Meditation

I’ve been hearing about the benefits of meditation for quite some time now and I was considering it. However I’ve never actually done anything so far. But I just read about these studies from TED blog and their results convinced me to try it. Read on 🙂

For years, meditation fans have said that the practice keeps them healthy. But a new study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in November 2012, actually tested this. For the study, 201 people with coronary heart disease were asked to either (a) take a health education class promoting better diet and exercise or (b) take a class on transcendental meditation. Researchers followed up with participants for the next five years and found that those who took the meditation class had a 48% reduction in their overall risk of heart attack, stroke and death. It’s an initial study, but a promising one. [Time]

Is meditating a good way to increase creativity? Maybe, but it depends on what kind. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands looked at the way two types of meditation — focused-attention (for example, focusing on your breath) and open-monitoring (where participants focus on the both the internal and external) — affected two types of creative thinking — the ability to generate new ideas and solutions to problems. In a study published in April 2012 in Frontiers in Cognition, they revealed that the participants who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show improved results in the two creativity tasks. However, those who practiced open-monitoring meditation did perform better at task related to coming up with new ideas. [Meditation Research]

Researchers at UCLA wanted to study the brains of people who had been meditating for years, versus those who had never meditated or who had only done it for a short period of time. They took MRI scans of 100 people — half meditators and half non-meditators. They were fascinated to find that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification (a folding of the cerebral cortex that may be associated with faster information processing). In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in February of 2012, they shared that, the more years a person had been meditating, the more gyrification their MRIs revealed. [UCLA Newsroom]

Distractions are everywhere. But can meditation help a person better navigate through them? A computer scientist at the University of Washington teamed up with a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona to test this. The pair recruited 45 human resources managers, and gave a third of them eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third of them eight weeks of body relaxation training and a third of them no training at all. All the groups were given a stressful multitasking test before and after the eight weeks. In a study published in the Proceedings of Graphics Interface in May of 2012, they showed that the mindful-mediation group reported less stress as they performed the multitasking test than both of the other groups. [Washington.edu]

Taken from 4 scientific studies on how meditation can affect your heart, brain and creativity. Check it out, because Andy Puddicombe’s talk is also worth seeing.

If you are reading this and are already meditating, I would love to hear about your experiences.

What would disprove evolution?

Evolution: A scientific theory that is merely a theory, at least according to a worrying amount of people.

I haven’t touched this topic so far because I’m a biologist and this is basic knowledge for me. After learning the theory and all the supporting facts there was no room left in my mind for doubt.

But I do realize there is a huge conflict out there, especially with creationists. So I decided to add my voice to those supporting evolution. In case you’re interested for some evidence that if found could disprove evolution read on (re-blogged from this wonderful post):

…In my general talk on the evidence for evolution, I give a list of seven observations that, if repeated and confirmed, would disprove parts of the theory of evolution described above. This shows that it is a scientific theory in the Popperian sense of being falsifiable. Here are some of those conceivable observations:

