Set Your Brain to Meditate

Ursula Bates, Billy O'Connor

Ms Ursula Bates, keynote speaker, UL Research Forum and Professor Billy O'Connor

I was delighted to host the  Fourth Annual  University of Limerick Medical School Research Forum last Wednesday, 19 January, where over twenty researchers from the University of Limerick and local teaching hospitals made presentations on topics ranging from pharmaceuticals, biomedical devices, medical technology, community health, gastrointestinal and vascular surgery, psychiatry and communications.

A leading clinical psychologist and Director of Psychosocial and Bereavement Services at Blackrock Hospice, Dublin, Ms Ursula Bates, delivered the keynote address  Mindfulness Based Interventions in Oncology and Palliative Care and Bereavement-Research Advances”.

Ursula’s talk has prompted me to explore in more detail the nature of mindfulness and how its practice can lead to improved brain function and  mental health.

Let’s start by taking a look at the latest scientific research which has shown that  the practice of meditation  actually changes the shape of the brain, allowing specific areas in the brain to grow or change.  This finding has established a new field of contemplative neuroscience – the brain science of meditation – and helps to explain how meditation acts to improve brain function and mental health.

Mindfulness and mindlessness

Have you ever written a cheque in January with the previous years date? …for most of us the answer is probably yes. Scientists now know that these small mistakes are actually the tip of a mindlessness iceberg!  Mindfulness harnesses one of the great themes in all self help literature – the need to be free of unconsciously accepted habits and norms.

Five qualities of a mindful person

  1. Ability to create new categories
  2. Openness to new information
  3. Awareness of more than one perspective
  4. Attention to process (i.e. ‘doing’) rather than outcome or results.
  5. Trusting in one’s own intuition

Over the coming week we will explore these points in more detail and look at ways in which we can learn to break free from the trap of mindlessness.

Latest research from computational neuroscience

Another fascinating topic from the SFN Annual Meeting was the research being undertaken in the area of computational neuroscience.

Computational neuroscience is the study of brain function in terms of the information processing properties of the structures that make up the nervous system.

It is an interdisciplinary science that links the diverse fields of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology with electrical engineering, computer science, mathematics and physics.

In an interview in the current edition of New Scientist, Professor Terry Sejnowski, head of the computational neurobiology lab at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, says some of the most intriguing results in computational neuroscience come from collaborations between modelers and experimentalists.

Professor Sejnowski and his research colleagues’ research in modeling signal transfer patterns throughout the brain has resulted in new techniques which make it possible to simultaneously record signals from many neurons. The sensitivity means scientists can for the first time, watch the output from a neuron spread through the brain.

Research has also found that neurons respond differently to different stimuli (for example, signals required to move a prosthetic arm can change when people are tired). This research will help improve brain-machine interferences such as prosthetic limbs and thought-controlled wheelchairs.