John Kaweske

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Tag: Meditation Research

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely loud and incredibly close. The title of the 2011 Stephen Daldry film depicts our contemporary culture quite well. Sights, sounds, whirling colors, and pungent smells punctuate our presence on this planet on a daily basis. With our exponentially increasing global population, it seems this commotion is unlikely to stop, and rather will increase as time wears on. As a result, or rather, as a possible result, anxiety disorders have emerged in full force, afflicting both mature adults and less experienced, more vulnerable children. In fact, more than one in four adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 are diagnosed with such a mental disorder.  

Recognizing this issue, our well-intentioned doctors and pharmacists prescribe and refill various antidepressant medications to help these anxious children to cope, but the effects of such medicines are often not entirely understood, and at times can even have negative side effects. With this in mind, a team of researchers at The University of Cincinnati set out to discover new options for treatment. What rose to the top of the list? Mindfulness. Exercises like meditation techniques, yoga, and implementing a nonjudgemental outlook on life are all proving to reduce stress in afflicted children to an unprecedented extent.

This is fantastic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is speculated that as many as 80% of children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and 60% of adolescents diagnosed with depression do not receive the treatment they need. However, although the above evidence and research is in its early stages, it does appear that mindfulness can go a long way in alleviating the stress associated with said disorders. Without having to pay for medication, and instead teaching children to practice some form of meditation, adults may be able to solve their children’s problems without any expensive prescriptions.

In order to come to the above conclusion, the team of researchers in question recruited nine participants, each of whom was between nine and sixteen years of age and had been previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The conditions were not the exact same; some had a bipolar disorder while others had a social disorder while others had separation anxiety. Over the course of 12 weeks, each subject experienced functional magnetic resonance imaging (aka fMRI) while partaking in traditional mindfulness exercises like meditation or something of the sort.

Afterwards, each adolescent reported decreased levels of stress. Although this is not entirely conclusive, it is certainly indicative of the potential benefits mindfulness has to offer children as well as adults. Additionally, the researchers found that there was increased neural activity in the cingulate (the section of the brain that is known to help process cognitive and emotion information). Just as well, there was a surge of activity in the insula, which helps to monitor how the body feels from a psychological standpoint.

It would seem that while mindfulness may not outright cure such disorders, it could potentially go a long way in helping children and struggling adolescents to cope with the overwhelming world around them. Finally, science is catching up with the practice.

While the benefits of meditation are numerous, well-known, and widespread, there is still an incredible reluctance across society to partake. Personally, I think this is largely due to several pervasive myths that unfortunately but effectively modify general belief regarding meditation. In light of these misconceptions, I have elected to put together a list of the most prominent myths so that I can debunk them with evidence, examples, and substantiation.

You must sit cross-legged.

Ridiculous but widely held as a seeming tenet of meditation, sitting cross-legged is not, in fact, required for meditation. An abundance of Hollywood films misrepresenting oriental culture is likely the culprit for this discouraging perception, and by no means should sitting cross-legged continue to be upheld as a dogma of meditation. You need to be comfortable, and if sitting criss-cross apple sauce is comfortable for you, then do so; but if not, then don’t!

You could be lying down, sitting in a chair, standing, or even walking and meditating at the same time.

You must have a blank mind.

While, yes, this may be the ultimate goal, it is not, in the slightest, expected for newcomers to meditation. To achieve a perfectly blank mental slate takes time, effort, and practice. It is not something where you can just close your eyes and miraculously be taken away to a place of pure tranquility. That’s unrealistic, to say the least.

Actually, a fantastic place to start for beginners is to participate in what’s called guided meditation. As the name might imply, you have a mental ‘guide’ who keeps you and your potentially easily-distracted mind from getting off track. In fact, you don’t even necessarily need a guide in-person. If you want, it could just be a recording.

Just so you have an idea, guided meditation generally involves a lot of visualization exercises like full body relaxation. One such exercise is referred to as “earth breathing,” which is essentially when you imagine your body is sinking into the ground beneath you. Ideally, ‘Earth breathing’ is supposed to induce a grounded body sensation and lightness of mind feeling.

You can only meditate alone.

Absolutely not. While it’s certainly an option, and favored by many at that, that in no way means it’s the only way to find some peace of mind, especially if you’re just starting out and are slightly unsure of how to proceed. By joining a meditation group, you are providing yourself with the resources and knowledge of people who have been successfully meditating for many, many years. There is no reason to not take advantage, regardless of what some silly notion about meditation may claim.

