Free the Mind: Rewiring the Brain with Contemplative Neuroscience

In an article published last week, a team at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge recognized signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in writings dating as far back as 1300 BC. Though they of course did not use that term, recovered accounts of soldiers from ancient Mesopotamia described the familiar symptom of being visited by “ghosts they faced in battle” long after their return from war. Today, approximately 7.7 million war veterans and other adults in the US are impacted by PTSD and the long term health concerns it carries.

Seeking to ease their pain, Dr. Richard Davidson, named as one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in 2006, conducted a seven day experiment to investigate whether short-term meditation exercises could be used to help alleviate the anxiety and anger that often arises with PTSD. His findings were showcased last week at NYC’s Rubin Museum of Art in a documentary entitled “Free the Mind.” The research took place at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, founded by Davidson, as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also a faculty member of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. The institute’s founder, Dr. Joseph Loizzo, introduced the documentary at the Rubin Museum with a few remarks on his determination to “weave mind science into everyday work.” Loizzo has published many scientific articles covering Indo-Tibetan mind and health science, the role of mind-body methods in modern medicine, and meditative approaches to psychotherapy.

Rent movie here

The documented study focuses on three people:  Steve, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and father of two-year-old twins; Rich, an Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Will, a five-year-old who has symptoms of ADHD and PTSD after being trapped in an elevator. In the film, Davidson describes contemplative neuroscience as “taking intentional control of the mind” in an effort to be more present in daily life—something we see that all three have difficulty doing. Each also has great trouble expressing their feelings or distress with loved ones. As they sense an approaching anxiety attack, each person is asked to practice a form of mindfulness meditation: deep breathing, yoga, or visualizing their worries being transported into an inanimate object. Dr. Davidson stresses that continuing practice is key for meditation, as this increases activation in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates behavior and emotions.

After their consistent practice, the audience could immediately see each person’s progress in attitude, willingness, and physical health. Will finds himself mentally able to step inside an elevator again, and Steve no longer feels obligated to take medication in order to sleep at night. Rich is finally able to confront the violent memories he unsuccessfully tried to block out and admits that for the first time in years, he’s beginning to feel like himself again. When commenting on the week-long trial, he says, “It has changed my life in ways I never thought possible. I feel happy, like a kid again.”

After the documentary ended, Dr. Loizzo commented,  “[S]ince then, we’ve had hundreds and increasingly now thousands of studies; and Richie’s have been some of the most high-profiled in terms of showing the effects of meditation on the brain…We now know that by exercising our minds, we can change our brains right down to level of the genome.”

This year marks the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series of conversations, films, and experiences revolving around neuroscience. Events continue until April 29; tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

—Seimi Rurup

One response

  1. I love that they are calling meditation “contemplative neuroscience.” Of course, more study has to be done since the number of participants is so few in studies on meditation. The most encouraging finding is the thickening of the insula in experienced meditators. Rather than thinning in old age, the prefrontal cortex thickens with meditative practice. Good news, indeed!

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