I used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.
A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.
These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.
There are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.
FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND
When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.
It sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.
To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.
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In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.
NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?
Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.
Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings / the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.
The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”
In the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).
A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.
The medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.
So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).
Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.
During my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.
My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).
In previous articles on this blog I’ve described some of the many long-term brain benefits of regular exercise. These have mainly focused on the benefits that regular exercise offers to older people in terms of reducing the rate of age-related cognitive decline. But the brain benefits of taking regular exercise are applicable to everyone, young and old.
Do It For Your Brain’s Sake
People who exercise regularly have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They even boast greater cortical thickness in parts of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Specifically brain scanning studies have demonstrated that the left and right hippocampus, fundamental both to creating memories and knowing where we are in space, are a little larger than in sedentary people. This increase in tissue thickness is thought to be indicative of a denser meshwork of synaptic connections reflecting a greater complexity of neuronal network. In other words several brain areas fundamentally involved in memory and cognition are able to perform better. What’s more regular exercise leads to improvements in mood and even helps you sleep better. And there is little better than a good night’s sleep for helping brains to reach peak performance.
Exercise leads to increased levels of nerve growth factors like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factors) that promote the birth and survival of new brain cells, synapses and development of new blood vessels. So this is thought to a likely mechanism for the changes in the thickness of various brain regions in people who take regular exercise and quite possible the long term benefits in cognitive ability and mental health.
In my talks, workshops and first book (Sort Your Brain Out) I urge people to move away from thinking about exercise as a pastime motivated by the desire to improve the appearance of our bodies and more as something we should get in the habit of doing regular exercise to manage our mood / productivity in the short term and brain health in the long term. When people are feeling stressed out their motivation to hit the gym is often at rock bottom levels. A huge shame because exercise is exactly what would make them feel much, much better almost immediately.
Athletes often talk of the “runner’s high.” This has long been explained as a result of endorphins released in the brain in response to moderate to intense exercise. It makes good theoretical sense because endorphins, the brain’s natural opiates, have the twin effect of numbing pain and making us feel good. The trouble is that up until 2008 there was little if any hard evidence to back this notion up. Yet further doubt was cast on the whole endorphin hypothesis when a study demonstrated that the runner’s high still occurred even when the effect of any released endorphins was blocked with a drug called naxalone.
Looking elsewhere for a mechanism through which the runner’s high might be achieved researchers started to focus on a possible role for endocannabinoids. Similar in structure to the hundreds of cannabinoid chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant smoked recreationally in pursuit of a mood-enhancing effect, endocannabinoids are naturally produced throughout the brain.
Subsequently, elevated endorphin levels were observed in a brain scanning study that compared brains that had recently completed a 2-hour endurance run compared to other brains that hadn’t (Boecker et al, 2008). So consensus now is that the anxiolytic effects of exercise are mediated by a combination of endocannabinoid and endorphin release in the brain.
From an evolutionary perspective pain signals clearly should be switch on and off-able because they can be helpful or disabling depending on the context. Pain signals from damaged body parts helps us to avoid worsening the injury when at rest or engaging in gentle exercise, clearly an advantage when the priority is to allow a twisted ankle, strained knee or inflamed muscle to heal properly. But in the context of evading a predator or attempting to catch prey, such pain signals could lead to the huge potential disadvantage should it lead to getting caught and killed by the predator, or failing to catch the very food that might keep us, and our dependents, alive. The benefit of the analgesic / hedonic effect is that if a person is running to save their skin, then switching off the pain signal and inducing a light high to further compensate for any residual pain resulting in an unimpeded getaway makes perfect sense. Better to endure minor tissue damage if it is the only way to ensure you’ll live to see another day.
There is a huge amount of evidence to support the concept that regular exercise is extremely good for body and brain. The trouble is, we all know this but few actually get around to taking regular exercise. In my view the main reason for this is partly feeling overwhelmed by their busy lives but also probably involves exercising in the wrong way: when people do finally get around to exercising they often overdo it. Spending the whole of the next day aching all over will do little to incentivise them to take the trouble to exercising again any time soon.
