Being conscious in the present moment

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

I listened to a recent Radio 4 radio programme and in it, they were talking about the lifestyles that we have developed in the 21st century. We are immersed in time-bound activities. Whether at work, in our social circles or even in our personal lives. Whether it is checking Facebook multiple times a day. Posting endless tweets, I think of it as chirping like a bird. Endlessly checking e:mails. Running from one meeting to another without a break in between. Watching TV whilst eating dinner. You get the picture. I am sure if you stopped for a moment, you can add to the list with some of the things that you do.

I love the fact that most people would call themselves, “Human Beings”. We are not. We are in fact “Human Doings” rather than “Human Beings”. We spend all of our lives doing things, rather than being present in the moment, every moment. Even in inside our heads, we ruminate and constantly have thoughts flickering and jumping out. I have no idea who measured it, but someone has come up with the fact that we have on average, between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day.

Mindfulness meditation helps to calm the jumping mind, as well as make you more present and conscious in the present moment. Those fleeting moments, where the mind stills, the thoughts cease and you are at peace are truly magical.

As a questing and inquisitive person, I was wondering what being conscious meant, when I saw an article entitled – A great brief video introduction to consciousness and its myriad mysteries. I have shared the link and the separate article that related to the video at the end of this post.

I loved the tag-line on the video – Here’s what we know, and what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we know, and what we don’t know we don’t know. (The Economist) – and sat and watched it a couple of times. The science of consciousness and what it means to be human is the basis of the video. We might be the only species on the planet that have consciousness, though there is research to say that Bonobos, orang-utans, elephants, dolphins and magpies react in ways that might be interpreted as self-recognition. Gorillas, gibbons, monkeys, dogs and pigeons do not.

Scientists are searching for the neural correlates of consciousness—the bits of the brain responsible for generating conscious experience. In effect where consciousness exits in our brains. The article and video go on to describe one area of the brain that is of particular interest. The claustrum. This is a prime candidate because of its extensive connections with other parts of the brain. A crucial property of consciousness is that it integrates many sorts of experience, both sensory and internally generated. Discovering how this integration happens is known as the binding problem. In 2005, a paper published by Francis Crick and Christof Koch looked at the binding problem. The two researchers lit upon the claustrum as something that might help illuminate it.

The claustra (there are two, one in each cerebral hemisphere—see diagram) are thin sheets of nerve cells tucked below the cerebral cortex that have connections both to and from almost every area of the cortex. They are the only structures that link the various parts of the cortex in this way. More research is underway to try to confirm that this is the centre of our consciousness.

As for me, I will continue to practice being the present moment and try to still my ever “roving claustrum”. 

The video is here:

http://boingboing.net/2015/09/11/a-great-brief-video-introducti.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+boingboing%2FiBag+%28Boing+Boing%29

The article is here:

http://www.economist.com/news/science-brief/21664060-final-brief-our-series-looks-most-profound-scientific-mystery-all-one

An article on animal self awareness:

http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/10-animals-with-self-awareness.html

I leave you with the following quote:

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.   Delicious Ambiguity.” ― Gilda Radner

What does Mindfulness Meditation do to your brain?

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

There are a raft of articles that talk about the calming effects of meditation. Meditation helps relieve our levels of anxiety and depression and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being. What is starting to come to light through medical research across the globe, is the impact on the structures of the brain. The practice of mindfulness meditation appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from reductions in fear and stress levels, through changes in the amount of grey matter up top, to reduced activity in the “monkey mind” centers of the brain, and even enhanced connectivity between brain regions.

So what are some of the effects of mindfulness?

Fear is reduced

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. The pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. In effect, fear and stress is reduced.

Amounts of grey matter up top

A study from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain – although older meditators still had some volume loss – compared to younger meditators. So the longer you practice mindfulness meditation, the better the impact on the amount of grey matter.

The “monkey mind”

Another study carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-oriented thoughts, what people call the “monkey mind.” Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to turn down the volume of this mind activity. Several studies have shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the default mode network, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it. I have noticed this myself through my practice. I am much more able to turn away from the rumblings of my mind and focus on a specific thought.

Better concentration

Having problems concentrating isn’t just a kid thing – it affects millions of grown-ups as well. One of the central benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory. Since the strong focus of attention on your breath or and an idea, is one of the central aims of mindfulness meditation, it’s not so surprising that it should help people’s cognitive skills on the job as well. I can not say with certainty that the mindfulness practice has made me more attentive at work, though I certainly feel as if I am.

Now you might be thinking, that using mindfulness meditation to change the brain takes years to have an impact. Wrong. World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson is one of the leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, on the brain. He is the Founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, with Sharon Begley, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.“The structure of the brain can change in 1.5 hours of practice,” said Richard Davidson.

This is a short article that covers a very wide rangning set of studies. For further articles that you might find of interest, please go to:

Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain – Harvard Business Review:

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

“Train Your Brain” Webinar Audio Recording Featuring Richie Davidson and Dan Harris, hosted by Mindful.org

To listen to Richard Davidson talk about the benefits of Mindfulness, go to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI1pxA7lJ-Y

What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/

As always, I leave you with a quote….

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” ― Dr. Seuss