Meditation in the News
• Mind Wandering Research!
• Meditation builds up the brain
• Meditation is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness
• Zippy Cartoons
• Meditation and Kids article, Los Angeles Times
• Vipassana Hindrances, Bangkok Post
• God Makes Meditation Better, New Scientist
• Neuroplasticity in the Brain During Meditation, Wall Street Journal
• Seek Satisfaction, Not Happiness, Los Angeles Times
Paying Attention to Not Paying Attention
Mar 19, 9:31 PM (ET) By MALCOLM RITTER
(AP) University of British Columbia psychology student Sarah McGiven is wired for a study on mind...
NEW YORK (AP) - Researchers are studying a pervasive psychological phenomenon in which oh man we've got to finish doing the taxes this weekend ... C'mon, admit it. Your train of thought has derailed like that many times. It's just mind-wandering. We all do it, and surprisingly often, whether we're struggling to avoid it or not.
Mainstream psychology hasn't paid much attention to this common mental habit. But a spate of new studies is chipping away at its mysteries and scientists say the topic is beginning to gain visibility.
Someday, such research may turn up ways to help students keep their focus on textbooks and lectures, and drivers to keep their minds on the road. It may reveal ways to reap payoffs from the habit.
And it might shed light on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can include an unusually severe inability to focus that causes trouble in multiple areas of life.
(AP) University of British Columbia psychology student Sarah McGiven is wired for a study on mind...
More generally, scientists say, mind-wandering is worth studying because it's just too common to ignore.
Michael Kane, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, sampled the thoughts of students at eight random times a day for a week. He found that on average, they were not thinking about what they were doing 30 percent of the time.
For some students it was between 80 and 90 percent of the time. Out of the 126 participants, only one denied any mind-wandering at the sampled moments.
Prior work has also turned up average rates of 30 percent to 40 percent in everyday life.
"If you want to understand people's mental lives, this is a phenomenon we ought to be thinking about," Kane said.
Of course, a lot of mind-wandering is harmless, as when you think about a work problem while munching a cheeseburger. The problem comes when it distracts you from something you should be paying attention to.
The result of that can be tragic. Kane noted the 2003 case of a college professor who drove to work in Irvine, Calif., one hot August day, parked and went to his office. Whatever was going through his mind, he'd lost track of the fact that his 10-month-old son was in the back seat. The boy died in the heat. In 2004, virtually the same thing happened in Santa Ana, Calif.
A more common task that demands concentration is reading. Even here, people's minds wander 15 to 20 percent of the time, said Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. And they often don't realize it, he said.
He and colleagues had college students read passages from "War and Peace" and other books. The volunteers pushed a button every time they noticed their thoughts straying, and that happened regularly, Schooler said.
But more surprisingly in such experiments, when the volunteers are interrupted at random times and asked what they're thinking, "we regularly catch people's minds wandering before they've noticed it themselves," Schooler said. And these stealth episodes appear to hamper reading comprehension, he said.
In Kane's study, scheduled for publication later this year, volunteers carried devices that beeped at random times and asked questions about their thoughts. Most of the time when caught mind-wandering, the students said they'd deliberately stopped focusing on what they were doing.
Their wandering thoughts trained more on everyday things than on fantasies, and much more than on worries. That's similar to what previous studies have found. "A lot of what they're reporting is ... mental to-do lists," Kane said.
But what leads to this?
"The mind is always trying to wander, every chance it gets," Schooler said. In his view, the mind has not only the goal of achieving whatever task we're focused on, but also personal goals simmering outside of our immediate awareness. These are things like making plans for the future, working out everyday problems, and better understanding oneself. Sometimes, one of these goals hijacks our attention. And so our mind wanders.
Brain-scanning evidence links mind-wandering to basic operation of the brain. Malia Mason of Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues recently reported that mind-wandering taps into the same circuitry that people use when they're told to do nothing - when their brains are on "idle."
