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Spiritual, Religious Preferences Linked to Thicker Brain Cortex, Reduced Risk of Depression

Lisa Miller

Lisa Miller

Ravi Bansal

Ravi Bansal

People who value spiritual and religious practices show different brain structures than those for whom these beliefs are less important, according to Columbia’s Lisa Miller, Ravi Bansal, Priya Wickramaratne, Xuejun Hao, and Myrna M. WeissmanCraig E. Tenke and Bradley S. Peterson.

This finding is consistent with an earlier summary of transformations of brain structure and function associated with spiritual experiences compiled by University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew B. Newberg.

Andrew Newberg

Andrew Newberg

Priya Wickramaratne

Priya Wickramaratne

Miller’s team rated more than 100 volunteers on their risk of depression, based on family history of having parents or grandparents with major depression.

They also evaluated participants’ ratings of spiritual and religious values as well as religious participation at two times during a five year period.
The team also performed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of each volunteer’s brain at the second time point. 

Xuejun Hao

Xuejun Hao

Myrna Weissman

Myrna Weissman

MRI brain scans showed significant differences in brain structure for those who valued spiritual and religious practices: Thicker cortices in the left and right parietal and occipital regions and mesial frontal lobes, and left hemisphere cuneus and precuneus.

In separate investigations, Miller, Wickramaratne, Tenke, and Weissman collaborated with Columbia colleagues Daniel Pilowsky, Helen Verdeli, Marc J. Gameroff, and Mia Sage, and New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Virginia Warner, with Yoko Nomura of Queens College in a 20 year longitudinal study following adult children of people diagnosed with major depression.

Craig Tenke

Craig Tenke

Daniel Pilowsky

Daniel Pilowsky

Adult children who also reported at the beginning of the study that religion or spirituality was “highly important” to them had 75%-90% less risk of experiencing major depression over 10 years, compared with people who had no family history of depression.
These findings suggest that spiritual and religious values buffer genetic risk of depressive disorders.

Mia Sage

Mia Sage

Yoko Nomura

Yoko Nomura

Further support for this notion comes from related work by Columbia’s Tenke, who collaborated with Jürgen Kayser, Carlye G. Manna, Shiva Fekri, Christopher J. Kroppmann, Jennifer D. Schaller, Daniel M. Alschuler, Jonathan W. Stewart, Patrick J. McGrath, and Gerard E. Bruder to report that people who recover from depression have high-amplitude alpha brain activity, which is also associated with continued practice of Qigong meditation, according to University of Graz’s Gerhard Litscher, G. Wenzel, Gerald Niederwieser, and Gerhard Schwarz.

Gerhard Litscher

Gerhard Litscher

Gerald Niederwieser

Gerald Niederwieser

Taken together, these findings on brain wave activity, spirituality, and depression suggest that spiritual practice affects brain function.

Miller’s team posited that spiritual or religious practices like mindfulness, meditation, and religious practice may reduce high familial risk for major depression due to structural changes in the brain.

-*How credible are suggestions that spiritual values and practices alter brain structure and function?

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Mindfulness Meditation Improves Decisions, Reduces Sunk-Cost Bias

Sigal Barsade

Sigal Barsade

Brief meditation sessions can reduce the tendency to base current decisions on past “sunk costs,” which are not relevant to the present choice, reported Wharton’s Sigal Barsade, with Andrew C. Hafenbrack and Zoe Kinias both of INSEAD.

Andrew Hafenbrack

Andrew Hafenbrack

Sunk-cost bias” is the prevalent tendency to continue unsuccessful actions after time and money have been invested.
Frequent examples include:

  • Holding poorly-performing stock market investments
  • Staying in abusive interpersonal relationships
  • Continuing failing military engagements.
Zoe Kinias

Zoe Kinias

In these cases, people tend to focus on past behaviors rather than current circumstances, leading to emotion-driven decision biases.

Meditation practices can:

  • Enable increased focus on the present moment
  • Shift attention away from past and future actions
  • Reduce negative emotions.
Kirk Brown

Kirk Brown

Barsade, Hafenbrack, and Kinias asked volunteers to complete Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, a widely used trait-mindfulness scale developed by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan of University of Rochester.

