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Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Has Many Surprising Benefits

MeditationSara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:

Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?

Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.

The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.

I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.

At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.

Q: How did you do the research?

Lazar: The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.

We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.

It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.

We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week  mindfulness- based stress reduction program.

Q: What did you find?

Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:

1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.

2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.

3.  The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.

4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?

Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.

In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.

Q: So, 40 minutes a day?

Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.

In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.

There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.

Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.

We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.

Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?

Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.

But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.

It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.

Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?

Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless

Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?

Lazar: Yes and yes.

Q: What difference has it made in your life?

Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.

Q: What’s your own practice?

Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.


Horoscope for the Month of July 2015 and Week of June 29, 2015

Miley cyrusPut more oomph in your life this July as Mars sizzles in Cancer and trines retro Neptune. What this means is that our actions can lead us into wild and risky temptation. Ouch! But what a way to go!

(Miley Cyrus has Mars in Cancer)

  Never miss your horoscope again -- free sign up here. Here is my favorite book on astrology and a "must" for anyone interested in learning more: Secrets from a Stargazer's Notebook: Making Astrology Work for You and here's a guide to the best books available this month. This column is (c) 2015 THE STARRY EYE, LLC., All Rights Reserved. For Entertainment Purposes Only. Madam Lichtenstein is the author of the best selling astrology book “HerScopes ” now in its 8th printing and available as an eBook.

Anything that you try to arrange, compromise or accomplish with relatives will have a way of kabooming when you least expect it. But don’t sweat the range of possible outcomes, Aries. Things will now go as they will go at home and with family. You cannot control others. You can only control yourself. Show your self control ... or take a short vacation!

TAURUS   (APRIL 21 - MAY 21)
Even the best of friends can miscommunicate now. And, surprisingly, this may not lead to catastrophe or harsh words. In fact you two may have a meeting of the minds that could lead to a much deeper connection. Will you go head over heels in a lofty cloud? Anything is possible Taurus. But be prepared to fall back to earth as the cosmic dust dissipates. Oops.

GEMINI   (MAY 22 - JUNE 21)
As I gaze into my crystal ball I see that money will figure prominently for you, Gemini. This can mean a raise, an unexpected reward or gift or it could go the other way - an unexpectedly large expense. Check your personal karma to see which way the scales fall. Have you been diligently working hard and impressing your boss? Uh oh.

CANCER   (JUNE 22 - JULY 23)
You manage to impress a big mucky muck who will then help you out in numerous delightful ways. Good for you, Cancer! So keep your eye out for the powerbroker who can make things happen for you. And you might always have to be “on”, just in case. But you only have to work it for a few weeks. You can go back to your true personality after that.

LEO   (JULY 24 - AUGUST 23)
Work behind the scenes and see how to best use your seductive talents. Leos have big bright plans that require extra wattage. You need to be able to rub elbows with heavy hitters and big money makers. There will be intrigue and competition but you have surprising staying power and charisma. Uh, maybe you should h ire a press agent, just in case...?

A particular friendship might progress to ongoing love or temporary lust now. Which do you think it will be? And is this what you really want? On the one hand it could wind up to be the perfect match for you. On the other hand, if it doesn’t work out, you could lose a good compadre. It is your choice to make, Virgo.  Oh decisions, decisions.

Are you working hard or hardly working, Libra? This week the chickens will come home to roost if you have been lazy or slacking off in your job. You may not realize it but all eyes are on you and there are great expectations about your accomplishments. I think you will rise to the task! Or are you just getting up to get that umpteenth cup of coffee...?

You have itchy feet and are ready and raring to get away from it all, Scorpio. So where will the trade winds carry you? Expect great adventure, some light and flirty romance to keep things interesting and overall great fun. If time and money are tight, find your jollies closer to home. How about an all night party fest in some offbeat part of town? Bring your bongos.

Sagittarians are feeling especially sexy and alluring, for a change. You have ample charisma and spicy ha cha cha. So don’t be shy or retiring. Show off your talents and ply your trade with your special someone. If you are on the prowl for a soulmate, re-make your home into a delightful destination. Make it into a love nest and then see who flies in.

Bank on your beautiful eloquence this week, Capricorn. You have great powers of persuasion that could elevate and heat up a current relationship, possibly save a failing one or put a nice closure on a poor one. Decide how important it is to you and speak from your heart. Before you know it you will have them exactly where you want them. Err, exactly where is that?

If you find yourself toiling into the small hours of the night for your job it may be a good time to take a clear and calculated look at where you are and where you want to be. Aquarians have higher aspirations and lofty goals to achieve. Put your sweat equity to work to create equity for you and not only your boss. Start the revolution and see where you march.

Get your party shoes on Pisces and prepare to kick up some dust. This is your week to get yourself in front of the movers and shakers and move and shake a bit yourself. Implement your grand plans, find a mentor and start building. Get creative, have fun doing it and toss it a bit of crazy romance to make it interesting. If not now, when? If not you, who?

