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The term “Enlightenment” is quite a big word with a lot of semantic baggage. It’s really an imprecise construct for the field of contemplative neuroscience. Friend and colleague, Jake Davis, a Buddhist scholar and I comment in a recent issue of Frontiers in Consciousness about the forseeable future of unpacking the concept into clearly observable phenomena. Check out the paper here [Link]
“Using the term enlightenment or even the term more native to Buddhist traditions, “awakening” (bodhi), as if it referred to a single outcome either privileges one conception over others or else assumes that there is some commonality among the traditional goals of diverse contemplative traditions. There are deep disagreements over the nature of the goal between and even within various Buddhist schools. Scientific investigations cannot assume that there is any commonality among the transformative changes referred to as “kensho,” “stream entry,” “realizing the nature of mind,” and so on, that various Buddhist traditions take as various stages of awakening. Empirical investigations of these constructs can only proceed with reference to the specific psychological and behavioral outcomes described in the native discourse of a specific tradition”
- Enlightened Science: Technology & Meditation (buddhistinsight.com)
Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, & Self-Transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness
I wanted to take this space-time to introduce you to an integrative systems-based neurobiological model and theoretical framework for understanding the mechanisms by which mindfulness functions to reduce attention-specific and affective biases related to self processing and creates a sustainable healthy mind. The model attempts to integrate findings from the extant empirical literature related to mindfulness with our growing understanding of the mechanisms for neurocognition and with traditional Buddhist systems from which contemporary practices of mindfulness originate. The paper in which this framework and model are discussed at length was recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. [Link]
Our method for understanding mindfulness has been to focus broadly on the goals of mindfulness as it is described in the early Buddhist suttas and in the Western medical model: To decrease mental suffering and create a sustainable healthy mind. In this context, we operationalize mindfulness in two ways: 1) As a broadly defined method for developing self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence (S-ART); 2) As a continuous discriminative attentional capacity.
Our second formulation is one critical skill in a multidimentional skillset that is developed and strengthened through specific meditation practices. Other skills are described to function along with mindfulness to support S-ART.
To be clear, this is in no way a new definition that is meant to disparage Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s widely disseminated description: “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” – but more so an attempt to dismantle the concept into component parts so that we can better study it in the laboratory.
I discuss the framework in a recent talk given at the 23rd annual Trauma Conference in Boston, MA
The lay press for this theoretical framework can be found at:
Psych Central [Link]
Science Daily [Link]
Boston Globe [Link]
Medical Express [Link]
The Mind and Life Education Research Group met regularly for 4 years (2007-2011) to create a research agenda for contemplative education. A scholarly white paper manifested as a result drawing on research in neuroscience, cognitive science, developmental psychology, and education, as well as scholarship from contemplative traditions concerning the cultivation of positive development, to highlight a set of mental skills and socioemotional dispositions that are central to the aims of education in the 21st century. These include self-regulatory skills associated with emotion and attention, self-representations, and prosocial dispositions such as empathy and compassion. It should be possible to strengthen these positive qualities and dispositions through systematic contemplative practices, which induce plastic changes in brain function and structure, supporting prosocial behavior and academic success in young people. These putative beneficial consequences call for focused programmatic research to better characterize which forms and frequencies of practice are most effective for which types of children and adolescents. Results from such research may help refine training programs to maximize their effectiveness at different ages and to document the changes in neural function and structure that might be induced.
The paper can be found Here [Link]
my personal copy [MLERN_2012]
I wanted to share some great videos explaining the benefits of contemplative education and the research being conducted around the world supported by the 1440 Foundation.
Some great press on why contemplative education should be a priority!
Robert Piper writes on this topic at Huffington Post [Link]
Can meditation practice eliminate pain? NO, but it can it reduce the emotional intensity in which it is anticipated and experienced!
There have been a few studies up to today (jan. 4, 2012) that have investigated the effects of specific meditative practices that involve the state of mindfulness on the experience of pain. Some studies suggest that pain centers (Anterior cingulate cortex, insular cortex, sensory cortex, pre-frontal cortex) that are normally active during acute pain are significantly reduced in activity while performing specific meditative practices. Other studies show the same reduction during resting brain activity of chronic pain sufferers in response to practicing these meditative states, specifically, and in contrast to allowing one’s mind to wander. These reports typically show increased pre-frontal cortex activity as a regulatory mechanism for suppressing the sensory and affective experience of pain. See this typical report from the BBC:
However, there are other reports that suggest meditators are not suppressing the sensory or affective experience of pain, but rather increasing their sensory and affective experience of pain, but without a prolonged, dull, or negative quality. In this case, research is beginning to reveal what may be more akin to equanimity and embodiment, two qualities that typically are cultivated along with mindfulness during specific meditative practices. Equanimity refers to the ability to experience the sensory event fully, with awareness, but to return back to some normative baseline rapidly once the sensory event is over. There is no ruminative quality, or perseveration of the emotion in response to the sensory event. Embodiment refers to the whole-body visceral experience of the sensory event. These studies have been showing increased activation in brain areas responsible for primary and associative sensory processing along with interoception (internal bodily experience).
One example comes from a study by friend and colleague, Fadel Zeidan, who recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, ” Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation” [Link]
Focused Attention meditation reduced BOLD activity related to afferent processing of pain stimulus (primary sensory cortex). Meditation was also associated with deactivations in areas related to ruminative types of thinking (Default areas). Decreased pain intensity ratings were also found to be associated with increased activity in ACC and right anterior insula, suggesting a site for pain modulation.
the NPR story is here [Link]
The CNN-health story is here [Link]
Huffington Post [Link]
Men’s Health [Link]
Music for Meditation [Link]
Live Science [Link]
- Meditation as Medicine (Neurology Now)
- How Mindfulness Meditation Can Help People With Rheumatoid Arthritis (huffingtonpost.com)
- How Meditation Changes Pain, Relieves Depression (psychologytoday.com)
- How Meditation Might Relieve Pain (forbes.com)
- To Soothe Chronic Pain, Meditation Proves Better Than Pills (sott.net)
What makes us happy? Are there correlates in the brain? Can positive emotions like happiness find a place in rigorous scientific research?
Meditation has been shown to have benefits in many clinical disorders. An 8-week course in which women diagnosed with fibromyaliga are practicing mindfulness and meditation skills 5 days/week and meeting once/week for 2 hours, along with 1 full-day retreat at week 6 have shown benefits in attention, stress reduction, and emotion regulation.
David Vago and colleagues at the Utah Center for Exploring Mind-Body Interactions found that women diagnosed with fibromyalgia who went through an 8-week course of mindfulness and meditation training show decreased avoidance of, or attention away from, pain-related threatening words and show less interference from such words when performing an attention-demanding task. Check out the UCSD center for mindfulness blog about the study HERE and Brigham & Women’s Hospital Health Hub Blog HERE.