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Taking the Woo-Woo Out of Meditation

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Which will it be? Zazen, Vipassana, Transcendental, Mantra, Dzogchen, Mindfulness, or one of the numerous other types of mediation? With everyone from business tycoons to sixth-generation monks practicing meditation, along with people like rapper, 50 Cent, publishing mogul, Rupert Murdock, singers, Sting, and Alanis Morisette – how do you pick through the woo-woo and get to the nitty gritty facts about a meditation practice?

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Fortunately, meditation has been proven beyond the fairy tale images of cross-legged sadhus, mendicants, sages and yogis peacefully serene in some verdant forest or awe-inspiring temple. There are now over 3,000 scientific studies on the benefits of meditation, with more coming to the fore all the time.

Both alternative-medicine gurus and Harvard researchers alike have now picked apart various types of meditation to learn that it is more effective than just sitting still, but all it really amounts to is this: learning to do one thing, mindfully, at one time.

Meditation has been proven to boost immunity, reduce depression and anxiety, increase empathy, and boost creativity. It can even help improve emotional intelligence and help wounds heal faster. It isn’t a magic pill, but it might come close.

Here’s a shocking truth about meditation, though. It won’t solve all your problems. As Jack Kornfield, a man responsible for helping to popularize meditation in the West in the 1970s has written,

“While I benefited enormously from the training in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced, I noticed two striking things. First, there were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch.

“Second, among the several dozen Western monks (and lots of Asian meditators) I met during my time in Asia, with a few notable exceptions, most were not helped by meditation in big areas of their lives. Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives.”

Here’s what meditation will do for you. Meditation is like working out for the brain. If you flex a muscle often enough, it becomes stronger. For many of us, focus is transient. If we try really hard, we might be able to focus for a few minutes. Most of us really only concentrate on one thing at a time for seconds. The average person thinks approximately 48.6 thoughts per minute, according to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California. That adds up to a total of 70,000 thoughts per day.

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Now ask yourself, among those many thousands of thoughts, which are constructive? Which are about the present moment, and not about hopes for the future or fears from the past? Which thoughts are happy? Which are sad? Which are helping you to achieve what you want in this lifetime, and which thoughts are holding you back? Do your thoughts help you to merge seemingly inconsistent facts in reality, or are they just a random mess which you can never seem to make sense out of? Are you regularly thinking calm, focused thoughts, or are they scattered?

While different types of meditation affect us variously, they all make lasting changes in the brain, no differently than if you were to practice playing the piano every day, or if you consistently went to the gym and lifted weights. For example:

Vipassana meditation also known as insight meditation has this effect on the brain:

  • It creates a thicker right insula which is involved in the cognitive-emotional processes which create greater empathy and self-awareness.
  • The right temporal area of the brain has increased blood flow and activity. This area is responsible for the process of hearing.
  • The right parietal area is greatly activated. This area of the brain is in charge of processing touch.
  • Attention and focus are increased as evidenced by a thicker right frontal cortex.
  • Brain wave changes include increased activity within the left-prefrontal cortex is associated with positive affect and happiness. People who suffer from depression tend to have underactivated left-prefrontal regions. Also, the sites “C3/C4” on a QEEG tend to become increasingly active during this type of meditation. These are areas within the motor system associated with moving your right hand.

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Transcendental Meditation (TM) has a tendency to create restful alertness. This is what happens to the brain:

  • The frontal lobes of the brain, associated with focused attention and advanced cognitive function become more active.
  • The parietal areas of the brain become more active. This area of the brain is associated with spacial recognition of the awareness of objects in our environment.
  • The major sensory area of the brain, the thalamus, becomes more activated in long-term TM practitioners.
  • Activity in he basal ganglia, the area of the brain responsible for controlling voluntary motor movement, procedural learning, and emotion is decreased.
  • Brain waves as measured by EEG’s with TM meditators include the increase and coherence of Alpha waves. Coherence simply means that the brain waves are being transmitted across both hemispheres of the brain, thus improving neural communication across a greater distance. This results in full-brain thinking. Alpha waves as a result of TM does not usually occur with other meditative practices. The ‘back’ or posterior of the brain tends to work more efficiently, with synchronization in these quadrants. Alpha synchronization may also serve as a “carrier” frequency for 20 Hz beta waves (cognition) and 40 Hz gamma waves (perception).

