Its seems increasingly likely that compassion meditation influences brain functions and structures able to increase happiness.
We live in materialistic times, many people find it hard to understand the enduring nature of compassion and kindness. Last January I saw a woman buy a young homeless guy a cup of coffee. I didn’t know either of these people although this happened close to my home. A passer-by, about the same age as the homeless man, cat-called ‘loser’ from the other side of the street. The homeless man responded with a few expletives, but the passer-by was quick to point out ‘not you, her’. It was the act of compassion that had provoked the insult!
It raised the question in my mind, why are humans compassionate, why do so many of us care about strangers, even if there is no profit to us? I don’t mean my own feelings, I worked out the benefits of compassion to me years ago. Although we all can have a bad day, at some point almost everyone feels compassion for another. People in diverse cultures from all periods of history have been shown to value altruism, it’s a universal human characteristic. The answer has to be that our brains are hard-wired towards helping others. If compassion is an enduring quality, present in different societies we can assume we’ve evolved like this.
As humans, we can train our minds to increase or decrease our underlying mental states. Altruism and selfishness are not constants, if you watch any film or browse a website you can observe these emotions rise and fall in response to what you see. The whole social media culture of ‘liking’ and ‘not-liking’ feeds into these mental traits. The point of compassion meditation is to train those networks linked to the way we see ourselves and others. These practices have been associated with increased happiness for thousands of years. And the scientific evidence is now starting to show us why.
New psychological and neuroscience studies have found that altruism (selfless acts) are strongly correlated to reduced experience of suffering, even in cancer patients. Leading economist Richard Layard also claims, based on decades of research, that it is altruism that underpins our happiness. Although he also points out that not all forms of mindfulness or meditation may actually generate altruism. The bottom line is that considering the needs of others alongside your own, seems to make people happier. One note of caution, you can’t trick your brain. Our happiness originates in brain networks, you need to actually generate compassionate thoughts and feelings.
“If I could only do one thing to support my mental and physical health it would be compassion training. That training underpins and enriches every part of my life. It supports my relationships, my diet, my freetime my work. In the past selfishness reduced me to an army of one, competing against everyone else on earth. Compassion extended my circle of friends to include every living creature.”
Evidence has been published that suggests the benefits of compassion training may be mirrored by the drawbacks of anti-social behaviour.
I have written extensively about the benefits of prosocial behaviour both here and in other places. That compassion and kindness are correlated to improved mental and physical health. It is widely known that traditional forms of meditation frequently focus on compassion and other positive behaviours. Linking the mental states created by meditation to a more stable and productive mind. As the evidence accumulates for the benefits of compassionate practices, an uncomfortable truth also arises. What happens to us if we choose to embrace negative anti-social behaviours?
An important study into the dangers to ourselves from problem conduct (PC) was published in 2016 by Rogers and Brito1. In a review of brain imaging research, they found that youths with PC appear to have reduced grey matter volume in parts of the brain, including but not limited to the left amygdala and insula. Although this study presents interesting results, the precise causal mechanisms were not established. However, it clearly correlates problem behaviour in young people with limitations in the volume of brain structures.
Hot off the press this week was another study that broadly confirms the theory that anti-social behaviour is linked to brain size. A scientific paper by Carlisi et al. published in the Lancet2, suggests that people who persistently act in anti-social ways can expect to have some reduction in brain volume. However, that lifelong anti-social behaviour is probably required to maintain lifelong limitations in brain structure. In short that adolescence-limited antisocial behaviour did not necessarily lead to permanent differences. The evidence indicates that we have agency in developing and maintaining a healthy and fully functioning brain. It is still too early to claim that causality has been demonstrated, and as with all science these results need to be replicated and validated.
I’m inclined to see some positive signs from this evidence. That although anti-social behaviour appears to harm society and limit the brain development of the individual. We have a degree of control over these processes. By stopping negative behaviours, brain development may return to ‘normal’ levels. If anything, this further strengthens the case for the use of meditation, particularly nondual approaches that establish an understanding of the needs of self in harmony with others.
1Rogers, J. C., & De Brito, S. A. (2016). Cortical and subcortical gray matter volume in youths with conduct problems: a meta-analysis. JAMA psychiatry, 73(1), 64-72.
Reflecting on my time spent with regular meditators and participants in meditation experiments I noted several differences between the groups. Participants in scientific studies are generally university students so they tend to be younger, healthier and better educated than the average spiritual practitioner. But alongside trendier clothes and even trendier phones the strongest impression of what separates the meditators from the participants is happiness. Generalisations are not necessarily the most reliable way of understanding cause and effect, I have known grumpy meditators, miserable Buddhists and extremely happy university students. However most of my experience as a meditator has been spent with people who enjoyed living.
