Richard G. Petty, MD

Meditation, Stress and Self-Regulation

There is progressively more evidence that meditation can have measurable effects on behavior and the brain. The trouble is that some of the results have conflicted, mainly because of the different types of meditation and different measurement protocols. So I was very interested to see some new research in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by a team of researchers from China collaborating with renowned experts at the University of Oregon, who have developed an approach for neuroscientists to study how very brief meditation training might improve a person’s attention and response to stress.

The study itself was done with undergraduate students in China. The experimental group received five days of meditation training using a technique called integrative body-mind training (IBMT), which was developed in China n the early 1990s.

IBMT is a rapid mental training method that aims at inducing a state of alert restfulness using breathing and guided imagery.

The control group received five days of relaxation training. Before and after training both groups took tests involving attention and reaction to mental stress.

The experimental group showed greater improvement a test of attention that was designed to measure peoples’ ability to resolve conflict among stimuli. Subjects were stressed by doing mental arithmetic.

At the beginning of the experiment both groups showed an elevated release of cortisol following the mathematical task, but after training the experimental group showed less cortisol release. This probably indicates an improvement in stress regulation. The experimental group also showed lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue than the control group.

The next stage in the research will involve direct measurements of brain function.

Although IBMT is described as a form of meditation, it may be inducing something slightly different from, say, Zen meditation. The important point is that it is possible to produce measurable physiological changes in just five days, and this will make it much easier to examine the dynamic effects of hypnosis, relaxation and this technique on brain function.

I would also be grateful for any readers who have more information abut the precise details of IBMT, and whether training in the precise techniques is available outside China.

I shall keep you posted as new data emerge.

“Peace can be reached through meditation on the knowledge which dreams can give. Peace can also be reached through concentration upon that which is dearest to the heart.”
–Patanjali (Indian Philosopher said to be the Compiler of the Yoga Sutras, Dates Unknown)

“Through meditation and by giving full attention to one thing at a time, we can learn to direct attention where we choose.”
–Eknath Easwaran (Indian-American Spiritual Teacher, Professor and Author, 1910-1999)

“Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come 
back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is 
seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know 
what to do and what not to do to help.”
–Thich Nhat Hahn (Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, 1926-)

“A meditator keeps his mind open every second. He is constantly investigating life, investigating his own experience, viewing existence in a detached and inquisitive way. Thus, he is constantly open to truth in any form, from any source, an at any time.”
–Henepola Gunaratana (a.k.a. Bhante G., Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk, 1927-)

Charles Tart's Library

If you are at all interested in altered states of consciousness, transpersonal psychology, parapsychology or spirituality, you will find a great many useful and interesting papers written by Professor Charles Tart.

I was smitten by his work when I read his classic book Altered States of Consciousness in 1969, and he reamins one of the most respected figures in these fields

I have followed his work closely ever since, and his library of free articles is a treasure trove containing papers written between 1963 and 2006.

Charlie is currently a Core Faculty Member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito, California, as well as Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Davis campus of the University of California.

I would like to thank him and many publishers for making all this material freely available.

Self-hypnosis and Hay Fever

I first learned to do hypnosis in 1980, and I have always found it a useful adjunctive treatment for some people, though in recent years I have spent far more tie teaching people to use self-hypnosis.

The research data on hypnosis has also been growing, to the extent that nearly two years ago an article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a fairly conservative journal, suggested that the time had come for an expanded role for hypnosis in general medicine as well as a study of different techniques that are in use.

Hypnosis and self-hypnosis may affect an illness directly, or it might reduce a trigger to the illness, say if anxiety triggers an asthma attack, we could use hypnotherapy to treat the anxiety. Hypnosis may improve a person’s subjective responses to the illness. It might also be useful to help counteract side effects in people who just have to be treated with conventional medications.

Many case reports of apparent cures with hypnosis have found their way into the popular press.  I have mentioned that over a period of five years I spent one to two days a week going through and checking most of these reports in all the languages that I can read. Sadly some of them turned out not to hold much water.

But now the quality of the research has improved enormously. I have been particularly impressed with some of the studies on allergy: it is very remrakable to think that we can make specific suggestions that produce demonstrable effects on the immune system. I particularly liked a study from Switzerland that was published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

A team from Basel University taught 66 people with hay fever how to do self-hypnosis and found that it helped them to alleviate symptoms such as runny nose.

The volunteers also took their regular hay fever medicines, but the effect of hypnosis appeared to be additive so that they could reduce the doses that they needed to take.

The study took place over two years and included two hay fever seasons. During the first year, one group of the volunteers with hay fever were taught and asked to regularly practice hypnosis as well as take their usual allergy medicine. The training consisted of one two-hour session with an experienced trainer. The remaining volunteers had no other treatment apart from their normal allergy medication.

After a year, the researchers found the volunteers who had been using self-hypnosis had reported fewer symptoms related to hay-fever than their fellow volunteers.

During the second year, the researchers taught the remaining "untrained" volunteers how to use hypnosis. By the end of this year, these volunteers also reported improvement in their hay-fever symptoms.

