brain, neuroscience and meditation
THE PHYSICAL BRAIN :
The brain – the most complex entity in the known universe – controls our thoughts, moods, behaviour and memories. It is clearly a physical entity, but neuroscientists are still a long way from being able to explain how something purely physical can give rise to conscious experience.
In simplified terms, the brain can be split into 3 main parts :
– THE CEREBRUM
– THE BRAIN STEM
– THE CEREBELLUM
The brain contains about 10 BILLION NEURONS (brain cells) and about 50 TRILLION SYNAPSES (connections between neurons).
The brain is also split into 2 halves (LEFT and RIGHT HEMISPHERES) which are connected by the CORPUS CALLOSUM (a collection of nerve fibres).
The two hemispheres can be further sub-divided into 4 lobes :
– THE FRONTAL LOBES (concerned with reasoning, voluntary movement, planning, emotions and intelligence)
– THE PARIETAL LOBES (concerned with spatial awareness, sensory information and body movement)
– THE OCCIPITAL LOBES (concerned with vision and visual memories)
– THE TEMPEROL LOBES (concerned with generating memory and emotions and also with comprehending sounds and images)
the brain’s lobes
THE BRAIN’S EFFECT ON CRITICAL BODY FUNCTIONS :
The CEREBRUM is CONNECTED TO THE SPINAL CORD by the BRAIN STEM and, via this route, AUTOMATICALLY REGULATES VITAL BODY FUNCTIONS such as BREATHING, SWALLOWING, BLOOD PRESSURE, HEART BEAT and POSTURE ADJUSTMENTS.
THE CHEMICAL BRAIN :
The brain produces over 50 drugs and chemical reactions within it are continuous : these chemical reactions are linked to the brain’s electrical activity and together they are responsible for our behaviour, mood and health. It follows, then, that as the brain’s chemistry and electrical activity alter, so, too, does our behaviour and mood.
3 chemicals produced by the brain which affect mood
One group of brain chemicals which are of particular interest in connection with our mood and behaviour are called ENDORPHINS. Endorphin is, in fact, morphine (a powerful pain killing drug) that is produced within the body itself – it is able to produce analgesia and a general sense of well-being.
FOUR KEY EFFECTS OF ENDORPHINS :
1) improve immune system
2) relieve pain
3) reduce stress
4) postpone the ageing process
Endorphins are not only produced by the brain, but secreted throughout the whole body (which underlines the intimate connection between the mind and body).
HOW CAN WE MAXIMIZE OUR PRODUCTION OF ENDORPHINS?
The neuroscientist, Candice Pert, a research expert in this field of study, suggests that the following will help to maximize our production of endorphins :
– daily relaxation
– enjoyable exercise
– ‘goaless’ recreation (ie recreation we do for its own sake, rather like children at play)
– displays of affection (both public and private)
– guiltless sex
– laughing/humour/sense of the ridiculous
– deep breathing/meditation
BRAIN CHEMISTRY AND MENTAL / PHYSICAL HEALTH :
Research has demonstrated that severe and long-lasting stress, as well as depression and anger, cause the body to produce chemicals which block healing (both psychological and physical) and even reduce life expectancy. Whereas, on the other hand, the production of endorphins protects us from stress and illness as well as increasing our life expectancy.
THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN :
The neurophysiologist, Paul MacLean, stated that, in effect, we have ‘three brains’ which are connected to one another but which also process information independently. These are :
1) THE NEOCORTEX – this only exists in humans and the other higher mammals (most recent, and relatively newly evolved)
2) THE LIMBIC SYSTEM – this is the paleo mammalian part of our brain (second part to evolve)
3) BRAIN STEM and CERREBELLUM – this is the reptilian part of our brain (first part to evolve)
I remember, when doing my first degree in psychology at university, we were told that, in effect, this meant that our brains were part lizard, part horse and part higher mammalian/human.