Richard Ryan

Richard Ryan

In addition, they measured participants’ ability to resist “sunk cost” bias using Adult Decision-Making Competence Inventory, developed by Leeds University’s Wändi Bruine de Bruin with Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon and Andrew M. Parker of RAND Corporation.

Wändi Bruine de Bruin

Wändi Bruine de Bruin

In a decision task, participants could choose to take an action or to do nothing, as a measure of vulnerability to sunk-cost bias.
Propensity to take action indicated resistance to the sunk-cost bias, whereas those who took no action were seen as influenced by the sunk-cost bias.

Baruch Fischhoff

Baruch Fischhoff

Volunteers who listened to a 15-minute focused-breathing guided meditation were more likely to choose action and resist the sunk-cost bias than those who had not heard the meditation instruction.

Andrew M Parker

Andrew M Parker

Barsade’s team controlled for participants’ age and trait self-esteem, noting that, “People who mediated focused less on the past and future, which led to them experiencing less negative emotion. That helped them reduce the sunk-cost bias.

Jochen Reb

Jochen Reb

Mindful attention also enables negotiators to craft better deals by “claiming a larger share of the bargaining zone” in distributive (“fixed pie”) negotiations, found Singapore Management University’s Jochen Reb and Jayanth Narayanan affiliated with National University of Singapore as well as University of California, Hastings College of the Law’s Darshan Brach.
These effective negotiators also expressed greater satisfaction with the     negotiation process and outcome. 

JAYANTH NARAYANAN

JAYANTH NARAYANAN

Mindful attention also leads to a lower negativity bias, the tendency to weigh negative information more heavily than positive, reported Virginia Commonwealth University’s Laura G. Kiken and Natalie J. Shook of West Virginia University.

They assessed negativity bias with BeanFest, developed by Shook, with Ohio State’s Russell Fazio and J. Richard Eiser of University of Sheffield.

Natalie Shook

Natalie Shook

This computer game asks participants to associate novel stimuli with positive or negative outcomes during attitude formation exercises.

Russell Fazio

Russell Fazio

Volunteers who listened to a mindfulness induction correctly classified positive and negative stimuli more equally, expressed greater optimism, and demonstrated less negativity bias in attitude formation than those in the control condition.

J Richard Eiser

J Richard Eiser

Mindful attention improves decision-making and enhances negotiation outcomes by reducing biases linked to negative emotions.
As a result, taking a brief mental break (“time-out”) during decision-making can improve choices and reduce the likelihood that “let the wrong emotions cloud the decision-making process.”

-*How do you evoke reduce bias in making decisions and crafting negotiation proposals?

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Evidence-Based Stress Management – Mindful Attention – Part 2 of 5

Workplace stress reduces employees’ ability to concentrate and pay attention to work, but mindfulness training can enhance these skills while reducing stress.

Matthew Killingsworth

Matthew Killingsworth

Inattentiveness and distraction are both frequent and unpleasant, according to Harvard’s Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert.
They surveyed more than 2,000 adults, who reported that 47 percent of the time, their focus was not on their current activities.
In addition, these volunteers reported being less happy when distracted.

Lee Ann Cardaciotto

Lee Ann Cardaciotto

Another way to measure distraction and attentiveness is The Philadelphia Mindfulness Scale, developed by La Salle University’s Lee Ann Cardaciotto and James Herbert, Evan Forman, Ethan Moitra, and Victoria Farrow of Drexel University.
This tool provides a baseline measure of potential need for stress management and mindfulness training, and can demonstrate impact of training.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Current approaches to stress management training are typically based on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which trains participants to focus on breathing, which slows respiration and heart rate, and triggers the “relaxation response.”

Wendy Hasenkamp

Wendy Hasenkamp

Using these frameworks, Emory’s Wendy Hasenkamp, Christine Wilson-Mendenhall, Erica Duncan, and Lawrence Barsalou investigated the neurological activity during distraction and mind-wandering experiences using fMRI scans of 14 meditators.

Participants focused on breathing and pressed a button when they realized their minds were wandering, then returned focus to the breathing.
Scans pinpointed active brain regions before, during, or after the button press.

