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Posts Tagged ‘Mind’

A LOT of genetic data is out there … and more coming all the time … easy to get excited about, but hard to make sense of.  Here’s an epic story of just one SNP.

One of the best research teams in the business performed a genomewide association study (GWAS) of neuroticism in 1,227 US Caucasion participants and found associations (P values of 10−5 to 10−6) with several markers – including rs7151262 in the MAMDC1 gene.  Later they replicated the finding in a German sample of 1,880 (P values in the same directions 0.006–0.025).

Very exciting to ponder the ways in which this SNP might relate to the development of brain systems that process emotional information!

More recently, they attempted another replication of the MAMDC1 gene for association with neuroticism in 2,722 US Caucasion participants.  This time they report, “the current analysis failed to detect a significant association signal“.

Some 5,829 people were involved in the research and the data suggest that rs7151262 may or may not contribute to one’s neurotic tendencies.  If you knew your rs7151262 genotype would it change the way you think about yourself?

I don’t know … the confusion over the (+) vs. (-) association data would make me … well, neurotic.

thanks for the photo jinxmesomethingcrazy.

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Telomere caps he:תמונה:Telomere caps.gif
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A startling article that appears today in the science journal Nature, shows that reactivation and restoration of DNA telomeres was sufficient to reverse the aging process! From the article:

Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice.

Accumulating evidence implicating telomere damage as a driver of age-associated organ decline and disease risk1, 3 and the marked reversal of systemic degenerative phenotypes in adult mice observed here support the development of regenerative strategies designed to restore telomere integrity.

Love yourself, love your DNA – especially the telomeres ! For more on this topic, see a few weeks back, when I covered a research article by Nobel Prize winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn on meditation, telomeres and longevity.

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In his new movie, former Harvard psychology professor turned spiritual teacher Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert), hails us to, “love everybody and tell the truth”.

Tell the truth.  Not only a great rule to live by, but one of the things that I’ve always loved about science … its a way to discover and face the objective “truth” as separate from our subjective wants and wishes.

Take the latest scientific data on happiness.  I mean, from a – scientific point of view – what really makes us happy? Daniel Gilbert (another) Harvard psychology professor has published a research article entitled, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” [doi:10.1126/science.1192439].  The researchers used a cool mobile web application trackyourhappiness.org to collect:

an unusually large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities. …  The database currently contains nearly a quarter of a million samples from about 5000 people from 83 different countries who range in age from 18 to 88 and who collectively represent every one of 86 major occupational categories. … what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing. …  The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost. (the figure from the paper shows the happiness scores of mind wandering vs. not wandering)

As covered very nicely in the NY Times, it turns out that when folks’ minds were engaged in focused activities, they were happier as compared to when their minds were wandering.  So, it seems that scientific data support the ancient teachings (and Dass’ 1971 book) to Be Here Now!

Here’s the new movie clip found on RamDass.org:

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Just a bit of fun with Wordle (the bigger the word in the cloud, the more frequently it occurs in the source text).  Here are clouds for an English translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (English and Sanskrit).  I love that the word “mind” is one of the most prominent words for both of these fundamental yoga teachings … seems to reveal that the practice has always been about the mind.

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Peter Mark Roget (Roget's Thesaurus)
Image by dullhunk via Flickr

On Fridays, after a regular practice session, our shala is open for quiet meditation.  This is a new experience for me, even as I’ve read much about the mental and physical health benefits accrued by experienced practitioners.  As someone who is totally exhausted after practice – indeed, I couldn’t move another muscle even if I wanted – I always think it will be easy to settle in, and pass 30 minutes  in quiet stillness.

Sure enough though, even as my body is spent and motionless, my mind starts to wander, and wander, and wander some more.  “Damn”, I think, “here we go again”. Just a few minutes in, and I’m losing a battle – with myself.  “This is going to be the longest 30 minutes of my life!” What to do?

Some experts say to simply LABEL your thoughts and feelings.  Just find a word to place on the thought or feeling – and then – let it go.  Does this really work?  How does this trick work?

Recent brain imaging studies seem to show that when a word is applied to a negative emotion,  the brain changes how it processes that emotion and shifts processing to neural systems that avoid centers of the brain (the amygdala, in particular) that send neural projections to our face, gut and heart (areas where we tend to physically “feel” our bad feelings).   It seems that our ability to use words is an important tool in how we cope with emotional experience.  Either we succumb to the storms of negative emotions that can well up inside us from time to time (and feel lousy inside), or we can manage these feelings – using our words – and feel less lousy inside.   Apparently, the use of words, alters neural processing – leading us to experience less tightening in the chest, clenching in the gut, etc.,  etc. than we would otherwise feel when negative emotions come over us.  One of the researchers, David Cresswell, remarks: “This is an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha‘s teachings – more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience – with modern neuroscience.”

But this is easier said than done.

How do I label a thought?  How do I label an emotion?  I mean, “I feel, um, um, frustrated, lousy, anxious … crap … I’m not exactly sure how I feel?  What’s the word I’m looking for?

Indeed – the words – the words – as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” WORDS.  Do I know enough words?  How many words are there anyway to describe all the possible feelings that a person can feel?  How many do you know?

Check this list out.    There are more than 3,000 words in the English language to describe various feelings.  Thank you Peter Mark Roget (who, ironically, worked on the first thesaurus as a means to cope with negative feelings associated with depression).  I will bring my thesaurus – full of these tools to help me label my feelings – to meditation practice from now on!

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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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