Although the improvement in symptoms was not statistically significant the researchers also found that the volunteers had cut down on the amount of hay fever medication they used after learning self-hypnosis.

There is another interesting piece of research on this topic. You will probably have experienced a histamine reaction: the typical wheal, flare and swelling that can occur after, say, an insect bite. Researchers form Denmark used hypnosis to induce emotions of sadness, anger, and happiness, to see whether these emotions would have any effect on the skin’s response to histamine. Not only did mood have an effect on the skin reactions, but also people who were more susceptible to hypnosis were more reactive to histamine.

Hypnosis is being used with many clinical conditions, from asthma to migraine and irritable bowel syndrome. It is not a panacea, but it can be a very useful tool. And it tells us a lot about the power of the mind to influence virtually every system of the body.

The Irreducible Mind

I get a great many requests for recommendations for books and papers that either debate or provide support for the topics that I discuss on this blog and in my books and articles. That is why I’ve been constructing some reading lists at and linking them to this website.

A friend recently commented that she was surprised that the book and CD series, Healing, Meaning and Purpose that was created for a general audience, contains over 800 books and websites. My response to that was that I think that my readers and listeners are all grown ups who should be able to check everything that any author says!

The days of authors or speakers waving their hands about and making airy statements are finally coming to an end. If an author tells you that "science" proves what they are saying, they must show that they understand the topic themselves. I just saw yet another paper in which the writer said, "Quantum mechanics proves what I’m saying, but let’s not get into that." Well, that’s just the point: let us indeed get into that to see if what you are saying holds water!

Which brings me to a book that I’ve just read and reviewed. It is entitled Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century and it is an extraordinary achievement. For the last century, the vast majority psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have believed that thoughts, emotions and consciousness are the product of physical processes in the brain. And , of course, the brain is heavily involved in many  mental phenomena. The question has always been if neurological activity is sufficient to explain the whole of human experience.

This new book presents the most comprehensive and critical analysis of phenomena normally ignored by psychology, including mystical experiences, the placebo response, stigmata and hypnotic suggestion, memories that survive physical death, near death experiences, automatic writing, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, deathbed visions and many more.

It comes to the inescapable conclusion that the mind is not generated by the brain but is instead limited and constrained by it. There is no hand waving, and no "science has shown that…" Instead everything is laid out in front of you. There are a hundred pages of citations and references. Despite that, it is an easy and enjoyable read.

I have no personal connection with the book, but the next time that someone says that there’s no proof for any of these phenomena, and that emotions, cognitions and consciousness are just byproducts of biochemical processes in the brain, refer them to this book.

And if Santa brought you any gift cards that you haven’t used yet, you might want to have a look at the book for yourself.

Multiple Selves

There is a most interesting report from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This study relates back to some of my previous posts about meditation and hyperfocus. I think that we’ve all had the experience of losing ourselves in any activity: playing a game, watching a movie, sex or an enthralling novel. The researchers showed that during intense sensory tasks, the introspective self-related functions of the brain shut down. The experimental subjects were asked to look at pictures or listen to music. For sensory processing, the subjects were asked to answer yes/no questions about the items. To study introspection, the subjects were asked to indicate whether emotionally they felt strongly or neutrally about the image or musical passage. While they were doing all this, their brains were being scanned using functional MRI (fMRI).

As expected, regions of the brain activated during sensory processing or self-reflective introspection were quite distinct and segregated. Sensory processing activated the sensory cortex and related structures, while introspection activated the prefrontal cortex. But the important finding was that activity in the self-related prefrontal cortex was damped down during intense sensory processing. What this seems to indicate, is that the self-related cortex isn’t involved in the awareness of perceptions, but is involved in allowing us to reflect upon perceptions, to judge their importance to us, and to allow us to report our experiences to the outside world.

I have a quibble with something that they say at the end of the paper: “Thus, the term “losing yourself” receives here a clear neuronal correlate. This theme has a tantalizing echoing in Eastern philosophies such as Zen teachings, which emphasize the need to enter into a “mindless,” selfless mental state to achieve a true sense of reality.”

As interesting as the study is, I think that these comments betray a rather one-dimensional view of the “self.” There are clearly many aspects to the “self:”

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Psychological: the Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious Selves
  • Relational: (Have a look back at my post form March 15th
  • Subtle
  • Spiritual

My 35-year experience and understanding of the Eastern traditions is not of simply switching off one or other of these “selves,” but of bringing full mindful attention to everything that is going on. I just came across a brief piece by Professor Charles Tart , in which he is saying something very similar, and points out, with characteristic wit, that the Eastern mindfulness teachings don’t require us to enter into a “mindless” state to find reality. After all, if you are belabored about the head and shoulders with a stout cudgel, that should also achieve that aim!

So we return to a theme on which I’ve been expounding for some time now: these studies are fascinating and interesting, but they only deal with one part of the human experience. Let me refer you back to Ken Wilber for his important views on this issue, and the long section in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, that discusses this in considerable detail. The neurological findings represent correspondences and not causes.

