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How Meditation Reshapes your Brain

The Mind & Life Institute, reports Andrea Miller , explores the intersection of ancient meditative disciplines and modern science.There is no contradiction between science and spirituality be- cause “each gives us valuable insights into the other,” says his holiness the dalai Lama. “With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, reli- gion and spirituality have a greater role to play by reminding us of our humanity.”
The Mind & Life Institute, founded by the dalai Lama, entrepreneur Adam engle, and the late neuroscien- tist and philosopher francisco Varela, is a pioneering nonprofit organiza- tion that brings together scientists and contemplatives for the purpose of understanding the nature of reali- ty, and ultimately creating a healthier, more balanced society.
The first Mind & Life conference was held in 1987 in dharamsala, India. It was structured as a five-day dialogue between Buddhists and specialists in cognitive sciences, and was attended by the dalai Lama, six scientists, two interpreters, and a few observers. since then, Mind and Life has convened twenty-two conferences, some by invitation only, others large public events. About three thousand people participated in the 2005 confer- ence in Washington, d.C., which focused on the scientific and clinical applications of meditation.
In addition to its landmark conferences, Mind & Life has research initiatives. notable among them is the Mind and Life summer Research Institute (MLsRI), an annual weeklong program held at the garrison Institute in garrison, new York. At once a retreat and a scientific conference, MLsRI encourages collaboration among behavioral scientists, neuroscientists, biomedical researchers, and practitioners and scholars of the contemplative traditions, and features presentations by some of the most progressive thinkers in those fields. since 2004, more than 1,000 faculty and participants have attended through competitive application.
MLSRI’s long-term objective is to advance the training of a new generation of scientists and contemplative scholar–practitioners. Research fellows participating in the summer conference have the opportunity to present studies they’ve conducted, and, after- ward, may apply for the Mind & Life francisco J. Varela Research Awards. so far, Mind & Life has distributed $1,175,000 dollars in funding to support emerging scientists. The research areas of re- cipients have included mindful awareness practices for preschool children to improve attention and emotion regulation; the ef- fects of mind–body interventions in supportive care for people with cancer; and mindfulness training as both a way of treating drug addicts and investigating the mechanisms involved in addiction.
The theme of Mind & Life’s 2011 summer Research Institute, being held at garrison from June 12 to 18, is “new frontiers in the Contemplative sciences.” The focus is on unresolved challenges for the advancement of contemplative neuroscience, contem- plative clinical science, and contemplative studies in light of the progress made since MLsRI’s inception. ♦
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Germany, Britta hölzel, who also found additional regions, hid- den more deeply within the brain, that had increased gray matter density in meditators. gray matter is the part of the brain that holds most of the actual brain cells; its increased density may re- flect an increase in connectivity between the cells. hölzel, who is a meditation practitioner as well as a researcher, now works with Lazar in Boston. The regions that hölzel and Lazar identified are areas that are associated with the kinds of psychological and be- havioral changes reported by meditators for millennia.
One of these regions allows us to shift perspective, an ability that supports a variety of skills and behaviors, including empathy (when we take the perspective of another) and the management of emotional upheavals (when we step out of our reactivity). This is completely in keeping with what actually happens during mindful- ness practice. The shift of perspective from automatic-pilot reactiv- ity to a more aware and observant witness is a central component of meditation training. Over and over, you practice shifting from a dreamy nonawareness into the vividness of the present moment. Lazar and hölzel have also recently reported that the region of the brain most associated with emotional reactivity and fear—the amygdala—has decreased gray matter density in meditators who experience less stress. The most surprising find- ing was that both of these types of structural brain changes were increased attention.
Another area of recent research on the effects of meditation deals with the role of meditation in enhancing attentional performance. Whether our practice focuses on the breath, a sound, or a thought (for instance, a repeated phrase or a visualized image), attention is always central to meditation. That may seem ironic, because there is nothing like a long meditation session to demonstrate how difficult it is to control the attention. Countless distractions arise, seemingly out of nowhere, and hijack our awareness despite our best intentions. especially if you are relatively new to medita- tion, you might think your practice is actually making you more distracted. Research, however, has shown that the distractions are actually less common, but that with practice you are more likely to notice them because your attention works better. You notice more of everything, including wandering and distractedness. Labora- tory testing can measure exactly how the mind becomes stronger with practice, and it demonstrates significant improvements over a relatively brief period of time.
Amishi Jha is a pioneer in this area of investigation. she has applied sophisticated computer-based testing to measure atten- tional performance in meditators. Jha performed this type of test- ing on a group of medical and nursing students at the university of pennsylvania in philadelphia before and after an eight-week mindfulness-based training course. The class was designed to teach students to use meditation to manage stress, enhance com- munication, and cultivate empathy. (I also worked on this research and designed and taught the meditation course.)

