Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?

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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?”

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. Continue reading “Meditation or medication for depression? A reality check”

Meditation changes the sleeping brain | Mindfulness research roundup

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Distinctive electrical activity has been found in the sleeping brains of experienced meditators

This month’s roundup of mindfulness research features studies of meditation’s effects on the sleeping brain; mindfulness for hypertension; and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression in adolescents. Continue reading “Meditation changes the sleeping brain | Mindfulness research roundup”

Mindfulness monthly: irate taxi drivers, craving and paranoia

London taxi
A London taxi. Angry driving is bad driving. Photograph: Ed_g2s/Wikimedia Commons

Driving a stifling taxi cab on clogged city streets for hour after hour – scared half to death by careless pedestrians stepping into the road, harangued by passengers late for their lunch appointments, exasperated by the incompetence of your fellow drivers – would tax the patience of Mahatma Gandhi.

These men and women deserve our sympathy. They need our help to get through their shift without winding down the window and shouting obscenities at the next person who annoys them. Or worse. Quite apart from the danger to other road users, there is also ample evidence that anger can lead to a heart attack and raises the risk of heart disease.

Anger management

Psychologists have investigated the causes and consequences of aggressive, angry driving, but much less attention has been paid to strategies for preventing it. There have been a few attempts to measure how good cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) are at changing the attitudes and responses of angry drivers to certain cues, but now researchers in Iran have conducted the first study to compare the effectiveness of these two approaches. Continue reading “Mindfulness monthly: irate taxi drivers, craving and paranoia”