Tag Archives: brain

Rav Todot, Scientific American (Mind)

Magazines, sweet sweet bastions of literacy.  How you unveil niche zeitgeists, how you motivate innovation, how you tell the untold stories.  Well, not all of you, of course.  Most racks are dominated by the glossy consumerist lobotomy movement.  It takes a good dig to find print gems like Scientific American, The Economist, Mother Jones, The Atlantic . . .

And with the print world itself in a questionable state, I imagine there will soon be just a few tactile symbols of our page-turning days left.  Actual magazines and books will one day be the 78’s and 45’s of the literary world.

I still revel in the thrill of getting my subscription magazines delivered to my apartment (and pray my neighbors won’t steal them!).  Getting a Scientific American Mind in the mail means a guaranteed interesting subway ride to work that day.  And for that, today, I’m grateful!


From the brilliant website of the aforementioned magazine …


The Neuroscience Lessons of Freestyle Rap

What brain scans of rap artists reveal about creativity—and what they do not

By Arne Dietrich  | Tuesday, December 18, 2012

singing into a microphone Flow state Image: iStock/Richard Simpson

Even for the wilderness of human thinking, creative ideas seem to be deliberately designed to defy empirical enquiry. There is something elusive and mystical, perhaps even sacred, about them. So what is a neuroscientist to do if she wants to study inspiration in the lab, under tightly controlled conditions? Clearly, she cannot simply take volunteers, shove them into the nearest brain scanner and tell them: now, please be creative! That’s why most paying members of the Society for Neuroscience find the prospect of studying creativity akin to trying to nail jelly to the wall. But don’t forget: big, intractable problems in science have always been more of a calling.

Previous attempts to tighten the screws on this vexed problem have, even if you allow for some breathers, turned out to be fizzers. Take the gold standard of catching creativity in flagrante: the infamous Alternative Uses Test. In hindsight, it is easy to see that having a test subject list as many alternative uses of some common object was never going to yield much real-world validity. Think about it. Could we really expect a testing instrument that asks you to imagine alternative uses of a safety pin to tell an Einstein from a certified public accountant? After a few decades of this kind of myopic research, the cul-de-sac we stumbled into is plain for everyone to see. While much ink has been spilled over creativity from social, psychological, and historical perspectives, filling shelves of books and articles, we know next to nothing about the mechanisms, cognitive or neural, that give rise to creativity.

It is high time, then, that neuroscientists become more creative about creativity. A new paper by Liu and his colleagues is a welcome example of just that. It joins what is still a slow trickle of studies taking a fresh stab at creativity. In this case, the scientists picked freestyle rap as their “task,” a choice both cunning and clever. The entanglement of rap and neuroscience – however irrelevant to the study’s interesting results – strikes all the right chords for coverage in the tweet-sized attention span of modern news reporting. The next thing in tow, given the drift of things, is surely an MRI scan showing the brain activity of experts playing Fruit Ninja! One only hopes that in all the brouhaha about the hip-hop brain some relevant characteristics of this behavioral measure are not lost. Like free jazz improvisation, freestyle rap lends itself nicely to creative expression in the lab because it can be prompted – in this case by asking rappers to improvise rhymes and lyrical cadences to an 8-bar beat. What’s more, it can easily be contrasted with an appropriate control condition – a set of lyrics already committed to memory and performed to the same beat. The spontaneous generation of freestyle performance, a common genre of artistic expression, taps into a flow state and for this special state of consciousness we do seem to understand some of the underlying neurocognitive mechanism.

So what did we learn in this experiment? Quite a bit, as it happens. The key finding is the dissociation of two prefrontal areas during spontaneous composition of artistic content. The medial prefrontal cortex showed increased activity, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – DLPFC for short – showed decreased activity. While the former has been in the news lately for its association with various aspects of social cognition – self-perception, self-knowledge, moral decisions, etc. – the DLPFC has long been known to mediate the so-called higher mental functions: executive attention, working memory, willed action and cognitive control.

