"Do you have family, friends, colleagues who say they just can't meditate? Mind and Life's resident neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp explores the popular misconceptions surrounding meditation, and the reasons to keep trying.
...If you do a quick online image search on meditation, what you’ll find is a popular depiction: people sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, seemingly serene and free of thoughts, some even with beams of light shooting out of their heads. You need only ask someone who meditates regularly to know that this image is a far cry from the reality of meditation. Especially for beginners.
On the outside, the body may be calm (and even that can take quite some time to achieve), but on the inside, the mind is often a messy jumble of thoughts and emotions. That’s normal. In fact, while meditation means many things to many people, from my perspective, it is not about achieving a blissed out, “empty” state of mind. Cessation of thinking is possible (or so I hear), but I see this as more of a side effect, if and when it ever occurs. To me, meditation is actually a process—one of investigating your own mind and changing the way you relate to your thoughts."
"MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.
This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.
But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally intended effect — the reduction of suffering — empirically demonstrable?"
A judge has refused to block yoga from being taught in a California school district, dismissing a claim by a small group of parents who want to end the classes because they think yoga promotes Hinduism.
Judge John Meyer said the modern practice of yoga in the US "is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon", rejecting claims made by a group of parents who believe the practice is "inherently religious".
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
This article is not specifically about contemplative science research (although the school district intervention was part of a study of the health benefits of yoga). However, the question of whether yoga is an inherently religious practice is relevant to all researchers studying the practice, for political and pragmatic reasons as well as theoretical ones. Furthermore, the objections to yoga raised by the petitioners are equally applicable to other so-called secularized practices like mindfulness meditation.
My impression and guess is that the vast majority of contemplative researchers balked at this legal case and/or shook their heads in dismay. Nonetheless, having thoughtful and compelling arguments to counter the anxiety of the petitioning parents (school boards, foundations, government funding agencies, etc.) is appropriate and responsible. Only talking amongst ourselves insulates us from the perspective of various skeptical audiences, and potentially blinds us to underlying assumptions that may indeed be religious or metaphysically-speculative in nature. Many of us struggle, as is, with the appropriateness of ethical precepts in meditation instruction - and we are already persuaded that the practice is a valuable one. Why shouldn't people less familiar question the secularity of what we do? Regardless of the particulars in this case, it's an important conversation to keep having.
ABSTRACT: Major depressive disorder has been associated with reduced leukocyte telomere length (LTL). It is not known, however, whether psychosocial and behavioral protective factors moderate this association. In the current study, we examine whether multisystem resiliency – defined by healthy emotion regulation, strong social connections, and health behaviors (sleep and exercise) – predicts LTL and mitigates previously demonstrated associations between depression diagnosis and LTL. LTL was measured, using a quantitative PCR assay, in 954 patients with stable cardiovascular disease in the Heart and Soul Study. In a fully adjusted model, high multisystem resiliency predicted longer LTL (b = 80.00, se = 27.17, p = .003), whereas each individual factor did not. Multisystem resiliency significantly moderated the MDD-LTL association (p = .02). Specifically, MDD was significantly related to LTL at 1 SD below the mean of multisystem resiliency (b= -142.86, SE = 56.46, p = .01), but not at 1 SD above the mean of the profile (b = 49.07, se = 74.51, p =.51). This study suggests that MDD associations with biological outcomes should be examined within a psychosocial-behavioral context, because this context shapes the nature of the direct relationship. Further research should explore the cognitive, neural, and other physiological pathways through which multisystem resiliency may confer biological benefit.
Puterman, E. et al. (in press). Multisystem Resiliency Moderates the Major Depression-Telomere Length Association: Findings from the Heart and Soul Study. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2013.05.008
Photo credit: Figure 1. from accepted manuscript.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
"Multisystem resiliency" (as characterized by healthy behaviors, social support, and emotion regulation skill) seems like a framework worth applying in contemplative science research as well.
"When you hear Alzheimer's, you probably think of memory loss, language problems, and general confusion. These cognitive symptoms of the degenerative brain disease are devastating, and so it makes sense that they get the most attention in the media and scientific community.
