Science vs. Spirituality: Which one is the right way?

It would appear that, centuries ago, people had a need to understand the world, themselves and the phenomena that surrounded them. Day and night, warmth and cold, health and sickness, life and death… every single aspect of the world and life was out there to be discovered and understood. To their best of their abilities, these ancient men and women created theories and found explanations to their need of knowledge in what today could be easily labelled an “imaginary” world. People would be inspired by various beliefs to provide explanations and doctrines to abide by, some of which eventually became organized religions and spiritual communities.

Fast forward a few centuries, the advancement of technology and science has allowed the contemporary generations to obtain a better-researched understanding of our everyday lives. Today, we have much more advanced explanations that allow us to understand concepts that ancient people couldn’t even remotely fathom. This advanced access to information and scientific perspective of people, life and the world has also brought a shift in mentalities where modern individuals deny the need of having to resort to the imaginary, spiritual world that -in their view- was invented by man himself ages ago.

openphotonet_1 free water hand_resizeNevertheless, even with the advancement of science and the better understanding of our world through access to better research tools, it would seem that people still come back to spiritual activities to understand their surroundings. Meditation groups, yoga, even religions, are still alive in our times, and their existence and prevalence among communities does not seem to be threatened in any way. People still practice spirituality all over the world.

Having such advanced science and technology, why would people still look for answers in spirituality?

There is a fundamental mistake in assuming that people who practice any form of spirituality do so hoping to understand their surrounding world. All the opposite: People who practice spirituality usually do so with the intention of understanding themselves. They do so to dig deeper in their minds and to understand their connection to the world and the whole cosmos. Spirituality is, then, a vehicle for people to listen to their deepest conscience in the hopes of becoming better individuals and to enjoy a more plentiful life – physically, mentally and beyond.

Understanding the fundamental idea behind spirituality helps us also determine whether science or spirituality provide the ultimate answers to life. The answer: They both coexist. They serve different purpose. And those who are able to tell one from the other also align themselves to better chances of enjoying a much richer, knowledgeable, and wholly life. Understand the world through the eyes of science, but understand your soul through the eyes of spirituality.

Photo: hand and sprinkling water © Miroslav Vajdić

Science proves benefits of meditation in learning

An exciting article published on The New York Times on April 3rd, 2013, explains the benefits of meditation applied to studying and retention of information in our brains. This amazing article, which I cite textually below, is originally written by Jan Hoffman.

This piece is an excellent complement to another article previously cited in this blog: Sherry Baker’s work “How Meditation Changes Brain Rhythms to Sooth Pain and Depression“. I highly recommend reading both in full – the depth of findings from both pieces of research is simply fascinating.

 

How Meditation Might Boost Your Test Scores

By JAN HOFFMAN

Mindfulness meditation, the ancient and flourishing practice that increases awareness of random thoughts and redirects attention to the present moment, has been used to manage stress, depression and even chronic pain. But can it improve test scores?

 

StudyResearchers in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who have been studying the relationship between mindfulness and mind-wandering, or the tendency to let our minds drift away on “task-unrelated thoughts,” as it is referred to in academic literature, sought to find out.

“We had already found that mind-wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence,” said Michael D. Mrazek, a graduate student working with Jonathan W. Schooler, a professor of psychology at the university who studies the impacts and implications of mind-wandering and mindfulness. The higher the working memory, or an individual’s ability to keep in mind chunks of information and also use them, the better students tend to perform on reading comprehension tests.

Researchers disagree about the extent to which an individual’s working memory capacity can be enhanced. But in a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, the Santa Barbara researchers found that after a group of undergraduates went through a two-week intensive mindfulness training program, their mind-wandering decreased and their working memory capacity improved. They also performed better on a reading comprehension test — a section from the Graduate Record Examination, or G.R.E.

For the study, the researchers enrolled 48 University of California undergraduates in a study intended, they told them, to improve cognitive performance. Each student was evaluated for working memory capacity, mind-wandering and performance on a G.R.E. reading comprehension section.

Then, half the group was randomly assigned to take part in a nutrition program, in which they were educated about healthy eating and asked to keep a daily food diary.

The others took a training that resembled the standard mindfulness-based stress reduction program, which typically meets once a week for eight sessions. In the Santa Barbara regimen, students instead met four days a week for two weeks and were not required to devote as much formal practice outside of class.

But in the main, the class invoked the secular pillars of the practice, including sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, breathing exercises and “minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present.”

After two weeks, the students were re-evaluated for mind-wandering and working memory capacity and given another version of the G.R.E. reading comprehension section.

The nutrition group’s results did not change.