Given that creativity is among the most extraordinary capacities of the human mind, one would think that our most highly prized piece of cortical real estate, the DLPFC, would need to run on all cylinders here. But this does not seem to be the case. Turns out, there is already a term for this phenomenon: Transient hypofrontality. It refers to the temporary downregulation of hyper-analytical and metacognitive processes which – oftentimes needlessly – limit the solutions space in a creative endeavor. With these toned down, more remote associations can occur. Importantly, this new experiment confirms this hypothesis. In addition, it shows that the heightened activation in the medial prefrontal cortex is accompanied by similar increases in activation in language areas (around the lateral fissure), the amygdala and the cingulate motor cortex, all of which form a network in which freestyle artistic expression may unfold.

Unfortunately, and this is the only slip here, the authors seem to fall prey to the monolithic entity fallacy that is so common among people writing about creativity. In discussing the data, they show the tendency to write about creativity per se, as if there is only one kind. But the study’s results do not hold when generalized to creativity as a whole. The present experiment evokes only one specific type of creativity, one that is characterized by spontaneous generation and one that requires immediate expression in the form of motor output. There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that in other types of creativity the exact opposite brain pattern emerges. Increased activity in the DLPFC, the very area downregulated in Liu’s study, is upregulated in some forms of insightful problem solving. Sure, anecdotal stories abound that portray the creative process as effortless, ephemeral and unintentional. From Kekulé’s daydream of whirling snakes forming a (benzene) ring to Coleridge’s poem Kublai Khan, such flashes of insight are the very cliché of the creative genius.

But it only takes a moment’s reflection to see that the opposite also holds. For all the uplifting stories, the Einsteins riding on beams of light, the Newtons watching falling apples (a myth likely originating from Voltaire) or the Archimedeses displacing bathwater, creative ideas can just as easily be the result of laborious trial and error, which – clearly – requires the activation of executive processes in the DLPFC. What would we otherwise make of Edison’s “empirical dragnet” method that yielded a total of 1093 patents; Watson and Crick’s algorithmic approach to testing the stability of DNA base pairs; Bach’s assembly-line tactic to composing hundreds of cantatas; the imaginative ways in which NASA engineers solved the problems of the otherwise doomed Apollo 13 mission; or the countless occasions each one of us has converged on a creative solution by systematically eliminating alternative possibilities?

The deadly error here is seeing creativity as one thing, but not the other. When it comes to mechanistic explanations, the field of creativity is riddled with examples of such premature category formations. Open any source on the topic – academic or otherwise – and you will find creativity linked with, say, low arousal, defocused attention, right brains, unconscious processes, lateral thinking, altered states of consciousness, or mental illness, to name but a few popular duds. Commonsense alone tells us that their opposites are also sources of creative thinking. What has come into clear focus in recent years is that creativity is too complex, and too distributed in the brain, to be captured in a net held together by such ontological danglers. I hope we do not do this with the prefrontal cortex.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.


Grateful for: The Atlantic

. . . because they publish articles like this one (below) by Oliver Sacks, MD,  professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine, in perfect synchronicity with what I’m already reading   (“The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain,” at the moment – which is actually sited in this article!)  More synchronicity? A good mate of mine just sent me Sacks’ most recent book, Hallucinations. Can’t wait to dive into that one . . .

(feature photo: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a rare view of a pair of overlapping galaxies, called NGC 3314. The two galaxies appear to be colliding, but they are actually separated by tens of millions of light-years, or about ten times the distance between our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. The chance alignment of the two galaxies, as seen from Earth, gives a unique look at the silhouetted spiral arms in the closer face-on spiral, NGC 3314A. The motion of the two galaxies indicates that they are both relatively undisturbed and that they are moving in markedly different directions. (NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and W. Keel, University of Alabama))

The Atlantic also publishes articles like “How the Mafia is Ruining Naples’ Food Scene,” “Why America has one of the Highest Child Poverty Rates in the World,” and something my grandfather would enjoy, “Photographing the Dawn of Amtrack.”

But on to the Oliver Sacks article!

(note to reader:  I do not necessarily agree wholeheartedly with the genius doctor.  For example, I cannot see how, based on our definition of the metaphysical or divine, we could *ever* prove their existence.   But epistemological landscapes are always fun to explore …)

check it out . . .

