Category: Neuroscience

Dreams, meditation and psychedelics: a manifesto for lucidity

“The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep.”

Zen master Dogen

Awake or asleep, “Am I dreaming?” may be one of the most important questions you ever ask yourself because, sooner or later, reality has a way of catching up with delusions and fantasies. There’s going to be a rude awakening.

Dreams are so convincing while you are in the midst of one. For all you know you could be dreaming right now. How do you know this is actually happening, that you are wide awake reading these words on a solidly, physically existing electronic device? You could be fast asleep dreaming the whole thing.

It is not difficult, in principle, to determine whether or not you are dreaming. There are plenty of readily available tests. Of course the classic is to pinch yourself. Another is to try pushing your finger through the palm of your hand. A popular though less discrete method is to jump into the air to check whether or not gravity is working as it should. Or you could scrutinise a clock or watch face: if the numbers are jumbled or the hands are moving too fast or too slow – or in the wrong direction – the chances are you’re dreaming. As you read this, are the words behaving themselves on the page? Are they making sense?

Anyone dreaming? Continue reading “Dreams, meditation and psychedelics: a manifesto for lucidity”

Grownups with imaginary friends may be more prone to hearing voices

Woman reading on beach
People who have a tendency to hear auditory hallucinations may experience fictional characters in books as more vivid and real. Photograph: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr

As a child, did you have an imaginary friend? Studies have found that up to two thirds of seven-year-olds play with invisible friends, but it turns out a surprisingly large number of adults also have fantasy companions.

In the biggest online survey of its kind, conducted by psychologists at the University of Durham in the UK, 7.5% of people claimed to have had one as an adult. The same people were also more likely to report experiencing auditory vocal hallucinations (AVHs) or “hearing voices” than those who had never had an imaginary companion. A second, lab-based study conducted by the same psychologists backed up the findings, raising the possibility that the two phenomena – hearing voices and fantasy friends – share the same underlying brain mechanism. (more…)

Is waking consciousness just a dream within a dream?

Buddha Dreaming
Buddha Dreaming by Alice Popkorn – “Our life is shaped by our mind”. Source: Flickr

Earlier this week I was honoured to spend some time as a guest at Night Club, chatting to its founder Andrew Holecek about dreaming, meditation and consciousness. Night Club is an online forum where members learn how to become lucid during their dreams – fully aware that what they’re experiencing is a fantasy created by their own minds. But Night Club offers a whole lot more than this, because the practices and disciplines that can be deployed to cultivate nighttime lucidity also help members penetrate the illusions of their waking consciousness.

Andrew is a renowned lucid dream and dream yoga teacher who has written several wonderful books on this and related subjects. At the request of my publisher a few months ago he had kindly set aside some time to read my own book Am I Dreaming? before it hits the shelves on 1 August, and subsequently invited me to be interviewed for Night Club.

We had plenty to talk about and the interview is now live (see below).

Am I Dreaming? explores the neuroscience of altered states of consciousness, such as dreams, trance, hypnosis, meditation and the psychedelic state, and the role they can play in improving our spiritual and psychological wellbeing. The major surprise that came from my investigation of the latest scientific thinking is that all forms of consciousness, including ordinary, waking consciousness, are based on hallucinatory, virtual reality conjured by the brain and are powerfully influenced by expectation and belief.

(more…)

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Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels

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”

A puke bucket and an ancient medicine: is ayahuasca the future of PTSD therapy?

Combat posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD
Combat veterans with PTSD are beating a path to Peru in the hope that the plant medicine ayahuasca will help them process traumatic memories. Credit: Peter Murphy/Flickr

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.

Read more at theguardian.com where this post was first published.

This is the happiness of the Buddha

Buddha statue in Vietnam

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. (more…)

Siddhartha’s Brain – enlightenment in paperback

 

SiddharthasBrainUK

My new book Siddhartha’s Brain was published as a paperback in the UK on Thursday. The book is all about what meditation and mindfulness do to your brain, what it might mean to be “enlightened”, and why mindfulness-based therapies have been showing such promise as treatments for anxiety, depression and addiction.

I also explore the mystery of why human beings are so prone to mental illness. A potential answer may be found on the African savannah millions of years ago during the slow evolution of our ancestors into the most highly sociable apes on the planet.

Ed Halliwell – a former editor at FHM magazine and now a renowned mindfulness instructor – has suffered from debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression for much of his adult life. Published in the UK on the same day as Siddhartha’s Brain, Into the Heart of Mindfulness provides moving, first-hand testimony of how mindfulness can help people with mental illness get their lives back on track – and provides a perfect complement to my own book.

The story of the spiritual journey of Siddhartha Gautama, from spoilt prince to perfectly enlightened Buddha, is my backdrop – though it goes without saying you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practise mindfulness and improve your own wellbeing. All you need is a standard-issue human brain and a little dedication.

If you’re interested, read the extract published in last weekend’s Observer Magazine, find out more about my motivation for writing the book on a recent blogpost to mark its publication in the US, or listen to a short extract from the audiobook, read by the wonderful Steven Crossley.

If you’ve already read Siddhartha’s Brain or are reading it I’d love to know what you think. I can usually be found hanging out on Twitter @JamesAKingsland.