Of course, the disease has emotional consequences, too. Some of these aren’t the least bit surprising: Depression, irritability, and agitation are expected as memory wanes and daily life becomes more difficult.
But Alzheimer’s brings other kinds of emotional changes that aren’t as easily explained, as I learned from a study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers found for the first time that individuals with Alzheimer’s show a high level of ‘emotional contagion’, the unconscious ability to mimic another person’s emotions. And as the disease progresses, destroying more brain cells and cognitive skills, this emotional empathy gets stronger, allowing patients to become more sensitive — and more vulnerable — to the feelings, words, and behaviors of other people."
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
As with other aspects of cognition, the abnormal or impaired processing of patient populations helps illuminate the neural mechanisms underlying the healthy function of a cognitive skill in non-patient populations. Evidence is accumulating that meditation practice increases pro-social capacities like empathy and compassion. Comparing the development of empathy as a result of degenerative disease with its development as a result of specific practices should shed light on the critical mechanisms of change in each.
ABSTRACT: Recent advances in brain imaging have improved the measure of neural processes related to perceptual, cognitive and affective functions, yet the relation between brain activity and subjective experience remains poorly characterized. In part, it is a challenge to obtain reliable accounts of participant's experience in such studies. Here we addressed this limitation by utilizing experienced meditators who are expert in introspection. We tested a novel method to link objective and subjective data, using real-time fMRI (rt-fMRI) to provide participants with feedback of their own brain activity during an ongoing task. We provided real-time feedback during a focused attention task from the posterior cingulate cortex, a hub of the default mode network shown to be activated during mind-wandering and deactivated during meditation. In a first experiment, both meditators and non-meditators reported significant correspondence between the feedback graph and their subjective experience of focused attention and mind-wandering. When instructed to volitionally decrease the feedback graph, meditators, but not non-meditators, showed significant deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex. We were able to replicate these results in a separate group of meditators using a novel step-wise rt-fMRI discovery protocol in which participants were not provided with prior knowledge of the expected relationship between their experience and the feedback graph (i.e., focused attention versus mind-wandering). These findings support the feasibility of using rt-fMRI to link objective measures of brain activity with reports of ongoing subjective experience in cognitive neuroscience research, and demonstrate the generalization of expertise in introspective awareness to novel contexts.
Garrison, KA et al. (in press). Real-time fMRI links subjective experience with brain activity during focused attention. NeuroImage. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.05.030
Dr. Brewer gives an overview of the study in layman's terms here:
http://purehealth100.blogspot.com/2013/05/dr-judson-brewer-how-to-get-out-of-your.html (photo credit from this blogpost).
Ever since hearing Judson Brewer present results from this study at last year's International Symposium on Contemplative Science, I have eagerly awaited its publication. The use of real-time neural feedback during fMRI in order to facilitate meditation training is of tremendous theoretical value. fMRI is not practical as a widely available training tool, but this kind of data should significantly enhance our understanding of the mechanisms by which we acquire and sustain meditation states. In turn, this knowledge can be used to hone more accessible forms of neurofeedback for meditators (e.g. EEG).
This kind of research is also of interest to cognitive neuroscientists more widely. By so compellingly linking subjective mental states with ongoing neural activity, Garrison and colleagues elegantly demonstrate the feasibility and utility of a neurophenomonology approach.
For background on the method, two reviews just came out:
Until now, little was scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion — the emotional state of caring for people who are suffering in a way that motivates altruistic behavior.
A new study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. The report, recently published online in the journal Psychological Science, is the first to investigate whether training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.
"Our fundamental question was, 'Can compassion be trained and learned in adults? Can we become more caring if we practice that mindset?'" says Helen Weng, a graduate student in clinical psychology and lead author of the paper. "Our evidence points to yes."
..."It's kind of like weight training," Weng says. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion 'muscle' and respond to others' suffering with care and a desire to help."