  • Fossils in the wrong place (e.g., mammals in the Devonian). If the fossil record were all out of order like this (a single anomalous fossil might not overturn everything, of course, since it could be in the wrong place for other reasons), we’d have to seriously question the occurrence of evolution.
  • Adaptations in one species good only for a second species. There are plenty of adaptations in species that are good for other species, but also help members of the first species: these are the basis of mutualisms. (Cleaner fish, for example, remove parasites and dead tissue from other marine fish, but thereby gain a meal.) But we don’t expect to see—and don’t see—adaptations in one species that evolved solely for the benefit of another species.
  • A general lack of genetic variation in species. Evolution depends on genetic variation. If most species had none, they couldn’t evolve. However, the universal efficacy of artificial selection (I’m aware of only three lab experiments that failed to show a response to such breeding experiments), shows that genetic variation is ubiquitous in nearly all species.
  • Adaptations that could not have evolved by a step-by-step process of ever-increasing fitness. This is of course the contention of advocates of Intelligent Design like Michael Behe. But adaptations like the flagellum, which Behe and other IDers cite as features that couldn’t have arisen by a step-by-step process of increasing adaptation, have been shown to plausibly arise by just that process. We don’t need to completely reconstruct the evolution of things like flagella, but simply show that their evolution by a stepwise adaptive process was plausible.
  • The observation that most adaptations of individuals are inimical for individuals or their genes but good for populations/species. Such adaptations aren’t expected to evolve often because they would require the inefficient process of group or species selection rather than genic, individual, or kin selection. And indeed, we see very few features of organisms that seem inimical to organisms or their genes but useful for the population or species. One possible exception is sexual reproduction.
  • Evolved “true” altruistic behavior among non-relatives in non-social animals. What I mean by “true” altruistic behavior is the observation of an individual sacrificing its reproductive output for the benefit of individuals to which it is either unrelated or from whom it does not expect to receive return benefits. In this “true” altruism your genes give benefits to others and get nothing back, and this shouldn’t evolve under natural selection. And, indeed, we don’t see such altruism in nature. There are reports that vampire bats regurgitate blood to other individuals in the colony to whom they’re unrelated, but those need confirmation, and there may also be reciprocal altruism, so that individuals regurgitate blood to those from whom, one day, they expect a return meal. Such cooperation can evolve by normal natural selection.
  • Complete discordance between phylogenies based on morphology/fossils and on DNA. While individual genes can show discordance by lateral transfer—rotifers, for example, have incorporated into their genome from DNA from very unrelated organisms, and this is also common for bacteria. But lateral transfer of genes, as opposed to their direct descent from parent to offspring, is relatively uncommon. So, for example, if we sequenced the genome of a blue whale and found that on the whole the species was more closely related to fish than to mammals, we’d have a serious problem for the theory of evolution.

    We don’t see any of these anomalies, and so the theory of evolution is on solid ground. As I say in my book, “Despite a million chances to be wrong, evolution always comes up right. That’s as close to a scientific truth as we can get…”
  • This is only part of the post. For more scientific information on evolution and stimulating discussions you can visit the blog: Why evolution is true.

    The beautiful neuron

    Back in the days when I was doing my bachelor thesis, part of the work included visualizing neurons and neuronal networks with light microscopy. I think I will always remember the first time I saw a neuron we had stained… it was beautiful! So, so beautiful!!! Different shades of brown in the background and a black neuron standing out, with branches stretching from the soma, going in all directions creating such an intricate pattern. I remember thinking “Dendrites.. it truly is a fitting name!” (The scientific name for the branches is ‘dendrites’ – coming from the greek word ‘dendro’ meaning tree). I was in awe! I couldn’t believe this much beauty was hiding in our brains. The two weeks of early morning waking required for staining this neuron were definitely worth it.

    I increased the magnification only to discover more details.. there were even thinner branches! But there was more. Along the dendrites I could see small bulges, the spines. It was like an almond tree before blooming. Knowing that these were the points where this neuron would connect with other neurons (invisible to me because we hadn’t stained them) and transmit his information, blew my mind.


    I think I spent one hour looking at this neuron, going up and down, left and right, taking in its every micrometer. Later on, I also had to use fluorescence microscopy for my thesis. First time looking at the stained section was another mind-blowing experience. With this method, in the same sample we could visualise different networks of neurons in color! There was not a single neuron identical with another. Each one had its own unique pattern, some more interesting, other more boring, other too complicated to follow.. And with the press of one button magic would happen: the red network would change into a blue or a green one, and with each change a whole new set of neurons would be revealed! I literally felt like a child with a new toy – the most awesome toy ever! The bad thing with fluorescent dyes is that they wear out after being exposed to the light for too long. So I couldn’t enjoy and explore as much as I wanted.


    Looking back at these days, from all the work I did, the time I was spending in that dark room with my music and the microscope was by far my favorite. I really think that 1/4 of that time was just for admiring the beauty of the neurons (since I couldn’t simultaneously concentrate on the scientific question :p )! I remember my supervisor saying that you get used to it after a while and it stops being that exciting. I’m happy I never did 🙂 I prefer the feeling of disappointment when the work load was too high and there wasn’t enough time to admire that small work of art, than the desensitization to its beauty any day. Maybe if I was still doing it after 5 years, I would have gotten used to it – I can’t know. I’m just glad I’m left with this feeling of awe. This way I can fully appreciate work like this of Greg Dunn.