Erica Duncan

Erica Duncan

Hasenkamp and team proposed four intervals in a cognitive cycle, based on button-pressing patterns:

  • Mind wandering (default mode activity), controlled by the medial prefrontal cortex, leading to  self-focused thoughts
  • Awareness of mind wandering (attentional subnetworks)
  • Shifting of attention (executive subnetworks)
  • Sustained attention (executive subnetworks).
Lawrence Barsalou

Lawrence Barsalou

These experienced meditators disengaged attention and deactivated medial prefrontal cortex more quickly after identifying mind-wandering, suggesting that their mindfulness practice helped them voluntarily shift from perseverative, ruminating thoughts.
They demonstrated increased connectivity between default mode and attention brain regions, enabling less default mode activity while meditating.

Britta Hölzel

Britta Hölzel

Besides reducing stress, mindfulness meditation trains attention, improves working memory, fluid intelligence, introspection, and standardized test scores, according to Britta Hölzel team at Harvard and Justus Liebig Universität Giessen.
In addition, mindfulness meditation has shown beneficial results in comprehensive treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and sexual dysfunction.

Fadel Zeidan

Fadel Zeidan

Hölzel’s group conducted anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images for 16 volunteers with no previous mindfulness meditation experience before and after they participated in the 8-week training program.
Gray matter concentration increased in the meditators’ left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellum, areas responsible for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

Further support for mindfulness meditation’s value in reducing perceived stress and anxiety comes from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Fadel Zeidan.
His study identified brain areas activated and deactivated during meditation and participants reported that anxiety decreased by 39 percent during practice.

Norman Farb

Norman Farb

Mindfulness meditation training modifies the way people experience themselves over time and in the present moment, according to University of Toronto’s Norman Farb and six collaborators.
The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine monitoring of two self-reference processes:  Focus on enduring traits (’narrative’ focus) or momentary experience (’experiential’ focus).

They compared participants with no previous meditation experience, and volunteers who completed an 8-week mindfulness meditation training to increase attention on the present.

Herbert Benson

Herbert Benson

Brain scans of inexperienced and experienced meditators differed significantly in tasks that required these two forms of self-awareness: the self across time and in the present moment.
These two experiences are usually integrated but can be dissociated through mindfulness attention training.
Results suggest that mindfulness training enables people to focus on the present moment without the distraction of intrusive, ruminative thoughts which can increase stress.

Manoj Bhasin

Manoj Bhasin

Mindfulness-based stress management has significant long term effects by modifying gene expression.
Harvard’s Herbert Benson, who led research on “the relaxation response” almost four decades ago, along with colleagues including Harvard’s Manoj Bhasin and Abbott Northwestern Hospital Jeffery Dusek and four others, assert that meditation evokes “a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress.”

Jeffrey Dusek

Jeffrey Dusek

Genes associated with inflammation and stress are less active and those involved in energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance are activated.

Bhasin, Dusek and team measured peripheral blood transcriptome in experienced and inexperienced meditators before and after they listened to a relaxation response-inducing tape or a health education message.

Both short-term and long-term practitioners showed significant temporal gene expression changes with a greater effect among the experienced meditators.

This and other research evidence supports the effectiveness of mindfulness attention training as a stress management practice.
Mindful attention training enables people to voluntarily control body processes like respiration and heart rate, which reduces perceived stress.
The practice can induce calm thoughts that reciprocally reduce the physical expressions of stress.

Jonathan Smallwood

Jonathan Smallwood

Like other stress management techniques, this practice requires willingness and commitment to take full advantage of benefits demonstrated in lab studies.

If efforts to cultivate mindfulness falter, mind-wandering or “self-generated thoughts” can be channeled away from self-referential worries to enable creativity problem-solving and planning.

Jessica Andrews-Hanna

Jessica Andrews-Hanna

Max Planck Institute’s Jonathan Smallwood and Jessica Andrews-Hanna of University of Colorado argue that “a wandering mind helps project past and future selves.”

Thomas Suddendorf

Thomas Suddendorf

Similarly, University of Queensland’s Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis of University of Auckland posit that this hindsight and foresight enables experience and memory integration into a sense of self through this “mental time travel.” 

Michael Corballis

Michael Corballis

University of California, Santa Barbara’s Benjamin Baird collaborated with Jonathan Smallwood and four colleagues to evaluate the impact of mind-wandering on a creativity task during a demanding task, rest, or an undemanding task.

Benjamin Baird

Benjamin Baird

They found that engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial performance improvements, suggesting the value of mind-wandering to develop creative solutions.

