Actuality of Mindfulness Practices on the Human Brain, Social Norms, and as a Cultural Device for Change in Human Behaviour

Paul Fischer
Mindfulness Meditation
Dr. Quigliani
07/23/2012


Actuality of Mindfulness Practices on the Human Brain, Social Norms, and as a Cultural Device for Change in Human Behaviour


Societal norms exist as a set of boundaries that inhibit or limit human emotions, thoughts and behaviours, most frequently in a positive way. The ability of the mind to simulate and create these boundaries is among the earliest evolutionary advantages man demonstrates over other non-sentient beings. By avoiding conflict, and discouraging homicide, the early man was able to organize his fellow beings that they could keep order. The ability to organize and conglomerate, without homicide, moves humanity towards a more sentient state.
Failure to do so, the celebration of homicide or that suppression of natural human urges, destroys the ability of man to reproduce and progress technologically in a sustainable and economical manner. Either the human mind is suppressed and citizens with loyal upright conscious are turned into mere tools, a trivial waste to their own being or the celebration of homicidal tendencies yields the same result, that the shame and guilt of the irreversible action, subsumes and subverts the higher pursuits of man.
There are two basic physiological elements that make this sentience unique to the human mind: firstly, the barriers that separate the decision making process from the logical, cognitive reptilian mind and secondly the extensions from the posterior which contain synapse bunches that fire off due to electrical impulses, thereby allowing the cortexes of the brain to communicate. While this is a simplification of the entirety of the brain, which in fact contains at least eight known distinct parts, it is a useful model to describe the basic flow of information as a one way path in the brain. By understanding the effect of mindfulness and meditation on the human brain, we are able to make more effective distinctions about why exactly it is claimed to be so beneficial for many important thinkers and scholars.