Lucky Numbers for the Week of June 26, 2015

Lottery ads tell us you only need a dollar and a dream. But it is also helpful to have a list of lucky numbers to help spur the good fortune ... or fortunes. So with that in mind, here are some lucky numbers that can be used in any helpful way. I gazed into a pool of water, Nostradamus-like, and contemplated the cosmos. Then I mixed the tarot cards and allowed the spirits to guide me to the cards that represent the lucky numbers for this week. Nothing is guaranteed but who knows ....?

I choose eight numbers because 8 is the number of wealth.

Here are the lucky numbers for the week of June 26-July 2, 2015:

2, 17, 25, 32, 35, 47, 55, 73

There are many ways to delve into your own consciousness to find luck and intuition. Try reading Dream Power/Improve Your Luck (Super Strength Series) and see if your dreams give you any clues and premonitions. Here's a guide to the best books available this mon

LoveScope Horoscope for June 24, 2015

LovescopesLife lessons come fast and furious this week. Yes we are all the better for it but some of us may go through the paces. Try for a meandering walk rather than a jog.

Take a vacation and escape to parts unknown. Aries should plan their itinerary carefully and triple check their reservations to make sure there are no miscommunications. It would be a shame to plan a glorious trip to Paris and wind up in Podunk. Or would it...?

TAURUS   (APRIL 21 - MAY 21)
Taureans make their sexual mark when the cosmos turns your hot tub on to full boil. This is the time to make your dreams come true  so stop being part of the rat pack and get out on your own to meet and greet. Choose quality and not a bunch of rats for a change.

GEMINI   (MAY 22 - JUNE 21)
Geminis concentrate on relationships and how to best find a connection with a soulmate. Fortify your current partnership if you have one or do all you can to find the right person by the end of the summer when your sexual energy peaks. Waste not want not!

CANCER   (JUNE 22 - JULY 23)
Keep your nose to the grindstone on the job. Ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Cancers make molehills out of mountains of work when intensely focused energy gets all tasks done. And get going on exercise and diet. Treat your body like the shrine it is.

LEO   (JULY 24 - AUGUST 23)
Tap into your artistic muse and allow your creativity full rein. Let the juices flow and revitalize your spirit with all sorts of artistic enterprises. You may be led down some deadends but what the heck? Leos sometimes need a push to let loose and have fun. This is the push

Life will not be dull around the house for Virgos. It may not be the best time to engage in intensely revealing family discussions now since both sides will misinterpret and over react. Avoid all that and invite a few pals over instead for a relaxing basheroo?

The check is in the mail.... and if you believe that I’ve a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. Wires get crossed and money wasted but don’t panic, Libra. You can salvage the moment by maintaining a sense of humor and patience. The schmutz will pass.

Scorpios make more dollars and cents. Focus on your finances even as the fates tempt you to overspend and splurge once too often. Watch the bottom line as carefully as you can. If it looks good, plan a bunch of festive summer soirees and never mind the expense.

A new broom sweeps clean for Sagittarius. Launch into new beginnings; new ideas, a new "look" (tight black  leather...?), new folks, I could go on and on...Welcome all these possibilities enthusiastically. Change is always nerve racking,but embrace the change... in  you!

Expect static on the psychic line so avoid reacting to a gut feeling. Capricorns find that they can turn on the charm and provide an extra dose of charisma when needed. Show ‘em what you’ve got but don’t spend it all in one place; you’re too good to waste.

Aquarians can salvage platonic relationships by their open and generous attitudes. Good things come from hidden places so remain loose and available. Volunteer for a worthy charity and enjoy the karmic payback. But don’t accept personal checks.

Pisces gear up for a new emphasis on career strategies that force you to consider long term professional goals. What do you want to be when you grow up? Advance your career by avoiding any confrontations with bosses. I just love a fish in pinstripes.

Never miss your horoscope again -- free sign up here. Here is my favorite book on astrology and a "must" for anyone interested in learning more: Secrets from a Stargazer's Notebook: Making Astrology Work for You and here's a guide to the best books available this month. This column is (c) 2014 THE STARRY EYE, LLC., All Rights Reserved. For Entertainment Purposes Only. Madam Lichtenstein is the author of the best selling astrology book “HerScopes ” now in its 8th printing and available as an eBook

Plus Size Yoga Enthusiast Shows that Fitness is for Everybody

Jessamyn stanley27-year-old yogi Jessamyn Stanley isn’t like most of her colleagues. As you can see, she’s not your typical lean, toned yoga enthusiast – but for Stanley and her more than 55,000 Instagram followers, they don’t mind at all!

The North Carolina-based body positive advocate started doing Bikram yoga a few years ago after acquiring a Groupon pass. Stanley immediately fell in love with it and she soon started appreciating her body more, posting pics of herself doing different poses on Instagram.

The self-confessed ‘fat femme’ soon drew attention from many who shared the same problem – of being judged for their size while working out. Stanley, in response, teaches these people to be confident with what they have. ‘Your body is not standing in your way. Only your mind is standing in your way’, she says.

Find out more about Jessamyn Stanley here in a recent interview with NY Mag.

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