Seeing God in the Third Millennium

By Oliver Sacks

How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies



There are many carefully documented accounts in the medical literature of intense, life-altering religious experience in epileptic seizures. Hallucinations of overwhelming intensity, sometimes accompanied by a sense of bliss and a strong feeling of the numinous, can occur especially with the so-called “ecstatic” seizures that may occur in temporal lobe epilepsy. Though such seizures may be brief, they can lead to a fundamental reorientation, a metanoia, in one’s life. Fyodor Dostoevsky was prone to such seizures and described many of them, including this:

The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don’t remember anything else. You all, healthy people … can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit. … I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.

A century later, Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard published a detailed report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry of a bus conductor who had a sudden feeling of elation while collecting fares. They wrote:

He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss. He felt he was literally in Heaven. He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. … He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days. Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences and he continued to believe in their validity. [Three years later] following three seizures on three successive days, he became elated again. He stated that his mind had “cleared.” … During this episode he lost his faith.

He now no longer believed in heaven and hell, in an afterlife, or in the divinity of Christ. This second conversion — to atheism — carried the same excitement and revelatory quality as the original religious conversion.

More recently, Orrin Devinsky and his colleagues have been able to make video EEG recordings in patients who are having such seizures, and have observed an exact synchronization of the epiphany with a spike in epileptic activity in the temporal lobes (more commonly the right temporal lobe).

“I was flying forwards, bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.'”

Ecstatic seizures are rare — they only occur in something like 1 or 2 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. But the last half century has seen an enormous increase in the prevalence of other states sometimes permeated by religious joy and awe, “heavenly” visions and voices, and, not infrequently, religious conversion or metanoia. Among these are out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which are more common now that more patients can be brought back to life from serious cardiac arrests and the like — and much more elaborate and numinous experiences called near-death experiences (NDEs).

Both OBEs and NDEs, which occur in waking but often profoundly altered states of consciousness, cause hallucinations so vivid and compelling that those who experience them may deny the term hallucination, and insist on their reality. And the fact that there are marked similarities in individual descriptions is taken by some to indicate their objective “reality.”

shutterstock_59735221.jpgEEG with epileptic waveforms [Wikimedia Commons]

But the fundamental reason that hallucinations — whatever their cause or modality — seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

In OBEs, subjects feel that they have left their bodies — they seem to be floating in midair, or in a corner of the room, looking down on their vacated bodies from a distance. The experience may be felt as blissful, terrifying, or neutral. But its extraordinary nature — the apparent separation of “spirit” from body, imprints it indelibly on the mind and may be taken by some people as evidence of an immaterial soul — proof that consciousness, personality, and identity can exist independently of the body and even survive bodily death.

Neurologically, OBEs are a form of bodily illusion arising from a temporary dissociation of visual and proprioceptive representations — normally these are coordinated, so that one views the world, including one’s body, from the perspective of one’s own eyes, one’s head. OBEs, as Henrik Ehrsson and his fellow researchers in Stockholm have elegantly shown, can be produced experimentally, by using simple equipment — video goggles, mannequins, rubber arms, etc. — to confuse one’s visual input and one’s proprioceptive input and create an uncanny sense of disembodiedness.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience.

A number of medical conditions can lead to OBEs — cardiac arrest or arrhythmias, or a sudden lowering of blood pressure or blood sugar, often combined with anxiety or illness. I know of some patients who have experienced OBEs during difficult childbirths, and others who have had them in association with narcolepsy or sleep paralysis. Fighter pilots subjected to high G-forces in flight (or sometimes in training centrifuges) have reported OBEs as well as much more elaborate states of consciousness that resemble the near-death experience.

The near-death experience usually goes through a sequence of characteristic stages. One seems to be moving effortlessly and blissfully along a dark corridor or tunnel towards a wonderful “living” light — often interpreted as Heaven or the boundary between life and death. There may be a vision of friends and relatives welcoming one to the other side, and there may be a a rapid yet extremely detailed series of memories of one’s life — a lightning autobiography. The return to one’s body may be abrupt, as when, for example, the beat is restored to an arrested heart. Or it may be more gradual, as when one emerges from a coma.

Not infrequently, an OBE turns into an NDE — as happened with Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who told me how he had been struck by lightning. He gave me a vivid account of what then followed, as I wrote in Musicophilia:

“I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.’ I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, ‘This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had’ — SLAM! I was back.”