Compassion training was compared to a control group that learned cognitive reappraisal, a technique where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. Both groups listened to guided audio instructions over the Internet for 30 minutes per day for two weeks. "We wanted to investigate whether people could begin to change their emotional habits in a relatively short period of time," says Weng.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
I am linking to this write-up of Weng's compassion study again because a) it's a clear summary for those uninterested in reading the full research article or finding it behind a paywall and b) because the compassion training and cognitive re-appraisal training are available for free download from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds' website (http://investigatinghealthyminds.org/compassion.html).
Weng and colleagues observed neural changes associated with more altruistic behavior after 30 minutes of daily compassion meditation - after only two weeks of practice. If you've never tried compassion meditations or are looking for a fresh incentive, here you go.
Methods sections of meditation papers generally do not provide sufficient detail to get a clear sense of exactly what kind of meditation practice participants were asked to do, let alone to replicate the meditation instructions. Making their meditation trainings easily available is good for interested readers, and good for science, too.
ABSTRACT: Compassion is a key motivator of altruistic behavior, but little is known about individuals’ capacity to cultivate compassion through training. We examined whether compassion may be systematically trained by testing whether (a) short-term compassion training increases altruistic behavior and (b) individual differences in altruism are associated with training-induced changes in neural responses to suffering. In healthy adults, we found that compassion training increased altruistic redistribution of funds to a victim encountered outside of the training context. Furthermore, increased altruistic behavior after compassion training was associated with altered activation in brain regions implicated in social cognition and emotion regulation, including the inferior parietal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and in DLPFC connectivity with the nucleus accumbens. These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.
Weng, H.Y. et al. (in press). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797612469537
Picture credit: Doug Savage, Savage Chickens.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
University of Wisconsin-Madison does more standards-setting work. Most notably, they used an active control group of comparable quality and rigor and in their analyses linked behavior outside the scanner to neural activity during a different task. Bonus: the lead author, Helen Weng, is a graduate student.
"Consider the anger that arises in a heated argument with your romantic partner, or the dreadful anxious anticipation in the dentist's waiting room prior to a root canal procedure. Our daily lives are densely populated with events that make us emotional. Luckily, however, we developed numerous ways to control or regulate our emotions in order to adapt (Gross, 2007;Koole, 2009 for reviews). A central remaining challenge to explain adaptation, involves understanding how individuals choose between the different emotion regulation strategies in order to fit with differing situational demands. Specifically, when is the aforementioned romantic partner or dental patient more likely to “put aside” or disengage from the emotional situation, and when are they more likely to “make sense” or engage with their emotional reactions?
In this opinion article we concentrate on the intersection between affective science and decision making as manifested in emotion regulation choice, defined as the act of making an autonomous choice between different regulation strategies that are available in a particular context."
Sheppes, G. & Levin, Z. (in press). Emotion regulation choice: Selecting between cognitive regulation strategies to control emotion. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00179
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
A valuable, clear read for anyone aiming to translate Buddhist concepts into language familiar to cognitive psychologists (or vice verse). The article focuses on deliberate regulatory choices at early and late stages of emotion processing - i.e. distraction, which entails disengaging attention from emotional information versus reappraisal, which involves intentional engagement with emotional information coupled with reinterpretation of its meaning. This same contrast is of central relevance and familiarity to meditators, although the authors do not reference this particular context. Their conclusion, however, could just as well have been a segue to discussing emotion regulation in meditators: "Central factors such as prior practice with choosing regulation strategies in different situations, strong motivational forces to perform one strategy over another and a general central executive ability that allows efficient information processing may all influence regulatory choices."
A clever film adaptation of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College went viral this week (http://www.theglossary.com/). The filmmakers, known as The Glossary, comment, ”the resulting speech didn’t become widely known until 3 years later, after his tragic death. It is, without a doubt, some of the best life advice we’ve ever come across, and perhaps the most simple and elegant explanation of the real value of education.” The video is an abridged version of the full speech, which The Wall Street Journal, among others, published after his death in 2008 (click the fish pic for the full text - well worth it). With 2.5 million hits on Youtube in 4 days, the Glossary's film and DFW's words have resonated with a diversity of people, many of whom recognize similar themes from their study of Buddhism and/or meditation.
DFW reflects, for instance, "As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."
Of our treasured, tortured "freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation," he concludes: "This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom."
