Check out The Center for Healthy Minds

In my recent presentation, Investigating the Power of Silence, at Austin’s Free Day of NLP, I drew on some research done by the Center for Healthy Minds.

I love that name! And I just got on their mailing list.

You may have heard of it. It’s located at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is run by Dr. Richard Davidson, who was encouraged by the Dalai Lama in 1992 to study the brains of Tibetan yogis. Dozens of monks have flown into Madison over the years, been hooked up with caps of electrodes for EEGs to study their brainwaves and undergone fMRI to see where the brain is most active during meditation, rest, and tasks. These are the “professional” meditators with over 12,000 hours of practice.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 10.43.54 AMThe research I mentioned in my presentation was done on the Tibetan yogi with the most meditation experience they’ve studied so far, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who’s clocked an astounding 62,000 hours of meditation (and looks like he’s about 30 years old but is actually 43 in 2018).

Here’s the link to the article, and here’s a photo of the rinpoche.

Yongey Mingyur became a wandering monk for four years, leaving behind his life as a prominent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, and then resuming it with new perspective. His story includes overcoming panic attacks as a young teenager. Read more here. To find out about his experience wandering, read this.

The Center for Healthy Minds has also improved the rigor of the science behind studies of meditation, holding it to high standards including classifying meditators as beginning, long-term, and professional and distinguishing between types of meditation.

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New science about heart disease, sulfate, glyphosate, sunlight, statins, and aluminum

I listened to a podcast earlier this week that was pretty scientific (for me), yet fascinating. The Bulletproof Exec (Dave Asprey) interviewed Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior researcher at MIT. For three decades she’s been doing interdisciplinary research where biology and computers intersect.

It was so full of information, I could hardly keep up with the podcast while driving. Later I went online to read the actual transcript. Here’s the link, and the page also has video of the Facetime-like conversation.

I am not a scientist, but the findings and recommendations that I found intriguing in this lengthy and wide-ranging conversation are listed below. If you want to learn more about any of this, there’s a lot of good information available online. There are open-access scientific journals and papers available on the internet that are free. And you can google “Seneff”.

  • The cause of heart disease isn’t high cholesterol, it’s a deficiency in sulfate.

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Stay hydrated all the time, not just after a massage

I’ve written about this before. I tell my clients to stay hydrated, rather than asking them to drink “extra water” after a massage to “flush the toxins out.”

Water makes physiological processes, especially the brain, work better, so getting enough is important. Whatever measure you use – a gallon a day, half your body weight in ounces, until your pee is clear – most of us don’t drink enough, and we need extra to make up for sweating, diarrhea, etc.

Now New York Times health writer Gretchen Reynolds addresses the issue, interviewing an expertContinue reading

I just applied for the 60-day food challenge!

The Human Food Project has opened a 60-day challenge that involves changing your diet for 2 months, recording it, and sharing the results. I’ll summarize, and you can click here to read the original invitation and apply. (I think they add you to their mailing list even if they don’t accept you, so you’ll be notified of results.)

The researchers are seeking 25-30 super-motivated people to participate. It’s not an easy challenge. However, if you are skeptical about the role of your gut microbes on your overall health, and you have been eating processed food and junk food (or you’ve been eating a healthier diet that includes a lot of whole grains), participating in this challenge will let you experience first-hand (for most of us, the best proof possible) the connection between diet and well-being.

You also get before-and-after data on the composition of your very own gut bugs. They want to measure before and after the 60 days to see if they can shift things, decreasing levels of opportunistic pathogens and increasing the microbes that increase health.

I told you it wasn’t easy. Besides the diet (more on that later), they want you to:

  • spend a lot more time outside
  • keep your home and office windows open to breathe more fresh air
  • spend more time being dirty and in the dirt (gardening, anyone?)
  • spend more time with pets and livestock if you don’t have pets, visit other people’s pets and visit a farm)
  • swim in natural bodies of water rather than chlorinated pools

Basically, they want you to live — for 60 days — with more connection to the wild world, connecting with the “microbial metacommunity.” (Love that phrase!)

