Harvard Study Unveils What Meditation Literally Does To The Brain Arjun Walia December 11, 2014 Numerous studies have proven the many physiological benefits of meditation, and the latest one comes from Harvard University.
An eight week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter in just eight weeks. It’s the very first study to document that meditation produces changes in grey matter over time.
Study senior author Sara Lazar, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School Instructor in Psychology, explains: Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing. The study involved taking magnetic resonance images (MRI) from 16 study participants two weeks prior to the study. MRI images were also taken after the study was completed. Analysis of the images, “which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.” For the study, participants engaged in meditation practices every day for approximately 30 minutes. These practices included focusing on audio recordings for guided meditation, and non-judgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind. According to Britta Holzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany:
It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life. Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change. How to Meditate A common misconception about meditation is that you have to sit a certain way or do something particular to see its benefits. But truly, all you have to do is place yourself in a position that is most comfortable to you. It could be sitting cross legged, lying down in a bed, sitting on a couch, etc. Another common misconception about meditation is that you have to “try” to empty your mind. One important factor I enjoyed reading from the study mentioned above is that participants were engaged in “non-judgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind.” When meditating, you shouldn’t try to “empty” your mind. Instead, try to let your thoughts, feelings, and whatever emotions you are feeling at the time flow. Don’t judge them, don’t attach to them, just let them come and go and be at peace with it. I also believe that meditation is a state of being more than anything else. One does not have to sit down for half an hour and “meditate,” so to speak, in order to reap the benefits of it, or to be engaged in the practice itself. One can be engaged in meditation while they are on a walk, for example, or right before they fall sleep. Throughout the day, one can resist judging their thoughts, letting them flow until they are no more, or just be in a constant state of peace and self awareness. Contrary to popular belief, there is more than one way to meditate. “You will have to understand one of the most fundamental things about meditation: that no technique leads to meditation. The old so-called techniques and the new scientific biofeedback techniques are the same as far as meditation is concerned. Meditation is not a byproduct of any technique. Meditation happens beyond mind. No technique can go beyond mind.” – Osho
Inspired Life Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain. By Brigid SchulteMay 26, 2015 Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains: Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain? Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked. The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view. I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life. At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc. Q: How did you do the research? Lazar:The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced. We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making. It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study. We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week mindfulness- based stress reduction program. 3:36 Sara Lazar on how meditation affects the brain(The Connection) Video link below Q: What did you find? Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions: 1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance. 2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation. 3. The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion. 4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced. The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels. [Related: Science shows that stress has an upside. Here’s how to make it work for you] Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain? Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks. In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it. Q: So, 40 minutes a day? Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week. In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day. There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit. Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out. We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together. Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do? Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits. But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody. It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do. Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest? Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher? Lazar: Yes and yes. Q: What difference has it made in your life? Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people. Q: What’s your own practice? Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.
RTÉ LifeStyle spoke to Dr Martyn Newman PHD at the 2018 Pendulum Summit to discuss his evolutionary career, the business of mindfulness and the most important skills for people to have in both business and life.
Dr Newman is a world-renowned expert on emotional intelligence who's inspiring work is influencing industries to pay attention to both personal and professional development skills surrounding emotional intelligence and mindfulness. On moving from human rights to mindfulness "In human rights, for example, there's a lot of passion, there's a lot of feeling, there's a lot of sense of injustice that goes on and feelings run very deeply.
"I think we move into that space and we try to help people and it's very much about moving externals but really, the real change needs to take place in the way people think and experience the world and see the world from other people's points of view. "For me, it was clear that psychology had an enormous contribution to make to helping people get over the impasse standing in opposing corners and to really take the moment to understand each other, to see the world from the other person's point of view, and therefore develop empathy - and it fostered really collaborative dialogue and constructive dialogue that overcame this hostility. "I dismissed psychology as having made the same mistake as fundamentalist religion being all about the salvation of the individual - the soul.
"Until I realised that psychology had a huge contribution to make to social dynamics and political and economic dynamics. Once we understand the power of moving into the experience of other people.