The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry is a new peer-reviewed, scholarly journal for all those who design, research, teach, and assess contemplative and introspective methods and practices in college and university settings. Contemplative and introspective practices cultivate a critical, first-person focus and create new opportunities for students to engage with course material. TheJournal promotes the understanding, development, and application of these methods in order to serve a vision of higher education as an opportunity for cultivating personal and social awareness and an exploration of meaning, purpose and values.
Decades of clinical research has focused and shed light on the psychology of human suffering. That suffering, as unpleasant as it is, often also has a bright side to which research has paid less attention: compassion. Human suffering is often accompanied by beautiful acts of compassion by others wishing to help relieve it. What is compassion and how is it different from empathy or altruism? Is it learned? What are its psychological and physical benefits? Can it be cultivated?
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
The majority of research on meditation has pertained either to its physiological/clinical benefits or to its impact on attention. Research about its influence on emotion regulation and utility for cultivating pro-social states, like compassion, is now starting to catch up. This APS article is a good, non-technical review of the latter.
"We hear it all the time: Meditation can improve our creative thinking, our energy, stress levels and even our success...
Studies show that meditation is associated with improvement in a variety of psychological areas, including stress, anxiety, addiction, depression, eating disorders and cognitive function, among others. There's also research to suggest that meditation can reduce blood pressure, pain response, stress hormone levels and even cellular health. But what does it actually do to the body?"
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
Meditation is not a panacea, and may be contraindicated in certain populations or contexts. Nonetheless, its demonstrated benefits are diverse and significant. This article doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know, but I like its infographic.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch shares his impressions following a recent weeklong exchange between western scientists and the Tibetan Buddhist monastic community living in exile at Drepung Monastery in southern India:
"What passed between these representatives of two distinct intellectual modes of thinking about the world were facts, data—knowledge. That is, knowledge about the more than two-millennia-old Eastern tradition of investigating the mind from the inside, from an interior, subjective point of view, and the much more recent insights provided by empirical Western ways to probe the brain and its behavior using a third-person, reductionist framework. What the former brings to the table are scores of meditation techniques to develop mindfulness, concentration, insight, serenity, wisdom and, it is hoped, in the end, enlightenment. These revolve around a daily practice of quiet yet alert sitting and letting the mind settle before embarking on a specific program, such as “focused attention” or the objectless practice of generating a state of “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion.” After years of daily contemplative exercise—nothing comes easily in meditation—practitioners can achieve considerable control over their mind.
Twelve years of schooling, four years of college and an even longer time spent in advanced graduate training fail to familiarize our future doctors, soldiers, engineers, scientists, accountants and politicians with such techniques..And this is to our loss!"
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
A little light reading for a Friday afternoon as I jump back in after a summer break. I'm gathering new research to incorporate in my fall Science of Meditation course - more posts to follow! Thanks for reading.
The International Symposium for Contemplative Studies brings together leading academics and other interested attendees for presentation, discussion, and collaborative networking in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, clinical science, philosophy, humanities, and education as they relate to investigations of contemplative practice. It will take place October 30-November 2, 2014 at the Marriott Copley Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts. This gathering is convened by the Mind & Life Institute and will be the second biennial symposium. The interdisciplinary meeting will examine new ideas in overlapping fields of contemplative study with the goal of advancing our understanding of the human mind, and how mental training through contemplative practices can lead to reduced suffering, enhanced health and cognitive- emotional functioning, greater happiness, and increased social harmony.
Major speakers will include His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, along with leading scientists, educators, philosophers, and contemplatives. Watch this space for more information, or visit ContemplativeResearch.org for information about the previous International Symposium in Denver, CO.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
After attending the first international symposium, I definitely recommend attending this one!
Want a new job in the contemplative sciences? Have a job that you want to advertise to find the best candidates? Mind and Life introduces its new job board. We get the sense that this will be a much-needed hub for people, so if you could, help us spread the word. The more jobs we post -- and are filled -- the more we fulfill the field at large (say that ten times fast!).