    Greg Dunn is a visual artist and has a Ph.D in neuroscience. I discovered him a few days ago and instantly fell in love with his work. As you figured by now, all the pictures in this post are his. Actually, deciding which ones to include has been an impossible task. So visit his personal web page Greg A. Dunn Design for more awesomeness!
    Quoting from the ‘about’ section in his site:

    I enjoy Asian art. I particularly love minimalist scroll and screen painting from the Edo period in Japan. I am also a fan of neuroscience. Therefore, it was a fine day when two of my passions came together upon the realization that the elegant forms of neurons (the cells that comprise your brain) can be painted expressively in the Asian sumi-e style. Neurons may be tiny in scale, but they possess the same beauty seen in traditional forms of the medium (trees, flowers, and animals).

    I’m really happy that I’m not the only one appreciating his work. There is an interview with him in the Huffington Post: Neuroscience Art, as well as in The Beautiful Brain (a site I discovered thanks to Greg and is now permanently under my science links section). I agree with how he sees things and I encourage you to read both of them. Here’s a small taste:

    ‘What do you find beautiful about the brain?

    It is literally the most complicated object in the known Universe! The tremendous knot of cells when connected in a certain way gives rise to a strange sense of “I” that is able to ponder and learn things about its environment. It is an utter miracle, and is at the root of why we are conscious beings able to appreciate this world and all of its beauty. How can you not love it?!

    You can read the whole interview from Beautiful Brain here.

    Discovering Greg made my week! Plus I have found the next present I will buy myself 😀

    If you know other neuro-artists – or other artists – you think I might like, please leave a comment to tell me.

    Hallucinogens – a wealth of information.

    have a look at the lyrics and especially at Bill Hick’s quotes.
     

    Being a neuroscientist means that I’m the go to person among my friends for ‘brain questions’. Today’s post is an extended answer to a friend’s enquiry about magic mushrooms and their negative effects. Because when he asked I couldn’t reliably answer – especially on negative effects, I promised that I’ll look into it. The topic turned out to be very intriguing so I ended up reading many papers, sites and reports and here’s what I found out.

     

    It seems hallucinogenic drugs have been around for ever! Actually they might have contributed to the development of early philosophy and religions. For instance Aztec shaman’s were eating teonanacatl meaning ‘god’s flesh’, none other than the magic mushrooms (Psilocybin mushrooms). In ancient India many Vedic hymns were written about soma, a ritual drink deriving from the plant called the ‘God’s of God’. In ancient Greece anyone (including poor citizens, women and slaves) who had not taken a man’s life could participate in the Eleusinian Mysteries, where kykeon was consumed (a drink presumably made from barley parasitized by ergot, a fungus that releases ergometrine – an LSD chemical precursor). The Native American Church was using peyote (mescaline is the active ingredient) as a sacrament during services and natives in the Amazon valley of South America were using Ayahuasca.. and the list goes on. Actually, Ayahuasca (an infusion of several plants containing DMT and monoamine oxidase inhibitor/MAOI) is still used nowadays in the Brazilian religion Santo Daime, which is spreading in USA and Europe – sometimes resulting in problems with local law but with court rulings in favor of Santo Daime’s members and permission to consume the hallucinogenic tea for religious purposes.

    Other names commonly used for hallucinogens are psychedelic, psychotropic, psychotomimetic and more recently entheogens (meaning generating the god within – coming from the greek word entheos). In addition to the religious and recreational use, hallucinogens are also used in psychonautics, a research paradigm where the researcher (referred as psychonaut) voluntarily immerses himself into an altered state of consciousness through mediation or hallucinogens, as a means to explore human experience and existence. And lastly we have hallucinogens to thank for many works of art. If you haven’t done in the beginning, read again the Bill Hick’s quotes. I found especially interesting this testimony from Alex Grey (for full text click here):

    Due to its visionary richness, I think the entheogenic experience has great importance for fueling an artistic and cultural renaissance. By giving artists a meaningful experience and access to deeper and higher aspects of their soul, they are given a subject worth making art about. A worthy subject is an artist’s most important discovery — it’s the magnetic passion that burns in their work and attracts them to it, and also determines whether they will attempt to evoke what is deepest and highest in their viewers.

     

    So one would logically wonder why using hallucinogens is illegal in most countries of the world and often accompanied with penalties more severe than having committed a violent crime. Honestly, after everything I’ve read I don’t know!

