Category Archives: neuroscience

Effects of meditation

effects of meditationMeditation comes in a lot of different flavors: guided, transcendental, zen, vipassana, insight, just to name a few. I’ve practiced off and on for about 7 years and I’ve tried several different methods. I’ve meditated alone and with others. I’ve focused on my breath, worked to control my breath, recited things like The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and focused on solving visual math problems like how to construct polygons with just a compass and straightedge (I actually did figure it out, in my head, for a hexagon). But what does mediation do for you? What are the physical, psychological, and physiological effects of meditation?

The reason I recited the sutras of Patañjali is because these aphorisms are an ancient answer to our question — what does mediation do? According to the sutras, meditation:

  • allows us to attain habitual inward-mindedness and overcome sickness, languor, doubt, heedlessness, sloth, dissipation, false vision, pain, and depression
  • gives us a state of utmost lucidity and clarity of the inner-being
  • results in our acquisition of great vitality, gladness, unexcelled joy, perfection of the body, contact with the deity, the relaxation of tension, and the fitness of the mind for concentration

In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom Rick Hanson describes what meditation does in terms of brain structure and neuroscience. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the gateway into all the other major systems of your body — endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, and nervous. Mental activity can directly influence the ANS to a greater degree than any other system. And the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is a part of the ANS. Stimulating the PNS calms, soothes, and heals your body, brain, and mind. From a physiological and psychological point of view, meditation has the following affects on the body:

  • increases gray matter in the brain and improves attention, compassion, and empathy
  • lifts mood to offset depression
  • strengthens the immune system
  • helps physical ailments including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, PMS, and chronic pain
  • helps psychological conditions including insomnia, anxiety, phobias, and eating disorders

Of course, these benefits are not quickly realized. Meditation is by no means a “quick fix.” The sutras, themselves, state that the meditation practice must be “cultivated properly and for a long time uninterruptedly.” But you must agree that the benefits are worthy of our time and effort. Like eating right and exercising, I don’t know why I can’t always find the time to meditate. It’s not always easy to calm my mind but when I can, even a little, the feeling is amazing. Perhaps that’s part of the “problem.” I love being in the meditative state so much that I don’t want to come out of it and get back to the external world.

But, like exercise, meditation is one of those things that needs to be done even when nothing seems to be gained by it. It’s the long-term practice that pays. The benefits far outweigh the inconvenience and make up many times over the time spent. Let’s get some time “on the cushion” and reap the rewards, shall we?

Effects of depression: Long term memory

effects of depressionMemory is a wily thing. The effects of depression add a whole ‘nother level to its wiliness.

We all have explicit memory and implicit memory. Explicit memory is recalling what I had for breakfast or what it felt like to watch my daughter perform her violin recital. Implicit memory does its work behind the scenes and underneath our conscious awareness. It shapes our minds based on our lived experiences — our expectations, relationships and emotions.

Rather than retrieving a memory in its totality all at once, our brains rebuild implicit and explicit memories from their key features. This gives our brains much more storage capacity but it also allows for memories to get “corrupted.” Just imagine recalling a past event with a friend. You probably wouldn’t be surprised if your memories differ rather significantly. They differ because you are not bringing into awareness a total description of the event but rather are recreating the event from the key features plus other things that are on your mind at the same time. So, if I’m feeling undervalued at work when I recall placing third in a 4th grade spelling bee, I may bias that memory away from feelings of pride for my achievement and toward feelings of regret that I missed an easy word or feelings of resentment towards the girl who won first place but wasn’t had smart as I was (in my opinion).

But it doesn’t end there. When that memory is put back into storage it’s not put back exactly as it was before. My current feelings are stored with it so now the memory has been fundamentally changed, biased towards a more negative recollection the next time. Can you see the downward spiral possible? Each time the memory is recalled there is the potential for it to be made more and more negative.

Depression makes this process even more devastating. The intensity of the negative bias is heightened during a depression because there is very little positive thinking during these times.

There is another aspect to the negative feedback loop. When we recall a memory that has had this negative bias applied to it over and over, it tends to darken our mood even if we were thinking positively at the time. This all but assures that a further negative bias is applied.

A long lasting depression can taint a lot of memories. And this tainting doesn’t go away when the depression ends. It’s still there encoded in our brain structure. Perhaps this is partly why depressive episodes repeat themselves. When every memory that comes up has negativity associated with it, it’s no wonder the depression returns.

Of course, this mechanism also points to a way of counteracting the accumulated negative bias with the “power of positive thinking.” By purposefully focusing on positive emotions and perspectives while recalling memories we can slowly shift the bias away from the negative and toward the positive. We can heal ourselves synapse by synapse.

Mental therapy

Hell, Coppo di MarcovaidoI think dealing with depression is like physical therapy — a long, agonizing, tortuous journey through Dante’s 9 circles of Hell with no Beatrice in sight. You have to get in there and do the exercises even when you don’t see any improvement. You have to do what is supposed to help even when it doesn’t help. Because, you have to believe that it will help. Somehow. Sometime. Even if it seems to make you worse now.

Exercise is like that for me. It’s supposed to get the endorphins pumping and elevate mood. But 30 minutes on the cross-trainer and I’m ready for a 2-hour nap. An afternoon stroll with my daughter and I’m toast.

Dieting, too. I tried the Paleo diet. My brother-in-law said it cured all his aches and pains, lowered his cholesterol, and reduced his blood pressure. My trainer (ex-trainer, that is) said the weight just dropped off without his changing any other aspect of his life. For me, it did nothing except make me miserable and crave mashed potatoes more than usual.

But this is the catch-22 that comes with depression. Depression affects the limbic system which is central to motivation. The basal ganglia, which is involved with rewards and stimulation seeking, is part of the limbic system. I need motivation to get my ass off the couch and do something but my mental state is one of “it’s not going to make a difference so wtf!”

It’s difficult for me to be motivated by the future outcome of current actions. This means that all kinds of things slip through the cracks and don’t get done. The truly scary thing is the thought that this affect is not temporary. I can’t simply wait until the meds kick in and I’ll be back to “normal.” This is the current state of my brain. This is ME!

That’s why mental therapy is necessary. Brain retraining is required. It’s not an easy fix by any stretch of the imagination. But where do I find the internal fortitude and resolution to tackle this? How do I get started?