Jan 28, 2011

How Meditation May Change the Brain

Sindya N. Bhanoo
New York Times
January 28, 2011

Over the December holidays, my husband went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Not my idea of fun, but he came back rejuvenated and energetic.

He said the experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours daily, one hour in the morning and one in the evening, until the end of March. He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

I’ll admit I’m a skeptic.

But now, scientists say that meditators like my husband may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

But how exactly did these study volunteers, all seeking stress reduction in their lives but new to the practice, meditate? So many people talk about meditating these days. Within four miles of our Bay Area home, there are at least six centers that offer some type of meditation class, and I often hear phrases like, “So how was your sit today?”

Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to the same ancient Buddhist techniques that my husband follows.

“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.”

Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.

Of course, it’s important to remember that the human brain is complicated. Understanding what the increased density of gray matter really means is still, well, a gray area.

“The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” Dr. Hölzel said. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

It has been hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation, but a 2009 study suggests that meditation may reduce blood pressure in patients with coronary heart disease. And a 2007 study found that meditators have longer attention spans.

Previous studies have also shown that there are structural differences between the brains of meditators and those who don’t meditate, although this new study is the first to document changes in gray matter over time through meditation.

Ultimately, Dr. Hölzel said she and her colleagues would like to demonstrate how meditation results in definitive improvements in people’s lives.

“A lot of studies find that it increases well-being, improves quality of life, but it’s always hard to determine how you can objectively test that,” she said. “Relatively little is known about the brain and the psychological mechanisms about how this is being done.”

In a 2008 study published in the journal PloS One, researchers found that when meditators heard the sounds of people suffering, they had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures, a part of the brain tied to empathy, than people who did not meditate.

“They may be more willing to help when someone suffers, and act more compassionately,” Dr. Hölzel said.

Further study is needed, but that bodes well for me.

For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night.

An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.


Jan 26, 2011

James Ray's attorneys seek to exclude witnesses

Arizona Family
January 26, 2011

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Defense attorneys for a self-help guru facing manslaughter charges are asking a judge to keep two of the state's witnesses from testifying at trial
James Arthur Ray's attorneys say the testimony of a man who studies cult behavior and a corporate risk management expert is irrelevant and would distract the jury.

Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter stemming from the deaths of three people following a sweat lodge ceremony he led near Sedona in 2009.

Prosecutors say Ross will explain why participants felt they couldn't leave the ceremony, and Steven Pace will speak to safety measures.

If Ross' testimony is allowed, prosecutors want the judge to prohibit the defense from bringing up his criminal history or cult deprogramming practices.
Ray's trial is set to begin Feb. 16.

Jan 23, 2011

Parents awarded $1 million in suit claiming therapists created false memories of abuse

Wisconsin State Journal
January 23, 2011

A Dane County jury has awarded $1 million to a former Madison couple who claimed therapists created in their daughter false memories of childhood sexual and physical abuse.

Jurors early Sunday found two of the three therapists who treated Charlotte Johnson in the early 1990s professionally negligent, said attorney Bill Smoler, who represented her parents, Dr. Charles and Karen Johnson.

The couple, now of St. Louis, had been accused by their daughter of being Satanists and incest perpetrators. Charlotte Johnson had come to believe that her father had raped her at age 3, that her mother had come after her with a knife and tried to drown her, and that the family dabbled in cults and infanticide, said Smoler, who termed the alleged memories "outrageous."

The jury assigned 70 percent of the negligence to therapist Jeff Hollowell, who formerly practiced at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, and 30 percent of the negligence to Madison therapist Kay Phillips, Smoler said.

Therapist Tim Reisenauer, who also practiced at Rogers Memorial Hospital, was found not negligent. Rogers Memorial Hospital, also sued by the parents, settled out of court prior to the verdict, Smoler said.

The verdict, which came at about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, followed a two-week trial and 10 hours of deliberations.

"They're delighted. They feel vindicated," Smoler said of the parents.

Smoler blamed recovered memory therapy, a controversial approach in which therapists attempt to help patients reclaim supposedly repressed memories. "Juries have routinely said it's not valid," he said Sunday. "It's wacko stuff."

Attorneys for the defendants said in court their clients did not practice recovered memory therapy. The therapists and their attorneys could not be reached Sunday.

Smoler said Charlotte Johnson lives in Madison but has not had contact with her parents since 1993. She opposed the lawsuit and did not appear in court.

The Johnsons are retired. Dr. Charles Johnson is a former Madison physician who also served as chief of medical staff at a St. Louis hospital. Karen Johnson is a former nurse.

"This case was not about money - they don't need it," Smoler said of the elder Johnsons. "This case was about letting Charlotte know, ‘This wasn't your fault. We still love you.' They want her to come home."

In their closing statements Saturday, attorneys for the defendants argued Charlotte Johnson's memories of sexual and physical abuse predated contact with the therapists being sued.

Before she sought help from any of the providers in the lawsuit, Johnson had been suicidal, contacted the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, received five months of psychiatric care for "family issues" and endured an "extreme flashback" of being abused by her mother that sent her screaming under a desk, said attorney David McFarlane, who represented Phillips.

No one is saying all of Johnson's memories are true, McFarlane told the jury Saturday. Rather, the case hinged on whether therapists met a professional standard of care, he said. Phillips not only didn't suggest any memories to Johnson but probably saved her life, he said.

Attorney Bradway Liddle said Hollowell, far from implanting memories in Johnson, challenged her memory of childhood rape. In general, the therapists sought to get to the bottom of the woman's problems, he said.