Tag Archives: mind-body

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

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lupzdut/Flickr

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.

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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?

Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Grateful for the Greater Good

I first heard about GGSC taking a free online course called The Psychology of Happiness.  It’s a course offered at Berkeley – and you can download it from MIT’s Open Courseware online uni if that sounds like fun.

My good friend reminded me about The Greater Good Science Center when she heard about their  web-based, interactive, shareable gratitude journal—that also serves as a scientific tool for understanding what it means when we say “thank you.”

They hold fabulous events like Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion (with Jon Kabat Zinn) and also post brilliant articles like this one below, a slice of advice for people who want to be happy but hate positive thinking  😉

How to Harness the Positive Power of Negative Thinking

By Oliver Burkeman | October 31, 2012 | 0 commentsCan visualizing death make you happier? Research says yes. Here are four surprising ways to harness the power of negativity.

It’s sixty years this year since Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking—and though his message may have been radical back then, it’s the conventional wisdom now. Self-help gurus, motivational speakers, businesspeople, presidential candidates, and many psychologists agree: optimism is the foundation of a happy life, and negativity is for losers.

Those of us who consider ourselves naturally cantankerous and gloomy have always felt left out of what the philosopher Peter Vernezze calls “the cult of optimism.” But now there’s a reason for us to feel more hopeful… in an appropriately downbeat way, of course.

A growing body of research suggests that negative thinking, if strategically pursued, has a role to play in happiness, too. Ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions, from the Stoics to the Buddhists, recognized the life-enhancing potential of trying less strenuously to be happy. Here are four ways to benefit from their approach.

1. Focus on the worst-case scenario, not the best

Visualizing your ideal future is a staple of self-help bestsellers—but vividly picturing success can backfire badly. In one series of experiments, when thirsty experimental subjects were asked to visualize drinking an icy glass of water, their energy levels actually dropped: apparently, they were less motivated to find real water because they’d already imagined drinking some.

Besides, negative visualization can be an excellent antidote to anxiety. The Stoics called this “the premeditation of evils,” while modern-day researchers call it “defensive pessimism”—a strategy deployed regularly by between 25 and 30 percent of Americans, according to the researcher Julie Norem.

Consider the logic: when you try to persuade yourself that everything will work out for the best, you risk reinforcing your unspoken belief that it would be utterly catastrophic if they didn’t. Instead, try soberly working through how badly things could really go. You may find that your fears get cut down to manageable size.

2. Consider getting rid of your goals

For many years, the popularity of goal-setting rested, in part, on something known as the “1953 Yale Study of Goals.” Reportedly, this showed that among members of Yale’s graduating class of 1953, those who had specific, written-down goals for the future ended up, twenty years later, immensely wealthier than the rest.

But when the journalist Lawrence Tabak, searching for an original source, got in touch with the gurus who relied on the study, they all pleaded ignorance, and suggested asking other gurus—because the study, as a Yale archivist confirmed, almost certainly never existed.

Among management scholars, too, the pro-goal consensus is breaking down. Recent research suggests that the “overpursuit of goals” can prompt employees to cut ethical corners. Meanwhile, studies of successful entrepreneurs, undertaken by the business professor Saras Sarasvathy, reveal that they rarely stick rigorously to detailed, multi-year business plans. Instead, they just start, and keep correcting their course as they go. Their philosophy isn’t so much “ready, aim, fire” as “ready, fire, aim”—and then to keep on re-aiming.

3. Don’t get too attached to “positive thinking”

Tell yourself you’re a winner, and you might end up feeling worse.

When researchers in Canada tested the efficacy of self-help affirmations—specifically the phrase “I am a loveable person!”—they found that those who already had low self-esteem experienced a further decline in their mood.

Trying to control your emotions, as the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has shown, can be an invitation to “ironic effects”: struggle too hard to eliminate negativity, and you risk generating more of it. As in the old parlor game, when you try not to think about a polar bear, you may find that being hyper-vigilant about stamping out unhappy moods merely puts unhappiness center stage.

By contrast, early Buddhist psychology advocated treating thoughts, whether negative or positive, more like smells, sights, tastes and sounds: things that arrive in your awareness, rather than things that constitute the essence of who you are. This stance of “non-attachment”—now also supported by research as an effective way of dealing with physical pain—embodies what you might define as the opposite of positive thinking: learning, instead, to resist the urge to manipulate your inner states.

