MBCT Week 3
Welcome to week 3 of the MBCT course. Here is this weeks summary of what we covered with a few notes on some home practice.
This week we looked at our natural instinct to overvalue thoughts and ruminative thinking. We explored how often we try to use thoughts to “solve” feelings but noticed how this can often lead to “circular thinking” and a worsening of the feeling that we wanted to resolve in the first place.
Please find below a recording of each of the sessions (not my voice).
Some further reading
Firstly, let’s talk about the meditations going forward. At the beginning of the meditations, you will often be asked to “just relax”. It is difficult to relax. We are conditioned as humans not to relax. Remember the section we had in Week one, on the negativity bias. Relaxing does not go hand in hand with our survival mechanisms. We have in our brain regions what’s known as the default network, and it’s active when the brain is at rest. This default mechanism plans for the future. Its purpose is to provide a sense of self by associating the past and the future together to keep us on track. Therefore, if you are finding it difficult to calm the mind engage in mindfulness practice, it is not your fault. You are fighting against five million years of evolution. So, if you find your mind wandering, just bring it gently back to the present moment, back to your breathing. The more you do this, the more skilful you will become.
Another issue, which sometimes comes up during Mindfulness practice is that when we are in the moment and a powerful emotion appears, our evolution, by way of our limbic system, (the feeling part of our brain) conditions us to avoid this feeling. Remember, we are hard-wired to avoid pain. Realising that resisting emotional pain is counter productive takes time and practice.
Throughout this course it is not necessary to understand the theory of brain science in order to become skilled at Mindfulness and obtain it’s benefits. The benefits will be obtained by engaging in formal and informal mindfulness practice on a daily basis. The neuroscience is there to help you understand what is happening and to motivate you to continue with mindfulness practice.
Cheryl Schiltz feels like she’s perpetually falling. And because she feels like she’s falling, she falls. Even when she has fallen, she feels she is still falling, perpetually, into an infinite abyss. Cheryl’s problem is that her vestibular apparatus, the sensory organ for the balance system, isn’t working.
A few years ago, Ms. Schiltz volunteered for an experimental treatment - a fat strip of tape, placed on her tongue, with an array of 144 microelectrodes about the size of a postage stamp. The strip was wired to a device that functioned like a carpenter's level (in order to replace her own damaged vestibular system), which was mounted on a hard hat that she placed on her head. The level determined her spatial coordinates and sent the information as tiny pulses to her tongue.
This machine is one of the neuroscientist, Dr Paul Bach-y-Rita’s bizarre-looking prototypes. It sends balance signals to her brain from her tongue. He hoped that this would reverse Cheryl’s nightmare.
Her brain began decoding signals from this carpenter’s level in the hat she was wearing. As she tilted forward with the hat containing the carpenters level on her head she felt electric shocks on her tongue. She then tilted back and more small electric shocks (that felt like champagne bubbles) went off on the front of her tongue. She closed her eyes and experimented with this for a while. Soon she had forgotten that this sensory information was coming from her tongue and she was able to balance normally with the aid of this device.
Now came the second neuroplastic marvel. Cheryl removed the tongue device and took off the hat. She gave a big grin, and stood up with her eyes closed, and didn’t fall. The first time they tried the hat, Cheryl wore it for only a minute. They noticed that after she took it off, there was a “residual effect” that lasted about twenty seconds. Then Cheryl wore the hat for two minutes and the residual effect lasted about forty seconds.
Over the next year Cheryl wore the device more frequently to get relief and build up her residual effect. Her residual effect progressed to multiple hours, to days, and then to four months. Now she does not need to use the device at all and no longer considers herself a Wobbler. What happened here is that a damaged brain changed its own structure and learned to replace lost functions.
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking and emotions.
The brain is the organ that learns, so it is designed to change with your experiences. Whatever you repeatedly sense, feel, want and think is slowly sculpting neural structure. As you are reading this, in five cups of tofu-like tissue inside your head, nested amidst a trillion support cells, 80-100 billion neurons are signalling each other in a network with about half a quadrillion of connections called synapses. All of this incredibly fast, complex and dynamic neural activity is continually changing your brain. Active synapses become more sensitive, new synapses start growing within minutes, busy regions get more blood since they need more oxygen and glucose to do their work, and genes within neurons turn on and off. Meanwhile, less active connections wither away in a process sometimes called neural Darwinism: the survival of the busiest.
All mental activity - sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes - is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/neural activity will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed.
Neuroscience states: "Neurons that fire together, wire together." That is, mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain. This is what scientist call "experience-dependent neuroplasticity", which is a key area of contemporary research. For example, London taxi drivers memorising the city's streets have thickened neural layers in their hippocampus, the region that helps make visual-spatial memories. Like building a muscle, these drivers worked a part of their brain and grew new tissue there.
In previously mentioned research, mindfulness meditators have a thicker cortex in three key regions: prefrontal areas behind the forehead that control attention; the insula, which we use for tuning into ourselves and others; and the hippocampus. Your experiences don't just grow new synapses, but also reach down to the gene level, into little strips of atoms in the twisted molecules of DNA inside the nuclei of neurons, and change how they operate. For instance, if you routinely practice meditation, it will increase the activity of genes that calm down stress reactions, thus increasing resilience.
