Intelligence linked to brain size

Meditation changes brain size?

Meditation can change brain size, but not only in one direction

Not a surprising headline until you consider that Dr Erhan Genç and Christoph Fraenz at Ruhr-Universität Bochum are reported as suggesting that people with higher scores on an intelligence test were found to have smaller brain structures.

Brains are extremely complex organs and many aspects of their function and structure are not yet fully understood. However we do know that neurons usually gather data from adjacent (presynaptic) neurons through complex tree-like structures containing many dendrites. The dendrites communicate with their own neuron’s cell body. Based on the messages received through the dendrites, a cell may fire (create an action potential) or not. When an action potential is generated, a message is then sent out to other neurons (postsynaptic) through the axon terminal. The reports of this study (I haven’t read the actual paper yet) is suggestive that people with fewer dendrites feeding into certain neurons in the cerebral cortex had higher IQ scores.

Dendrite (PSF)There are typically large numbers of dendrites communicating with each neuron in the cerebral cortex. There is a putative logic which could argue that smaller dendrite trees could be more efficient. Leading to a greater number of relevant action potentials being created more quickly. Given our limitations in understanding the mechanisms that lead to the generation and maintenance of dendrites, some caution needs to be expressed here. Without an appreciation of what the extra dendrites (in the participants with lower IQ scores) do, and why they are there, the picture is incomplete. Intelligence tests in general and IQ tests in particular are regarded by many experts as being reductive. It is possible that  people with a history of IQ testing could have developed dendritic structures able to support this activity. But has anything been lost in the process? Are the extra dendrites in the lower IQ scored participants simply inefficient, and of no real benefit?

So what has this got to do with meditation? I wrote recently about structural changes in the brains of meditators. A conclusion from my own investigations was that increases and decreases in brain structures are likely to be the result of intense and sustained meditation practice. So the demonstration that neurological structures become bigger or smaller is probably an unhelpful oversimplification. The relationship between the alteration in structural size in different (interrelated) regions of the brain needs to be understood and then correlated to cognitive functionality if understanding of the significance of changes is to be approached.

Rather than increasing or decreasing brain structures, meditators should probably think about their practice in terms of its deliverable goals in relation to behaviour. Brain imaging technology is still in its infancy and there are many significant problems still to overcome. We are probably decades away for being certain of the impact of complex human behaviours (like meditation) on brain structure, but we have for centuries been able to relate certain practices with behavioral changes. There are two obvious exceptions to these generalizations, age related structural decline and changes due to neurodegeneration.

It should reiterate that I haven’t seen the full report of the Genç and Fraenz paper but a report is available at Eureka Alert.

Posted in brain changes, brain size, neuroimaging, neuroscience | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Meditation can change the size of your brain

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Authors: Kieran C.R. Fox, Savannah Nijeboer, Matthew L. Dixon, James L. Floman,
Melissa Ellamil, Samuel P. Rumak, Peter Sedlmeier, Kalina Christoff

Year: 2014

Title: Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners

Summary: As almost every contemplative scientist will point out, our understanding of what meditation can do for us in its infancy. However this investigation sets out the progress made in understanding meditation related structural changes in the brain. The researcher identified 21 studies that imaged the brains of meditators, looking for structural changes. Although most of the research was cross sectional in nature some ‘before and after’ examples are included.

This project reviewed research that used any of the six leading measures of  structural changes in the brain (volumetry, concentration, thickness, fractional anisotropy (FA), diffusivity (axial and radial) and gyrification). The selected papers were qualitative reviewed and also subject to an anatomical likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis. Qualitative results highlighted nine brain areas that might have undergone structural alteration as a result of meditation practice. Seven areas of grey matter: anterior/mid-cingulate cortex, fusiform gyrus, hippocampus, inferior temporal gyrus, insular cortex, rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, somatomotor cortices and two white matter pathways: corpus callosum, superior longitudinal fasciculus.

Although Lazer et al. made efforts to link the results of morphometric neuroimaging to a range of functional studies there are a number of problems in this approach. There is little structure in how meditators and meditation methods are grouped together,  both in creating the meta analysis and explanations for alterations in  brain structures. This in part reflects the limitations of the 21 neuroimaging studies used, it is also linked to the widely documented problems in the theoretical frameworks used by contemplative science. For example common features are looked for in diverse experiments using different forms of meditation, both secular and spiritual. Although the participants from the experimental groups cited in the studies had all  meditated, they often differ significantly in the methods they use, frequency and duration of practice and time spent in intensive meditation retreat.