Schooler, who's studying brain-wave activity associated with mind wandering, welcomes what he sees as a surge of interest in the topic. He and others say there's plenty to learn.
One goal is finding ways to help people realize when their mind is wandering and bring it under control, Schooler said. He plans to test whether meditation training might help.
But there's even a more basic question, he said. Why is the brain wired to wander? What could possibly be good about that?
"Mind-wandering is probably more often helpful than harmful," Kane said. For one thing, the cost is low: despite notable exceptions, life usually doesn't demand our full attention.
"A lot of human daily life is autopilot," he said. "There's a whole lot of what we need to do that we can do without thinking about it, from driving to eating .... We do occasionally miss that turn on the way home, but we get through the day pretty well."
Given that, a mechanism that encourages us to devote some idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems "seems like a pretty good use of time," he said.
Schooler is exploring the idea that mind-wandering promotes creativity. "It's unconstrained, it can go anywhere, which is sort of the perfect situation for creative thought," he said.
Mason points out that just because the human brain wanders doesn't necessarily mean there's a good reason for it. Maybe, she said, the mind wanders simply because it can.
But even she sees an upside.
"I can be stuck in my car in traffic and not go absolutely crazy because I'm not stuck in the here and now," she said. "I can think about what happened last night. And that's great."
Meditation builds up the brain
11:01 15 November 2005
NewScientist.com news service
Society for Neuroscience annual meeting
Bruce O'Hara, University of Kentucky
Massachusetts General Hospital
Meditating does more than just feel good and calm you down, it makes you perform better – and alters the structure of your brain, researchers have found.
People who meditate say the practice restores their energy, and some claim they need less sleep as a result. Many studies have reported that the brain works differently during meditation – brainwave patterns change and neuronal firing patterns synchronise. But whether meditation actually brings any of the restorative benefits of sleep has remained largely unexplored.
So Bruce O’Hara and colleagues at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, US, decided to investigate. They used a well-established “psychomotor vigilance task”, which has long been used to quantify the effects of sleepiness on mental acuity. The test involves staring at an LCD screen and pressing a button as soon as an image pops up. Typically, people take 200 to 300 milliseconds to respond, but sleep-deprived people take much longer, and sometimes miss the stimulus altogether.
Ten volunteers were tested before and after 40 minutes of either sleep, meditation, reading or light conversation, with all subjects trying all conditions. The 40-minute nap was known to improve performance (after an hour or so to recover from grogginess). But what astonished the researchers was that meditation was the only intervention that immediately led to superior performance, despite none of the volunteers being experienced at meditation.
“Every single subject showed improvement,” says O’Hara. The improvement was even more dramatic after a night without sleep. But, he admits: “Why it improves performance, we do not know.” The team is now studying experienced meditators, who spend several hours each day in practice.
What effect meditating has on the structure of the brain has also been a matter of some debate. Now Sara Lazar at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, US, and colleagues have used MRI to compare 15 meditators, with experience ranging from 1 to 30 years, and 15 non-meditators.
They found that meditating actually increases the thickness of the cortex in areas involved in attention and sensory processing, such as the prefrontal cortex and the right anterior insula.
“You are exercising it while you meditate, and it gets bigger,” she says. The finding is in line with studies showing that accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex. It is further evidence, says Lazar, that yogis “aren’t just sitting there doing nothing".
The growth of the cortex is not due to the growth of new neurons, she points out, but results from wider blood vessels, more supporting structures such as glia and astrocytes, and increased branching and connections.
The new studies were presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, in Washington DC, US.
reported on in The New Scientist,
Meditation is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness
The keyword here is "associated." We don't know yet why it is associated. It could be that people with increased cortical thickness are smart enough to make time in their day to meditate and just revel in how great life is.
Ah, another scientific report that is being somewhat mis-represented in the press. As a meditator, I FEEL that this study is probably pointing to something true: just like working out strengthens and thickens the muscles, meditation thickens the nerves, especially those having to do with sensing and paying attention. I WANT it to be true.
