Friday, November 26, 2010

Meditation II
Mike Rappaport

Some astounding facts about Meditation: 

First, once more from Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis: 

            A person’s average or typical level of happiness is that person’s “affective style.” (“Affect” refers to the felt or experienced part of emotion.) Your affective style reflects the everyday balance of power between your approach system and your withdrawal system, and this balance can be read right from the forehead.  It has long been known from studies of brainwaves that most people show an asymmetry: more activity either in the right frontal cortex or in the left frontal cortex.  In the late 1980’s Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin discovered that these asymmetries correlated with a person’s general tendencies to experience positive and negative emotions.  People showing more of a certain kind of brainwave coming through the left side of the forehead reported feeling more happiness in their daily lives and less fear, anxiety, and shame than people exhibiting higher activity on the right side.  Later research showed that these cortical “lefties” are less subject to depression and recover more quickly from negative experiences.  The difference between cortical righties and lefties can be seen even in infants: Ten-month-old babies showing more activity on the right side are more likely to cry when separated briefly from their mothers.  And this difference in infancy appears to reflect an aspect of personality that is stable, for most people, all the way through adulthood.  Babies who show a lot more activity on the right side of the forehead become toddlers who are more anxious about novel situations; as teenagers, they are more likely to be fearful about dating and social activities and, finally, as adults, they are more likely to need psychotherapy to loosen up.  Having lost out in the cortical lottery, they will struggle all their lives to weaken the grip of an overactive withdrawal system.  Once when a friend of mine with a negative affective style was bemoaning her life situation, someone suggested that a move to a different city would suit her well.  “No.” she said, “I can be unhappy anywhere.” 

So our stable happiness level can be read off scans of our brains.  Can you change it?  Yes.  From The Mindfulness Solution by Siegel: 

One of my favorite lines of research comes from the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin.  Let’s start with some background; Dr. Richard Davidson and his colleagues have demonstrated that people who are typically distressed have more activity in the right prefrontal cortex of the brain (an area behind the forehead) than in the left prefrontal cortex.  This right-side activation is seen most in people who are anxious, depressed, or hypervigilant (scanning their environment for danger).  On the other hand, people who are generally content and have fewer negative moods tend to have activity in the left prefrontal cortex.

                Dr. Davidson and his colleagues have gathered data about brain activity on hundreds of people.  Strikingly, the person who showed the most dramatic left prefrontal cortical activation of all the subjects tested was Tibetan monk with many years of experience in mindfulness ( and other) meditation practices. The effect wasn’t limited to one case.  Dramatic shifts toward left prefrontal activation were found in the brains of a number of Tibetan monks who had 10,000 to 50,000 hours of meditation practice.

                 As a researcher, Dr. Davidson had to consider the possibility that perhaps people who naturally have more left-sided activation choose t become meditators or monks –so the greater left-sided activity seen in these subjects might not be caused by the meditation practice, but might instead have caused them to take up meditation in the first place.  To test this, Dr. Davidson and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited a group of pressured workers in a biotechnology firm an taught half of them mindfulness meditation for three hours per week over an eight-week period.  They compared this group to a similar group of coworkers who were not taught meditation.  On average, all of the workers tipped to the right in their prefrontal cortical activity before taking up meditation.  However after taking the eight-week course, the meditation group now had more left-sided activation than the nonmeditators.  The meditators also reported that their moods improved and they felt more engaged in their activities.

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Mike Rappaport
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Comments

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