Despite the limitations, which are in large part symptomatic of meditation research in general, this remains an influential study fo0r both cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com

Posted in cognitive psychology, neuroimaging, neuroscience, plasticity, vipassana | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Spiritual based meditation may help preserve cognitive function

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Authors: Anthony P. Zanesco, Brandon G. King, Katherine A. MacLean, Clifford D. Saron

Year: 2018

Title: Cognitive Ageing and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training

Summary: Can meditation lead to improvements in cognitive abilities such as attention? Meditation research generally suffers from a shortage of longitudinal studies, therefore this seven year project should be applauded. Building on their earlier work which examined the effects of a three month meditation retreat on cognition. This investigation assessed the benefits of sustained practice in the following years. The findings appeared to demonstrate that age related decline in reaction time was negatively correlated with the continuation of meditation practice (regular practice leading to slower decline), following the intensive three month retreat. The research broadly concludes that the cognitive benefits achieved through periods of intensive activity, may receive protection against age related decline from regular meditation practice.

In the original retreat at least two forms of meditation were undertaken, a basic mind training and a compassion/empathy based practice, both embedded in a spiritual tradition. Inevitably it is problematic to evaluate the benefits of each of the practices or their interaction effect. As an experienced meditator I should underline that by their very nature, participants willing and able to undertake retreats of three months and sustain meditation practice over several years are probably unrepresentative of meditators generally, let alone the wider population. Limitations of ecological validity are discussed in the study. There was also insufficient information provided regarding the meditation history of participants, their levels of accomplishment, the degree of their theoretical training and information regarding secondary or special practices undertaken since the retreat.

Link: https://link.springer.com

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Deepening crisis in meditation research

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Two leading researchers from contemplative science respond to a critical study of meditation and mindfulness research.

Authors: Richard J. Davidson and Cortland J. Dahl

Year: 2018

Title: Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation

Summary: The article begins by applauding the critique of Van Dam et al. This is only to be expected, published meditation and mindfulness research often falls short of the methodological standards normally required of journal articles in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The authors address the five points raised by the original paper in a very linear fashion, not appearing to engage with the underlying issues. The same issues that have dogged meditation research since the launch of MBSR. However to summarize the five rebuttals contained in the paper:

1 – The criticisms of meditation research reflect weakness in psychological research more generally.

2 – Contemplative practices are varied and scientific enquiry is only able to understand a few limited forms.

3 – Mindfulness and contemplative practices were not originally therapeutic in nature

4 – Research has failed to understand meditation in a relevant context.

5 – Mobile technology may be able to resolve some of the methodological issues.

Link: http://journals.sagepub.com

Author’s Critique: It is important to note that Davidson and Dahl are leaders in this field, but if they permit I offer some observation as an experienced meditator and trained neuroscientist and cognitive psychologist.

Psychology does not appear to understand meditation in the broadest sense, the (mis)appropriation of the term mindfulness has led contemporary meditation research into a limited field of investigation without clear definitions. For example the reduction of meditation (or mindfulness) to method alone, existing in isolation to wider cognitive processes is hard to understand in the context of traditional meditation. And it must be acknowledged that the MBSR/MBI movement uses methods ‘congruent’ with traditional meditation.

If we strip the motivation of the meditator from the meditation rationale we change the entire cognitive setting. To use a rough analogy, I can train people to kick a football but if participant A is training just for a course credit and participant B is training to play in the World Cup final we can expect the effect of the training to be different. This doesn’t just mean that comparing traditional and contemporary meditation practices is fraught with difficulty but that the current understanding of how we research meditation needs to be refined. Traditional meditation literature spanning hundreds of years indicates that two people undertaking the same practice may not experience the same effects. Their individual motivation, their capacity to meditate, external conditions such as the availability of a reliable teacher and methods can all play a part. Psychology has the instruments to consider and account for many of the factors presumed to impact on the effect of meditation, but generally the method alone dominates the thinking of meditation scientists.

