Your brain is a beautiful universe! Enjoy it via meditation. Love it & spend time getting to know it. Its a wonderful place!
Your brain is a beautiful universe! Enjoy it via meditation. Love it & spend time getting to know it. Its a wonderful place!
Posted in breathing, Mindfulness, physiology, tagged Brain, Central nervous system, dualism, Kundalini, Meditation, mindfulness, parasympathetic nervous system, Teachers and Centers, Yoga on December 1, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
Does yoga feel good? Do you feel good during the practice – moving your body through the bending, twisting, inverting etc.? Be honest. I mean, since you’re probably sore as hell the next morning … if you don’t feel good during the practice, why would you bother at all?
Now that I have a tad of strength in my arms and shoulders, I think I can say that, “yes” I do feel good and enjoy the practice … but usually just for the first 20 minutes or so before I start playing the frantic “just keep up with the instructor and hope for a break” game.
Some say that their good feelings come from the relaxed meditative state that yoga puts them in. Some folks just like to move their bodies and are attracted to the strange and exotic beauty of the postures. I always enjoy the music.
But where do these good feelings come from? Aren’t they just in my head? Do I really need to move my body to feel good? Why not just sit and breathe?
It turns out that there is a scientific theory on this topic. The so-called Somatic markers hypothesis that suggests that afferent feedback from the body to the brain is necessary for generating our feelings. For example, stimulation of the vagus nerve (aka Kundalini serpent) makes us feel good, while individuals with spinal cord damage who lack afferent input from the body reportedly have blunted emotions.
In his research review article, Human feelings: why are some more aware than others? [doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.04.004] Dr. Bud Craig from the Barrow Neurological Institute reviews the science of this topic and lays out the neural circuitry that goes from body to brain and is necessary for us to FEEL.
These feelings represent ‘the material me’, and so this broader concept of interoception converges with the so-called somatic-marker hypothesis of consciousness proposed by Damasio. In this proposal, the afferent sensory representation of the homeostatic condition of the body is the basis for the mental representation of the sentient self. Recursive meta-representations of homeostatic feelings allow the brain to distinguish the inner world from the outer world. Most strikingly, degrees of conscious awareness are related to successive upgrades in the cortex (a target of visceral afferent activity), supplementary motor cortex (involved in manual responses), and bilateral insular cortices. This pattern supports the general view that a network of inter-related forebrain regions is involved in interoceptive attention and emotional feelings.
Amazingly, it seems that humans have evolved several unique adaptations that make us able to convert bodily sensation into self-awareness.
For instance, a novel cell type, the so-called spindle cell, is exclusively located in these regions of the human brain. Recent evidence indicates a trenchant phylogenetic correlation, in that spindle cells are most numerous in aged humans, but progressively less numerous in children, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, and nonexistent in macaque monkeys. Notably, this phylogenetic progression also parallels the results of the mirror test for self-awareness.
The rapid development of right Anterior Insula within a brief evolutionary timescale suggests that nested interoceptive re-representations could be directly related to the advantages of advanced social interaction.
So it seems that we human beings rely on bodily awareness to attain emotional awareness. This sounds very yogic and something the yoga practice helps to develop. Feel your body –> feel your emotions!
This type of epigenetic repression of gene expression (genes that repress white matter development) is essential for white matter development.
Posted in breathing, Mindfulness, Uncategorized, tagged Brain, Central nervous system, Emotion, Empathy, Hormone, mindfulness, Mother Nature, Neuron, oxytocin, Society for Neuroscience, Yoga on November 17, 2010 | 2 Comments »
Please forgive the absurd title here … its just a play on words from a flabby, middle-aged science geek who is as alluring to “the ladies” as an old leather boot.
Like a lot of males (with active fantasy lives I suppose), my interest was piqued by the recent headline, “What Do Women Really Want? Oxytocin” – based on a recent lecture at this years Society for Neuroscience annual conference.
Oxytocin is a small hormone that also modulates brain activity. Many have referred it as the “Love Hormone” because it is released into the female brain during breastfeeding (where moms report feeling inextricably drawn to their infants), orgasm and other trust-building and social bonding experiences. So, the premise of the title (from the male point of view), is a fairly simplistic – but futile – effort to circumvent the whole “social interaction thing” and reduce dating down to handy ways of raising oxytocin levels in females (voila! happier females more prone to social (ahem) bonding).
Of course, Mother Nature is not stupid. Unless you are an infant, there is no “increase in oxytocin” without a prior “social bonding or shared social experience”. Mother Nature has the upper hand here … no physical bonding without social binding first!
