Free Public Event: The Meditating Brain

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From contemplation to prayer, forms of meditation exist in every society. Now, using up-to-date technologies, these ancient practices are being increasingly studied by neurologists. Although learning to meditate—to turn off all distractions—is no easy task, the advertised benefits claim it to be worthwhile. Such alleged benefits include the “calming” of neurotransmitters, beating addiction, and even building a bigger brain.

Published studies argue that meditation can produce structural alterations in the brain and may even slow the progress of certain age-related atrophy. Similarly, some yoga advocates claim that the practice, which is explored as a treatment for major depressive disorders, expands mental faculties. Further, prayer, according to the Huffington Post, can help dissuade impulsive actions.

Neuroimaging technologies are revealing changes in blood flow to areas of the brain, indicating more activity. This program will explore the neurological bases of these claims, if any, by explaining how the mind and body talk with one another during the acts of meditation, yoga, and prayer.

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The Power of Positive Thinking

While exercise has been widely accepted for its cognitive benefits, practices such as yoga and meditation are gaining attention for their specific contributions to brain health. “Meditation can change certain anatomical structures of the brain, and attention function can be improved, just as it can be with exercise,” neuroscientist and Dana Alliance member Wendy Suzuki said in a podcast called Ariana Yoga, which focuses on her exercise-based brain research. The technique of meditating allows for the ability to focus attention without distraction, as well as a better capacity to control emotional impulses, she explains.

As a new type of workout, Suzuki has taken the concept of applying positive thoughts to physical exercise for a practice she describes as “intentional exercise.” The combination of a favorite aerobic activity paired with a positive affirmation or mantra “adds another element,” she says. “Exercise is changing all sorts of neurochemicals and growth factors in your brain,” Suzuki explains in the podcast. Her fascination with the cognitive effects of consistent exercise, and consequential shift in lab research from brain plasticity and memory, was sparked through her own positive experience.

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Procrastination: An Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

“I’m very good at procrastination,” declared Courtney Act at Monday night’s Brainwave event on procrastination. Act, a semi-finalist on Australian Idol in 2003 and a top three finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6 (the best season!), joined psychiatrist Tim Pychyl on stage at New York’s Rubin Museum to discuss why we procrastinate and tools to help overcome it.

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Courtney Act and Tim Pychyl discuss procrastination at Brainwave’s final event of the year. Photo credit: Andrew Kist

The topic, suggested by Act, is tied to the Brainwave theme of emotion, and Pychyl was quick to congratulate her on recognizing that procrastination is indeed tied to emotion–it is not just a time-management issue or a product of laziness. Procrastination, he said, is an “emotion-focused coping strategy” that we use for short-term gratification.

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Meditation in Education

Can something as simple as designated quiet time for 15 minutes twice a day help struggling students perform better in school? After adopting this approach for three years, one school in a troubled area of San Francisco saw suspension rates drop by 79 percent, attendance rise 98 percent, and grade point averages increase.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported on this school and other studies in the Bay Area, which also showed encouraging results. While these types of studies are still in their infancy, schools around the country are jumping on the meditation train in search of a cost-effective ways to nurture healthier and more focused students.

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Image: Shutterstock

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Brainwave’s “Mindfulness in the Workplace”

Do you have trouble concentrating on the task at hand? Be honest, how many new tabs have you opened between clicking on this blog and actually reading it. Personally, I opened two new tabs on my browser and started an e-mail just between writing the first and second sentence of this blog! With the constant buzzing of our smartphones and infinite distractions of the Internet, who can focus on just one thing? Well, by practicing mindfulness and meditation, neuroscientists are finding we may be able to do just that.

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