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Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute 2012: A brief review

Imagine munching on oatmeal and scones, sitting on pillows, walking barefoot down quiet stony halls, and doing sun salutations with Buddhist monks, scientists, and other academics, all working towards integrating eastern and western philosophy in a way that may better our relationship with ourselves and with the world. More than a usual conference, more than any old mindfulness retreat, the Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute melds the two, becoming an incubator for future investigations in contemplative science. Share your research questions, and anyone around you is excited to engage you in a critical discussion that may inspire new paradigms. The MLSRI is truly a beautiful, dynamic force for working towards an end to human suffering.

This year’s MLSRI, themed “The Situated and Embodied Mind”, was an enmeshing of scientific and spiritual inquiry aimed at uprooting the western dualist mind-body split and bringing the body back into the inner experience of the self. Major focus was placed on the body’s role in contemplative practices and scientific investigations of these practices.

The week’s lecturers included Evan Thomson, Ph.D., Sarah McClintock, Ph.D., Diego Hangartner, Pharm.D., Bhikkhu Analayo, Ph.D., George Chrousos, M.D., Lawrence Barsalou, Ph.D., Susan Bauer-Wu, Ph.D., FAAN, Linda Craighead. Ph.D., Anne Klein, Ph.D., Rebecca Todd, Ph.D., Richard Davidson, Ph.D., Andrew Dreitcer, Ph.D., Michael Spezio, Ph.D., Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., and Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D.

Throughout the week, retreaters were exposed to various body-based contemplative practices, including morning yoga led by Mary Taylor and Richard Freeman, and Tai Chi led by Peter Wayne, Ph.D.

Tuesday was a silent retreat day, with periods of alternating sitting and walking meditation. Seated practices were led by Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., Al Kaszniak, Ph.D., and Sharon Salzberg.

Celebrating Arthur Zajonc’s first year as MLI president, the 2012 retreat promised a bright future for the institute.

More information about the 2012 MLSRI is available here: http://www.mindandlife.org/research-initiatives/sri/sri12/

Photos (courtesy of Dave): https://plus.google.com/photos/117698297325020650188/albums/5755351551842073889?banner=pwa


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Why Mindfulness can help the Immune System

Stress is immunosuppressive. Research into this pernicious relationship between stress and disease has piqued interest in the ways that contemplative practices might positively influence the immune system. According to a large body of evidence, meditation appears to have profound effects on immune function in health and disease because of its ability to reduce stress.

Why does mindfulness reduce stress?

Two main facets of mindfulness meditation are equanimity and focused attention. Equanimity towards one’s thoughts decreases reactivity to stressful stimuli, and focused attention helps reduce the tendency towards the type of ruminative thinking that can activate the stress pathway. This relaxation response seems to have multiple effects on the body’s stress pathways. It enhances vagal tone, which in turn suppresses the activity of pro-inflammatory cytokines through the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway. It also reduces hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) activity in response to stressful situations, reducing basal levels of cortisol and meditating other downstream stress-related processes.

Evidence:

The majority of empirical evidence for meditation’s effect on the immune system support a protection and recovery model. Imagine being caught in a rainstorm without a raincoat and without a towel. In a torrent of stress, mindfulness is both the raincoat (preventative) and towel (palliative), so that, at the very least, stress is impeded in its course to reach downstream immune targets.  Some lines of evidence are described below:

1) Richard Davidson has conducted studies on the relationship between affective style and brain lateralization, and has found that people with positive affect have increased right prefrontal activation compared to people with negative affect. In a recent study, Davidson and colleagues found that after an eight-week mindfulness program, subjects demonstrated both increased left-PFC activation as well as an increased antibody production after administration of a flu vaccine, indicating an enhanced immune response.

2) Amount of meditation practice in a 6-week compassion meditation program was positively correlated with a decrease in stress-induced interleukin-6 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine with immunosuppressive activity; increased IL-6 production is common among individuals with chronic stress and depression.)

3) Subjects who participated in a three-month mindfulness meditation program demonstrated increased activity in immune cell telomerase, an enzyme responsible for preventing immune cell death. Suppressed telomerase activity is related to increased stress perception. Increased telomerase activity is associated with decreased LDL cholesterol and epinephrine.

4) A “perception” approach to mindfulness and the immune system

Another proposed mechanism, in contrast to the stress-reduction paradigm, is a “perception” approach to meditation’s effect on the immune system, whereby one sensory modality shifts to accommodate another sensory modality. This perception approach is demonstrated by the classic “prism experiment”. If you are holding an object in your palm, you are receiving information from both visual and proprioceptive modalities. If a prism is placed in your line of vision, however, there is a perceptual discrepancy between the information from the two modalities. To overcome this discrepancy, one modality will attenuate to match the other. This “cross-modal adaptation” can also explain why mindfulness seems to positively influence the immune system. If one can visualize oneself as “healthy”, they can cause their immune system to attenuate to match the visualized information. However, there are two premises that must be accepted:  a) the immune system is a sensory modality, and that b) visualization involves the same neurobiological processes that vision does and thus also functions as a sensory modality. This mechanism lacks substantial empirical support, however, and could benefit from further study. This mechanism may not pertain to mindfulness, which is more about an open, non-intrusive introspection. However, it may support visualization-related practices, such as Tibetan g Tum-mo yoga, in which practitioners are able to regulate their body temperature [LINK]. 

References

Benson, H., Beary, J.F., Carol, M.P. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry, 37, 37-46.

Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S.F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K., Sheridan, J.F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.

Jacobs, T.L., Epel, E.S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E.H., Wolkowitz, O.M., Bridwell, D.A., Zanesco, A.P., Aichele, S.R., Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., King, B.G., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., Saron, C.D. (2010) Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Olivo, E.L. (2009). Protection through the lifespan: the psychoneuroimmunological impact of Indo-Tibetan meditative and yoga practices. Annals Of The New York Academy Of Sciences, 1172, 163-71.

Pace, T.W.W., Negi, L. T., Adame, D.D., Cole, S.P., Sivilli, T.I., Brown, T.D., Issa, M.J., Raison, C.L. (2008). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Tausk F., Elenkov, I., Moynihan, J. (2008). Psychoneuroimmunology. Dermatologic Therapy. 21(1), 22-31.

A new contributing editor

Hello readers!

My name is Emily Epstein, and I’ll be posting on behalf of Dave this summer. I am interning with him at the Functional Neuroimaging Lab. I’m a Neuroscience major at Colorado College, currently working on my undergraduate thesis involving the benefits of body-based contemplative practices for women with sexual abuse-induced pelvic pain. I’m particularly interested in the ways that mindfulness can help those with trauma, and plan to soon journey down the clinical PhD path so I can someday use mindfulness techniques to help trauma victims enhance their body awareness in order to find stability and growth in their lives.

For those of you lamenting Dave’s temporary absence, have no fear! He will still be contributing in the creation of each entry, and perhaps periodically posting his own entries. As always, feedback is welcome.

May you all be happy.

~Emily