More Like Working Out

More Like Working Out

“When people go to the gym, for example, they know pretty much what’s going to happen, and how it’s going to happen. Lifting weights causes muscles to stretch and even tear a little, causing lactic acid to build up, causing the muscles to rebuild themselves bigger and with more capacity than they had before. It’s a physical process, and while trainers will debate the best methods until the end of time, the basic operation is clearly understood.

Meditation is similar. If you do the work, predictable changes in the mind and the brain tend to result, in a fairly reliable way. This, in a sense, is the very opposite of spirituality—and it’s certainly not religion either. It’s more like working out: Each time I come back to the breath, I’m strengthening very specific neural networks.”

~ Jay Michaelson

Maybe This Brain Can Be Reset

Maybe This Brain Can Be Reset

"I do know enough as a psychologist about learning and memory. And I know that we learn. How much of this I need to do in order to change, I cannot say. But I can say that there is a point at which this brain is not just elastic in moving to what is being suggested, but that it may be plastic in that it can be reset into a new mold."

~ Mahzarin Banaji

Training Individual and Collective Adaptive Capacities

"It's really important to be able to come back to the present moment. This is where change can happen. This is not just adaptive capacity for individuals, but it resonates out to collective adaptive capacity: more resilient organizations, more resilient communities, more dynamic, flexible institutions. These are the capcities that can face any possible future. We don't have to be able to predict, because we can't. Humans can't. But then we can really show up and meet any experience."

~ Dr. Elizabeth Stanley, from "Optimizing the Caveman within Us," TEDx Talks, October 2013   

See also:

  • Mind Fitness Training
  • "The Biology of Risk," by John Coates, The New York Times, June 7, 2014 
  • Clark, T. (2011). Nerve: Poise under pressure, serenity under stress, and the brave new science of fear and cool. New York: Little, Brown and Company. (library)
  • Linden, D. J. (2008). The accidental mind: How brain evolution has given us love, memory, dreams, and God. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap. (library)
  • Ryan, T. (2012). A mindful nation: How a simple practice can help us reduce stress, improve performance, and recapture the American spirit. Carlsbad, California: Hay House. (library)
  • Stanley, E. A. (2009). Paths to peace: Domestic coalition shifts, war termination and the Korean War. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press. (library)

Qualities of Mind are Skills We Can Cultivate

"Evidence for the connection between happiness and attention is found in neuroscience: attentional control is located in the pre-frontal cortex. Those with a weak pre-frontal cortex also have an inability to inhibit their limbic system (to control their emotions).  Most major mental health conditions are associated with a weak pre-frontal cortex.

Neuroscience has also found evidence for 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity.'  In other words, our brains change with experience.  We get good at (and grow thicker neuronetworks to support) the mental activities we engage in repeatedly. The most powerful way to change your brain is not medication, but behavior, and in particular, mental behavior.

With physical exercise, we can tell which muscles have become the strongest through exercise. Our strongest mental habits are the ones most easily activated, that are quickly and effortlessly available to our consciousness...the good news from neuroscience is that positive qualities of mind such as attention, kindness, and compassion are skills we can cultivate through practice and training. Contemplative studies point to an array of these practices to grow new mental habits."

~ Carrie Heeter, from "Why A Neuroscientist Would Study Meditation," Jan. 12, 2014

See also: Britton Lab

You Can Perform Neurosurgery on Yourself

You Can Perform Neurosurgery on Yourself

Experiential focus would be paying attention to something that’s going on. You’re engaged in what’s going on. Vipassana would be a good way to do that or even just listening now to the sound of the air-conditioner will move your mind into experiential focus.

Narrative focus is when we’re telling ourselves a story about our experience. These are two very different ways that the mind works.

The Potential to Change the Physical Structure of the Brain

The right orbito-frontal cortex, shown here, is one of the areas of the brain that appears to be enlarged due to meditation."Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain. We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.

It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level.

Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction. That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.

[However], it's possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with. For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.

Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Collecting evidence that active, frequent and regular meditation practices cause alterations of white-matter fiber tracts that are profound and sustainable may become relevant for patient populations suffering from axonal demyelination and white-matter atrophy."

~ Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, quoted in "Is Meditation the Push-Up for the Brain?" by Mark Wheeler, UCLA Newsroom, July 13, 2001

See also:

Systematic Practice is Necessary

Dr. Richard Davidson, from "Investigating Healthy Minds," a conversation with Krista Tippett on Being, June 23, 2011:

If you look at the history of the behavioral sciences and the intersection of behavioral sciences with biology, the 1960s was the heyday of behaviorism, when the environment was actually emphasized as being the primary cause of our behavior and there was no attention to the mind, no attention to biology, and the pendulum was very far to the extreme of considering what is inside the head to be really irrelevant, and we begin as a tabula rasa, an empty slate, and the environment through conventional mechanisms of learning determines who we are.

And then, in many ways, I think the pendulum swung in the opposite extreme for quite some time, where everything was attributed to our genes. And there were voices among public intellectuals who were pulling into question any programs, for example, like Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged individuals because the claim was that it's all in our genes anyway and there's nothing much we can do about it. That's a bit of a caricature, but, you know, I think it really does contain the kernel of truth in some of those statements.

And I think that what modern neuroscience is teaching us is that, in fact, there is a lot of plasticity, that change is indeed possible, and the evidence is more and more strongly in favor of the importance of environmental influences in shaping brain function and structure and even shaping the expression of our genes. So it's not that genes are unimportant. It's just that they're much more dynamic than we previously understood.


The work with long-term practitioners that we've done, as well as we're continuing to do, is important because it sort of defines the further reaches of human plasticity and transformation...when we study these experts, we see things in their brain that have not been reported before in human brains.

There is a brain rhythm that is called gamma oscillations, and gamma oscillations are recorded through the electrical activity of the brain. When you observe gamma oscillations in a normal conventional person who has not gone through this kind of training, you see the oscillations for very short periods of time, typically one second or less. What we observed in the long-term practitioners during certain kinds of meditation, particularly meditation on compassion, was that these gamma oscillations persisted for a much longer period of time than has ever been reported. They persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude. This was just something that had not been observed before.

We know a little bit about what the phenomenal logical correlates are in these long-term practitioners, and the clearest is a quality of clarity of their perception. They are very good at providing granular accounts of their experience because they spend a lot of time interrogating their own minds. And actually, the word meditation in Sanskrit, one of its meanings, comes from the word familiarization. We can think of these individuals as being just utterly familiar in a very deep way with their own mind, and that familiarization allows them to provide very granular reports. When they give those reports, it turns out that they could scale the extent to which their experience has this quality of clarity, and that quality of clarity turns out to be very highly correlated with the presence of these gamma oscillations. The more clarity, the more gamma.


There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices. And so often in the West, we have this idea that meditation is one thing and that every kind of meditation will produce the same kinds of effects, and that's just simply not true. The contemplative traditions from which we draw have literally hundreds of different kinds of practices and they are designed for different kinds of people or for a person in different situations. They are understood within their own traditions to produce different effects and, biologically and behaviorally in the laboratory, they produce different effects. And it's kind of the way I often talk about it lay audiences is that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports. There are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. Some are more active, some are less active, some are performed in groups, some not. The same is true of meditation.


I'd like to believe that some of the work that we do may have some implications or relevance for kind of on-the-ground, in-the-trenches psychotherapy or related strategies for behavior change in several ways. One is a kind of meta-level which helps a client or patient understand that, based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, that change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. It's really just a question of which influences we're going to choose for our brain. But our brain is wittingly or unwittingly being continuously shaped. Another thing is the idea of practice. The classical model of Western psychotherapy which is, you know, a client coming to a therapist for an hour a week for a 50-minute session without doing daily practice in between just flies in the face of everything we know about the brain and plasticity.

