Monday, September 22, 2014

Flow Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing

Flow Machine: Hacking the Human Brain for Healing and Wellbeing, an article from the aptly named Deconstructing Yourself blog.  It discusses Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state, addiction, and training the brain among other things.

Jud Brewer's fMRI research at Yale found the PCC to be a major area of interest in terms of mindfulness and no-self.  At UMASS he is apparently experimenting to see if EEG biofeedback could do something similar to the PCC biofeedback he did with fMRI.  EEG biofeedback would be far more accessible.

As Brewer recalls, “Some of our novice subjects were able to make their PCCs look like those of advanced meditators after only nine minutes of real-time neurofeedback. They would get out of the scanner and ask how soon they could come back and do it again. I wish I had that ten years ago when I was striving my butt off trying to learn to meditate.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dharma Talk 014: Meditation Pointers: Stay! and Keep Away

There is a similarity between mindfulness and concentration practice, more or less the two main types of meditation. Both of them involve a kind of detachment from many phenomenon, but of particular interest in this context is detachment from the wandering mind. This is what Brewer (2011) saw in his research on advanced meditators. The wandering mind network in these individuals was severely "crippled" in comparison with normal individuals. Normal people have made this wandering mind network their default, but this is something that can be changed with training, with meditation.

Concentration Meditation

In concentration practice we focus in a single pointed way on a very specific object, often the breath, perhaps at the nostrils, or on a visual object (I often use a ball), or even on an auditory object like the sound of a babbling brook or an air conditioner. Not much to it, really. The attention is brought to the object, and sustained. Wandering is always brought back to the object. Aim your attention at the object, drop everything else, and keep "rubbing" your attention on the object. Repeat. So in this case, our attention "stays" on the object, and our attention is kept "away" from the wandering mind. It's not a bad idea to do a few minutes of concentration to start out your meditation session before you go on to a mindfulness practice. As with all this stuff, you kind of have to make it important, there needs to be a certain earnestness, you have to really try.

In some of the original research on EEG biofeedback, Barry Sterman taught cats to listen to a tone and press a lever when the tone ended. The cats ended up exhibiting a calm, alert "stalking" behavior, with an EEG frequency of 12-15 Hz, a bit faster than alpha waves. This reminds me of concentration practice, attentive, not dull, engaged, relaxed, ready, aware, focused.

Mindfulness of Seeing - Hearing - Feeling

In mindfulness we focus on whatever happens to be predominate, whatever is changing, whatever is new, whatever is now. Mindfulness is like the ongoing headline news of the mind, we are not dwelling on old stories and we don't do in-depth reporting or interviews, we just focus on what is present right now. We might be focusing on the feeling of tension in the forehead, then hearing some distant traffic, then seeing the back of our eyelids. Feeling an itch or tingling, the feeling of the touching of the seat cushion, then hearing the wind in the trees, then seeing an electrical outlet on the wall. In these examples, the emphasis is on seeing, hearing, and feeling, all of which are "away" from the wandering mind.

We could also notice thought itself, noticing things like planning, remembering, imagining, etc. But this can be very difficult and I tend to think of this as a somewhat more advanced practice, but then again more power to you if you can do it like this. But again, I'm saying this may be difficult and one may easily wind up lost in thought, because, well, that first step into thought, it's a real doozy! So I'm advocating an exercise that is focused solely on the seeing, hearing and feeling doors. Of course we could also have tasting and smelling, but these tend to come up a bit less in meditation and I'm trying to keep it simple. And a triad is nice.

So as a mindfulness practice, one could just "stay" within the sense doors of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Can you "stay" for a while just within these three senses? It's kind of like staying just with the body, just the primary senses. So we're learning to prejudice our attention towards the body, and sight and sound.  This is the remedy to our long standing, deeply ingrained prejudice towards thought.

So in a way, we're dropping our attention to thought - we're playing a game of keep away with thought, with the wandering mind. Thought is not a total enemy, and we can't exactly push it away, but we can play this game of keep away.

Keep "tossing" your attention back and forth among seeing, hearing, and feeling. Get used to the idea of "staying" here, moving your attention among only these places, hanging out here, seeing what's going on here. Learn to look first in these places for the "next thing", and as usual, allow all those little feelings and sensations to arise, notice them and surrender to all those little tensions and resistances. This place is akin to the original mind, the natural mind, the experiential, unprocessed, unconditioned, pre-verbal, non-conceptual mind. It can be very comfortable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Magic Mushrooms & Addiction

From UltraCulture, in a study at Johns Hopkins, two moderate-to-high doses of psilocybin were used in conjunction with behavioral therapy to help long time tobacco smokers kick the habit.  Results were very good and are reminiscent of the decades old research on the use of LSD with alcoholics (for instance Bill W, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

4 Ways Meditation Can Positively Change Your Brain

4 Ways Meditation Can Positively Change Your Brain, a quickie summary with big pictures covering possible benefits including longevity, self-regulation, slowing of Alzheimer's, etc.