The Science of Meditation

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 2010

Key Facts About Your Brain:

• Shaped by evolution, especially of emotional and relational capacities; for example, the bigger the primate social group, the bigger the brain

• 3 pounds, 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion “gray matter” neurons

• Always “on” – 2% of the body’s weight uses about 25% of its oxygen

• Average neuron has about 1000 connections (synapses), 100 trillion in all

• Synapses fire 1 to 100 times a second; quadrillions of synapses activate each minute

• Brain regions linked by neural pulses synchronized within a few milliseconds

• Highly interconnected network full of circular loops: awareness of awareness…

• Number of possible brain states: 1 followed by a million zeros

• The most complex object known in the universe

Your Mind Changes Your Brain:

• Both temporarily, in electrochemical waves lasting mere milliseconds, and permanently, as existing synapses get strengthened and new ones get made

• As circuits get used, they strengthen their connections; “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Your experience matters, leaving an enduring trace behind.

• London taxi drivers have thicker regions that create visual-spatial memories.

• Mindfulness and concentration meditations activate different parts of the brain.

Your Brain Changes Your Mind:

• Brain activity generates mental activity (mostly forever outside awareness).

• Trauma shrinks the hippocampus, which becomes less able to create new memories.

• More active left frontal lobes foster positive emotions.

You can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being.

For example, meditation and related practices (such as mindfulness-based stress reduction [MBSR]):

• Trigger patterns of neural pulsing that produce relaxed alertness

• Activate positive emotion circuits, building resilience and resistance to depression

• Increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that supports mood, sleep, and digestion

• Thicken the anterior cingulate, strengthening attention and self-observation

• Thicken the insula, strengthening internal sensing and empathy for others

• Stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) for relaxed well-being

• Strengthen the immune system, improve cardiovascular health, dampen chronic pain

Ways to activate brain states that support meditation:

• Establish frontal lobe direction through forming an intention for your meditation.

• Activate the relaxing PNS through full exhalations, relaxing specific muscles, etc.

• Reduce external vigilance by evoking a sense of safety and security

• Increase concentration (and support motivation) through opening to and even calling forth positive emotions such as gratitude, happiness, contentment, or tranquility

• Register wholesome experiences in emotional memory by savoring them

• Encourage release of self through giving up conscious control of breathing

• As needed, increase stimulation by sensing the whole body breathing, walking, etc.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include NeurodharmaResilient, Hardwiring HappinessBuddha’s BrainJust One Thing, and Mother Nurture – with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free newsletters have 215,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He and his wife live in northern California and have two adult children. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.

FOUR THEMES:

  1. Befriending Yourself
  2. Self-Compassion
  3. Acceptance
  4. Enjoying Life

TOPICS COVERED:

  • How life course is shaped by challenges, vulnerabilities, and resources; why you can usually affect resources the most.
  • Resources are located in the world, the body, and the mind; why mental resources are often the easiest and quickest to develop.
  • Mental resources are inner strengths like gratitude, confidence, calm, self-acceptance, determination, compassion, assertiveness, and happiness.
  • Developing inner strengths – growing the good inside yourself – means using your mind to change your brain for the better.
  • The vital stance of being on your own side, a friend to yourself. Understanding why you matter. Self-compassion.
  • A preview of how to turn passing experiences into lasting inner strengths woven into your brain.
  • Finding more acceptance of things as they are, even if they’re not your preference. Accepting yourself. Telling the truth about how it is for you. Honoring your pain.
  • Opening to the longings in your heart. What do you wish was better in your life? What, if it were more present in your mind, would really help these days? How can you use this program to get more good stuff inside yourself?
  • Preview of the Foundations of Well-Being program.
  • What do you want to get out of this program? Setting intentions for it.

ALSO FEATURED:

  • Tara Brach Interview
  • Compassion for Yourself as a Child Creative Activity
  • The Caring Quilt Creative Activity

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