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?
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”→
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”→
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.
Clinical depression causes misery for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Around one in five patients fails to respond to any treatment and even among those who do recover relapse rates are high and get progressively worse with each successive episode. The most widely used class of antidepressants, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can lift some people out of severe depression and help them stay well, but they don’t work for everyone and among the many side-effects are anxiety, weight gain and sexual dysfunction.
Since the SSRIs became available in the 1980s no new class of drugs has emerged, so the news that there may already be a more effective type of antidepressant in existence that is safe and well tolerated is tantalising. The catch is that to possess or supply these chemicals runs the risk of an unlimited fine or prison sentence…
This blogpost was published on the Guardian’s website, Tuesday 17 May 2016. Read on…
Meditating can be hard, lonely work, but if recent research is to be believed there may be a quick-and-dirty shortcut to enlightenment: psychedelic drugs. According to an exploratory study, drinking the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca can bring about improvements in mindfulness that would take years of dedicated meditation to achieve. The research found that ayahuasca raised mindfulness abilities to levels equal to or even greater than those of people who have been practising meditation for around seven years.
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?”→
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.