While these are only three, there is a whole slew of false beliefs out there about meditation just waiting to be disproved. You can see some more here.

New Study Says Mindfulness Meditation Can Significantly Reduce Pain

It seems like these days meditation researchers are constantly finding new benefits of mindfulness meditation. And today is no different!

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that mindfulness meditation is able to significantly reduce pain not only more effectively than a placebo, but using different neural mechanisms.

Previously, we had known that mindfulness meditation is capable of reducing pain in experimental and clinical settings, but the significance of this affect was yet to be determined.

To figure out exactly how effective mindfulness meditation is at pain reduction, Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and his team of researchers looked to both measure and differentiate it’s effects from the pain-relieving mechanisms associated with a placebo (e.g., conditioning, psychosocial context, beliefs). Placebo comparisons are the most common means of evaluation the efficacy of behavior interventions, so it is imperative to use when determining whether we can soundly support meditation-based pain relief programs as a meaningful solution.

Researchers began with 75 healthy volunteers who were randomly assigned one of the following groups:

(1) mindfulness meditation,

(2) placebo conditioning,

(3) sham mindfulness meditation, or

(4) book-listening control intervention.

The placebo conditioning group received placebo cream they were told reduces pain over time (but was in fact petroleum jelly.) For four days, they were instructed to rub it on the back of their leg.

The sham mindfulness meditation group was taught a kind of “fake” mindfulness meditation: they were told to breathe deeply for 20 minutes but were given no instructions on how to do it mindfully.

The control group had to listen to 20 minutes of a pretty boring book on tape: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne.

The group who received the real mindfulness meditation intervention were instructed to sit for 20 minutes with straight posture, closed eyes, and specific instructions about where to focus one’s attention and how to let thoughts and emotions pass without judgment.

To measure experiences of pain and the neural mechanisms being activated, participants were places in an MRI machine where researchers used a small thermal probe to elevate a small area of skin to 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers also asked participants to rate the intensity of the pain, as well as their emotional response to the pain. They performed this test both before and after the various interventions.

It’s important to note that all of the cognitive manipulations that were tested (i.e., mindfulness meditation, placebo conditioning, sham mindfulness meditation) significantly weakened pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings when compared to the control group.

However, mindfulness meditation was found to reduce pain intensity and pain unpleasantness ratings significantly more than placebo analgesia. Mindfulness meditation also reduced pain intensity and pain unpleasantness ratings more than sham mindfulness meditation.

The placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by an average of 11% and emotional unpleasantness of pain by 13%. For the sham mindfulness group, the averages were 9% and 24% respectively. But for mindfulness meditation, the sensation of pain was reduced by a whopping 27% and emotional response reduced by 44%. To put those numbers into a different context, past research has found that the opioid morphine reduces physical pain by 22%.

Also, while all forms of intervention reduced pain, mindfulness-related interventions actually engaged different parts of the brain than the others.

Mindfulness-meditation was associated with greater activation the brains orbitofrontal, subgenual anterior cingulate, and anterior insular cortex. These are the higher-order brain regions associated with attention control and enhanced cognitive control. They also exhibited a deactivation of the thalamus, which is a structure that allows pain to enter into the brain.

In contrast, the placebo group experienced activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and deactivation of sensory processing regions.

The sham mindfulness group was not correlated with significant neural activity, but rather by greater reductions in respiration rate.

This study is the first to demonstrate that mindfulness-related pain relief is mechanistically distinct from the placebo effect. For researchers, this confirms the existence of multiple, cognitively driven mechanisms responsible for pain modulation. The presence of unique mechanisms may create greater acceptance in the medical community of meditation as an adjunct pain therapy.

The biggest question to answer now is: who will benefit most from this form of pain intervention? It is yet to be tested if this method works better or worse for certain groups or types of pain, and further studies are sure to follow that will help us figure out how we can best use these finding to alleviate people’s pain in the real world.

John Kaweske, Colorado resident, has been meditating for years. He finds that the practice helps him with his focus and ability to lead his entrepreneurial ventures. To learn more about his career and life, please visit his main website.

Mindfulness Meditation Found Effective in Treatment of Sleep Disorders

There’s nothing like a good nights sleep. But for many, this simple joy doesn’t come so easily. In fact, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 40 million people in the United States suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year and an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems.

Unfortunately, sleep disturbances are most prevalent among older adults and have been found to often go untreated due to limited treatment options and a lack of community-accessible programs.

The National Sleep Foundation first and foremost recommends what they call proper “sleep hygiene.” The NSF has found that good sleep hygiene routine helps to promote healthy sleep and daytime alertness, and adherence can prevent the development of sleep problems and disorders.

