Of Mellowness and Mice: The Effects of “Meditation” Training on the Mouse Brain

Meditation word cloud

Meditation

Clients often ask me, “What is the effect of meditation practice?” I’ve written about effects of meditation here and here.

Today the New York Times had an interesting article called Of Mice and Mindfulness, which answers that question a little bit. They report a study conducted at the University of Oregon by Cristopher Niell and others.

They cite past studies that found that people who meditate tended to have more white matter around the anterior cingulate cortex, which is a part of the brain that regulates emotion. Meditation also increases the theta wave activity of the brain. Some researchers have wondered if the increased theta wave activity increased the white matter.

Theta waves run at a frequency of 8 Hz, and researchers at the University of Oregon figured out that they could test the effects of this frequency with a very complicated research design. Previously scientists there had developed a breed of mice that had genes that were responsive to light. By beaming light into the mice brains at the same frequency as human theta waves they found that this turned on the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortexes. The researchers also beamed light at a frequency of 1Hz and 40 Hz as a control.

Each mouse got 30 minutes of light therapy for 20 days, which was an attempt to mimic the intensity of human meditation. After, the mice that were exposed to the 8 Hz theta wave frequencies of light were mellower; they hung out in the lighted area of a special cage, while their non-meditating counterparts hid in the shadows! (The 1Hz group also were mellower, which does call into question the specificity of the theta frequency needed to create mellowness in mice.)

So what can we learn about this study of the murine mind? (Yes, who knew that the word murine refers to mice and other related rodents.) The research suggests that there is something about lower frequency brain stimulation that leads to lowered anxiety and increased bravery. I think it’s probably a stretch to assume that this research directly supports the same concept in humans, since nobody is going to replicate this research with people. Nevertheless, it adds to the idea of the mechanism of meditation, which may actually change your brain when practiced diligently for a month.

Now I’m going to take a writing break and meditate…

P.S.  Please see my article How to Meditate if you want to start meditating. 

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Why You Shouldn’t Believe Everything You Read in the Newspapers about Medical Studies

One of my favorite journals is called PLOS ONE.  This is a journal which supports open access. That means anyone can access any article in this Journal without paying a fee. Medical studies published in this journal are accessible to anyone.

Most of you probably don’t realize but when you see a medical study quoted in a newspaper article, you can’t actually access the original study on the Internet without paying a hefty fee, usually $20-$40! If you have access to a medical library then you may be able to access the article but for most people the original articles are off-limits without paying large fees.

Plos.org is an organization that supports open access publication of scientific articles.

That’s why I admire them.

Back to my main story. A recent study in PLOS ONE looked at how often medical research results are replicated, meaning does a second or third similar study show the same results.

The researchers in this study looked at 4723 studies that were included in 306 meta-analysis articles. (A meta-analysis is a study where you combine the results of many other research studies in order to get an overview of findings.)   The researchers divided the studies into lifestyle related studies which looked at things like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes and non-lifestyle studies such as genetic markers for Alzheimer’s. There were 639 lifestyle studies and 4084 non-lifestyle studies.

The question is of the studies that were picked up by newspapers, how many of them were replicated by subsequent studies?  The answer is only about half of the studies held up when tested again in another study. The other thing that was interesting in this article was that when studies failed to replicate, newspapers never reported that failure. Interesting examples included studies that linked a specific gene to depression, schizophrenia, or autism. None of these studies replicated successfully, which you think would be big news and would be reported by many newspapers, but the truth is that not a single newspaper article reported these failures to replicate.

This shows that newspapers don’t have much genuine interest in good science reporting. Good science reporting always involves being skeptical of new and different results, as well as following up on attempts to replicate those results.

So, what does this mean about science results reported in popular media? What it probably means is that if the finding is new and exciting and different, you probably should be highly skeptical of it being true. And the more esoteric the finding is (such as genetic markers) the more skeptical you should be.

For instance, a recent study that was funded by drug companies looked at whether the statin class of medications have side effects or whether these side effects are just a placebo effect. I’ll write more extensively about this study later, but the study’s findings–that only when people knew they were taking statins did they experience side effects– should probably be viewed very skeptically since many other studies have shown side effects from statins and many clinical reports have confirmed the side effects. (And of course any study that is funded by the manufacturer of a drug should be viewed highly skeptically.)

The bottom line is this: finding the truth is hard, and science is no shortcut. Only findings that have been repeated and replicated in numerous studies should be believed.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Is There an Equation for Happiness?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a mathematical equation that could predict and explain happiness? We could tweak the numbers and get happy! Sounds pretty far-fetched, right?

Actually this equation exists. It looks like this:

Happiness-equation

 

 

A researcher named Robb Rutledge, at the Max Planck University College London Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research, developed this equation. It figures that such an equation would be developed at an institution whose name is 12 words long! Rutledge developed this equation based on outcomes from a smart phone app called The Great Brain Experiment. The data was derived from 25,189 players of the app, a pretty good sample size!

Let me explain this equation to you. I will leave out the weird Sigma symbols and the small w constants, and just explain the letters.

Basically, happiness depends on CR which stands for Certain Rewards or safe choices plus expectations associated with risky choices (EV, expected value), and the difference between the experienced outcome and the expectation which is called a reward prediction error (RPE).

So the key idea is that happiness doesn’t so much depend on how things are going, but how they are going compared to your expectations. Let’s use an example. You make plans to go to a new restaurant with your sweetie. You looked up the restaurant on various restaurant review sites, and it gets very positive reviews. You go to the restaurant and the meal is very good, but not quite as good as the reviews suggest. Your happiness decreases. Or you go to a restaurant that has mediocre reviews, and it’s actually pretty good. Your happiness goes up.

This may be why online dating is so difficult. People build up very high expectations of their potential date, based on photoshopped or out-of-date photographs, as well as email or chat communications that may represent an unrealistically positive view of the other person. When they meet the person their expectations are higher than reality, and they experience disappointment and unhappiness.

So the way to be happier is to have low expectations? Some researchers have suggested this is why Danish people are so happy. The Danes have a pretty good life, but they have lower expectations than people in many other countries, thus a higher level of happiness.

The only problem with this idea is that many choices in our life take a long time to reveal how they will work out, such as marriage and taking a new job or moving to a new city. Having higher expectations for these slow-to-reveal choices probably increases happiness, at least allows the person to hang in with the decision long enough to find out how it will work out.

In general, accurate expectations may be best. Of course the challenge is how to have accurate expectations.  Reading both negative and positive reviews of a restaurant or a product may help with this. But there’s no site that reviews your marriage or your current job so those kind of choices may be more of a challenge.

The same researchers also looked at brain scans and figured out that it appeared that dopamine levels reflect happiness changes, higher dopamine comes from increased happiness and lower dopamine comes from disappointment.

There are some practical implications from this research.

  1. For choices that have immediate feedback such as a restaurant or a movie, temper your expectations. Maybe read more negative reviews so that your expectations are lower for the event. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when the restaurant or the movie is better than expected. This also applies to online dating.
  1. For choices that you don’t get quick feedback about such as long-term decisions like marriage or a job, have reasonably high expectations., Or at least try to have realistic expectations.
  1. Lower other people’s expectations of shared choices rather than hyping the choices. For example, let’s imagine you have recently seen a movie that you loved. Don’t tell your friends it was the best movie you’ve ever seen and that it will change their lives, instead tell them it was a pretty good movie and leave out all details. Same with restaurants, cars, and other choices that we make. Downplay rather than overhype.

Now I have to go because I have reservations at that new five-star restaurant after which I’m going to that wonderful new film, and then I’m moving to Denmark! Wish me luck.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.