“If you need more happiness in your life you should think about meditating, if you meditate or practice mindfulness and don’t feel any happier you should review your practice.”
Let’s be clear, the link between meditation and happiness isn’t a new idea, we have known for a long time that meditation and mindfulness can reduce self reported levels of depression and anxiety. It should also be pointed out that most meditation experiments are short term projects, whereas regular meditators may have decades of daily practice behind them. But when you think about it, any meditation method used by Buddhists or inspired by Buddhist teachings (such as mindfulness) has one primary goal, to reduce suffering and therefore increase happiness. Meditation isn’t magic, it can’t pay your mortgage, make your boss a nicer person or stop your neighbours playing loud music in the night. But by developing a greater sense of social inclusion and happiness, it seems that meditators tend to create and experience less friction in their day to day lives. They can often diffuse negative situations and naturally gravitate towards productive, beneficial engagement. I’m not talking about the initial sense of euphoria that often grips new meditators in the first few weeks of practice, rather the deep seated sense of joy and contentment that often comes with long term meditation.
There’s a lot to be said for happiness ‘for it’s own sake’, going to a meditation class with the expectation of having all concerns lifted off my shoulders is something I’ve enjoyed for decades. Over time the feeling of happiness experienced in meditation seeps into everyday life and eventually becomes a semi-permanent state of mind. Alongside the cognitive impact of meditation methods that are of interest to psychologists, the meditator’s sense of joy plays out, often unnoticed. But I wonder to what extent can we attribute the health benefits of meditation to simple everyday happiness as well as the more narrow functional changes that meditation and mindfulness create in the brain?
Meditation for seniors. Meditation supports a healthy brain at any age.
Meditation for seniors; boost your own brain
Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) is a simple system developed by meditation expert and trained neuroscientist Stephen Gene Morris. It offers methods designed to improve brain health and slow down the rate of cognitive (brain) decline. Aspects of our brain function such as memory and attention begin to deteriorate in our late 20s, however most of us don’t start to notice any changes until we reach our 40s. The point of BRM is that there are a number of things we can do to slow or perhaps even reverse aspects of cognitive decline at any point in our lives, even at 60, 70 or 80. If you have the capacity to concentrate there is a good chance that you can make a positive impact on your brain’s function and structure.
Meditation is probably the single most useful thing a person can do to help maintain brain health. There are hundreds of scientific studies that show an effect on cognitive performance linked to regular meditation. A key point to make is that different forms of meditation lead to different effects. BRM draws together elements of compassion, nondual and mindfulness meditation into one integrated practice. It is a secular practice which requires no previous experience of meditation, it can be undertaken sitting in any chair that allows you to keep your back straight. It can be practiced in a traditional meditation class or through online training in your own home.
Almost all of the evidence from neuroscience, psychology and traditional meditation systems points to our ability to improve our own brain function throughout our lives. For example a major strategic review of research into strategy-based cognitive training in older adults, strongly indicated than brain function can be enhanced even in middle and old age. The crucial point is that no mater what your age your brain remains plastic and can adapt to the demands of brain training in many forms, particularly meditation.
Follow this link for more information about BRM and how you can join a class.
Although certain cognitive functions may weaken as we get older, the science demonstrates we do get wiser. In some regards this offsets the gradual decline of short term memory and other processes.
Your ageing brain, change isn’t all bad!
Getting old is not an illness, it’s natural, it’s what happens to us. Nobody flips a switch when you reach 65 to change the nature of who you are, and yet is seems increasingly that ageing is being treated as an illness or disability. As someone in my 50’s it is apparent that a number of my capacities are in decline, for example my eyesight. I’m not an ageing denialist, we will grow older and it will have an effect on our minds and bodies. Where I have a problem is when I encounter the fixed attitude that reaching retirement age is a point at which your value to society is dramatically reduced. This is clearly a nonsense and is part of the pervasive attitude towards the elderly in many contemporary industrialized societies.
To demonstrate the lack of science, compassion and common sense on which the negative stereotyping of older people is based let me introduce you to a well established scientific concept. Unless you work in an area linked to brain ageing the chances are that you have never heard of ‘crystallised intelligence’. We all know that older people may start to think a bit more slowly and reaction times can drops off. But this is normally offset throughout our 60’s and 70’s by a steady increase in experience based reasoning or wisdom! The total of our life experience leaves an imprint on our decision making and planning abilities because we have seen many things and generally learnt a lot. This wisdom is often referred to as crystallised intelligence, the ability to draw on long standing and established knowledge. In the view of many neuroscientists it can compensate for decline in the more fluid cognitive functions that we tend to see eroded from the age of 40 onward.