After only eight weeks of training, testing revealed that the stu- dents who were taught to meditate could intentionally direct and focus their attention more quickly than a matched group of un- trained students. Another study used similar tests to investigate the effects of a monthlong intensive group meditation retreat at shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. These participants had considerably more practice experience than the students, and practiced for eight to ten hours each day during the retreat.
Interestingly, the more experienced retreat participants did not demonstrate the increase in capacity to direct and fo- cus attention that was seen in the novice meditators; they were pretty good at that when the retreat started. Instead, the retreat participants had a change in the nature of their atten- tion. Their awareness became much more open and alert. This finding seems to describe the transition from focused mind- fulness to broader and deeper insight and awareness described in traditional meditation teachings. As expected, the retreat participants also had substantially less mental wandering, and more insight into wandering and distraction when it occurred.
Other testing from Jha’s lab has demonstrated that meditation improves working (or short-term) memory as well as the ability to resist distraction. This has very significant implications for im- proving our ability to accomplish our goals in everyday life. she has found that even very short periods of regular practice, as little as twelve minutes a day, are associated with significant improve- ments in working memory. More practice is associated with better results, including both improved accuracy and reduced wandering.
 
A Different Experience of Self 
Another recent stream of research on meditation has explored the way that practice affects the experience of the self. One recent set of reports from the university of Toronto explores the way medi- tation affects the way we construct a self out of our experience and the relationship between the narration we use to create a self and our direct moment-to-moment experience. Two distinct neural networks in different parts of the brain contribute to our experi- ence of a “self.” Activity in one region is associated with a descrip- tive narrative: thoughts about what is happening and how we are. The other region is associated with a more direct experience of sensation and emotion in the present moment.
The two areas are linked so that activity in the “present- moment” awareness region activates the storytelling region. so a shift away from more direct sensory awareness into thinking is not just random; it is literally built into the nervous system. This might explain why the experience of nonconceptual mindfulness and awareness is often so fleeting. A moment of nonthought jump-

starts the storytelling areas of the brain. In the study, participants were asked to employ different types of focus, cor- responding to the two distinct modes of self-reference. “narrative focus” calls for elaborating mental constructs within our minds, weaving a story as it were, which reduces attention toward sensory objects available in our immediate experience. By contrast, “experiential focus” calls for inhibiting our elaboration on any given mental event in favor of broadly attend- ing to the objects in our experience and “canvassing thoughts, feelings, and physi- cal sensations without selecting any one sensory object.” narrative focus is associated with ruminative thoughts about the self, while experiential focus avoids rumination. It disengages the brain networks that lead to self-referential story-making. The re- searchers noted that while a focus that cen- ters on experience in the present includes a strong component of paying attention to bodily sensations, meditation practice is associated with developing moment-to- moment awareness of all available stimuli. Accordingly, when participants were in- structed to maintain an experiential focus, they were encouraged to include “internal thoughts, emotions, and external sensory events, in addition to bodily sensations.” A mindfulness-trained group was compared with a novice group in how they performed in working with these different types of focus and, by extension, the two different neural regions: the one associated with story-making about the self and the other associated with immediate experience.
The Toronto group demonstrated that meditation practice enhances the ability to disconnect these two regions and engage more robustly in experiential focus. As a result, the likelihood that an experience of present-moment awareness will auto- matically be followed by a self-centered monologue is reduced. even the habitual patterns that are deeply built into the body can be changed with practice. norman farb, the lead investigator of the study, says that the work demonstrates how “mindful- ness changes the very ground of the way that we experience the self.” ♦

Researcher and neuroscientist at Harvard, Sara Lazar, have found that your brain structure changes noticeably after less than 8 weeks of meditation. They saw no changes in the control group. Meditation has been found to increase the brain size – larger volumes of grey matter specifically – in the right orbito-frontal cortex, left temporal gyrus and significantly larger volumes in the right hippocampus. These areas are especially important in tasks associated with attention, emotional regulation and mental flexibility. Meditation has also been found to decrease the size of the amygdala. The amygdala is associated with fear and stress responses.
In a research paper by Eileen Luders, et al, it was said that :
The_Energy_Flow_of_Meditation_by_giorjoe“ Both orbito-frontal and hippocampal regions have been implicated in emotional regulation and response control. Thus, larger volumes in these regions might account for meditators’ singular abilities and habits to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.”
The hippocampus is essential in forming long-term memories, by consolidating short-term memories. If you’re not happy with your memory, there is a simple remedy. Sit down and let go of thoughts.
 
References:
http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~britta/SUN_July11_Baime.pdf
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811909000044
 
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