4. Don’t ignore death

The anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that countless human activities, from wars to great art, are ultimately motivated by the subconscious desire to deny the fact that, in the end, we’re going to die.

These days, with the processes of dying hidden behind the doors of hospices and funeral homes, it’s never been easier to perpetuate the delusion of immortality—until the moment when the reaper inevitably intrudes. We might benefit from rediscovering the lost tradition of “memento mori,” which focused on building reminders of death into daily life: the dual result was to make everyday experience feel more valuable while reducing the horror of death when it arrived. (The Death Clock iPad app is a modern example: it purports to calculate the date on which you’ll die, then starts a countdown to keep you aware.)

Although research suggests that reminders of death can prompt people to behave more aggressively, there is also evidence that, in the right contexts, remembering our mortality triggers compassion. In one example, people walking through a graveyard proved 40 percent more likely to help a stranger— specifically, one of the researchers, who pretended to drop her notebook—than those walking down an ordinary block. Another study found that visualizing their own death led people to become more grateful.

Death is what we all have in common: the most negative of negatives, perhaps… but also the most unifying.

This essay is based on Oliver Burkeman’s new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

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?

Follow @alicewalton or find her on Facebook.

Beautiful Brain

(From LiveScience.com, feature photo: detail of a diffusion spectrum MR image of rhesus monkey brain showing the sheet-like, three-dimensional structure of neural pathways that cross each other at right angles. CREDIT: Van Wedeen, M.D., Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Stunning new visuals of the brain reveal a deceptively simple pattern of organization in the wiring of this complex organ.

Instead of nerve fibers travelling willy-nilly through the brain like spaghetti, as some imaging has suggested, the new portraits reveal two-dimensional sheets of parallel fibers crisscrossing other sheets at right angles in a gridlike structure that folds and contorts with the convolutions of the brain.

This same pattern appeared in the brains of humans, rhesus monkeys, owl monkeys, marmosets and galagos, researchers report today (March 29) in the journal Science.

“The upshot is the fibers of the brain form a 3D grid and are organized in this exceptionally simple way,” study leader Van Wedeen, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, told LiveScience. “This motif of crossing in three axes is the basic motif of brain tissue.” [Inside the Brain: A Journey Through Time]

The organized brain

The surface of the brain contains about 40 billion nerve cells, each making about 1,000 connections in a pattern that brain researchers have yet to decipher, said Marsel Mesulam, the director of the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University. Mesulam, who was not involved in the study, called Wedeen’s work “very exciting.”

“There can be no more fundamental question in philosophy, in psychology,” Mesulam told LiveScience. “The human brain is the single most complex device in the known universe, and it works by nerve cells talking to each other. If we can’t figure out how they decide who to talk to and what they tell each other, we just don’t understand how the brain functions.”

Using a technique he developed called diffusion spectrum magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Wedeen traced the movement of water molecules along the intersections of brain fibers (the cellular projections that form the brain’s communication network), tracking the orientation of each fiber at each crossing.

 

“What emerged was astonishing,” Wedeen said. “What emerged was that the set of fibers that crossed a given fiber, invariably — and that’s a really strong invariably — look like mutually parallel fibers all coming in like the teeth of a comb and crossing it in one direction.” [See video of the brain structure]

Animal studies had suggested this pattern might exist, and researchers already knew that the nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain stem were organized in very structured parallels and perpendiculars even in humans (consider the long nerve fibers that run down the backbone and then branch out perpendicularly from the vertebrae). But it’s difficult to get high-resolution scans of fiber connectivity in the human cortex, given that humans tend to become uncomfortable if left in an MRI scanner for more than 45 minutes or so, Wedeen said. For that reason, images of human brain connections have tended to look like tangled spaghetti, he said.

Wedeen and his colleagues scanned four types of primate brains from deceased animals, enabling them to image the brains for up to 48 hours, as well as brains from living human subjects using a new scanner that can achieve 10 times the resolution of conventional MRI machines. Using special software, the researchers then reconstructed three-dimensional images of the brain-fiber pathways.