Mindfulness and Meditation
Meditation is a way of subverting natural anger and emotional responses and mindfulness incorporates this as an alternative lifestyle practice that arises from various parts of the world for the purpose of re-arranging levels of a variety of chemicals including dopamine, hormones and epinephrines. Mindfulness is the expansion of meditation beyond the confines of meditative states and trances into the everyday lives of followers. From minute to minute, those who practice mindfulness are asked to become aware of the momentary sensations that motivate and restructure their reality. There are two ways that this paper will evaluate the effectiveness of mindfulness in maintaining social norms, through empirical study that remains cognizant of bias and change in the actual human brain as observed in specific neural cortexes.
   For each individual, the effect of mindful meditation has been described as a different and unique experience. However, on populations of meditators the effect is often measured by the use of serial handouts and questionnaires. These questions are in direct response to the fallout of psychoanalysts and therapeutic treatment originally developed to determine the psychological impact of varying worker conditions on worker efficiency by the Ford company in the early 1900s.
As psychological evaluations moved from only focusing on efficiency and productivity to overall happiness, looking at different lifestyles also became necessary, as a manner of control norms. While the article by Davidson, 2010, questions the ability of questionnaires and handouts to compete with fMRI and other magnetic imaging processes, these are older forms of research, and while the fMRI, similarly to a modern camera, can take an exact picture of the brain while questionnaires at best can only give a rough outline of the patient or therapist’s true feelings and beliefs the interpretation of fMRI is not “very advanced” while questionnaires and booklets have been interpreted in their modern form since at least the Ford auto company and in some ways before.
These questions are probably not ones that can be easily answered through a computer model, due partially to the complex nature of the mind. As soon as researchers are able to find the effect of a substance or activity on one part of the brain, either negative or positive, the mind is developed in such a way that sub scopic levels of change or parallel changes are frequently enacted to counterbalance the changes that occur. Use of fMRI’s which are difficult to interpret, can distinguish changes in density and positive damage, which are more important to measure in qualitatively assessing the positive impact of mindfulness training.
An example of the effect of meditative practices is the manner in which meditation practices including body scans, breathing practices and yoga affect individuals over an eight week period. Carmody and Baer showed positively this results in less distress and emotional unawareness in 2008. This would suggest a stability that gives social norms a certain distinct advantage by benefiting the individual. Part of the problem with this research in looking at the function of this practice on the society as a whole is that external costs are ignored. The best way to coagulate this research would be to take it together with economic or productivity data as well as with reference to emotional changes observed in peers.
Summary of Articles: Empirical Explorations of Mindfulness
Davidson draws on a couple dozen other sources in his description of modern research about mindfulness. For the early development of mindfulness as a discipline or practice, there was not a lot of supporting evidence. Now, however, there are MRI, longitudinal and massive population studies. The article is particularly useful for evaluating other studies and research because it identifies ways in which the studies are set up and evaluated.
Davidson specifically draws on data from extensive studies done by his own laboratory on trained and relatively untrained mindfulness trainers. He was able to identify some legitimate  physical characteristics  in scans of participants’ brains that are attributed to lower levels of effort being exerted for equivalent activities being performed. The assumption is that as less neural resources are shown to be activated or engaged in more experienced participants, they are more adept at performing the same task. This study is helpful for identifying groups of individuals for whom mindfulness meditation will be helpful and not detrimental: those with considerable meditation experience (>34,000 hours). In the review by Duke University scholar Jeff Greeson, more positive studies are identified though the extent of success is not. Finally, in the paid randomized studies in Great Britain the practice is primarily identified as effective in the short term and for users of antidepressant medications who wish to quit.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to Prevent Relapse in
Recurrent Depression
This is a study published in the JCCP that includes a number of British researchers in both Mindfulness practices and the use of Antidepressant medications (ADM). The extensive use of controls and double-blind nature of the study make it a valuable research tool that empirically evaluates the effectiveness of mindfulness in one of the most prevalent problems in modern society. There are some disadvantages to the study, however, which does not  use very large study groups and in some cases the data is rather old.
Positive aspects of this study are that the criteria for selected individuals are rather strict resulting in a high rate of participants seeing the trials through to the end of the testing period. Furthermore, those who experienced a relapse, depressive, or psychotic break during the period, as self reported was higher in ADM groups than Mindfulness groups by a 3-2 ratio in the testing period and also remained healthier over the follow-up period, though the narrowing of the gap during this follow-up period is somewhat discouraging and may suggest problems with the long-term mental health of those involved with mindfulness activities. More importantly, considering recent research showing the complete lack of effective antidepressants, which can often cause extreme problems for the user, the fact that ¾ of those taking ADM while going through mindfulness regimens were able to quit or reduce their medication suggests that mindfulness may have critical usefulness as a process to take users off ADM.
Neural Plasticity of Development and Learning
This looks at many different studies  that use neuroimaging to explain mixed results from various training regimens and their effect on the human brain. As the humans age, the way learning and productivity occurs changes. Children generate an excess of synapses and then prune them back to handle the task at hand. Participants who age experience a phenomenon known as metaplasticity and are more adept at producing the synapses needed to handle each specific task.
While this article does not directly address mindfulness training, the background information in coagulates is vital to understanding mental plasticity. The characterization of mental plasticity as a distinguishing feature of mindfulness training is due to the gross similarity in the MRI changes noted in the brain between studies tracking changes in mental awareness and changes in mental plasticity, the number of synapses initially made available as a ratio to the amount of neurons needed to complete a task. In the case of the Davidson studies this task would be mindfulness training. Furthermore there is discussion on effective ways to maintaining strong retention in young children for MRIs, which is a necessary step in moving mindfulness from small fringe experiments to the mainstream, Americanized meditative market dominated by transcendental meditation for nearly half a century and arguably longer.
Mindfulness Research Update
This is a useful overview of research done about Mindfulness as a practice and field of study done by Duke University.  As a review of 52 other research papers, it provides a nice picture of what sort of information has been gathered on mindfulness research as of the end of the Bush administration. Rather than only looking at the results of mindfulness the review also identifies the ways in which  mindfulness promotes psychological well being and prevents relapse into depressive symptoms. Specifically, research has revealed that mindfulness decreases rumination in participants, a process that leads to depressive characteristics.
This article is perhaps best compared with Davidson’s because where it is earlier mentioned that participants with higher mindfulness training required less neurons to perform the same meditative task, it turns out that people with naturally higher levels of mindfulness also are more adept than those who are naturally not mindful. Furthermore, this article does an overview of studies evaluating the effect of mindfulness on lower back pain and other physical symptoms. While the mind-body connection has been known and reported for a very long time, these studies draw an implicitly concrete connection between physical symptoms and mindfulness training. Also as many of these ailments are by nature measured on continuums, it may be necessary to discuss the effects of a placebo group beyond only that of a control group, which nearly all of these studies rely on in the treatment of manic depressives or other mentally unstable individuals.

