Meditation Alters Brain Wave Activity

The brain is an extremely complex organ which communicates via electrical impulses between neurons. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a device which measures the frequency and amplitude of these electrical impulses (i.e. “brain waves”). Studies have shown that meditation practices can induce different EEG states in practitioners.

For instance, one review found that relaxation-based meditations induces a larger proportion of alpha wave (8-12 hz) and theta wave (4-8 hz) activity in the brain, which are characterized by rest.

In addition, yoga nidra practitioners have been shown to induce slow wave delta wave activity (0.5-4 hz) — that is, EEG activity exhibited during deep sleep stages, while paradoxically remaining conscious. Delta waves contain a “down state,” where neurons in the neocortex are silent and able to rest.

Finally, studies have shown that some advanced Buddhist meditators are able to self-induce high frequency gamma waves (25-42 hz) during practice. Gamma wave activity has been associated with heightened perceptual clarity and superior cognitive control of thought and emotional expression.

Why is this important?

As workaholic North Americans, our brains spend a lot of the day producing beta waves, that is characterized by states of heavy information processing. Too much beta wave activity is associated with anxiety, insomnia, anger, and paranoia– it is not surprising that many of us suffer from illnesses related with these states of mind. Thus, meditation breaks can be highly beneficial for controlling differing levels of brain wave frequencies protective of mental illness.

References:

Buchsbaum, M. S., Hazlett, E., Sicotte, N., Stein, M., Wu, J., & Zetin, M. (1985). Topographic EEG changes with benzodiazepine administration in generalized anxiety disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 20(8), 832-842.

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 180.

Kjaer, T. W., Bertelsen, C., Piccini, P., Brooks, D., Alving, J., & Lou, H. C. (2002). Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Cognitive Brain Research, 13(2), 255-259.

Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16369-16373.

Moore, N. C. (2000). A review of EEG biofeedback treatment of anxiety disorders. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 31(1), 1-6.

Tang, Y., Li, Y., Wang, J., Tong, S., Li, H., & Yan, J. (2011, August). Induced gamma activity in EEG represents cognitive control during detecting emotional expressions. In Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, EMBC, 2011 Annual International Conference of the IEEE (pp. 1717-1720).

Change Over Blame: Fundamentals Behind a Determinist’s View of Problem Solving

Scientific determinism is a philosophy that posits that for every phenomenon in the Universe, there are preceding conditions which explain their occurrence. Many scientists adopt this view, since the nature of our work requires us to understand and disseminate the causes of simple and complex phenomenon at both the micro (e.g., molecular) and macro-environmental (e.g., sociocultural revolutions) levels.

When analyzing human behavior specifically, the deterministic neuroscientist believes that at the end of the day, it can be reduced into brain structures and functions at the biological level. These “inner biological workings” are influenced by themselves (e.g., genetics) as well as the natural and social environment. From this view, we understand that “we are our brain” (the underlying feature of neuroscientific monism).

A few points to note:

Determinism does not mean we do not make choices. We make choices every day, but there are natural systems in place that determines the expression of these choices.

Determinism does not mean that we cannot be in conflict with ourselves. In fact, our brains are made up of many structures that often compete with one another.

Determinism does not mean we cannot override biologically pre-potent behavioral responses. We actually have many evolved cognitive functions that enable us to resist impulse, habit, and temptation in favor of positive change.

Therefore, the determinist works on the basis of progression, whilst deliberately deciding to not waste energy and resources blaming an individual or a larger society for moral wrongdoings. The determinist asks: how can we rearrange a system to progress into a world where there is less suffering?

A common example is for the impulsive criminal. First, we understand that an infinite number of variables (e.g., early childhood abuse, neglect, lead exposure, poverty) led this person to act in a morally destructive manner. A note is then taken that these preceding variables need to be dealt with. Next, instead of blaming, raging, and locking this individual up in an extremely toxic environment, we ask: how do we make it easier for this individual to act in morally responsible ways from here on forward? Many scientists in the field of neurolaw are in fact working on the answer to this question right now.

This way of problem solving is not only rational and progressive, but it allows us to act out of compassion rather than destructive reactional patterns. It not only helps those who are completely dismantled by biological pathology, but it also helps us forgive and be at peace. It allows us to break out of cycles of massive destruction and conserve energy often wasted on playing blame games.

The determinist is often accused of being completely disempowering. But this is misunderstood. I see it as the acceptance and commitment therapy of life, that is, accepting what is, and committing to moving forward.

