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Thich Nhat Hanh and the Science of “Habit Energy”

In the Western mind, habits can be described as connections between neurons–or bonds–that are strong and induce us to continue a behavior. The more that we do the behavior, the stronger the neural bonds, and the stronger the habit.

TNH - habit energy

Journalist Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life and Business, (excerpt here) was interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” a couple of years ago, and here’s a quick rundown on what happens when we create habits:

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else.”

That’s why it’s easy — while driving or parallel parking, let’s say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you’re having.

“You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says. “And that’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”

The references to habits often refer to extreme habituated or obsessive disorders, such as gambling, drinking, or drugs; or to mundane things like parking a car while having a conversation, opening a door while thinking about something else entirely, or any number of “multi-tasking things” that we do. But in the mundane world of personal interactions, there is a tendency to not think of our behaviors as habits. In your work environment or daily life, the things you say and do are considered your personality. But here, we find habitual behavior as well–good and bad. What Thich Nhat Hanh is referring to in the quote above is reacting to scenarios with destructive, habitual behavior, such as anger, hatred, self-loathing. These behaviors are also automatic, built up over years of “practice.”

We know that the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) goes “”offline during habitual behaviors; we also know (from previous posts!) that a stimulated PFC helps govern the ancient Limbic/Amygdala brain, where fight/flight/freeze responses are triggered. Coincidence? Perhaps. But likely not–if the Basal Ganglia governs habit behavior and the PFC gets knocked offline during this behavior, would the same not hold true for habits that include anger, stress, anxiety, hatred, fear, during certain triggers–where the PFC is bypassed and the similes is “handled” by the Limbic portion of the brain?

Where does Mindfulness Come into Play? Think about Nuts. In habit behavior (grabbing a handful or two of nuts mindlessly and chomping on them, because you’re hungry before dinner, not realizing that you might be ruining your appetite for dinner, let’s say) you’re not actually very “present.” You’re not in the moment. You’re just repeating patterns of behavior mindlessly, without a lot of thought. Mindfulness enables you to stop or pause, and think about what you’re actually doing at the moment. The training that comes from mindfulness meditation actually helps enable you to be aware of what’s happening to you and what you’re doing, whether it’s snacking mindlessly before dinner of sending an angry email response that you just “know” that you probably shouldn’t send in response to whose own email  triggered you. That’s habit behavior, or “habit energy” as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, and it can be overcome.

Habits are, at their core, nothing more than neural (brain cell) connections, but the brain will repeat what the brain is “fed.” As I am won’t to say, the more one does something, the more one does something. As neural networks–and through the property of neuroplasticity–old habits can be changed to become new habits, and it happens all the time. The couch potato who, sick and tired of her or his sedentary lifestyle, becomes an athlete over time, and develops a daily habit of exercise. The angry individual who, sick of upsetting his co-workers and family members over his temper, engages in mindfulness meditation to build up an ability to “re-wire” his brain to be more calm and less reactive in stressful situations. Hey, it works, folks; I’m living (if occasionally faulty) proof! But you must keep practicing, otherwise, those dominant “negative” habits can just as easily come back at any time.

aristotle quote

Neurons that Fire together, Wire Together. It’s a well-known trope among neurologists, but it’s true: neurons actually connect to one another for learning to take place. Memory, then is actually used to maintain and sustain those connections. According to neural expert Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of You are the Placebo: Making your Mind Matterthe more that neurons fire together, they more that they wire together; and the more this happens through, say, memory or experience, the more that the bonds between them are strengthened.  

Although the following TEDx talk isn’t about “habits,” per se, it explains how “habitual neural networking” can be created–and disconnected–in a very clear, easily understood way. In essence, doing something “over and over” again reinforces the neural bonds, so that the behavior/reaction to various triggers becomes more automatic. But the key here is repetition–old memories/wiring are harder to “rewire” than newer ones, and it can take time to rewire one’s self away from old habits. But if you keep at it, it can be done–in fact, it will be done. Take a moment to watch this video for the science of behind it all; I think you’ll find that it’s remarkably similar to the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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Trauma, Memories, and the Ancient Brain

What is trauma? According to the American Psychological Association: :

Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. 

That’s certainly the prevailing definition of trauma. But is there more to it? Assuredly. Trauma can result in myriad symptoms that go far beyond “even headaches and “nausea.”

The more I research the brain, the more I’ve come to realize that much of what we call “depression, anxiety, fear,” and a wide range of other “disorders,” are due, in varying degrees, to trauma. What we know is that trauma tends to be induced by an incident or series of incidents. It can happen when you’re young (when you have a tendency to suppress the memory) or when you’re older (when you’re more likely to maintain the memory). Trauma is, essentially, the brain’s retention of a stressful event or experience–and after it’s done, it becomes the memory of that event or experience that provides the trauma trigger. Trauma–the experience. And contrary to the simplistic definition of trauma listed above, it experienced in a wide variety of ways.


Trauma–it’s complicated. According to Dr. Christine Courtois’s article, “Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches” complex traumatic events and experiences are:

 (1) repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative (2 ) most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults, and (3) often occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, especially in early childhood or adolescence, but can also occur later in life and in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability/ disempowerment/dependency/age /infirmity, and so on.

In other words, it’s complicated, and “one size does not fit all” when it comes to trauma. Memories involve a variety of components in the brain. The brain’s memory is so powerful, that most of the time, you’re completely unaware that this most incredible 3 lb. gelatinous computer is recording things (even while you sleep)–but it’s always recording.

What about PTSD? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a syndrome that occurs when one cannot “reset” and go back to a normal life after a traumatic event (or once an event becomes dominant in one’s life). Dr. Lynn Margolies, a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, breaks down PTSD into the following categories:

hyper vigiliantHyper-Arousal 

Hyper-arousal is when the traumatized person’s physiology is in high gear, having been assaulted by the psychological impact of what happened and not able to reset. The symptoms of hyperarousal include: difficulty sleeping and concentrating, being easily startled, irritability, anger, agitation, panic, and hypervigilance (being hyper-alert to danger).



Re-Experiencing includes intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, exaggerated reactions to reminders of the event, and re-experiencing (including re-experiencing physical symptoms when the body ‘remembers’).


Numbing includes feeling robotic or on “automatic pilot” – disconnected from feelings and from vitality, which is replaced by a sense of deadness. Symptoms of numbing/avoidance include: loss of interest in life and other people, hopelessness, isolation, avoidance of thoughts and feelings associated with the traumatic event, feeling detached and estranged from others, withdrawal, depression, and emotional anesthesia. Preoccupation with avoiding trauma or feelings and thoughts related to trauma can become a central focus of the survivor’s life. [source]

Although it’s not mentioned above, these symptoms are very closely aligned with fight/flight/freezing associated with the ancient brain “survival response,” and the negative feedback loop (which I’ve discussed quite a few times before). It’s my view that these symptoms are far more common than people realize, and often go undiagnosed because there’s no real “test” for them other than some very broad-based “if this, then that” criteria (such as listed here in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5). But if you are having some symptoms, but not others, or are not diagnosed by someone with expertise in this area, you can be put on a “diagnostic” treadmill with no clear final conclusion about what’s happening to you (as I was), which can lead to increasing symptoms, because of a lack of knowledge about what’s happening. You can easily think that you’re losing your mind, as medical specialists wind up “guessing” about your condition. It is my contention that everyone suffers from trauma of some sort, in some way or another–it’s almost inevitable if you’re lived at all. Life is a dangerous, often frightening experience, and the wonderful, agnostic brain records it all in ways we’re only just beginning to discover. This is good news–and bad–because the brain honestly doesn’t “care” what it records; it’s just going to record what you experience, and how that eventually comes to light, consciously or sub-consciously, one can only guess. Eventually, trauma, anxiety, stress, freezing responses–these may well all be considered components along the same spectrum.

Take the veteran who returns from war. Let’s say he or she has been in firefights and has witnessed their friend being brutally killed–or say, he or she has brutally killed someone. The memory of this experience was recorded and stored in vivid detail–the brain retains extreme circumstances in high def. But the memory itself may be “repressed,” in effect, shoved down deeply in the brain so that the conscious mind is largely unaware of it (the brain is good at defense mechanisms like this, too). But then one day, walking down the street, the vet, who has had trouble sleeping, feels depressed or anxious, and doesn’t know why, suddenly smells or hears something that “triggers” or “stimulates” the traumatizing memory. Suddenly, it’s all read–as if it were happening for the first time. The brain triggers all the associated body / brain systems it “thinks” are needed to function to deal with it–whether the threat is real or not.


One of the saddest letters ever written. The description below is a heart-rending explanation of how one individual–a soldier who fought in Iraq–experienced trauma. It offers, in painful detail, the experience that can happen to someone who has been severely traumatized, and what the brain can do to such an individual–all in “service” of survival. Passages from the letter are as follows:

Daniel Somers was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was part of Task Force Lightning, an intelligence unit. In 2004-2005, he was mainly assigned to a Tactical Human-Intelligence Team (THT) in Baghdad, Iraq, where he ran more than 400 combat missions as a machine gunner in the turret of a Humvee, interviewed countless Iraqis ranging from concerned citizens to community leaders and and government officials, and interrogated dozens of insurgents and terrorist suspects. In 2006-2007, Daniel worked with Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) through his former unit in Mosul where he ran the Northern Iraq Intelligence Center. His official role was as a senior analyst for the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and part of Turkey). Daniel suffered greatly from PTSD and had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and several other war-related conditions. On June 10, 2013, Daniel wrote the following letter to his family before taking his life. Daniel was 30 years old. His wife and family have given permission to publish it.

My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems. The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure. All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body. It is nothing short of torture. My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety, even with all of the medications the doctors dare give. Simple things that everyone else takes for granted are nearly impossible for me. I can not laugh or cry. I can barely leave the house. I derive no pleasure from any activity. Everything simply comes down to passing time until I can sleep again. Now, to sleep forever seems to be the most merciful thing.

