The Science of Meditation

By Kristoffer Rhoads, PhDMeditation

With roots stretching across several centuries and cultures, mindfulness meditation is increasingly practiced for living well with memory loss and dementia. Researchers and clinicians have increasingly turned their attention to meditation’s ability to reduce the experience of stress (particularly when we cannot change the stressor itself) and enhance resilience. This includes the ability to cultivate and maintain a sense of detached curiosity, which is critical for effective problem solving, as well as staying engaged despite difficultly. Both are critical to our ability to roll with the unexpected and to pick ourselves back up and try again when we’ve been thwarted (as is often the case in memory loss and dementia).

Western medical applications of mindfulness meditation arise from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD and colleagues at the University Of Massachusetts School Of Medicine, beginning in the late 1970s through the present. Teaching people how to cultivate increased attention and awareness of the present moment, the heart of mindfulness-based interventions, improves management of complex medical problems including diabetes, chronic pain, substance abuse, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety.

More recently, researchers have demonstrated that people who practice meditation have brains that look and work differently than those who do not1. This includes increased thickness of structures and networks in parts of the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes, which in turn give rise to improved cognitive functions like attention, problem solving, learning and memory. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania2 have found that participation in an 8-week meditation program improved blood flow to the brain and boosted memory and other thinking abilities for people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease. In a similar study from Harvard3, meditation appears to improve functional connections in the brain and perhaps slow shrinkage of the hippocampus, a critical structure in learning and memory that is affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at UCLA4 have shown promising results for caregivers, where those who learned how to meditate reported significantly less distress, better mood and improved thinking abilities. These caregivers also had significant decreases in markers of stress-induced cellular aging, which is an important predictor of overall health, disease susceptibility and function. The good news is that these benefits also appear to extend to people who had never meditated before but were willing to learn and put in the time to practice!

So what is it and how does it work? Mindfulness meditation is not about emptying your mind of all thoughts (good luck with that) or achieving some sort of blissful, enlightened or special state. Perhaps the best definition comes from Kabat-Zinn himself: “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally5.” It is the cultivation of a sense of gentle, non-judgmental openness and curiosity about the present moment, including all of its difficulties and hardships.

In emphasizing acceptance and engagement over avoidance, mindfulness meditation helps dismantle the myth and fear that accepting “what is” or the current state of things means “giving up” or quitting. In fact, the acceptance that comes with mindful awareness of the present moment appears to increase our ability to think creatively and flexibly about our choices and next steps versus operating out of habit or emotional reactivity. We, as human beings, do a remarkable job of mythologizing our past and catastrophizing our future The more time we spend in each of these activities, the fewer resources for our brains to accurately view the present. The present, after all, is where we truly operate and have the chance to have some impact.

Acceptance can also be thought of as a necessary state to prepare you for action. For example, we might not like the weather, but we have to accept it and plan accordingly. Acceptance doesn’t mean you neglect your raincoat or umbrella – if we deny or try to fight the rain, we’re going to get soaked. Similarly, accepting memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t mean we don’t take active steps to cope and live well. Mindfulness meditation may just be a powerful practice to help get us there.

More information can be found at:

University of Massachusetts Medical Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm

Mindfulness for Beginners, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.  http://www.soundstrue.com/store/mindfulness-for-beginners-4003.html

Mindfulness Northwest http://www.mindfulnessnorthwest.com/

Kristoffer RhoadsKristoffer Rhoads, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of dementia and neurodegenerative disorders. He has held a variety of clinical, teaching and research positions, including at the Seattle VA Medical Center and as Director of Rehabilitation Neuropsychology and co-director of the Memory Wellness Clinic at the Virginia Mason Medical Center Neurosciences Institute. He current serves as the primary neuropsychologist for the UW Memory and Brain Wellness Center at Harborview. Dr. Rhoads has published in the area of dementia, continues to conduct research and trainings, currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Washington Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and was recently appointed as Chair of the Health/Medical Care Subcommittee for the Washington State Working Group to develop a state plan for Alzheimer’s disease.

 

References:

1 Marciniak, R., Sheardova, K., Čermáková, P., Hudeček, D., Šumec, R., & Hort, J. (2014). Effect of meditation on cognitive functions in context of aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8.

2 Newberg et al., (2010). Meditation effects on cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in subjects with memory loss: a preliminary study. J. Alzheimers Dis. 2010. 20, 517–526.

3 Wells et al., Meditation’s impact on default mode network and hippocampus in mild cognitive impairment: a pilot study. Neurosci Lett. 2013 Nov 27;556:15-9

4 Lavretsky, H., Epel, E. S., Siddarth, P., Nazarian, N., Cyr, N. S., Khalsa, D. S., et al. (2013). A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Int. J. Geriatr. Psychiatry 28, 57–65.

5 Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion. p.4.

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