Beyond Costs: Mindfulness and Productivity
One way to show this would be in the increasing wealth inequality in the last decade: as societies become more mindful in meditative practices and abandon traditional religious services, the economic equality in these countries is also beginning to mirror that of the third world. This would suggest some externalization of costs as larger proportions of the population abandon commonly held beliefs of wealth and power, and instead focus on manipulating breathing, sleeping, and reproductive practices to simulate their effects on the brain. This is not entirely supported, however, due to efficiency depletion theories that suggest instead of contributing to natural cycles of inequality and equality empirically dominated by the Pareto cycle, such behaviour in fact stems celebration of homicide and humanitarian disasters that would otherwise result if cycles of depression and substance abuse, even overeating, are continued.
As a general rule, however, it seems that mindfulness does increase many people’s capacity to perform and can provide a vital function in recovering from trauma and loss. While external costs may be created for the rest of society, there are anecdotal claims that meditative practices can help with higher productivity. If this can be proved it would follow that mindfulness, which can simulate meditative changes in the brain without following a strict regimen of meditation, also might provide an overall benefit to societal productivity.
This is somewhat supported in Davidson’s conclusion, in which more research is called for, specifically looking into the emotional domain. Furthermore, in order to establish definite options of what sort of societal wealth changes might occur in communities that are embracing meditation or mindfulness practices it might be important to view cultural, racial, or gender values and ownership progression.
At higher levels it has been observed that deep introspection can occur and the body can react to the mind-body changes in unforeseen ways, bringing older or suppressed memories to surface and calming even extremely traumatized individuals. Meditation has been described as useful by a variety of important individuals anecdotally but is now known to have actual physical effects as well.
Specifically, research from Bunge showed, “the fMRI data collected alongside the performance measures revealed that younger children demonstrated a greater level of activity within left superior and middle frontal gyri than did older children and that, conversely, older participants demonstrated an increased focal activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus relative to their younger counterparts.” This would suggest that in younger children the activity is more spatial, affecting many folds of the brain’s processing centers. A gyrus, for those not familiar with neuroscience, is similar to the endoplasmic reticulum in biology, and are the folds commonly associated with an image of the brain. In older participants, it is possible that the focused thought process is indicative of lost plasticity and increased concentration on the active task.

Conclusion
In summary, while the studies on mindfulness are interesting, and certainly take transcendental meditation, which is the current commercialized and americanized version of meditation available to a new level technologically, there are still many factors which are left unaccounted for and there is still significant research that needs to be done before this can be recommended for administration outside of the strict confines of medical research. Without an effective placebo group, though meditative studies do provide some interesting parallels, it is impossible to condone mindfulness training as non-detrimental. While studying the mind, it is important to realize the psychology: that suppression of depression or anxiety can resurface either immediately or in the long term in unfortunate and often unforeseen ways. A heavy regimen of cigarettes or any addictive substance or even activities such as gambling or harmless violence will stabilize the psychology of an individual with PTSD or depression for a time or in a certain environment, but when subjected to change, shock, or resubmerged in the trauma, whether it is a riding-crop mother, war, or a negative relationship the subject’s ability to cope may become less stable. Furthermore, it is extremely worrying that the results in groups of people, such as trainers  with a vested interest in positive results from the success of these studies or societies used to meditative practices, with unpaid volunteer research, is fantastically positive while  the randomized, paid population study in Great Britain indicates participants are likely to report short-term positive effects while in the long term the activity is shown to hardly be any better than antidepressants which are now known to cause significant  levels of depression and frequent suicides in users.



Primary Points and Key statistics:
1) There is a difference in mindfulness for younger vs. older users! This distinction also exists for intensity/levels of meditative training.
2) Mindfulness has not been proved to harm anyone as of yet, but in younger or in untrained meditators it may not be helpful or get in the way of other developmental exercises and learning activities which otherwise engage the young mind!
3) Actual changes in the mind: the requirement of greater numbers of neurons in less trained or unfocused minds corresponds to that of aging. To some extent the human mind can self-train for mindfulness! It is as much a lifestyle as it is a skill or quantitative change.
4) In order to expand the market for mindfulness trainers and activities, the best course of research would be to investigate the successful rate of quitting ADM’s, and find out exactly what processes are occurring!
5) By looking at early development of children and other learning MRI studies, we can also evaluate to what extent mindfulness training can be used to increase productivity, creativity, or most importantly complement existing learning structures, such as schools.
6) Ultimately by integrating mindfulness with common social activities and learning activities as well, it would probably be possible to make a major difference in the current form of mindfulness, which primarily is useful as the “next step” for those with heavy meditative experience.


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