I would argue that little and often is the best policy. Even at the frantic pace of modern life everyone can fit in 20-30mins of exercise a day. That way, even if some weeks you only hit 50% of your target, you’ll still be getting your heart rate and breathing rate up, flooding the brain with highly oxygenated blood, endorphins, endocannabinoids and BDNF, 3-4 times per week – exactly the recommended dose!
In addition to these monthly blogs you can catch my weekly podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science (on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn, podbay) and subscribe to @drjacklewis on Twitter where I share at least three good brain news related articles every day.
I reviewed the first Brain Training title on the Nintendo DS a couple of years ago and, to be perfectly honest, the sequel “MORE Brain Training” a.k.a. “Brain Age 2” is not a great deal different. Dr Kawashima’s floating head is still there in its chunky pixelated glory; guiding, encouraging and chiding you throughout. Even the constant repetition that X, Y or Z game is “great for giving your prefrontal cortex a good work” out is also ever-present. I had hoped he’d get a bit more specific about which task was working out which part of the prefrontal cortex in this sequel. Especially given that, if the crinkly outer surface of the brain was increased to the size of planet earth, the prefrontal cortex would cover an area the size of North and South America put together (at least!). Still there are a few new games, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the old ones, some are plain dull, but others really quite novel / clever. Overall I would say it is a bit tougher on the old synapses than the predecessor; which is a good thing…
You may be aware of fierce debate going on about the effectiveness of these games when it comes to positively influencing cognitive abilities that have:
- a long term impact
- that goes beyond improved performance on the specific games being played to other cognitive functions useful in daily life
I would argue that, purely in terms of short-term arousal (Steady! In your brain.. not your pants), it is really quite effective. Based on personal experience I have found that 10-15 minutes spent taxing various mental abilities with the higher levels of any of these games is a more effective way of getting going in the morning than a slug of strong coffee. So even if the evidence does not mount up to support the claims of Lumosity, Cognifit and Torkel Klingberg regarding long term cognitive benefits for everyday people that might help them in their daily life, I think it would be pretty hard to refute the claim that challenging your brain to solve a few puzzles first thing in the morning can really help you hit the ground running each and every day.
Anyway, I digress (again). What I like about Brain Age 2 is that it is really hard; punishingly hard at times. In one game you have to keep track of a stickman’s position in a running race as other runners are overtaken / overtake you. In another your task is to keep track of blocks that pile up on each other as they fall behind a screen recalling the height of one particular column. Both are good solid working memory training games (and thus have the best potential to boost IQ; read this book for full explanation) and have a nice progression to them in that they start easy on the earlier levels, build the difficulty gradually, but soon end up challenging even the sharpest of brains.
Other new games are not so challenging. “Days and Dates” and “Correct Change” are clearly built with the aim of developing cognitive skills that have an obvious practical application in everyday life. I suspect these might have been included to address criticisms leveled at the brain training market by suggesting that the games only help people get better at the specific task being tackled. Either way, figuring out what the day was 4 days after 2 days ago, or figuring out the correct coins to give as change if a £/€/$1.40 bill was paid with a ten pound/euro/dollar note, are a pretty dull ways to pass the time, if you ask me.
“Missing symbols” – adding the appropriate plus, minus, multiplication or division sign to make the sum work – verges on the dull, but the speed element keeps it challenging. You can always go faster. “Memory addition” takes mental arithmetic to the next level by having to perform a calculation but then keep one of the numbers in mind to use it in the next sum. I must admit to hissing the to-be-remembered number under my breath (recruiting the “phonological loop” aspect of working memory) so as not to get confused with the correct answer for the current sum. “Word Scramble” is cute. Solving an anagram where the letters are not just shuffled but are presented in a ring that slowly rotates. Surprisingly tough, particularly with the longer letter strings!