So, what the heck does this have to do with yoga? Yes, its true that yoga studios are packed with friendly, health conscious females, but, the practice is mainly a solitary endeavor. Aside from the chatter before and after class, and the small amount of oxytocin that is released during exercise, there is no social bonding going on that would release the so-called “love hormone”. Thus, even though “women want yoga”, yoga class may not be the ideal location to “score with chicks”.
However, there may be one aspect of yoga practice that can facilitate social bonding (and hence oxytocin release). One benefit of a yoga practice (as covered here, here) is an increased ability to “be present” - an improved ability to pay closer attention to your own thoughts and feelings, and also, the thoughts and feelings of another person.
The scientific literature is fairly rich in research showing a close relationship between attention, shared- or joint-attention, trust and oxytocin, and the idea is pretty obvious. If you are really paying attention to the other person, and paying attention to your shared experience in the moment, the social bond will be stronger, more enjoyable and longer-lasting. Right?
Soooo – if you want the oxytocin to flow – look your partner in the eye, listen to their thoughts, listen to your own reactions, listen to, and feel their breath as it intermingles with your own, feel their feelings and your own, slow-down and enjoy the minute details of the whole experience and be “right there, right now” with them. Even if you’ve been with the same person for 40 years, each moment will be new and interesting.
Yoga will teach you how to do this.
Posted in immunity, physiology, tagged Brain, Central nervous system, Immune system, Kundalini, Meditation, parasympathetic nervous system, Treatment-resistant depression, Vagus nerve, Vagus nerve stimulation, Yoga on November 15, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
Have you ever seen the list “100 Benefits of Meditation“? Of course, many of these benefits are psychological. You know, things like: helps control own thoughts (#39) and helps with focus & concentration (#40). But many of the 100 benefits are rather physical, bodily, physiological, immunological and even biochemical benefits (such as #16- reduction of free radicals, less tissue damage).
These are awesome claims, and I’ve certainly found that mediation helps me feel more emotionally balanced and physically relaxed, but I’m wondering – from a hard science point of view – how legit some of these claims might be. For example, “#12 Enhances the immune system“ – REALLY? How might yoga and mediation enhance my immune system?
In a previous post on the amazing vagus nerve – the only nerve in your body that, like the ancient Kundalini serpent, rises from the root of your gut to the brain – AND – a nerve that is a key to the cure of treatment resistant depression – it was suggested that much of the alleviation of suffering that comes from yoga comes from the stimulation of this amazing nerve during postures and breathing.
Somehow, the ancient yogis really got it right when they came up with the notion of Kundalini serpent – so strange, but so cool!
I happened to stumble on a paper that explored the possibility that the vagus nerve might also play a role in mediating communication of the immune system and the brain – and thus provide a mechanism for “#12- Enhances the immune system” Here’s a quote from the article entitled, “Neural concomitants of immunity—Focus on the vagus nerve” [doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.058] by Drs. Julian F. Thayer and Esther M. Sternberg (Ohio State University and National Institute of Mental Health).
By the nature of its “wandering” route through the body the vagus nerve may be uniquely structured to provide an effective early warning system for the detection of pathogens as well as a source of negative feedback to the immune system after the pathogens have been cleared. … Taken together these parasympathetic pathways form what has been termed “the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway”
The scientists then investigate the evidence and possible mechanisms by which the vagus nerve sends immunological signals from the body to the brain and also back out to the immune system. Its not a topic that is well understood, but the article describes several lines of evidence implicating the vagus nerve in immunological health.
So bend, twist, inhale and exhale deeply. Stimulate your vagus nerve and, as cold and flu season arrives, awaken the serpent within!
Posted in physiology, Uncategorized, tagged Central nervous system, Consciousness, Mircea Eliade, Patañjali, Paul Churchland, Prefrontal cortex, Religion and Spirituality on September 29, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.
Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”. The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment. From the introduction …
Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.
… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts. As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us. Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities. Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):
“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary. The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”
Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world. These notions are a core of yoga spirituality. As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:
For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined. Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is, in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14) … Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance. The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject. (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself; it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)
So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it. To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff. I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.
Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!
The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here). I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:
This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.
I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!