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
Another invaluable resource from the Mind & Life Institute
The Mind and Life Europe Symposium for Contemplative Studies will bring together academics and other interested attendees for presentations, discussions, and collaborative networking in the emerging field of contemplative studies, which includes neuroscience, clinical science, contemplative philosophy and the humanities, contemplative education, economics, and those domains of contemplative practice that relate to and interact with these fields of research and scholarship.
The theme for this first annual meeting in Europe is "Personal and Societal Change from the Contemplative Perspective." The meeting will take place 10-13 October, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Tickets for the 4-day event cost 665.00 € (345.00 € for students).
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
The topics and speaker line-up look interesting, and who doesn't like Berlin? Ticket prices, however, seem unusually steep. The not-for-profit organization's website explains that the price only covers the cost of the event and speakers are not payed honorariums. Nonetheless, I imagine many won't be able to justify the expense. If this meeting is anything like the first such symposium held in the US last April, this seems quite a shame.
Brain Science podcast host, Ginger Campbell, MD, interviews Robert Burton, neurologist and writer on his latest book: "In On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not Robert Burton showed that the feeling of certainty, which is something we all experience, has its origin in brain processes that are both unconscious and inaccessible to consciousness. Now in his new book A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves he extends these ideas to other mental sensations such as our feeling of agency and our sense of causation. The idea that much of what our brain does is not accessible to our conscious awareness is NOT new, but Dr. Burton considers the implications for our understanding of the mind."
Summary of the book from Burton's website:
"A critical look at cutting edge and key assumptions in cognitive science that offers a new way of exploring how our brains generate thought. What if what we consider to be reason-based, deliberative judgment is really the product of involuntary mental sensations? In A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, Dr. Robert Burton takes a close look at the key false assumptions that permeate the field of cognitive science and offers a new way of exploring how our brains generate thought. The essential paradox that drives this cutting-edge theory is that the same mechanisms that prevent understanding the mind also generate a sense that we can attain such understanding. In A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, Burton presents his theory of the "mental sensory system"—a system that generates the main components of consciousness: a sense of self, a sense of choice and free will, and how we make moral decisions.
Bringing together anecdotes, practical thought experiments, and cutting-edge neuroscience to show how these various strands of thought and mental sensations interact, A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind offers a powerful tool for knowing what we can and cannot say about the mind; how to discern good from bad cognitive science studies; and most importantly, how to consider the moral implications of these studies. This is a pathbreaking model for considering the interaction between conscious and unconscious thought." (http://www.rburton.com)
Looks like I just found something to move to the top of my summer reading list. Burton's book seems an ideal companion text for the Science of Meditation course I teach. Although I appreciate the scope and scientific rigor of James Austin's books (Zen and the Brain, Selfless Insight, Meditating Selflessly), and have found them to be useful resources while planning and conceptualizing the course, the writing can be dense for non-scientists with the reported studies running together in their minds. Richard Hanson's The Buddha's Brain and Daniel Siegel's The Mindful Brain, however, feel too pop science light for graduate students (and, personally, I find the ambiguity of the non-technical glosses for nuanced or complex scientific concepts utterly confusing and/or frustrating).
For these reasons, I've organized the course almost exclusively around empircal studies published in top journals, providing the neuroscience background myself along the way. I am thinking to start suggesting Jamie Ward's Student's Guide to Cognitive Neuroscience as a resource/primer for those that want it, but Burton's book sounds like it might be useful for everyone.
For those that also teach in this area (if you're out there!), I'd love to hear what's worked for you.
"There are many roads to greatness, but logging 10,000 hours of practice to help you perfect a skill may not be sufficient.
Based on research suggesting that practice is the essence of genius, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was “the magic number of greatness,” regardless of a person’s natural aptitude. With enough practice, he claimed in his book Outliers, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. It was just a matter of putting in the time.
But in the years since Gladwell first pushed the “10,000-hours rule,” researchers have engaged in a spirited debate over what that rule entails. It’s clear that not just any practice, but only dedicated and intensive honing of skills that counts. And is there magic in that 10,000th hour?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions, and to delve further into how practice leads to mastery, Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and his colleagues decided to study musicians and chess players. It helps that both skills are amenable to such analysis because players can be ranked almost objectively. So in their research, which was published in the journal Intelligence, they reanalyzed data from 14 studies of top chess players and musicians. They found that for musicians, only 30% of the variance in their rankings as performers could be accounted for by how much time they spent practicing. For chess players, practice only accounted for 34% of what determined the rank of a master player.