It is this ‘wisdom’ or life experience that many cultures revered and respected in parents and grandparents. The idea that people in old age may have stores of knowledge and experience able to benefit their communities, rarely features in discussions about the aging process in contemporary society. Yet we know that many politicians, thinkers and performers continue to play important roles in our lives into their 80s and 90s. Yes we will age but how we age is dependent on a number of factors such as what we do with our brains, our diet and the extent to which we take responsibility for our own brain health.
The latest research shows that women are more like than men to develop dementia but…. delaying the onset of dementia by 1-3 years can reduces the risks of developing the syndrome by up to 50%.
Women far more likely to suffer neurodegenerative conditions than men
Research from the Netherlands indicates that women at age 45 have a 48% lifetime risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, dementia or having a stroke. The risk for men at the same age is 12% lower at 36%. The headline findings of this large scale study are
“from age 45, 1 in 2 women and 1 in 3 men are likely to develop dementia, Parkinson’s or have a stroke during their lives.”
This research draws attention to a number of important findings. It confirms that women appear to be more likely to develop dementia in later life than men, this is in line with existing predictions. Specifically that at the age of 45 women had a 26% likelihood of developing dementia, for men the probability was around 14%. That from middle age women have a 1 in 4 chance of developing dementia but for men this is about a 1 in 7 chance.
This study (Lifetime risk of common neurological diseases in the elderly population) was conducted by researchers at the University Medical Center of Rotterdam, it is regarded as so important that it has been widely reported in the media. The scale of the investigation adds great significance to the findings, the data of 12,102 individuals over a 26 years period provided that basis for the analysis. Recommendations from the report include the emphasis on preventative strategies at the level of population. This clearly supports a move to approaches able to delay the initial onset of diseases such as dementia. The statistical benefit for delaying the early stages of these conditions by 1 to 3 years, has been calculated at as reduction in lifetime risk of developing the disease of between 20% to 50%.
Put simply, delay the conditions leading to dementia, Parkinson’s and stroke for 1 to 3 years and your chances of ever developing the diseases may be reduced by up to half. This illustrates the basic principle that even small changes to lifestyle can lead to fundamental improvements in your lifelong health trajectory. Prevention of dementia should begin in your 40s not 60s. There appears to be little doubt that stopping or slowing neurodegenerative processes offers significant benefits to individuals and society as a whole.
The key to successful meditation. You! Your motivation is key to Brain Renewal Training.
Taking control of your brain
There is no cliche’ or slogan I can use that will persuade you to take better care of your brain, it’s all about you. This website can simply explain what is known on the subject and share appropriate brain training meditation methods. For meditation to be effective the desire to achieve optimum brain health must be developed and nurtured in each of us.
There is no compulsion implied, I write about and teach Brain Renewal meditation (BRM) only for people that want the benefits of a younger, healthier brain. Many people are happy to allow nature to take its course and allow their genes to decide the way their brain ages, that is a legitimate and common choice. Problem is it’s not that simple, the way we live, how we think, where we go and what we do will all influence our brain’s structure and function. Our genes are only one factor in brain aging, the evidence indicates that making small but important changes in our daily life will greatly benefit long term brain health.
It is this ability to choose one path over another that rests at the heart of brain health. Our brain is designed to help us, its sole function is to follow our commands. This may sound self evident but it is an idea which is often absent from much of contemporary scientific thinking. In psychology for example, meditation research rarely pays sufficient attention to the motivation of meditators, preferring to allow the method of meditation to be the dominant object of research. It’s a great challenge for psychology because meditation is ultimately about what you do with your mind, not how you sit, what you say and the expression on your face. And so with BRM the first question you should ask yourself is, do you want to maintain optimum cognitive function? Only then should the methods gain any real importance.
There is an enduring paradigm in cognitive psychology, that cognitive decline is age related. That there is a ‘natural’ reduction in brain structure and function from the late 20s onward. This seems kind of intuitive at first sight, older people do appear to suffer from ongoing cognitive decline, just look at our parents and grandparents. However this view is contradicted by the research, certain lifestyle choices are consistently linked to cognitive decline and attenuation in brain structure. At best our chronological age is one of several factors correlated with how our brain will be working in middle and old age.
How can we explain those individuals that appear to enjoy near peak cognitive performance into their 70s, 80s and 90s? Sir Jonathan Miller (originally a neurology specialist) is just one of many examples.
After many years of study and practice the first question I ask new meditation students is “why to do want to meditate?”. Most of the benefit you are likely to get from meditation will be linked to this question, meditation isn’t primarily about me or the science, it’s about you!