New Book Reveals Surprising Benefits of Meditation
Neuropsychologist Marsha Lucas was 11 when walks with her father, Daniel, a Freudian-turned-behaviorist psychologist, and Tiger, the family dog, inspired her to study the human brain.
Her father constantly questioned how the dog's mind and brain worked. "He wanted to know why it was sniffing whatever it was sniffing," says Lucas, now 48. "It was an interesting way to grow up."
She went on to study the brains of schizophrenics and later joined the brain injury team at Emory University. In her job, she explained neurological findings and various therapies to the families of brain injury patients. "They were grateful that the neurosurgeons had saved their loved one's life, but then they had to face the devastation of all the loss."
She developed an understanding that many subtle things, such as scent and lighting, positively affected her patients' recoveries and adopted some then-unconventional approaches as part of her treatment plans. By the time she opened a therapy practice in 1994, she directed her efforts more at emotional issues than physical ills and found herself in a unique position to grasp new neuroscientific findings of the benefits of meditation.
In her new book, Rewire Your Brain For Love, Lucas weaves together research and practical examples from her own psychotherapy practice, with humor, to explain the genesis of the relationship wiring of our brains. She contends that we can improve our emotional responses, insight, resilience, sex, and ability to handle fear at any age using mindfulness meditation.
In a conversation with SecondAct, the Washington, D.C.-based psychologist talks about recent findings in the neuroscience of emotion and the way mindfulness meditation can change the brain, our love lives and our way of being in the world.
SA: Why do you go to pains to explain the science of meditation's effect on the brain to your patients?
ML: I practice five or six blocks from the White House and near K Street where all the lobbyists are. My clients are intellectual, cerebrally driven, highly successful Type-A personalities. If I told them, 'Hey, you know, I really think this technique taken from Buddhist meditation would be helpful to you,' they wouldn't stay in my office for the rest of the session.
SA: How does meditation help rewire the brain for love and relationships?
ML: Better neural pathways mean better relationships. If your brain is not integrated, you might over-rely on one part of your brain. For example, you may be living in a literal, logical, linear world. When your spouse comes to you upset, you may respond with logic. Then she feels as if you don't understand what she's saying, and then there's that disconnect. Practicing mindfulness gives you a chance, in the moment, to bring more pathways online and turn dirt roads into information highways.
SA: What does meditation cause the brain to do differently?
ML: Repeated meditation practice seems to develop a richer, thicker pathway from the body up to the limbic system -- the key player in your emotional life -- and through something called the insula to the "top" of your brain. A plumper insula seems to send information in a less knee-jerk way. So your limbic brain doesn't get to run the show.
SA: Can meditation really change the brain structure in later life?
ML: In one captivating study, researchers looked at changes in the brains of regular meditators versus nonmeditators. In the U.S., we imagine that with age everything shrivels. As a result, we expect dementia and attentional deficits. But the researchers found that cortical areas were thicker in older meditators than younger nonmeditators.
SA: How many years do you have to meditate to change your brain?
ML: Another study showed that regional gray matter increased in density when complete novices trained for just eight weeks. So you don't have to be an old Tibetan guy meditating 40 hours a week for 40 years.
SA: How much time do you have to devote a day for mindfulness mediation to work?
ML: People often say, "I don't have 10 or 20 minutes to meditate." I say, "Okay, have you got two?" You can practice for six seconds -- each time the phone rings. The brain loves micro-practicing. The more you practice, the more real estate your brain devotes.
SA: How can mindfulness meditation improve our sex lives, even as we age?
ML: Parts of our bodies may not work the way they once did. But if we're able to experience more of our body and all of the wonderful sensations, and get more connected to our partner so that we're also getting all of that juicy emotional stuff, then we've got 10,000 times more input than with just our genitals. Sex really can be a much richer, bigger experience.
SA: What other specific benefits do older adults experience from mindfulness meditation?
ML: As we age, we sometimes become more fearful. Mindfulness meditation develops parts of the brain that modulate that more effectively. You're not as likely to be hijacked by rage. Also, if life has changed and you're retired or have physical limitations, you may feel limited by that scope. By practicing mindfulness, you gain a sense of a vaster interior landscape. You can still feel empowered. You can still feel possibilities. You can still feel that you have something to bring to the table with a sense of purpose and agency.
SecondAct contributor Bruce Frankel is the author of What Should I Do With the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life. He lives in New York.
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