Dr. Cicoria had some memory problems for a month or so after this, but he was able to resume his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Yet he was, as he put it, “a changed man.” Previously he had no particular interest in music, but now he was seized by an overwhelming desire to listen to classical music, especially Chopin. He bought a piano and started to play obsessively and to compose. He was convinced that the entire episode — being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision, then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world, was part of a divine plan.

Cicoria has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and he also felt that his sudden accession of spirituality and musicality must have gone with changes in his brain — changes which we might be able to clarify, perhaps, with neuroimaging. He saw no contradiction between religion and neurology — if God works on a man, or in a man, Cicoria felt, He would do so via the nervous system, via parts of the brain specialized, or potentially specializable, for spiritual feeling and belief.

shutterstock_97460153.jpgDr. Alexander’s October 2012 Newsweek cover article

Cicoria’s reasonable and (one might say) scientific attitude to his own spiritual conversion is in marked contrast to that of another surgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who describes, in his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, a detailed and complex NDE which occurred while he spent seven days in a coma caused by meningitis. During his NDE, he writes, he passed through the bright light — the boundary between life and death — to find himself in an idyllic and beautiful meadow (which he realized was Heaven) where he met a beautiful but unknown woman who conveyed various messages to him telepathically. Advancing farther into the afterlife, he felt the ever-more-embracing presence of God. Following this experience, Alexander became something of an evangelist, wanting to spread the good news, that heaven really exists.

Alexander makes much of his experience as a neurosurgeon and an expert on the workings of the brain. He provides an appendix to his book detailing “Neuroscientific Hypotheses I considered to explain my experience” — but all of these he dismisses as inapplicable in his own case because, he insists, his cerebral cortex was completely shut down during the coma, precluding the possibility of any conscious experience.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific.

Yet his NDE was rich in visual and auditory detail, as many such hallucinations are. He is puzzled by this, since such sensory details are normally produced by the cortex. Nonetheless, his consciousness had journeyed into the blissful, ineffable realm of the afterlife–a journey which he felt lasted for most of the time he lay in coma. Thus, he proposes, his essential self, his “soul,” did not need a cerebral cortex, or indeed any material basis whatever.

It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the neural basis of NDEs and other forms of “deep” hallucinating for many decades. In 2011, he published a wise and careful book about his research, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.

Nelson feels that the “dark tunnel” described in most NDEs represents constriction of the visual fields due to compromised blood pressure in the eyes, and the “bright light” represents a flow of visual excitation from the brainstem, through visual relay stations, to the visual cortex (the so-called pons-geniculate-occipital or PGO pathway).

Simpler perceptual hallucinations — of patterns, animals, people, landscapes, music, etc. — as one may get in a variety of conditions (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, migraine, sensory deprivation, etc.) do not usually involve profound changes in consciousness, and while very startling, are nearly always recognized as hallucinations. It is different with the very complex hallucinations of ecstatic seizures or NDEs — which are often taken to be veridical, truth-telling and often life-transforming revelations of a spiritual universe, and perhaps of a spiritual destiny or mission.

Even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith.

The tendency to spiritual feeling and religious belief lies deep in human nature and seems to have its own neurological basis, though it may be very strong in some people and less developed in others. For those who are religiously inclined, an NDE may seem to offer “proof of heaven,” as Eben Alexander puts it.

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route — the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization — imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind’s eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of “presence” are accompanied by intense emotion — emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one — but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)

In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of “spiritual neurosciences.” There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way — the religious would say in God’s time and way. Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

Obrigada, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain

. . . or more specifically, Kevin Nelson, M.D., for writing a book that’s kept me not just awake but *engaged* on my commute into the Upper East Side each morning.

I found the book by searching for “neurology and spirituality” on the Brooklyn Public Library’s online catalog.  Honestly, I didn’t manage to unearth much – except for this little gem right here.

About half of the book deals with near death experiences, Dr. Nelson’s area of expertise, but what really interests me are his descriptions of the “architecture” of spiritual experience in general.  Nelson begins with a brief history of the study of the brain in relationship to spirituality.  Whereas Hippocrates (the Greek father of modern medicine) believed the cerebral cortex to be the doorway to the spirit, Descartes believed it to be the pineal.  The author sides with the Taoist tradition in their belief that the brainstem is the “Mouth of God” (Nelson later relates this assertion to his observation that “two different minds from the two discrete hemispheres of the brain, which have very different attributes, must lead to different expressions of the sacred”).