But UN-fortunately, this was NOT a longitudinal study, in which, say, a hundred people were studied over twenty years, measuring the brain changes in meditators and non-meditators. This is something very different: a snapshot of a bunch of meditators and some control group. A bit like taking a tape measure and measuring the height of basketball players and non-basketball players, and "finding" that "basketball playing is associated with increased height." It is not a fair inference that playing basketball makes you grow 6 inches in height.
This was an excellent preliminary research project, which only indicates that more research needs to be done. The scientists doing the research report on it with excellent accuracy. And by the way, it will be VERY VERY expensive and time-consuming to do longitudinal studies of this sort, over decades.
Researcher Sara Lazar found, "What we found was that people who have been practicing Buddhist insight meditation have a thicker cortex in some parts of their brain than people who don't meditate." She speculates, “You are exercising (the cortex) while you meditate, and it gets bigger,” The finding is in line with studies showing that accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists all have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex. It is further evidence, says Lazar, that yogis “aren’t just sitting there doing nothing".
Link to CNN Health summary of the study.
Link to New Scientist article reporting on a different study, relating it to the cortical thickness study.
For more Zippy Cartoons, visit - the zippy link.
Meditation and Kids
The Los Angeles Times had an interesting article Monday, September 5, on meditation and kids.
It's cool to be calm
Meditation can help kids focus, but does it have health benefits?
By Elena Conis
Special to The Times
September 5, 2005
TEN-YEAR-OLD Trae Smith knows how to deal with the stresses of school, an acting and modeling career and, of course, the typical family squabbles. He closes his eyes, counts to 100 and lets it all go.
Trae, who learned to meditate last year with his fourth-grade class at Toluca Lake Elementary School, said that tests and auditions used to make him nervous. But since he's learned how to meditate, Trae says, "everything is like a piece of cake."
As meditation goes mainstream among American adults, it's slowly making its way into schools and programs for children across the country. Anecdotal reports of its success have become common, with parents and teachers contending that it can calm kids down, level out their moods and help them focus. Some proponents say it can even manage serious conditions, such as anxiety and attention deficit disorder.
Now the practice is getting a closer look. Researchers are beginning to study groups of meditating children to determine how the practice might affect a developing brain. Although the findings have been encouraging, some child-health experts are cautioning that, until more is known, meditation shouldn't be touted as a cure-all for stressed-out, hyperactive or underperforming kids.
Most of these in-school programs draw on parents' and teachers' personal experience, rather than scientific research, points out a new report from the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit think tank that studies meditation and other contemplative practices. Dozens of such programs exist in schools across the country, the report said, with many more programs for children offered in after-school clubs, religious and meditation centers, and through independent organizations.
Research focuses on adults
A growing body of meditation research conducted in university and hospital settings has supported a range of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure and stress, improved immune function and better mood. But the research, says the report, has focused almost exclusively on adults.
Many meditation enthusiasts nevertheless have concluded the practice could have similar effects in children.
"Not a day goes by that I don't get a request from somebody" wanting to teach meditation to children or study its effects, said Susan Kaiser Greenland, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Inner Kids Foundation in Los Angeles. The organization, which teaches mindfulness meditation in schools and supports research on the topic, has cooperated with UCLA researchers studying the effects of meditation on pain, mood and attention in children.
Two major types of meditation are being scrutinized for the benefits they may offer in school settings: those that clear the mind, like transcendental meditation, and those that increase awareness of the moment, like so-called mindfulness meditation and other Buddhist-inspired practices.
Both are designed to help kids slow down in a world of busy, activity-packed days. And both must be altered for use in children. In many programs for young meditators, silent, seated meditation is either brief or nonexistent, and games and activities replace books or lectures to teach mindful awareness, or mindfulness, which Greenland describes as "noticing experiences without labeling them good or bad."
"This world we're in now, everything moves so fast," she said. "No one is taking the time to talk to these kids about slowing down or about what they're missing."
