MENTAL HEALTH

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Meditation

 

This section was triggered by a fantastic article in the November 2014 Scientific American Mind & Brain: Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 5.

 

Meditation May Increase Empathy

Previous brain studies have shown that when a person witnesses someone else in an emotional state – such as disgust or pain – similar activity is seen in both people’s brains. This shows a physiological base for empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share another person’s experience. Now research at the University of Wisconsin has used advanced brain images (fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging) to show that compassion meditation – a specific form of Buddhist meditation – may increase the human capacity for empathy. In the study, researchers compared brain activity in meditation experts with that of subjects just learning the technique (16 in each group). They measured brain activity, during meditation and at rest, in response to sounds – a woman in distress, a baby laughing, and a busy restaurant – designed to evoke a negative, positive, or neutral emotional response.

 

Results showed that both the novice and the expert meditators showed an increased empathy reaction when in a meditative state. However, the expert meditators showed a much greater reaction, especially to the negative sound, which may indicate a greater capacity for empathy as a result of their extensive meditation training. According to the authors, an increased capacity for empathy may have clinical and social importance. The next step, they added, is to investigate whether compassion meditation results in more altruistic behavior or other changes in social interaction.

Can Meditation Slow the Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres

 

The article was published in Annals of the NT academy of Sciences (2009; 1172: 34-53).

Understanding the malleable determinants of cellular aging is critical to understanding human longevity. Telomeres may provide a pathway for exploring this question. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. The length of telomeres offers insight into mitotic cell and possibly organismal longevity. Telomere length has now been linked to chronic stress exposure and depression. This raises the question of how might cellular aging be modulated by psychological functioning.

 

The article considers two psychological processes or states that are in opposition to one another–threat cognition and mindfulness–and their effects on cellular aging. Psychological stress cognitions, particularly appraisals of threat and ruminative thoughts, can lead to prolonged states of reactivity. In contrast, mindfulness meditation techniques appear to shift cognitive appraisals from threat to challenge, decrease ruminative thought, and reduce stress arousal. Mindfulness may also directly increase positive arousal states.

 

The article reviewed data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and present new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, the authors propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal, and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance. Aspects of this model are currently being tested in ongoing trials of mindfulness meditation.

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