My personal view of integral life

Meditation-related brain research and possible treatment implications

This text was originally written and posted by Eric Thompson at iAwake blog, full article to be found here:

http://www.i-awake.net/2010/06/meditation-related-brain-research-and.html

Since this is a really hot topic at the moment and the research on meditation via neuroscientific methods is increasing I thought I could share this text slightly referated with you.

Tibetan Buddhist Loving Kindness Meditation

Antoine Lutz and colleagues studied eight long-term Tibetan Buddhist meditators who had engaged in contemplative practice for periods of time ranging from 15 to 40 years, with anywhere from approximately 10,000 to 50,000 hours logged in meditation (2004). A control group consisted of 10 students averaging 20 years of age, each of whom had only ten hours of training in meditation. The meditation technique studied in this case, a Buddhist loving kindness meditation, evokes a state of objectless compassion that is allowed to pervade the meditator’s mind.

All meditators exhibited atypically large amounts of synchronized gamma activity 5 to 15 seconds after beginning the meditation, with significant asymmetrical gamma synchrony appearing in the left midfrontal areas. Analysis revealed that the long-term meditators showed greater such synchrony than controls, as well as higher baseline levels of gamma activity. Likewise, even among the long-term meditators, the ones with the most hours of meditative practice logged also exhibited the highest levels of gamma activity. Long-distance synchronization between frontal and parietal lobes also increased in all meditators, with the highest degrees of synchronization again being found to positively correlate with the number of hours logged in meditative practice. Using fMRI, there was also discovered significant activity in the thalamus, caudate and putamen, right insula, and anterior cingulate.

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation

According to the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS: Baer, et al, 2004), mindfulness consists of nonreactivity to inner experience, attending to sensations and feelings, actions with awareness, labeling sensations and feeling states with words, and a non-judgmental attitude toward experience.

Sara W. Lazar and cohorts discovered this meditative practice to be correlated with increased cortical thickness in the middle prefrontal areas, as well as enlarged right insulas, in experienced practitioners (2005). Additional studies have revealed mindfulness practice and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to animate neural structures involved in attention (Lazar, et al, 2000), serve as a viable treatment modality for ADHD (Zylowska, et al, 2008), counter the tendency toward diminished left-frontal activity in severe depression (Barnhofer, et al, 2007), and significantly reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms in bipolar affective disorder (Williams, et al, 2008). And according to Siegel, “[m]indfulness meditationappears to produce a left shift in frontal activation” (2007, p. 220).

Gamma Activity Implications

The increased gamma wave synchrony generated during Tibetan Buddhist loving kindnessmeditation may have applications in the treatment of disorders where feature binding has been found to be deficient. Because gamma activity has been repeatedly observed as active in perception and implicated in associative learning (Miltner, et al, 1999), it has been theorized that gamma wave synchrony may play a significant role in binding the disparate information conveyed by the central nervous system into coherent perception (Singer, 2001).

The lack of gamma wave activity during perception in schizophrenia in left and frontal sites (Haig, et al, 2000) has been postulated as being due to a shift in the binding of synchronous and divided activity, preventing neural integration of various areas of the brain (Bob, 2007). Moreover, attention has been decisively shown to be central to 40 Hz gamma activity, so that when external stimuli are not consciously attended to, gamma activity is not registered (Sokolov, 1999). Attentional training using techniques like the loving kindness meditation, which seem to systematically drive and educate the brain toward producing more gamma wave activity, may offer a new set of developmental tools with which to treat schizophrenia. Moreover, the fact that long-term meditators exhibited higher baseline gamma activity than controls attests to the intention in long-term Buddhist meditation to slowly but consistently integrate meditative temporal states into permanent traits. According to Lutz and co-workers (2004), their research findings are “consistent with the idea that attention and affective processes, which gamma-band EEG synchronization may reflect, are flexible skills that can be trained (Posner, et al, 1997)” (p. 16373).

Taken together, these data could point to meditative training as a means of highly unifying sensory information to the point of producing unitary-that is, harmonious-interpersonal perceptions and relations.

Left Frontal Asymmetrical Activation Implications

Heather Urry and colleagues (2004) correlated left prefrontal asymmetry, as evidenced in both the mindfulness and loving kindness forms of meditation, with eudaimonic well-being, defined by Siegel (2007) as enveloping “the psychological qualities of autonomy, mastery of the environment, positive relationships, personal growth, self-acceptance, and meaning and purpose in life” (p. 216). This left anterior activity has also been correlated with resilience, the capacity to rebound after particularly negative experiences (Davidson, et al, 2003), which would make mindfulness meditation a viable modality in the treatment of bipolar affective disorder, sufferers of which can experience great difficulty in rebounding after difficult depressive periods.

Conclusion

Many of our core mental processes such as awareness and attention and emotion regulation, including our very capacity for happiness and compassion, should best be conceptualized as trainable skills. The meditative traditions provide a compelling example of strategies and techniques that have evolved over time to enhance and optimize human potential and well-being. The neuroscientific study of these traditions is still in its infancy but the early findings promise to both reveal the mechanisms by which such training may exert its effects as well as underscore the plasticity of the brain circuits that underlie complex mental functions.

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