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Meditation
Posted: 27 February 2007 02:58 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Today I read in [i:7152418a61]New Scientist[/i:7152418a61] that[i:7152418a61] if for about 10 minutes a day you imagine moving your little finger, after four weeks its strength can increase by 22 per cent.[/i:7152418a61] Is this possible?

(I read this in an article discussing Buddhism and neuroscience entitled [i:7152418a61]Stop Meditating, Start Interacting[/i:7152418a61] by Chris Frith. I am personally not a big fan of of Buddhism; it doesn’t bother me any less than Christianity or Islam.)

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Posted: 28 February 2007 12:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I do recall reading awhile back about a number of experiments with visualization in sports. E.g., visualize throwing the ball into the basket for half an hour. IIRC it did actually make an appreciable difference in performance.

Now, I expect that these are quite preliminary results, which is to say I take them with a grain of salt. But that said, there needn’t be anything obviously crazy here. Visualization involves work done in the brain, and it is is certainly true that by reinforcing the right neural pathways we would be able to get somewhat better at a task.

“Stronger” seems a bit more dubious, especially since strength depends on musculature ... but who knows? Perhaps that 22% is simply in the nerves’ influence on muscles. Just speculating.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 02:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]there needn’t be anything obviously crazy here.

I don’t know if it needs to be anything crazy but it certainly sounds shocking to me. Does it mean that there is some merit to meditating? People in our studio often meditate, in which I never participate. I can’t. That said, I visit a local church almost every day because it helps me to relax. The place is beautiful and empty and I don’t expect anything out of this, except for some peace and quiet time. This is as far as I’ll go. I can’t imagine closing my eyes and focusing on not focusing rolleyes, or whatever meditation is all about. But the basketball and the finger exercise examples bother me. I don’t know what to think of it.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 04:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Well, there’s a number of different phenomena here. One is so-called “guided visualization”, which is used in some sports contexts. That’s where they tell players to visualize doing the action successfully over and over again. This is supposed to enhance performance, and IIRC it does work to a certain extent. Perhaps it reinforces synaptic connections, perhaps it increases confidence, whatever.

The other is plain meditation (like focused breathing, etc.), done to enhance calmness.

So the question is what “merit” is claimed for the practice. I have practiced meditation in the past, and it does increase calmness and focus, FWIW. Nothing magical, of course. It’s basically a sort of mental exercise: it can be hard to perform for 20-30 minutes, but does leave you feeling better afterwards.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”][Meditation increases] calmness and focus

Does this require “faith”? If I was to try to meditate to achieve some sort of mental calmness, and was being sceptical at the same about the process (which I am), what would happen? I mean, antibiotics are going to help me to fight an infection no matter what I believe. But I am not so sure about mediation.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 05:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]Does this require “faith”?

Not at all. It is a practice, not a belief system. Compare it to exercise.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 06:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I’m a big fan of meditation myself. I agree completely with Doug that it’s best compared to physical exercise, rather than prayer (though some of the repetitive and formalized kinds of prayer, e.g. the RC rosary, have similar characteristics, probably for good reason). We all have habits of thought, and the human brain is surprisingly plastic so deliberately practicing alternative habits can influence our responses. I don’t buy any of the metaphysical baggage that Buddhism often attaches to the practice, but I do think they’re onto something that could prove moderately useful as a way of approaching daily life that leads to less anxiety and self-induced mental suffering. I’ve found it helpful in a lot of ways, though I certainly don’t put the time and energy into it of a “true believer.”

Certainly, approaching it skeptically is fine since the activity, rather than any specific beliefs about it, seems to be useful to some people in itself. Of course, some shifts in attitude or belief might follow or might not. I’m open-minded enough to believe that not all the ways in which I approach the world are optimal, so I don’t reject the idea that I might need to think diffeently. And I think I have had some adjustments to my outlook as a result of reading fairly extensively in buddhist literature, and meditating. But the kinds of beliefs I’m talking about are fairly non-controversial things, like saying we make a lot of our own anxiety with pointless fretting over things that might or might not happen or have already happened and can’t be changed. Nothing supernatural there.

