Tag Archives: Brain Science

Mindfulness Training Leads to Important Changes in the Brains of World-Class BMX Cyclists

By Lori Haase, Ph.D.

mpeak-medals copyResearchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine who have been working with Olympic BMX cyclists to improve their athletic prowess have documented areas of the brain that appear to respond to mindfulness training. Specifically, recent results suggest that these peak performers were better able to appropriately anticipate challenges and found that they could remain focused and aware of their performance in the midst of the split-second stressors that arise in a BMX race that can be intense and often lasts for fewer than two minutes with multiple competitors vying for a place at the finish line. These results suggest that BMX performance may be enhanced through the regular practice of mindfulness meditation.

Reporting in a recent issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (abstact, full article) researchers show that a 8-week intensive mindfulness training course, known as mPEAK, altered the cyclists’ brain activity patterns in two performance-relevant ways:

As measured by fMRI activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula were enhanced during the anticipatory and recovery phases of a stress-provoking exercise. The ACC and insula are believed to play a strong role in interoception, the ability to sense bodily sensations such a heart rate and integrate them with external stimulation and emotional overlay.

“Prior to the test, their brains were ramping up for activity,” said first author Lori Haase, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UC San Diego School of Medicine. “We interpret this as meaning the athletes are anticipating the stress and getting ready for it.”

The second measurable change was an apparent reduction in the level of connectivity between posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and both the right medial frontal cortex and ACC, during the stress-evoking test, in which athletes were asked to breathe through a narrow straw that restricted air flow. The PCC is implicated in self-awareness and self-referential thoughts. A reduction in connectivity to this brain area is consistent with the idea that mindfulness training heightens a person’s awareness of bodily sensations, with less self-referential processing added to what is being experienced physically. “This can potentially help athlete stay present to their performance ,” Haase said.

Taken together, these results suggest that significant changes in the brain, directly related to performance in intense and physically demanding activities like BMX cycling or other athletic endeavors, can result from a relatively brief and focused program like the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness’ mPEAK course.

About The Author: Lori Haase is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and in addition to her clinical training, she is also a neuroscientist investigating the neural substrates of resilience and optimal performance and their modification through mindfulness training. Dr. Haase is Director, co-developer, and teacher of the Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness and Knowledge (mPEAK) program.​

Learn about the mPEAK 3-Day Intensive mPEAK program February 13-15, 2016  at the Catamaran Hotel in San Diego, CA. Activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices. CE credits are available. Register here.

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. The next course starts in January 2016.

 

See the Good in Others

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. will be delivering a keynote address, Managing the Caveman Brain in the 21st Century at the Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth: Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, Education and Research Conference being held at the Catamaran Resort Hotel, San Diego, CA February 4-5, 2012.

Dr.Hanson will also be presenting a public lecture, Taking in the Good: Helping Children Build Inner Strength and Happiness at the UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest Auditorium, San Diego, CA February 3, 2012, 7:00pm.

What do you notice in people?
The Practice:
See the good in others.
Why?

Many interactions these days have a kind of bumper-car quality to them. At work, at home, on the telephone, via email: we sort of bounce off of each other while we exchange information, smile or frown, and move on. How often do we actually take the extra few seconds to get a sense of what’s inside other people – especially their good qualities?

In fact, because of what scientists call the brain’s “negativity bias” (you could see my talk at Google for more on this), we’re most likely to notice the bad qualities in others rather than the good ones: the things that worry or annoy us, or make us critical.

Unfortunately, if you feel surrounded by lots of bad or at best neutral qualities in others, and only a sprinkling of dimly-sensed good ones, then you naturally feel less supported, less safe, and less inclined to be generous or pursue your dreams. Plus, in a circular way, when another person gets the feeling that you don’t really see much that’s good in him or her, that person is less likely to take the time to see much that’s good in you.

Seeing the good in others is thus a simple but very powerful way to feel happier and more confident, and become more loving and more productive in the world.

How?

Slow down – Step out of the bumper car and spend a few moments being curious about the good qualities in the other person. You are not looking through rose-colored glasses: instead, you are opening your eyes, taking off the smog-colored glasses of the negativity bias, and seeing what the facts really are.
See positive intentions – Recently I was at the dentist’s, and her assistant told me a long story about her electric company. My mouth was full of cotton wads, and I didn’t feel interested. But then I started noticing her underlying aims: to put me at ease, fill the time until she could pull the cotton out, and connect with each other as people. Maybe she could have pursued those aims in better ways. But the aims themselves were positive – which is true of all fundamental wants even if the methods used to fulfill them have problems. For example, a toddler throwing mashed potatoes wants fun, a teenager dripping attitude wants higher status, and a mate who avoids housework wants leisure. Try to see the good intentions in the people around you. In particular, sense the longing to be happy in the heart of every person.
See abilities – Going through school, I was very young and therefore routinely picked last for teams in PE: not good for a guy’s self-esteem. Then, my first year at UCLA, I gave intramural touch football a try. We had a great quarterback who was too small for college football. After one practice, he told me in passing, “You’re good and I’m going to throw to you.” I was floored. But this was the beginning of me realizing that I was actually quite a good athlete. His recognition also made me play better which helped our team. Thirty-five years later I can still remember his comment. He had no idea of its impact, yet it was a major boost to my sense of worth. In the same way, unseen ripples spread far and wide when we see abilities in others – especially if we acknowledge them openly.
See positive character traits – Unless you’re surrounded by deadbeats and sociopaths, everyone you know must have many virtues, such as determination, generosity, kindness, patience, energy, grit, honesty, fairness, or compassion. Take a moment to observe virtues in others. You could make a list of virtues in key people in your life – even in people who are challenging for you!

