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Posts Tagged ‘Mind’

An exploration of HOW mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation transform the body and mind seems inextricably tied to the question of, “WHY, in the first place, would anyone want to sit for days and meditate?” What was it that motivated early humans and early civilizations to engage in these so-called “spiritual” practices?  Why does a practice like yoga engage people on a self-reflective or spiritual level?

As a biologist, I’d like to explore the mental and physical transformations that occur when one practices (and practices) yoga and meditation – so perhaps a place to begin this exploration is with a scientific hypothesis about the WHY, that in some ways might be testable insofar as it might point to certain mental and physical processes – which themselves – might function as targets or recipient processes that are engaged in the course of practice (the HOW).

As a humble start, here is one such hypothesis suggested by the biologist E. O. Wilson which is reviewed in the essay entitled, “The Biological Roots of Religion: Is Faith in Our Genes?” by Morton Hunt.  Some highlights:

Religion thus met the newly evolving human need to understand and control life. Religion serves the same purposes as science and the arts – “the extraction of order from the mysteries of the material world,” as Wilson puts it – but in the prescientific era there was no other source of order except for philosophy, which was comprehensible only to a favored few and in any case was nowhere nearly as emotionally satisfying as religion.

Still another major function of religion was to act as a binding and cementing social force. I quote Wilson again: “Religion is … empowered mightily by its principal ally, tribalism. The shamans and priests implore us in somber cadence, Trust in the sacred rituals, become part of the immortal force, you are one of us.” Religious propitiation and sacrifice – near-universals of religious practice – are acts of submission to a dominant being and dominance hierarchy.

For all these reasons, says Wilson, “Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving.” The human mind evolved to believe in the gods even as religious institutions became built-ins of society.

And so, to sum up the sociobiological theory of the roots of religion: genetically built into early human beings was a set of mental, emotional, and social needs that caused culture to develop in certain ways – including the development of various religions – and caused culture, reciprocally, to favor and select for evolution those human traits that provided sociocultural advantages to the individuals possessing them. “Religion,” says Burkert, “follows in the tracks of biology … [and] the aboriginal invention of language … yield[ing] coherence, stability, and control within this world. This is what the individual is groping for, gladly accepting the existence of nonobvious entities or even principles.”

The picture above is a seal unearthed in the 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-daro excavation, showing a human-like form sitting in a yogic pose.

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Shakti
Image by alicepopkorn via Flickr

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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Paul Cezanne - Apples, Pears and Grapes
Image via Wikipedia

The painter Paul Cezanne is oft remembered as an extremely focused artist who deeply scrutinized and meditated upon his subjects.  “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”, he once said, as well as, “With an apple I will astonish Paris.” His work tried not to capture an object as seen by the naked eye, but rather to capture the momentary experience of an object that is perceived by a thinking, feeling individual.  “For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations”, seems to capture his effort to use painting to capture his deep inward and outward reflections of everyday life.

In some ways, this reminds me of yoga, when, with much practice, one becomes more adept at paying attention to specific details in time and space and reflecting deeply upon one’s inner reactions to the outer world.  I thought that one of Patanjali’s yoga sutras, “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” (I.2) sounded a lot like the master painter patiently working alongside a river who said, “Here, on the river’s verge, I could be busy for months without changing my place, simply leaning a little more to right or left.”

With this in mind, I dug into a few quotes from Paul Cezanne and ran them past some of Patanjali‘s yoga aphorisms.  I think both Patanjali and Cezanne were working very hard at being present and mindful in the moment and trying to unify their outward and inward experiences – one through yoga and one through painting!  Here are a few selected quote pairs with Cezanne on top and Pataljali below:

“Cezanne”

“Patanjali”

“When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”

“When consciousness dissolves in nature, it loses all marks and becomes pure.” (I.45)

“A puny body weakens the soul.”

“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit” (II.46)

“Right now a moment of time is passing by! We must become that moment.”

“Study of the silent moments between rising and restraining subliminal impressions is the transformation of consciousness towards restraint.” (III.9)

“The artist makes things concrete and gives them individuality.”

“Constructed or created mind springs from the sense of individuality” (IV.4)

“There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other.”

“Consciousness distinguishes its own awareness and intelligence when it reflects and identifies its source – the changeless seer – and assumes his form.” (IV.22)

“Optics, developing in us through study, teach us to see.”

“An object remains known or unknown according to the conditioning or expectation of the consciousness.” (IV.17)

“If isolation tempers the strong, it is the stumbling-block of the uncertain.”

“Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness” (I.12)

“I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.”

