Meditation brightens mood by pumping up dopamine levels

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Happy Christmas! Image: pixabay

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?

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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. Continue reading “This is the happiness of the Buddha”

Siddhartha’s Brain – enlightenment in paperback

 

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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.

 

 

Hot off the press!

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My new book about the mind-blowing new “science of enlightenment” – which is stuffed with neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology, but also some wonderful Buddhist stories and guided mindfulness meditations – will be published on 26 April in the US and 2 June in the UK. I received my personal copy through the post yesterday, so I couldn’t resist sharing a few quick thoughts.

One of my principal inspirations for writing the book was a long conversation I had in 2014 with a charming Buddhist monk called Ajahn Amaro, the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the little village of Great Missenden near Hemel Hempstead in the UK. Before his ordination into the Thai Forest tradition he trained as a scientist at the University of London in the 1970s, earning a degree in physiology and psychology. As we chatted it became clear he sees Buddhism as a kind of internalised cognitive psychology formulated in Ancient India by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – thousands of years before “science” had been invented. He believes that the role of his monastery is to carry on that tradition.

“We don’t run labs and such,” the abbot told me, “but our way of practicing and teaching meditation is very experientially based – it’s what actually helps people. We are working with the mind to understand it better and train it to be more malleable and function in a more balanced way.” He even went so far as to say we are “all mentally ill”. According to Buddhist philosophy, only perfectly enlightened beings can be considered 100% sane. Such people see the world as it truly is, stripped of the greed, aversion and delusion that clouds the untrained minds of more ordinary folk like you and me.

I followed up my conversation with Ajahn Amaro by interviewing many of the leading scientists investigating the neuroscience and potential benefits of meditation, including the two inspirational people who brought this whole new field into existence in the 1980s, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Herbert Benson. The more I learned about Buddhism and meditation, the more at home I felt with them, both as a sceptical (even cynical) science journalist, and as someone with a cranky human mind. I began to meditate myself and attend retreats.

Famously, Siddhartha told his followers:

“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher’. When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering,’ then you should abandon them.”

In other words, “Take no one’s word for it” or Nullius in verba in Latin, which is the motto of the Royal Society. Stripped of its cultural baggage (there’s plenty of that, of course, after two and half millennia) Buddhism is the anti-dogma religion. You’re not expected to believe in a creator god or follow a creed, just investigate your own experience, carefully, objectively, with an open mind.

Siddhartha’s Brain brings together this ancient philosophy with the discoveries of rigorous, hi-tech modern science. I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

 

Neanderthals versus Humans: How much did William Golding get right in The Inheritors?

Neanderthal man reconstruction
A Neanderthal at the Museo Scienze Naturali Enrico Caffi in Bergamo, Italy.

Why do we find our extinct cousins the Neanderthals so very fascinating? Is it because we imagine they were as we once were during the childhood of our own species, before we lost our innocence? The last common ancestor we share with the Neanderthals was Homo heidelbergensis, but we parted company in Africa some 350-400,000 years ago. Maybe the romantic in us yearns to recapture this more primitive way of being before the advent of human civilisation and the mixed blessings of acute self-awareness: an idyllic existence we enjoyed before our expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Or maybe we simply feel a guilty thrill at the thought we “won” in the competition for survival, our “superior” species erasing them from the face of the Earth? Continue reading “Neanderthals versus Humans: How much did William Golding get right in The Inheritors?”

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. Continue reading “Dalai Lama enlightens and enraptures contemplative scientists in Boston”

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

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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 for pain relief

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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. Continue reading “Meditation for pain relief”