Last and not least: recognize that the good you see in others is also in you. You couldn’t see that good if you did not have an inkling of what it was. You, too, have positive intentions, real abilities, and virtues of mind and heart. Those qualities are a fact, as much a fact as the chair you’re sitting on. Take a moment to let that fact sink in. You don’t need a halo to be a truly good person. You are a truly good person.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 21 languages) and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers in Europe, North America, and Australia. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and U.S. News and World Report and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has over 27,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.

For more information, please see his full profile at www.RickHanson.net.

See Beings Not Bodies

We are thrilled to announce posts from guest author Rick Hanson, Ph.D. Dr. Hanson will be presenting a public lecture, Taking in the Good: Helping Children Build Inner Strength and Happiness at the UC San Diego Medical Center, Hillcrest Auditorium, San Diego, CA February 3, 2012, 7:00pm and keynote address, Managing the Caveman Brain in the 21st Century at the Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth: Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, Education and Research Conference being held at the Catamaran Resort Hotel, San Diego, CA February 4-5, 2012.

What happens when you look at someone?
The Practice:
See beings, not bodies.
Why?

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: man, woman, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

On the other hand, categorizing has lots of problems. It fixes attention on <a title="See the Person Behind the Eyes" surface features of the person’s body, such as age, gender, attractiveness, or role. It leads to objectifying others (e.g., “pretty woman,” “authority figure”) rather than respecting their humanity. It tricks us into thinking that a person comprised of changing complexities is a static unified entity. It’s easier to feel threatened by someone you’ve labeled as this or that. And categorizing is the start of the slippery slope toward “us” and “them,” prejudice, and discrimination.

Flip it around, too: what’s it like for you when you can tell that another person has slotted you into some category? In effect, they’ve thingified you, turned you into a kind of “it” to be managed or used or dismissed, and lost sight of you as a “thou.” What’s this feel like? Personally, I don’t like it much. Of course, it’s a two-way street: if we don’t like it when it’s done to us, that’s a good reason not to do it to others.

How?

This practice can get abstract or intellectual, so try to bring it down to earth and close to your experience.

When you encounter or talk with someone, instead of reacting to what their body looks like or is doing or what category it falls into:

  • Be aware of the many things they are, such as: son, brother, father, uncle, schoolteacher, agnostic, retired, American, fisherman, politically conservative, cancer survivor, friendly, smart, donor to the YMCA, reader of detective novels, etc. etc.
  • Recognize some of the many thoughts, feelings, and reactions swirling around in the mind of the other person. Knowing the complexity of your own mind, try to imagine some of the many bubbling-up contents in their stream of consciousness.
  • Being aware of your own changes – alert one moment and sleepy another, nervous now and calm later – see changes happening in the other person.
  • Feeling how things land on you, tune into the sense of things landing on the other person. There is an experiencing of things over there – pleasure and pain, ease and stress, joy and sorrow – just like there is in you. This inherent subjectivity to experience, this quality of be-ing, underlies and transcends any particular attribute, identity, or role a person might have.
  • Knowing that there is more to you than any label could ever encompass, and that there is a mystery at the heart of you – perhaps a sacred one at that – offer the other person the gift of knowing this about them as well.

At first, try this practice with someone who is neutral to you, that you don’t know well, like another driver in traffic or a person in line with you at the deli. Then try it both with people who are close to you – such as a friend, family member, or mate – and with people who are challenging for you, such as a critical relative, intimidating boss, or rebellious teenager.

The more significant the relationship, the more it helps to see beings, not bodies.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 21 languages) and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers in Europe, North America, and Australia. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and U.S. News and World Report and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter – Just One Thing – has over 27,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.

For more information, please see his full profile at www.RickHanson.net.

Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth: February Conference on Mindfulness with Youth in San Diego

Mindfulness, as a powerful and important means of cultivating health, well-being and equanimity, is nowhere more important than in our work with the young people of our society. Alongside the explosive and transformative growth of mindfulness-based programs for adults, there is a particularly heartening and vibrant effort to bring mindfulness to youth of all ages, in a plethora of settings and formats designed to have a significant impact on the lives and futures of literally millions of young people around the world.

