Meditating in a time of crisis: survive or thrive?

What are the benefits of long-term meditation?

Meditation in a time of stress
Meditating in a time of stress

As a meditator and a meditation scientist, I have been frequently asked in recent days, what is the best meditation to do right now? This can be a hard question, there are hundreds of different meditation practices. I also need to consider ‘fitness for purpose’, that means balancing the goals and abilities of the meditator with an appropriate method. People generally approach me with two objectives, either boosting their health or working directly with disturbing emotions such as fear and anxiety. Whilst meditation can offer some short term benefits in both cases, stable improvements to mental and physical health are long term projects.

The rush to translate meditation into a modern cure-all, integrated into a materialistic lifestyle has often ignored relevant neuroscience. Radical changes to our mental health are rarely resolved by short term brain training. However, transient changes may be crucial in offering the meditator some stability in challenging moments. I know this to be true for both myself and many of my students. But to take my own case, although short-term meditation allowed me to survive. It was long-term practice that changed my life for the better. The reasons for this can be understood by looking at the science of meditation. In essence, the longer we practise meditation the more profound the changes to brain function and structure are likely to be. While some meditation scientists will tell you that even short periods of meditation lead to ‘brain changes’, they generally fail to mention that reorganisation in the brain’s connections happens all the time. And that these alterations can be positive, negative or neutral in terms of the quality of our life. So up to a point, it is long term practice that holds the potential for sustained benefits.

“Regular nondual compassion meditation transformed my life, it has had the same effect on many others I know personally. Although I started meditation simply to gain some mental stability, the long term results have led to unimaginable changes. “

Stephen Gene Morris

person holding head facing body of water

Using meditation as a short term ‘pick me up’ is a positive thing to do. Your mind (brain) is your own, you are free to use the systems which are right for you. Getting through today is a really important goal. But if you use meditation just to survive, you risk missing the big picture. Long term meditation tends to reveal the underlying problems that cause stress, anxiety and poor health. I still follow the maxim that the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do. But rather like eating fresh fruit and vegetables, if meditation is good for you, you might want to do it regularly.

The essence of meditation, it’s ultimate purpose as far as I’m concerned, is to reduce suffering and lead to greater happiness. Each person has to decide how they want to use brain training. In a time of crisis, survival is a worthy goal, but challenges are part of the human condition. Long term meditation practise enables us to thrive by altering the neural networks that lead to problematic thinking and bad mental habits. Enduring changes help us to thrive even in crisis, reducing suffering no matter what challenges life throws at us.

 

Notes

1Whilst there are many different methods available, my own research supports the use of nondual compassion as an antidote for fear. With regards to boosting health generally, most reliable meditation methods, if undertaken regularly, should contribute small improvements to our health in the short term.

 

Anti-social behaviour and brain size

Evidence has been published that suggests the benefits of compassion training may be mirrored by the drawbacks of anti-social behaviour.

Brain size linked to anti-social behaviour
Anti-social behaviour may limit the human brain

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?

broken glass on wooden surface

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.

2 www.thelancet.com

Do people engage with mindfulness and meditation apps?

A new study shows few mental health apps are opened beyond 15 days after their download. This new insight raises the question, ‘how much do we know about the benefits of one to many mental health approaches?’.

Health apps appear to offer little long term engagement.
Limitations in the use of mental health apps.

A new study exploring mass self-treatment (MST) mental health technologies has indicated that although there are a large number of MST apps in widespread use, people rarely engage with them for more than a fortnight1. The available evidence raises important questions about the deployment of clinically-led meditation and mindfulness technologies. For example, what is the most beneficial context in which meditation should be practiced?

back view of a person carrying a backpack looking into the ocean

It has long been imagined that the growing use of apps would eventually lead to improved support for people experiencing problems with mental health. That the proliferation of MST technologies would lead to a ‘new age’ of health and wellbeing. But, the role of social isolation in declining mental health2 is well known and reliably documented. And although mental health apps offer access to both resilience building and treatment methods, they tend to lend themselves to isolated rather than group practice. So alongside the benefits of cost and flexibility through one-to-many mental health apps, the possible loss of the social engagement from face to face contact must be considered. I’ve seen no clear evidence that practising meditation and mindfulness through an app is more or less beneficial than traditional group practice. There is little replicated research in this regard. But we do know that a sense of social isolation can lead to limitations in brain functions, irregular sleep patterns and lower levels of physical and mental health.

“The key message of this latest research is that humans are complicated, both in terms of their mental health and its treatment. Given the potential reach of ‘one size fits all’ approaches, reliable, replicated research should be a foundational principle in the development of health apps.”