Tibetan Loving-Kindness Meditation practitioners experience exactly more of the aim of their meditation – unconditional loving kindness. On brain scans, this shows up as:

  • Decreased parietal activity. This area of the brain is responsible for our spatial orientation, and our visual attention.
  • Frontal activity is increased. The left prefrontal cortex shows particular changes in this type of meditative practice, which translates as more positive emotions and greater self-control.
  • Thalamus activity tends to increase (whereas in TM, activity in this area decreases.)
  • Brain wave changes include a tendency to display higher than average amplitude of 40 Hz gamma waves. This phenomenon is associated with advanced perceptual functions, binding of information, as well as intelligence. Those who have mental deficits tend to elicit significantly less 40 Hz activity throughout their brain. Those who practice this type of meditation will also show more Gamma waves, most often associated with less of a ‘me’ focus, and the ability to engage in loving-kindness. Gamma waves tend to be synchronized within the frontal and parietal regions of the brain. This can lead to an enhanced ability to focus as well as states of emotional bliss.

So, without the ‘woo,’ what can meditation do for you? It depends on what you are looking for. If you seek better focus, or more compassion, they are both benefits of a consistent meditative practice. There are additional meditative practices that build grey matter, and still more than can help with depression and pain or lower stress levels. Like any worthwhile endeavor, meditation takes practice. The results are dependent upon which brain muscles you build and flex.

Image credit: https: Squarespace.com, Nutwood Junction, Tumbler

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Consciousness

Physicists Suggest All Matter Could Be Made Up of Energy ‘Fragments’

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Matter is what makes up the Universe, but what makes up matter? This question has long been tricky for those who think about it – especially for the physicists.

Reflecting recent trends in physics, my colleague Jeffrey Eischen and I have described an updated way to think about matter. We propose that matter is not made of particles or waves, as was long thought, but – more fundamentally – that matter is made of fragments of energy.

From Five to One

The ancient Greeks conceived of five building blocks of matter – from bottom to top: earth, water, air, fire and aether. Aether was the matter that filled the heavens and explained the rotation of the stars, as observed from the Earth vantage point.

These were the first most basic elements from which one could build up a world. Their conceptions of the physical elements did not change dramatically for nearly 2,000 years.

Then, about 300 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton introduced the idea that all matter exists at points called particles. One hundred fifty years after that, James Clerk Maxwell introduced the electromagnetic wave – the underlying and often invisible form of magnetism, electricity and light.

The particle served as the building block for mechanics and the wave for electromagnetism – and the public settled on the particle and the wave as the two building blocks of matter. Together, the particles and waves became the building blocks of all kinds of matter.

This was a vast improvement over the ancient Greeks’ five elements but was still flawed. In a famous series of experiments, known as the double-slit experiments, light sometimes acts like a particle and at other times acts like a wave. And while the theories and math of waves and particles allow scientists to make incredibly accurate predictions about the Universe, the rules break down at the largest and tiniest scales.

Einstein proposed a remedy in his theory of general relativity. Using the mathematical tools available to him at the time, Einstein was able to better explain certain physical phenomena and also resolve a longstanding paradox relating to inertia and gravity.

But instead of improving on particles or waves, he eliminated them as he proposed the warping of space and time.

Using newer mathematical tools, my colleague and I have demonstrated a new theory that may accurately describe the Universe. Instead of basing the theory on the warping of space and time, we considered that there could be a building block that is more fundamental than the particle and the wave.

Scientists understand that particles and waves are existential opposites: A particle is a source of matter that exists at a single point, and waves exist everywhere except at the points that create them.

My colleague and I thought it made logical sense for there to be an underlying connection between them.

Flow and Fragments of Energy

Our theory begins with a new fundamental idea – that energy always “flows” through regions of space and time.

Think of energy as made up of lines that fill up a region of space and time, flowing into and out of that region, never beginning, never ending and never crossing one another.

Working from the idea of a universe of flowing energy lines, we looked for a single building block for the flowing energy. If we could find and define such a thing, we hoped we could use it to accurately make predictions about the Universe at the largest and tiniest scales.

