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Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

Still the patterning of consciousness! The Yog...
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The yoga sutras are a lot of fun to read – especially the super-natural ones.  I try not to take them too literally, as you never know what might have been warped in translation, or perhaps included merely to inspire yogis to go the extra mile in their practices.

Occasionally, I come across articles in the science literature that reveal how truly weird and wild the human brain can be – and it strikes me – that maybe the ancient yogis were more in tune with the human mind than we “modern science” folks give them credit for.  Here’s a weird and wild sutra:

III.55 –  tarakam sarvavisayam sarvathavisayam akramam ca iti vivekajam jnanam – The essential characteristic of the yogi’s exalted knowledge is that he grasps instantly, clearly and wholly, the aims of all objects without going into the sequence of time of change.

How can we know things instantly?  and without respect to time (ie. never having had prior experience)?

Admittedly, Patanjali may be referring to things that take place in emotional, subconscious or cosmic realms that I’m not familiar with, so I won’t quibble with the text.  Besides, it sounds like an AWESOME state of mind to attain, and well worth the effort – even if we concede it is knowingly unobtainable.  But is it unobtainable?

Might there be states of mind that make it seem obtainable?  Here’s a fascinating science article that appeared in Science Magazine this past week.  Paradoxical False Memory for Objects After Brain Damage [doi: 10.1126/science.1194780] describing the effects of damage in the perirhinal cortex (in rats) that led the animals to demonstrate a peculiar form of false memory – wherein the animals treated never-before seen objects as being familiar. Hmmm.  An altered form of brain activity where unfamiliar and novel things seem very familiar.  Sounds sort of  like “instantaneous knowing without respect to time” to me.

Given the tremendous similarity in brain circuits and memory systems across all mammals, I wonder if humans (perhaps in deep meditative states or with various forms of hallucinogenic or damaged states) could experience this? Sutra III.55 seems strange, but not, perhaps unobtainable.

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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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Yogic wisdom from kids?  Maybe.  Check out the upcoming lecture series at the Rubin Museum of Art: “Talk about Nothing” (literally, discussions on what “nothing” means) given by, among many others, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik and scottish actor Brian Cox.

Alison Gopnik argues that the minds of children could help us understand deep philosophical questions. A father of a new family of two, acclaimed British Shakespearean Brian Cox explains how he divests himself of his own personality (no-self) before assuming another for the stage.

Professor Gopnik has some great books and online interviews (here, here, here) on this topic already!

From her new book, The Philosophical Baby:

This new science holds answers to some of the deepest and oldest questions about what it means to be human. A new baby’s captivated gaze at her mother’s face lays the foundations for love and morality. A toddler’s unstoppable explorations of his playpen hold the key to scientific discovery. A three-year-old’s wild make-believe explains how we can imagine the future, write novels, and invent new technologies. Alison Gopnik—a leading psychologist and philosopher, as well as a mother—explains the groundbreaking new psychological, neuroscientific, and philosophical developments in our understanding of very young children, transforming our understanding of how babies see the world, and in turn promoting a deeper appreciation for the role of parents.

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Have you ever lost track of time in yoga class?  On a good day, I’ll get so into the practice that my awareness of “how much time still to go?” comes at the very end.  Other days, I might feel time dragging as if the class is taking forever (best not to glance at a wristwatch).

We – as human beings – have a very poor sense of time.  Intensely new and wonderful experiences may pass too quickly, but remembered years later, seem greatly expanded.  In flashes of intense fear, time has a way of moving very slowly, yet un-recallable in repressed memories.  Sitting and waiting for a bus makes time pass so very slowly, until an attractive or interesting person sits next to you.

Somehow its not time, per se, that we measure, but rather the intensity of our emotional experience that makes time expand and contract.

Yoga texts are chock full of references to “consciousness” and the “illusions” of everyday thinking.  Sometimes, these notions can sound hokey when spoken in the NJ suburbs where I practice, but that doesn’t mean they are not true.  Just consider how illusory your perceptions of time are.  Your sense of time is just a by-product of your experience – its not an absolute “thing” you can measure.  Your sense of YOU and the events in your life – as they stretch out over time – the mere jumble of memories – is very far from the objective reality you might want think.  We all live in the illusions created by our own minds.

