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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Cut your cravings

 A small study by researchers at the University of Oregon found that mindfulness meditation may help smokers cut back.

The study involved only five people, so the results aren't statistically significant. But a comparison group that was taught "to relax" showed no reduction.

So should smokers meditate if they want to smoke less?

"Sure, why not?" said study co-author Michael Posner, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon's department of psychology. "[Still], I can't say that all forms of meditation will produce these affects. It's likely that it depends on the brain state that the person is in, and there may be other ways to get into it."
The study took 60 people -- 27 cigarette smokers and 33 nonsmokers with an average age of 21 -- and split them into two groups; each group went through five hours of training over two weeks in either mindfulness meditation or relaxation.

After the two weeks, the researchers gave breath tests to the smokers to see how much they'd been smoking. There was no change for those who learned to relax, but the measurement fell by 60 percent in those who learned how to meditate.  Five smokers talked to researchers four weeks later and said they were still smoking less.

Posner speculated that the reduction in stress and changes in the brain found in meditators in other studies could be at work. And while the study isn't proof, he noted, there's no reason not to give meditation a try. Unlike drugs, it doesn't have any major side effects.And the cost is minimal -- how-to videos are available online and classes are offered many places (such as 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, Conn., which I teach.)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

It Gets Easier

"Does this get easier?"

That's the question I get asked most often by people who are new to meditation. Unaccustomed to holding their attention on just one thing, they're dismayed to see how their minds ping-pong from one subject to another, stopping ever so briefly back on the breath.

I usually answer this question from my own experience. Yes, it does. You still have thoughts, but you notice them more quickly, before you get tangled up in them. You become aware of the thoughts, and you can choose whether to follow them or let them go.

There's a scientific explanation for that. Wendy Hasenkamp, a neuroscientist at the Mind & Life Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, describes research on the subject.

One brain area stood out in this analysis: the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the default mode network that is particularly related to self-focused thoughts, which make up a good portion of mind-wandering content. It turns out that experienced meditators deactivated this region more quickly after identifying mind-wandering than people who hadn’t meditated as much—suggesting they might be better at releasing distracting thoughts, like a re-hash of a personal To Do list or some slight they suffered at work yesterday.
In a follow-up study, we found that these same participants had greater coherence between activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and brain areas that allow you to disengage attention. This means that the brain regions for attentional disengagement have greater access to the brain regions underlying the distraction, possibly making it easier to disengage. Other findings support this idea—more experienced meditators have increased connectivity between default mode and attention brain regions, and less default mode activity while meditating.
Put more simply ... "Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering."

Or, to answer the question, it gets easier.