Here’s the diet part. There’s no meal plan, but it’s about eating unprocessed foods as much as possible:

  • eat 30-plus species of plants each week (let’s see, I have on hand avocado, kale, onion, carrot, parsley, dill, green onion, raspberry, red pepper, jalapeño, ginger, garlic, collards, tomatoes, cashews, walnuts, spinach, celery, lemon, cabbage, chia seeds, goji berries, olive oil, coconut oil, mint, thyme, rosemary, hemp seeds, capers, and mustard — that’s 30 right there)
  • eat lots of onions, leeks, and garlic
  • eat the whole plant as much as possible (not just the broccoli tops but the tough stems too) — the goal here is to eat 30-80 grams of fiber a day from numerous sources
  • when you cook veggies, take care not to overcook them
  • eat no grains at all, not even rice
  • eat beans and lentils (so this is not a Paleo diet)
  • eat as much meat, poultry, fish, and game as you like, but avoid anything raised on growth hormones or antibiotics (no factory-farmed animal products)
  • only drink filtered water, not tap water

I didn’t see anything about dairy or sugar, so I assume you can include them if you want. Apparently alcohol is also okay, but they recommend you take your “booze cruise” after the challenge.

I applied to do it! I’m not sure I’ll qualify. The researchers say they are very interested in people who are currently eating lots of whole grains. I eat a gluten-free diet. I’ve gone for a few weeks not eating grains of any kind, and then after talking with a friend currently studying nutrition, last weekend I added back quinoa, rice, Ezekiel bread, and the occasional corn tortilla, going for 1-2 servings per day.

Keep ya posted about whether I get in!

Meet the Tibetan monk whose brain was studied by scientists

You’ve probably heard that there are some Tibetan monks who have been studied by scientists, who have learned which brain centers are activated during meditation. Well, here’s an article that goes into depth about the types of meditation studied .

It tells the story of one monk (western-born, with 30 years of experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk) who was studied by scientists extensively using fMRI and EEG and testing his ability to read fleeting facial emotions and to stifle his own startle reflex.

Read the whole article (by Daniel Goleman!) for a fascinating story.

I liked that the article described the types of meditation that were studied. It made me want to be more specific in my own meditation. I usually practice what’s called “the open state”.

Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods of any contemplative tradition, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Öser was able to give precise descriptions of each.

One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention—may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, “Purity of heart is to want one thing only.”

In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner’s method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many non-spiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Öser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on, and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.

Öser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the “open state.” The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Öser described it, “is open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present—not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don’t chain into longer thoughts—they just fade away.”

Perhaps as intriguing was Öser’s explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves “bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you’re not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, ‘I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.’”

Focusing on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody. That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers’ kindness offering a model.

The final meditation technique, visualization, entailed constructing in the mind’s eye an image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Öser described the process, “You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture.” As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.

Öser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. The scientists have seen clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion and fearlessness have not seemed that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Öser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.

Click the link above to find out what the scientists learned from this monk’s brain.

New study measures energy exchange between people!

From the summary:

This study represents one of the first successful attempts to directly measure an energy exchange between people, and provides a solid, testable theory to explain the observed effects of many healing modalities that are based upon the assumption that an energy exchange takes place.

Researchers found that the exchange is strongest through touch, but that there is still an energy exchange that occurs from proximity.

I’m not sure who is still doubtful about this, except that Western medicine seems to want scientific proof. Here it is.

This finding applies to the healing modalities that include touch and proximity (all forms of massage, Reiki, faith healing, and deeksha come to mind, and also psychotherapy and being in the presence of spiritual teachers).

Here’s the link to the whole study, The Electricity of Touch: Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People. It’s from the Institute of Heartmath.

The dancing genes, sociability, transcendence, and genetic flexibility

A recent article published online says that dancers are genetically different. Some Israeli researchers found that dancers show consistent differences from the general population in two genes.

The researchers said this did not surprise them, because studies have found that athletes and musicians have genetic differences.

I can only speak for myself, but my dance is very connected to music — my movement is a way to participate musically, as if I were playing an instrument. It’s also very physical.

I did a little Googling to see if I could find which specific genes differ in athletes and musicians, but I didn’t find anything that was very clear. Race seems to be the biggest issue in the media when it comes to genetics, athletes, and musicians.

The researchers studied dancers and advanced dance students and found they had variants in two genes, those affecting serotonin transport and arginine vasopressin reception.

Serotonin (“the happiness molecule”) is a neurotransmitter that contributes to spiritual experience — the capacity for transcendence and a proclivity to spiritual acceptance. (See this Psychology Today article for more about that.) It also affects optimism, the healing of wounds, resilience from stress, metabolism, sleep, and more.

“Serotonin transport” sounds like a dance inside the body!

Interestingly, exercise can raise serotonin levels in the body, so dancing itself reinforces dancers’ high serotonin levels!