Although mindfulness training has been reliably associated with effective stress management, even moments of mind-wandering can be channeled to productive ends in creative problem-solving.

-*How applicable are mindfulness attention training practice for workplace stress?

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Look for related posts on:

  • Vitamins and Probiotcs (Part 1)
  • Social Support (Part 3)
  • Music (Part 4)
  • Physical Exercise (Part 5)

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Health Benefits of Positive Emotions, Outlook

Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara Frederickson of University of North Carolina posits that negative emotions aid human survival by narrowing and limiting people’s perceived range of possible actions, whereas positive emotions enhance survival by “broadening and building” options for action.

She detailed her lab-based research in Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life and her talk at UC Berkeley Greater Good Science CenterPositivity

Her lab’s findings suggest that positive thinking expands awareness and perception of the surrounding world, so can lead to innovative solutions to problems.

She suggests intentionally implementing a “broaden-and-build” approach to emulate this expanded view: Choose a degree of focus and perspective depending on requirements.

For example, to garner more clout in a discussion, she suggests involving more people who will provide support.
Similarly, to mitigate negative thinking or “tunnel vision,” think more broadly by viewing “the big picture.”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School referred this perceptual shift as “zooming in” and “zooming out”, depending on the perspective requires.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Frederickson found that people who experience positive thinking are:

* Healthier
* More generous
* More productive
* Bounce back from adversity more quickly
* Are better managers of people
* Live longer
than those with a bleaker outlook.

Fredrickson’s research implies that positive emotions can mitigate the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions and stress.

In these activated conditions, people generally have increased heart rate, higher blood sugar, greater immunosuppression.
These conditions tax physical systems and can lead to life-threatening illnesses like coronary disease.

To mitigate these negative health consequences, Fredrickson recommends observing positive emotional experiences of joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.
Besides noticing these experiences, she advocates writing and meditating about these to increase grateful awareness.

In addition, Frederickson echoes common wisdom:

  • Spend time in nature to appreciate the natural world
  • Develop interests
  • Invest time in relationships
  • Reduce exposure to negative news
  • Practice kindness
  • Dispute negative thoughts and replace them with more positive, realistic thoughts.

Frederickson extends her research agenda on positive emotions in her latest book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Love 2-0

She broadens the concept of love to suggest that love – or an intense connection – occurs when people share positive emotion.
This lead to alignment between people’s biochemistries,  particularly the release of oxytocin and vagal nerve functioning.
Related emotions and behaviors synchronize and mirror each other, resulting in shared interest in mutual well-being  in a three-phase  “positivity resonance.”

She argues that love “literally changes your mind.
It expands your awareness of your surroundings, even your sense of self.
The boundaries between you and not-you – what lies beyond your skin – relax and become more permeable.
While infused with love, you see fewer distinctions between you and others.”

Fredrickson argues that this intense connection requires physical presence, and cannot be replaced by existing digital media — reinforcing her recommendation to invest in relationships with others.

-*What practices enable you to cultivate and sustain positive emotions?

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How to Change Habits: Jamming the “Flywheel of Society”

William James

William James

William James, father of American psychology and brother of novelist Henry James wrote in his 1890 The Principles of Psychology, “Habit is thus the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor.”

Though James seemed to look favorably upon the conservative element of habit, the drawbacks of thoughtless habitual actions are clear when people consume more calories than required to complete daily activities, purchase unneeded items, react with predictable emotions in contentious situations, and keep disadvantaged groups without advantages enjoyed by powerful groups.

Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg’s bestseller, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, argues that habits are a significant part of most people’s daily activities – about 40% – and that even brain injured people can form habits.

The Power of HabitHe outlines the A(ntecedant) – B(ehavior) – C(onsequence) model, initiated by a cue or a trigger that signals automatic or habitual behavior.
In a novel situation, the person shifts to a problem-solving mode to develop an appropriate response — which may require creative thinking .

However, in a more typical situation, the person executes the habitual physical, mental, or emotional behavior or “routine,” which is then rewarded — often with a reduction in anxiety or discomfort.

Duhigg shows how dysfunctional habits can be analyzed for the cue, routine, and reward, then changed by modifying the antecedent, behavior or reward.

Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis

The A-B-C approach was popularized by Albert Ellis in his Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (RET), and outlined in his more than 50 books including Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy  Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

Duhigg provides examples from marketing campaigns for well-known consumer products in the U.S., including Pepsodent toothpaste and Febreze air freshener.