Students like it, want it
Meditation lessons at Toluca Lake Elementary School consist of breathing exercises and quiet nature walks. They began when teacher Steve Reidman turned to Greenland, a friend, to help him manage a particularly unruly class three years ago. "It was like night and day by the end of the [first] year," said Reidman.
The meditation techniques helped his students calm down "well before they got to the point of lashing out at each other," he said. Inspired by what he saw in Reidman's class, Toluca Lake teacher Dan Murphy's second-grade class started meditating too.
Students who've learned to meditate in school say they've learned to control their emotions before tests and big sporting events, even during fights with parents and siblings, by simply pausing and slowing their breathing. Fourth-grader Vanessa Macademia says the technique relaxes and refreshes her, "especially when I'm sad or really mad or just want to destroy some other person."
At the small, private Odyssey Middle School in San Mateo, each day starts with physical activity followed by meditation — building up to a class trip to Japan in eighth grade, where the students meditate alongside monks in a Buddhist temple. Head of school Steve Smuin says he sees students reaching for the technique before exams.
"Rather than saying, 'Let's cram,' they say, 'Let's take time to clear our minds,'" Smuin said.
As word spreads about how useful meditation can be, more students want to learn the technique.
At Conte West Hills, a magnet school for inner-city kids in New Haven, Conn., guidance counselor Linda Baker says attendance has skyrocketed in her after-school relaxation program, which guides kids through meditation, yoga and related activities.
"In the beginning we had five kids, now we have waiting lists," said Baker, who started the program five years ago.
In an attempt to quantify the effects of such techniques in children, Randye Semple, now a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, taught breathing and mindfulness exercises to a group of 25 9- to 12-year-olds with reading difficulties, including several with anxiety and attention deficit disorders.
By learning to see the negative spaces formed by a cluster of blocks or to describe how a piece of music made them feel, the students became more adept at using all of their senses. As a result, they began to explore new sights and sounds before labeling them good or bad, fun or boring.
"We got amazing results," Semple said. Over the course of 12 weeks, the mindfulness practices helped the children to stop making snap judgments. They were also less anxious and depressed and more able to focus — results that ultimately helped improve their reading skills too, Semple said.
Better moods, less anxiety
With research on meditation in children yielding largely positive results, some schools are using meditation techniques to treat — or prevent — common emotional and psychological disorders that can be barriers to learning, such as anxiety and attention deficit disorders.
Research on students at the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit, where students and teachers do 10 minutes of transcendental meditation at the start and end of each school day, showed that meditating students had better moods and less anxiety than a group of non-meditating students used for comparison. The study was published in Focus on Complementary and Alternative Therapies in 2003.
A study of inner-city students with hypertension in Augusta, Ga., showed that transcendental meditation could have physiological benefits too. In a report on the study published in the American Journal of Hypertension last year, Dr. Vernon Barnes, professor of physiology at the Medical College of Georgia, showed that students who stuck to a program of 15 minutes of meditation twice a day lowered their blood pressure by more than three millimeters on average and kept it low for up to four months.
Preliminary evidence on meditation's ability to reduce anxiety and its symptoms in children is promising, said Susan Smalley, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. This fall, she'll begin a pilot study examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on fifth-graders with attention deficit disorder.
She's particularly encouraged by findings that suggest mindfulness practices can "rewire" the brain.
Studies in adults have shown that the brain's prefrontal cortex (a region at the front of the brain) plays a big role in focusing attention. People with attention disorders display less activity in this region than people without the disorder.
Jeffrey Schwartz, a research psychiatrist at UCLA, said willfully directing attention increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. And mindfulness meditation, with its emphasis on paying attention, appears to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, said Schwartz, whose own research has examined how mindfulness techniques can be used to overcome obsessive compulsive disorder.
"That's what's so exciting for so many people about doing this [meditation] with kids," said Inner Kids' Greenland. "If you can start early on to help them train their ability to pay attention, the brain will become a stronger muscle."
But because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to develop (usually not until the 20s), some psychiatric experts caution against applying such evidence to children.