Don’t misunderstand me, the study of MBSR and related families of mindfulness are legitimate objects of clinical enquiry and experimental study. They have however unconfirmed connections with mindfulness in its many forms as practiced in spiritual traditions. Buddhism is not one unified tradition, there are different approaches to what one might call mindfulness, these extend from ‘bare attention’ through to ‘shine’ as practiced in Tibetan traditions. Often shine is only engaged with after many years of stable foundational practice and if approached from the Vajrayana perspective would be embedded in a context of a nondual appreciation of human consciousness.

The ability of the meditation teacher and the degree of challenge to dualistic thinking are just two factors able to meditate the impact of a meditation method. But these and other components are generally ignored by scientific studies, even strategic reviews and meta studies. In a traditional context a meditation master may undertake decades of practice and study to understand meditation on theoretical and experiential levels. Therefore the capacity of the meditation teacher is an established factor in the progress of traditional meditation students but this is rarely discussed in the scientific literature. The point is that the assumption that the teaching of the meditation method is not a potential variable in any experiment is probably unscientific. The Van Dam et al. study is one of the first to suggest the role of the teacher can influence the effect of meditation training on participants.

Leaving aside traditional mindfulness methods, the reliability of the term mindfulness in relation to MBSR and other contemporary practices needs some further work. Several recent studies have highlighted a lack of consistency in the way mindfulness is understood and thus operationalised. Perhaps this is the single biggest challenge meditation research faces today. If there is a weakness in the reliability over what mindfulness is, how it is understood, applied and taught, it makes experimental replication difficult. Without methodologically sound replication the building blocks to advance meditation research can’t be put in place. This I think is the main message from the Van Dam et al. review. Consider that the scientific investigation of meditation in the west is at least 45 years old, an estimated 15,000 meditation studies have been published in that time and yet experimental work is still often described as ‘preliminary’. What is the strategy to elevate meditation research to a more reliable footing?

Posted in Buddhism, CBCT, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, MBSR, mindfulness | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Compassion and palliative care

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Authors: Claudia Orellana-Rios, Lukas Radbruch, Martina Kern, Yesche Regel, Andreas Anton, Shane Sinclair and Stefan Schmidt

Year: 2017

Title: Mindfulness and compassion-oriented practices at work reduce distress and enhance self-care of palliative care teams: a mixed-method evaluation of an “on the job“ program

Summary: Notwithstanding the extensive body of work exploring meditation and mindfulness, there is a shortage of studies that address the potential of compassion based interventions in the workplace. A national survey of palliative care practitioners had established that for 42% of respondents, frequent patient deaths was a challenging aspect of their work. Although many people report beneficial effects from delivering compassionate care, extensive exposure to suffering can be a problem for workers. This investigation recruited participants from a palliative care center in Bonn, Germany.  Ten weeks of training in meditation combining a number of elements including, mindfulness, loving kindness and tong-len was provided. A range of mixed measures were used to establish the benefits of the practice including, a battery of self reporting questionnaires, semi structured interviews and a physiological measure. In conclusion no evidence that participants experienced an increase in compassion was observed. However improvements were reported by participants in areas including self-care and emotional regulation. The was no significant change to the cortisol levels taken as part of the trial.

Given the complex nature of introducing compassion into this particular work environment, the mixed method approach should be commended. Where compassion, loving kindness and mindfulness are brought together as an ‘omnibus’ approach, a degree of epistemological plurality is likely to be required to gain a full understanding of the results. Reliably evaluating the effects of one approach (such as compassion) in such a trial, can be a challenge in itself. However to integrate three approaches (mindfulness, compassion and loving kindness) into a working environment, then to understand their effect individually and collectively, is making great demands of the self reporting instruments.

It should be noted that in a recent meta study investigating the pro-social effects of meditation, the teaching of the meditation practice by a co-author of the research was seen to be an influential factor. The precise nature of the meditation taught in this case is unclear and may, to some extent, be related to the individual approach of the teacher. The assumption that different kinds of meditation, such as compassion (tong-len), all fit within an easily replicated framework is perhaps the result of the theoretical uncertainty withing psychology towards contemplative science. There is still a shortage of data exploring how interrelated constructs such as loving kindness and compassion might influence behavior in the workplace. In this regard the study provides useful information that may help the understanding of these constructs in particular working environments.