The single most important skill in life "One of the skills that are the most critical at this stage in our lives - we're all suffering from a constant distraction, constant information overload, so many demands." "Our lives have become extraordinarily busy and we were never meant to operate with such intensity and what you find is that once you're able to develop a peacefulness in your mind you can settle the incessant rumination worrying about the future. "Often the sadness that draws us to the past with regret that leads to mood disorder makes us vulnerable to depression, our minds become a fog with anxiety." "The ability to settle and quieten the mind and develop a peacefulness so that we approach life with a clarity of judgment, make good clean decisions and understand the full implications of what we're doing - these sorts of skills today set people apart." The business of mindfulness "Mindfulness relates to the bottom line in business really practically because we're all under enormous pressure to produce outcomes - constant outcomes.
"Workplaces have always been busy but with the explosion of information technology, the pressures have been extraordinary. "What we need, more and more, is communities of collaboration.
"It's no longer possible as an engineer to sit quietly in a booth by yourself and invent new things, you've got to work with other people and to do that you need a mind that can pay attention to how other people see the world so you need to approach each challenge with a receptivity and an openness, not a judgementalism where you dismiss other people's ideas because they don't gel with your own view of the world "Mindfulness gives us the ability to transcend our own egos, settle the mind, keep it quiet but pay really curious attention, rather than judgemental attention, to the experience of other people and this fosters greater idea flow across businesses; people feel psychologically safe because ' you're genuinely interested in me and therefore, I'll share with you my ideas' and as a consequence we get a lot more collaboration, creativity and innovation across organisations - it makes a huge difference to the bottom line.
Applying mindfulness to your CV "People who understand the connection between physiology in particular and its relationship and the relationship of the body to the mind have wonderful opportunities to train people. "Yoga teachers, for example, my son spends most of his working week training people in yoga and meditation combined because the two, of course, are aiming to achieve the same outcomes. "People involved in these practices that enable people to take control of their bodies, enable people to relax their minds, these jobs emerging in yoga, meditation, in mindfulness, in pilates right across some of these health practices where we realise the relationship to the mind and the body is absolutely critical." Still sceptical? Here's what Dr. Newman says to the naysayers "If we examine the research, there are more than 500 international publications that have seriously examined the data on the impact of mindfulness. "If I was to offer you a pill and I said to you 'all the side effects are positive, you just have to take it once a day and it will give you enormous protection against cardiovascular disease, often exacerbated by stress, it will improve the quality of your relationships, it will give you deeper and more satisfying sleep, it will inoculate you against the ravages of mood disorder, it will even reverse some of the obvious signs of ageing even at the level of the DNA and there are no negative side effects and it's free. Would you take that pill?' "What I can say to you is that is the research over the last twenty years is making clear to us is that technology is available to us and once you read the data its so compelling. "It raises the question of what is it about our scepticism that really sabotages our ability to get on board and really pay attention to it." What are the key lessons of your books? "To help people really come to grips with some of these technologies - and they are technologies, there's a systematic structure to both emotional intelligence, and how we build it, and mindfulness - I've written a couple of books. "One book is Emotional Capitalist and it's called that because in business, we don't have time for psychological theory. "What we're interested in is where do these skills, where do these interventions, really add value and bottom line to business performance and Dan's [Dan Goleman] book Emotional Intelligence became the biggest selling book in the history of the behavioural sciences and it's drawn our attention to the importance of it. "Emotional Capitalist is a handbook, it's a book I wrote based on ten years of working with senior people around the world to help them understand the structure of how these emotional skills and competencies really work and provide a blueprint as to how they can systematically build." "The Mindfulness Book is to bridge the gap between the popular literature, which is very superficial and treats the subject in a really cursory fashion, and to say that this is grounded in 2,500 years of philosophy and practise and once we understand it's background and once we understand it's relationship to modern cognitive psychology, suddenly these practices make sense. "We're not just sitting cross-legged on a hilltop chanting but we really understand these are mind training techniques. "The Mindfulness Book provides people with very easily accessible snapshots of the elements and the building blocks of how you can develop a mindfulness practice systematically overtime in bite-sized chunks that you can pick up and put down to really begin to bring mindfulness, not just into stress reduction, but into creating conditions of happiness in a family, to increase creativity, manage stress and so on."
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