Mindfulness meditation may improve memory for teens

BY KATHRYN DOYLE

“These results are consistent with a growing body of research in adults that has found mindfulness meditation to be a helpful tool for enhancing working memory capacity,” said Kristen E. Jastrowski Mano of the psychology department at the University of Cincinnati, who coauthored the new study.

The researchers randomly divided 198 public middle school students into three groups: mindfulness meditation, hatha yoga or a waitlist. Most students were female, ages 12 to 15, and from low-income households that qualified for reduced-cost lunch.

Before the study began and after it ended, the students completed computer-based memory assessments and reported their stress and anxiety levels via questionnaires.

The meditation and yoga groups met for 45 minutes twice a week, for four weeks. In addition, students logged their home practice in journals that were collected each week.

Two trained mindfulness instructors led the meditation group in breathing techniques, formal meditation and discussion using written scripts with instructions on sitting posture, breathing and wandering thoughts.

Students were encouraged to take CDs with meditation audio recordings and use them for 15 to 30 minutes daily at home.

The yoga sessions were structured similarly, with trained instructors focusing on breathing, yoga poses and discussion. The kids in this group were also encouraged to practice at home daily using a DVD with yoga lessons.

Memory scores increased in the mindfulness meditation group by the end of the study, while they did not change in the yoga or waitlist groups, the authors reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Perceived stress and anxiety decreased in all three groups over time.

“Working memory is often conceptualized as being a ‘mental workbench’ that allows a person to keep information in mind long enough for reasoning and comprehension to occur,” Jastrowski Mano told Reuters Health by email. “It is involved in helping the brain shift information from short-term memory to long-term memory.”

Working memory is involved in many aspects of learning, like reasoning ability, mathematical problem solving, and reading comprehension, she said.

“Theoretical and experimental research suggests that mindfulness meditation is associated with changes in neural pathways and may be particularly effective in promoting executive functioning,” Jastrowski Mano said. “The practice of meditation – which requires sustained attention while simultaneously redirecting attention back to the current experience – is closely related to the function of working memory.”

Some of the benefit of the meditation sessions may come from the relationships the teens build with the instructors, said Gina Biegel, a private practice psychotherapist in San Francisco who was not part of the new study.

“These youth are not getting a lot of attention from chaotic home environments,” Biegel told Reuters Health by email. “People in the mindfulness community are compassionate and respectful and create a relationship they don’t get elsewhere.”

Present moment awareness and focus exercises can be helpful too, as teens are often multitasking with homework, mobile devices, music and friends, she said.

Teens may want to consider mindfulness meditation for more than just the potential benefit of improving working memory capacity, Jastrowski Mano said, as there is growing evidence that youth experience many different physical and psychological benefits.

“But more research is definitely needed to figure out which adolescents benefit the most from mindfulness meditation, and in what ways,” she said, and she and her coauthors are cautious about making broad recommendations to schools.

“That said, many schools are very enthusiastic about and open to integrating mindfulness practices into their schools, so it is certainly something worth considering,” she said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/1NBO7WF The Journal of Adolescent Health, online November 11, 2015.
Read more at Reutershttp://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/17/us-health-teens-mindfulness-idUSKCN0T62KZ20151117#BzOAcypPtJKkMgis.99

Mindfulness Meditation Trumps Placebo in Pain Reduction

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Nov. 13, 2015 – Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have found new evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain more effectively than placebo.

This is significant because placebo-controlled trials are the recognized standard for demonstrating the efficacy of clinical and pharmacological treatments.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation reported greater pain relief than placebo. Significantly, brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation produced very different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.
“We were completely surprised by the findings,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the study. “While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion.”

The study used a two-pronged approach – pain ratings and brain imaging – to determine whether mindfulness meditation is merely a placebo effect. Seventy-five healthy, pain-free participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups: mindfulness meditation, placebo meditation (“sham” meditation), placebo analgesic cream (petroleum jelly) or control.
Pain was induced by using a thermal probe to heat a small area of the participants’ skin to 49 degrees Centigrade (120.2 degrees Fahrenheit), a level of heat most people find very painful. Study participants then rated pain intensity (physical sensation) and pain unpleasantness (emotional response). The participants’ brains were scanned with arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI) before and after their respective four-day group interventions.

The mindfulness meditation group reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. In contrast, the placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by 11 percent and emotional aspect of pain by 13 percent.
“The MRI scans showed for the first time that mindfulness meditation produced patterns of brain activity that are different than those produced by the placebo cream,” Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation reduced pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).
Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers.  By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away, Zeidan said.

Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation.  The placebo-meditation group had relatively small decreases in pain intensity (9 percent) and pain unpleasantness (24 percent). The study findings suggest that placebo meditation may have reduced pain through a relaxation effect that was associated with slower breathing.
“This study is the first to show that mindfulness meditation is mechanistically distinct and produces pain relief above and beyond the analgesic effects seen with either placebo cream or sham meditation,” Zeidan said.

“Based on our findings, we believe that as little as four 20-minute daily sessions of mindfulness meditation could enhance pain treatment in a clinical setting. However, given that the present study examined healthy, pain-free volunteers, we cannot generalize our findings to chronic pain patients at this time.”
This work was supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, R21-AT007247, F32-AT006949 and K99-AT008238; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NS239426; the Mind and Life Institute Francisco J. Varela Award; and the Wake Forest Center for Integrative Medicine.

Co-authors are: Nichole M. Emerson, B.S., Suzan R. Farris, B.S., John G. McHaffie, Ph.D., and Youngkyoo Jung, Ph.D., of Wake Forest Baptist; Jenna N. Ray, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; and Robert C. Coghill, Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Can People Change?

By Matthieu Ricard | August 25, 2015 | 0 Comments

Posted on the Greater Good website – www.greatergood.berkeley.edu

In an adaptation from his new book Altruism, Buddhist monk and bestselling author Matthieu Ricard takes on the notion that humans have a fixed nature.  

One day, after a talk I had given on altruism, a person in the audience got up and said in an irritated tone: “What are you hoping for by encouraging us to cultivate altruism? Look at the history of humanity! It’s always the same thing! An uninterrupted succession of wars and suffering. That’s human nature, you can’t change anything about that!”

This essay was adapted from Matthieu Ricard’s new book, <a href=“http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0316208248/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0316208248&linkCode=as2&tag=gregooscicen-20&linkId=GEMFAPVHF7LQU54Z”><em>Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World</em></a> (Little, Brown, 2015).

This essay was adapted from Matthieu Ricard’s new book,Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (Little, Brown, 2015).

But is this truly the case? We have seen that cultures can evolve. For example, we have gone from regarding torture as an entirely acceptable public spectacle and war as noble and glorious, to tolerating violence less and less, and increasingly regarding war as immoral and barbaric. But can the individual change? And if he can, does this change have an influence on society and on succeeding generations?

True, our character traits change little, so long as we do nothing to improve them. But they are not frozen in place. Our basic traits, which result from the combined contributions of our genetic heritage and the environment in which we grew up, make up only the foundation of our identity. Scientific research in the field of neuroplasticity shows that any form of training leads to a reconfiguring in the brain, on both the functional and structural levels.

Society and its institutions influence and condition individuals, but individuals can in turn make society evolve and change its institutions. As this interaction continues over the course of generations, culture and individuals mutually shape each other.

If we want to encourage a more altruistic society to develop, it is important to evaluate the respective capacities for change of both individuals and society. The scientific discoveries of recent decades show that our genetic heritage, influential as it is, represents only a starting point that predisposes us to showing certain dispositions. This potential—and this is a crucial point—can then come to expression in multiple ways under the influence of our environment and by what we acquire through the efforts we make to train our minds or physical abilities. Thus, it is more appropriate to compare our genetic heritage to an architectural drawing that might be modified as the construction progresses, or else to a musical theme on which a performer improvises.

How the brain and body evolve

The plasticity of the brain plays a large role in our capacity for individual transformation. For a long time, an almost universally accepted dogma in the neuroscience field stated that once formed and structured, the adult brain doesn’t produce any more neurons and changes only through decline with age.

Today we know this doctrine was completely wrong. One of the major discoveries of the last thirty years concerns neuroplasticity, a term that takes into account the fact that the brain changes constantly when an individual is exposed to new situations. The adult brain in fact remains extraordinarily malleable. It has the ability to produce new neurons, to reinforce or diminish the activity of existing neurons, and even to attribute a new function to an area of the brain that usually carries out a completely different function.

There is a second mechanism that allows individuals to change: epigenetics. In order for a gene, which we have inherited from our parents, to be active, it must be “expressed,” that is it must be “transcribed” in the form of a specific protein acting on the organism bearing this gene. But if a gene is not expressed, if it remains “silent,” it’s as if it were absent.

Matthieu Ricard

Venerable Matthieu Ricard

Recent advances in genetics have revealed that environment can considerably modify the expression of genes by a process called epigenetics. This expression of genes can be activated or deactivated under the influence not just of external conditions, but also of our mental states.

Two monozygotic twins, for instance, who have exactly the same genes, can acquire different physiological and mental characteristics if they are separated and exposed to dissimilar living conditions. In scientific terms, one would say they are genetically identical but phenotypically different. Similarly, a caterpillar and a butterfly have exactly the same genes, but they are not expressed in the same way, depending on the times of the insect’s life.