Anyone who has read my review of Beat City will know I am a fan of games that involve making music. So it will come as no surprise that I think “Masterpiece Recital” is brilliant. A little bit pointless for people that actually play the piano, but great for the rest of us. You have to hit the right note on a piano keyboard as the musical score scrolls past. And you don’t have to be able to read music as it labels both the keyboard and the music notation with the appropriate letter (see left). The reason I found it so satisfying is because in the later levels the tunes are really beautiful pieces of classical music (and I’m no classical music buff, that’s for sure) plus the accompanying backing music makes even the most amateurish efforts sound pretty good; even if you’re a bit late hitting the notes. You get marked down for this at the end, but whilst you’re in the game it very enjoyable to feel like you are actually creating such pretty music.
“Word Blend” is a good idea, but poorly executed. It’s loosely based on the dichotic listening test (usually different information is presented to each ear) – straight out of the psychology textbooks – whereby 2 or 3 voices simultaneously say a single word and your job is to recognize the words and write them down. Personally I just found this game irritating. Despite having the option of hearing them repeat it five times or so (but you only score points for words identified without hitting the repeat button) it can sometimes be quite impossible (for me at least) to hear one voice over the other. I suspect it is the fault of the game rather than the player because there was no improvement. So I’m either acoustically challenged, or this particular game is a bit crap.
The game I liked the most, despite upon first encountering it that it was a bit remedial, is a game that seemed to be inspired by exercises developed to help people overcome learning disabilities. “Determine The Time” is reminiscent of an cognitive development technique invented by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (whose book: “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” is as amazing as it is inspirational). She developed this simple clock reading task, first to help overcome her own difficulties learning relationships between symbols (like the relationship between the big hand and little hand of a clock) and then started to roll it out as an entry level exercise for kids and adults with learning disabilities (making a dazzling impact on improving their cognitive abilities).
It quite literally involves reading the time of a clock, but the twist in this particular game is that the clockface is rotated. This requires you to do a “mental rotation task” – imagining in your mind’s eye what the clock would look like if it was the right way up – so that you can give the right answer. Such spatial rotation tasks stimulate the parietal cortex (finally something that benefits a brain area other than the prefrontal cortex!!) and, presumably, improvements in these mental rotation tasks will enable the parietal cortex to manipulate all sorts of other information in space.
Incidentally, Einstein’s brain had a larger-than-normal parietal cortex and, given that this lobe is also critically involved in mathematical abilities, it is thought to account (in part at least) for his tremendous contributions to physics. As well as rotating the clock in the harder levels Dr K becomes particularly devious by mirror reflecting the images as well. So your parietal cortex has to perform two sequential transformations reflecting it back and then rotating it the right way up again. It is a very simple idea, but genuinely, in my opinion, a tremendous work out for the parietal cortex.
I am aware that so far the brain games I’ve reviewed are all on the Nintendo DS. I am also conscious that it may seem that I am in some way biased in favour of the Nintendo DS. Both are perfectly reasonable observations. For the record the true reasons that, so far, I have only reviewed titles on the Nintendo DS are quite simply that a) I happen to own one, b) positive outcomes from brain training is only possible if you play it regularly and intensively and c) the smartphone I happen to own is not optimized for gameplay.
Convenience Lends Itself To Regular Training:
For brain training to have even the slightest chance to yield genuine benefits it must be undertaken regularly, intensely and for long periods of time. In my opinion convenience is therefore a prerequisite of any good brain training game, thus I favour options that enable people to fill dead time in their daily routine with gameplay wherever they happen to be. I am aware that there are many home computer-based brain training games but as I personally feel that when I’m at my computer I should be working, not playing games – I suspect others feel the same way. This is why I haven’t reviewed the various online brain training offerings, instead focusing on those that enable you to brain train on the move. Not only is the Nintendo DS extremely portable and therefore convenient, I also happen to own one, so it is currently my device of choice for gameplay on the move (the only time I personally get the chance to get stuck in).
Why No Smartphone Based Brain Training Reviews?:
I’ve been using a Blackberry for the last few years purely for the slideout keyboard which enables me to type without looking at the buttons. Once I’ve got over my distaste for touchscreen smartphone technology (I’m nearly there) I’ll start reviewing iOS / Android brain games. In light of this avowed intent I would be grateful if anybody out there would suggest any games marketed as Brain Training so I can give them the once over (rather than leaving a comment please drop me an email by clicking here instead).