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Posts Tagged ‘Central nervous system’

Raging River, Preston WA
Image by Preconscious Eye via Flickr

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 FoundationUCLA 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.

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Artist's depiction of the separation stage. Th...
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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.

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left parietal lobe(red) and corpus callosum, d...
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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.

A great review of this article and the psychological assessments used to quantify “self-transcendence” can be found at NeuroWhoa! and also at Neurophilosophy.

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chakras
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One thing that draws me to yoga, apart from other pure meditative practices, is that it places an emphasis on the body and mind, and not just the mind alone.  By paying attention to one’s diet, working diligently on postures and breathing, etc., there comes a transformation (still many years away for me) of both the body and the mind.  The concept of Kundalini seems to capture this – wherein a kind of psychic energy is awoken and driven slowly up through the spinal column and into the brain – releasing all sorts of desirable cognitive and physical benefits.

Transform the body and the mind will follow?

Today I was reminded of this when I saw a research article entitled, “A novel pathway regulates memory and plasticity via SIRT1 and miR-134” that was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.  In this article, the researchers examined a gene called SIRT1 which encodes a small protein that regulates the structure of chromosomes in response to the overall energy state of cells.  Most famously, it has been shown that SIRT1 mediates the longevity, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory health benefits that occur when individuals observe a diet that is calorie restricted.

In his book on Ayurvedic medicine and Kundalini yoga, Sri Swami Sivananda remarks, not on SIRT1 (obviously), but on the importance of a calorie-restricted diet as a part of the long-standing commitment to certain virtuous observances or Niyama:

A glutton cannot at the very outset have diet regulations and observe Mitahara. He must gradually practise this. First let him take less quantity twice as usual. Then instead of the usual heavy night meals, let him take fruits and milk alone for some days. In due course of time he can completely avoid the night meals and try to take fruits and milk in the daytime. Those who do intense Sadhana must take milk alone. It is a perfect food by itself. If necessary they can take some easily digestible fruits.

Indeed, a restricted diet (but not a fasting state) is a part of the yoga practice.  This observance has long been known to confer tremendous bodily health benefits – that, it turns out, are mediated by SIRT1!  Indeed, if ever there were a “longevity gene” SIRT1 would be it.  When it is over-expressed (in mice) the mice show many of the same health benefits as seen in mice that are on calorie-restricted diets (even though the mice can eat as much as they want).  Conversely, when the gene is inactivated, the mice die early and are in poor health.

In any case, today’s research article takes the SIRT1 story from the body and pushes it upwards (like the awakening kundalini) to the mind.  The article demonstrates that overexpression of SIRT1 improves cognitive function while inactivation of SIRT1 in the brain lessens cognitive function.

So it seems that body and mind are ever more unified and that – even on the molecular level – what is good for one has benefits for the other.

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Shakti
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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!

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Mood Broadcasting
Image by jurvetson via Flickr

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.

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Samadhi Statue
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In some ways, the 8 limbs of yoga described in the yoga sutras, seem a bit like a ladder, rather than a concentric set of outreached arms or spokes on a wheel.  It seems like I’m working toward something.  But what?  I certainly feel healthier, and also enjoy the satisfaction of getting slightly more able (ever so slightly) to shift into new postures – so am quite motivated to continue the pursuit.  Perhaps this is how yoga got started eons ago?   Just a pursuit that – by trial and error – left its practitioners feeling more healthy, relaxed and more in touch with their outer and inner worlds?  But where does this path lead, if anywhere?

I was intrigued by a report published in 1973 by an 8-day study carried out on the grounds of the Ravindra Nath Tagore Medical College and Hospital, Udaipur, India and subsequent letter, “The Yogic claim of voluntary control over the heart beat: an unusual demonstration” published in the American Heart Journal, Volume 86 Number 2.  Apparently, a local yogi named Yogi Satyamurti:

Yogi Satyamurti, a sparsely built man of about 60 years of age, remained confined in a small underground pit for 8 days in what according to him was a state of “Samadhi,” or deep meditation, with all bodily activity cut down to the barest minimum.

The medical researchers had the yogi’s heart and other physiological functions under constant watch via electrical recording leads, and watched as the yogi’s heart slowed down (their equipment registered a flatline) a remained so for several days.  Upon opening up the pit, the researchers found:

The Yogi was found sitting in the same posture. One of us immediately went in to examine him. He was in a stuporous condition and was very cold (oral temperature was 34.8O C) [the same temperature as the earth around him].

After a few hours, the yogi had recovered from the experience and displayed normal physiological and behavioral function – despite 8 days underground (air supposedly seeped in from the sides of the pit) with no food or human contact!

An amazing feat indeed – one that has some scientists wondering about the psychology and physiology that occurs when advanced meditators sink into (very deep) states.  John Ding-E Young and Eugene Taylor explored this in an article entitled, “Meditation as a Voluntary Hypometabolic State of Biological Estivation” published in News Physiol. Sci., Volume 13, June 1998.   They  suggest that humans have a kind of latent capacity to enter a kind of dormant or  hibernation-like state that is similar to other mammals and even certain primates.

Meditation, a wakeful hypometabolic state of parasympathetic dominance, is compared with other hypometabolic conditions, such as sleep, hypnosis, and the torpor of hibernation. We conclude that there are many analogies between the physiology of long-term meditators and hibernators across the phylogenetic scale. These analogies further reinforce the idea that plasticity of consciousness remains a key factor in successful biological adaptation.

Practice, practice, practice – towards an ability to engage a latent evolutionary adaptation? Sounds hokey, but certainly an interesting idea worth exploring more in the future.

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