Link: https://bmcpalliatcare.biomedcentral.com

Posted in Buddhism, compassion, health psychology, LKM, loneliness, mindfulness | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Methodological problems in mindfulness research

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Authors: Ute Kreplin, Miguel Farias & Inti A. Brazil

Year: 2017 (print), 2018 (online)

Title: The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis

Summary: This systematic meta review explored the effects of meditation and mindfulness on five types of pro-social behavior (compassion, empathy, aggression, connectedness and prejudice). The study contended that although compassion and empathy were mediated by meditation, the other three factors were not. Further, that compassion levels were found only to increase when a co-author of the study was the meditation teacher or when the control group was a passive (not active) waiting list. The study highlighted a number of key problems in the ongoing study of meditation, particularly the methodological rigor often used.

However weaknesses in the scientific investigation of meditation tend to be linked to the absence of robust theoretical frameworks. For example inconsistent definitions of mindfulness and meditation. Meta studies in this field can reflect wider patterns but risk drawing together forms of meditation that may in effect, be quite different. The authors are correct to highlight the ‘theoretical mist’ surrounding meditation research and the failure of science to treat meditation as either a secular or spiritual practice. But despite citing architects and theorists of contemporary meditation, the authors fall short of explaining how the pseudo spirituality of contemporary secular meditation arose or is being sustained.

Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20299-z

Posted in CM, cognitive psychology, compassion, critical psychology, mindfulness | Tagged | 2 Comments

Compassion, meditation and depression

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Authors: Jennifer S. Mascaro,  Sean Kelley, Alana Darcher, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Carol Worthman, Andrew Miller, Charles Raison

Year: 2018

Title: Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression

Summary: The body of evidence demonstrating that compassion training offers significant benefit to its practitioners (and the wider community) is growing.  This particular study investigated cognitive based compassion training’s (CBCT) relationship  to the wellbeing of medical students in their second year of training. Compassion is a particularly important issue to people working in clinical settings. Because of the nature of their activity, a degree of compassion is desirable if not essential. However there is concern over issues connected to ‘compassion fatigue and ‘burn out’. A total of 59 students engaged in the research, those participants that received CBCT reported increased compassion, and decreased loneliness and depression.

Perspective: Contemplative science, health psychology

Link:  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2016.1233348

Posted in CBCT, compassion, depression, loneliness | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Measuring loving kindness-compassion

Title: The development and validation of the Lovingkindness-Compassion Scale (LCS)

Author: Hyunju Cho, Seunghye Noh, Sunghyun Park, Seokjin Ryu, Ven Misan and Jong-Sun Lee

Year: 2017 (online), 2018 (print)

Summary: The thorny issue of effective trait and state scales for both loving kindness and compassion is far from resolved in psychology. In fact if anything it is less clear now than it was a decade ago. One of the problems can be attributed to attempts to merge or unify concepts with subtle differences and specific cultural weighing factors. This paper explains some of the express differences between compassion and loving kindness from a classical perspective. And justification for drawing them together is found in the ‘boundless state of mind’. However it is reasonable to ask in what way can the unlimited nature of mind be evaluated using limited psychometric measures? To what extent the LCS can align two distinct concepts in one scale will emerge over time.

The three reported highlights of the paper were

  • The LCS reflects the Buddhist concept of lovingkindness-compassion.
  • The LCS consists of three-factor with fifteen items.
  • The reliability and validity of LCS were adequate within our study.

This study was based on the definitions of compassion within a branch(es) of the Theravada tradition. So it should be stated at the outset the precise meanings established as a starting point may not reflect the whole family of Buddhism. This is not to say that other Buddhist schools (Zen, Mahayana or Vajrayana) might not wholly or partially share the definitions used. Simply that the definitions may not be representative of the wider Buddhist community. It should also be noted that the measures therefore may not reflect the explicit, not dual and absolute compassionate approaches found elsewhere in the Buddha Dharma.

Nevertheless this paper established fifteen items within three factors through the use of exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). The results suggest that LCS was significantly correlated with self-compassion, compassionate love, social connectedness, empathy and satisfaction with life. This study used 469 university students as participants and the data supports the reliability and validity of the LCS to measure lovingkindness-compassion.

An extremely useful investigation into compassion and loving kindness, raises several important questions.

Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691730733X

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How much does science know about meditation?