Indeed, our rational thought processes, generated by our recent acquistion of the neocortex, can easily be swamped and over-ruled by the more primitive parts of our brain which control our basic, instinctual drives. The three parts of the brain can be seen as being at conflict with one another, or even at war. This echoes Freud’s view of the Id, Ego and Superego being similarly at war with one another, leading to neurosis or psychosis (although there is no room to go into Freud’s theory here, unfortunately).
THE AMYGDALA :
It is thought that our most basic instinctual survival drives are centred on the part of the brain called the amygdala. Under stress, this part of the brain can completely disrupt thinking. It responds to both conscious and unconscious perceptions, non-verbal signs of fear and anger, to produce hormones that lead to physical responses of the body including sweating, muscular tension and defensive body postures.
location of the amygdala
Once aroused, it can completely inhibit rationality and create actions of passion, anger and violence. Whilst this function served our ancestors well (as they frequently needed to protect themselves from life – threatening attack), in the modern world ( where we are now rarely in physical danger), this very same function is now usually maladaptive (or, to put it another way, can create far more problems than it solves).
THE AMYGDALA, ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, PHOBIA AND PTSD.
Modern brain scanning techniques show that when the amygdala becomes active it interferes with parts of the brain responsible for processing information rationally. The amygdala also stores emotionally charged memories and, in conditions in which such memories seem to overwhelm the individual, such as can occur in anxiety, depression, phobia and PTSD, it is now believed the symptoms such conditions generate may be in large part due to a malfunctioning amydala.
The amygdala is highly sensitive, and, because it works as an INTERNAL ALARM SYSTEM, it can be easily triggered.
FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS ARE PHYSICAL BRAIN PROCESSES :
Knowing the above about the amygdala, we can see that feelings and emotions are essentially ‘just’ brain processes.
Unfortunately, due to the way various parts of the brain are interconnected, it is much easier for thoughts to turn the amygdala ON than it is for them to turn the amygdala OFF (this is evolution’s way of expressing the sentiment, ‘better safe than sorry’, I suppose).
THE ELECTRICAL BRAIN :
The brain is an electrochemical processing system. Neurons (brain cells) communicate with one another by the means of tiny electric impulses. There are 4 frequency bands utilized by the brain. These are ;
– DELTA FREQUENCY : 0.1-4 Hz, characterized by deep sleep
– THETA FREQUENCY : 4-8 Hz, characterized by drowsiness, hypnosis and deep daydreaming
– ALPHA FREQUENCY : 8-13 Hz, characterized by a relaxed but alert mental state
– BETA FREQUENCY : Above 13Hz, characterized by deep concentration and/or anxious thinking
measuring electrical activity in the brain
Very recent research has also discovered that much higher frequencies can also be detected, above 40Hz, and even as high as 100Hz. This has been termed GAMMA FREQUENCY. This brand new area of study is of much interest as it is believed that these frequency levels have important implications for our higher mental processes including perception, self-awareness and insight. The GAMMA STATE is also associated with deep meditative states in which people report phenomena such as ‘feeling at one with the universe’ and a ‘loss of the sense of the self as a separate entity.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF NEUROSCIENCE FOR UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF MEDITATION :
Neuroscience has now demonstrated that meditation alters the frequency level at which the brain operates.
Studies have revealed that novice meditators can cause the gamma activity in their brains to increase slightly, whereas expert meditators can produce gamma activity in their brains 30 times stronger. These high levels of gamma activity were found to be concentrated in brain areas associated with positive emotions.
I have already written articles about the brain’s neuroplasticity (ie its ability to physically change itself even in adulthood ; CLICK HERE to read one of my articles on this). It now seems clear that meditation is one of the ways in which the brain’s structure and function can be caused to undergo such change.
Indeed, research suggests that meditation can greatly increase acivity on the left hand side of the brain near the front of the cortex (eg regions in which activity is correlated with positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm and happiness) whilst greatly reducing activity on the right hand side of the brain (eg regions associated with negative emotions such as anxiety and sadness).
Through meditation, then, it is now clear we can train our brains to make ourselves experts in habitually generating positive emotions and feelings of well being in much the same way that training in a sport like tennis can make us a talented tennis player.
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