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Archive for the ‘Neuroscience’ Category

woman meditating

Did you know that when your stress response is active, ALL OTHER VITAL SYSTEMS SHUT DOWN.

Your body perceives no need for digestion, elimination, reproduction or immunity. Over time, a stressed out body becomes a sick one. You need to REST! But most people don’t really know how.

It is not surprising that people do not incorporate relaxation routines into their lives. We are a workaholic, over-doing, stressed-out culture that strongly rewards type-A behavior and multitasking. There has been little value put on rest and relaxation until recently. Now, many leading scientists have begun to acknowledge the impact of stress reduction through the use of a variety of modalities. (more…)

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Holding hands

“To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo.

The latest research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.” We also know thanks to neuroscientist Edmund Rolls that touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion.

In a study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants laying in an fMRI brain scanner, anticipating a painful blast of white noise, showed heightened brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. But participants whose romantic partner stroked their arm while they waited didn’t show this reaction at all. Touch had turned off the threat switch. (more…)

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restore_225_03Prior to the middle of the 20th century the word “stress” barely registered in the national vocabulary. Now, 50 years later, there’s a conversation you hear so often, it’s almost a chorus: You ask a friend, “How are you?” and she replies, “I’m OK, but I’m feeling a little stressed.”

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2011 Stress in America survey “year after year Americans report extreme stress (22 percent in 2011) – on an 8, 9 or 10 point scale where 1 is little or no stress and 10 is a great deal of stress. And more than half of Americans reported personal health problems (53%) as a source of stress.” (more…)

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Two prominent institutions are currently undertaking scientific studies to measure the effectiveness of yoga on alleviating post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans.

The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in collaboration with Harvard Medical School faculty and research assistants have developed a comprehensive yoga program specifically designed to relieve symptoms of trauma.

There are pre-, mid-, post-, and long-term follow-up treatment measures that include questionnaires and interviews that measure PTSD symptoms, subjective well-being, and mood; electrocardiogram readings to monitor heart-rate variability; and 24-hour urine samples to assay the presence of stress hormones. Three months following the study, subjects will complete a long-term follow-up.

A second study under the direction of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds will apply the tools of neuroscience – including brain imaging to determine what if any effect such contemplative practices have on veterans with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Researchers hope to develop psychological profiles and a kind of tool kit that help them target contemplative practices in ways that are most effective.

There is, at least, anecdotal evidence that contemplative practices are beneficial for veterans. Both Navy veteran Dennis and Jennifer Kannel, who spent a year in Iraq with the Wisconsin Army National Guard, said the breathing exercises and meditation practices improved their sleep and sense of well-being.

Andrew Hendrickson, who leads a yoga-based relaxation series for returning combat troops asks vets in his program to rate their level of distress, on a scale of zero to 100, before and after participating.

“I frequently get people who drop from 80 to 20 or 10,” said Hendrickson, who used yoga to sleep at night while working at a combat hospital in Afghanistan. “One guy with severe depression went from 60 to zero.”

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Recent scientific studies suggest that people with mindfulness traits have the ability to calm their emotions by naming them. Mindfulness is a process where one is aware and receptive to present moment experiences.

In a study conducted by UCLA researchers Matthew Leiberman and David Creswell, subjects in an MRI scanner were shown emotionally expressive faces. When they were asked to name the gender of the person expressing the emotion no changes occurred. However when the same subjects were asked to name the emotion they were seeing (such as anger, fear or sadness), the person’s right ventro-lateral region became activated at the moment that the emotion was being named and the subcortical regions that respond to facial expressions especially in the region of the right amygdala calmed down. (more…)

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Our brains are composed of a left and right hemisphere connected by the corpus collosum, a small number of neural circuits located deep in the brain where energy and information is sent back and forth between the two sides. The left hemisphere is the more analytical, conceptual, fact based side that loves logical, linear, linguistic and literal communication. The right side of the brain is the more image-based side that processes non-verbal eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, gestures and timing. It sees the whole picture whereas the left sees the world in terms of either/or. The right is characterized by autobiographical memory which is non-language based whereas factual memory is dominated on the left. (more…)

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Increasingly we are hearing in the popular press the axiom “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In 1949 Canadian behavioral psychologist Donald Hebb proposed that learning linked neurons in new ways. He proposed that when two neurons fire at the same time repeatedly (or when one fires, causing the other to fire) chemical changes occur in both, so that the two tend to connect more strongly. Hebb’s concept was neatly summarizerd by neuro-scientist Carla Shatz: Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (from Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself“)

What this means in practical terms is that each time you repeat a particular thought or action, you strengthen the connection between a set of brain cells or neurons. As neuroscience expert and psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says, “the mind and the brain are a unified system. As the brain changes, the mind changes. As the mind changes, the brain changes. This means that you can use your conscious mind to make lasting changes to your brain to bring about greater well-being and happiness in your life.”

In her now classic book, Train Your Mind to Change Your Brain, author Sharon Begley states it succinctly, “The power of neuroplasticity to transform the emotional brain opens up new worlds of possibility. We are not stuck with the brain we were born with but have the capacity to willfully direct which functions will flower and which will wither, which moral capacities emerge and which do not, which emotions flourish and which are stilled.”

The science of neuroplasticity is both optimistic and hopeful. As we set the intention to register what is good in our lives and allow the good feelings to permeate our bodies and our minds, we are making underlying changes to the neural circuitry of our brains increasing the probability that the same neural connections will fire in the future.

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