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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.
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
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.
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].
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.
Through my work with the Mind and Life Institute, I kept some statistics on the number and types of grants that were being awarded in the area of contemplative science. I also kept track of publication records. Here are some of those statistics (through 2010) to give you a sense of where this field is coming from and the steep slope indicating where it may be going.
Peer-reviewed publications as referenced by PubMed (through 2010) is indicated. Pubmed is a division of the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health. It comprises more than 20 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites. The dotted line indicates when the Mind and Life Institute’s Summer Research Institute began in 2004.
The graph above represents the number of grants awarded by the NIH through 2010. The RePorter database reports data and analyses of NIH research activities
The Mind & Life Summer Research Institute was yet again a successful week-long venture into the depths of contemplative science. For a description of the program and its purpose see [Link]. For pictures see picasa [Link] or Flikr [Link] and a montage with Ottmar Liebert is on youtube [Link]. (photos by Dave Vago and Dave Womack)
This was my 7th year attending the SRI and every year since 2005, scientists in this field grapple with operationalizing and deconstructing concepts that originate from an incredibly rich and complex historical context – The Buddhist “science of mind” . With an explosion of research and interest in the domain of mindfulness, science has yet to grasp the subtleties surrounding the heterogeneity of meditation practice and specifically those that seemingly cultivate mindfulness as a state, trait, and in terms of clinical interventions.
This year’s theme was devoted to the theme of ”New Frontiers in the Contemplative Sciences.” It was also paying tribute to Franciso Varela, the pioneer of neurophenomenology and the Mind and Life dialogues. A continued in-depth tri-logue has been the prescription that emerges for pushing this emerging field of contemplative science further…a trilogue between scientists, contemplative scholars/practitioners, and academics who have the ability to translate what one perspective or source of information can benefit in dissemination or integration with the other two. By continuing this trilogue, scientists will better be able to distinguish between what they should be studying, what they think they should be studying, and what they truly are studying….
This also translates to the practitioner him/herself who must distinguish between what he/she is doing while meditating in a specific style of practice, what they think they should be doing while practicing, and what they actually are doing. John Dunne, a Buddhist contemplative scholar/academic provided one of the more thought provoking presentations by challenging our conceptions of meditation and mindfulness as ‘Black box’ terms. He emphasized, “Historical contexts are not important if people are practicing something else”. Essentially, as scientists in this field, we MUST be absolutely clear what states of mind we are studying when we claim to be studying mindfulness.
Mind & Life has decided to break into the social networking scene. I will continue blogging about my experience in Dharamsala there:
It is a beautiful day in Dharamsala. We woke in our modest suite at the Pema Thang house to a view of the abode of His Holiness and the sound of loud banging….apparently the monkeys were waking up and pouncing over the tin rooftops closely followed by the barking dogs. Soon thereafter, we were able to discern the sounds of Tibetan trumpets and prayer reverberating throughout the foothills of the towering Himalayas. These mountains peak at 28,000 feet while Dharamsala is at around 6000 feet….so the immensity of the raw energy of nature is clearly present all around
Last night, the 9 presenters ate dinner together and mingled over late-night conversation and today we are immersed in the planning process to ensure a fruitful dialogue
Rob and I are sitting here in our beautiful New Delhi hotel, The Radisson. Lets be clear, the difference between Delhi and New Delhi is about 2-3 generations of progressive change. The Radisson has beautiful flower arrangements that are changed daily. See the orchids below.
Total travel time was 19 hours from New York to Delhi with a stop in Paris. The auspicious nature of the journey reared its head once again when I was boarding the plane and situating myself for the next 7 hour flight and there was Jon Kabat-Zinn and his family. Jon is always a welcoming face. We met up Rob Roeser at the airport and after our short car ride to the hotel had some Indian whiskey and beer.
Now in New Delhi, a majority of the participants have congregated for breakfast before our flight to Dharamsala.
The Dosas were delicious (the coconut, mint, chili chutneys)…actually, we are not sure what the green and red chutneys were.
One more picture for the religious heterogeneity of India
Mind and Life XVIII: ATTENTION, MEMORY AND THE MIND: A SYNERGY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL, NEUROSCIENTIFIC, AND CONTEMPLATIVE PERSPECTIVES: with His Holiness The Dalai Lama Dharamsala, India • April 6–10, 2009
I have the unique opportunity to attend the private conference Mind and Life XVIII: ATTENTION, MEMORY AND THE MIND: A SYNERGY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL, NEUROSCIENTIFIC, AND CONTEMPLATIVE PERSPECTIVES: with His Holiness in Dharamsala, India – April 6-10, 2009.
I will be blogging my experiences from my perspective daily and hope to hear your comments, questions, and/or feedback during this time (or after).
