- What am I thinking & feeling at this moment?
- What are the reasons behind my thoughts & feelings?
- Are they based on fact or assumption?
- Are these thoughts & emotions helping me or hindering me with my current challenge?
Ian Sample, the appropriately named science writer for the Guardian,summarizes the phenomenon this way:
Through a series of experiments on mice, the researchers showed that during sleep, cerebral spinal fluid is pumped around the brain, and flushes out waste products like a biological dishwasher.
The process helps to remove the molecular detritus that brain cells churn out as part of their natural activity, along with toxic proteins that can lead to dementia when they build up in the brain, the researchers say.
We might want to take these conclusions with a grain of cerebral salt, given that human brains are more mightily complex than those of mice. Still, the results are super fascinating. As published in the journal Science, University of Rochester professor Maiken Nedergaard led a team that found out that the brain cells of mice shrink while they sleep--creating a space between them that's 60% bigger, which allows for the cerebral spinal fluid in their brains to flow 10 times faster while sleeping than while waking.
Then they wanted to see how the mice brains did with toxins, so they injected them with proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease--and found the proteins were cleaned up faster in the brains of sleeping mice.
This is super fascinating because we've known about the effects of better sleep, like the memory consolidation that we need to remember our lives, but Nedergaard's research sheds light on the actual mechanics of what's happening while we're not waking. If the same holds true for humans, then sleep may be a key to fighting dementia and other degenerative diseases, since it's the time that your brain sweeps clean the toxins that are laying about.
"You can think of it like having a house party," Nedergaard said in a statement. "You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can't really do both at the same time."
Hat tip: the Guardian.com
Your brain processes more thoughts and feelings during meditation than when you are simply relaxing.
Mindfulness. Zen. Acem. Meditation drumming. Chakra. Buddhist and transcendental meditation. There are countless ways of meditating, but the purpose behind them all remains basically the same: more peace, less stress, better concentration, greater self-awareness and better processing of thoughts and feelings.
But which of these techniques should a poor stressed-out wretch choose? What does the research say? Very little – at least until now.
See also: Language is in our biology
A team of researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of Oslo and the University of Sydney is now working to determine how the brain works during different kinds of meditation.
Different meditation techniques can actually be divided into two main groups. One type is concentrative meditation, where the meditating person focuses attention on his or her breathing or on specific thoughts, and in doing so, suppresses other thoughts. The other type may be called nondirective meditation, where the person who is meditating effortlessly focuses on his or her breathing or on a meditation sound, but beyond that the mind is allowed to wander as it pleases. Some modern meditation methods are of this nondirective kind.
“No one knows how the brain works when you meditate. That is why I’d like to study it,” says Jian Xu, who is a physician at St. Olavs Hospital and a researcher at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging at NTNU.
Fourteen people who had extensive experience with the Norwegian technique Acem meditation were tested in an MRI machine. In addition to simple resting, they undertook two different mental meditation activities, nondirective meditation and a more concentrative meditation task. The research team wanted to test people who were used to meditation because it meant fewer misunderstandings about what the subjects should actually be doing while they lay in the MRI machine.
The results were recently published in the journal “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience”.
Nondirective meditation led to higher activity than during rest in the part of the brain dedicated to processing self-related thoughts and feelings. When test subjects performed concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was almost the same as when they were just resting.
“I was surprised that the activity of the brain was greatest when the person’s thoughts wandered freely on their own, rather than when the brain worked to be more strongly focused,” said Xu. “When the subjects stopped doing a specific task and were not really doing anything special, there was an increase in activity in the area of the brain where we process thoughts and feelings. It is described as a kind of resting network. And it was this area that was most active during nondirective meditation.”
“The study indicates that nondirective meditation allows for more room to process memories and emotions than during concentrated meditation,” says Svend Davanger, a neuroscientist at the University of Oslo, and co-author of the study.
“This area of the brain has its highest activity when we rest. It represents a kind of basic operating system, a resting network that takes over when external tasks do not require our attention. It is remarkable that a mental task like nondirective meditation results in even higher activity in this network than regular rest,” says Davanger.
Most of the research team behind the study do not practice meditation, although three do: Professors Are Holen and Øyvind Ellingsen from NTNU and Professor Svend Davanger from the University of Oslo.
Brain activity was the greatest when the meditators’ thoughts wandered wherever they wanted. Photo: Thinkstock
Acem meditation is a technique that falls under the category of nondirective meditation. Davanger believes that good research depends on having a team that can combine personal experience with meditation with a critical attitude towards results.
“Meditation is an activity that is practiced by millions of people. It is important that we find out how this really works. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in international research on meditation. Several prestigious universities in the US spend a great deal of money to research in the field. So I think it is important that we are also active,” says Davanger.