Teaching children a technique their brains are not ready for could potentially frustrate them, creating or aggravating anxiety instead of allaying it, said Amishi Jha, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who served as a scientific advisor for the Garrison Institute report. Her own research focuses on the brain patterns related to memory and attention.
Furthermore, said Jha, it's possible that meditation techniques could help one type of attention at the expense of others. Meditation strengthens selective or focused attention, which is crucial for, say, reading a book. But improving only selective attention might hurt the development of flexible or open attention, she said, which people use to monitor their environment as a whole. Both types are critical for learning. Children need selective attention to stay focused, but if their flexible attention is weak, they'll have trouble taking in more than one piece of information at a time.
Studying the effects
Researchers agree that we are at the very beginning of understanding whether meditation can affect a child's brain and body — and, if so, then how.
Still, many parents and teachers are convinced of its benefits.
They say that with meditation, "some kids will suddenly go from Ds to Bs and A's — and that's great," said Dr. Donald Greydanus, a professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University at Kalamazoo and the author of several books on adolescent health and behavior.
"Folks like me are always eager to look at new data," Greydanus added, "but at this point the research just isn't there."
Trae Smith is convinced of meditation's usefulness, however. Asked whether he'll meditate now that he's in fifth grade — where the math is full of fractions and the language arts get tougher — he said: "I think I'll be doing it a lot this year."
Vipassana As Internal Warfare
The Bangkok post had a wonderful article by a Vipassana teacher on how to create meditation to be a war on yourself. It is a great example of the Buddhist approach of using language that somehow sounds spiritual, but is actually just installing intricate systems of denial, scientifically designed to damage your ability to function as an independent human being.
From the article:
"Naturally, sensual desire can come in any form of the senses _ sight, sound, smell, taste, touch or feeling. So sharpen your mindfulness and watch out!"
more . . .
God Makes Meditation Better
The New Scientist reported on a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine which seemed to indicate that those who meditated using a "spiritual" approach went deeper than those using a generic mantra.
If meditation is good, God makes it better
03 September 2005
The New Scientist
GOD can help you relax, according to a study of meditation. People practising spiritual meditation were more relaxed and better able to withstand pain than those performing secular meditation.
College students who volunteered for the study were randomly assigned to one of three groups regardless of their spiritual beliefs. The 25 students in the spiritual meditation group were told to concentrate on a phrase such as "God is love" or "God is peace" during their meditation periods. Those in the secular meditation group used a phrase such as "I am happy" or "I am joyful" while the third group were simply told to relax.
Subjects were asked to practise their technique for 20 minutes each day for two weeks, at the beginning and end of which the researchers used psychological profiling to assess their mood. They also tested pain tolerance as measured by the amount of time the volunteers could keep their hands in water at 2 °C (Journal of Behavioral Medicine, DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9008-5). Those practising spiritual meditation showed greater reductions in anxiety than the other two groups and were able to keep their hands in the cold water for nearly double the time - on average 92 seconds versus 49 for the relaxation group.
Amy Wachholtz of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who conducted the research, says that spiritual meditation brings more than just deeper relaxation. "It is also likely that there is something unique inherent in the practice of spiritual meditation that cannot be completely conveyed through secular meditation and relaxation," she says, but admits that she doesn't know what it is.
Elizabeth Valentine, emeritus professor of psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that the result could be down to a placebo effect. Participants in the spiritual group might simply have expected benefits because they were practicing "real" meditation.
The study raises the question of the effect of a negative spiritual phrase. "We suspect that if people were asked to repeat negative spiritual phrases, such as 'God hates me,' it would have destructive effects," says Ken Pargament, also of Bowling Green State University. But he adds that to test the hypothesis would probably be unethical.
- From issue 2515 of New Scientist magazine, 03 September 2005, page 9
While this is an interesting idea, and it would make sense to me if it were true, I think I agree with the critics in term of the experimental design. All this study does is point out an area of possible research – but that is OK, much scientific research is wrong in the conclusions drawn from the data.
