Washington was making Rep. Tim Ryan sick … until he found mindfulness

Ohio Democrat touts emotional, cognitive, health benefits of meditative practice

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Research also indicates that regular meditation makes people better, well, people — more patient, empathetic and altruistic, and less hostile, angry and fearful.

In one behavioral study, meditators reacted angrily half as often as non-meditators when on the receiving end of an unfair offer in the “ultimatum game,” a classic economic experiment in which two people are asked to split a sum of money: One player decides the proportion of the split, and if the second player rejects it, both players get nothing.

“Mindfulness is a major tool in the overall toolbox of mental strengths,” said Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of “Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time.” “It might seem weird, or from the East, or anti-Christian. But it’s consistent with a long line in Western philosophy and culture going all the way back to Socrates, the importance of being aware of your inner workings.

“We also know that these inner skills are basically like working a muscle. You work it a little, you get a little change. If you work it a lot, you get a lot.”

How so? According to Mr. Davidson, regular meditation produces positive structural and functional changes in the pathways of the brain that regulate attention and emotion — which in turn are connected to the body’s immune, endocrine and visceral systems. Research also suggests that mindfulness-based meditation decreases both inflammation and the production of the stress hormone cortisol, both of which have been linked to a number of chronic diseases.

Mr. Hanson said that cortisol sensitizes the amygdala, an almond-shaped portion of the brain that regulates fear and is linked with aggression; scientists strongly suspect that abnormal amygdala function plays an important role in phobias, autism, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s the alarm bell of the brain, tied to ancient circuits, and particularly focused on threats,” Mr. Hanson said. “It made sense for cavemen, because rule one in the wild is ‘Eat lunch today, don’t be lunch today.’

“In modern everyday life, though, just juggling a lot of tasks, running your kids from here to there, worrying about your pension — let alone working in Washington, D.C., which is like warfare without bullets — what all of that does is activate the amygdala, making us feel more and more threatened and reactive.”

The result is a vicious cycle: Stress fires up the amygdala, which overreacts to our environment, which begets more stress. The good news? A study last year found that people who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable reduction of gray matter in their amygdalas and an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus, an area associated with learning and memory.

Other studies, Mr. Hanson said, have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness also experience thickening of the insular cortex, a small area of the brain involved with social emotions — empathy, morality, even joy at hearing music — and monitoring the body’s internal state.

“At the end of their training, London taxicab drivers have thicker tissue in the part of the brain that does spatial processing and visual memory,” Mr. Hanson said. “We know now that the brain is constantly changing its structure. The question is, is it changing for better or worse — and also, who is doing the changing?”

Liz Stanley, a Georgetown University professor and former U.S. Army intelligence officer, has created a mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training program -called “M-fit” — for the Marines, designed to help soldiers not only perform better under combat stress, but also cope with traumatic memories following deployment.

Three years ago, Mr. Ryan secured $982,000 in federal funding for a social and emotional learning course that teaches mindfulness techniques to students at two elementary schools in his Ohio district.

School officials were so pleased with the effects on student behavior, Mr. Ryan said, that they have added additional mindfulness instructors beyond the federal program.

“Kids are growing up with a bombardment of information through technology,” Mr. Ryan said. “We’re basically teaching them how to calm down the part of the brain that is preventing them from learning how to pay attention. It’s a beautiful thing to walk into classrooms and hear stories about how it’s transforming them.”

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