Posts Tagged Richard Davidson

Stress may delay brain development in early years


There has been a lot of work in animals linking both acute and chronic stress to changes in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex cognitive abilities like holding on to important information for quick recall and use,” says Jamie Hanson, a UW-Madison psychology graduate student. “We have now found similar associations in humans, and found that more exposure to stress is related to more issues with certain kinds of cognitive processes.”

Children who had experienced more intense and lasting stressful events in their lives posted lower scores on tests of what the researchers refer to as spatial working memory. They had more trouble navigating tests of short-term memory such as finding a token in a series of boxes, according to the study, which will be published in the June 6 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Brain scans revealed that the anterior cingulate, a portion of the prefrontal cortex believed to play key roles in spatial working memory, takes up less space in children with greater exposure to very stressful situations.

“These are subtle differences, but differences related to important cognitive abilities” Hanson says.

But they maybe not irreversible differences.

“We’re not trying to argue that stress permanently scars your brain. We don’t know if and how it is that stress affects the brain,” Hanson says. “We only have a snapshot — one MRI scan of each subject — and at this point we don’t understand whether this is just a delay in development or a lasting difference. It could be that, because the brains is very plastic, very able to change, that children who have experienced a great deal of stress catch up in these areas.”

The researchers determined stress levels through interviews with children ages 9 to 14 and their parents. The research team, which included UW-Madison psychology professors Richard Davidson and Seth Pollak and their labs, collected expansive biographies of stressful events from slight to severe.

“Instead of focusing in on one specific type of stress, we tried to look at a range of stressors,” Hanson says. “We wanted to know as much as we could, and then use all this information to later to get an idea of how challenging and chronic and intense each experience was for the child.”

Interestingly, there was little correlation between cumulative life stress and age. That is, children who had several more years of life in which to experience stressful episodes were no more likely than their younger peers to have accumulated a length stress resume. Puberty, on the other hand, typically went hand-in-hand with heavier doses of stress.

The researchers, whose work was funded by the National Institutes of Health, also took note of changes in brain tissue known as white matter and gray matter. In the important brain areas that varied in volume with stress, the white and gray matter volumes were lower in tandem.

White matter, Hanson explained, is like the long-distance wiring of the brain. It connects separated parts of the brain so that they can share information. Gray matter “does the math,” Hanson says. “It takes care of the processing, using the information that gets shared along the white matter connections.”

Gray matter early in development appears to enable flexibility; children can play and excel at many different activities. But as kids age and specialize, gray matter thins. It begins to be “pruned” after puberty, while the amount of white matter grows into adulthood.

“For both gray and white matter, we actually see smaller volumes associated with high stress,” Hanson says. “Those kinds of effects across different kinds of tissue, those are the things we would like to study over longer periods of time. Understanding how these areas change can give you a better picture of whether this is just a delay in development or more lasting.”

More study could also show the researchers how to help children who have experienced an inordinate amount of stress.

“There are groups around the country doing working memory interventions to try to train or retrain people on this particular cognitive ability and improve performance,” Hanson says. “Understanding if and how stress affects these processes could help us know whether there may be similar interventions that could aid children living in stressful conditions, and how this may affect the brain.”

via Stress may delay brain development in early years.

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7 Easy Ways to be Mindful Every Day


7 Easy Ways to be Mindful Every Day | World of Psychology

7 Easy Ways to be Mindful Every Day
By MARGARITA TARTAKOVSKY, M.S.
Associate Editor

Mindfulness has a way of sounding complicated. It’s anything but.

“Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” according to Marsha Lucas, Ph.D, psychologist and author of Rewire Your Brain for Love.

There are many simple ways you can be more mindful. Here are seven tips to incorporate into your daily life.

1. Practice mindfulness during routine activities. Try bringing awareness to the daily activities you usually do on autopilot, said Ed Halliwell, mindfulness teacher and co-author of the book The Mindful Manifesto.

For instance, pay more attention as you’re brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating breakfast or walking to work, he said. Zero in on the sight, sound, smell, taste and feel of these activities. “You might find the routine activity is more interesting than you thought,” he said.

2. Practice right when you wake up. According to Lucas, “Mindfulness practice first thing in the morning helps set the ‘tone’ of your nervous system for the rest of the day, increasing the likelihood of other mindful moments.” If you find yourself dozing off, as Lucas does, just practice after having your coffee or tea. But “…don’t read the paper, turn on the TV, check your phone or email, etc. until after you’ve had your ‘sit,’” she said.

3. Let your mind wander. “Your mind and brain are natural wanderers – much like a crawling toddler or a puppy, Lucas said. And that’s a good thing. Having a “busy brain,” Lucas said, is actually an asset. “The beneficial brain changes seen in the neuroscience research on mindfulness are thought to be promoted in large part by the act of noticing that your mind has wandered, and then non-judgmentally – lovingly [and] gently— bringing it back,” she said.

4. Keep it short. Our brains respond better to bursts of mindfulness, Lucas said. So being mindful several times a day is more helpful than a lengthy session or even a weekend retreat. While 20 minutes seems to be the gold standard, starting at a few minutes a day is OK, too.

For instance, you can tune into your body, such as focusing “on how your shoes feel on your feet in that moment, or giving attention to how your jaw is doing [such as, is it] tight, loose or hanging open at the audacity of the person in front of you in the coffee line?” Lucas said.

5. Practice mindfulness while you wait. In our fast-paced lives, waiting is a big source of frustration – whether you’re waiting in line or stuck in traffic. But while it might seem like a nuisance, waiting is actually an opportunity for mindfulness, Halliwell said. When you’re waiting, he suggested bringing your attention to your breath. Focus on “the flow of the breath in and out of your body, from moment to moment and allow everything else to just be, even if what’s there is impatience or irritation.”

6. Pick a prompt to remind you to be mindful. Choose a cue that you encounter on a regular basis to shift your brain into mindful mode, Lucas said. For instance, you might pick a certain doorway or mirror or use drinking coffee or tea as a reminder, she said.

7. Learn to meditate. “The best way to cultivate mindfulness in everyday life is to formally train in meditation,” Halliwell said. He compared practicing mindfulness to learning a new language. “You can’t just decide to be fluent in Spanish – unless you already are – you have to learn the language first,” he said. “Practicing meditation is how to learn the language of mindfulness.” Meditation helps us tap into mindfulness with little effort, he said. He suggested finding a local teacher or trying out CDs.

Mindfulness isn’t a luxury, Lucas said, “it’s a practice that trains your brain to be more efficient and better integrated, with less distractibility and improved focus. It minimizes stress and even helps you become your best self.”

Lucas cited Richard Davidson’s research at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, which shows that all of us have an emotional “set point.” “Some of us have more of a tendency toward withdrawal, avoidance, negative thinking and other depressive symptoms, [whereas] others have a greater tendency toward positive moods [such as, being] curious, tending to approach new things and positive thinking,” she said. Davidson has found that through mindfulness, we may be able to train our brains and shift our set points.

“Mindfulness practice now has an abundance of neuroscience research to support that it helps our brains be more integrated, so your everyday activities, thoughts, attitudes [and] perceptions…are more balanced [or] well-rounded,” Lucas said.

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