The more I read, the more notes I take, some simply for my own review at a later date, still others to share with students in my yoga classes.

Did you know . . .

  • That the default brain state is belief.  It takes more brain activity to work out if a statement is false than it does to decide it’s true (Harris, Sheth, Cohen, UCLA)
  • The pineal gland, now situated at the center of our brains and responsible for melatonin production, was once a cluster of photo-sensitive cells at the tops of our heads.  It was a kind of third-eye, when our evolutionary ancestors were once birds and reptiles.  Now *there’s* a biological basis for the sahasrara chakra (or the ajna, depending on how you see it)!
  • Charles Lieber (Harvard) is producing a kind of nanotechnology that allows matter to interact with the brain’s energy (the wires used are only a few nanometers wide.  To put that into perspective, a strand of hair is 100,000 nanometers wide!).  This allows Lieber’s team to detect signals from individual nerves on a circuit board that creates a grid of neural reflexes.  This is close to mimicking the natural synapses that connect nerves – a much more accurate reading of brain activity than an MRI, which can only observe blood flow (and cannot observe inhibition of flow).
  • Our right and left hemispheres are really two separate consciousnesses.  I’ve always suspected this a bit, being sensitive to dichotomies in my own personality, and observing the bigger yin/yang, sun/moon, ebb/flow, Jekyll/Hyde binary relationships in life.  But the experiments on a split-brain patient named Paul (his corpus callosum had been severed) at Cornell Medical Center illustrate these internal opposites beautifully.  “When asked to rate what he ‘liked or disliked,’ his hemispheres were in accord.  Both liked TV, sex, school, church, and the Fonz.  Only “dope” was discordant: the right brain liked it while the left disliked it “very much.”  As researchers proved, other differences emerged.  Paul’s right hemisphere wanted him to become a race car driver; his left, a draftsman.”  (And the TED video by Jill Bolte takes it to another level!)

I’m nowhere near completing the book, but so far it’s been educational, entertaining and enlightening all at the same time.  I haven’t been so stoked on a book since Hanson’s “Buddha’s Brain.”  Big thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library system, too – I get to read all this goodness for free!

Reppin’ BPL

If you’re interested in reading more from the author, Dr. Nelson writes regularly for Psychology Today.  Though I would not agree that “spiritual experience happens in the brain” (I would say our *perception* of that experience happens in the brain.  *Where* it is occurring may be more of a question for quantum physicists), the research he presents is fascinating, and his delivery makes for truly enjoyable reading.

From V.S. Ramachandran: “Bold, provocative, and highly readable . . . ”

From Oliver Sacks: “A landmark in our understanding of human nature.”

And yes, he’s been featured in Oprah’s magazine!

I Heart TED

Today’s inspiration for gratitude has *got* to be TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, now celebrating one billion views!  Amazingness.  I can’t tell you how many hours (days?) of contemplation have been inspired (especially while journeying solo!), or how many times I’ve forwarded and posted with bubbly excitement links to these glimpses of genius.  Projects like this have been crucial in globalizing brilliance, offering up fully digestible sessions of 20 minutes or so each, from trailblazers in all manner of studies.  Compare this accessibility to academia 100 or even 200 years ago . . .

What reminded me about how much I truly appreciate TED, was this earnest presentation by the inventor of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman. The subject of his talk? The role of the experiencing self and the memory self in happiness.  At the very end of the talk, the presenter brings up the topic of how happiness studies might play a future role in domestic policy.  While it’s already playing a role in many countries’ approach to modern governance, the question remains: how long will it take the States to catch up?

What is TED?

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh UK each summer — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

Read more about TED here.

Some of my TED favorites, previously published on TWJ:

You can even watch playlists from players in other fields, like Bill Gates, Bono & Glenn Close.

—-> NEW!  ** Bjork’s playlist **

Or my personal fave: Jill Bolte’s playlist, 10 talks on human nature.

Do you have a favorite TED vid?

Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope

Brain studies are a relatively new addition to our properly scientific explorations, and mind-body lovin’ is always top on my “fascinations list” … that and how completely insane some people actually are, and still remain functioning members of society …

So I hope you’ll enjoy the following article from Forbes by Alice Walton, which may actually be relevant to both fascinations!