    Hallucinogens (from here on I’m referring only to psilocybin, LSD and mescaline) are generally considered to be physiologically safe molecules whose principal effects are on consciousness. There is no evidence they cause damage to any human body organ. They do not cause life-threatening changes in cardiovascular, renal, or hepatic function. A study by Hasler et al. in 2004 provided no cause for concern that psilocybin is hazardous with respect to somatic health. Concerning adverse effects from repeated use of hallucinogens, if they did occur they were subtle or nonsignificant. In contrast to many other abused drugs, hallucinogens do not engender drug dependence or addiction and are not considered to be reinforcing substances. As opposed to opiates, nicotine, cannabis, phencyclidine (PCP), cocaine, amphetamine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and even caffeine, hallucinogens do not activate the brain reward pathways (in other words they are not addictive).

     

    However when messing with your brain, one can’t expect everything to be happy and good. There are possible side-effects albeit very rare: The most common adverse reactions include vomiting or a bad trip but they are not long lasting. I will focus on effects that might present long after the drug use.

    > The first is flashbacks, the re-experiencing of one or more of the perceptual effects that were induced by hallucinogens but occurring after the effect of the drug has worn off or at some later time in the complete absence of the drug. Flashbacks most often appear as visual symptoms and can persist for months or in some cases years, and there appears to be no relationship between frequency of hallucinogen use and rate of occurrence.

    > The second is hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) – in a sense, the persistent version of flashbacks – characterized by a continual presence of sensory disturbances, mostly commonly visual, that are reminiscent of those generated by the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances.

    > The third (and most important in my opinion) is that hallucinogens can catalyze the onset of psychosis or depression. In other words, if there is an underlying mental condition, then hallucinogen consumption could result in it’s manifestation. But they do not appear to produce illness de novo in otherwise emotionally healthy persons, but these problems seem to be precipitated in predisposed individuals. A search of Medline in early 2003 for case reports of LSD-induced psychosis found only three reports in the previous 20 years. Therefore, if you’re thinking on experimenting first make sure no one in your family has a history of mental illness.

     

    Conducting scientific studies on hallucinogens, especially with humans is extremely difficult due to current legislation. We do know however that their effects are due to the activation of serotonin receptors of the neocortex and thalamus, also leading to increased glutamate release (serotonin and glutamate are some of the neurotransmitters released from our neurons making possible the transfer of information – sensory, motor, thoughts, memories – between the neurons). Exactly because they act solely on how information is transfered and processed (which is unique for every human, even twins), the effects of hallucinogens are heavily dependent on the expectations/mindset of the user (‘set’) & the environment (‘setting’) in which the use takes place. Moreover high doses do not always produce effects similar to low doses but at greater intensity. So don’t expect to experience the same effects between different trips.

    But if hallucinogens are not addictive, what is the motivation for continued use? Do keep in mind that their use is more often episodic, and most people stop using them after some initial experimentation (surveys have shown that hallucinogen use occurs mostly in the late teens and into the early 20s but does not usually continue after users reach their late 20s).
    When asked why they use hallucinogens, common responses include use for personal or spiritual development and increased understanding and self-discovery, that their use seems important to them, and that often they feel they gain important personal, religious, or philosophical insights.

    All these perceptions can arise as a consequence of the altered cognitive processing in the frontal cortex (the area of the brain where executive decisions and the assessment of significance occurs). It also means that the nature of the reinforcement in humans is primarily cognitive, from perceptions of greater awareness, increased understanding, or profound insights.

     

    The most interesting outcome of my search was finding out about psychedelic therapy. I know it sounds a bit funky, but especially in the ’60s hallucinogens have been used to treat alcoholism and help people suffering from anxiety and other problems associated with terminal illness. The past decade some daring scientists have entered those grounds again, dealt with what I imagine would be a nightmare of bureaucracy and conducted studies on the potential psychiatric therapeutic value of psilocybin and LSD. These are the results:

    > In 2006 a team working at John Hopkins Medicine showed that psilocybin produces substantial spiritual effects. In 2008 they did a follow-up to to that research and report that those beneficial effects appear to last more than a year. Most of the volunteers looked back on their experience up to 14 months later and rated it as the most, or one of the five most, personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives and regarded it as having increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction. For the full story click here. For the 2006 research publication click here

    > In 2006 researchers used psilocybin in a controlled clinical environment in subjects with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Surprisingly treatment with psilocybin was associated with acute reductions in core OCD symptoms in several subjects. For the full article click here.