A proper sleep hygiene routine entails things like maintaining a regular wake and sleep pattern seven days a week, spending an appropriate amount of time in bed, avoiding naps, limiting stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime, and more. These simple changes in daytime/bedtime routines can vastly improve sleep quality for many. But for some, these recommendations just aren’t enough.

In a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information earlier this year, researchers discovered there may be a better intervention method out there.

Researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles set out to determine the efficacy of mindfulness meditation to promote sleep quality in older adults with moderate sleep disturbances.

Participants in the study had a mean age of 66.3 years and a history of moderate sleep disturbances. Two parallel groups received a randomized 6-week intervention (2 hours per week) with assigned homework, receiving either a standardized mindful awareness practices (MAPs) intervention or a sleep hygiene education (SHE) intervention. Then they measured between-group differences in moderate sleep disturbance, as well as insomnia symptoms, depression, anxiety, stress, and fatigue.

Participants in the MAPs group showed significant improvement relative to those in the SHE group.

While many elements of SHE training are effective and still worth practicing, mindfulness meditation is now thought to be especially helpful for insomnia sufferers.

Community-accessible MAPs intervention could consequently be an effective and cost efficient way to help the millions of people who suffer from sleep disturbance each year, greatly effecting their quality of life.

Practiced regularly, mindfulness meditation allows people to calm overactive thoughts, feelings, and emotions and promote a greater sense of overall well-being. It should be no surprise that this practice creates the ideal conditions for deep, quality rest without the use of medication, alcohol or drugs. Secondary benefits includes lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, and decreased risk of disease and illness.

Like any new skill, learning to practice mindfulness meditation takes time and practice. Start small, and don’t get discouraged if it’s tougher than you anticipated. Once you start reaping the emotional and physical benefits, you’ll see it’s worth the effort.

John Kaweske, Colorado resident, has been meditating for years. He finds that the practice helps him with his focus and ability to lead his entrepreneurial ventures. To learn more about his career and life, please visit his main website.

Can Mindfulness Meditation Create False Memories?

Mindfulness meditation involves clearing out negative thoughts, focusing on breathing and relaxation, and ultimately relieving stress and anxiety. But new research from the journal Psychological Science poses an important question: does all that mind-clearing also affect your memory?

The journal focuses on a recent study conducted by the Department of Psychology at the University of California-San Diego. Researches three different experiments that tested people’s abilities to correctly remember real and imagined situations. In all three experiments, those who practiced mindfulness meditation were more likely to recall things that hadn’t actually happened.

The first experiment split participants into two groups. One group performed 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation, purposefully eliminating distracting thoughts and focusing on their breathing. The other group was told to just think freely and allow themselves to be distracted by whatever thoughts came to mind. Then all participants analyzed a list of words related to “trash” that didn’t include the word “trash” itself (think “garbage” or “rubbish”). When they were prompted on what they’d seen, 39% of participants who had meditated claimed that they’d seen the actual word “trash” on the list. For comparison, only 20% of the free-thinking group made the same mistake.

The next experiment had all participants skip the thinking period and simply observe and recall a word list. Then after this initial test, everyone split into two groups again, practiced their 15 minutes of respective thinking types, and completed another test. This time the meditative group made more mistakes than they had in the initial test. This, researchers say, suggests that the practice quickly and negatively affected their performance.

The third experiment presented a mixed list to the two groups. Some words had been listed to all participants earlier in the day and some were only topically related but had never been mentioned. Although the groups were similar in remembering the previously-listed words, once again the meditative group claimed to remember more words that they had not actually seen.

What does this mean for mindfulness meditation? It’s a relief to say that it doesn’t seem to affect your real memories whatsoever, as shown in the final experiment. But the research team warns that false memories are fair game and may become more common: “…the same aspects of mindfulness that create countless benefits can also have the unintended negative consequence of increasing false-memory susceptibility,” they write in a report.

Mindfulness meditation can be immensely beneficial, and has been linked to everything from treating depression to improving your sleeping habits. But because it’s so effective at helping you clear your mind of negative thoughts and aim all your energies at senses instead, it’s not surprising that it could also affect certain cognitive processes. It’s worth mentioning that these experiments were also short-term, so we’ll have to wait and see for more in-depth research to be released.

John Kaweske, Colorado resident, has been meditating for years. He finds that the practice helps him with his focus and ability to lead his entrepreneurial ventures. To learn more about his career in renewable energy, please visit his main website.

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