“We looked at the two most widely studied domains of expertise research: chess and music,” says Hambrick. “It’s clear from this data that deliberate practice doesn’t account for all, nearly all or even most of the variance in performance in chess and music.” Two-thirds of the difference, in fact, was unrelated to practice...."
I am surprised that people apparently commonly believe that practice alone might be sufficient to achieve mastery. Such self-flattery! I can only imagine the logic of such individuals: "Oh, if I only put in the hours, I could be just as good as Tiger Woods/Bobby Fischer/Mathieu Riccard/[Insert whoever is way better than you at something here]." Implication: I could achieve greatness, I just am too busy doing other things.
Let's be realistic. We are not [ahem] born blank slates. Our genetics predispose us to different cognitive, physical, and emotional aptitudes and weaknesses. Great teachers matter. So does having a supportive environment (whatever that may be, as it's likely to vary between individuals and the particular skill in question). 10,000 hours of practice is certainly going to have a significant impact on performance, but it's only one of the key ingredients.
Evidence that practice is necessary, but not sufficient, is not reason for discouragement though. I agree with the author: "So whether you view the data as suggesting that practice is less important because it only accounts for one-third of the variability in proficiency, or more important because it explains more than any other factor discovered so far, is a matter of perspective."
ABSTRACT: Yoga, an increasingly popular discipline among Westerners, is frequently used to improve painful conditions. We investigated possible neuroanatomical underpinnings of the beneficial effects of yoga using sensory testing and magnetic resonance imaging techniques. North American yogis tolerated pain more than twice as long as individually matched controls and had more gray matter (GM) in multiple brain regions. Across subjects, insular GM uniquely correlated with pain tolerance. Insular GM volume in yogis positively correlated with yoga experience, suggesting a causal relationship between yoga and insular size. Yogis also had increased left intrainsular white matter integrity, consistent with a strengthened insular integration of nociceptive input and parasympathetic autonomic regulation. Yogis, as opposed to controls, used cognitive strategies involving parasympathetic activation and interoceptive awareness to tolerate pain, which could have led to use-dependent hypertrophy of insular cortex. Together, these findings suggest that regular and long-term yoga practice improves pain tolerance in typical North Americans by teaching different ways to deal with sensory inputs and the potential emotional reactions attached to those inputs leading to a change in insular brain anatomy and connectivity.
Villemure, C. et al (in press). Insular cortex mediates increased pain tolerance in yoga practitioners. Cerebral Cortex. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht124
It really does sound like an infomercial, doesn’t it? Another gimmicky health ad from Ms. HydroxyCut or Mr. 5-Hour-Energy. But before you roll your eyes, consider this.
It might be true.
Emerging research suggests a relationship between the practice of meditation and genetic changes. Let’s consider the evidence."
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
Aditi Nerurkar, MD, briefly summarizes four recent studies suggesting a causal relationship between meditation practice and changes in gene expression. The data are minimal at this point and connecting the dots between these changes and higher order physiological or psychological outcomes of practice is yet to come. Nonetheless, an exciting new line of research. Hopefully, we will be seeing more studies of this kind in the future.
"What if there were a way to use the internet – and all our web-connected phones and tablets and laptops and games consoles – to foster rather than erode our attention spans, and to replace that sense of edgy distractedness with calm?
This is the question motivating the embryonic movement known variously as "calming technology", "the slow web", "conscious computing" or ([Alex] Pang's preferred term) "contemplative computing". Its members hope that we might be able to perform a sneaky bit of jujitsu on the devices that dominate our lives: to turn the agents of distraction into agents of serenity." Oliver Burkeman, essayist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, investigates.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
I especially liked Burkeman's quote from Australian philosopher Damon Young - "To be diverted isn't simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why." Damon makes an important point here, one that resonates with a frequent conversation topic in meditation communities. The capacity to flexibly orient and steady attention is useless, maybe even harmful, when developed and applied in the absence of wisdom and ethics.
