Meditation and MRI scans – amazing evidence

The video below is a short TED talk given by Dr Sara Lazar. She describes the scientific evidence from a study she and her team conducted, that shows real structural changes in the brain after the subject group undertook just a few weeks of meditation practice. Extra motivation for those of us who already choose to follow any form of mindfulness – and food for thought for those who might be thinking of doing so.

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Feel as though your brain is melting?

Michelangelo Pieta Firenze

Take a hammer to this?

Anyone who has ever embarked on any creative venture will know the feeling: the first rush of blind enthusiasm where you know this is going to be the greatest story/painting/song ever. Then the hard slog of doing the work. Then the despair.

Your brilliant new baby sucks. It sucks on a scale that makes trashing it and melting your brain in the company of the Kardashians/Angry Birds/Simon Cowell seem like a valid life choice. People will gather and talk in hushed voices about just how much it sucks and point at you and laugh. Forever.

It happens to everyone. Michelangelo famously took a hammer and chisel to his Florentine Pieta. Unable to see a way forward (what we now refer to as being ‘blocked’) he attacked the marble. The reconstructed sculpture may still be seen in Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. Even after he smashed it in despair his contemporaries knew it was so good it just had to be reconstructed.

Vasari, In his Lives of the Artists gives several possible reasons why a genius of Buonarotti’s ability fell into such a bleak exasperated blockage. Now we might know. It could be his brain was just the wrong shape!

Here is a great video on the scientific investigations into the effects of meditation or prayer on the brain – take a look when you have the time. I say ‘meditation or prayer’ because, although in the West the attainment of altered states of consciousness is mostly associated with Eastern religions and philosophies, in reality the practices of the Hesychasts(the use of the Jesus Prayer particularly) and Sufi mystics(in the practice of Zikr) are indistinguishable in the effects on brain function from their Buddhist or Daoist counterparts.

Using MRI scans it can now be demonstrated that even short term meditation/concentration practices can affect the activity and the structure of the brain. Not only do emotional patterns alter for the better, but the physical construction of vital areas of the cortex are radically altered – long term. So now the guys and girls with pointy heads and lab coats are saying ‘Hey! This stuff really works.’ – and you need not be of any religious persuasion to benefit.The same techniques used by the mystics are just as effective when applied in an agnostic environment.

But what has this to do with the creative process? Well, dream or trance states have long been associated with creativity. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the experts –

I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.
Vincent Van Gogh

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge here is referring to his writing of Kubla Khan, which was disturbed by his ‘visitor from Porlock’. Once the stream of thought was broken Coleridge never recovered the lost lines, and the poem was published as a fragment. So his normal waking state was unable to reach the heights that his altered consciousness had scaled. Psychology now has many terms for this intensified ability. Sports stars talk of ‘being in the zone’. Creatives may talk of ‘flow’. It’s that little piece of heaven where the words or brush-strokes just seem to create themselves and time dissolves. We’ve all felt like this at some time – whether when sweating over the next big thing, or nailing the downhill slalom on Wii Fit – some days it just works.

But that’s the problem, right? It’s only some of the time, and you have to come out of the altered state to record your brilliant new creations – and so most of the stardust will be lost, crumbling like Dracula on a sunbed.

Maybe. Or rather, maybe once. But now, with new technologies arrive new techniques. The closest anyone could come to relaxing into a dream state whilst writing used to be having a personal secretary to transcribe their words. Now however using speech recognition software we have the perfect opportunity to do just this.

Instead of sitting hunched over the keyboard you can lie back, spend five minutes settling into a relaxed state and then just let it flow. The software takes the words from your microphone and does all the hard work. You just create. No block, no staring at a blank screen until the sweat of fear blinds you. Just a peaceful, calming process, where the ideas spill out as you sink deeper into your altered state of mind.

So you have the opportunity not only to increase your workflow, but to be making yourself happier and healthier at the same time. Sounds like a Win/Win.

Of course, this is no way to take on the hard yards of the editing process. But for first drafts and explorations of new ideas I don’t believe it can be bettered. Once the software is set up(you need to spend a couple of hours ‘training’ it to your voice) then away you go. And bear in mind most people’s talking speed is several times their typing ability. So productivity will rise as well. It certainly worked for Barbara Cartland who produced hundreds of novels and plays using the dictation method. You may not find her heavily perfumed romances to your taste, but you can’t knock the output. And you don’t even have to dress in pink taffeta to do it! Oh alright, you can if you really want.

Image of the Pieta used under Wikimedia Commons. Original by MM. If any of the ideas in this post are of interest you might care to look at the Insight meditation centre. A paper describing the science is here. There are many excellent books on relaxation and self-hypnosis.

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