Neurobiology of wisdom

mindfulness in schools

From Mindful Schools website. As the scope of science expands, concepts that were previously confined to the humanities are receiving scientific attention. One recent example of this trend is the scientific exploration of wisdom. Traditionally, discussions of wisdom have been confined to disciplines such as philosophy. Philosophy is, after all, literally the ‘love of wisdom.’

A few years ago, two psychiatrists from University of California San Diego published an article in the Archives of General Psychiatry titled, “Neurobiology of Wisdom.” They suggest that “wisdom is a unique psychological construct, not just a collection of desirable traits with a convenient unifying label.” The authors defined wisdom as six key components and discuss the neurobiological characteristics underlying each.

What is striking how these six components of wisdom dovetail with outcomes relevant to mindfulness practice. . . . more

Barriers to meditation among cancer family caregivers

Williams, A. L., Van Ness, P., Dixon, J., & McCorkle, R. (2012). Barriers to meditation by gender and age among cancer family caregivers. Nursing research, 61(1), 22.

From the Abstract. Despite solid basic science research supporting meditation’s physiologic benefits, meditation remains a marginalized practice for many Westerners; observational and descriptive studies indicate a spectrum of barriers to meditation practice.

A cross-sectional survey study was conducted of 150 family caregivers to adults with cancer visiting an outpatient chemotherapy center in Connecticut, United States. The primary outcome was the Determinants of Meditation Practice Inventory. Explanatory variables included demographic characteristics, Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale, Big Five Inventory, and Caregiver Reactions Assessment. Participants included 98 women and 52 men. Age range was 18–84 years (M = 52.3 years).

The highest frequency of barriers for both genders related to misconceptions about meditation.

Medical imaging evidence supports meditation in the treatment of depression

Annells, S., Kho, K., & Bridge, P. (2015). Meditate don’t medicate: How medical imaging evidence supports the role of meditation in the treatment of depression. Radiography. Published prior to inclusion in an issue.

Depression is a debilitating psychiatric disorder that affects a large proportion of the population. The current treatment for depression involves anti-depressant medication which is associated with side effects and a heightened risk of relapse.

Method. A systematic literature review was performed to determine the value of medical imaging studies in measuring the impact of meditation on depression.

Results. Medical imaging studies have successfully demonstrated that meditation may counteract or prevent the physiological cause of depression by decreasing amygdala activity and increasing grey matter volume and activity of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and other brain regions associated with attention and emotional self-regulation.

Recent advances in functional imaging have enabled visualisation of neural plasticity within the brain. This has shown that for meditators, practice-induced alterations could be due to micro-anatomical processes that may represent an increased functional capacity within the brain regions activated. These changes within brain physiology in association with the skills gained during meditation such as self-regulation, mental processing of negative information and relaxation techniques could potentially lead to a permanent cure for depression and thus prevent relapse.

Conclusions. The results of this review suggest that medical imaging has a valuable role to play in evidencing the physiological changes within the brain caused by meditation that counteract those that cause depression. These studies indicate that meditation is a viable alternative to medication for clinical treatment of patients with depression. More rigorous longitudinal imaging studies are proposed to enhance understanding of the neural pathways and mechanisms of meditation.

Anxiety in chronic pain patients

Kim, R. O. D. (2015). Observing The Effects Of Mindfulness-Based Meditation On Anxiety And Depression In Chronic Pain Patients. International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, 5(4), 143-147. Full text.

Background: People whose chronic pain limits their independence are especially likely to become anxious and depressed. Mindfulness training has shown promise for stress-related disorders.

Methods: Chronic pain patients who complained of anxiety and depression and who scored higher than moderate in the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) and Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) as well as moderate in Quality of Life Scale (QOLS) were observed for eight weeks, three days a week for an hour of Mindfulness Meditation training with an hour daily home Mindfulness Meditation practice. Pain was evaluated on study entry and completion, and patients were given the Patients’ Global Impression of Change (PGIC) to score at the end of the training program.

