Go gentle into that good night

Weeds grow on a concrete pathway in a cemetery in Galveston, Texas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
                                                       Dylan Thomas

“How do individuals emotionally cope with the imminent real-world salience of mortality?” wonder psychologists in a recent paper. Or in everyday language, how do people manage when they come face to face with death? The psychologists’ research suggests that, even under the most challenging circumstances, most people manage surprisingly well.

Sarah Hirschmüller and Boris Egloff from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany analysed the last words of people you might expect to bemoan bitterly their fate and “rage, rage against the dying of the light”: prisoners on death row just seconds away from execution. But in fact, more than 80% used a greater number of positive emotional words in their final spoken statements than negative emotional words. Continue reading “Go gentle into that good night”

Meditation and psychosis

Meditation

There’s something weird going on in the field of meditation and mindfulness research. On the one hand there are voices warning that meditation can cause psychosis – leading people to lose touch with reality and experience symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and disturbing thoughts – on the other there are equally persuasive voices claiming that it should be used to treat psychosis. Continue reading “Meditation and psychosis”

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. Continue reading “Is this the brain’s mindfulness switch?”

Growing old stressfully: chronic stress and prematurely aged cells

Human chromosomes showing telomeres
Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white). Photograph: public domain

Forty years ago, the Whitehall Study of men working for Britain’s Civil Service famously revealed that those at the bottom of the pecking order were much more likely to die prematurely than those at the top – regardless of other risk factors such as smoking. They had higher mortality rates from all causes, but especially heart disease.

So the lowly paid doorman, whether or not he was a heavy smoker, was more likely to drop dead than the clerk sitting at his desk all day earning more money. As ever, life was deeply unfair. But what was the biological explanation for this health inequality? One theory was that the stress and lack of control over their working lives experienced by men in lowlier jobs were putting their health at risk, though how that worked physiologically was anyone’s guess. Continue reading “Growing old stressfully: chronic stress and prematurely aged cells”

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 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. Continue reading “Meditation for pain relief”

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. Continue reading “Electrical brain stimulation for soldiers: a shot in the dark”