So if we want to make real change, that's not a good prescription for doing it. If we want to make real change, more systematic practice is necessary, in my view. This is something that comes directly from neuroscience. And I think that certain kinds of psychological therapies are now understanding that, so certain kinds of cognitive therapies, for example, do assign specific kinds of homework or practice for people to engage in on a daily basis. So I think there's growing recognition of that.

I think that most people still don't think of qualities like happiness as being a skill rather than it's typically conceptualized as a fixed trait and some people have more of it; some people have less of it. But if you think about it more as a skill, then it's something that can be enhanced through training. Fundamentally, I think that the kind of mental exercise that we're talking about is no different than physical exercise. People understand that they can't just do two weeks of physical exercise and then expect the benefits to remain for the rest of their lives. And the same thing with mental exercise.

...and I think that that's a very different conception of happiness, one that is a more enduring and I think more genuine in the sense that it's a kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.

See also:  

The Holy Grail of Brain Training

Illustration by Peter Arkle for Newsweek Excerpt from “Can You Build a Better Brain?” by Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Jan. 10 & 17, 2011:

The rule that “neurons that fire together, wire together” suggests that cognitive training should boost mental prowess. Studies are finding just that, but with a crucial caveat. Training your memory, reasoning, or speed of processing improves that skill, found a large government-sponsored study called ACTIVE. Unfortunately, there is no transfer: improving processing speed does not improve memory, and improving memory does not improve reasoning. Similarly, doing crossword puzzles will improve your ability to?.?.?.?do crosswords. “The research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks,” says Columbia’s Yaakov Stern.

The holy grail of brain training is something that does transfer, and here there are three good candidates. The first is physical exercise. Simple aerobic exercise, such as walking 45 minutes a day three times a week, improves episodic memory and executive-control functions by about 20 percent, finds Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His studies have mostly been done in older adults, so it’s possible the results apply only to people whose brain physiology has begun to deteriorate—except that that happens starting in our 20s. Exercise gooses the creation of new neurons in the region of the hippocampus that files away experiences and new knowledge. It also stimulates the production of neuron fertilizers such as BDNF, as well as of the neurotransmitters that carry brain signals, and of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Exercise stimulates the production of new synapses, the connections that constitute functional circuits and whose capacity and efficiency underlie superior intelligence. Kramer finds that a year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking. “You can think of fitness training as changing the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills,” he says. “It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision making.”

The second form of overall mental training is meditation, which can increase the thickness of regions that control attention and process sensory signals from the outside world. In a program that neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami calls mindfulness-based mind-fitness training, participants build concentration by focusing on one object, such as a particular body sensation. The training, she says, has shown success in enhancing mental agility and attention “by changing brain structure and function so that brain processes are more efficient,” the quality associated with higher intelligence.

Finally, some videogames might improve general mental agility. Stern has trained older adults to play a complex computer-based action game called Space Fortress, which requires players to shoot missiles and destroy the fortress while protecting their spaceship against missiles and mines. “It requires motor control, visual search, working memory, long-term memory, and decision making,” he says. It also requires that elixir of neuroplasticity: attention, specifically the ability to control and switch attention among different tasks. “People get better on tests of memory, motor speed, visual-spatial skills, and tasks requiring cognitive flexibility,” says Stern. Kramer, too, finds that the strategy-heavy videogame Rise of Nations improves executive-control functions such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and reasoning in older adults.

Read the entire article…


Changing All the Time

“For a while, people had this notion that plasticity must be a good thing. It’s a good thing that the brain can change because we can learn new things—and that’s true. But if plasticity is an intrinsic property of the brain, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way it is…I think we’re now learning that, in fact, the brain is changing all the time, that the brain is changing with everything we think and with everything we experience. And so the challenge is to learn enough about it so that you can guide those changes.”

~ Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School

The Brain That Changes Itself from Andrew Girgis on Vimeo.

Attention Fitness

Attention Fitness

"Paying attention, for long periods of time, is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness." ~ Clay Johnson