There were many building blocks to choose from mathematically, but we sought one that had the features of both the particle and wave – concentrated like the particle but also spread out over space and time like the wave.

The answer was a building block that looks like a concentration of energy – kind of like a star – having energy that is highest at the center, and that gets smaller farther away from the center.

Much to our surprise, we discovered that there were only a limited number of ways to describe a concentration of energy that flows. Of those, we found just one that works in accordance with our mathematical definition of flow.

We named it a fragment of energy. For the math and physics aficionados, it is defined as A = -⍺/r where ⍺ is intensity and r is the distance function.

Using the fragment of energy as a building block of matter, we then constructed the math necessary to solve physics problems. The final step was to test it out.

Back to Einstein, Adding Universality

More than 100 ago, Einstein had turned to two legendary problems in physics to validate general relativity: the ever-so-slight yearly shift – or precession – in Mercury’s orbit, and the tiny bending of light as it passes the Sun.

These problems were at the two extremes of the size spectrum. Neither wave nor particle theories of matter could solve them, but general relativity did.

The theory of general relativity warped space and time in such way as to cause the trajectory of Mercury to shift and light to bend in precisely the amounts seen in astronomical observations.

If our new theory was to have a chance at replacing the particle and the wave with the presumably more fundamental fragment, we would have to be able to solve these problems with our theory, too.

For the precession-of-Mercury problem, we modeled the Sun as an enormous stationary fragment of energy and Mercury as a smaller but still enormous slow-moving fragment of energy. For the bending-of-light problem, the Sun was modeled the same way, but the photon was modeled as a minuscule fragment of energy moving at the speed of light.

In both problems, we calculated the trajectories of the moving fragments and got the same answers as those predicted by the theory of general relativity. We were stunned.

Our initial work demonstrated how a new building block is capable of accurately modeling bodies from the enormous to the minuscule. Where particles and waves break down, the fragment of energy building block held strong.

The fragment could be a single potentially universal building block from which to model reality mathematically – and update the way people think about the building blocks of the Universe.

Republished from TheConversation.com under Creative Commons

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Neuroscientist Claims That Consciousness Itself Is Its Own Energy Field

Justin MacLachlan

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A neuroscientist has suggested in a new theory that our consciousness is derived from a field of electromagnetic waves given off by neurons.

The study published last month in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness is entirely based off a theory absent of tangible evidence. However, the author of the research Johnjoe McFadden said that his hypothesis could offer a way forward for robots that think and feel emotions.

McFadden believes that neuron waves of electrical activity get sent out and as they propagate across the brain, they help compose our entire conscious experience.

Johnjoe McFadden, is a molecular geneticist and director of quantum biology at the University of Surrey. McFadden points to flaws in other models of consciousness as the reason that we don’t have sentient artificial intelligence or robots capable of achieving consciousness.

McFadden’s hypothesis swerves away from most traditional neuroscientists, who generally see consciousness as a narrative that our brain constructs out of our senses, perceptions, and actions. Instead, McFadden returns to a more empirical version of dualism — the idea that consciousness stems from something other than our brain matter.

McFadden’s theory adapts the idea of “dualism,” which is the belief that consciousness is a supernatural force. Dualism has long been rejected by scientists and ruled pseudo-science, but McFadden has attempted to apply a scientific explanation for the idea, which hasn’t been done before.

Neuroscience news reports that the theory is based on scientific fact:

“The theory is based on scientific fact: when neurons in the brain and nervous system fire, they not only send the familiar electrical signal down the wire-like nerve fibres, but they also send a pulse of electromagnetic energy into the surrounding tissue. Such energy is usually disregarded, yet it carries the same information as nerve firings, but as an immaterial wave of energy, rather than a flow of atoms in and out of the nerves.”

It’s also a fact we have an electromagnetic field surrounding our brain is well-known and is detected by brain-scanning techniques such as electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) but has previously been dismissed as irrelevant to brain function and supernatural. Instead, McFadden contends that the brain’s information-rich electromagnetic field is, in fact, itself the seat of consciousness, driving the ‘free will’ of an individual.

