Published online: 8 June 2005; | doi:10.1038/news050606-8
Meditating monks focus the mind
Buddhists show clarity of attention in optical illusion tasks.
Meditation can focus the mind in a measurable way, according to a study of Buddhist monks. In a visual test designed to confuse the brain, the monks were able to stave off confusion more easily than those not trained in the contemplative arts.
Researchers studied 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks taking a test of 'perceptual rivalry', in which two conflicting images are presented, one to each eye. This usually causes the brain to switch back and forth between the images every few seconds as it struggles to make sense of what it is seeing.
Monks skilled in the art of 'one-point' meditation - which involves focusing all of one's attention on a single object or thought - were able to slow this switching down or even stop it completely, report Olivia Carter of the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia, and colleagues.
In their study, published online by Current Biology1, they asked monks with training ranging from to 5 to 54 years to practise different forms of meditation and then don a set of goggles which displayed two different images: horizontal bars to one eye, and vertical bars to the other.
The most experienced one-point meditators, who had spent more than 20 years in isolated retreats, were able to resist visual switching for the whole five minutes of the experiment. According to the monks' self-reported assessment, they saw only a single stable image with one set of bars dominant.
There was no noticeable improvement for monks who were practising 'compassion' meditation, which involves contemplating the suffering of others.
The monks were also given another test, of 'motion-induced blindness' (an example can be found at http://www.uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/bonneh.html)
, which involves staring at a stationary dot in the midst of a pattern of swirling dots, until the other stationary dots in the picture seem to disappear. Monks maintained this 'blindness' state for an average of 4.1 seconds, compared to just 2.6 seconds for ordinary people. The most experienced meditator managed to uphold the optical illusion for more than 12 minutes.
Streams of thought
The discovery supports that idea that meditation calms the mind and allows it to focus more clearly, says Carter. "Monks appear to be able to control the rate and content of thoughts flowing through their 'stream of consciousness'," she says.
Meditation could conceivably help people with depression, or who have recently suffered a trauma, to stop their minds constantly dwelling on negative thoughts, she suggests.
"It has long been claimed by practitioners of meditation that when faced with bad news or tragic events they are able to acknowledge the tragedy, but rather than dwell on the situation they have the capacity to redirect their thoughts to other, more positive directions," Carter says. "This is something that the average person cannot do."
But John Gruzelier, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, warns that too much introspection and contemplation might be dangerous for someone struggling with depression.
1. Carter O. L., et al. Curr. Biol., 15. R412 - R413 (2005). | PubMed | ChemPort |
Your article reminded me of EMDR threapy that has helped many who have suffered trama, I myself went through EMDR when I went through a divorce 10 years ago and found it very helpful, like a meditative therapy really~ http://www.emdr.com/briefdes.htm
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) integrates elements of many effective psychotherapies in structured protocols that are designed to maximize treatment effects. These include psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, experiential, and body-centered therapies. EMDR is an information processing therapy and uses an eight phase approach.
During EMDR the client attends to past and present experiences in brief sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. Then the client is instructed to let new material become the focus of the next set of dual attention. This sequence of dual attention and personal association is repeated many times in the session.
Eight Phases of Treatment
The first phase is a history taking session during which the therapist assesses the client's readiness for EMDR and develops a treatment plan. Client and therapist identify possible targets for EMDR processing. These include recent distressing events, current situations that elicit emotional disturbance, related historical incidents, and the development of specific skills and behaviors that will be needed by the client in future situations.
During the second phase of treatment, the therapist ensures that the client has adequate methods of handling emotional distress and good coping skills, and that the client is in a relatively stable state. If further stabilization is required, or if additional skills are needed, therapy focuses on providing these. The client is then able to use stress reducing techniques whenever necessary, during or between sessions. However, one goal is not to need these techniques once therapy is complete.
In phase three through six, a target is identified and processed using EMDR procedures. These involve the client identifying the most vivid visual image related to the memory (if available), a negative belief about self, related emotions and body sensations. The client also identifies a preferred positive belief. The validity of the positive belief is rated, as is the intensity of the negative emotions.
After this, the client is instructed to focus on the image, negative thought, and body sensations while simultaneously moving his/her eyes back and forth following the therapist's fingers as they move across his/her field of vision for 20-30 seconds or more, depending upon the need of the client. Athough eye movements are the most commonly used external stimulus, therapists often use auditory tones, tapping, or other types of tactile stimulation. The kind of dual attention and the length of each set is customized to the need of the client. The client is instructed to just notice whatever happens. After this, the clinician instructs the client to let his/her mind go blank and to notice whatever thought, feeling, image, memory, or sensation comes to mind.
Depending upon the client's report the clinician will facilitate the next focus of attention. In most cases a client-directed association process is encouraged. This is repeated numerous times throughout the session. If the client becomes distressed or has difficulty with the process, the therapist follows established procedures to help the client resume processing. When the client reports no distress related to the targeted memory, the clinician asks him/her to think of the preferred positive belief that was identified at the beginning of the session, or a better one if it has emerged, and to focus on the incident, while simultaneously engaging in the eye movements. After several sets, clients generally report increased confidence in this positive belief. The therapist checks with the client regarding body sensations. If there are negative sensations, these are processed as above. If there are positive sensations, they are further enhanced.
In phase seven, closure, the therapist asks the client to keep a journal during the week to document any related material that may arise and reminds the client of the self-calming activities that were mastered in phase two.
The next session begins with phase eight, re-evaluation of the previous work, and of progress since the previous session. EMDR treatment ensures processing of all related historical events, current incidents that elicit distress, and future scenarios that will require different responses. The overall goal is produce the most comprehensive and profound treatment effects in the shortest period of time, while simultaneously maintaining a stable client within a balanced system.
After EMDR processing, clients generally report that the emotional distress related to the memory has been eliminated, or greatly decreased, and that they have gained important cognitive insights. Importantly, these emotional and cognitive changes usually result in spontaneous behavioral and personal change, which are further enhanced with standard EMDR procedures.