Neuroplasticity in the Brain During Meditation
Wall Street Journal
November 5, 2004
SCIENCE JOURNAL By SHARON BEGLEY
Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning
November 5, 2004; Page B1
All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they were.
On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.
Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in burgundy-and-saffron robes, convinced that one round-faced young man in their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.
It was not, in other words, your typical science meeting.
But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for five days last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the little matters of reincarnation and the relationship of mind to brain, they set them aside in the interest of a shared goal. They had come together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.
The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another.
Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That's where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.
"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily) their brains to science.
The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice "compassion" meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.
"We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts," says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.
In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.
Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.
"It feels like a total readiness to act, to help," recalled Mr. Ricard.
The study will be published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We can't rule out the possibility that there was a pre-existing difference in brain function between monks and novices," says Prof. Davidson, "but the fact that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training."
That opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.
This is exciting research, and just a bare beginning. It is OK for the researchers to hint at conclusions from their findings, especially if this incines other researchers to investigate and try to prove or disprove this data.
Get Some Satisfaction
I love the ideas in this book, Satisfaction. "I used to think that we want pleasure and happiness, and now I don't think that is the case at all, says Berns. Happiness and pleasure are passive emotions, and you don't have to do much to achieve those feelings. I think of satisfaction in terms of a much more active component. Nature never said you had to be happy. It said you had to learn to adapt to the world."
Berns finds that "satisfaction comes less from the attainment of a goal and more in what you must do to get there." (emphasis mine).
Marianne, the writer of the LA Times article, adds, "Satisfaction is one of a number of positive emotions such as joy, love and happiness to which psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started paying attention."
About f....ing time they started to pay attention to the positive emotions!
Seek Satisfaction, Not Happiness
September 5, 2005
latimes.com : Health
For true fulfillment, seek satisfaction, not happiness
By Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Special to The Times
Why couldnt Mick Jagger get no satisfaction?
He just wasnt trying hard enough, says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta.
Berns should know. As a scientist and author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment, scheduled to arrive in bookstores this week, Berns has examined satisfaction from the inside out looking at the exquisite interplay between brain structure and experience and from the outside in. He has studied people who engage in an array of activities, including solving crossword puzzles, running ultra marathons and engaging in sadomasochistic sex. The explanation for why some people pursue these activities, and why they find them satisfying, can be found deep inside the brain.
I used to think that we want pleasure and happiness, and now I dont think that is the case at all, says Berns. Happiness and pleasure are passive emotions, and you dont have to do much to achieve those feelings. I think of satisfaction in terms of a much more active component. Nature never said you had to be happy. It said you had to learn to adapt to the world.
Satisfaction is one of a number of positive emotions such as joy, love and happiness to which psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started paying attention.
Dubbed positive psychology by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman in 1998, the focus of this work contrasts sharply with the preoccupation with dysfunction and emotional pain that has dominated psychology and psychiatry for much of its history.
People who study positive psychology really are interested in what makes life worth living, says Shelly Gable, professor of psychology at UCLA.
Until recently, this research has been largely focused on behavior, on self-reports of emotional states and various other approaches to cognitive assessment. In the words of psychiatrists, the observation has been much more phenomenological than biological.
A small group of neuroscientists such as Berns has tried to discover what happens in peoples brains during such nuanced emotional experiences as happiness, satisfaction, motivation, even social conformity. It is relatively simple to frighten people who are undergoing a brain scan and see what parts of their brains light up; its quite another to contrive a study that will explore these subtle emotional states.
From his and others neuroscientific findings, Berns has concluded that satisfaction requires two important ingredients that nature has designed our brains to crave: novelty and challenge. But what points on our intricate cortical map, what neurotransmitters and hormones actually transform a novel and challenging experience into the gratifying state of satisfaction?
Berns has concluded that the answer lies in a generous portion of the neurotransmitter dopamine and a surprising dose of the so-called stress hormone cortisol, bathing a slab of brain structure called the striatum.