As far as physical effects, I think the research is intriguing but far from ironclad. PET scans do show some interesting patterns of activity in the brain when practiced meditators are scanned. And such scans have shown that the specific circuitry involved in a motor action that is activated by performing the action is also activated by imagining performing the action. What effect that has on actal performance, I don’t have any idea.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 06:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]As far as physical effects, I think the research is intriguing but far from ironclad. PET scans do show some interesting patterns of activity in the brain when practiced meditators are scanned. And such scans have shown that the specific circuitry involved in a motor action that is activated by performing the action is also activated by imagining performing the action. What effect that has on actal performance, I don’t have any idea.

Agreed. The results on improving basketball scoring rates (for example) could just be pseudoscience; it’s definitely fringy. All I’m saying is that I wouldn’t necessarily reject it out of hand. It does merit some careful testing.

As for simple stress-reduction, my understanding is that regular meditation is accepted in the medical community for that end.

Now, as you point out, many religious sects (Buddhist, Hindu, fringe Christian) include doctrine in their meditation practices. However, that doctrine is not essential to the meditation itself, and can easily be ignored or discarded.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 06:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]Compare it to exercise.

Fine. If I lift weights for two months (which I won’t :wink:) my muscles will grow, regardless of my scepticism in the results. What will happen if I meditate and at the same time I am being sceptical about the results? Will I feel relaxed?

And the finger thing is driving me pretty crazy. What is the difference between thinking about my finger getting stronger, and actually achieving it through some mental exercise, and Jesus’s hike on the water? :shock:

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Posted: 28 February 2007 07:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]We all have habits of thought, and the human brain is surprisingly plastic so deliberately practicing alternative habits can influence our responses.

Sure, like reading a new book. And similarly, a physical exercise will result in obvious physical changes in my body. Both these examples, however, are very different from some mysterious act of meditation where mere thinking about feeling better will actually make me feel better. Could it be some kind of a placebo effect? Maybe.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 08:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]And the finger thing is driving me pretty crazy. What is the difference between thinking about my finger getting stronger, and actually achieving it through some mental exercise, and Jesus’s hike on the water? :shock:

Well, I gave a possible physical explanation, above. That said, it’s also quite possible that there is no such effect, and it’s all a bunch of rot.

[quote author=“George Benedik”]Both these examples, however, are very different from some mysterious act of meditation where mere thinking about feeling better will actually make me feel better.

This isn’t an accurate description of meditation.

To meditate means to focus your mind on some perceived object or process for a long period of time; the classic example is to focus on your own breathing. This is difficult to do, because it’s difficult to continue to hold your mental attention on one thing for very long, without your mind wandering. It takes training to do it, and the more you meditate, the easier it becomes.

But there’s nothing about “thinking about feeling better” or the like.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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[quote author=“dougsmith”]But there’s nothing about “thinking about feeling better” or the like.

Okay, fair enough. I probably don’t know enough about mediation to criticize it…it just smells fishy to me.

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Posted: 28 February 2007 10:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Sure, like reading a new book. And similarly, a physical exercise will result in obvious physical changes in my body. Both these examples, however, are very different from some mysterious act of meditation where mere thinking about feeling better will actually make me feel better. Could it be some kind of a placebo effect? Maybe.

Meditation comes in many flavors, but two basic kinds are focusing on something irrelevant in itself (breathing, a mandala, a nonsense phrase, etc) and focusing on a concept. In the first, the idea is to train the mind to stay focused on one thing for an extended period. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Most people, I think, have a non-stop stream-of-consiousness monolgue in their heads they’re hardly aware of and that reads kind of like Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake. Ever have the experience of driving or walking a familiar route and “waking” to realize you’re at the end and you haven’t noticed anything between because you were “in your head” the whole time (likely fantisizing, planning, worrying, etc)? If so, this is the kind of thing meditation can alter by training you to stay focused on the moment you’re in.