Posted in breathing, clinical trial, Mindfulness, tagged Breathing, Central nervous system, Meditation, Mental health, Mind, mindfulness, Practice, Psychology, Teachers and Centers on September 21, 2010 | 1 Comment »
As a parent, there are times when I realize that the world of my children is not the world I grew up in. Yes, the Readin’, ‘Ritin’ & ‘Ritmetic are still just as important … and there is nothing as precious as apple pie and little league in the spring … and yes, kids must eat their vegetables and say their prayers at night. Just as its always been – and will always be. The wider technological and economic world of my children, however, is much different – most obviously altered by the recent rise of computer technology that “creatively destroys” all forms of industrial activity (media, finance, trade, healthcare) across the globe. Such change, while unsettling, is, itself, nothing new. Just teach the children to adapt and, like every generation before, your children will be fine. OK.
With this in mind, I enjoyed the recent NY Times article, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” that describes a rafting expedition of neuroscientists who ventured down a remote river in Utah – purposefully out of touch with computer technology – in order to ponder how computer technology, in the form of our email, video gaming, texting etc., etc. shape our mental experience and mental health. According to the article:
It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.
In particular, the team was focused on the neural systems that help us pay attention.
David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science. “Attention is the holy grail,” Mr. Strayer says.” “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.
Every parent knows that kids are increasingly hooked on this and that computer device. We know that these devices constantly serve up all manner of entertaining news, sports scores, gossip, visual images, games, etc. etc. Unfortunately, we also know that so-called “intermittent reinforcement”, “variable ratio of reinforcement” or “random reinforcement” can be just as addictive as any drug (the red line in the chart here shows how much more reinforcing “random” rewards are than fixed, predictable rewards). This is why these devices are – in every sense of the word – ADDICTIVE. They offer up a steady, but unpredictably so, stream of rewarding images and bits of information. I mean, how many times a day do you check your email and favorite websites? Do you feel disappointed when there is nothing juicy – but can’t help checking “just one more time”?
Hence, computer technology presents a quandary for all of us – grown ups and kids alike. How to adapt to, and manage this “new normal” of hand-held, computer-based, ubiquitous access to social and entertainment information?
Although the trip did not yield THE definitive answer, it seemed to prompt the scientists to take a closer look at the effects and value of conecting/disconnecting from computer technology. For Professor Todd Braver, a neuroscientist from Washington University:
When he gets back to St. Louis, he says, he plans to focus more on understanding what happens to the brain as it rests. He wants to use imaging technology to see whether the effect of nature on the brain can be measured and whether there are other ways to reproduce it, say, through meditation.
Boy, it sure would be nice to head out with the kids and shoot the rapids for a few days every time I felt overloaded! Unfortunately NOT one our our family’s economic realities!
Professor Braver’s comments on reproducing the effect of the rafting trip through meditation, however, got me wondering, and also reminded me of a quote that is painted on the wall of my yoga shala – from the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”
Although I can’t get away with the kids for a rafting trip, I can – and do – enjoy spending time together in a place where “CrackBerrys” and all other forms of digital technology are not to be found. A quiet spot in NJ near the, ahem, scenic Rahway River. One thing my kids have been learning in their children’s yoga classes are the rudiments of mindfulness meditation. Might this be what Professor Braver had in mind? Can it help reproduce the cognitive and emotional effects of a river rafting trip? As noted in the article:
Mr. Strayer, the trip leader, argues that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river, the sounds, the smells, you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.” … “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys.”
Hmmm, this kind of stuff is oft said about meditation. As many parents fret about their way kids become attached to their digital devices, it is perhaps too early to know whether meditation is an effective counter-balance to the new digital reality. Can it provide the same cognitive and emotional benefits experienced by the river rafters who were truly “disconnected” for a few days? Perhaps – with practice, and more practice. Nevertheless, a relaxing walk through the forest is different for kids today – as their digital devices buzz away in their pockets. What’s a modern-age kid to do?
To begin to explore this question further, check out these 2 review articles on the physiological and psychological benefits of both meditation and yoga in children. The first, Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy by David S. Black, Joel Milam and Steve Sussman, published in Pediatrics Aug 24, 2009 and Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature by doctors Mary Lou Galantino, Robyn Galbavy and Lauren Quinn from the University of Pennsylvania.
Both articles examine existing scientific evidence – in the form of controlled clinical studies – on whether these very ancient practices provide benefits to kids in the modern world. In short – they do – but more research is needed to better understand how much benefit is provided. How many sessions are needed? Does it last after practicing stops? How do the benefits work? How to best engage children of different ages? From the abstracts:
“Sitting meditation seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth.” … “The evidence shows physiological benefits of yoga for the pediatric population that may benefit children through the rehabilitation process, but larger clinical trials, including specific measures of quality of life are necessary to provide definitive evidence.”