From these research studies, one simple truth stands out: Your thoughts, your experiences and what you tell yourself about these experiences matter. It's not just how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially for what's in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is key; it highlights what it lands on and imprints it on your brain, forming negative or positive programmes. The choice is yours.
There is a traditional saying in psychology that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. From what we now know through fMRI functionality and experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version of this saying is that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon. So, if you can rest your mind on the positive, over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hard-wired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic and positive outlook. Why then would you rest on the negative? Over the past week where has your mind been resting?
The science of experience-dependent neuroplasticity shows that each one of us has the power to change our brains for the better. If you don't use this power yourself, other forces will shape your brain for you - for example, technology, media, painful past experiences and Mother Nature herself - through the brain’s negativity bias. Using self-directed neuroplasticity - i.e. by paying attention to the good you will turn these experiences into good neural structure. To put it more technically, you will activate mental states and install them as neural traits. Then when required you can draw upon these neural traits, which are your inner strengths, the good that you have actively grown in your mind, synapse by synapse.
Why it is so important to reconnect with our bodies
Over the past two weeks, in doing the Body Scan and the Mindfulness of body and breath meditations you have been asked to observe with curiosity, acceptance and kindness, what is happening in your mind by observing sensations in your body. As mentioned earlier in Week 3, we are further developing this skill. Some may ask the question, why do we do this, and what have our bodies got to do with it?
There are two reasons for working with our bodies - vividness and resolution. What exactly does this mean? Every emotion you experience has a mapping in your body. Dr Laura Delizonna, defines emotion as “a physiological state that is characterised by identifiable bodily changes”. This means that you able to experience emotions with greater clarity in the body as opposed to relying solely on your mind. In short, you are able to obtain more information from an emotion by observing it in the body. This is what I mean by vividness. When we speak about resolution, what we are saying is that over a period of time, you are able to observe an emotion rising, falling and ultimately dissolving. This concept is useful in ‘urge surfing’ a technique used to combat addiction type problems (more about this in our module on addiction). The better you are at developing the skill to view your emotions in your body as bodily sensations (a pain or a tightness or a shortness of breath), the better you are at being able to manage these emotions.
The way this is achieved is to apply Mindfulness to your body. From a formal Mindfulness viewpoint, this means regularly practicing the Body Scan meditation, Mindfulness of movement and walking meditations. From an informal Mindfulness viewpoint, this means that as you go about your day-to-day life, you attempt to pay full attention to what is happening in your body in a curious, kind and accepting manner.
As an example, imagine you are in a coffee shop and somebody says or does something that manifests itself in anger in you. You may experience tightness in your chest or/and feel your fists beginning to clench. As you become more skilful with your body you will begin to notice and pay attention to these bodily sensations. This knowledge gives you the possibility to respond in a more skilled way. You may decide to engage in a ten second breathing meditation and let the emotion dissolve. Alternatively, you may get up and go to the toilet as a distraction. The important aspect to note is that this knowledge presents you with options which help you to avoid saying something you might later regret.
Another reason why we develop the skill to sense what is happening in our bodies is to do with our intuition. Steve Jobs gave an emotional lecture to a class at Stanford University. His advice was “Don’t let the voice of others drown out your inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow know what you truly want to become”. In order to hear this inner voice or intuition you need to listen to your body’s messages.
The insula, which is found behind the frontal lobes of the brain maps your bodies insides via brain circuitry which links your heart, liver, genitals, lungs and kidneys. Every organ in your body has a representation in the insula. The insula is essentially a control centre for all of your organs. For example, it may send the lungs a signal to take a deeper breath or a signal to the heart to quicken its heart rate. When you focus your attention to a part of your body, your insula’s sensitivity to that region increases. For example, if you listen to your breathing your insula will turn on more neurons in that brain circuitry. A recent study showed that the ability of people to hear their heartbeat has become a standard way to measure self-awareness. The better people are at this the bigger their insula. Our “gut feelings” are messages from the insula that allow us to simplify life decisions. The better you become at reading these messages the better your intuition.
Daniel Goleman in his excellent book, Focus, recounts a story where a marathon runner was leaving for a race four hundred miles away. She felt that tug inside and ignored it. As she continued driving down the road it kept returning. Then, she realised what was tugging at her. She had forgotten her shoes! She subsequently managed to find a sports shop which sold the correct running shoes and she successfully participated in the marathon. Throughout your daily life you experience such tugs. Mindfulness practice helps you to fine tune these signals, resulting in you being able to make better life decisions.
1) This week please have another go at practicing the mindfulness of breath exercise as well as practicing the 3 minute breathing exercise ideally once or twice a day (One of the reasons why this three-minute Meditation is so important is because it is so short. It is a meditation that can be used when you are waiting at the traffic lights, or in a queue or when your bodily sensations tell you that you are becoming angry. Many course participants have said that this is the Meditation that they have used most frequently to help them).
2) Fill out your pleasant and unpleasant events form and bring your observations along to the next session (you will never be expected to share anything with the group if you don’t want to).
Remember, take from this what YOU need. This is purely for your benefit and your learning. We all have different paces of learning and the important thing is that you take from this what is useful and helpful for your life.
At the end of the day all we are doing is just WATCHING the way our thoughts, feelings and behaviours interacct - like we have just landed on planet earth!
I look forward to seeing you next week.