I admit — I get into an altered state from ecstatic dance. That’s why they call it ecstatic dance, I suspect. 😉

The vasopressin receptor modulates social communication and affiliative bonding. Wikipedia says “…accumulating evidence suggests it plays an important role in social behavior, bonding, and maternal responses to stress.” It has a very similar structure to oxytocin (“the love hormone”), and the two can cross-react.

When the results were combined and analyzed, it was clearly shown that the dancers exhibited particular genetic and personality characteristics that were not found in the other two groups.

The dancer “type,” says Ebstein, clearly demonstrates qualities that are not necessarily lacking but are not expressed as strongly in other people: a heightened sense of communication, often of a symbolic and ceremonial nature, and a strong spiritual personality trait.

I know this is controversial, but I want to weigh in on the side of flexibility when it comes to genetics. For much of my life, genes were thought to be destiny, unalterable. Now it is known that the expression of genes is much more dynamic than previously believed. They can switch on and off.

I don’t know that much about it, except that stress tends to switch on the bad genes. I don’t know which or how many genes truly create destiny and therefore cannot be influenced, except that there probably are some. We just don’t know enough about this in our current level of understanding.

I want to encourage people who believe they don’t have the dancing genes to give dancing a try.

Two left feet? That’s a myth. If you can walk, you have rhythm and coordination.

If you think you can’t dance, try just moving to some music alone in your own home if you feel self-conscious. Play something catchy, like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Start simple, just swaying your hips to the beat, keeping your feet in place. Do you like it? Do you feel any sense of pleasure? Play with it. Add your arms. Walk to it. Make it fun and goofy!

Those dancing genes may be just sitting there waiting to be activated, for all we know, and they might help you become happier.

Day 13 of The Work: turning it around to the opposite

Today in The Work, I turn my statement “my father didn’t care about me” around to the opposite:

My father did care about me.

I need to think of three specific examples of how that could be true.

  1. He supported my very existence from birth until college by working and providing for my sustenance in the form of food, housing, clothing, and so much more: health care, dance and piano lessons, braces on my teeth, and so on. That’s caring.
  2. He (and my mom) cared about the cultural literacy of their children enough to read books aloud to us. When I tell people that my parents read aloud to us after meals, and that they read A Child’s History of the World (still in print and used in home schooling) and a wonderfully illustrated oversize child’s version of The Iliad and the Odyssey (sadly out of print), they are amazed. Both of my parents loved books, knowledge, language, and learning, and they passed that love on. I had no idea how good I had it. That’s caring.
  3. I could ask him questions about English and other languages, math, science, history, baseball, college football, politics, religion, and current events, even chess, and he gave me information I could rely on as accurate. I don’t recall him ever saying “I don’t know” or ridiculing me for my interest in all manner of nerdy, brainy topics. In fact, that was how we connected, through sharing information. He supported the development of my curiosity and my intellect. That’s caring.

I have turned my judgment completely around, from “my father didn’t care about me” to “my father did care about me.” Even though I knew it wasn’t true from question 1, this turnaround provides the proof.

I feel grateful for remembering these specific examples.

Next: the turnaround for statement 6.

Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

A video that could help you sleep

Insomnia is a malady I have rarely had over the last few years. Only when I drink caffeine late in the day (I usually know better), and even more rarely, when I feel so disturbed about some issue in my life that my mind can’t let go of it do I lie awake at night unable to sleep and feel like a zombie the next day.

I have experienced months of insomnia every night in the past, however, and that experience has given me great compassion for those who suffer from it. A good night’s sleep is just essential for well-being.

I’ve posted about various remedies for insomnia occasionally. You can search my blog on “insomnia” to find those posts if you wish.

Cures or relief from insomnia is a topic of great interest. New information emerges. I’m interested in what works. Could it be that there is not a “one size fits all” cure for insomnia?

Today I stumbled across a video purportedly created by scientists to help you sleep. I listened to it (and did not fall asleep, but it’s morning and I am well rested already). I found it very peaceful. I can imagine that it would help me fall asleep.

Here’s the link if you want to give it a try:

http://www.wimp.com/scientistscreated/

The only other information I could find is that the video and music are by a band called Marconi Union. I don’t know if this is a band of scientists or what!

The best help I know of for insomnia (and the most expensive) is brainwave optimization.   I wasn’t experiencing any insomnia when I did the five days of brain training in June 2011. But it has been known to help with insomnia, and a study is underway to learn more about its effects on insomnia.

Even more awesome, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is undertaking this study of insomnia, and other studies are planned for migraines, mild cognitive impairment, and traumatic brain injury/concussion later this year!