“When the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost.  This is samadhi.” (III.3)

“Don’t be an art critic, but paint, there lies salvation”

“Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.” (I.13)

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Samadhi Statue
Image by koolb via Flickr

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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Practice Yoga, Be Healthy! {EXPLORED}
Image by VinothChandar via Flickr

Have you ever noticed how everything healthy these days is “anti-oxidant” this and “anti-oxidant” that?  Green tea, dark chocolate, vitamin E and vitamin C – just to name a few.  Surely, its all the rage to be “anti” oxygen these days (indeed, there are currently 458 clinical trials open now for the study of anti-oxidants!).

But wait.  Isn’t oxygen the stuff we BREATHE?  Don’t we need it to live?  How can we be so “anti” oxidant?

Herein lies a very sobering chemical fact of life.  We need oxygen to breathe – while at the same time – the very same oxygen produces so-called reactive oxygen species (hydrogen peroxide, hypochlorous acid, and free radicals such as the hydroxyl radical and the superoxide anion) which cause damage to our lipids, proteins and even our genome.  What gives us life – also takes away life – a little bit each time we breathe.

Such is the basis for the healthy foods and myriad dietary supplements that (promise to) counteract and biochemically scavenge the toxic reactive oxygen molecules in our bodies.  But for the fact it would make me even fatter, I’d promptly say, “Bring on more dark chocolate!“.

But what if we could just forgo all those dietary supplements, and just USE LESS oxygen?  Might that be another way to enhance longevity and health?

With this thought in mind, I enjoyed a research article entitled, “Oxygen Consumption and Respiration Following Two Yoga Relaxation Techniques” by Drs. Shirley Telles, Satish Kumar Reddy and H. R. Nagendra from the Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, India.  The article was published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2000.

In their research article, the authors noted that – with practice – yoga can help an individual voluntarily lower their cardiac and metabolic levels.  A number of previous studies show that advanced meditators and yoga practitioners can lower their heart rate and respirations to astonishingly low levels (more posts on this to come).  The scientists in this study asked simply whether a relatively brief 22min routine of “cyclic meditation” (CM) consisting of yoga postures interspersed with periods of supine rest led to a greater reduction in oxygen consumption when compared to 22mins of supine rest (shavasana or SH).  Their question is relevant to the life-giving/damaging effects of oxygen, because a lower metabolic rate means one is using less oxygen.  According to the authors:

“We hypothesized that because cyclic meditation (CM) has repetitive cycles of ‘activating’ and ‘calming’ practices, based on the idea from the ancient texts, as discussed earlier, practicing CM would cause greater relaxation compared with supine rest in shavasan (SH).”

In the results and discussion of the data, they found (using a sample of 40 male adults) that the when they measured oxygen consumption at the beginning and at the end of the session, that the yoga postures/rest routine (CM) resulted in a 32% reduction in oxygen consumption (this is the amount of oxygen used when sitting still at the end of the session) while just laying in shavasana led to only a 10% reduction in the amount of oxygen used at the end of the session.

Wow!  So even after moving through postures – which admittedly gets one’s heart pumping and elevates one’s breathing – I would be using less oxygen (when sitting at the end of the session), than if I had just decided to lay in a supine position.  In this instance, I guess I may be using more oxygen overall during the session, but perhaps would be glad to improve the efficiency of my breathing – and intake of oxygen – in the long run (after many years of practice I’m sure).  Maybe this is a physiological/biochemical basis for the longevity-promoting benefits of yoga?

How does the effect work?  Does the act of moving in and out of postures engage the sympathetic nervous system (something not observed for shavasana)?   Much to explore here.  The authors point out that these effects on improving the efficiency of breathing and oxygen consumption may not be specific to yoga, but to any MODERATE exercise regimen, where exercise and some sort of mental focus is practiced (Tai Chi for example).

Move and pay attention to your breath.  I will keep this in mind tonight in my beginners class.  By the way, there are currently 93 clinical trials involving yoga!

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3rd Dalai Lama,
Image via Wikipedia

Just a few excerpts from a lecture by the renown social psychologist Paul Ekman who is known for his work on the biology of human emotion.  Here he relates conceptual bridges between the writings of Charles Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama.  Ekman notes that both Darwin and HH The Dalai Lama intuit the existence of an organic natural source of compassion wherein humans are compelled to relieve the suffering of others so that the discomfort we feel when seeing others in pain can be relieved.  HH The Dalai Lama further suggests that these emotions are spontaneous, but compassion can be enhanced through PRACTICE!

Seems that science and ancient traditions can have a fascinating way of re-informing each other.

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The Karma Machine + Easy Photoshop Tattoo Tuto...
Image by vramak via Flickr

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.

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