Its fun to meditate and fun to spend quiet time with my young children – so there is no real downside to spending some time meditating and “disconnecting” from our digital devices. Might they be learning a skill that protects their creativity and emotional well-being? I hope so. Perhaps one day when they are older, they will email me to let me know!
To learn more about meditation for children, visit The David Lynch Foundation, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (adapting ancient practices to modern life), the Committee for Stress-Free Schools, Dr. Elizabeth Reid’s six week curriculum to encourage mindful learning in a class of fourth grade students and an interview with my former postdoctoral mentor on the science of attention training.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged B. K. S. Iyengar, Brain, Central nervous system, electrophysiology, levitation, Mind, neurology, Out-of-body experience, Paranormal, Practice, Vedas, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali on July 24, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
Once in class, while trying to get my arms up during Prasarita Padottanasana C (no hopes for “over” and “down to the floor” for me, just “up” with merely a slight forward bend) my instructor said that the first time she was able to touch her clasped hands to the floor, she felt like she “went out of her body”. Lucky her! Wouldn’t that be cool! I thought to myself. Maybe someday.
Could her experience – possibly – be akin to the experiences of early Vedic writers and yogis who practiced strange and difficult postures as part of their spiritual development?
The yoga sutras III.39 “bandhakarana saithilyat pracara samvedanat ca cittasya parasariravesah” (Through relaxation of the causes of bondage, and the free flow of consciousness, the yogi enters another’s body at will.) and III.40 “udanajayat jala panka kantakadisu asangah utkrantih ca” (By mastery of udana vayu, the yogi can walk over water, swamps and thorns without touching them. He can also levitate.) – seem to tenuously address something like “being out of one’s body”.
What science research studies today – unknown to the ancient sages who may have experienced such states – are the various brain systems that can give rise to such experiences. The fancy scientific terms for hallucinations of separating from one’s body are heautoscopy and autoscopy and go by other more common terms such as doppelganger or just “out of body experiences”. As reported in, “Brain electrodes conjure up ghostly visions“ (Nature, 2006) and in “Electrodes trigger out-of-body experience” (Nature, 2002):
Simple stimulation of the brain can cause the mind to play complex and creepy tricks on itself, neurologists have discovered. They found that, by inserting electrodes into a specific part of the brain [left temporoparietal junction], they could induce a patient to sense that an illusory ‘shadow person’ was lurking behind her and mimicking her movements.
People describe out-of-body experiences as feeling that their consciousness becomes detached from their body, often floating above it. … Blanke found that electrically stimulating one brain region — the right angular gyrus — repeatedly triggers out-of-body experiences. … The right angular gyrus integrates visual information — the sight of your body — and information that creates the mind’s representation of your body. This is based on balance and feedback from your limbs about their position in space.
So, the whole proposition of “out of body” seems less far-fetched to me, perhaps there are possibilities to experience such states of mind – more plausible under conditions of neurological pathology – rather than during yoga practice. But, something to meditate on in the years to come.
The brain and mind changes that come with extensive yoga practice seem to increase inner awareness and – as many practitioners report – towards a more “spiritual” awareness. What is this? … in terms of specific brain systems? One recent research article, “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence” has much to say on the types of brain systems that are engaged when we are experiencing connections to each other, our inner selves and other deeper, broader perspectives.
The researchers measured the self-transcendence scores of individuals before and after the removal of brain tissue (gliomas) in various parts of the brain – specifically the posterior parietal cortex. It was interesting that the – removal – of certain areas of the brain resulted in – higher – scores for self-transcendence. Perhaps this suggests that the effort made in yoga – to silence and still our mental processes – might have a roughly analogous effect of taking certain brain areas “offline”? Could this be what is happening in yoga and meditation? – a quieting of the posterior parietal cortex? Much to ponder and explore.
Combining pre- and post-neurosurgery personality assessment with advanced brain-lesion mapping techniques, we found that selective damage to left and right inferior posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase of self-transcendence. Therefore, modifications of neural activity in temporoparietal areas may induce unusually fast modulations of a stable personality trait related to transcendental self-referential awareness.
It is relevant that the posterior parietal cortex is involved in the representation of different aspects of bodily knowledge. Lesions of the left posterior parietal cortex induce selective deficits in the representation of the spatial relationships between body segments and delusions regarding body parts occur after lesions centered on the right temporoparietal cortex. Furthermore, illusory localization of the self into the extrapersonal space has been reported in patients with left (heautoscopic phenomena) and right temporoparietal damage (out-of-body experiences). Thus, we posit that the reduction of neural activity in the temporoparietal cortex during spiritual experiences may reflect an altered sense of one’s own body in space.