This is what brought me to my actual final mission. Not suicide, but a mercy killing. I know how to kill, and I know how to do it so that there is no pain whatsoever. It was quick, and I did not suffer. And above all, now I am free. I feel no more pain. I have no more nightmares or flashbacks or hallucinations. I am no longer constantly depressed or afraid or worried. ~ Daniel Somers, RIP

I’ve read this letter a couple of times now, and every time, it hits me: we actually know how to control many of these symptoms. We actually know that people who are traumatized and are experiencing extreme physical symptoms aren’t “making it up.” It’s clear that this is not the case. In the case of traumatized veterans, the symptoms can be–and clearly are–impossible to live with in a consistent, chronic way. Everything this poor, highly intelligent vet describes is a textbook explanation of a traumatized individual. Incredibly sad story, but elements of this are something that I–someone without a military past–have experienced.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that his case is not unique; a recent study seeks to determined why the suicide rate is so incredibly high among vets returning from war

Trauma and Meditation: Reason for hope. According to a 2013 a study, there is reason to hope for traumatized individuals and those with PTSD.

A new collaborative study from the University of Michigan Health System and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System shows that veterans with PTSD who completed an 8-week mindfulness-based group treatment plan showed a significant reduction in symptoms as compared to patients who underwent treatment as normal.

The results of our trial are encouraging for veterans trying to find help for PTSD,” says Anthony P. King, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and research assistant professor in the U-M Department of Psychiatry, who performed the study in collaboration with psychologists at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. “Mindfulness techniques seemed to lead to a reduction in symptoms and might be a potentially effective novel therapeutic approach to PTSD and trauma-related conditions.”

For those who have been following the trajectory of mindfulness meditation (and it’s increasing acceptance in the West), this comes as no surprise. Addressing feelings, runaway thoughts, and understanding how to deal with them through insightful meditation builds up resilience in the brain to stress, anxiety, depression, and fear. The data are increasingly incontrovertible, and that’s good news for a culture that has become used to taking pills to deal with their internal mental strife, rather than use the brain’s own incredibly powerful tools to do so.

There is also this: The Neuroscuplting Institute in Denver. Last year guest writer Lisa Wimberger explained the hope that neuroplasticity offers–a way to re-generate and recreate our neural networks. Lisa is an expert in trauma and has helped hundreds of police officers deal with stress through neurosculpting. Find out more at her web site, to find out more.)

Lisa Wimberger, the founder of the Neurosculpting Institute is presenting a workshop at the world-famous Kripalu Center in Massachusetts this June. To find out more about how she developed the program of neuroplasticity, check out this fascinating interview with Lisa, conducted by Tami Simon, the founder of Sounds True (the best known and highly respected organization that sells leading self-help and insight programs, ranging from MBSR training online to CDs by the NeuroSculpting Institute, and everything in between; well worth checking out). The “Weekly Wisdom” interview with Lisa can be found here).

Trauma as a Memory–Someone Else’s

Trauma is a well-known phenomenon, but the brain, as incredibly accurate and high def as it is, sends its owner into a state of panic and excitation, because the brain and the body really don’t recognize that this is not the actual experience, but only a memory, and it triggers the same fight/flight/freeze response that was triggered when the original experience occurred. The thing of it is, some people have more of a predisposition to trauma than others; it’s complex. Levels of resilience to trauma–whether experienced in battle or in a sexual attack, or due to some sort of innate, developed anxiety–seem to vary widely. When it comes to trauma one size most definitely does NOT fit all. In fact, the latest research indicates that memories can be passed down from one generation to another. Um, that’s kind of a huge development. Because if memories can be passed down genetically, theoretically, so can trauma, which is comprised of memories.

family tree

New research has discovered that genetic changes are sparked by actions, activities, and external influences–this is a field of inquiry known as epigenetics. We’ve known for a long time that certain influences or triggers can trigger cellular activity at the DNA level (suddenly getting a second chin, just like Dad, in your 50s? That’s a triggered trait! (or too much wine, it’s a toss up!) ;). So, if epigenetics works in our bodies, why not our brains? To follow this logic, it’s now been determined that memories may well be passed from generation to generation. This is big news, indeed. Because if memories can be handed down to the next generation, then it follows that trauma (which is comprised, ultimately of memories of traumatic experience) may have actually be passed down, genetically from generation to generation:

According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.

Or not. If your grandmother was adopted by nurturing parents, you might be enjoying the boost she received thanks to their love and support. The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too. [source]

This makes intuitive sense, and now the data are getting closer to proving that it makes valid scientific sense, as well. One of the biggest challenges in dealing with traumatized people is determining how much of it is due to a “predisposition” to trauma and how much of it is due to actually stimuli. Now, in light of the latest epigenetics research, predisposition in this case is really a euphemism for “inherent/inherited tendency.” It’s hard to put a value on what this might mean for medicine, the treatment of depression, anxiety, trauma, and a range of other “inherited” maladies:

According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories. [source]

Imagine that an “inherited mental hygiene” profile could be developed that indicated the likelihood that someone would develop various anxieties, depression, or trauma-related illness. We know that trauma, anxiety, and stress (all part of the same spectrum of reliving or living in real time, fears and pain through uncontrolled thoughts or somatization stressors) can be treated by complementary techniques such as mindfulness meditation.

                                   corvid smallcorvid smallcorvid small

Our ancestors are there in every cell of our bodies. There are seeds that are planted during your lifetime, but there are also seeds that were planted before you manifested in this body. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh                     

        corvid smallcorvid smallcorvid small

The Brain doesn’t know the Difference Between Reality and Memory. According to Dr. Dispenza, you can turn on the stress response just to a thought alone. The Limbic, or ancient brain, is triggered by an threat event–real or imagined–which then leads to the he fight/flight/freeze response. So a memory, to your brain, can be just as real to the original stimulus, leading to increased heart rate, blood pressure, dilated pupils, blood flow to your extremities, all in preparation to do battled or flee. As Dr. Dispenza puts it, however, what was once an adaptive response to actual threat, has become a maladaptive reality, “because when we turn on the stress response, and we can’t turn it off, now we’re headed for disease.”  For more on this, please see this post.

Some final thoughts. It would make intuitive sense that the brain is capable of passing  down memories from generation to generation–after all, just chemicals and DNA triggers, whether working around your mid-section, your eyesight, or your brain. I could also see how, to ensure survival, a collective memory capability would exist, to ensure that whatever was occurring in a family line remained in that family line, warts (physical and mental) and all. As per always, more research is warranted, but this fascinating area of inquiry could prove to be one way we identify who is more prone to trauma and who is more resilient to it–something today’s researchers have no remote idea about at this point, as far as I’m aware.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ft. Hood Attack, the “Offline PFC,” and the Ancient Brain

A few days ago, Ivan Lopez, a soldier in Ft. Hood, TX went on a murderous rampage before shooting himself. A day or two later, a military spokesman, indicated that an “escalating argument” precipitated the assault. According to another spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, the military had not yet determined a “concrete motive.”

Sadly, this is not surprising; incidents like this are increasingly commonplace these days. For those who have followed this blog, you know that the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)–the “newer” part of our brains that evolved to govern the complexities of thought, emotion, and higher “executive” functions–can be bypassed entirely if the “ancient brain” (encompassing the limbic system, and specifically the amygdala) is triggered to prepare one for survival:  fight, flight, or freeze. It is my contention that what’s happening in people like Lopez involves a complete bypass of the PFC and a “handing over of controls” to the ancient, “animal” parts of the brain.


The Bypass of Reason

This abdication of “ruling authority” to the ancient animal within doesn’t just happen to unhinged “shooters” like the increasingly common murderers, such as the Ft. Hood shooter the other day, but it happens in everyday events, when people have arguments at work, with a spouse, a friend, or expressing outrage to someone who cut them off on the road–any number of aggravating circumstances.

The difference is one of degree: people who have common, garden-variety arguments tend to resolve them without incident. But people who are overtaken by the fight or flight response can experience a psychotic break from reason and the control of their modern brains–out of control feelings, emotions, and actions can escalate to violence if left unchecked.

When one feels threatened during, say, an argument over something, the amygdala triggers the release of adrenalin; blood pressure increases and muscles tighten–the Pre-Frontal Cortex can be “knocked offline” temporarily. These are all normal responses, and typically, the PFC comes “back online” without incident, tensions de-escalate, and the conflict is resolved (if only temporarily). But when arguments tap into larger problems, or real or imagined threats, or somehow trigger underlying issues (simmering trauma from war or childhood abuse or other incident, genetic predisposition, dysfunction, or anxieties, anger, or resentments, including unresolved arguments, alcohol, drugs) things can become dangerous. The ancient parts of our brains were great at helping ensure the survival of genes by preparing us to fight or flee. But in today’s modern world, these same mechanisms can wind up leading to a “psychotic break.” 

What’s a Psychotic Break? Zombies. They’ve been en vogue in our culture for a while now, but when you’re stuck in the fight or flight negative feedback loop, it ain’t a TV show, it’s a living hell. That’s what I feels like–the living dead; someone who is disconnected from the “real world” and is essentially living in a waking dream (nightmare) state. When I was fully within its grip, I’m certain that my amygdala was perpetually activated; adrenalin was being released at extremely high rates, and my PFC was by and large “offline.” I had so much energy coursing through my body in preparation for a threat that didn’t actually exist, that I was able to do 200 pushups in a matter of a few minutes, even though I hadn’t exercised in months. Everything felt surreal; like it was a cartoon version of reality. I’m pretty sure that what I experienced was a series of “mini-psychotic breaks.” It was a strange, episodic on-again, off-again experience that was terrifying and left me dissociated, confused, unable to sleep, and contemplating suicide. There was no single trigger for this, it was a combination of years of pent up health neuroses, obsessiveness, and stress triggers at work that led me to experience these symptoms. I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder–a fear of illness. The smallest things were threats–a headache? –Cancer. Tingling in my toes? –MS. Dizziness? –Well, you get the idea. This description sums up what its like:

A psychotic break occurs when an individual experiences symptoms of psychosis, either for the first time or after a long period without symptoms. This can be precipitated by drug use, a major life change such as the death of a close family member or friend, or a previously diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, which frequently has genetic or biological factors as well. A psychotic break does not always appear the same in each person experiencing them, but it is characterized by an inability to distinguish reality. Individuals frequently suffer from delusions or hallucinations, which can potentially lead to violence. Others will experience major depressive episodes.