Distinguished contemplative neuroscientist Richie Davidson on well-being: "It is my fervent aspiration that our culture will pay more attention to well-being, will include strategies to promote well-being with our educational curricula and within the healthcare arena, and will include well-being within our definitions of health. These changes would help to promote greater harmony and well-being of the planet."
In this brief blog post, Davidson makes four claims about well-being:
1. Well-being is a skill
2. Well-being is associated with specific patterns of brain activity that influence and are influenced by the body.
3. Equanimity and generoisty both contribute to well-being and are associated with distinct patterns of brain and bodily activity.
4. There is an innate disposition toward well-being and prosocial behavior.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
For the most part, I agree with Davidson's summary here. However, in the final point he offers the following speculation about human inclination for pro-social behavior: "If this [research] indeed continues to be replicated across a wide range of cultures, it would invite the view that we come into the world with an innate preference for good and we obscure that innate propensity over the course of development as we become socialized within our modern culture."
I am not comfortable using language like "good" (nor its implied opposite, "evil") when describing nature, human or otherwise. Nor do I think the data are particularly compelling that we are biologically predisposed to either disposition. Humans, like other animals, are biologically predisposed to adaptive behaviors - actions that promote our survival and the replication of our DNA. As social mammals, these adaptive behaviors often pertain to how we act towards other members of our social group. These behaviors are neither good nor bad and such moral overtones say more about our wishes as people than our knowledge as scientists. Humans can be beastly, and I'd submit this disturbing reality often reflects our innate dispositions just as much as our benevolent behaviors might.
For similar reasons I take issue with the translation of the three kilesas (greed, hatred, delusion) as the three "poisons" or "defilements". I think it is more productive, and accurate, to consider them more neutrally, in terms of, say, biological drives that contribute to afflictive states and/or do not promote well-being (but may nonetheless promote survival and reproduction). It's perfectly appropriate for language and religion scholars to translate them into English as closely as possible to what the Buddha intended. But as contemplative scientists, we need to be more flexible, translating them in ways that are more value neutral and empircally tractable. Conceptualizing the kilesas in terms of attachment, aversion, and ignorance or in terms of approach and avoidance behaviors seems preferable. Evolution does not concern itself with notions of good and evil; humans do. Scientists have a responsibility, at least when speaking as an authority on biology, not to conflate the two.
The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that yoga is one of the top 10 complementary health approaches used among U.S. adults. An estimated 6 percent of adults used yoga for health purposes in the previous 12 months.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a subdivision of the National Institute of Health (NIH), has compiled the following yoga-related resources of interest to consumers, health professionals, scientists, and other researchers:
- General Information
- Research Spotlights
- Ongoing Medical Studies
- Clinical Digests
- Scientific Literature Reviews
The website also features a 17 minute video considering yoga from a scientific perspective.
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
Another great resource for contemplative researchers.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett talks about his 16th book, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” which W.W. Norton is publishing next week...
The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.
The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams.
The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion."
Eileen Cardillo's insight:
Self as a "center of narrative gravity" and convenient fiction? I'm listening. Anattā on my mind, looking forward to this book from the thinker that almost inspired me to chase down a philosophy degree after becoming a scientist (One of my thesis advisors, Kim Plunkett, dissuaded me with the admonition that to do so would be self-indulgent at that point. Kim's advice never having steered me wrong, I pursued a postdoc instead...and made no time at all to read philosophy on my own. Nine years later and, finally!, finding time).
Sharing your scoops to your social media accounts is a must to distribute your curated content. Not only will it drive traffic and leads through your content, but it will help show your expertise with your followers.
How to integrate my topics' content to my website?
Integrating your curated content to your website or blog will allow you to increase your website visitors’ engagement, boost SEO and acquire new visitors. By redirecting your social media traffic to your website, Scoop.it will also help you generate more qualified traffic and leads from your curation work.
Distributing your curated content through a newsletter is a great way to nurture and engage your email subscribers will developing your traffic and visibility.
Creating engaging newsletters with your curated content is really easy.