Posted in Uncategorized, tagged B. K. S. Iyengar, Brain, Central nervous system, Consciousness, frontal cortex, Human, Meditation, Mind, Neuron, Patañjali, philosophy, precuneus, Religion and Spirituality, Yoga, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali on July 5, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV. One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010]. Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions. More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen. Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use. It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use. That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.
Very neat indeed! although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical. This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough. In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds). Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).
The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present. As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”
Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions? This research makes it seem possible. Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators? Who knows. As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity. One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,
“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.
Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it. Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!
Posted in Mindfulness, tagged B. K. S. Iyengar, Breathing, Buddism, Central nervous system, Consciousness, dualism, Emotion, Health, Human, India, informatics, Meditation, mindfulness, Mood, Nervous system, Neuron, parasympathetic nervous system, Patañjali, Personalized medicine, philosophy, Religion and Spirituality, Shopping, spirituality, Yoga on June 29, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
Like many folks, I generally feel better ever since I started practicing yoga. Outwardly, my body is (slowly) growing stronger and more flexible and perhaps (hopefully) soon, I’ll even lose a few pounds. However, even if I was to convince myself that looked slimmer (skinny mirrors?), the only way to really know if I’ve lost weight, is to stand on a scale and record my weight each day (darn! no fatness lost so far).
That takes care of the body right – but what about the inner, emotional improvements I might be experiencing? How to measure these?
Here are some mobile- and web-based tools to help one track one’s emotions. Most of these websites, like Moodstats, Track Your Happiness, MoodJam, MoodMill, Finding Optimism and MoodLog seem to function as online diaries which keep a running tab on aspects of ones moods and emotions. Perhaps such tools – if used over long durations – would enable one to verify a shift toward a less anxious and more contented inner feeling? I don’t know.
Perhaps the real proof of “inner” progress would be that I had closed my computer and put away my mobile device and, rather, was outside enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. Perhaps best to avoid mixing yoga and digital distractions.
Posted in Mindfulness, tagged Arts, B. K. S. Iyengar, Breathing, Buddism, Central nervous system, Consciousness, Emotion, India, Jonah Lehrer, Meditation, mindfulness, New York Herald, Patañjali, philosophy, Poetry, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, Psychology, relaxation, Religion and Spirituality, soul, Walt Whitman, William James, World Literature, Yoga, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali on June 24, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
I’m enjoying some summer reading of Jonah Lehrer‘s Proust Was A Neuroscientist. Chapter 1 does not disappoint! – on the life and poetry of Walt Whitman who was among the first modern western artists to reject dualist notions of a dichotomy between mind and body that stemmed from early Christian writings and the philosophies of Rene Descartes (1641), and rather, embrace longstanding eastern notions of a synthesis and continuity of the mind and body.
This may relate to the ancient yoga sutra II.48 tatah dvandvah anabhighatah “from then on (after the perfection of asanasa), that sadhaka (yoga student) is undisturbed by dualities”.
Whitman’s poem, I Sing The Body Electric captures some of his youthful ardor for the unified human body-soul and the human condition. Just 2 lines from Chapter 1, line 10:
“And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
Ideas with such eastern influence earned him accolades as, “a remarkable mixture of the Bhagavad Ghita and the New York Herald” in his contemporary 1850′s press. Lehrer also traces the birth of modern neuroscience to early pioneers such as the psychologist William James, who, it turns out, was a great admirer of Whitman’s poetry.
A wrong turn with Descartes in the 1600′s, steered back on track by Whitman and James in the 1850′s!
Posted in breathing, tagged B. K. S. Iyengar, Brain, Central nervous system, coherence, Consciousness, dualism, Input/output, Meditation, Mind, mindfulness, Nervous system, Neuron, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, philosophy, Psychology, relaxation, Religion and Spirituality, Rodolfo R. Llinas, spirituality, Yoga on June 21, 2010 | 2 Comments »
One of the themes that emerges in I.I atha yoganusasanam, and runs throughout the yoga sutras, is the notion that a yoga practice will bring one into a deeper awareness of the self. To begin to explore the modern science notion of self-awareness, here’s a 2009 paper entitled, “The ‘prediction imperative’ as the basis for self-awareness” by Rodolfo R. Llinas and Sisir Roy [doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0309]. The paper is part of a special theme issue from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B with the wonderfully karmic title: Predictions in the brain: using our past to prepare for the future.