The symptoms of a psychotic break can vary. Some people might become aggressive and violent, while others will become extremely withdrawn or even suicidal, as in a major depressive episode. [source]

Reliving the Past–with Renewed, Violent Vigor

The first paragraph above relates closely to the Ft. Hood shooter. Lopez’s mother had died just a few months ago. At the time, Lopez was given only 24 hours of “leave” to attend her funeral (eventually extended by two days)–a resentment that he may have harbored in the months since and leading up to his own psychotic break. How so? Lopez reportedly got into an argument involving the cancellation of his leave the other. Could this have triggered emotions associated with the limited leave he was granted when his mother died back in November? Could these feelings of anger and resentment could have rushed back, disengaging his PFC’s “executive decision making” functions, thereby relinquishing control to his animal brain?

PFCs are Going “Offline” Every Day–with Horrific Consequences. This doesn’t happen for everyone, of course, but it does appear to be happening every day of the year here in the US–our murder and violence rate is extremely high, especially compared to other modern, industrialized countries. Ironically, our culture tends to disconnect what happens with a mass shooting from the multiple “single” murders that happen every day in our country. Are not the same actions occurring, just to varying degrees?

This conclusion is a simple extrapolation to the logical extreme of a post I authored a couple of days ago, wherein Tara Brach postulates that the PFCs in people engaged in an argument are bypassed, and “go offline,” while the fight/flight response kicks in. It was posited in the news that the Ft. Hood shooter actually had an argument with someone not long before he went on his rampage. This, sadly, fits the model of the “offline PFC.”

 Dr. Tara Brach has stated that being empathetic during conflict…“is only possible if we’re not caught up in feeling like the threatened victim or the aggressor. If our identity has narrowed and we’re caught up in fight/flight, that takes predominance. and it’s almost as if those parts of our front cortex necessary. for empathy and attunement, are deactivated.”

When Conflict Escalates to Violence. Here’s the thing: the Ft. Hood episode appears to have been precipitated by an argument. The argument then triggered the animal/ancient fight or flight (in this case, clearly “fight”) response, and the rest is incredibly sad history. As is often the case with these kinds of scenarios, those closest to the shooter can scarcely believe it: “My son could not have been in his right mind,” Lopez (the father of the shooter) said. “He was not like that.” No, by all indications he was “not like that.” When he went on his rampage, he was, instead, being controlled, in essence, by his animal mind. The summary by officials provides clues, but no real analysis:

“Lopez, an Army truck driver, did a short stint in Iraq in 2011 and told medical personnel he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. The 34-year-old was undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety while being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, base officials said.

But officials said Lopez did not see any combat in Iraq and had not previously demonstrated a risk of violence. He seemed to have a clean record that showed no ties to potential terrorists. Lopez had arrived at Fort Hood in February Fort Bliss, another Texas base near the Mexico border.”

— other data not associated with the explanation —

[Lopez] sought help for depression and anxiety and was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, military officials said. But Army Secretary John McHugh said Thursday that a psychiatrist last month found no violent or suicidal tendencies. The soldier was prescribed Ambien for a sleeping problem.

“Lopez’s mother died of a heart attack in November….Lopez was close to her and was apparently upset that he was granted only a short leave — 24 hours, later extended to two days — to go to her funeral, which was delayed for nearly a week so he could make it, the family spokesman said.”

The Warning Signs of a Fight or Flight Negative Feedback Loop 

Inability to sleep, depression, anxiety–these are all symptoms associated with trauma and fight or flight feelings, or what I call the “fight or flight negative feedback loop.” Why would an argument escalate into a bloodbath? Lopez believed he had brain trauma (no details on that yet) and complained of an inability to sleep, and he was being diagnosed to determined if he was suffering from PTSD. He was clearly upset over a previous episode wherein he was initially granted leave of only 24 hours when his mother died. What I’m finding is that everyone has some sort of trauma, some of it post-traumatic, some of it currently traumatic, but it’s a much wider, shared condition than people realize. But the real trigger very probably was “more than one thing,” in this case, he may have harbored feelings of deep resentment about attending his mother’s funeral, and he was triggered into reliving the anger he felt when he was allowed a limited amount of leave (he was, apparently, very close to his mother). In any case, the “argument” was clearly  a trigger for trauma-induced dissociation:

In psychology, the term dissociation describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality…Although some dissociative disruptions involve amnesia, other dissociative events do not. Dissociative disorders are typically experienced as startling, autonomous intrusions into the person’s usual ways of responding or functioning. Due to their unexpected and largely inexplicable nature, they tend to be quite unsettling. [source]

argument about leave NYT

People who have arguments don’t tend to go on murderous rampages, unless there’s something deeper, and much darker, going on inside them. The fact that Lopez was undergoing treatment and complained of brain trauma, well, that merits some investigation. The military is great at sending people into war situations, but not so great when it comes to handling the trauma, stress, and strain that they face when they return home. The suicide rate of vets in this country attests to that basic truth. As the Guardian explains:

The oft-quoted statistic is that, going back to at least 2008 and in other years since, more American soldiers have committed suicide than have been killed in combat. Last year the US department of veterans affairs issued the startling figure that 22 veterans killed themselves every day.

There is no consensus on why. Many intensive and costly studies have reached different conclusions or have even avoided an explanation when presented with glaring contradictions.

Connecting the Dots. I cannot say, with 100% certainty, that what happened at Ft. Hood (or the many dozens of other acts of insanity that lead to the thousands of murders that happen in this country every year) was the result of  the fight or flight response. Or why, on average, vets are killing themselves more than they were being killed by enemy fire. Everyone is different. But one thing seems to be a common trait: a psychic break wherein the more “evolved, executive functions” of the brain appear to be completely disconnected, and the more ancient, violent, survival instincts of the brain take over. Memories play a strong role in trauma, and just because Lopez didn’t see combat, doesn’t mean that he wasn’t traumatized over his mother’s death, his limited leave request, and the following leave recently, which apparently was denied (see below). Will people investigating this rampage put these pieces together?

negative feedback loop

 Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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Spotlight on Jon Kabat-Zinn: Ancient Practices, Modern Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn. For many, the name has become synonymous with modern mindfulness. As a physician who took a break from his work to study Buddhism in the ’70s, it was a decision that helped lead the beginning of the mindfulness movement in the United States. After training in Buddhism, he came back to his practice with the then-fairly radical idea that the benefits of Buddhist mindfulness could help his patients who were suffering from chronic illness. The result was the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts.

JKZ Quote

Although I haven’t participated in an any of his training courses, I’ve read a lot about Jon Kabat-Zinn and own his highly regarded book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Widsom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. His journey is one of a physician who became a Buddhist practitioner and then applied what he learned to physician to help people with their ailments. It’s now a well-established fact that mindfulness meditation can help reduce everything from anxiety and stress to depression. Dr. Kabat-Zinn drew on the teachings of the Buddha (broadly known as “dharma“) to share the tools he learned as a student of Buddhism. His life’s work led to the creation in 1979 of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to those suffering from a variety of maladies. According to Shambhala Sun, Dr. Kabat-Zinn “ended up teaching people in a hospital function-room to eat a raisin as if for the first time, to scan each and every area of their body, to stretch, turn, twist, breathe, walk, and above all pay attention to moment after moment after moment.” His father, an immunologist, provided fertile background for Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s training at MIT as a molecular biologist. After listening to a talk at MIT by Philip Kapleau Roshi, he became a student of the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn. According to the Shambala Sun article, when he “took some time off from his job in the gross anatomy lab at the UMass Medical Center to do a meditation retreat, it occurred to him while practicing that patients in a hospital could use some mindfulness. It was one of those so obvious but so brand-new realizations that happens to scientists in labs every day: take the mindfulness to the hospital because that’s where the pain is.” But this was easier said than done–we Americans are notorious for questioning anything “foreign” or otherwise “un-American,” and “Eastern religion,” well, back then (and now, as well, for that matter), it’s the province of hippies and star children. So, Dr. Kabat-Zinn had to be careful not to scare off those who could benefit from Buddhist teachings by avoiding Buddhist phrases and “Americanizing” the teachings as much as possible, while teaching the core practices of mindfulness. Shambala Sun summed up his philosophy thus:

“Kabat-Zinn is trained in Buddhism and espouses its principles, but he does not identify himself as a Buddhist. ‘People don’t need any more identifications than they already have,’ he says. ‘If you present the dharma as Buddhism, one half may love it and tell great Zen stories or romantic Chinese Chan stories or exotic Tibetan Vajrayana stories and be sucked into this whole orbit of how wonderful Buddhism is. The other fifty percent may be completely turned off, feeling that some Buddhist evangelist is trying to sucker them into a belief system and on top of that, they probably want money.'”

Making Ancient Teachings Accessible to the Modern American

What’s interesting about Dr. Kabat-Zinn is that, from the beginning, he appears to have been very aware of the stigma associated with Buddhism in the West. Change of any kind is often feared by Americans, so change coming from the East that could be considered “religious proselytizing” of any kind could completely undermine his goal. To mitigate the risk that his program would be rejected out of hand, Dr. Kabat-Zinn started from the premise that MBSR needed to be something that people could understand is plain, “American-ese” while helping people learn the practice and techniques that have worked for thousands of years for those in the East.  As he explains:

“The challenge we are faced with in mindfulness-based stress reduction is how to make use of a vocabulary, structure and format that will invite people into the deep practice of meditation in a way that lets the practice be American. That has happened in every country Buddhism has ever gone to. There are many differences between the Buddhist traditions, yet the heart of it is dharma. At this stage, for Buddhism to become Buddhism it may have to stop being Buddhism. Meditation is not a collection of techniques that belongs to any group. It is a way of being. After all, the Buddha was not a Buddhist.”