These modifications in the expression of genes are more or less lasting, and in certain cases can even be transmitted from one generation to another, even though there are no changes in the DNA sequence of the genes themselves. These discoveries have truly revolutionized the field of genetics, since hitherto the very notion of transmission of acquired traits was regarded as heresy. The influence of external conditions is thus considerable, and we know today that this influence has repercussions all the way down to our genes.

Could training the mind to cultivate positive emotions lead to epigenetic changes? Studies undertaken at Richard Davidson’s laboratory in Wisconsin, in collaboration with the Spanish geneticist Perla Kaliman, show that within a day, meditating for eight hours on mindfulness, altruistic love, and compassion already induces major epigenetic modifications. We can glimpse here the possibility of an epigenetic transformation of an individual that is due not just to the influence of the environment, but also to a voluntary training in cultivating basic human qualities.

Becoming different beings

It seems that a simultaneous transformation of cultures and individuals is possible. Children who grow up in a culture where altruistic values prevail and where society encourages cooperation will change no only in momentary behavior but also in their general attitude and mental dispositions. They will be different, not just because they will conform to new cultural norms and new rules set by institutions, but because their brains will have beens shaped differently and because their genes will be expressed differently. Thus, a dynamic process of mutual influences will continue over the course of generations.

In the final analysis, it is individuals who put totalitarian regimes in place, and other individuals who overthrow them to establish democracy. It is individuals who have perpetrated genocides when they dehumanized their fellows, and it is other individuals, sometimes the contemporaries of the former, who promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite immense progress in the fields of democracy, women’s rights, human rights in general, justice, solidarity, and the eradication of poverty and epidemics, much remains to be done. It would be regrettable to neglect the role of personal transformation in facilitating further changes.

One of the tragedies of our time seems to be considerably underestimating the ability for transformation of the human mind, given that our character traits are perceived as relatively stable. It is not so common for angry people to become patient, tormented people to find inner peace, or pretentious people to become humble. It is undeniable, however, that some individuals do change, and the change that takes place in them shows that it is not at all an impossible thing. Our character traits last as long as we do nothing to improve them and we leave our attitudes and automatisms alone, or else let them be reinforced with time. But is is a mistake to believe they are fixed in place permanently.

Adapted from Altruism. Copyright ©2015 by Matthieu Ricard. Translation copyright ©2015 by Little, Brown and Company.

Five Things Pixar’s “Inside Out” Teaches Us About Emotions

Posted on www.mindful.org by

Inside Out revolves around the life an 11-year old girl named Riley, who is moving across the country with her family. At such an impressionable age, a move is a huge transition, and she experiences an outpour of emotions as she leaves her home, friends, and hockey league behind. Enter the main characters, Riley’s feelings: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, who provide a glimpse into the workings of Riley’s mind as she navigates this life-changing experience.

From the moment it started, I couldn’t contain my excitement. The nerd in me was blown away by the extraordinary way in which many of the movie’s messages “measured up” to reality from a neuro-scientific perspective. For example, the way a day full of short-term/working memories is then consolidated during sleep.

While the film gave up some scientific integrity for the sake of storytelling, its poetic license didn’t drive too far away from the reality that we are, essentially, made up of personality traits that wax and wane during different points in our life.

Beyond the intricate science of it all, what Inside Out did do so well was to provide the empowering message that we should learn how to understand, connect to, and accept our feelings and memories in a way that is conducive to thriving.

Five ways Inside Out taught us about the importance of emotions:

1. All of our emotions exist for a purpose

Emotions are neither inherently good or bad, and to think of them in such dichotomous terms is to do yourself a disservice. Every emotion tells us something about our inner experience that might be informing our outer experience.

In fact, Rumi, the Sufi poet, waxed poetic in “The Guest House” a long time ago about how we should treat every emotion as a visitor, without looking to get rid of any of them, and instead work to understand their message and purpose.

What Rumi alluded to in his writing was also recently confirmed by research that indicates that well-being is actually predicated on having a wider range of emotions. The more you can feel—in all of feeling’s iterations—the better off you are.

2. To have emotions is to have a compass

At one point in the film, Joy tries to keep Sadness away from Riley. Although she felt other emotions, the inability to feel sadness, coupled with her mother’s request for Riley to stay happy, ultimately lead to a cold and numb existence. This state only generated poor judgment and unhealthy choices. It wasn’t until she felt sadness that Riley was able to see more clearly and reach out for support. Acknowledging and understanding emotions is much healthier, productive, and adaptive than ignoring their importance.