Science and meditation

Science and meditation

Blogging about a related issue at Meditation for Health prompted me to think about how much does science really know about meditation and mindfulness. Leading scientists in the field state that empirical meditation research is at a relatively early stage. But relative to what? Surely not the efforts of the scientific community, thousands of scientific studies have already been published that explored meditation and/or its presumed operationalised components. It should also be considered there there is a vast body of traditional texts available, documenting many aspects of contemplative sciences over the last two thousand years. Contemporary research should also have benefited from the millions of current practitioners, including meditation masters with great experience of practice and underlying theoretical frameworks. It is hard to imagine more auspicious conditions for the study of meditation, so why is the research struggling to make significant progress?

After I had been meditating for five years I asked a traditional meditation teacher what the goal of my particular practice was. She stripped away the esoteric imagery in which the practice was framed and explained the likely result of my efforts. In particular she emphasized the importance of my motivation. The idea that the method alone is not the practice is central to many forms of meditation and contemplation. In fact traditional literature from Tibetan Buddhism makes it clear that progress in a particular method may require the application of significant levels of compassion or non-attachment. It is not my suggestion that a western scientific approach cannot fully understand the processes engaged in different forms of meditation. But rather it might be time to start to think about the phenomena underpinning meditation in a more complete way, even within cognitive psychology or neuropsychology. In some traditional schools, meditators are discouraged from evaluating the progress of others. But when you meditate cheek by jowl in a community of meditators for years, you may inevitably observe differences in the effects of the same meditation practice on different people.

Whilst the capacity of practitioners (individual differences) is a known factor in the experience of meditation. An individual’s motivation is also central to the benefits of a practice. This is a paradigm for all meditators and mindful practitioners in all settings. Unless a scientist can integrate the, enthusiasm, scepticism and goals of the meditator into the input part of the equation, great uncertainty regarding the output is inevitable.  In a survey of meditators and mindfulness practitioners (Morris, 2017) that included both type of practice and reasons for commencement. The motivation of practitioners was very varied. Among the cited reasons for beginning meditation or mindfulness were:        

Motive %
To improve my health 12
To improve my general well-being 43
For spiritual/religious reasons 22
As a lifestyle choice 6
Because of the influence of others 3
Any other reasons 14

There are reasons to suppose that the motivation of a meditator is a significant influencer on the results of a practice. The empirical approach has a great deal to offer the investigation of meditation, it can help to construct reductionist models able to identify the elements contemplative practice. But we are perhaps at a point when a fuller understanding of meditation and meditators needs to evolve.

 

References

Morris, S. (2017), An exploration of the relationship between wellbeing and meditation experience amongst meditators and mindfulness practitioners. The Open University, Milton Keynes. Unpublished

Posted in cognitive psychology, mindfulness, neuroscience, religious studies | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Mirror neurons – embodied cognition

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Macaque monkeys were used for the first mirror neuron experiments

Authors: Di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G.

Year: 1992

Title: Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study

Summary: Research emitting from the University of Parma in the 1990s changed cognitive science forever. This was the place where the mirror neuron was identified. At first sight it might not appear to have a direct relevance with meditation, but mirror neurons demonstrate a characteristic of the human brain central to understanding how we interconnect with each other. Under certain conditions we are directly affected by what we see other people do. This phenomenon is not restricted to humans.

If we see others undertaking a behavior that reflects something we have done, it will fire our mirror neurons as if we were doing it. This effect is not linked to species it is about how closely observable behaviors correspond  our own motor repertoire.

Stephen Gene Morris

In the original experiment a macaque monkey demonstrated mirror neuron activity when a human experimenter undertook tasks that it had been trained to do. The implications for meditators include:

  • Firstly it is a weakening to self-other duality, humans and animals can, under relatively common conditions share action potentials in mirror neurons.
  • Secondly there is a clear relationship between what we see and how this affects our brain.  It seems plausible that if we see kind acts that we ourselves have done in the past our mirror neurons will fire as if we were administering the kindness. The same would apply for unkind acts.

I have written a paper on this experiment which can be made available on request. The original literature (linked below) is very readable but it is the first in a series of the Parma Mirror Neuron Experiments.

Perspective: Embodied cognition, neuroscience, mirror neurons

Link: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00230027

Posted in cognitive psychology, dualism, embodied cognition, nondual awareness, phenomenology, social connectedness | Tagged | Leave a comment