Spreading the Word. Of course, what’s interesting about this is that the Buddhist himself “wasn’t a Buddhist,” and his teachings were spread throughout the Eastern world and morphed into a variety of philosophical models, much like language did, into a variety “versions” that suited the needs of peoples, culturally and philosophically. The core components of calming the brain are the same–mindfulness meditation reduces stress, calms down the ancient part of the fight/flight/freeze of the brain, and builds up the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates emotions and higher executive functions. In other words, mindfulness meditation helps improve the “good” aspects of the brain while diminishing the stressful, more anxious “ancient, survival” parts of the brain that can get us into trouble and what I have referred to as “negative feedback loops.” Is it okay if it’s not “real” Buddhism? When asked about the possible perversion of Buddhist teaching by “Westernizing” the practices, Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains that he considered this, and that Buddhist teachings can be perverted or distorted externally or internally, presumably with or without MBSR. This, for me, is the core of the argument against those who would say that any kind of mindfulness teaching other than “strict” Buddhism is somehow blasphemous or a threat. Teachings are–by their very nature–living, breathing, malleable practices. No one owns them. One does not have to be a Buddhist to enjoy the benefits of mindful practice, as others would have you believe.  Thich Nhat Hanh one of Buddhism’s most respected adherents makes this clear, in his many books on how to live a more mindful life, without the expectation or requirement that one become a Buddhist, per se. There is no orthodoxy in his teachings that exclude people if they don’t follow the strictest tenets of Buddhist. All one need do is practice the simple, but effect practice of mindfulness…any time, wrote the preface to Jon Kabat Zinn’s highly regarded work, Full Catastrophe Living:

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“This very readable and practical book [Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn] will be helpful in many ways. I believe many people will profit from it. Reading it, you will see that meditation is something that deals with our daily life. The book can be described as a door opening both on the dharma (from the side of the world) and on the world (from the side of the dharma). When the dharma is really taking care of the problems of life, it is true dharma. And this is what I appreciate most about the book. I think the author for having written it.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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When he was beginning his program, Dr. Kabat-Zinn talked to many knowledgeable Buddhists he respected about how he had to “protect the dharma” from hm as he spread it to people outside of a Buddhist context.You dont need to protect Dharma

But don’t take my (or Kabat-Zinn’s) word for it…

The Dalai Lama seems to agree, and more than that, has been actively involved in the “dialogue” between Buddhism and Western science and medicine. In the book, The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation, the world’s best known Buddhist practitioner and teacher (along with many other Buddhists) worked closely in what started in 2000 as the “Mind and Life Dialogues,” named after the Mind and Life Institute. But the Dalai Lama’s interest in engaging with “the other side” began long before this book was written. In fact, His Holiness has always expressed an interest in science:

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“Although my own interest in science began as the curiosity of a restless young boy growing up in Tibet, gradually the colossal importance of science and technology for understanding the modern world dawned on me. Not only have I sought to grasp specific scientific ideas but have also attempted to explore the wider implications of the new advances in human knowledge and technological power brought about through science.” ~ The Dalai Lama

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As Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains, in the a meeting in 2000, described in the Dalai Lama’s book Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? explains how this came to pass:

better whatever you are“His Holiness urged participants to find innovative ways to make the meditative practices being elucidated as effective in regulating difficult emotions more accessible in wholly secular contexts, since their essence is grounded in universal aspects of the human mind and heart, and thus their potential benefits are not at all limited to adherents of Buddhism. Such universalized approaches to the potential benefits of meditative practices are all the more important and urgent given the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well add high levels of stress and violence, that characterize our modern age. “A gathering of [Buddhist scholars and scientists] would have been unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago. Yet it came to pass in 2005, arising from an earlier and equally unthinkable public meeting held at MIT, and from a stream of smaller invitational meetings that have taken place since 19087 under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute and with the abiding interest and enthusiastic engagement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “…the Mind and Life Dialogues became an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as the nature of mind, the nature of the universe and our place in it, the nature of reality, and the potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace. Over the years, these dialogues have included psychologists and neuroscientists, physicians and philosophers, physicists, molecular biologists, and educators, and also contemplatives and monastics from various Buddhist lineages as well as other spiritual traditions. Increasingly, more Tibetan monks and nuns have joined as observers and students of these dialogues as a result of His Holiness’s efforts to promote a great exposure to the modern scientific worldview within the monastic community.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

MBSR at a Glance

The following is from the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society’s MBSR program brochure.

From the MBSR PDF brochure:

Dr. Kabat-Zinn on… 

..Meditation Practice: “meditation practice is really about coming to our senses, both literally and metaphorically. That we could actually cultivate intimacy with the ordinary…anyone can drop into awareness of the breath. What’s difficult is to keep your awareness of the breath.”

..doing: “We’re always doing doing doing. We could call ourselves human doings rather than human beings.”

…not being present: “Next time you’re in the shower check to see if you’re in the shower. You may not be there, you may be in a meeting. Or your whole meeting may be there with you. And you may be having one hell of an argument with people who are not there.”

This video of JKZ when he was at the University of San Diego is long–about an hour–but well worth watching.

Links Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Web Page: and biography


OnBeing: Unedited interview with Krista Tippet and JKZ:

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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What is Neuroplasticity?

There was a time, not that long ago, actually, in which the prevailing wisdom among scientists and brain researchers was consistent: The brain stops developing at an early age, and continues to “die off” over the span of one’s life. We now know this to be horribly inaccurate. Over the past 20 years, advances in brain imaging and neural research have revealed pretty much the opposite conclusion: the brain’s neural networks continue to change and grow throughout our lifetimes, even up to and through old age and death. This is pretty amazing in and of itself. But what’s even more, er, “mind blowing,” is this fact: You can change the structures in your brain yourself. 

universe in the headThat’s right–carbon-based, wandering through the universe you–you can actually modify how your brain’s genetic structure works and changes. Known as neuroplasticity, the latest research indicates that the brain is essentially “agnostic” when it comes to how the brain changes. As the most advanced memory and central processing unit in the known universe, with trillions of connections, the brain, it turns out, “doesn’t care” how it changes–it simply responds to external and internal stimuli and (the latter of which includes “pre-programmed” and genetic stimuli. At the most basic level, the more you do something, the more the brain does that thing, and will continue to “want” to do that thing–whether it’s exercise and kindness toward others practiced every day, or indulging in drinking and online pornography. The brain basically doesn’t care: it says “I see that you are doing this thing. The more that you do it, the more I will enable you to do it through your own programmed pathways known as synaptic connections between neurons. A fancy way of describing a habit. The brain is so incredibly complex in so many ways, but in some ways it’s very simple: as I like to say The more you do something, the more you do something. The brain just wants to repeat what it’s presented with, whether it’s watching TV or working out or meditation. After approximately 2 – 3 weeks of doing something consistently, the brain has built up enough patterns of neurons to help you keep doing that thing, whether it’s good for you or not. The brain is really good at this, and is especially well versed in creating addictive behaviors and stressors.

What seems to be the problem? 

We know from modern research that the brain tends to (though not for everyone) have what’s known as a “negative bias.” That is, the brain is much more capable of “remembering” negative events and inputs, because that’s what helped our ancestors survive (twig snap in the distance? could be a dangerous threat from a predator or another tribe). Over millions of years, literally, our brains have gotten very very good at preparing us for danger, or what’s known as fight or flight. The same sections of the brain that do this (in the Limbic system of the brain) are also responsible for rewards–food, sex, intoxicants that make us “feel good.” But the negative bias is dominant in many people, and that’s why repeated thoughts of stress, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety–all are provided a lot of “bandwidth” in the brain and easily remembered and repeated. In fact, the brain has a tendency to kill off the “happy chemicals” in our brain in favor of embracing the negative–don’t blame the brain for this, it was just doing this automatically to help preserve our ancestors from an early death. Worked very well for a long time! But now, that same, powerful capability is the undoing of many people today–they can be trapped in what I call a “negative feedback loop” (see below). What happens in a negative feedback loop is a negative stimulus causes our ancient brains to react in a way that prepare our bodies for fight or flight. But this also triggers the more “modern” parts of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) to try to search the database of our memories for a solution; it also thinks about future scenarios (or “stories”) that might come true as a result of the stimulus (e.g., health, money, emotional/familial/relationship, and other fears and anxieties) for an answer. If the brain finds none, it triggers even more negative response and fight/flight preparation from the ancient survival instinct part of the brain, which releases all manner of hormones and chemicals that would help us escape an immediate threat, but that are harmful if there is no immediate or real threat. This is what brings many people to the doctor these days; stress-repeated fight or flight physical (somatic) symptoms that are the result of an inability to figure how to fix what’s wrong or mitigate the threat, real or (often) imagined.

Bad wiring?

Your brain creates negative habits and conditioning from a variety of sources, family history, traumatic experiences, head trauma, and now the latest research indicates that

“those who experience relatively common family problems early in childhood have an increased risk of mental health issues later on….The cerebellum is an area of the brain associated with learning new skills and regulating stress, amongst other things. This could be a marker of psychological problems later in life as a small cerebellum has been consistently linked to serious mental disorders.”

Personally, my “bad wiring” developed over decades, and I’m not sure that there was one point in time when it started (which could well involve some inherited anxiety), but anxiety over my personal health became an obsession, filled with anxiety, stress, and self-diagnosed prophecies. I created a negative feedback loop and fed into it any skin discoloration, ache, pain, fatigue, or anything else that happened to be occurring (naturally, I might add) to my body at the time. (This American Life did an interesting series on “maps” wherein a reporter for Planet Money admits her unhealthy, disruptive obsession with breast cancer. Worth listening to, especially if you suffer from this specific kind of anxiety disorder). Research indicates that kids undergoing trauma at a young age develop problems as they get older, as well, and for most, it’s probably some combination of a variety of factors, both internal and external.

Okay, so, that defines the problem. How does Neuroplasticity help? 

