Health: Mental exercise like meditation can literally change our minds
By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun, September 25, 2009
Richard Davidson, one of the world’s top brain scientists, believes mental exercise, specifically meditation, can literally change our minds. “Our data shows mental practice can induce long-lasting changes in the brain,” said Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His startling scientific research on the impact of meditation on brain function has implications that go beyond the physical.
Buddhist monks believe mental attributes and positive emotions such as compassion, loving kindness and empathy are skills that can be cultivated. Science is beginning to back that up. Davidson started meditating in 1974, when he was a Phd student at Harvard. Back then, meditation was seen as a somewhat faddish eastern import right up there with the dashiki and the Jesus sandal. “The culture at the time was not so receptive,” Davidson said, “nor were the scientific methods so well-developed.” It was when he met the Dalai Lama in 1992 that he “decided to come out of the closet with my interest in meditation.”
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He became excited about the possibility of applying rigorous scientific study to the practice of meditation.
“I made a commitment to do my best to take the tools we have so well honed in studying fear and anxiety and apply them to kindness and compassion.” Davidson began an ongoing study of the brains of Buddhist monks, the so-called “Olympians” of meditation, each of whom had accomplished at least 10,000 hours of meditation.
“The work was framed within the research on neuro-plasticity, the understanding that the brain is built to change in response to experience,” Davidson said. Just as an injured brain can adapt by mapping out new neuron pathways to accomplish tasks, “brain circuits [for] regulation of emotion and attention are malleable by the environment and are potential targets of training,” he said.
Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery, Davidson showed that compassion meditation, even in short-term practitioners, induced significant changes in patterns of functional activity in the brain. “The most important thing is hard-nosed evidence,” Davidson said. “We were able to measure the results through experiments we did.” Davidson, who has published his findings on meditation in the world’s most prestigious science journals, believes that even the so-called “happiness set-point” of a person’s brain can be altered for the better. The potential applications include non-pharmacological interventions or supplemental treatment for depression, as well as behavioural and stress-related issues. Davidson hopes to convince educators to include meditation training as part of core curriculum in Grades K-12. “It’s very clear that disruptive behaviour, bullying, ADD dramatically affect learning and have led to progressive declines in North American institutes,” he said.
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, also began meditating while in college and is a proponent of mindfulness, a form of secular meditation. Goleman said in an interview: “Mindfulness seems to strengthen an array of neurons in the left prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the stress reaction driven by the amygdala, that triggers the cascade of stress hormones in the fight or flight response.” Regular practice is key. “It’s exactly like building up a muscle. What you begin to notice as you strengthen it is the absence of the negative state.”
By cultivating the mindfulness muscle, Goleman believes we will develop greater emotional intelligence. We can become more self-aware, better at handling distressing emotions, and more empathetic, a combination that creates greater social effectiveness. “Meditation is both calming and focusing, which are two essential elements for well-being,” Goleman said.
Dr. Adrianne Ross is a Vancouver mindfulness and meditation leader who first turned to the practice when she experienced a serious illness. She has practiced meditation in different forms for more than 30 years, studied with mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, and taught the practice for more than a decade. “The mindfulness program is for people who aren’t sure they’re interested in Buddhism, but want to learn to meditate,” Ross said. “It helps you to be able to live more fully and more effectively, so you’re causing less harm to yourself and the people around you and you’re happier.” Mindfulness can be practised while driving, or standing in line at the bank, Ross said, — but it is not a panacea.
“Some people have depression that comes back. Some of us have the chemistry or life experience that make [difficult] thoughts come, but it can help us work with the thoughts,” Ross said. “Some people have severe illness. It won’t make the illness go away, but helps them live a full life. Ross has seen patients become happier and more accepting, in spite of difficult circumstances.
It begins with “learning to be with the breath,” Ross said. Bringing focus to the breath and body. You don’t try to eliminate your thoughts, but focus with “loving kindness” and watch your habitual thoughts — the ones that might hijack you emotionally. “You learn to recognize my mind is really spinning right now, you’re aware of what it’s doing, you’re not lost in what’s happening. Then if your mind is not going in a useful direction you have a choice.”
Davidson, who still meditates regularly, said he doesn’t measure his own brain systematically. He doesn’t have to. “My practice has given me a kind of equanimity and balance,” he said. “It may be a period of time, but by 2050 I believe mental exercise will be understood as being as important as physical exercise.”
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