Now whether this is a valuable thing or not is certainly open to debate. Personally, I think it is since I think we “miss” a lot of our lives by focusing on the chatter in our heads instead of what is actually happening in the moment. I feel a little less frazzled at work or frustrated when stuck in traffic if I alter my expectations and my ability to be comfortable with wherever I am or whatever I am doing, even if it’s not what I would have imagined I would want to be doing. But that’s just an opinion. Meditation can be helpful in “staying present,” as the buddhists say, if you care to. I think it can work in this respect whether you think it will or not. But if you’re looking for “enlightenment” and a complete alteration of your experience of life, that’s asking a bit much and probably requires more pre-conceived belief or commitment. What I like about buddhism, in the non-traditional forms it often takes among Westerners, is that the methodology can be approached skeptically, with an empirical mindset without making any commitment to the background metaphysics.

Another more “conceptual” variety of meditation might be exemplified by some of the “meditation on compassion” techniques. The goal is to try and increase your feelings of “compassion” (exactly what that is is fuzzier) by first imaging someone you feel very positively about and simply experiencing and observing the feeling for some time. Then you picture someone you’re neutral towards and try to generate the same inner feeling/experience. Then you do it again with someone you mildly dislike, and so on until you see if you can generate the feelings when imaging someone you detest. Theoreticaly, this then transforms your negative feelings to positive ones, though it’s usually viewed as an ongoing, imperfect process rather than some sudden and immutable “realization.”

This is more like the “feeling better by thinking about feeling better” thing you’re talking about. I haven’t really done much of this kind of meditation myself. I tend to stick with the “mindfulness” variety discussed above. What I know about behavior and psychology certainly suggests that people can convince themselves of almost anything with enough effort, so I imagine it would be possible to change even pretty strong emotions gradually through such exercises. Again, nothing metaphysical about this, just applied behavioral psychology. Now, whether you want to do this or not, of course, depends on what you believe about the goal. If it seems like a good one, you may be motivated to put in the necessary effort, and I suspect it might have a real effect. If you are skeptical that the very idea is useful (as opposed to whether or not the methodology is effective) than I doubt you would be inclined to put much real effort or time into the process, and I doubt it would achieve much. The old religious cliche “act as if you believe and belief will come” is probably based in some truth of practical applied psychology, but you have to want to believe in the first place to try and “brainwash” yourself in such a manner. So I think you can be skeptical of the method, and it might work anyway, but if you’re skeptical of the goal you’re working towards being valuable, you probably won’t get much from this kind of meditation.

As for the physical stuff, who knows grin

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Posted: 28 February 2007 11:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Quite possibly as one thinks of strengthening one’s little finger one may unconsciously tighten the opposing muscles so the finger doesn’t move, but both sets of muscles increase strength, sort of like the old Charles Atlas physical training technique.  So, the strength change could be caused by that rather than any metaphysical thing.

Occam

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Posted: 28 February 2007 04:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]Now whether [staying focused through meditation] is a valuable thing or not is certainly open to debate. Personally, I think it is since I think we “miss” a lot of our lives by focusing on the chatter in our heads instead of what is actually happening in the moment.

This reminds me of John Lennon’s song Beautiful Boy where he sings that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. I am afraid I can’t relate to either one of your statements (yours or Lennon’s) regarding the “missing out on life”. This is perhaps where my cynicism towards meditation comes from. I don’t mind making “other” plans and it doesn’t really bother me getting to an end of a route and realizing that I haven’t noticed my surroundings. Maybe I am being nave but I have always felt that I am pretty much in control of my life, even though I am always making “other plans”, worrying, or fantasizing; I like it that way. Perhaps I don’t understand how meditation works because I don’t understand WHY it should work to begin with. When I need to relax I find a quiet place, or go for a hike, or smoke a cigarette, or eat a Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Also music helps me greatly to achieve a desired feeling. I could try to mediate and see what happens. But I know what would happen: the same as if I tried to pray or attended a sance: I would probably start laughing.  :D

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Posted: 28 February 2007 04:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]Quite possibly as one thinks of strengthening one’s little finger one may unconsciously tighten the opposing muscles so the finger doesn’t move, but both sets of muscles increase strength, sort of like the old Charles Atlas physical training technique.  So, the strength change could be caused by that rather than any metaphysical thing.

Occam

Not sure if understand correctly your possible explanation of the strengthening of the finger, Occam, but it certainly sounds very Occam’s-Razorish. :wink:

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