Neuroplasticity is a powerful tool thatenables people to “rewire” the neural structures in their brains through conscious, repeated efforts. Interestingly,  Buddhists have been using these techniques (though not referring to them as such) for literally thousands of years. It’s only fairly recently that the West has come to adopt this proven reality–rewiring our brains has always been an option, and we know now, through very clear, irrefutable research, that you can change the way you think and feel and how you handle the stress and challenges of life. The “plastic” part of “neuroplasticity” means that our brains are malleable; they can be reformed, in a way, to a reflect healthier, more productive, more focused and emotionally positive way of being. But, like exercise and physical health (which helps improve the “good chemicals” in your brain, btw), it only works if you do it consistently and repeatedly. That’s the rub. There’s no magic elixir, no easy path, one has to literally accept a new way of being, including developing new habits of mindfulness to create these new neural pathways.

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…like exercise and physical health (which helps improve the your brain, too), it only works if you do it consistently and repeatedly. That’s the rub. There’s no magic elixir, no easy path, one has to literally accept a new way of being, including developing new, daily habits of mindfulness, to create these new neural pathways.

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Okay, that’s enough from me about what’s what in neuroplasticity, let’s hear from some of the people who have done the research.

Functional and Structural Neuroplasticity

According to Kendra Cherry, author of the Everything Psychology Book, “as we gain new experiences, some connections (in the brain) are strengthened while others are eliminated. This process is known as synaptic pruning. Neurons that are used frequently develop stronger connections and those that are rarely or never used eventually die. By developing new connections and pruning away weak ones, the brain is able to adapt to the changing environment.” According to Cherry, there are two types of plasticity in the brain: functional and structural. Functional plasticity involves the brain’s ability to compensate for damage in one area, and developing connections to compensate and recreate those functions.

Functional Plasticity. One example of this is the famous neuroscientist, Jill Bolte, who had a stroke that disconnected her left brain functionality. Her description of what she went through–and the 8 years it took her to develop “compensating functions” can be found in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal JourneyAs she explains in a (well worth watching) TED talk about the experience of losing the ability to speak, remember, and function in any meaningful way:

“…on the morning of December 10 1996 I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body….Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and they removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball that was pushing on my language centers.” Jill Bolte, Neurologist

Structural Plasticity.This is the kind of neuroplasticity that most of us think about when we think about changing “the way we are.” Structural plasticity refers to learning to actually modify how our brains change. What’s amazing–and I didn’t know this before starting this piece–as little as two hours of learning a new skill actually modifies the brain at the molecular level.

Here’s a short-form explanation from Rick Hanson on what Neurosplasticity is:

The Ancient Brain: The Link between Buddhism and and Neuroplasticity

Buddhism has been practiced for, literally, thousands of years–since roughly 2500 BC, give or take a millennia or two. The practice of mindfulness meditation has been a core tenet of Vipassana Buddhism, which is, in one way or another, part of all Buddhist practices. As describes it, this approach is

… a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.

This form of Buddhism focuses on mindfulness in attention, awareness, and focus on breathing, bodily sensations, and walking. Simple stuff, but hard to remember to do when our modern brains are constantly pulling us toward the past and  the future with worries and stress and questions and “what if” scenarios and self-doubt and uncertainty, etc. Meditation as practiced by the “ancient-brained” Buddhists actually helps breaks this cycle of living in the past and worry about the future. And now, only a few thousand years later, science has proven that what Buddhists have been doing for centuries is, in fact, a good thing for our mental and physical health! 😉

The14th-Dalai-LamaDon’t take my word for it, here’s what the Buddhist the Dalai Lama did….Several years ago, perhaps the most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, gave a speech at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. What is unusual (or was, at the time) about this is that the philosophy of Buddhism, which the Dalai Lama practices, would seem to be at odds with Western science. We now know that nothing could be further from the truth–and the science backs up that assertion. Since his speech, the Dalai Lama has “helped recruit Tibetan Buddhist monks for, and directly encouraged research on the brain and meditation in the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” The head of the program, the well-known and highly regarded Professor of neuroscience, Richard Davidson, published a summary in 2008 on the key elements of how Buddhism and meditation are actually scientifically proven to improve the functioning of the brain. According to Davidson, research indicates that,  “over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.”

As Davidson stated in 2008, “Neuroplasticity is a term that is used to describe the brain changes that occur in response to experience. There are many different mechanisms of neuroplasticity ranging from the growth of new connections to the creation of new neurons. When the framework of neuroplasticity is applied to meditation, we suggest that the mental training of meditation is fundamentally no different than other forms of skill acquisition that can induce plastic changes in the brain.” He said this in 2008. Since then, the data that have been gathered have made it crystal clear: we can, in fact, change our brains, and doing so involves mindfulness meditation techniques that have been around for thousands of years.

Lisa Wimberger, author of Neurosculpingand founder of the Neurosculpting Institute, has studied the science of elasticity in the brain for years (check out a brief podcast from SoundsTrue here) and explains it quite well:

In the last few decades the concept of neuroplasticity has taken hold of the science community.  We agree now that our brains are malleable, waxing and waning in their structure and function, and ever changeable.  NOW we know it’s even more plastic than that!  Not only can we birth new brain cells, and strengthen existing ones, we also have the power to manipulate the neurotransmitters released from those cells.  The messengers themselves are forever morphing based on the brain’s needs.  Daylight affects how and where we produce dopamine and extra excitation can cause cells to switch the neurotransmitters they produce so the cell becomes quiet.  Down to the very last components, our brains are dynamically changing with each thought and action.  Every belief you have causes a structural and functional change in the brain.”

Rick Hanson, one of my favorite authors on the subject explains neurosplasticity thus:

rick hanson quote

Some great links from Dr. Hanson: Buddha’s Brain: The New Neuroscience and the Path of Awakening ☯ Web site resources an embarrassment of riches for info on the brain ☯ Your Wonderful Brain  a PDF on things you never knew about your brain but always wanted to know. Hanson’s view is focused mainly on the need to provide your brain with positive inputs–taking in the good as he calls it. Dwelling in those moments of happiness that the negatively biased brain tends to slough off (like teflon), as he explains in his book Hardwiring Happiness.

We know that those who meditate for years can actually change their brains for the better (as we’ve written previously). But as reported in, changes in the brain can be incredibly rapid.

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How rapidly does learning shape our brains? When novices are taught to juggle over a period of weeks to months, for example, this increases gray matter volume and changes white matter organization in brain systems involved in visuomotor coordination. But a 2012  study concludes that uses diffusion magnetic resonance imaging in both humans and rats, suggests that just two hours of spatial learning is sufficient to change brain structure…  [source]

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According to recent research, we can actually change our brain’s structure really quickly. Just by playing a video game, for example. According to the summary of this study, researchers offer the first evidence that rapid structural plasticity can be detected in humans after only two hours of playing a video game ( Sagi et al., 2012):

We continue to learn new skills and refine our existing abilities throughout life. To what extent does this ongoing learning shape our brain structure? We know from studies of highly skilled populations that the brains of experts are unusual: London taxi drivers have a larger posterior hippocampus, for example (Maguire et al., 2000), which presumably supports their unrivalled skills in navigating the labyrinthine streets of the city. However, these experts have experienced many years of training, and such cross-sectional studies can always potentially be explained by preexisting differences in brain structure that determine our behavior. Longitudinal studies, in which the same individuals are followed over time, provide more direct insights into how experience shapes the brain. When novices are taught to juggle over a period of weeks to months, for example, this increases gray matter volume and changes white matter organization in brain systems involved in visuomotor coordination (Draganski et al., 2004 and Scholz et al., 2009).

So experience shapes brain structure and neuroimaging provides us with a window into this structural change in humans. But how rapidly do such changes occur? Human studies of structural plasticity to date have considered periods of weeks to months of training. Yet experiments in nonhuman animals suggest that structural remodeling is a rapid, dynamic process that can be detected over much shorter timescales. Two-photon microscopy studies in rodents, for example, reveal increases in the number of dendritic spines in motor cortex within 1 hr of training on a novel reaching task (Fu and Zuo, 2011).

The one thing that seems consistent across all the research is that one has to practice mindfulness meditation fairly consistently for it to “stick.” There are so many possibilities for helping those with disorders–from  neurological to the neurotic. As it turns out, people in the Eastern part of the world have known this for a little while now… 😉

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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What is “mindfulness” again?

Of all the things I realized that I’ve never posted, mindfulness is, surprisingly, at the top of the list. Odd. Well, it’s odd for a blog that’s called The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness. So, in an effort to address that void and provide some clarity on the subject from my point of view, I’ve included some brief descriptions and definitions from my brain to yours, below.

Being in the Moment: Children are, Adults, not so much. The truth of the matter is that we are comprised of actions and behaviors that become largely ingrained in our brains as “habits.” As I like to say, the more you do something, the more you do something (in neurologist-speak, “neurons that fire together, wire together”) And it’s true. The brain doesn’t care what it is that you do, really, it will just record those actions–really really well–and urge you to repeat them, especially if you do them over a period of time. It’s funny, children haven’t really developed habits and are blank chalkboards in a way. Notice how a child experiences something as simple as a toy or a treat–it’s as if they’re experiencing nirvana, because for them, they are. They are fully, and freely engaged in that moment and experience. That’s mindfulness. It’s open. It’s clear. It’s unfettered by unnecessary thoughts. And here’s where we go astray as adults: we think a lot about the past, and a lot about the future, but we don’t give the present moment “all that much thought. Kids do, though. They’re steeped in the moment. They do the backstroke in an olympic-sized pool of mindfulness. But as we grow older, and as we become more “set in our ways” (just a euphemism for ingrained neural networks, which are, in effect, habits), we become more and more removed from the moment; more and more removed from mindfulness. I have a simple definition for mindfulness. Mine may not be like yours, but nonetheless, it goes like this:

mindfulness meme

Mindfulness often makes time seem to “go away,” and creates moments of the “endless now.” For some people, they achieve full mindfulness in running. For others, it’s gardening, for others, it’s meditating. Or some combination of any number of activities or “non-activities.” And through it all, there is a sense of “noticing awareness,” of not judging what’s occurring, but simply experiencing and observing it.

