Category: Neuroscience

Dalai Lama enlightens and enraptures contemplative scientists in Boston

The Dalai Lama at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies
The Dalai Lama takes part in a dialogue with scientists at the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies. From left to right: Amishi Jha, Richard Davidson, His Holiness, Thupten Jinpa and Arthur Zajonc. Photograph: Jurek Schreiner

When the Dalai Lama began a dialogue with cognitive scientists in 1987 to explore how the insights gained by Buddhist contemplatives could be used to inform research and find new ways to promote human wellbeing, he could not have imagined that businesses and even the US military would one day want to harness some of those insights. (more…)

Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?

Thalamus small.gif

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. (more…)

Meditation or medication for depression? A reality check

Prozac (fluoxetine) antidepressant pills
Research has suggested meditation is as effective as taking an antidepressant for mild depression

There was good news last week about the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for easing anxiety, depression and pain. Mail Online reported that a study had found “meditation ‘works just as well as anti-depressants’: half an hour a day offers as much relief as tablets”, while The Boston Globe said those who took mindfulness classes experienced improvement in mood after eight weeks “on par with the effect seen with prescription medications”.

This was all perfectly true. A review published in JAMA Internal Medicine had looked at all the best studies to date and concluded that there was “moderate evidence” of improved anxiety, depression and pain among patients. The effect on mild depression was indeed equal to that achieved with anti-depressants.

Like me, though, you may be a bit underwhelmed by that phrase “moderate evidence”. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but better than “low evidence” – which was what the reviewers concluded about the efficacy of meditation for improving stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life. (more…)

Meditation for pain relief

Candle and Buddha
Pain is relieved by suppressing the “mental narratives” and “self-related processes” that usually exacerbate it

Pain is a fact of life: it can be dulled with drugs, but sometimes it’s just too intense or too persistent. Then we have to learn to live with it.

Buddhist monks are adept at doing this when they sit immobile in meditation, remaining straight-backed in the lotus position for hours on end. They are thought to achieve this by “uncoupling” the sensation of pain from their emotional reaction to it. This is more than just a parlour trick. Monks protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet have shown they are capable of sitting unflinching as they burn to death. (more…)

Electrical brain stimulation for soldiers: a shot in the dark

German soldiers
Noninvasive brain stimulation could enhance the effectiveness of military training and improve the performance of soldiers on the battlefield, but its collateral effects on the mind are largely unknown. Photograph: public domain

Ever since the invention of the two-handed club, warfare and technology have been inextricably linked. More often than not, the humans who are sent into battle have been mere pawns in these hi-tech contests. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the military are eying up one of the most exciting new technologies in neuroscience, noninvasive brain stimulation (NIBS), which uses electrical or magnetic fields to remotely influence the activity of particular parts of the brain and could boost physical and mental performance. (more…)

Uncanny synchronicity in the brain during near death experiences and meditation

Stone Buddha head enveloped by roots
The Buddha is said to have entered a state of deep meditation as he died

People who have had a near-death experience commonly report a sense of wellbeing and peace, detachment from the world, the feeling of being outside their own body, and seeing a bright light. People who meditate deeply often report very similar sensations. Research reported yesterday in the journal PNAS suggests what may link the two experiences. (more…)