“Becoming Conscious: The Science of Consciousness” at the New York Academy of Sciences

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How conscious are you?

“Becoming Conscious: The Science of Consciousness,” the final event of the “The Emerging Science of Consciousness Series” presented by the Nour Foundation, Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally-syndicated program To the Best of Our Knowledge, and the New York Academy of Sciences was held Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Neuroscientists Richard Davidson and Amishi Jha joined clinical mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn to explore the role of consciousness in mental and physical health, how we can train the mind to become more flexible and adaptable, and what cutting-edge neuroscience is revealing about the transformation of consciousness through mindfulness and contemplative practice.

When we engage in mental training, we change the function and structure of our brain. In this respect, the mind is no different than the body. By engaging in certain activity, you can change your body. That’s why we go to the gym, right? Same with the brain. Scientists call this top down control meaning that through conscious volitional activity that we engage in, we change the cellular makeup of our brain. And more and more we are discovering how through mindfulness training we can influcence this neuroplasticity to positively affect our health and well-being.

Paulsen asked each of the panelists how they got involved in mindfulness and meditation?

Davidson (see Brain World’s Q & A) was interested early on in the diversity among people and how they react to life’s slings and arrows. He had a conviction that we could do better and that the mind was central to this. He found this in meditation and hs studied the brains of Buddhist monks while meditating. Kabat-Zinn was searching for a way of being that allowed him to hold everything in perspective and then see the relationships directly as they are. He found this in meditation. Jha came to meditation through stress. As a professor with a husband and two children she was starting a lab and found that she had lost the feeling in her teeth from grinding. Coincidentally, at this time, she heard a lecture by Davidson, where he talked about the benefits of mindfulness and decided to try meditation. She used Jack Kornfield’s “Mindfulness for Beginners” CD for 10 minutes a day and it helped her enormously. She decided to turn her research in the direction of mindfulness with a concentration on attention and working memory.

What is “mindfulness?” Paulsen asked the panel. Kaban-Zinn, a molecular biologist best known for founding and directing the world-renown Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic, described it as “paying attention in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. It’s the process, the “attending” itself. If we focus on our breath we find that our mind wanders and thoughts abound. That is normal. It is not so much squelching the thoughts but rather bringing our mind back to the breath. We’re building mind muscles like we do at the gym lifting weights to build biceps. The area of the brain is the pre-frontal cortex, our attention center. Meditation in Sanskrit means “familiarization” so in a way we are becoming more and more familiar with awareness.

By paying attention on purpose there is a hypothesis that we can voluntarily direct our mind at will in a particular way in the present moment. We develop “meta-awareness,” the ability of knowing where our mind is at a given moment. And by doing so “non-judgmentally” we can control how much value we give to things. These two concepts speak a great deal to our ability to deal with depression, our capacity for resilience and how we handle the stress in our lives.

Tip from Kabat-Zinn: If you want to be aware of stress, be aware of how much you take personally.

When asked about “spirituality,” each panelist avoided answering the question directly. They did, however, support the incontrovertible evidence that there is direct and compelling proof of psycho-social influences of the mind-body connection and the positive affects of mindfulness training – even for just 12 minutes a day. These proven notions are impacting research in video games (Davidson’s team is developing apps for games to develop kindness and compassion) and military deployment (Jha has been conducting a mindfulness training study with deployed soldiers, the results of which are to be published soon).

When asked if there’s a science of happiness, Davidson answered, “Happiness is a skill.” He went further to explain that young infants have an innate ability to learn a language. If we can nurture the qualities of kindness and compassion in our infants early on, we will develop a happier, healthier, more peaceful generation and society.

NOTE: Brain World Magazine’s spring issue on THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION hits newsstands March 12th. Subscribe now!

Tags: Balance, Brain, Happiness, Health, Humanity, Meditation, Neuroscience, Psychology, Science, Wellness

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