Another blogger, Neurocritic, picked up an amusing error in a report of this study in New Scientist . Well spotted!

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Hypnosis and Electrical Activity In the Brain

Following my post on Meditation and the Brain a perceptive reader just asked a great question:

“Has any of the research found any difference between hypnosis and meditation as it relates to brainwaves. And do people in a state of hypnosis demonstrate these high gamma waves?”

This is so interesting that I thought it was worth a short note of its own.

On the first occasion that I was hypnotized during my training, I remember thinking that the experience was very like the first stage of meditative practice: I was primarily using Vipassana back then. Subsequent subjective experiences have all tended to confirm that view: there are some similarities between trance and early meditative experiences.

There is a good amount of empirical research that tends to confirm that. John Gruzelier’s group at Imperial College in London has published some very fine work using not just electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements, but also functional MRI (fMRI). Gamma waves are between 30 to 100 Hertz, or cycles per second, and appear to reflect the way in which cells exchange information about the environment and form mental impressions. Gamma oscillations have a role in the subjective experience of pain. Not only has Gruzelier’s group shown some of the same gamma wave coherence, but also, research published in October of last year suggests that individual differences in hypnotic susceptibility are linked with the efficiency of the frontal lobe attention system. Hypnosis appears to involve a dissociation of the prefrontal cortex from other neural functions. Both the meditation and hypnosis studies have indicated that the key regions are primarily in the left frontal lobe.

The difference is that although people can demonstrate similar gamma wave activity when hypnotized, in the experienced meditators the gamma wave activity was there all the time, but would increase dramatically when meditating. How dramatic? Thirty fold higher activity than in a non-meditator. The trained brain is physically different from the untrained one.

Bob McCarley’s group at Harvard has done some interesting work in which healthy volunteers and people with schizophrenia were asked to look at images. The people suffering from schizophrenia showed no gamma wave activity at all.

Interestingly, there is also a very recent paper out in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs showing the same EEG gamma coherence in two experienced people using the Brazilian drug ayahuasca, which suggest further similarities between meditation and shamanic psychedelic practices.

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The New Frontier in Brain Control

In the 1970s, many of us in the scientific and medical fields started becoming very interested in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, in which we used monitoring devices to measure certain biological processes, like skin temperature an blood pressure, so that we could then teach people to gain some voluntary control over previously involuntary functions. I remember being particularly impressed that some people seemed to be able to gain some measure of control over epileptic seizures. Much of this interest grew out of some extraordinary experiments conducted at the Menninger Clinic in 1969, when it was still in Topeka, Kansas. An Indian Yogi named Swami Rama was shown to be able to voluntarily stop his heart for between 16.2 and 20.1 seconds, and subsequently others were shown to be able to control temperature, pain and bleeding.
In 1981, I had the privilege of setting up the first biofeedback system in the Department of Neurology at Charing Cross Hospital in London. I was quite astonished when a teenager working on the staff was, in less than 30 minutes, able to learn to increases the temperature of one hand more than three degrees Celsius (5 over in degrees Fahrenheit), compared with her other hand. We tried to use biofeedback in painful conditions and migraine, with some benefit. During the intervening years, there has been continuing interest in the whole field, but we have not seen any real reproducible breakthroughs.
But now, with the advent of new technology, things may be changing. There is an interesting report on the use of functional MRI scanning and chronic pain that was highlighted on the Nightly News with Brian Williams.
The report refers to work being done on chronic pain at Stanford University. When a person with chronic pain imagines the pain to be as bad as bad can be, specific regions of the brain become activated. Then by using an array of relaxation techniques, including breathing, muscle relaxation and thinking pleasant thoughts, the person can watch the over-activity of the brain gradually calm down as their pain lessens.

This is important work for several reasons:

It may well help people with chronic pain to use non-pharmacological approaches to the control of their pain, even if they do not have access to fancy high-tech scanners.
The work is pushing the frontier of what is possible in terms of controlling one’s own body.
It is an amazing confirmation of the teachings of many schools of teaching about health, from yoga and qigong, to Science of Mind.
It raises very interesting questions about who or what is actually controlling the pain: it gets us straight back to the whole question of where is the mind and is it the same as the brain. (The answer to that is NO: a subject for many more entries)
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that pain is often a lot more than aberrant firing of neurons or an imbalance in the some of the serotonin and norepinephrine systems of the brain. It can be brought on or exacerbated by psychological and social factors, and I have seen many people in extreme spiritual crisis, who then began to develop pain in various part of their bodies, yet had no overt signs of depression or of any other psychological or psychiatric problem.
Chronic pain often develops into a “habit,” or what I term a “pain cycle.” This may have both a physical substrate (abnormal firing in circuits in the thalamus of the brain), and a strong psychological component (pain becoming “learned”). Interrupting a pain cycle for even a few hours can often have long-term effects.
There may also be other non-pharmacological approaches that can help an individual. When dealing with chronic pain, it is also important to sort out the effects of medications. However appropriately used, some may have long term effects on the body/mind complex.

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