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E14: The Neuroscience Behind Why Mindfulness Improves Health, Thinking and Mood

Jacob Derossett

We're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation mindfulness for the past two decades training and certifying others to teach mindfulness. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled Tame Soothe Dwell: The 55 Teachings of TSD Mindfulness. Today we discussed the neurology associated with meditation and mindfulness, we discussed the health benefits for your thinking your mood, we also discuss what the atoms of thoughts are on a neurological level. I'm Jacob Derossett. We are here with Sarah Vallely, Sarah, how are you?


Sarah Vallely

I'm great, Jacob. Thank you. We know there are so many benefits from meditation. It prevents depression, lowers anxiety improves cardiovascular health is better for our immune system, grows gray matter in our cerebellum. These are all things that we've talked about on past episodes. Yes, we know we have all these benefits from mindfulness. But why, what is the missing link? What if I just sit and do nothing? Will I get these benefits? Do I specifically need to practice mindfulness to gain these benefits?


This is a question that I get often. On a cognitive level, it works because you're strengthening your ability to concentrate, you're strengthening your ability to accept, you gain more clarity, you gain more patience. So on a cognitive level, this can explain why we're having some of these benefits such as preventing depression and lowering anxiety.




When I used to answer this question, “What if we just sat and did nothing, would we get the same benefits?” I used to explain the reason that you need to actually practice mindfulness is because mindfulness pulls you out of the default mode network. And this default mode network, are these certain areas in your brain are active when you are daydreaming, when you are having a stream of consciousness. And what the mindfulness does is it pulls you out of that, which is important because there's a lot of research that shows if we spend too much time in that default mode network it causes depression and causes anxiety.


Jacob Derossett

Does being in the default mode network cause depression anxiety? Or do you go to the default mode network because you are depressed or anxious?


Sarah Vallely

Going into that default mode network causes depression and anxiety. Rumination is one of the biggest reasons because when you're in the default mode network, the majority of the time you're in either rumination or worry. When we practice mindfulness, we pull ourselves out of that type of thought cycle. To answer this question: “What if we just sat and did nothing, would we get the same benefits?” I did some investigation and read some more research and I was absolutely blown away by what I uncovered. In the depths of these published research article indexes. I'm super excited to unveil these. I feel like I'm unveiling the secrets to the universe. This is how excited I am about this.


Here's one relative aspect--our brainwaves. Our brainwaves are oscillating electrical voltages in the brain measuring a few millionths of a volt. We can actually measure the voltage of these brainwaves. You might have heard of them, Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, those are different brainwave states. They're differentiated by how many cycles per second their frequency is. I've been teaching about brainwaves for years. I've talked about it in one of my books, it's been part of several of my trainings, but it wasn't until the last few days that I learned these brainwave states can be run at different voltages. So Jacob, you could be in an Alpha state and be running the Alpha state at one certain voltage, and I could be in the Alpha state and running at a different voltage. What the research shows is that meditators exhibit more volts across the board in every state while they're meditating compared to somebody who's not. So if somebody's just sitting there doing nothing, and they're checking their brainwaves, they're emitting a little bit less voltage than somebody who's sitting there and practicing mindfulness.


Jacob Derossett

What is the benefit of having more volts than having less?


Sarah Vallely

Well, what I'm thinking when you put all this together is, one of the reasons we are preventing depression, lowering our anxiety, improving cardiovascular health is quite possibly, because when we meditate, we're running at higher volts. I mean, there's nobody out there that specifically saying that. But that's a difference between somebody who's just sitting there resting, compared to somebody who's actually meditating, there's more volts. So we can speculate. The largest difference I saw between the voltages of someone sitting at rest, and someone meditating was 10, to the negative 12, power micro volts. So it's not a lot. But when you look at it on the chart, it looks significant. So you are literally generating more power when you're practicing mindfulness than someone who's just sitting there resting. So maybe we could plug ourselves into the grid and give the power back and make some money.


Jacob Derossett

That sounds great. Yeah. I mean, that it kind of makes sense. If you think of that somebody’s system is just more efficient than the other person's, you know that you have more things happening. And if you have more things happening, that's going to aid in your entire system. That's pretty cool.


Sarah Vallely

I feel like this is like the future and research--can we research this more and understand what this means. What are the implications of this? So that's one aspect. There are so many physical and cognitive benefits of meditation. But why do we have to practice mindfulness? Why can't we just sit there and gain those same benefits? I've mentioned several times “when we practice mindfulness” so let me be more specific about what I mean. There are two ways to practice mindfulness. If you're not doing either of these ways, you're not practicing mindfulness, you're doing something else, which is fine. But mindfulness is pretty specific. And one is single pointed of focus, which means we are choosing a stimulus to focus on whether that is sound, our breath, or physical sensations in our body, you can even have your eyes open looking at an object. That single pointed focus. And when we lose our concentration, we just bring it back to whatever our stimulus is. That's one method. The other method is called open awareness. The researchers name it open monitoring. And what that is, is we sit and we pay attention to whatever comes into our consciousness. It could be a sound, it could be a physical sensation, it could be a thought, and emotion, and so forth. And so you're basically sitting there, noticing each and every thing that's coming through. Advanced, mindfulness meditators, do both. They are typically focusing on maybe their breath. And at the same time, they're monitoring any thoughts that might come into their consciousness.


