Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Real Deal #6: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime

"Participants were instructed to relax with their eyes closed, focus on their breathing, and acknowledge and release any random thoughts that might arise. Then they had the option of receiving nine 30-minute meditation training sessions over the next five weeks. When they were tested a second time, their neural activation patterns had undergone a striking leftward shift in frontal asymmetry — even when their practice and training averaged only 5 to 16 minutes a day."

THE INTRODUCTION



THE EVIDENCE

Business Insider:
1. Meditation can help you deal with stress and negative emotions.
Multiple studies have shown that meditation can help reduce levels of depression and anxiety, along with helping people tolerate pain better. The researchers conclude that mindfulness meditation in particular might help people deal with psychological stress, though they say that more research is needed into how meditation might help lead to positive mental health (beyond reducing effects of negative stresses).

A new study in the journal Health Psychology shows an association between increased mindfulness and decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. For the study, 57 people spent three months in a meditation retreat, where they were taught mindful breathing, observation skills, and cultivation of "positive" mental states like compassion.

"This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale," study researcher Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain, said in a statement.

This study joins a whole host of other research showing mindfulness meditation's stress-busting effects. For example, a 2007 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that going through integrative body-mind training (a type of meditation training) helped to lessen the body's release of cortisol and lower anxiety and fatigue levels in college students.

2. Raising stress-resilience leads to decreased inflammatory markers.
Now new research could help explain that link between mind and body, with a study showing that stressed-out adults who practiced mindfulness meditation not only had their brain connectivity altered, they also had reduced levels of a key inflammation biomarker, known as Interleukin-6, four months later. That's important because, in high doses, Interleukin-6 has been linked to inflammation-related diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, and autoimmune conditions. 

3. At the same time, meditation could boost positive skills like memory and awareness.
Research shows that meditators have unique brains with well-developed areas that might be connected to the mastery of awareness and emotional control. While it's possible that people with such brains might be more likely to meditate in the first place, other research does show that after completing a meditation program there are changes in participants' brains that are connected to memory, self-awareness, and perspective.

4. Meditating for years is associated with brain changes that help you get along with others.
Buddhist monks and other long term meditation practitioners show much more developed brain regions associated with empathy, though the reasons for that are likely complex. Researchers have seen that meditation can also change brain waves, leading to higher levels of alpha brain waves — which are generally associated with a state of wakeful relaxation. This can help reduce negative moods and feelings including anger, tension, and sadness. And a 2008 study in the Journal of American College Health showed that meditation could reduce stress and boost forgiveness.

5. It doesn't take long to see meditation's benefits — just weeks can change your brain.
Several studies show that after an eight-week meditation program, participants had denser brain tissue in areas connected to learning, emotion regulation, and memory processing. Additionally, they showed decreased amounts of grey matter in parts of the amygdala, a brain area connected to fear and stress. And it's part of a growing body of research out there - a separate group of Italian scientists published in PLOS ONE a few weeks ago also showed that mindfulness training can change the structure of our brains.

In a study published in Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, researchers write that in general, people who stimulate an area of the brain repeatedly (generally by learning a skill) show an increase in grey matter, while not using an area of the brain decreases grey matter in that area. They write that in this case, participants who reduced their stress response the most were the ones that showed the biggest decrease in grey matter in this area of the brain.

6. The benefits of meditation extend to other parts of your body too, including your heart.
Mindfulness training has been connected to decreased blood pressure and a more variable heart rate — which is a good thing, meaning your body can better regulate blood flow depending on how much oxygen you need at the time. Researchers (and the American Heart Association) say a likely mechanism for this is that meditation could reduce the levels of stress hormones that can cause inflammation and other physical problems.


7. There are also signs that meditation can help boost your immune system — or at least help ward off the flu.
In a study, researchers took two groups of people and had one group complete an eight week meditation course. At the end of the eight weeks, the people in the meditation group showed increased left-side brain activity. At that point, the researchers injected both groups with the flu vaccine. The meditators had a stronger immune response (their bodies produced more flu-fighting antibodies), and the higher the level of left-brain activity in general, the greater the immune response.

8. Meditation may help prevent genetic damage.
One study showed that cancer survivors who completed a meditation program showed increased telomere length — telomeres are protein complexes that protect our genes, and shortened telomeres have been linked to various diseases. Researchers say that the possible mechanism for this is that reducing stress could help certain enzymes that lengthen telomeres, though more research in more diverse populations is needed.


THE VERDICT

Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way.

Helped in part by that NIH money, researchers have developed secularized -- or non-religious -- practices such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and reported a range of health effects from lowering blood pressure and boosting immune responses to warding off depression.

If sitting in a room full of people chanting the syllable "om" sounds a little too New Agey for your taste, here's some good news: There's a simple, practical alternative that can give you some of the same health benefits as yoga or meditation. It's forgiveness.

Since the concept was first studied in the 1980s, medical organizations including the American Psychology Association and the Mayo Clinic have embraced the idea forgiveness as a legitimate health-improvement tool. And decades of research have linked the regular practice of forgiving those who've wronged us with better overall heart health, less psychological stress, improved physical ability, and longer life. In a recent study, people asked to remember a time when they recently forgave someone even saw physical barriers around them as less physically daunting than those who recalled a situation where they didn't forgive someone.


Alternatively, you can just watch a cat video.

More information:
» Zen Habits: How to Meditate Daily
» Scientific American: "Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime"
» Business Insider: Forgiveness Relieves Stress and Clears the Mind
» Harvard Study: Gray-Matter Density Increased in Hippocampus and Decreased in Amygdala
» The Atlantic: Schools That Teach Kids to Meditate
» New York Times: The Power of Concentration in the Brain
» Lifehacker: A No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation
» NPR: "Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever"
» HealthDay: "Multitasking and Stress"

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