Until recently, little was known about how a few hours of quiet reflection each week could lead to such an intriguing range of mental and physical effects. Now, as the popularity of mindfulness grows, brain imaging techniques are revealing that this ancient practice can profoundly change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other--and therefore how we think--permanently.
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain's "fight or flight" center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body's response to stress.
As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex--associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making--becomes thicker.
The "functional connectivity" between these regions--that is, how often they are activated together--also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh. "The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one's ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity," she says.
In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones. Lots of activities can boost the size of various parts of the pre-frontal cortex--video games, for example – but it's the disconnection of our mind from its "stress center" that seems to give rise to a range of physical as well as mental health benefits," says Taren.
"I'm definitely not saying mindfulness can cure HIV or prevent heart disease. But we do see a reduction in biomarkers of stress and inflammation. Markers like C-reactive proteins, interleukin 6 and cortisol – all of which are associated with disease."
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Mindfulness Meditation Reverses Brain Aging
Over the past few years alone, a wealth of scientific data has outlined the many benefits meditation can have on our biology, further strengthening the scientific validity of the mind-body connection.
For example, an eight-week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) determined that meditation can literally rebuild the brain's grey matter in just eight weeks. It's the very first study to document that meditation produces changes over time in the brain's grey matter. They also released a study showing that meditation can have a significant impact on clinical symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The study showed that elicitation of the relaxation response (a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress) improves symptoms in all these disorders. It was also recently discovered that meditation creates a distinct network of anti-aging genes and improves cellular health.
This time, new research from the UCLA School of Medicine's Department of Neurology has shown that long-term meditators have younger brains, with higher concentrations of tissue in the brain regions most depleted by aging. The study found that meditation can protect against the decline we normally see occurring through old age and keep our brains young.
According to the study, "On average, the brains of long-term meditators were 7.5 years younger at age 50 than the brains of non-meditators, and an additional 1 month and 22 days younger for every year after 50."
The authors conclude by hypothesizing several different explanations for the results they observed. Firstly, meditation could be stimulating growth in neural structures and promote increased connectivity and efficiency within neural networks. Secondly, it "buffers the brain and nervous system against the deleterious effects of chronic stress, which may reduce pro-inflammatory response, stimulate telomerase activity, and inhibit age-related brain change."
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Studying Burning Man and Mass Consciousness
Experiments conducted by researchers from the Institute of Noetic Sciences from 2012 through 2016 at the Burning Man festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert explored a subjective experience often reported by participants during the two main ceremonies – the Man Burn and the Temple Burn.
This subjective experience is variously described as an "energetic shift" or as "electricity in the air," and it seems to be evoked when tens of thousands of people coherently focus on the same event.
The experiments involved monitoring the outputs of truly random number generators (RNG) before, during, and after these ceremonies. The combined results of the five experiments, involving different numbers and types of RNGs, indicated a non-chance increase of order in the RNG outputs during the two main events. This suggests that the Star Wars idea of a "disturbance in the Force" is more than a metaphor. It appears that moments of collective coherent attention are associated with an unexpected appearance of order in random physical systems. This in turn suggests the presence of a fundamental relationship between consciousness and the physical world.
Burning Man was selected as the venue for these experiments because (a) the festival attracts tens of thousands of people, (b) it takes place in a thoroughly isolated desert environment, far from the nearest electrical power grid, (c) it takes significant travel, preparation and financial planning to attend the festival.
Data were recorded on all six RNGs the night before, the night of, and the night after the two main ceremonies (August 30, 31, and September 1, 2013). Statistical analyses shows that the mean z score across the six RNGs during the Man Burn ceremony peaked significantly above chance 2.4 minutes after the man began to burn, and that the mean z across four RNGs running during the Temple Burn peaked 14 seconds before the beginning of the Temple Burn ceremony.
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