“How brain matter becomes aware and manages to think is a mystery that has been pondered by philosophers, theologians, mystics and ordinary people for millennia,” McFadden said in a press release published by Medical Xpress. “I believe this mystery has now been solved, and that consciousness is the experience of nerves plugging into the brain’s self-generated electromagnetic field to drive what we call ‘free will’ and our voluntary actions.”

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Ann Arbor becomes latest city to decriminalize “magic” mushrooms and other natural psychedelics

Elias Marat

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(TMU) – The city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has effectively decriminalized psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms along with other natural psychedelics in the latest sign that public opinion across the U.S. is continuing to turn against prohibitionist policies.

On Monday, the Ann Arbor City Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution that would make it the city’s lowest-ranked law enforcement priority to the investigate or arrest anyone planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, using or possessing entheogenic plants or plant compounds.

The resolution applies to all psychedelics derived from plants and fungi, including psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, ibogaine, mescaline, peyote and other substances with hallucinogenic properties deemed illegal under state and federal law.

The council also requires the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office to halt the prosecution of those involved in the use of entheogenic plants and plant compounds.

Ann Arbor now joins a growing list of cities including Denver, Colorado, and the California cities of Santa Cruz and Oakland that have decriminalized all entheogenic plants. Other cities including Chicago and Austin are considering similar measures. A ballot measure that would legalize the use of psilocybin in therapeutic settings will also be voted on in the state of Oregon this November.

The move to de-prioritize law enforcement around psychedelics was spearheaded by the efforts of local grassroots advocacy group Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor, or DNA2.

At the beginning of the year, councilmembers were skeptical about any move to decriminalize psychedelics. Since then, they’ve found themselves convinced by evidence of the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics, including for mental health treatment and treating addiction, reports MLive.

Councilmember Zachary Ackerman cited the opening of a $17 million psychedelic and consciousness research center by Johns Hopkins Medicine as proof of “the tremendous potential of these future medicines.” The Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is currently conducting clinical trials to find out whether the drug is suitable as a prescription drug for the U.S. market.

Councilmember Jack Eaton described the council’s unanimous backing for the decriminalization resolution as carrying on the city’s legacy of backing the local decriminalization of marijuana during the 1970s, when the plant was still illegal under state and federal law.

The resolution doesn’t allow for the commission of crimes or any significant violation of state or federal law, and any use of entheogenic substances that pose a threat to public health and safety could require intervention by law enforcement bodies.

In the resolution, entheogenic plants are defined as the full spectrum of plants and fungi that contain indole amines, tryptamines and phenethylamines “that can benefit psychological and physical wellness, support and enhance religious and spiritual practices, and can reestablish human’s inalienable and direct relationship to nature.”

The resolution also states that psychedelic substances can be used to address substance abuse problems, addiction, recidivism, trauma, post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, grief, cluster headaches and other debilitating conditions.

“The use of entheogenic plants, which can catalyze profound experiences of personal and spiritual growth, have been shown by scientific and clinical studies and traditional practices to be beneficial to the health and well-being of individuals and communities in addressing these conditions,” it states.

Psilocybin mushrooms are currently considered a Schedule 1 narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

However, psilocybin – the main chemical component of the mushrooms – was designated as a “breakthrough therapy” by the FDA in 2019 due to the positive results of psilocybin in treating depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental health problems.

Studies have also shown how a microdose of psilocybin—far from the level needed for a full-blown trip—actually increases the creativity and empathy of participants.

Other researchers have also found that psilocybin has provided effective help to patients struggling to quit other addictive substances such as cigarettes.

The newfound recognition of psilocybin therapy as a valid treatment has eroded old stereotypes of psilocybin as some intoxicating and hallucination-inducing party drug that drives its users insane – a reputation that largely grew out of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s when they were widely known as “psychedelic” or “magic” mushrooms.

The resolution further notes that entheogenic plants have been the basis of spiritual practices by human cultures for thousands of years, yet those who seek them for the sake of improving their health and wellbeing must risk arrest and prosecution to obtain them.

“Decriminalization of naturally occurring medicines is necessary for progress,” councilmember Jeff Hayner said in a press release from DNA2 last week, reports Detroit Metro Times. “We can no longer turn a blind eye towards the wisdom of indigenous peoples, and the bounty the earth provides. I have been moved by the testimonies of those who have found profound relief from the use of entheogenic plants.”

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