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Monday, May 27, 2013

Study: IQ is related to focus (which is related to meditation)

A new study suggests that intelligence is more about what the brain chooses to ignore than simply its ability to process information rapidly, Time reports.
The research, which was published in the journal Current Biology, suggests new ways of testing intelligence that measure thought processes in ways that are less culturally biased than IQ tests and that can factor in those who process information differently.
Scientists led by Duje Tadin, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, studied 67 people in two similar experiments that involved tracking the subtle movements of small and large objects on a computer screen. Intelligence correlated with their ability to tell which direction the balls moved and whether participants were better at tracking large or small balls. Those who tracked small balls did better on intelligence tests.

“For intelligence, you need to be able process relevant information fast, but you also need to focus on the most relevant information and filter out what’s irrelevant,” Tadin says.

Numerous other research studies have shown that meditation is a way to develop focus, to drop extraneous stimuli that may cause anxiety or stress. Can it also make you more intelligent? That study is down the road, I suppose.

But in the meantime ... a daily meditation practice won't hurt. Sit comfortably and quietly, focus on your breath. When you notice that your focus has moved to something else -- planning, remembering, evaluating, note that and return to your breath. Do that for a set amount of time.

Practice daily for weeks or months, and see if you feel smarter. Let me know.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Non-Distraction 101

College educators these days see students who check Twitter, email, and text messages while playing Internet games and sitting in class. They write papers while switching between YouTube, Facebook, Spotify. Stanford University multitasking researcher Clifford Nass describes a radical shift in the nature of attention that some fear may affect developing brains so that a generation from now, students won't have the attention span to read a novel.

David M. Levy, a professor at the University of Washington, teaches a college course called "Information and Contemplation" that helps technically adept students look critically at how multitasking affects their lives, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Those who happen to glance into this seminar, in Room 420 of Mary Gates Hall, might wonder whether the students had fallen asleep.
Just the opposite: Meditation sharpens their focus. The practice, as Mr. Levy teaches it, involves repeatedly bringing your attention back to your breathing as the mind wanders away. Think of it like lifting weights. Just as you can build up your biceps by doing reps, he says, meditation can strengthen attention.
Meditation works like an eraser that rubs out the mental chatter you carry up the stairs to class, says student Michael J. Conyers, allowing him to focus on the class.

We may be out of college, but some of Levy's assignments could be useful. Try these:

--Spend 15 minutes to half an hour each day observing and logging your e-mail behavior. The idea, an outgrowth of meditation, is to note what happens in the mind and body. Notice when you have the initial impulse to check e-mail and what you're thinking and feeling. What emotions come up? Does your posture and breathing change as you e-mail? (Levy has students use a camera and watch themselves later.)
-- Email meditation -- for a set period of time, do nothing but work with email. Notice the impulse to switch. What are the causes and conditions? What do you want to switch to? How long can you maintain concentration?


Compassion can be learned

Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to learn whether adults can learn to be compassionate and whether training can lead to greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.

Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology, says, “Our evidence points to yes.”

The researchers trained young adults in what they term "compassion meditation," in which they envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that the suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” They practiced this with various subjects, including themselves, loved ones, strangers, and difficult people. (This is similar to lovingkindness, or metta, meditation in Buddhism.)

They practiced for 30 minutes a day, using guided meditations over the Internet. The results were compared to a control group who learned "cognitive reappraisal," or reframing their thoughts to feel less negative.

“It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng says. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

The research tested this by asking the participants to play a game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need (called the “Redistribution Game”). They played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, the “Dictator” and the “Victim.” They watched as the Dictator shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.

“We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal,” Weng says.
What distinguishes this study is that researchers found actual physical changes in participants' magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training, the researchers measured how much brain activity had changed during the training. The biggest change was found in people who were the most altruistic after compassion training. They had increase activity in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.
brains.Using functional
“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away,” explains Weng.

UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article. said that “the fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable.”

Davidson foresees benefits from compassion training in schools, where it could decrease bullying, as well as with people who have social anxiety or anti-social behaviors. But even those with no obvious problems could benefit. Imagine if everyone became more compassionate and aware of others' suffering?

It's not a difficult practice, as long as you don't insist on fMRIs to prove progress. Visit a meditation center or try a metta meditation on youtube. Commit to doing it every day for two weeks, and see if you notice a change in your life.

Here's a guided metta meditation from Sharon Salzberg, a gifted and accessible teacher.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kindness works out your vagus nerve

A new study finds that lovingkindness meditation makes your vagus nerve more responsive. That's meaningful because it is involved in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and immune responses. Time reports:
The vagus is intimately tied to how we connect with each other— it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding.  Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.
Researchers, led by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recruited 65 members of the faculty and staff of the university for a study on meditation and stress.  Roughly half were randomly assigned to take an hour-long class each week for six weeks in “lovingkindness” meditation, which involves focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about yourself and others.

Participants were taught metta meditation, using certain phrases -- “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease” -- first for themselves and then expanding out to others. They were told to focus on the thoughts in meditation and in stressful situations such as when they were stuck in traffic. “It’s kind of softening your own heart to be more open to others,” says Fredrickson. They practiced for 61 days. Other were placed on a waiting list.
More of the meditators than those on the waiting list showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope after completing the class. And these emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others — as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart rate variability, particularly for those whose “vagal tone,” was already high at the start of the study.
“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion and that helps us get at a long standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” says Fredrickson.
She notes that it worked only with those who developed feelings of compassion or connection; those who didn't feel an increase didn't see similiar improvements in the "tone" of their vagus nerve.

Meditation changes go deep

Blood samples of people who meditated regularly -- both longtime meditators and those trained in an eight-week class -- revealed changes in gene expression following meditation, according to researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

They trained a group of 26 people in meditation techniques in an eight-week program with deep breathing, mantras, and cooncentration (letting go fo distractions), with recorded meditations after that. They also recruited 25 longtime meditators, and took blood samples before and after meditation sessions.They found:

The changes were the exact opposite of what occurs during flight or fight: genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were turned on, while those involved in inflammation were turned off. These effects were more pronounced and consistent for long-term practitioners.

It's only gene expression that is altered, not the genes themselves, the researchers said. But these results also showed that the effects of the relaxation response become stronger with practice, typically twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes.

People who practice simple meditation aren't "just relaxing," explained the study's senior author, Dr. Herbert Benson (he of the aforementioned institute). Instead, they're experiencing "a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress."

While this study only looked at one way of reaching this state, people have been figuring this out for themselves for thousands of years, through yoga, prayer, and other forms of meditation. Yet this is the first time researchers have been able to use basic science to show that these practices actually have an observable, biological effect.

Info from the Atlantic

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ask yourself these questions right now

What are you doing?
Is your mind on it?
How do you feel?

A Harvard researcher has designed a happiness app that measures your happiness. You sign up on the website, and at random times during the day, you get a text asking you those questions.

Research so far has found that people who answer "yes" to No. 2 report being happy more often than those who answer "no," even when they aren't happy about what they're doing. What that says is that keeping the mind in the present moment -- as we learn to do in meditation -- leads to more happiness.

You can sign up for the program -- on iPhone or email. Or just ask yourself the questions occasionally during the day. How often is your mind on what you're doing?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talks about the importance of synchronizing mind and body:

Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone
thought up for self improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a
human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and your body