Stephen Gene Morris

The science supporting the long term use of MST mental health technologies is of a preliminary nature. More work needs to be undertaken regarding the benefits of using apps to support mental health. But perhaps comparative studies focusing on MST and face to face interventions should be seen as a high priority. However, as a general principle, engaging with any MST approach likely to increase a feeling of social isolation should be considered carefully.

 

Notes

1 Baumel, A., Muench, F., Edan, S., & Kane, J. M. (2019). Objective User Engagement With Mental Health Apps: Systematic Search and Panel-Based Usage Analysis. Journal of medical Internet research, 21(9), e14567.

2 Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and personality psychology compass, 8(2), 58-72.

 

Is mindfulness enough?

Many scientists claim that mindfulness is both a ‘non-judgemental’ approach and holds congruence with Buddhist forms of meditation. Are these two positions mutually exclusive?

Meditation without ethics is like a ship without a rudder - directionless

Mindfulness has attracted sustained criticism from within the scientific community over the last few years. Claims that the science supporting mindfulness lacks a reliable evidential base are growing. In addition, religious scholars1 and traditional meditation practitioners have discussed the implications of the lack of  judgement or ethical frameworks, closely associated with some mindfulness practices.

In a recent article2 a leading Buddhist teacher from the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, has stressed the need for meditation to be seen in a relevant ethical context. Rinpoche talks about not ‘blindly meditating’, that our meditation should be directed by study and understanding. Although these points are being made from a Buddhist perspective, their relevance can apply to both secular and spiritual meditation practices. Psychologically speaking, meditation and mindfulness are simply forms of brain training, changes in behaviour leading eventually to functional and structural modifications in the brain. So if your meditation practice is based on reducing judgement of the reality of your day to day life, this is likely to be the result of the practice. Developing an understanding of why you are meditating and what it means in the real world, ensures your practice has direction and is relevant to you.

“We can’t just blindly meditate”

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche

Practicing with forms of meditation that lack any coherent ethical or judgemental context may lead to a reduction of reasoning and introspection, two functions linked to essential intrinsic network activity in the brain. Whilst it can be acknowledged that non-judgemental practices are common in Buddhism, they are always set within a wider ethical framework. The points Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche made, are consistent with my own understandings of the science of mindfulness and meditation. That self-transformation (the goal of meditation technologies), requires a sound theoretical framework to be successful. A sound theoretical framework would include an explanation of our being (the ontology that supports meditation) and an understanding of the effectiveness of the methods used (epistemology).

policeThere are no restrictions of the forms of meditation that can be created and practiced, and there is evidence that mindfulness may be able to deliver some benefits. But based on the available data, it may be that meditation practices that are not embedded in stable frameworks might deliver unpredictable results. Not simply because ethical frameworks are in some way morally advantageous, but for the reason that they create the conditions where the practice becomes embedded in both the meditation student and the real world. I would suggest that anything less, risks strengthening dualistic concepts rather than weakening them.

 

Notes

1 King, R. (2016). ‘Paying Attention’ in a Digital Economy: Reflections on the Role of Analysis and Judgement Within Contemporary Discourses of Mindfulness and Comparisons with Classical Buddhist Accounts of Sati. In Handbook of Mindfulness (pp. 27-45). Springer, Cham.

2 https://www.lionsroar.com/why-meditation-isnt-enough/

A potential cure for dementia?

A leading TV show suggests Australian scientists may be close to a cure for different forms of dementia!

A cure for dementia
A cure for dementia, a cause for celebration.

Australian documentary suggests a cure for dementia may be close

It was my impression that a cure for dementia was some distance away.  Dementia is a complex syndrome that encompasses a number of different illnesses that appear to have both lifestyle and genetic causes. But today my attention was drawn to an episode of 60 minutes, an award winning TV show broadcast on Australia’s Nine network.

Personally I am skeptical of any potential ‘silver bullet’ cure for Alzheimer’s dementia, vascular dementia and different forms of early onset dementia. There is every chance that each of these diverse illnesses has a number of different contributory factors. However when I was told to about the 60 minute video I was happy to watch it with an open mind.  Essentially an Australian scientist has been carrying out research in a small town in Colombia where the residents have a 50% probability of developing early onset dementia, leading to premature death before the age of 50. In identifying a genetic cause for the early onset dementia the researchers felt sure it would open the door to a cure for both vascular and Alzheimer’s dementia within five years. The show was broadcast in 2017 so if the work had progressed I would have expected to see more interest in the project by now. A quick search through the internet failed to find significantly more details than were contained in the actual TV show.

Feel free to take a look at the clip and if anyone out there uncovers more information about this project I’d welcome an email with some details. There is a fine line to tread between sensationalist claims and promising scientific research. I’m not yet sure which category this TV show falls into, take a look and make up your own minds.