Ancient and Modern. Mindfulness is, in a way, contrary to the modern–Western–way of life where the main goal of the game of life seems to be to: a) work incredibly hard, b) make lots of money, c) buy nice things, d) worry a lot about everything, e) retire, f) die. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but have you noticed that as you get older, time seems to be moving…faster? There’s a reason for that. I believe, based on all the research I’ve read and everything I’ve steeped myself in to learn about mindfulness, that the older we get, the less mindful we tend to be. Our habits begin to define who we are, and we often don’t “stop to smell the roses,” let alone notice that there are roses at all in the first place. Modern-day mindfulness is, common wisdom has it, harder to come by, simply because there are so many well-known distractions: smartphone; Internet, on-demand everything; music anywhere, anytime. It’s as if we’ve built a culture of externally induced Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. The Internet, especially, is a well-known distractor that keeps us “out of the present.” Or it can, at any rate. As ancient bipeds, however, we lived much more in the moment. We had little time to develop ulcers thinking about the future or worrying about the past–there was, by and large, only the now, and, of course, shelter and our next meal and trying not to get killed. These ancient tools were useful for keeping us alive, but today, they’ve created a bit of a civil war in our bodies and minds. Today, our survival mechanisms lead to and feed off of worry, anxiety, and stress. Something that the more ancient part of the brain loves, unconditionally, and with abandon, and the modern parts of the brain attempt to “fix” the problem of worry, anxiety, and stress with modern tools of reason and logic. For most, this works out fairly evenly, but for many, the more ancient parts of the brain can win out, leading to a host of ills, mental and physical.  The good news is that mindfulness can help calm our warring inner selves through focus, concentration, and a willful action toward not figuring out a damn thing, by simply observing, non-judgmentally, the moments that we inhabit and experience. That’s it. That’s the big secret: mindfulness is simply being present in the moment and dwelling in what could be considered the most banal things possible: breath; bodily sensations; hearing; the touch of another, and it does amazing things to our bodies and our brains, from lowering blood pressure, to decreasing anxiety; from strengthening the parts of the brains that “filter out” bad news that the ancient part of the brain might otherwise grab hold of, to boosting our mood.

One of the most often-used metaphors of this kind of “inner resilience,” is working out: exercise. The more you exercise, the stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier your body gets. As it turns out, not surprisingly, if you think about it, the more that you “use the mindful parts of your brain,” the more mindfully resilient you become. But what does that mean in the real world? (It’s also well known that exercise helps build internal resilience and releases happiness chemicals in your brain.) Let’s say someone at work send an email that drives you crazy. It’s way off track, snarky, and you wanna give them a piece of your mind in response. You have the option of replying in a state of anger and stress–or  you can stop yourself, mindfully, and pause, take a moment, and think about the best approach to respond. Do you really want to engage in a firefight via email? Is that a useful, productive, healthy thing to do…OR…would it make more sense to take a break and think before responding? Or, say you’re in a hurry, and someone is in your way, preventing you from reaching your destination. Again, you have some options: get upset and stressed, honk your horn in a car, glare huff and puff if you’re in a line at the store…OR …you can take a moment to realize that really, it’s not that big of a deal, and think of something pleasant while realizing how lucky you are to have the opportunity to buy something in the first place, or that you have the ability to drive yourself somewhere at all. We are surrounded by pretty much miraculous technology and abundance, but we’re more miserable in many ways than we’ve ever been. Mindfulness practice can help us stop, think, and create the patterns of behavior that slow us down and enable us to appreciate what we have. It can also create more sympathy toward others–something I think we can all agree that modern society could stand more of.

Mindlessness or Mindfulness: The Decision Is Yours

Decision Tree

I’ve posted the diagram above a couple of times, but I think it merits posting again. Mindfulness practice can help build what’s often referred to as “resiliency” against everyday torments by enabling one to “pause” and step back before acting or speaking –and that can make the difference between flipping off a driver who cut you off (and mitigating the inherent dangers of that potentially dangerous scenario) and just chuckling to yourself about how important it is to stay alert when you’re driving is and how grateful you are that your car has airbags and seat belts! 😉

Louis CK made an excellent point for mindfulness (whether he knew it or not), but commenting on the a fellow air passenger’s complaint about the slowness of the Internet on a flight. It does, in a way, say it all:

The beauty of Louis CK’s mindful commentary is that his fellow passenger is mindlessly complaining about something that’s truly incredible, but he doesn’t see it, because he’s been “dulled” to what’s happening in real time. He takes the world, and all it has to offer, for granted, and therefore instead of being amazed by the fact that he has access to the Internet 5 miles off the ground in a metal tube, he’s decided to complain that it’s not good enough. Instead of taking a moment to realize that we’re living in a magical, surreal world where you can access anything online–even while flying through the air in a tube at 600 miles per hour, comfortably, having a cocktail or food, and landing safely at your destination, he instead engages in negative whining. This is, as it turns out, the default mode for many–what’s known as our brain’s negative bias.–and it was necessity borne of our ancestor’s survival  mechanisms. But we don’t need the negative bias too much anymore; we don’t need it to help us remember that a negative twig snapping could be a predator hunting us. It’s still there, though, in the Limbic, and most ancient portions of our brains, evolutionarily speaking.  Mindfulness practice can help counteract this, because it builds new habits–neural wiring, really–that help you remember the moment that you’re in; help you appreciate what’s happening “in the now,” and reduce the tendency toward the negative. It’s one of the modern science’s most amazing discoveries (that many in the East have known for thousands of years, of course) that we can actually change how we think and how our brains are wired. It took the West a while, but we finally figured it out. But it takes practice.

Mindfulness practice on its own–say, a form of Buddhist-derived meditation, such Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or Buddhist meditation practice–can go a long way to help build mindfulness and internal resilience against our world of nonstop distraction and dulled negative bias. Taking in the good is a wonderful adjunct to this practice, whereby we don’t just practice meditation, but take those moments of grace and wonder and really internalize and dwell in them. As readers of this blog know, I’m a fan of Rick Hanson (author of Hardwiring Happiness), because he explains in easy-to-understand terms how we need to dwell in positive moments to help create a happier, more positive brain–and not just the modern parts. Our ancient brains (including the amygdala) also manage our reward systems, so by taking in the good and really dwelling in moments of appreciation and gratitude, you can build such as a happy amygdala! 🙂

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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Are we in the middle of a mindfulness revolution?

That’s the quote from this Huffington Post article about Time Magazine’s latest cover and theme. As an “armchair pop culturo-anthropologist,” I’m fairly certain that the answer is a definitive probably. 🙂 All the signs are there, really, from Time’s latest edition to a lesser known, but increasingly popular magazine called “Mindful;” from police departments helping their offers deal with stress to the Department of Defense looking seriously at mindfulness as a way to combat PTSD, the country is responding to information overload, stress, and anxiety with something that actually works: meditation and mindfulness.

JK Zinn Quote

Founder of MBSR at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has helped mindfulness become mainstream.

My sense is that because the latest research clearly indicates that mindfulness and meditation can, literally, change the genetic structure of the brain, we have, as Westerners, validated what those in the East have known for thousands of years: mindfulness and meditation improve peoples’ lives. 

I remember back in the ’70s when I was a teenager, when people considered recycling policy. Initially it was rejected as a  strange, left-wing idea that only idiots would embrace. I thought at the time–seems like only yesterday–“For people to accept recycling, it has to be accepted broadly, like taking out the garbage.” Well, that came true, as we all know, and I think it’s largely the same with mindfulness. For the longest time, people have considered those who meditate, Buddhists, and the idea of “mindfulness” as associated with alternative lifestyles and people who live in communes. That’s changing–rapidly.

The latest Time cover.

Why “Now”? Increasing Mainstream Acceptance. I believe that we’ve reached a tipping point where the the latest in neurology and brain research on mindfulness and meditation has “caught up” to what practitioners in the East have known for a very long time. So, why now? What’s the tipping point for general acceptance of mindfulness?

Well, there are lots of reasons. How about a major healthcare corporation? Or the Department of Defense? Neurology researchers who found the whole “spiritual” part of yoga pretty hokey? Or, say, Time Magazine–itself a veritable font of mainstream “wisdom.” More and more doctors are agreeing, too, that meditation and mindfulness can help their patients. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the  eminent founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at UMASS in the 70s came back from a retreat with well-regarded Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, borrowed Zen teachings to help his chronically ill patients. But that was back in the 70s. What’s happened lately to bring mindfulness into the mainstream? Here are some of my faves:

  • AETNA. The CEO of Aetna–yes, that AETNA, the healthcare corporation–instituted a mindfulness study and touted its results as significant. “Stress can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, so there is a strong need for programs that help people reduce stress as part of achieving their best health,” said Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark T. Bertolini. “The results from the mind-body study provide evidence that these mind-body approaches can be an effective complement to conventional medicine and may help people improve their health, something that I have experienced personally.”
  • The Department of Defense. The US military has caught on as well. Mindfulness can help alleviate “illness and other medical or psychological conditions,” and “it can help soldiers in any circumstance,” said Army Maj. Victor Won, deputy assistant chief of staff for intelligence in 1st Armored Division’s general staff section. In April 2013, the University of Michigan reported on a study that showed how veterans with PTSD who completed an 8-week mindfulness-based group treatment plan showed a significant reduction in symptoms as compared to patients who underwent treatment as normal.
  • The Research is In. People who meditate consistently–as the Transcendental Meditation movement is always quick to point out–have lower stress, lower blood pressure, and are generally happier. Oh, and fMRI research has show that their focus increases, their mood improves, and the fight or flight parts of the brain–the limbic system’s amygdala–actually shrink. You can argue with someone from Vermont who swears by crystal and aromatherapy, but you can’t argue with high res scans of changing neural networks, what’s referred to “neuroplasticity.” (See post the research of Dr. Sara Lazar in the post “Meditation can Literally Change your Brain.”)
  • Time Magazine has Mindfulness on its Latest Cover. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know that there are too many media outlets more mainstream than Time magazine. If Time is doing a cover story on it, you can bet that it’s not some crazy, out-there cover story. The more mainstream mindfulness becomes–like recycling–the more it will become accepted.

