Aaron Paul Orsini felt utterly alone in the world: emotionally numb and devoid of any sense of connection with anybody, including himself. Sunk deep in depression since his teens, he spent much of his time alone in his bedroom, as he puts it, “trying to figure out how the game of being human worked … I kept going to therapy. I kept reading books. I kept working at my desk job. I kept trying new medications. I kept failing, time and time again, with the simple act of identifying the emotional needs of myself and others.”
He spoke to his therapist about his struggles to maintain contact with friends and make new ones, “and how even one-on-one moments felt very confusing at times. I was physically close to people such as my girlfriend, but still very much emotionally distant, from her, myself, and really, everyone in my life.”
In an age of instant gratification and limited attention spans, why would anyone take up meditation? Perhaps for its soothing, stress-busting effects? Focusing on their breath or a mantra, even beginners start to notice the calming influence of their body’s “relaxation response”, the physiological flipside of the adrenaline-fuelled fight-or-flight response. Among other things the relaxation response slows respiration and heart rate, eases muscle tension and lowers blood pressure, and the changes are associated with a quieting of the brain’s “default mode network”, responsible for mind-wandering, rumination and worry.
But can that really be the whole story?
A peaceful mind is a wonderful thing and for many this is the biggest incentive to meditate regularly – not least for those of us prone to anxiety and depression – but there is another, related benefit that has received scant scientific or medical attention: meditation can be pleasurable, even ecstatic. In the Buddhist meditation known as jhana, for example, the early stages are characterised not only by feelings of peacefulness, but also joy and happiness. Continue reading “Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels”→
Expert opinion is heavily weighted against Benjamin Mudge. “If you asked your average psychedelic scientist, your average ayahuasca ceremony facilitator or expert in the field, or if you asked your average psychiatrist,” he says, “they would all say ayahuasca is dangerous for people with bipolar disorder because there’s a risk of manic depressive mood swings getting worse.”
I’m sitting on a blue plastic, wipe-down mattress with my back to a wooden pillar. Within arm’s reach on the floor is a small torch to light my way to the toilet during the night, on the other side an orange plastic bucket to puke into. As the light fades my four companions, each with his or her own plastic mattress and bucket, disappear from view while on every side the barks, croaks, growls and cries of jungle life grow louder. Twenty minutes ago I gulped down a draught of the bitter psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and I have convinced myself that I can feel its hot, unstoppable progress through my body, from my seething guts into my veins and onwards to my brain.
This is hardly a recreational drug experience, what with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, not to mention the possibility of a truly terrifying trip, yet thousands now beat a path to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil every year to drink ayahuasca. Some are just looking for an exotic thrill, but others hope for enlightenment and healing from this ancient plant medicine. In the past few years, many of them have been war veterans desperate to escape the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Last weekend, a few months after the publication of Siddhartha’s Brain in Dutch, I gave a lecture about the science of mindfulness to a very polite, attentive audience at the wonderful Brainwash Festival in Amsterdam. Here’s a transcript.
Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of us here will face two key problems in our lives. The first problem is that as creatures of biology, particularly when we’re young, we spend lots of time and energy pursuing the pleasures of sex, money, social status. And as biological creatures we also invest a lot of energy trying to avoid pain and unpleasantness.
For most people, this is what they mean when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. But pleasures never last and sooner or later, as we get older, we’re all going to experience the pain and unpleasantness of ill health and ageing. It’s just a fact of life.
So that’s our first problem, and I’m sure none of this is news to you.
The second problem is much more surprising and counterintuitive, but is just as important. The second problem is that we think way too much. Every second that we’re awake, our lives are dominated by what’s going through our minds. Continue reading “This is the happiness of the Buddha”→
“Disbelieving and hostile” is how Herbert Benson describes the reaction of fellow cardiologists at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s when they learned he was studying the physiological effects of transcendental meditation. They thought he’d sold out to the hippies. “I had to conduct two careers at that time,” the 80-year-old told me over the phone from Boston. “One as a cardiologist and the other as ‘my crazy thing’.” At one point there was a real possibility he could be thrown out of Harvard. Continue reading “Meditation research: from “career suicide” to mainstream science”→
Do people who meditate age more slowly? It seems unlikely on the face of it. How could sitting immobile with one’s eyes closed, perhaps focusing on the breath, possibly keep the Grim Reaper at bay? That said, the Buddha – surely the archetypal meditator – is reputed to have lived to 80, which must have been an exceptionally ripe old age in 5th century BCE India. And according to Buddhist scriptures, even after 80 years in this realm of existence, in the end it wasn’t old age that finished him off but food poisoning.
There’s something weird going on in the field of meditation and mindfulness research. On the one hand there are voices warning that meditation can cause psychosis – leading people to lose touch with reality and experience symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and disturbing thoughts – on the other there are equally persuasive voices claiming that it should be used to treat psychosis. Continue reading “Meditation and psychosis”→
Journalists adore research that allows them to write stories along the lines of “scientists have tracked down the brain’s love HQ” or “researchers have located the brain’s god spot”. It is very satisfying to imagine that we can divide the brain into neat components with distinct functions like the parts of a car engine. We dream that one day, neuroscientists will be able to lift the bonnet (or the hood if it’s an American brain), point and say “here’s the valve that causes schizophrenia – we can readjust that with this chemical spanner. Here’s the tank that causes OCD when it overflows – we can drain that by turning this tap here. Over there are the spark plugs that we clean up to cure depression …”
Unfortunately the brain is a lot messier and more wonderful than your average motor engine, which is why we’re still standing over it scratching our heads trying to figure out how on earth it all works. It’s a tangle of connections, with myriad networks of components involved in creating thoughts, consciousness, sensations and emotions.
So it is with a mixture of excitement and wariness that I approach a study by researchers at Beijing Normal University in China that seems to point to a particular part of the brain that switches mindfulness on and off. It’s called the thalamus (shown in red on the animated gif), a pair of bulbous structures that sit at the top of the brainstem (yellow) on the midline of the brain. The thalamus plays a pivotal role as the brain’s switchboard, relaying information from all the senses apart from smell to the cerebral cortex, which is the thinking, conscious part of the brain. Continue reading “Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?”→
Forty years ago, the Whitehall Study of men working for Britain’s Civil Service famously revealed that those at the bottom of the pecking order were much more likely to die prematurely than those at the top – regardless of other risk factors such as smoking. They had higher mortality rates from all causes, but especially heart disease.
So the lowly paid doorman, whether or not he was a heavy smoker, was more likely to drop dead than the clerk sitting at his desk all day earning more money. As ever, life was deeply unfair. But what was the biological explanation for this health inequality? One theory was that the stress and lack of control over their working lives experienced by men in lowlier jobs were putting their health at risk, though how that worked physiologically was anyone’s guess. Continue reading “Growing old stressfully: chronic stress and prematurely aged cells”→