Notes

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Meditate your way to a younger, smarter brain

Meditate your way to a younger, smarter brain
Meditators can have brains years younger than non-meditators

Meditate your way to a younger smarter brain

Several features in the media this week have giving some clear indications about the science behind keeping our brains in the best possible shape. Some of the advice falls into the generic wellbeing wisdom which now seems to be be associated with most health messages;

  • eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, consume less processed meat
  • take regular exercise
  • give up smoking
  • stay socially engaged
  • keep active
  • avoid stress, relax and sleep the right amount
  • keep the brain working with appropriate activity and brain training

The last item on this wish list is unsettlingly vague given that it probably has the most significant impact on brain health. For example how can we define brain training (as almost everything we do can train the brain)? What is an appropriate level of activity and which parts of the brain should we focus on?

“In one study the brains of regular meditators were found to be years younger than non meditators”

In today’s Guardian, attention was drawn to a key finding of the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging; that typically lifestyle and environment are more influential in our quality and length of life than genetic factors. This is also the general direction that brain science seems to be moving in with regards neurodegeneration. That although there are many questions left to be answered, limiting cognitive decline and reducing the risk of dementia may rest largely in our own hands.

close up of a man

Returning to the question of brain training, the big issue is to establish what kinds of intervention bring the greatest overall benefit? It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrow single task training such as Sudoku or word searches have a limited effect. Whereas maintaining high levels of brain activity and cognitive challenge are likely to keep a much broader area of the cortex young and healthy. The same principle needs to be applied if meditation systems are being used to maintain cognitive function. That the meditation or mindfulness method should be broad based and able to tap into both the intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (task or external) networks. Activity in and between different neural networks is a key element in brain health and one frequently overlooked and poorly understood. To illustrate consider tonglen meditation, it combines compassion, nondual awareness and mindfulness, it allows the meditator to work with our internal visualisation and empathy systems. In addition it engages the important connectivity between introspection and external awareness.

Given what we know already about neurodegeneration, it seems likely that long term protection against cognitive impairment can be found in meditation methods built on  nondual compassionate approaches.

 

Notes

header photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

How to protect your brain from dementia

No simple answers to dementia prevention but some clear signposts are starting to emerge.

How to protect your brain from dementia
How to protect yourself from dementia

How to protect your brain from dementia

This is not a simple question and there isn’t just one answer. Dementia is a term used to describe symptoms from a number of different illnesses, so different forms of dementia may require alternative approaches. However an article about how Jessica Langbaum keeps her brain young makes some points that we all can learn from. Jessica is the Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, so she knows a thing or two about reducing the risk of developing dementia.

There is an enduring belief that activities such as Sudoku or app based brain training  can offer some benefit is the battle against neurodegeneration. But Dr Langbaum makes the point that any exercise as narrow in scope as single task brain training is probably too limited to be of significant benefit. So that while Soduko for example, might help to keep the parts of the brain linked to simple calculations in good working order, this may offer little protection against Alzheimer’s dementia. The presumption is that maintaining large areas of brain function at high levels of performance is likely to keep overall brain health for longer. This idea is often described at the use it or lose it hypothesis, that once we start to scale down the demands on our brain we may unwittingly increase the risks of permanently losing function and structure.

“regular meditators have been observed to have both younger brains and thicker cortex than non-meditators”

The use it or lose it approach isn’t an ultimate answer but it does give us some great signposts about how to maintain brain health. I have often considered that continued use of meditation into middle and old age by Buddhists may be directly linked to the anecdotal evidence suggesting lower rates of dementia in certain groups of meditators. Many long term Buddhists increase their meditation practice in retirement and can frequently be found working for a range of good causes in voluntary and paid capacities, even at advanced ages. There is research that suggests spiritual practice per se might have a preservative effect on cognitive function but I think we must also consider the more direct influence of meditation methods on the regular renewal of brain function and structure.

adult antique architecture art

Many well established Buddhist meditation practices such as tonglen have been designed as mind training systems. Their original goal was almost certainly not to reduce the risks of dementia, but they have long been associated with increasing wisdom, clarity and compassion. From the neuroscience point of view this means the methods are linked to activity in several of the most important brain networks, such as those connected to empathy, memory, attention, visualization and planning. This is specifically why Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) has been developed with reference to reliable traditional methods and is also supported with research from neuroimaging and cognitive psychology.

The best advice we can offer to reduce your risks of developing dementia is to,

  • start early, cognitive decline begins in our late 20s
  • stop smoking
  • keep your brain as active as possible for as long as possible
  • stay socially engaged
  • challenge yourself
  • stay physically active
  • watch your diet
  • try forms of brain training able to keep a range of brain structures firing

 

Notes:

Photo of girl on swing by Artem Bali on Pexels.com, photo of Buddha statue by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com