But there’s also this: our always-on, 24-hour news cycle, multi-tasking lifestyles create stress, tension, anxiety that just didn’t used to exist. Everything on demand is good, in theory, but the ancient brain still deals with stress the “old fashioned way”–to wit, prepare you for fight, flight, or freezing, in order to marshall resources for a real (or apparent) threat. People are starting to realize that the only ones benefiting from all this modern stress and anxiety are the pharmaceutical companies. Also, more and more members of the medical community–including organizations like the Mayo Clinic–are clued into the fact that mindfulness works–at a minimum, as an adjunct to prescription remedies to stress. To paraphrase my doctor, “the less stigma attached to meditation and mindfulness, the more people will accept it as okay.”

This early recycling enthusiast couldn’t agree more. 😉

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Power of the Mind (and Words): The Placebo Effect


Back in the 60s and 70s, stomach ulcers were a major problem among the most stressed out people. You don’t hear much about them anymore, but the truth is that ulcers were known to be caused–by and large–by individual stress and anxiety. Acid from stress would build up and cause the stomach lining to incur ulcers. The fact that people’s thoughts and feelings could cause physical ailments wasn’t the predominant approach to medicine back then. That view–that the brain and the body are separate when it comes to health–is changing rapidly.

As I’ve described in earlier posts, we now know that those who meditate frequently have lower blood pressure, smaller fight/flight centers of the brain, and larger parts of the brain the respond to healthy emotional well-being. This research is confirmed by advances in MRI technology and observing activity in the brain. The practitioners of Transcendental Meditation (TM) have known this for a long time–and their well-organized ranks have hundreds of studies to back up their claims).

headly & sons druggistsThe pharmacy in your head. It’s long been known that one of the best places for free drugs resides in the one place that everyone has access to: their own brains. That’s right, your brain is the best pharmacological one-stop shop on the planet. It has an incredibly capability to fix–or damage–its owner, depending on what we do with it through thoughts, feelings, and emotions. According to the National Institutes of Health, anxiety affects “about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older” in any given year.  doctors now believe that many of the ailments that their patients come in for are the result of stress and anxiety. This isn’t news, per se, but what’s interesting is that the response to these ailments for physicians is largely the same: prescribe drugs.  I’m not against pharmaceuticals, per se, ca actually help people with their “challenges” (that’s not to say that the pharmaceutical industry isn’t taking advantage of millions of Americans, but that’s a very different post. No, today, I’m discussing the incredible power of the brain (again).

Placebo effect much? Placebo effect. Much. But the latest research is pretty amazing–and it has everything to do with the brain as “co-conspirator” in how you respond to pharmaceuticals. As it turns out, 50% of a drug’s effectiveness depends on a belief that the drug will work. According to NPR’s story on the latest findings,

When you take a pill, you and your doctor hope it will work — and that helps it work.

That’s not a new idea. But now researchers say they know just how much of a drug’s effect comes from the patient’s expectation: at least half.

When patients in the midst of a migraine attack took a dummy pill they thought was a widely used migraine drug, it reduced their pain roughly as much as when they took the real drug thinking it was a placebo.

“There was no difference between the pharmacology of the drug in reducing pain and the placebo dressed up with a nice word,” study author Ted Kaptchuk tells Shots. “Basically we show that words can actually double the effect of a drug. That’s pretty impressive.”

And if it works when treating migraine headaches, it also might work for a wide variety of other ailments, from asthma to intestinal cramps to back pain, that involve the subjective experience of symptoms.

The findings, in this week’s Science Translational Medicine, have interesting implications for doctors and patients, because what physicians say about a medication appears to have a lot to do with its benefits.

And there you have it. But I think the phrase “placebo effect” now has to be revised somewhat, because that implies a complete belief in something, but the truth is, these findings underscore what is increasingly known in the world of medicine (and has been known in the “mindful” communities) for  while now: patients need to take an active role in their health–and that includes an ability to believe that “things” will get better (in this case, with the help of a pill). But it also has implications for how doctors prescribe meditation. My former doctor once prescribed prednisone to me (a prescription for an unknown ailment that raised eyebrows among a few other physicians), without telling me that it would a) work, b) make me psychotic, sleepless, jumpy, and potentially suicidal, c) take over my adrenalin gland in a way that could endanger my life if I stopped taking the full course of the prescription. Okay, so that guy wasn’t terribly good at prescribing medicine, but the results of this study shows that there’s a much more interesting line between simply writing out a scrip and explaining how it will impact the patient.

I’ve always been fascinated by the placebo effect, because it means that we, ourselves, have the inherent capability to heal ourselves, simply through belief! I for one think that the next wave of doctors (and some of the more enlightened ones practicing today) should use study data like this to explain to patients that they can, in fact, improve their own health through mindfulness, meditation, exercise, improved diet, and, frankly, a belief that their treatments will work.

RADIOLAB talks about the Placebo Effect. There’s an excellent radio lab show about the placebo effect. You can listen to it here: 

 If you’re unfamiliar with RadioLab, you’re in for a treat–it’s an amazing show about science. Here’s the  synopsis:

All over the world, people say they are healed by things that turn out to be placebo. So it’s easy to think that they must have been faking in the first place if all it took was a little sugar pill to assuage their ailments. But keep your scoffing at bay. That little white pill may be inducing some very real effects. We talk to placebo experts Fabrizio Benedetti andTor Wager who tell us about the well-stocked pharmacy in our brains, just waiting to be unlocked.

Then pain expert, Dr. Daniel Carr, takes us to the WWII Battle of Anzio, where a puzzled young medic sees that the same bullet can create very different experiences of pain. And Daniel Moerman tells us how the color of a pill effects how well Italians sleep.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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Why do we Hate Ourselves so much?

beatings will continue

I once had this pin, and put it up on a cubicle in my workplace back in the early ’90s. Not everyone thought it was funny or even understood the “joke,” but it seems appropriate today. Only in this case, I refer not to upper management, but to our own selves administering the beatings. Why is it that we beat ourselves up here in the West? Is it because so much is expected of us ? Is it because our culture is so focused on “winners” and “losers”?

Enough already? I was reading a piece by Pema Chodron recently and she talked about how surprised the Dalai Lama was to hear from Sharon Salzburg (a well known Western practitioner) that people in the West basically don’t like themselves very much. And I think that’s true, in general: how many people do you know (including yourself) who feel that they’re not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, etc.? There’s always some sort of deficit–once one void is filled or a problem is solved, another seems to pop up in its place. There are few people I know who care for and about themselves unconditionally–and I’m not talking here about indulging in “feeling good” through external means (think Ben and Jerry’s, binge-watching Breaking bad, avoiding doing the laundry for just one more day, etc.). I’m talking here about some core self-compassion (something I wrote about the other week: Note to Self: Be Kind (to Yourself) — The Importance of Self-Compassion).

What I found interesting in the posting was how every one of the Western teachers at the Dalai Lama’s retreat was aware of the constant lack among Western Buddhist practitioners–but he was not. As Chodron explained:

Sharon Salzburg, who’s a teacher of western insight meditation, was talking to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and explaining how in teaching in the West one of the things that teachers always encountered was how widespread it was that people were very hard on themselves. That when the teachings were taught in a traditional way, sometimes they simply didn’t communicate because we were so good as a group of people at taking whatever we heard and turning it against ourselves. For instance, there could be some excellent teaching on the difficulty, the pain that comes from ego clinging and that teaching could be taught in a very traditional way and then people could hear it, and somehow people could come out feeling bad about themselves. Instead of feeling inspired or uplifted to heal themselves, they’d come out feeling bad about themselves.

She was explaining this and His Holiness the Dalai Lama stopped her and said he didn’t know what she was talking about. She tried to keep explaining that people have a low opinion of themselves. There’s a lot of self-criticism, self-loathing, and things like this. And somehow, still he didn’t really seem to understand. So he went around the room and asked all the Western teachers if they knew what she was talking about. And, of course, everybody knew what she was talking about.

When it had gone all the way around, he said, Well that’s very interesting. There is a difference between the Tibetan people, that he knows so well, and the people of the West.

Pema’s Wisdom. Chodron’s piece is well worth reading–especially because it addresses some important issues that everyone is dealing with today (i.e., scary times on planet earth), but it also teaches the importance of kindness and mindfulness. That being in pain and self-doubt is part of life’s suffering and the goal isn’t to somehow hope that mindful practice “makes that go away,” but to view it differently. To understand it more clearly. Chodron even includes some references to our ancient brain’s survival mechanism and “old patterns” of behavior:

This particular teaching on the Four Limitless Ones, on maitri, compassion, joy and equanimity is really a teaching on how to take the situations of your life and train- actually train- in catching yourself closing down, catching yourself getting hard, and training in opening at that very point, or softening. In some sense reversing a very, very old pattern of the whole species, which is a pattern of armoring ourselves. It’s sort of like the essence of the whole Path is in that place of discomfort and what do you do with it?

To me, this “catching” of one’s self in the act (e.g., hating, hurting, focusing on pain) is key–it’s that  pause. The mindful moment that can help prevent you from getting “hooked” into old behaviors of self-doubt and self-hate. Something that the Tibetan people, apparently, don’t have, but that we Westerners have in spades. Chodron also talks to the issue of our inner child; how the child wants to be taken care of–a core issue in modern psychology today. We’re scared children, and practice helps alleviate this suffering. As Chodron explains:

“…growing up, it’s not all that easy because it requires a lot of courage. Particularly it takes a lot of courage to relate directly with your experience. By this I mean whatever is occurring in you, you use it,. You seize the moment? moment after moment? you seize those moments and instead of letting life shut you down and make you more afraid, you use those very same moments of time to soften and to open and to become more kind. More kind to yourself for starters as the basis for becoming more kind to other

To me, this is how I practice and this is the most important thing. You never know what’s going to happen to us. In any day of our lives you never know what’s coming. That’s part of the adventure of it actually, but that’s what makes us scared, is that we never know. And we spend a lot of time trying to control it so that we could know, but the truth is that we don’t really know.