Timothy Wilson

Timothy Wilson

Like Duhigg’s model’s reference to earlier behavior modification approaches, Timothy Wilson of University of Virginia’s Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, adapts principles of Aaron T. Beck’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to change habitual interpretations, attributions, narratives and personal stories that lead to social problems including alcohol and drug abuse, teen violence and pregnancies, and social prejudice.

Aaron Beck

Aaron Beck

Wilson extracts and renames three empirically-validated behavioral techniques:

  • Story editing, to craft a more optimistic, hopeful story or interpretation about a situation, often using writing exercises
  • Story prompting, in which another person provides alternate, more optimistic interpretations based on data or “social proof” from  experiences in a similar situation
  • Cognitive Behavior TherapyDo good, be good, by “acting as if” the new behavior is a well-established habit, often through serving others in volunteer work.

RedirectRSA talk

Another look at habitual, even unconscious thinking in daily life is featured in a related post, Pattern Recognition in Entrepreneurship.

Douglas Van Praet

Douglas Van Praet

This discussion shares Douglas Van Praet’s guidelines to capitalize on unconscious cognitive processing and automatic buying behavior in Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing 

BJ Fogg

BJ Fogg

An earlier post, Hacking Human Behavior: “Tiny Habits” Start, Maintain Changes showcased BJ Fogg’s work on “tiny habits” as hooks to behavior change.
His approach draws on many of the same behavior modification principles featured in Duhigg’s and Wilson’s recommendations to analyze habitual cues, routines, and rewards.

-*How do you analyze and modify habits?

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Oxytocin Receptor Gene’s Link to Optimism, Self-Esteem, Coping with Stress

Shelley Taylor

Shelley Taylor

Shelley E. Taylor, distinguished professor at UCLA identified the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) link to optimism, self-esteem and “mastery” — the belief that one has control over one’s own life.
These three elements are required to manage stress and depression.

Reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), she notes that oxytocin, a hormone that increases in response to stress, is associated with good social skills such as empathy and social behavior, especially under stress.

In one location on the oxytocin receptor gene, two variants occur:

•    “A” (adenine) variant, associated with increased sensitivity to stress, poorer social skills, depressive symptoms and worse mental health outcomes

•    “G” (guanine) variant, associated with optimism, self-esteem and mastery.

This effect was demonstrated in 326 volunteers, who completed measured by self-assessments and saliva samples for DNA analysis.
Those with two “A” nucleotides or one “A” and one “G” at this oxytocin receptor gene location, showed lower levels of optimism, self-esteem and mastery and higher levels of depressive symptoms than people with two “G” nucleotides,

Taylor notes that genes may predict behavior, but do not determine it because many environmental factors and other genes interact with oxytocin receptor gene variants in stress, coping, and emotional behaviors.

These findings suggest people who train themselves to appraise situations more optimistically, to see themselves more worthy, capable and competent, are able to improve ability to cope with stressful events.

Taylor’s book, The Tending Instinct: Women, Men, and the Biology of Relationships, outlines the importance of cultivating socially nurturing environments to mitigate genetic vulnerabilities.

She notes that “a mother’s tending can completely eliminate the potential effects of a gene; a risk for a disease can fail to materialize with nurturing, and a genetic propensity may lead to one outcome for one person and the opposite for another, based on the tending they received.”

Her most influential work demonstrated a “self-enhancement bias” in her book, Positive Illusions: Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind ,
she explained that “most people regard themselves, their circumstances, and the future as considerably more positive than is objectively likely…. These illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear actually to be adaptive, promoting rather than undermining good mental health.”

In contrast, Rick Hanson argues that a negative bias is more adaptive to survival than a positive bias.
He notes that negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones, and are perceived more easily and quickly: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

His book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, recommends meditation to tame automatic negative thoughts.

-*Where have you seen examples of “the tending instinct,” positive illusions and negative bias in the workplace?

See related posts on Hormones and Emotional Expression:
•    Oxytocin, Testoterone: Oxytocin Increases Empathic Work Relationships, Workplace Trust, Generosity
•    Cortisol, Testosterone: Thoughts Change Bodies, Bodies Change Minds, Roles Shape Hormones: “Faking Until It’s Real”

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