The group that took mindfulness training, however, mind-wandered less and performed better on tests of working memory capacity and reading comprehension. For example, before the training, their average G.R.E. verbal score was 460. Two weeks later, it was 520.

Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied brain function in long-term and novice mindful meditators, offered this analogy: “You can improve the signal-to-noise ratio by reducing the noise. Decreasing mind-wandering is doing just that.”

Other professors of cognitive psychology thought the study was well done, although based on a small sample, with results that have yet to be replicated.

“A type of training that can help one avoid susceptibility to worries, or other sources of mind-wandering, very well could improve performance,” said Nelson Cowan, a professor at the University of Missouri who specializes in the study of working memory capacity and attention, in an e-mail message.

Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “When Can You Trust the Experts? How to Tell Good Science From Bad in Education,” said that “when you see these big effects, it may not be that you’ve really fundamentally changed how the mind works. But you have removed a stumbling block that was absorbing them.”

The Santa Barbara researchers have also recently worked with local high school students to see whether the results can be repeated using the SAT. But psychology professors like David Z. Hambrick of Michigan State University questioned how long the effects of a two-week training program would last.

Professor Davidson, who has studied Buddhist monks who have practiced meditation for 34,000 hours over the course of their lives, said, “If you have people who are out of shape and then do two weeks of physical exercise, you’ll see some benefit. But if they stop exercising, the benefits won’t persist.”

The original article is available on this link.

Meditation: A scientific perspective

A fascinating article titled “How meditation changes brain rhythms to sooth pain and depression” was recently published on the Natural News website. The article, written by Sherri Baker, is a great piece to illustrate the benefits of meditating on a regular basis from a scientific point of view, as well as the ways in which our brain changes its perception of the world. Really worth the read.

How meditation changes brain rhythms to sooth pain and depression

by: Sherry Baker, Health Sciences Editor

CZ 1506Meditation isn’t only a way to relax or a throw-back to the 1960s when the Beatles first made the practice popular in the U.S. In fact, in recent years, mainstream scientists have published several studies showing that mindfulness meditation, which is centered on being aware of the present moment by focusing on the body and breath sensations, can prevent and treat depression. Meditation has also been found to help chronic pain.
But what’s going on in the body to produce these benefits? According to Brown University scientists, the answer appears to lie in how meditation changes the brain’s rhythms.

People who meditate regularly, the researchers say, gain control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. In simple English, this means meditation appears to change brain rhythms that regulate how the brain filters and processes a variety of sensations – including depressing memories and pain in the body.

The Brown University researchers, who just published a paper outlining their findings and ideas about how meditation works in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, base their proposal on published experimental results as well as a computer simulation of neural networks. Because mindfulness meditation training begins with a highly localized focus on body and breath sensations, the scientists write, this enhances control over localized alpha rhythms in the part of the brain (known as the primary somatosensory cortex) where sensations from different body are “mapped.”

In a way, by learning to control their focus on the present moment, mindfulness meditators become able to “turn down” a kind of internal “volume knob” for controlling specific, localized sensory alpha rhythms. That seems to allow them to turn away from internally focused negative thoughts and sensations.

“We think we’re the first group to propose an underlying neurophysiological mechanism that directly links the actual practice of mindful awareness of breath and body sensations to the kinds of cognitive and emotional benefits that mindfulness confers,” lead author Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine at the Alpert Medical School and director of translational neuroscience for the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown, said in a press statement.

As Natural News previously covered, meditation results in beneficial physiological changes that can be measured. For example, a recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds found that mindfulness meditation not only reduces stress but also reduces inflammation. And this is clearly important information for the countless people with diseases such as arthritis who can’t take, or don’t want to rely on, side effect-laden anti-inflammatory drugs.

What’s more, a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study just published in the Association for Psychological Science journal Clinical Psychological Science found that people who reported more presence in the moment (having a greater focus and engagement with their current activities) had longer telomeres, even after adjusting for current stress in their lives. Telomeres are sort of caps at the ends of DNA that prevent the ends of chromosomes from fusing with nearby chromosomes or deteriorating. They are biomarkers for aging and are known to get shorter and shorter when the body undergoes physiological and psychological stressors.

Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/039139_meditation_brain_rhythms_depression.html#ixzz2NkdetpyH

Meteors and reality checks: Our Universe is very vast, and very humbling

The news of asteroid 2012 DA14 expected to approach Earth closer than any celestial object recorded ever by NASA would have been enough, but the Universe had prepared for us a much more powerful reminder of our fragility as a species: A meteor crashing against our planet. An event that even the most seasoned astronomers at NASA and ESA did not foresee, and one that therefore caught mankind by surprise. But really, is there anything we could have done to prevent it? The answer is likely a resounding no. Is there anything we can do to prevent this from happening in the future? Perhaps not, although there is indeed room to improve ourselves and our species from the lessons learned out of this phenomenon.