“Function Illness”: Reframing Definitions of Mental Disorders

What constitutes a mental disorder? At what point does human neurobiology and behavior exceed the threshold of “normalcy”? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was made to answer these questions, and is the main go-to for mainstream psychiatry and clinical psychology. The latest edition, the DSM-5, has expanded its array of what is classified as “mental illness.” Faced with much outcry in the psychological science community, the DSM-5 has been criticized immensely for its seeming intentions of “making up disorders from thin air,” and medicalizing otherwise normal, functional individuals. It has been accused of serving the interest of pharmaceutical industries, allowing psychiatrists to over-medicate otherwise functional populations.

While I understand that diagnoses can be helpful in the process of treating a patient (for instance, knowing which standard treatment to prescribe and enabling patients to build self-awareness), I agree that the DSM-5 and the current system of mental health care is pushing its boundaries. To elaborate, I believe this classification system presents an overall lack of tolerance for human neurodiversity and an unwillingness to accept functional deviance. I believe that a person only needs treatment if (1) they are subjectively suffering and (2) their neurobiology is impeding their ability to perform everyday functions in the environment they are given. Otherwise, mental disorder diagnoses can be extremely damaging to an individual’s self-efficacy, and lead them through a path of self-fulfilling prophecies by which they adhere to the dismal statistics of that disorder.

Perhaps the real problem is the intolerances of the greater society and the shame that follows when individuals who don’t adhere to culturally prescribed norms. For instance, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder up until 1973. The intense stigmatization, discrimination, hatred, and subjection to conversion therapies on these individuals bred (and continues to breed) an insurmountable amount of stress-related mental illnesses within the LGBT community. I believe that movements fostering greater acceptance to varying lifestyles would diminish a lot of mental illness reared by social discrimination, isolation, and rejection. I also believe that offering those with neurobiological deviances work environments where their differences are seen as talents rather than illness would do a great service to both the individuals and greater society.

Too much work has been brought into trying to “fix” individuals we deem “broken.” It’s time to look outside the box on broad based structural solutions such as celebrating neurodiversity, and only providing individual-level interventions that are truly necessary.

Self-Help Techniques are Band-Aids: The Social Determinants of Mental Health Vies for Attention

I write a lot about self-healing. The idea that one can be as radically self-reliant to trust their own inner capabilities and resources is very empowering to me. I still hold true to this statement.

However, I would also like to bring light to the fact that this movement cannot be detached from the fight against mental illness which lies on a more macroscale; that is, while individual factors are important to examine, the larger scale toxicities of the current environment are also imperative to combat as well. Certain social and economic level structures create environments that fostered and continue to foster an uncanny rise in mental illnesses in Western societies and beyond—and we need to start taking this seriously.

To demonstrate my point, I will make parallels with how we have approached chronic physical illnesses in public health for the past half century. For a long while, we viewed individuals with type-2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases as “lacking will,” “lazy,” and major burdens on the health care system—with bitterness. However, with more research, we soon realized that these epidemics were more complex, and that multiple factors which had nothing to do with individual control was creating these diseases at an exponential rate.

The same thing is happening with chronic mental illness, except the movement is lagging behind. We are pointing our fingers at people with mental illness, asking them to get out of their heads, put themselves back together, and be more functional members of society. We’re blaming individuals and not asking why these illnesses are attacking an enormous percentage of the population in the first place. As such, these sick individuals immerse themselves in developing self-help techniques, as to plug the holes larger societal factors created.

If we want to fight chronic mental illness, we cannot simply stop at teaching individuals how to be more mindful. We also need to fight the growing income gap. We need better job security and affordable housing. We need to make education accessible to individuals of all socioeconomic statuses. We need more funding for community level interventions such as the art programming. We need to dismantle all forms of systemic oppression. We need to stop praising ambition and perfectionism over pro-sociality. We need to stand up against the stigma surrounding mental illness.

I stand true to the research presented on my blog—but I also acknowledge that while Band-Aids are handy, preventing cuts are important too. If we want a more mentally healthy society, we not only need to teach individuals how to help themselves, but we also need to fight for some major societal restructuring.

References:

Eckersley, R. (2006). Is modern Western culture a health hazard?. International Journal of Epidemiology, 35(2), 252-258.