Without unpacking the whole (open access) article, here are a few ideas that seem to connect loosely to themes in yoga.
The main issue addressed by the authors is how the brain manages to solve the computational problem of movement. Here’s the problem: to just, for example, reach into a refrigerator and grab a carton of milk (a far cry from, say, scorpion pose) they point out that,
“there are 50 or so key muscles in the hand, arm and shoulder that one uses to reach for the milk carton (leading to) over 1,000,000,000,000,000 combinations of muscle contractions (that) are possible.”
Yikes! that is an overwhelming computational problem for the brain to solve – especially when there are 1,000-times FEWER neurons in the entire brain (only a mere 1,000,000,000,000 neurons). To accomplish this computational feat, the authors suggest that brain has evolved 2 main strategies.
Firstly, the authors point out that the brain can lower the computational workload of controlling movement (motor output) by sending motor control signals in a non-continuous and pulsatile fashion.
“We see that the underlying nature of movement is not smooth and continuous as our voluntary movements overtly appear; rather, the execution of movement is a discontinuous series of muscle twitches, the periodicity of which is highly regular.”
This computational strategy has the added benefit of making it easier to bind and synchronize motor-movement signals with a constant flow of sensory input:
“a periodic control system may allow for input and output to be bound in time; in other words, this type of control system might enhance the ability of sensory inputs and descending motor command/controls to be integrated within the functioning motor apparatus as a whole.”
The idea of synchronizing sensory information with pulsing motor control signals brings to mind more poetic notions of rhythmicity and the way that yogis use their breath to enhance and unify their outer and inner world experience. Neat! Also, I very much like the idea that our brains have enormously complex computational tasks to perform, so I’m keen to do what I can to help out my central nervous system. Much gratitude to you brain!
Secondly, the authors then move ahead to describe the way in which neural circuits in the body and brain are inherently good at learning and storing information which makes them very good at predicting what to do with incoming sensory inputs. This may just be another strategy the brain has evolved to simplify the enormous computational load associated with moving and coordinating the body. Interestingly, the authors note,
“while prediction is localized in the CNS, it is a distributed function and does not have a single location within the brain. What is the repository of predictive function? The answer lies in what we call the self, i.e. the self is the centralization of the predictive imperative. The self is not born out of the realm of consciousness—only the noticing of it is (i.e. self-awareness).” Here’s a link to Llinas’ book on this topic.
The “self” is not just in the brain? but distributed throughout the entire CNS? Whoa! Much to explore here. Many thematic tie-ins with ancient Vedic notions of self and consciousness … will explore this in the future!
One last passage I found of interest was written by Moshe Bar, the editor of the special issue, who suggested that neural solutions to these inherent computational challenges make the brain/mind a naturally restless place. His words,
“As is evident from the collection of articles presented in this issue, the brain might be similarly flexible and ‘restless’ by default. This restlessness does not reflect random activity that is there merely for the sake of remaining active, but, instead, it reflects the ongoing generation of predictions, which relies on memory and enhances our interaction with and adjustment to the demanding environment.”
My yoga teachers often remind me that “monkey mind” is normal and with more practice, it will subside. Very cool to see a tie-in with modern research.
Posted in self-awareness, tagged B. K. S. Iyengar, Brain, Central nervous system, Consciousness, Emotion, Mind, mindfulness, Patañjali, Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, Yoga, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali on June 19, 2010 | Leave a Comment »
Specifically, the very first chapter, first sutra: I.I atha yoganusasanam, “With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga”. Iyengar expands on this to suggest that Patanjali is inviting the reader to begin an exploration of that hidden part of man that is beyond the senses.
Beautifully said. Indeed, as a new student, I’ve noticed my own awareness of my body, my emotions and my thought processes has increased. I’m not sure if this is what Patanjali had in mind, but I’m finding that aspects of my physical and mental life that were hidden are now more apparent to me. It feels good.
How does this work, and what might types of brain mechanisms are involved in gaining self awareness? What is the self anyway? What is self-awareness? How far into one’s unconscious mental processes can one’s self-awareness reach? Why does it feel good to have more self-awareness? Lot’s to ponder in follow-ups to come.
Even though the sutras were written more than 2,000 years ago, a neural- and brain-based understanding of consciousness remains a topic of debate and intense research. I’ll do my best to explore some of this research and ways in which it might reflect back to the poetic and admittedly broad notions of consciousness in the yoga sutras.