To begin, I can say that my own perspective is one from mutiple levels. One certainly is a personal one. The auspicious nature of the opportunity and timing is one that I smile about every time I think about it. It happens to be my 34th birthday April 6th, the first day of the meeting. At this personal level, it appears that all roads have led (and would have led) to this one that takes me to Dharamsala to participate in a discussion about memory and attention. From another level, this journey is going to happen because of simple choices that have been made throughout my life, each choice being one that can be retrospectively observed and associated with one or another aspect of the context of my life at which time and in which place I made those decisions/choices. At this same level, I think we can collectively investigate the interdependency of all relations with whom we interact and with whose paths we cross. From a third level, I am a research fellow at Harvard University Medical School in the department of Psychiatry. Here I investigate resilience and vulnerability to psychopathology. If I need to be considered part of a socialized academic category, I typically identify myself as a cognitive neuroscientist with a background in the basic neuroscience of learning and memory. My final perspective is from my position as Senior Research Coordinator of the Mind & Life Institute. As the research coordinator of Mind & Life, I work very diligently and passionately to maintain the rigorous standards of the scientific method in all aspects of research supported by Mind and Life and in our program and event planning.
Well now, those are my levels of perspective and if you find any one of those perspectives intriguing then I look forward to sharing fruitful discussion with you in the next few weeks and beyond.
I leave you with two quotes:
Mind and ideas are nonexistent entities invented for the sole purpose of providing spurious explanations…Since mental or psychic events are asserted to lack the dimensions of physical science, we have an additional reason for rejecting them” – B.F. Skinner
“Open to me, so that I may open.
Provide me your inspiration
So that I might see mine.”
 From: Dunn, P. (2000). The Love Poems of Rumi. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel.
Applications are now being accepted for the 2009 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) to be held at the Garrison Institute (www.garrisoninstitute.org) in New York from June 7 (mid-aft. to the morning of June 13, 2009, The application period will close on Sunday, February 8, 2009.
To apply now, please go to: http://www.mindandlife.org/sri09.ml.summer.apply.html. This is an online only application process — no paper applications, either mailed or faxed, will be accepted. For a more detailed overview of the MLSRI, including information explaining applicant category (see “Who Should Attend”) please go to: http://www.mindandlife.org/sri09.ml.summer.institute.html
Please forward this message to anyone you know who might be interested in the MLSRI.
The purpose of the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute is to advance collaborative research among behavioral and clinical scientists, neuroscientists, and biomedical researchers based on a process of inquiry, dialogue and collaboration with Buddhist contemplative practitioners and scholars and those in other contemplative traditions. The long-term objective is to advance the training of a new generation of behavioral scientists, cognitive/affective neuroscientists, clinical researchers, and contemplative scholar/practitioners interested in exploring the potential influences of meditation and other contemplative practices on mind, behavior, brain function, and health. This includes examining the potential role of contemplative methods for characterizing human experience and consciousness from a neuroscience and clinical intervention perspective.
The 2009 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) will be devoted to the theme of the self, its development in sociocultural and contemplative contexts, and its implications for human flourishing and social transformation. MLSRI 09 will bring together contemplatives and academic scholars from the social, developmental, and clinical sciences, the neurosciences, contemplative studies, and philosophy to dialogue about a variety of topics pertaining to the self. These topics will include conceptualizations of self and identity in various traditions; the development of self in normative and contemplative contexts; the neurobiology of the self; the processes of self-identification and their effects on life outcomes; the phenomenology of identity, ownership; the concept of “self-regulation” and its relation to issues of mental causation, and free-will; the role of self processes in psychological illness; and finally, self versus no-self views on the fundamental nature of the mind and consciousness.
The Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior is headed by Richard Davidson, PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. You can follow the most recent research taking place in this lab at the website linked HERE.
Peace Talks Radio covers the Waisman Laboratory on a story called, “the Neuroscience of Compassion”. It can be found HERE.
Here are a few links for research supporting the claim that Meditation increases empathy.
2. Tania Singer: a. The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research; NaBR, 2006 article HERE; b. Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not Sensory Components of Pain – Science, 2004 article HERE
Tania states: “We propose two major roles for empathy; its epistemological role is to provide information about the future actions of other people, and important environmental properties. Its social role is to serve as the origin of the motivation for cooperative and prosocial behavior, as well as help for effective social communication.”
3. Hein and Singer: I feel how you feel but not always: the empathic brain and its
CLARIFICATION NOTE: Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”, or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. It is important to note that empathy does not necessarily imply compassion. Empathy can be ‘used’ for compassionate or cruel behavior.
Emotional Contagion: The tendency to express and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. One view of the underlying mechanism is that it represents a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). see WIKI
Sympathy: the recognition of another’s suffering; making known one’s understanding of another’s unhappiness or suffering
Compassion: Profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism
From Wiki: “Compassion or karuna is at the transcendental and experiential heart of the Buddha’s teachings. He was reputedly asked by his secretary, Ananda, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice? To which the Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindess and compassion is all of our practice.” See WIKI
Schadenfreude: Enjoyment taken from the misfortune of someone else
Tania and her imaging lab has been looking at these components of emotion in experienced, long-term meditators like Matthieu Ricard