“Looking across multiple species, it emerged that the pattern was substantially similar,” Wedeen said. “When you went from primates with small brains to primates with big brains … the rules were the same, but they were being applied more diversely and with more layers in the larger, more complex brains.”

Adaptable brain

The finding of clear up-down, front-back and side-to-side organization in the brain makes sense, Wedeen said, given that the brain has had to rewire both evolutionarily (to form the specialized brains humans boast today) and during its lifetime (as it grows and learns, for example). If the organization of communication were chaotic, that wouldn’t work.

“It’s like rewiring your basement at random,” Wedeen said. “First thing that happens, house burns down, you die.”

In other words, adapting a complexly wired brain that will still allow the next generation to survive would be next to impossible.

“If you try to picture what would happen if you tried to turn one spaghetti brain into a different spaghetti brain, you realize you would need an impossibly knowledgably intelligent designer standing above the brain and rewiring it,” Wedeen said.

With an organized grid structure, however, evolution can easily build on what came before — adding in a more complex forebrain in humans versus our monkey relatives, for example.

More work should be done to link the imaging methods of Wedeen with traditional neuroanatomy methods to confirm the findings, Mesulam said. Wedeen plans to expand the map of the human brain into more detail. It’s also important to understand the relationship between a brain’s structure and its function, he said. Understanding the structure of a typical brain would ultimately help scientists comprehend what happens when brain development goes wrong, as in Alzheimer’s or mental illness.

“Say somebody comes to you with their 2-year-old and they say, ‘My 2-year-old is just not looking me in the eyes’. Is this the first sign of Asperger’s or just an individual difference?” Wedeen said. “You’d know how to begin. You’d know what you were doing.”

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

If fun brain facts gets ya goin’, check out these 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Brain also from LiveScience.com!

JoJournal: Post-ATTC Transitions (& TED vids!)

It’s been well over two weeks since my last blog, mainly due to the intense schedule of my ATTC, which I can now happily say I’ve not only survived, I’ve fully taken in and completed with a smile.  Woo hoo!

It wasn’t always easy, in fact, it was down right dirty and sweaty most of the time.  But honestly, if I’d been able to stay in the ashram groove for a bit longer, I totally would have done it.  All that practice time was phenomenal . . . and you really can’t beat the tropical surroundings in Kerala.  It’s like the more chaotic growth hormone version of Hawaii.

But here I am instead, sat upon Chippy’s couch, enjoying a different kind of fabulous environment all together.  The crisp cool air of the UK spring, a cuppa tea (minus the masala) that makes me feel at home, a door-delivered pizza, a big soft bed and . . . wow, I’m not actually sweating right now!  This is great!

The client and the makeup artist - me sneaking a thankyou kiss after Chippy prettied me up one night.

Being not just out of the ashram, but out of India all together, the most difficult thing has been trying to put into words what exactly happened during that perspective-altering month in teacher training.  We were asked all the important questions: What is the nature of reality?  Is there really such a thing as individual existence?  In what ways does yoga change one’s awareness?  How much control do we have over our quality of life?

Although we’re told not to discuss the finer points of the yogic mind-blender, I can say this: it was unexpected, powerful, and potentially life-altering.

While I go through the process of putting things into words, I wanted to share a few TED videos I found particularly relevant at this transition point …

Here, modern legend and philosopher Alain de Botton plugs his new book – an outline of Botton’s own Atheism 2.0, which essentially proposes we pick and choose the “best bits” of religion, leaving the stale dogmatism and distasteful fanaticism out of it all.  Community service?  We’ll take that.  Sweet aesthetic sense?  Heck yeah.  Exclusive snobbery and mundane ritual?  Nah thanks.

Atheism 2.0 with Alain de Botton

Sounds like an approach I’ve been employing for the last ten years!  I love when a genius public figure waxes lyrical about something that’s been on my mind for a while.  Sure, I didn’t think of it first (or say it best), but at least I’m on the same page as someone as brilliant as this guy 🙂

In this next video, “psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks a simple, but difficult question: why do we search for self-transcendence? Why do we attempt to lose ourselves? In a tour through the science of evolution by group selection, he proposes a provocative answer.”

Humanity, Transcendence, Evolution

Enjoy!