The functions of these structures can be found in any medical textbook on the brain. The striatum, a pair of arches located at the center of the skull, acts as a kind of air traffic control center in our brains, receiving loads of information from the frontal lobes. It also has the largest number of dopamine receptors of any region in the brain.
Dopamine neurons are concentrated near the pituitary gland and the brain stem, and are released when something unexpected or novel occurs. Because the highest density of receptors is in the striatum, the neurotransmitter is drawn to that region of the brain, which then decides what information it should pay attention to and what it should ignore.
Our brains are rich with dopamine during adolescence, a period of life known for its impulsive behavior and wild enthusiasm. As we grow older, though, dopamine requires a greater stimulus to get flowing. That is why, Berns thinks, we need to give it some inspiration through activities that are novel and challenging.
Dopamine and the striatum long have been associated with general feelings of happiness and well-being. But Berns is not simply looking at happiness; he is trying to tease out the specific biology of satisfaction, and for that he went one step further in examining the function of the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol is released when the body is exposed to a physically, mentally or psychologically stressful situation. And because stress has been linked to medical conditions including heart disease and depression, the conventional medical wisdom is that stress should be avoided.
Berns doesnt agree with this view of the dangers of cortisol. He suggests that cortisol has a number of beneficial qualities for example, it can gear up the body to run or fight or do whatever it needs to deal with the stress. Cortisol levels rise with vigorous physical exercise and under the right circumstances can elevate mood, increase concentration and even improve memory.
Novelty releases dopamine, and stress releases cortisol and these two chemicals interacting may hold the key to the way that challenging, even painful situations can provide a feeling of real satisfaction, he says.
The problem, however, is novelty inevitably becomes routine, so the stakes keep getting raised for more novelty. This is a problem that psychologist Philip Brickman, who studied lottery winners in the late 1970s, described as a hedonic treadmill. He found that the levels of happiness in people who won the Illinois lottery were no different from those who didnt. In fact, he found that lottery winners reported less pleasure in their daily activities than those with less money.
Even as we contemplate our satisfaction with a given accomplishment, Brickman wrote, the satisfaction fades, to be replaced finally by a new indifference and a new level of striving.
If we are geared to seek satisfaction through challenge and novelty, we must constantly seek higher levels of experience to maintain the same level of satisfaction. Certainly bungee jumping was exhilarating and satisfying, but not after the 10th time. Isnt the premise of seeking these new experiences ultimately self defeating?
Not necessarily, says Berns, and perhaps that is the benefit of the way our dopamine system is structured. Because the dopamine neurons in our brains begin to decline after adolescence, we become more conservative in seeking out risky behavior as we age. Thus, it may take comparatively less stimulation, less novelty, to get the same levels of satisfaction as we grow older.
And, in fact, our greatest potential source of novelty and challenge may be snoring in bed next to us. The person we feel certain we know far too well to ever be surprised by, may turn out to be the greatest source of risk and adventure in our lives, Berns says. At its best, a healthy intimate relationship can offer someone the excitement, unpredictability and novelty that is essential for sustaining a deep sense of satisfaction.
Psychological research has born this out, says UCLAs Gable. Studies of long-term couples consistently find that people who are still in love and in a happy relationship, report doing novel things together, she says.
First you experience. Then you share, Berns writes. Even if we each have our personal versions of satisfaction a good meal, perhaps satisfaction is an experience best shared collectively and reciprocally with others.
Berns' ideas relate to an issue I am tracking with meditators, the long-term effects of cultivating passivity. Asian teachings emphasize passivity in innumerable ways, and lately I have been noticing how harmful this is over the ten-year to twenty-year term. How do I notice it? In working with people who have been meditating for a long time, who learned, early in their meditation practice, that there is this entity called a "guru" and that he gives you stuff. In other words, it's a cargo cult. Or if you just make your mind blank enough, you will get a gift, some kind of bonus from life.