When it comes to the illusions of time, somehow, it seems, our perception of time is tied mainly to the intensity of our emotional experience.   People seem to understand this.  Folks like Marcel Proust who wrote, “Love is space and time measured by the heart.”   And folks like Craig Wright who wrote the play – Melissa Arctic – that made me acutely aware of the illusion of time in our all too brief lives.  Check it out if you ever get the chance.  The play – wherein a young child plays the role of “time” – pulls you through the course of one man’s tragic life and deeply into your heart to realize that time is, indeed, measured by the heart – captured and measured by the intensity of emotional experience.  Consider how Time, the young child, invokes the audience at the start of the play, “Everything be still. Can everything be perfectly still?”

Needless to say, this all sounds much like the common yogic counsel to “stop thinking and start feeling” and “live in the present moment“.  Perhaps its worth recognizing how fallible, illusionary and fanciful our sense of time really is.  Perhaps also, emotions are the key here.  Perhaps I should try harder to engage my heart in life (and in yoga class) –  the key to really experiencing now and living in this present moment.

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Oregon Health & Sciences University
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A recent scientific study of yoga and fibromyalgia has been buzzing around the web (here, here, here, here).  The study is entitled, “A pilot randomized controlled trial of the Yoga of Awareness program in the management of fibromyalgia” [doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2010.08.020] and is one of the most scholarly articles on the science of yoga that I have ever read (more posts to come on this research article). In a nutshell:

53 women who have suffered with fibromyalgia for 1-10+ years were randomly separated into a test group (25 women) who participated in an 8-week Yoga of Awareness course vs. a control group (28 women) who participated in so-called routine care for fibromyalgia.  After the 8-week course, the test (yoga) group showed greater improvements in a number of fibromyalgia symptoms than the control group.

The results are big news – not only for people who suffer from fibromyalgia – but for many others who suffer with chronic pain.  The results suggest that yoga works!  and may be worth a try!

One of the things I found so great about the article, is the way the authors delved into the question of WHY yoga works and why it may be a rather ideal adjunct to traditional medical therapy.  Here’s a passage from the article:

The intention of the yoga program we employed was to fulfill the need for both exercise and coping skills training as effective counterparts to pharmacotherapy for FM. Recent reviews of exercise trials concur that aerobic exercise and also strength training usually improves some FM symptoms and physical functioning, but rarely shows effects on pain or mood. In contrast, reviews of FM coping skills trials have concluded that such treatments usually show mild to moderate post-treatment effects on pain, mood, and disability. However, several reviews have emphasized that the best results have been produced by multi-modal interventions that combine both exercise and coping skills training.

What made a this yoga intervention so innovative – from a purely medical or clinical perspective – is the way it aimed to treat BOTH body and mind.  Note how the medical world has a way of divvying up treatments into those that are specific to the body and those that are specific to the mind.   Perhaps, it is starting to dawn on modern medical practice that this separation does not work well for certain ailments – particularly for the treatment of chronic pain.

Credit two unassuming yoga instructors for this!

It turns out that the lead authors for the research are James W. Carson and Kimberly M. Carson from the Department of Anesthesiology and Peri-operative Medicine and School of Nursing, Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.  They are strangers to neither science nor the practice of yoga.  From their website – Jim is a former yogic monk with more than 25 years of teaching experience while Kimberly is an instructor of Kripalu Yoga – in addition to numerous other academic and yogic accomplishments.

Yogis doing science?

Of course!  This should not come as a surprise.  Ancient yogis were dabbling in psychology, chemistry and medicine LONG before our modern era of science came along.   Just like modern medical practitioners – they wanted to help people cope with suffering 🙂

Today, there is much to be gained in scientific research on the mind-body interface.  A recent article in Nature Medicine reviews the neuroscience of this most mysterious interface.  “Getting the pain you expect: mechanisms of placebo, nocebo and reappraisal effects in humans” [doi:10.1038/nm.2229].  Will try and explore some of these brain-body connections and the way yoga practice engages them in future posts (related post here).

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Climber Hands
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If you’ve practiced yoga, you’ve probably heard these common admonitions: ” Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice“, “Yoga is for everyman – except the lazy man” etc., etc..   Me too. So I perked up when reading this article entitled, “The truth about grit: Modern science builds the case for an old-fashioned virtue – and uncovers new secrets to success“.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new – “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked – the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

What is “grit”?  Can it be taught?  Is it genetic?  Do I have a goal (to one day touch my heels to the mat in downward dog)?  The article highlights a psychologist by the name of Angela Duckworth who has some amazing research on the development of persistence and self-control.  Check out her (freely downloadable) research articles and “grit” assessments – used nowadays to predict who is likely to drop-out when the going gets tough.

It turns out that in life – just as in yoga – grit matters.  It matters more than personality, intelligence or the amount of money you can spend.

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Raging River, Preston WA
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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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