, without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to [push that person to his death].

“To compound matters further, this difference in behavior is mirrored, rather distinctly, in the brain. The pattern of neural activation in both psychopaths and normal people is well matched on the presentation of impersonal moral dilemmas — but dramatically diverges when things get a bit more personal.

“Imagine that I were to pop you into a functional MRI machine and then present you with the two dilemmas. What would I observe as you went about negotiating their moral minefields? Just around the time that the nature of the dilemma crossed the border from impersonal to personal, I would see your amygdala and related brain circuits — your medial orbitofrontal cortex, for example — light up like a pinball machine. I would witness the moment, in other words, that emotion puts its money in the slot. But in a psychopath, I would see only darkness. The cavernous neural casino would be boarded up and derelict — the crossing from impersonal to personal would pass without any incident. …

” ‘Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second,’ one successful CEO told me. ‘Remember, they don’t call it a greasy pole for nothing. The road to the top is hard. But it’s easier to climb if you lever yourself up on others. Easier still if they think something’s in it for them.’

“Jon Moulton, one of London’s most successful venture capitalists, agrees. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he lists determination, curiosity and insensitivity as his three most valuable character traits. No prizes for guessing the first two. But insensitivity? The great thing about insensitivity, Moulton explains, is that ‘it lets you sleep when others can’t.’ ”

author: Kevin Dutton
title: “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed”
publisher: Scientific American
date: October 2012

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Adventures in Going Nowhere

Adventures in Going Nowhere

Today’s selection — from The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer. Leonard Cohen, legendary singer-songwriter, musician, poet, and novelist perhaps best known for his song “Hallelujah,” has more recently had occasion to explore a more monastic life:

“I’d come up here in order to write about [Leonard Cohen’s] near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

“Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts. …

“Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was ‘the real deep entertainment’ he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. ‘Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.’ …

‘What else would I be doing?’ he asked. ‘Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.’

“Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

“Being in this remote place of stillness had nothing to do with piety or purity, he assured me; it was simply the most practical way he’d found of working through the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows. …

“‘Nothing touches it,’ Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still. Then he remembered himself, perhaps, and gave me a crinkly, crooked smile. ‘Except if you’re courtin’,’ he added. ‘If you’re young, the hormonal thrust has its own excitement.’

“Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

“Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully as in the example of this man who seemed to have everything, yet found his happiness, his freedom, in giving everything up. …

“The idea has been around as long as humans have been, of course; the poets of East Asia, the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, regularly made stillness the center of their lives. But has the need for being in one place ever been as vital as it is right now? After a thirty-year study of time diaries, two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but we feel as if we’re working more. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.

“With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk. …

“Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.”

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Wilderness Therapy

Wilderness Therapy

On New Year’s day, I went for a relatively arduous hike from Greyton to McGregor. We started a little later in the morning than I would’ve liked, possibly due to a couple of single malts the night before.
Within a kilometer or two, the temperature had soared to 30+ degrees and kept climbing. As we tackled the steep gradient, the conversation dwindled, sweat soon replaced words and the only sounds were the metronomic crunching of shale beneath worn, hot hiking boots.

Once my body had become aware of the requirements needed, my mind slipped its leash and began to roam through the vast open space. I watched it swoop and turn through the past year, the often agonizing trials and tribulations of 2014. My heart dipped as my mind lightly touched old wounds. The question that emerged as I walked was whether I have the wounds or they have me. I have metabolized some successfully, surprisingly…others linger, some I may still be chewing on as I close my eyes for the last time.
I know now that I will not die one day clear, enlightened, unfettered, rather I will be covered in my many scars and heart wounds, a proud testament to having risked life, marked at times by unfulfilled dreams and unrealized love. But…there will and have been successes too, i’ve found them growing in the gaps between hope and dread, some so brilliant and unexpected that my jaw has hung slack.

A sudden fall brought me painfully back into the present(as it often does). The full weight of my body landed on my wrist. White hot pain burst behind my eyelids. We stopped, clutching to a thin piece of shade and drank the last of the now precious, hot water. My legs ached and my chest burned. With the introduction of pain, my mind began to get sloppy, groaning, focussing exclusively on the physical discomfort. Just as I was about to retrench my rebellious thoughts, we reached the promised waterfall. Instantly discarding our dusty, sweat drenched clothes we bathed in the soft, clear, nurturing waters. The surface was unexpectedly warm, but as I dived into the darkened depths seeking the bottom, it was dark, quiet and cold, another world. I hung between these two worlds, suspended.
As I broke the surface gasping, smiling, I was amazed at how many subtle variations of reality I could experience within a single day, the disconnection, memory, dismay, awareness, pain, exhaustion, relief, joy…how many variations of these themes does one experience in a lifetime?

The hike took 8 and a bit hours. As the day faded, we emerged burnt and bedraggled, our lift was nowhere to be seen. 14 kilometers of empty dusty road leading towards rest yawned ahead of us. A moan escaped my lips.

Eventually, a wry smile twisted the corners of my mouth, I reshouldered the pack and flipped a good natured bird heavenward as we trudged off again down the path, towards another gloriously uncertain future.

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