To support and grow this important movement, the UCSD Center for Mindfulness has teamed with Stressed Teens to organize and present a first of its kind conference on February 4 and 5, 2012 entitled Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth: Mindfulness in Clinical Practice, Education and Research . The intention of this conference is to bring together a number of key thought leaders in the field of mindfulness, both those engaged in bringing it to youth and those whose influence extends well beyond that one area, with the hope that the synergy created by such a gathering will provide further impetus to a growing and important field.

Keynote speakers, breakout sessions and half-day workshops will form the structure of this gathering, but the intention is to create an overall atmosphere of connection, collaboration, encouragement, support and innovation that will inspire attendees to continue or begin the work of teaching mindfulness to the young people with whom they work. A full description of the conference is available on the UCSD Center for Mindfulness Professional Training website, but a  few highlights include:

Rick Hanson, author of The Buddha’s Brain and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time will be presenting a public talk on Friday evening, February 3 entitled “Taking in the Good: Helping Children Build Inner Strength and Happiness” and then will provide a keynote address on Saturday at the conference itself with the intriguing title “Managing the Caveman Brain in the 21st Century”.

Psychologist and well-known mindfulness researcher Amishi Jha will be offering her insights in another keynote address, entitled “From Dazed and Distracted to Attentive and Calm: What the Neuroscience of Mindfulness Reveals”. Dr. Jha will be joining the other keynote presenters, Susan Kaiser Greenland, Pamela Siegle and Chip Wood on a discussion panel on Saturday as well.

Three post-conference half-day workshops will be offered on Sunday, February 5, allowing attendees to deepen their understanding and training in working with mindfulness and youth. Workshops include one by conference co-organizer Gina Biegel, developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens (MBSR-T); another by Randy Semple, who has adapted Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for children, and a wonderful session on “Nurturing Your Self in Your Work With Youth” offered by mindfulness teacher and holistic physician, Amy Saltzman.

These are just a few of the highlights of this inaugural conference that promises to be literally packed with interesting and engaging speakers, presentations and experiences. Co-organizers Steven Hickman, Director of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness and Gina Biegel, founder of Stressed Teens, hope that this will become an annual event that makes a significant contribution to the field of mindfulness with youth. If you are an educator, therapist, physician, or just a concerned and engaged parent looking to explore how you might integrate mindfulness in your work with youth, you may want to consider joining this impressive lineup of presenters in San Diego at the Catamaran Resort Hotel on February 4 and 5, 2012. Space is limited, register early and receive a $50 Early Bird Discount.

Fascinating New Article on Meditation and Pain: Referring to “No Appraisal” vs “Re-Appraisal”

The Journal "Pain"The journal Pain has scheduled an article for publication in a future issue: “A non-elaborative mental stance and decoupling of executive and pain-related cortices predicts low pain sensitivity in Zen meditators.” The authors are Joshua A. Grant, Jerome Courtemanche, and Pierre Rainville.
ABSTRACT:
Concepts originating from ancient Eastern texts are now being explored
scientifically, leading to new insights into mind/brain function. Meditative practice, often viewed as an emotion regulation strategy, has been associated with pain reduction, low pain sensitivity, chronic pain improvement, and thickness of pain-related cortices.
Zen meditation is unlike previously studied emotion regulation
techniques; more akin to ‘no appraisal’ than ‘reappraisal’. This implies the cognitive evaluation of pain may be involved in the pain-related effects observed in meditators.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a thermal pain paradigm
we show that practitioners of Zen, compared to controls, reduce activity in executive, evaluative and emotion areas during pain (prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus). Meditators with the most experience showed the largest activation reductions. Simultaneously, meditators more robustly activated primary pain processing regions (anterior cingulate cortex, thalamus, insula). Importantly, the lower pain sensitivity in meditators was strongly predicted by reductions in functional connectivity between executive and pain-related cortices.
Results suggest a functional decoupling of the cognitive-evaluative and
sensory-discriminative dimensions of pain, possibly allowing practitioners to view painful stimuli more neutrally. The activation pattern is remarkably consistent with the mindset described in Zen and the notion of mindfulness. Our findings contrast and challenge current concepts of pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control; commonly thought to manifest through increased activation of frontal executive areas. We suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more ‘passive’ manner, by reducing higher-order evaluative processes, as demonstrated here by the disengagement of anterior brain systems in meditators.
The author note provides the following contact information: Joshua
Grant, Departement de physiologie, Universite de Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada H3C3J7; <joshua.grant@umontreal.ca>

Further Evidence of the Distinction Between Sensation & Distress in Pain

This study provides some insight into how pain is experienced in the brain and the potential power of mindfulness practice in impacting that experience. We often talk about distinguishing between sensation and distress when it comes to pain, and this study provides some insight into how that works and how mindfulness might play a role in reducing distress and thereby improving the quality of life of those in pain. Check it out!