3. Our realities and memories are filtered through our emotional lens

Just like our present reality is seen through the framework of our past experience, the memories we look back on are colored by our present-moment experience. In Riley’s case, she recalled a championship hockey game several different times during the movie. At one point, she remembers missing the winning shot and feeling sad about it. At another point, she literally remembers the same moment, but this time, she recalls smiling as she is championed by her teammates who pick her up onto their shoulders to let her know how valuable she is to the team. Same memory, the only difference being that it was recalled through a sad lens, and then through a joyful lens.

This is a very powerful idea. What we really “need” to remember is that our memories are a part of our personal narrative, and that in many ways, we construct the narrative we believe. Because we create the narrative, we can change our story at any time. We can’t delete certain paragraphs that contain with negative facts and daunting realities. We can’t cut out chapters that we would rather not have had—they will always be there, and that’s okay. Research suggests that the actual experiences we have are less impactful than the story we tell ourselves about them.

4. Having the language to talk about emotions is empowering

Probably the most remarkable part of the movie is its existence as a film that focuses on emotions. As long as more than a modicum of scientific integrity exists, what’s important is that an illustration of the concept of emotion can now impact the dialogue we have with our children.

If children learn earlier on to embrace the way they feel, and that it’s crucial to feel all of their emotions, we can hope to see more adjusted adolescents and adults. Really, though, animation aside, this movie’s target audience is feasibly all of humanity. Why? Because to have the language to talk about our emotions, in all of their iterations, is to be empowered with an ability to learn from them, to respond to them with the utmost of compassion, and approach them with less judgment.

5. Feeling our emotions is a universal human experience

Pixar knew what it was doing when it used 5 scientifically validated universal emotions, stemming from Dr. Paul Eckman’s work (the 6th universal emotion is surprise). Through Eckman’s research, he showed that certain emotions are felt and expressed through universal facial expressions across cultures around the world. And so, the movie reminds us of our intrinsic humanity, how similar we all actually are despite our differences.

This is a very powerful idea, especially in the wake of discriminations based on skin color and/or gender/sexual identity. At the end of the day, no matter who you are, you experience the capacity for the same range of emotions. Therefore, if we can realize that we are all just fighting our own hard battles, we might experience this world with more compassion and less judgment.

This post is adapted from BrainCurves.

Meditation to help kids

While meditation is regularly practiced by only a fraction of Americans, its popularity is growing, especially for children.

A survey by the National Institutes of Health reported a nearly 28 percent increase from 2007 to 2012 in children’s use of meditation. The data showed 927,000 or 1.6 percent of U.S. children meditated. The same survey reported 18 million or 8 percent of adults practiced meditation.

And though the numbers are small, more social service providers, educators, and parents are bringing the benefits of meditation to children.

A Charlotte mother of three and longtime meditation practitioner, Angela Gala, saw each of her children benefit from meditation.

“About two years ago I invited my oldest to meditate with me as he faced some challenges sleeping,” said Gala. “It wasn’t long before he would use the techniques we practiced when he unexpectedly awoke in the middle of the night to comfortably fall back asleep, something that was difficult before.”

She said each of her younger twins eventually meditated, gaining more self-control and focus.

Together with Ranjit Deora, founder of Charlotte Meditation, Gala established Youth Meditation, a nonprofit organization providing programming to children, parents and teachers on mindfulness practices and meditation instruction.

“Meditation is not a religion, philosophy or a lifestyle,” said Deora. “It is simply a relaxation technique combining breathing and mental focus exercises that connect you to the present.”

In 12 years of practice in Charlotte he’s worked with corporations such as Bank of America, AT&T and The Shaw Group.

Deora noted children often adapt to meditation techniques more easily than adults. “They have a greater innocence and fewer activities of life,” said Deora. “They take to it naturally.”

Gala and Deora worked pro bono with 120 children last summer in summer camp classes offered at A Child’s Place, a local organization that works to ease the impact of homelessness on children.

“Our kids face a number of difficult situations that impact their behavior and self-esteem,” said Katrina Griggs, 31, program manager at A Child’s Place. “Meditation gave the children a healthier way to express their feelings and provide techniques and positive outlets to relieve their stress.”

Gala explained the program began with laughter yoga, in which participants force themselves to laugh until it becomes genuine. “Through breathing exercises we teach them to relax, focus and calm anger or frustration they may be experiencing,” she said.

Gala knew she was reaching the children when one child reflected on a situation at home. The child’s mother was upset and raising her voice in anger. “She told me she showed her mother the breathing techniques she learned in our class and performed them together with her mom, completely defusing the situation. They both ended up laughing about it.”

At Charlotte Country Day School, mindfulness meditation classes are part of the overall approach to wellness that the school is committed to for teachers and staff. The school began offering Charlotte Meditation-led classes as part of its wellness programming beginning in the fall of 2014.

“When our teachers and staff are at their best, they can provide our children their best,” said Natalie Pruette, director of communications. “Happy and healthy employees translate to happy and healthy children.”