Most people do what they have to do to get through the day. Though this may sound dire, let’s face it, it’s the human condition. Given the number of people who are depressed or anxious, it’s not surprising that big pharma is doing as well as it is. But for millennia before we turned to government-approved drugs, humans devised clever ways of coping: Taking a walk, eating psychedelic mushrooms, breathing deeply, snorting things, praying, running, smoking, and meditating are just some of the inventive ways humans have found to deal with the unhappy rovings of their minds.

But which methods actually work?

Most people would agree that a lot of our unhappiness comes from the mind’s annoying chatter, which includes obsessions, worries, drifts from this stress to that stress, and our compulsive and exhausting need to anticipate the future. Not surprisingly, the goal of most adults is to get the mind to shut up, calm down, and chill out. For this reason, we turn to our diverse array of feel-good tools (cigarettes, deep breathing, and what have you). Some are healthier and more effective than others, and researchers are finally understanding why certain methods break the cycle and others exacerbate it.

Last year, a Harvard study confirmed that there’s a clear connection between mind wandering and unhappiness. Not only did  the study find that if you’re awake, your mind is wandering almost half the time, it also found that this wandering is linked to a less happy state. (You can actually use the iPhone app used in the study to track your own happiness.) This is not surprising, since when your mind is wandering, it’s not generally to the sweet things in your life: More likely, it’s to thoughts like why your electric bill was so high, why your boss was rude to you today, or why your ex-husband is being so difficult.

Another study found that mind wandering is linked to activation of network of brain cells called the default mode network (DMN), which is active not when we’re doing high-level processing, but when we’re drifting about in “self-referential” thoughts (read: when our brain is flitting from one life-worry to the next).

Meditation is an interesting method for increasing one’s sense of happiness because not only has it stood the test of time, but it’s also been tested quite extensively in the lab. Part of the effect of mindfulness meditation is to quiet the mind by acknowledging non-judgmentally and then relinquishing (rather than obsessing about) unhappy or stress-inducing thoughts.

New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.”

They also found that when the brain’s “me” centers were activated, meditators also co-activated areas important in self-monitoring and cognitive control, which may indicate that they are on the constant lookout for “me” thoughts or mind-wandering – and when their minds do wander, they bring them back to the present moment. Even better, meditators not only did this during meditation, but when not being told to do anything in particular. This suggests that they may have formed a new default mode: one that is more present-centered (and less “me”-centered), no matter what they are doing.

BrainThis is really cool,” Brewer says.” As far as we know, nobody has seen this type of connectivity pattern before. These networks have previously been shown to be anti-correlated.”

So is being happy all about shifting our tendency away from focus on ourselves? Research in other areas, like neurotheology (literally the neurology of religion), suggests that there may be something to this. Andy Newberg, MD at the University of Pennsylvania has found that both in meditating monks and in praying nuns, areas of the brain important in concentration and attention were activated, while areas that govern how a person relates to the external world were deactivated. These findings may suggest that for people who practice meditation or prayer, the focus becomes less on the self as a distinct entity from the external world, and more on connection between the two.  This reflects the idea discussed earlier where shifting attention from inside to outside is at least part of what quells unhappiness.

What about using other tools like cigarettes, food, or alcohol, as a method for finding pleasure and calming the mind? Don’t these things take a person outside of him or herself, and move the focus from the inner world of stressful thoughts to something outside, or “other”? Looking forward to the next hit of caffeine, nicotine, or coke might seem like a valid method of moving attention from the inside to the outside, but if you look closer, it actually intensifies the unpleasantness.

Brewer uses the example of smoking to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday worries can all be substituted in.

Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving (or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.

So if you’re dealing with unhappiness of any kind, whether it’s every day worries, or more severe depression or anxiety, the method you choose for coping matters. Finding one that solves the problem – breaking the cycle, rather than masking it – is crucial.

What type of coping method do you use?

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Proven Benefits of Meditation

Meditation.  Dhyana.  Sitting quietly.  Focusing.  And then …

There’ve been so many times at the ashram, just in the first week alone, where I’ve thought to myself, “Wow, if some of my friends could see what I’m doing, I’m sure they’d ask the question, ‘And you’re paying them to do that!?’”