Anger as a Flame and Not a Forest Fire

Anger is a human emotion that involves physiological responses which can be adaptive for resolving conflict. However, when mishandled, this otherwise normal, healthy response can spiral out of control, causing pathological illness and enormous interpersonal relationship problems. A few ways that anger is mishandled are as follows: (1) Catharsis– research shows that contrary to popular belief, excessive expression of anger, e.g., venting, pillow punching, and being hostile and aggressive, is actually extremely destructive to the health of the individual and those involved. More importantly, this emotion tends to escalate rather than “release,” following cathartic methods. (2) Suppression– letting anger bottle up inside is also a recipe for illness. It can also lead to passive aggressive and antisocial behavior. Both unhealthy and expression and suppression of anger seems to promote hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and mood disorders. So what is to be done?

Research has shown that cognitive restructuring, problem solving, and relaxation techniques are much more adaptive strategies for channeling and coping with angry feelings. Cognitive restructuring involves thinking about the situation differently. This involves using logic, empathy, and wise reasoning to see all sides of the situation. This strategy tends to lead to more problem solving, rather than destructive, aggressive behaviors. Functional and healthy expression of anger comes in the form of self-respect and asserting boundaries in a clear, well-thought out, and confident manner. Lastly, relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and imagery meditation can be used to assist this process by cooling arousal and allowing the individual to act from a more rational and progressive vantage point. So let anger be the candle flame to spark your motivation and drive for social repair; not a forest fire that both suffocates you and destroys the environment around you.

References:

Beck, R., & Fernandez, E. (1998). Cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of anger: A meta-analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 22(1), 63-74.

Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.

DiGiuseppe, R., & Tafrate, R. C. (2003). Anger Treatment for Adults: A Meta‐Analytic Review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(1), 70-84.

Holt, R. R. (1970). On the interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of expressing or not expressing anger.

Lewis, W. A., & Bucher, A. M. (1992). Anger, catharsis, the reformulated frustration-aggression hypothesis, and health consequences. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 29(3), 385.

Warren, R., & Kurlychek, R. T. (1981). Treatment of maladaptive anger and aggression: Catharsis vs behavior therapy. Corrective & Social Psychiatry & Journal of Behavior Technology, Methods & Therapy.

Dismantling the Default to Deal with a Wandering Mind

Research has shown that mind wandering, that is, ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, makes people unhappy. On the other hand, mindfulness, which is attuning to internal and external present moment stimuli with full acceptance and equanimity, is associated with greater subjective well-being and overall quality of life. The “default mode network,” which is comprised of several midline structures of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and precuneus), is highly active during mind wandering, and studies suggest that its hyper-functionality may be implicated in psychiatric disorders associated with maladaptive anxiety, major depression, attention deficits, and mild cognitive impairment. However, studies show that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network while strengthening connections of various attention circuits. These findings suggest that mindfulness may improve attentional abilities and help individuals disengage from irrelevant distractions in their daily life, and that this may have downstream implications for preventing and treating psychiatric disorders affiliated with mind wandering.

References:

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 38.

Froeliger, B., Garland, E. L., Kozink, R. V., Modlin, L. A., Chen, N. K., McClernon, F. J., … & Sobin, P. (2012). Meditation-state functional connectivity (msFC): strengthening of the dorsal attention network and beyond. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

Foundations of Boundary Building

Communicating and executing personal boundaries are imperative for sustaining emotional health and maintaining functional social relationships. Boundary setting comes naturally to some; however, it can be a lot work for others. This is especially the case for people pleasers, highly empathetic individuals, and those with high rejection sensitivity. Luckily, like any other interpersonal skill, confident boundary setting can be learned and developed. Here’s how:

  1. Cultivate awareness of your personal boundaries. Tune in with your emotions during social situations; when do you begin to feel uncomfortable? When do you begin to feel under-appreciated and resentful? Understanding your own limits is the first step.
  2. Deliberately prioritize self-care. Understand that setting boundaries not only helps yourself, but ultimately the other person(s) involved. Keeping in check this rationale will help you cope with guilt, shame, and fear.
  3. Be assertive and direct. Explicit verbal communication of your boundaries is much better than relying on non-verbal cues or assuming the other person should be able to read your mind.
  4. Be consistent. Prepare yourself for the fact that you might have to give repeated reminders of your boundaries to the person(s) involved, especially if a certain social dynamic you wish to change had been heavily habituated in the past. Boundaries may also change; constant communication and check-ins are necessary to deal with the fluid dynamics of relationship structures.
  5. Start slow and build up. Be patient with yourself. Like any skill, setting boundaries takes practice. Failures are inevitable and when these do happen– practice all the self-compassionate you need, and then get up back on your feet again.