Interesting. The uncertainty. The fear of the unknown. There is, to me, at least, a lot of opportunity for mindful acceptance, loving kindness, an opportunity for giving (not just to others, but to yourself), and a time to tell your inner child that everything will be fine. To paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh, we must, each day, talk to our inner child and listen to that child. Let the child know that it is safe from harm. Wise words that could have come from a Buddhist or a therapist.

Take the time to be Kind to Yourself. Here are some links to some excellent guided meditations from Dr. Kristin Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, to help cultivate individual loving kindness:

Affectionate Breathing

Body Scan

Loving Kindness Meditation

Noting your Emotions

Soften, soothe, allow:  Working with emotions in the body

UPDATE: Four Ways to Constructively Criticize yourself at Greater Good:

When we fail at something important to us, whether in relationships, at school, or at work, it can be very painful. These experiences can threaten the very core of who we think we are and who we want to be.

To cope with failure, we often turn to self-protective strategies. We rationalize what happened so that it places us in a more positive light, we blame other people, and we discount the importance of the event.

Click here to read the whole piece, which includes practical steps for handling self-criticism!

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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West Meets East: Neuroscience and Buddhism

I was watching this video from the wonderful “Greater Good Science Center” Web site the other day, and just today I was reading an interview in Shambhala Sun with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield about mindfulness and Buddhism in the Western world. It’s not news that the world of Western science and the world of Eastern philosophy are coming closer and closer together, but what’s interesting to me is that the Buddha was apparently quite aware of the plasticity of the brain long before anyone actually knew the true functions of the brain.

mandala break

“Letting your frontal lobe support…non-judgmental, present moment open awareness…is merely a function of practice. That is why practice helps these circuits fire, and the more they fire, the stronger they get.”

~ Berkeley Neuroscientist Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas

“Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

~ The Buddha

mandala break

The Biological Landscape of Mindfulness and Compassion. The following video presentation by GGSC’s Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas explains the neuroscience behind compassion and mindfulness. It’s a fascinating explanation of how mindfulness and neuroscience are related; how, for instance, the brain’s vagus nerve plays a central role in calm and relaxation, and how stress undermines one’s ability to engage in mindfulness and compassion. She also addresses oxytocin, a subject that I’ve written about in a previous post (love some back-scratchings? Go get some and release the love neuropeptide oxytocin naturally!) She also talks about how we have evolved to be sensitive to the feelings and needs of others, as well as how the brain’s “insula” helps us resonate with others emotionally and empathetically. She explains how the “newer” pre-frontal cortex is extremely interconnected to other structures of the brain and is essential to determining which circuits contribute to your experience “in the moment.” It’s 21 minutes long, but well worth the watch to find out about the brain biology behind the emotions we experience.

Wait, the Buddha was a Neuroscientist? That might be a bit of a stretch, especially considering that “science” didn’t exist during the time of the Buddha, let alone an understanding of the functions of the brain, but Joseph Goldstein explains that the Buddha essentially knew what Dr. Simon-Thomas explains, to wit, that the brain can be trained or “inclined” based on our actions and thoughts. As Goldstein explains, “it’s essential that we understand which are wholesome thoughts–those are pathways worth deepening–and which thoughts and emotions are unskillful. Those are worth letting go of so we’re not unconsciously deepening their pathways.” Rick Hanson couldn’t have said it better by explaining that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

joseph goldstein quote-logo

 About the Authors

About Dr.  Simon-Thomas...from the GGSC Web site:

Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, where she oversees the GGSC’s Expanding Gratitude project.

Emiliana is a neuroscientist who earned her doctorate in Cognition, Brain and Behavior at UC Berkeley, where she also conducted post-doctoral research with the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner, studying the human propensity for care/nurturance, love of humanity, compassion and awe. Her research has explored the neuro-biological roots of pro-social emotion and behavior, as well as the psychosocial benefits of emotional authenticity and connection, among other topics.

About Joseph Goldstein…from the Insight Meditation Center Web site (which also includes his teaching schedule):

Joseph Goldstein has been leading insight and lovingkindness meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the organization’s guiding teachers. In 1989, together with several other teachers and students of insight meditation, he helped establish the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Case for Logging Off and Unplugging


Internet compulsion is widespread, and frankly, it’s not surprising, considering that it’s now integral to cultures around the world. But recent studies indicate that it’s becoming an unhealthy obsession, and that ain’t good. I speak from experience on this (as do many readers, I’m sure). And actually, as I write this, I’m hoping I pay close attention and internalize it, because it’s easy to forget! o_O According to the findings of Cristina Quinones-Garcia of Northampton Business School and Professor Nada Korac-Kakabadse of Henley Business School people “may be using the internet in order to cope with the demands of excessive work, and this coping strategy is not restricted to the young.” Yep, that’s me.

horrizontal ruleCompulsive Internet usage emerged as a coping strategy exhibiting withdrawal symptoms when not using the internet. Individuals who reported a high level of compulsive use are at a high risk of suffering from isolation, depression and anxiety.

~ Researchers Nada Korac-Kakbadse and Cristina Quinones-Garcia

horrizontal rule

Sitting in Front of a Computer All Day Increases Risk. According to Dr Quinones-Garcia and Professor Korac-Kakabadse “those individuals who use technology to enable working beyond office hours tend to be highly successful in their jobs, but are at a high risk of developing other problems.” For so many white collar workers who sit in front of a computer all day, these “other problems” can include increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. It’s a serious problem, in addition to the loss in productivity, not just from cat videos, but from a decreased inability to think analytically and creatively. We’ve written before on this subject (The Importance of Focus) and it’s a serious issue, as the Internet is, itself, a sort of self-perpetuating form of “Optional ADD.” It’s up to us to disrupt the routine.

ADD, the Internet, and Old Wiring. Turns out that finding information is hardwired into our ancient brains. According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making us Stupid? According to Carr, our brains are being rewired by the Internet, and not in a good way:

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski

An interesting piece in Elite Daily summarizes the challenge:

We are the ADD generation, and with good reason. The quantity of distractions the internet presents is so enormous that people don’t really understand how consumed they are by the world wide web. Let’s take a step back: your brain needs some rest. The amount of stimulation from logging online can keep you from fully developing your ideas, impeding the development of valuable creative and intellectual skills.

A Perpetual State of Distraction and Interruption. Elite Daily posted the following animation, starring Mr. Carr, that summarizes the issues well: Seeking out information can release dopamine (the pleasure / reward chemical). The ability to continuously gather information was useful in our ancient brains for helping us stay alive in the face of constant predatory threats. But today, we no longer need to gather data to stay alive, and in fact, technology access has led to compulsive behaviors in which we’re constantly checking our smart phones, email, texts, etc. We’re living in, as Carr puts it, “a perpetual state of distraction and interruption.” But what this does, unfortunately, is crowd out the focused calm thinking that we nee for relaxation and learning (mindfulness, anyone?). As it turns out, constantly competing bits of data (you’ve got mail! you’ve got a text!) undermine longer term memory; essentially, we’re wiring ourselves for short-term (“working” or “Flash” memory as I call it), while short-circuiting our ability to remember things in the long term. And that’s a problem for focus and attention–both of which are critical for high-level functioning, wherein you create connections (what I call “creative” or “analytical” thinking) between short-term information and everything else you know. According to Carr, “attention is the key, and if we lose control of our attention, or are constantly dividing our attention, then we don’t enjoy the consolidation process [of combining short-term and long-term memory/knowledge].” If we continue to do this–as the younger generation definitely is–we will rely more and more on the Internet over internal processing/analytical skills. (See below, for more on this.)

Anecdotally: A Physicians View. My primary care doctor told me some months ago about the book The Shallows (which I haven’t read yet–too many distractions!–but will do, I promise!) that in his personal experience, so many of his patients are so addicted to the Internet and the associated technology, that they’re becoming “disconnected” to the real world.  He believes that many of our ailments are due to anxiety, stress, and dysfunction associated with Internet (over) usage and the constant inputs we receive every day (hmmmm, see “About” on this site). Even in movies. This is a paraphrase of how he described an experience with a movie he saw at a theater: “I sat and watched this movie expecting to be entertained, but instead, I was overwhelmed by the non-stop, over-the-top action inputs. There was no real plot, no acting to speak of, just an overwhelming amount of data constantly being aimed at my senses. I hated it.” Sounds familiar. My doc recommends that people unplug and read a book, go for a walk, do something creative, anything but do the easy thing and switch on [ insert preferred connected device here]. My wife, that wonderful font of useful information and well-intended, humility-inducing warnings, has often told me to step away from the computer. This was hard to do (and still is), because remember, the more you do something, the more you do something. The brain gets addicted to whatever it’s presented with on a continuous basis, in general, no matter what it is, and if we’re wired to acquire information as part of an ancient survival mechanism, as that video purports, it’s harder still to Step away. From. The computer. In my doctor’s case, he said that he sees more and more young people in his office who not only constantly check their smart phones, but they actually speak and interact in the same text “language” that they use online. That’s more than a little scary, LOL.

Solutions? It’s simple, but not necessarily easy: log off at some point during the day, and do just one thing. Meditate? Exercise?  Read a book for a while? Go for a walk in the freezing cold of the unforgiving Arctic Vortex? Do anything, but just don’t do it digitally. Ironically(?), there are also “apps” for that–computer reminders for stepping away from the computer. It’s also important to log off at least one hour before you go to bed, because the glow of our monitors is actually disrupting our sleep patterns! Even better, take time at some point during the work day to exercise–even if it’s just some lunges and knee bends. Break up the day and disrupt the monitor addiction.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to log off and do some mindfulness meditation (it’s a wonderful guided meditation that I downloaded from the…er, never mind).

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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