    > In 2010 a study led by Dr. Charles S. Grob was published and demonstrates that the careful and controlled use of psilocybin may provide an alternative model for the treatment of conditions that are often minimally responsive to conventional therapies, including the profound existential anxiety and despair that often accompany advanced-stage cancers. Full study can be found here.

    “We are working with a patient population that often does not respond well to conventional treatments,” said Grob. “Following their treatments with psilocybin, the patients and their families reported benefit from the use of this hallucinogen in reducing their anxiety. This study shows psilocybin can be administered safely, and that further investigation of hallucinogens should be pursued to determine their potential benefits.”

    > In 2007, the first therapeutic study with LSD in 35 years started in Switzerland and finished last July. They were investigating LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy for End-of-Life Anxiety. Peter Gaser, the leading psychiatrist reports in his letter:

    We also can say that all the 12 participants reported a benefit from the treatment. Comments from the participants include that they see their lives more clearly; that they are more aware of what is important and meaningful and what is not for the remaining time they have; that they are more differentiated in relationships that are helpful and joyful and others that are time and energy consuming. They reported doing good and healthy things like having time for themselves, listening to music they like (or discovering music again) or being more relaxed toward everything that happened in their everyday life.

    Read more on this study:
    An Interview with Peter Gasser
    First therapeutic study of LSD in 35 years finishes treatment of last subject

     

    This post has gotten ridiculously big, so I will wrap it up. Looking for personal testimonies on the net, I discovered Shroomery.org (magic mushrooms demystified) and Erowid.org (documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives). From what I’ve read from users stories, instructions on how to use hallucinogens and precautions they advise, recreational users and psychonauts already know very well the dos and dont’s associated with these drugs. They are also well informed of potential risks. Risks that from what I read are not bigger that driving your car…

     

    Science finally is slowly catching up. It seems that a wealth of information awaits us inside our minds! There is no magic in mushrooms, just molecules affecting our serotonin receptors. Irrational fears should be put aside, and hallucinogens should be recognized for what they are: tools with the potential to help us to understand ourselves and unravel the mystery behind human consciousness… After all what better way to study consciousness, than through altered states of consciousness? Does anyone from the fields of neurophilosophy and cognitive neuroscience disagree?

    I would love to hear your opinions on the matter!
    Do you have any related question or other ‘brain questions’? Ask away 🙂
     
     

    Any information on this post without accompanying references was from this review by Nichols published in Pharmacology & Therapeutics (2003).

    A very interesting post from the creator of Erwin.org: Towards a culture of responsible psychoactive drug use.

    Ecstasy, DMT, and MDMA are also considered as hallucinogens, however they were beyond the scope of this post.

    Free online education: is this the future?

    As I mentioned in the previous post, education should be free. It’s awesome to find successful people supporting this to the fullest extent! Here are some amazing online places:

    I’ll start with my most recent discovery: Udacity. It’s a site offering free online computer science courses taught by excellent professors. And you don’t have to know anything about programming! That’s what they have the CS101 course for. The people involved have done an amazing job in organizing the courses and teaching. You get lectures, quizes, homework and exams. If you complete it successfully you get a certificate.
    I have already taken one of their courses and I highly recommend it!

    Another very interesting place with free lessons is the Khan Academy. Started with math, but has expanded to biology, chemistry, physics and much more! All thanks to volunteers 🙂

    Of course Coursera couldn’t be missing from this post. Free online courses from top universities like Princeton and Stanford on nearly all basic topics – science, medicine, humanities, economics.

    And for the little ones there is Whyville. An educational virtual world for children 8-16 years old, with a player base of more than 7 million! Whyville has received many awards for its educational value and safety. It teaches kids about a broad range of topics from science and business to art and geography.


    The most encouraging aspect is the continuous increase of the number of students attending the courses in all the sites I mentioned. And the huge number of kids using Whyville is an excellent indicator of what’s coming. People want good education that is free and the internet seems to be the best place to get it.

    Which means that universities need to become aware of the changes that are already happening and adjust.

    And a small treat for the computer geeks out there: A set of top Computer Science blogs.