How-To Guide on Mindfulness Meditation from a Stanford Neurosurgeon

Dr. James Doty gives a practical approach to taming your mind, opening your heart, and reclaiming life's most difficult experiences for yourself. It's a how-to guide and a why-to guide.

James Doty: I get asked this question of, "Geez, I haven’t meditated. How do I get started?" And it’s hard for many people because what many of us don’t appreciate is that — and I use the term in my book, a DJ, but it’s this internal dialogue and it is a dialogue that isn’t necessarily who you really are at all. It is a collection of events, experiences, commentaries from your environment that oftentimes you allow to define you. And not necessarily in a positive way. And as a result, you have an emotional response when you’re listening to these voices or this dialogue or the DJ, if you will. And the first thing that I recommend people do, and certainly as one of the bases or the legs of doing mindfulness or meditation, is to simply breathe in and out and be attuned to that. And as you get distracted if it’s really distracting, actually consciously think about the air going through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. And the very nature of that type of concentration distracts you from the dialogue. And once you’ve mastered that and you pay attention to the fact that oftentimes your muscles are very tense because again you’re carrying your emotions. And with intention, go through actually and say, "I’m relaxing the muscles in my feet, my legs, my chest, my abdomen," and so forth.

And sort of go through this process with intention doing each one of these things and with that intention it also distractions you from listening to that voice. And once you’ve done that for a period of time, then you suddenly realize the very nature of that action, the consistency of that; you’re no longer having that same emotional response or you’re not starting to listen to that dialogue. And that starts releasing you. And then the next step as you learn these techniques, the wonderful thing is you can actually change the dialogue. And change it to one where it is a supportive dialogue. One of the greatest challenges of people in the West is they have this negative internal dialogue and it’s the nature, unfortunately, of our society. In Eastern cultures — actually it’s interesting — it doesn’t really exist. And so when you, if you will, stop the DJ and then change the dialogue to one that is nurturing, supportive of yourself, the most wonderful thing that happens is your physiology changes and then the manner in which you react or interact with other people becomes completely different. And having been through this myself and seen this and taught this, it’s really quite extraordinary — the possibilities. Because when you take the time to do that breathing; when you take the time, if you will, to tame the mind; when you take the time to open your heart and recognize that not only are you suffering, but that everyone in some way or other has their own burdens. All of those steps then allow you to be much more thoughtful, kind, and interested because then you recognize that the other person is just like you. And when you recognize that key aspect, then what you do to others, you’re doing to yourself. And if you treat yourself with kindness, compassion, love, it’s so much easier then to give that gift to other people. And it changes not only that other person; it changes the entire environment around you.

 

The simple practices of mindfulness meditation can help us accomplish major goals in life. Just concentrating on our pattern of breathing, for example, brings us into a more reflectional state that helps us quiet our inner, distracting dialogue. In this interview, Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty reflects on his own experience with meditation and explains how taming your mind and opening your heart can help you reclaim some of life's most difficult experiences. Everyone's life is beset by truly challenging obstacles. Instead of treating our own burdens as character flaws, or flaws in our circumstances, we can achieve new levels of empathy through meditation.

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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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