Analyzed from a strictly social point of view, the event is tragic and its painful impact is noted: Thousands of people resulted injured as a result of the crash of the meteor in the nearby city of Chelyabinsk, in Russia, where damages were calculated in over $33 million dollars. And all that we humans could do about it was to sit, watch, and repair the damages after the event.

russian-meteor_0

Photo: Tumblr

This rare event, however, is more than an isolated astronomical incident. If we go a step further and put the incident in a philosophical perspective, we will discover that the message is much more powerful that the only impact of the meteor itself: It is a powerful, direct, and clear reminder that there is a Universe out there. But that Universe is not an empty space unrelated to us, and we are not rulers over the Universe. All the opposite: We are part of this powerful Universe, a magnificent Universe with the ability to damage us or even make us vanish in a whim.

The sudden crash of this meteor offers a great wake-up call for us to reconsider our lives from both a personal and civilization-level perspective. What is our role in this Universe? What do we want to achieve during our relatively short existence here? What are we doing to make ourselves better?

There is another important message to take away from this event: This meteor came to remind us that Earth is just a planet, perhaps a vulnerable one, yet our protective home. Are we respecting Earth as such, or are we too busy abusing it for the sake of money and egoism? Are we working together as a species for the shared well being of mankind, or are we a rather fragmented civilization thirsty for power and dominance over other humans? What, exactly, are we looking for as a species?

Before taking on the massive task of finding our goal as a species, it will certainly take some time for each of us to think about our own personal roles in society, and to discover our potential to become better individuals – not with the intent of being better than others, but to be better towards our fellow humans. Hopefully that way, someday, our societal mindset will focus on the single goal of making of mankind and Earth better places. Who knows, maybe that is our reason to exist in this powerful Universe.

‘Weightless’ – The (scientifically proven) most relaxing music in the world. Try it here!

Back in January 2012, I published here at The Inner Power an article titled “Why is music important in meditation?“, where I said that music plays a crucial role in removing negative thoughts from it. Moreover, certain scholars have even suggested that “music is the language of the spiritual world”, an assertion that makes every sense when considering that music is a universal language, and one that can fill our mind and spirit with certain types of emotions, feelings, and stimuli.

One of the most valuable properties of music as a vehicle to achieve a meditative state is its power to calm down our body and mind, and help the individual to reach deep mind concentration. In doing so, the person is isolating themselves from the everyday and mundane thoughts, negative energies, and problems, just to achieve a state in which they can look at the “bigger picture” of their persona, and analyze their goals and hurdles from a different (more calm) perspective.

The development of better music to allow more relaxation and concentration has gone to the next level. The Telegraph reports that a group of scientists in the United Kingdom have developed what they explain as “the most relaxing music ever”. The resulting 8-minute long melody was branded Weightless, a composition worked jointly by sound therapists and Manchester-Based trio Marconi Union. Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson, one of the scientists working on this project and one of the leading stress specialists in the United Kingdom, explains after testing this new melody on 40 women that “Weightless’ induced the greatest relaxation – higher than any of the other music tested.”

Lyz Cooper, of the British Academy of Sound Therapy, explained that scientific theory was used throughout this project. The end result was the making of what she referred to as the “perfect relaxing song” because “The song makes use of many musical principles that have been shown to individually have a calming effect” According to Cooper, these principles are related to the calming of the heartbeat, fall in blood pressure, and induction of feelings of euphoria and comfort.

Want to “test drive” this wonderful blend of music and science yourself? Just click play on the screen below!

Happy relaxation –  and meditation.

Inner power, Will Power, and Mental Strength: Roy Baumeister

Here is an interesting article published a few days ago in The Guardian, one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent newspapers. Seems that willpower is an acquired talent, which of course does not really comes to news to us – since we are well aware that we own our inner power. But the discoveries and data revealed in this text are fascinating and illustrative, nevertheless. Enjoy!

Willpower is a mental muscle that you can train. Those who do so are more likely to lead happy and successful lives

 By Jon Henley – The Guardian

In the smart restaurant of a very smart hotel in the West End of London, Roy F Baumeister, eminent American social psychology professor, orders a lunch of fish and chips, and then decides not to eat the chips. “I won’t eat something that’s not good for me unless it’s absolutely perfect, and it’s going to give me real pleasure,” he says. “I’m afraid… Well, it just didn’t look like these were going to do either.”

What willpower, you might say. You’d be right; the chips looked pretty good. But Baumeister is also, coincidentally, a leading authority on that very subject, and has just published a smash-hit book on it with New York Times science writer John Tierney.

“Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength” distills three decades of academic research (Baumeister’s contribution) into self-control and willpower, which the Florida State University social psychologist bluntly identifies as “the key to success and a happy life”.

The result is also (Tierney’s contribution) readable, accessible and practical. It’s an unusual self-help book, in fact, in that it offers not just advice, tips and insights to help develop, conserve and boost willpower, but grounds them in some science.

Willpower is, Baumeister argues over lunch, “what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation – do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It’s central, in fact, to civilisation.”

The disciplined and dutiful Victorians, all stiff upper lip and lashings of moral fibre, had willpower in spades; as, sadly, did the Nazis, who referred to their evil adventure as the “triumph of will”. In the 60s we thought otherwise: let it all hang out; if it feels good, do it; I’m OK, you’re OK.

But without willpower, it seems, we’re actually rarely OK. In the 60s a sociologist called Walter Mischel was interested in how young children resist instant gratification; he offered them the choice of a marshmallow now, or two if they could wait 15 minutes. Years later, he tracked some of the kids down, and made a startling discovery.

Mischel’s findings have recently been confirmed by a remarkable long-term study in New Zealand, concluded in 2010. For 32 years, starting at birth, a team of international researchers tracked 1,000 people, rating their observed and reported self-control and willpower in a different ways.

What they found was that, even taking into account differences of intelligence, race and social class, those with high self-control – those who, in Mischel’s experiment, held out for two marshmallows later – grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults.

Those with low willpower, the study discovered, fared less well academically. They were more likely to be in low-paying jobs with few savings, to be overweight, to have drug or alcohol problems, and to have difficulty maintaining stable relationships (many were single parents). They were also nearly four times more likely to have a criminal conviction. “Willpower,” concludes Baumeister, “is one of the most important predictors of success in life.”

How to Improve Your Willpower

So how can we improve ours? Baumeister’s big idea, now borne out by hundreds of ingenious experiments in his and other social psychologists’ labs, is that willpower – the force by which we control and manage our thoughts, impulses and emotions and which helps us persevere with difficult tasks – is actually rather like a kind of moral muscle.

Like a muscle, it can get tired if you overuse it. Exercising willpower, but also making decisions and choices and taking initiatives, all seem to draw on the same well of energy, Baumeister has established. In experiments, he found that straight after accomplishing a task that required them to restrain their impulses (saying no to chocolate biscuits, suppressing their emotions while watching a three-tissue weepy), students were far more likely to underperform at other willpower-related jobs such as squeezing a handgrip or solving a difficult puzzle.

“The immune system also dips into the same pot, which is big, but finite,” says Baumeister, “and, we are pretty sure, so does women’s premenstrual syndrome. Having a cold tends to reduce your self-control, and PMS does the same. We get cranky and irritable, but it’s not that we have nastier impulses – it’s that our usual restraints have become weakened.”

So best avoid trying to do too many things involving mental effort at the same time, or if you’re ill. As with a muscle, though, you can train your willpower. Even small, day-to-day acts of willpower such as maintaining good posture, speaking in complete sentences or using a computer mouse with the other hand, can pay off by reinforcing longer-term self-control in completely unrelated activities, Baumeister has found. People previously told to sit or stand up straight whenever they remembered later performed much better in lab willpower tests.

The final way in which willpower resembles a mental “muscle” is that when its strength is depleted, it can be revived with glucose. Getting a decent night’s sleep and eating well – good, slow-burning fuel – is important in the exercise of willpower, but in times of dire need a quick shot of sugar can, according to Baumeister’s lab tests, make all the difference.

(This is, of course, something of a problem for crash dieters, who basically need to eat in order to summon up the willpower not to eat. Indeed some very strong impulses, such as the behaviour often exhibited by males in possession of an erect penis, can sometimes prove completely resistant to willpower, even after the ingestion of a can of Coca-Cola.)

Baumeister cites a “very impressive demonstration” of the glucose argument: in a study published last year, researchers found that Israeli judges making the difficult and sensitive decision of whether or not to grant parole opted to do so in roughly 65% of cases after lunch, and hardly ever just before.

Build Up Willpower by Exercising It

Baumeister’s top willpower tips: Build up your self-control by exercising it regularly in small ways. Learn to recognise signs that your willpower may be waning. Don’t crash diet. Don’t try to do too much at once. Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. Learn how to draw up an effective to-do list.

Don’t put yourself in temptation’s way, or if you can’t avoid it, make it harder for yourself to succumb. Use your willpower actively: plan, commit, and do so (like members of religious communities) publicly. “People with low willpower,” Baumeister says, “use it to get themselves out of crises. People with high willpower use it not to get themselves into crises.”

Much of this, of course, is in the book. You may even learn how to say no to chips.