Results: Forty-seven (47) patients completed the Mindfulness Meditation Training program. Over the year-long observation, patients demonstrated noticeable improvement in depression, anxiety, pain, and global impression of change.

Conclusions: Chronic pain patients who suffer with anxiety and depression may benefit from incorporating Mindfulness Meditation into their treatment plans.

iPad-assisted meditation during chemotherapy infusion

Millegan, J., Manschot, B., Dispenzieri, M., Marks, B., Edwards, A., Raulston, V., … & Narro, M. (2015). Leveraging iPads to introduce meditation and reduce distress among cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy: a promising approach. Supportive Care in Cancer, 1-2. Abstract only.

Distress is common among cancer patients. Regular meditation practice has the potential to mitigate this distress and improve quality of life for this population. Introducing meditation to cancer patients can be particularly challenging given the demands on patients’ time from treatment and normal life events. This internal process improvement study examined the potential benefit of utilizing iPads during chemotherapy sessions to introduce meditation and reduce distress.

Patients undergoing chemotherapy infusion were offered iPads with various meditation videos and audio files during the session. Levels of distress were measured using the distress thermometer at the beginning of chemotherapy and at the conclusion of chemotherapy.

Seventy-three patients accepted the meditation iPads during the chemotherapy session. Among those who accepted the iPads, average distress dropped 46 % by the end of the session.

Is meditation always relaxing? Longitudinal study of 3 methods

Lumma, A. L., Kok, B. E., & Singer, T. (2015). Is Meditation always relaxing? Investigating Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, Experienced Effort and Likeability during Training of three types of Meditation. International Journal of Psychophysiology. Accepted manuscript in press. From the Abstract.

Meditation is often associated with a relaxed state of the body. Meditation can however also be regarded as a kind of mental task and training, which is associated with mental effort and physiological arousal. The cardiovascular effects of meditation may vary depending on the type of meditation, degree of mental effort, and amount of training.

In the current study we assessed heart rate (HR), high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) and subjective ratings of effort and likeability during three types of meditation varying in their cognitive and attentional requirements, namely breathing meditation, loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditation. In the context of [this] project, a one-year longitudinal mental training study, participants practiced each meditation exercise on a daily basis for 3 months.

Results showed that as expected HR and effort were higher during loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditation compared to breathing meditation. With training over time HR and likeability increased, while HF-HRV and the subjective experience of effort decreased. The increase in HR and decrease in HF-HRV over training was higher for loving-kindness meditation and observing-thoughts meditation compared to breathing meditation.

In contrast to implicit beliefs about meditation being always relaxing and associated with low arousal, the results show that core meditations aiming at improving compassion and meta-cognitive skills require effort and are associated with physiological arousal compared to breathing meditation. Overall these findings can be useful in making more specific suggestions about which type of meditation is most adaptive for a given context and population.

Reduces self-related thinking and mind-wandering

Garrison, K. A., et al. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 1-9.

From the Abstract. Meditation has been associated with relatively reduced activity in the default mode network, a brain network implicated in self-related thinking and mind wandering. However, previous imaging studies have typically compared meditation to rest, despite other studies having reported differences in brain activation patterns between meditators and controls at rest. Moreover, rest is associated with a range of brain activation patterns across individuals that has only recently begun to be better characterized.

Therefore, in this study we compared meditation to another active cognitive task, both to replicate the findings that meditation is associated with relatively reduced default mode network activity and to extend these findings by testing whether default mode activity was reduced during meditation, beyond the typical reductions observed during effortful tasks.

In addition, prior studies had used small groups, whereas in the present study we tested these hypotheses in a larger group. The results indicated that meditation is associated with reduced activations in the default mode network, relative to an active task, for meditators as compared to controls. These findings … suggest that meditation leads to relatively reduced default mode processing beyond that observed during another active cognitive task.