Like Karma Yoga, a practice meant to humble the aspirant and encourage transcendence of egoic motivations.  The students of the teacher training (me and 30 others from around the world) are the keepers of the ashram, seeing to all its aesthetic – and hygienic – requirements.

Basically, we do the chores.

Main meditation hall, also used for asana practice (and pre-class shenanigans).

For one hour a day, we carry out assigned tasks like sweeping (to choice tunes, if I have anything to do with it!), gardening, scrubbing the bathrooms or administrative duties (lucky buggers).  Selfless service, baby.

We also meditate twice a day for thirty minutes.

Pay someone so you can sit in silence for an hour?  Say what?!

Or even if you are open to meditation or have had, at some point, some practice with meditation yourself, it may be a little tough to get going with a regular practice.  Busy schedules, lack of discipline, or even a touch of skepticism may all be factors.

But with the right technique and a lot of practice, the benefits are truly priceless.

Check out just a few of the scientifically proven ones, as outlined by Rick Hanson, PhD and Richard Mendius MD in their book “Buddha’s Brain” (order/layout is altered slightly, and number 10 is not from the book):

1. Strengthens the immune system (Davidson et al. 2003; Tang et al. 2007)

2. Decreases stress-related cortisol (Tang et al. 2007)

3. Increases grey matter in the

  • Insula
  • Hippocampus (a/b: Hozel et al. 2005, 2008)
  • Prefrontal cortex (Lazar et al. 2009)

4. Reduces cortical thinning due to aging in prefrontal regions strengthened by meditation (Lazar et al. 2008)

5. Improves psychological functions associated with these regions, including

  • attention (Cater et al. 2005; Tang et al. 2007)
  • compassion (Lutz-Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2008)
  • empathy (Lazar et al. 2005)

6. Lifts mood by increasing activation of the left frontal regions (Davidson 2004)

7. Increases the power and reach of fast, gamma-range brainwaves in experienced Tibetan practitioners (Lutz et al. 2004)

8. Helps a variety of medical conditions, including

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Asthma
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • PMS
  • Chronic pain (a-e: Walsh and Shapiro 2006)

9. Helps numerous psychological conditions, including

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Eating disorders (a-d: Walsh and Shapiro 2006)

10. Improves focus.

I’d been looking everywhere for a book that cites medical studies done to prove meditation’s benefits and after reading this last year in Abu Dhabi, it has to be in my top 10 non-fiction reads at the moment.  A few months back, I blogged about Buddhist techniques to help you feel more alert – definitely handy for those days when you wish the alarm never went off!

If you’ve never tried meditation before, give it a whirl for just five minutes a day, and increase the minutes as your schedule and practice allows.  Here’s a great website with several meditation techniques so you can choose how to get started!  With some time and dedication, you’ll start to feel and see results that will help you live a longer happier life.

And that is definitely worth paying for!


3 Buddhist Techniques to Feel More Awake!

Need a little boost at the end of your working week?

I read a wonderful book last year by Rick Hanson called “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.”  It connects the dots between Buddhist techniques and why they work by explaining their effects on the brain and body.

Here are three ways, according to the book, Buddhist techniques can help us be more awake and alert.  Experiment with them yourself and see if you find similar results:

  • Sitting in an erect posture provides internal feedback to the reticular formation – a mesh-like network of nerves in the brain stem which is involved with wakefulness and consciousness – telling it that you need to stay vigilant and alert.  This is a neurological reason behind a schoolteacher’s demands to “sit up straight, class!” as well as the classic meditation instruction to sit upright in a dignified way.
  • “Brighten the mind” is a traditional phrase used to describe infusing your awareness with energy and clarity.  In fact, to overcome drowsiness, it’s sometimes suggested that you literally visualize light. Neurologically, this “brightening” likely involves a surge of norephinephrine throughout the brain; that neurotransmitter – also triggered by the stress-response cascade – is a general orienting signal that fosters alertness.
  • Oxygen is to the nervous system what gasoline is to your car.  Although just 2 percent of body weight, your bran uses roughly 20 percent of your oxygen.  By taking several deep breaths, you increase oxygen saturation in your blood and thus rev up your brain.