Jacob Derossett

Where does uprooting the notions of the typical sense of self come in? One of the biggest shifts that I had in my practice was when I started really leaning into practices that that cause you to uproot your idea of what you think you are. In Buddhism, the big draw is you're not what you think you are. I think Jack Kornfield said, “You're real, but you're not really real.” And I've always loved that.


Sarah Vallely

That's one of the major differences between single point edof focus and open awareness. Open awareness is a practice in you getting to know yourself. When we're practicing single pointed of focus, we are not getting to know ourselves, other than we might be getting in touch with our concentration level. “Oh, I'm really good at concentration,” or, “Oh, my concentration is a little bit challenged.” But with open awareness, we are learning so much about the nature of our minds.


Additionally, I've attained enlightenment three times. And none of those times was I using open awareness. I was using single point of focus each of those times. But I don't know about other meditators because I've never heard another meditation teachers speak about their enlightenment experience. So I don't I don't know if this is just particular to me.


Jacob Derossett

So when you say enlightenment, or you mean specifically, stream entry type experiences, awakening experiences?


Sarah Vallely

The no self--getting to a point where you completely don't even know that you are you. That's gone. You're the fan. You're the wall. You're the tree. You've completely let go.


Jacob Derossett

I've touched things that felt like that for just the smallest second, but for me, every time that I have this, I experience a change of my ground of being. Sam Harris talks about when you're looking at a window, you can look through the window to the other side or you can see your reflection in the window. A lot of meditation practices are having you just look at your reflection. But if I tell you to look through the window outside of the tree, now you have a shift in perception. I really like the psychedelic nature of losing yourself. That's what I'm in it for.


Sarah Vallely

Returning to the conversation about why do we need to actually sit and meditate and practice mindfulness to gain these physical and cognitive benefits opposed to just sitting there, just resting and relaxing, letting your mind wander? One of the really important aspects to understanding this has to do with what are called microstates. Microstates are determined by which areas of the brain are activated during rest. There's about six of these microstates. One is, for example, the right frontal lobe and the left posterior lobe are activated. That's one configuration. Another is the frontal lobe and the occipital lobe is activated, this configuration. They actually term these microstates “the atoms of thought”. If we were going to break down our thoughts to the most smallest brain activity, it would be these microstates.


But sometimes during rest, we aren't in any of these states, we are jumping from one configuration to the another, because you're not technically in a state unless you're there for 80 milliseconds or longer. Sometimes we're just jumping around, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, we're not really landing for any period of time in a certain state. And they use EEG monitors, to measure this. So here's the interesting part, the researchers are claiming that mental health is determined by your brain at rest. If you take a picture, monitor what is going on in your brain at rest, then that indicates how you're doing with your mental health. And the reason that they claim this is because what our brain is doing when we're at rest, gets you ready for sensory input, influences your perception, and affects your cognitive processing.


There are studies that are associating different mental health disorders with this intermittent brain activity that I'm talking about--this jumping around within these different configurations. I'm not going to list all the disorders, but anxiety disorders, and panic disorder are on that list. There is a study that was published in The Frontiers of Human Neuroscience in 2016. What they did is they hooked up three groups of people to EEG machines, and recorded their microstates.


Temporal Dynamics of the Default Mode Network Characterize Meditation-Induced Alterations in Consciousness Frontiers in Human Science 2016


The first group were people who are not meditators and they were sitting there at rest, just taking a break. Another group were meditators, they have a practice and meditation practice, but they weren't actually meditating. They were just sitting there resting. And the third group were meditators, people who have a practice in mindfulness who were meditating. This is what came out of that study, they took data on how many times the people went into the microstates. And the first group that were not meditators, they were just sitting there resting, went into microstates, on average, 3 times per second. Meditators who were sitting there, just taking a break, went into microstates, 3.8 times per second. And the meditators who were actually meditating, went into the microstates, 4 times per second. So that's a 33% difference between the people who don't meditate, who are just sitting there resting, and then those who were meditating. That's a really significant difference. When you hear this, Jacob, what does this mean to you?


Jacob Derossett

What I'm hearing is if you have a consistent meditation practice, even when you're sitting there and not meditating, your brain activity is going to reflect that of somebody that is a more mentally healthy, perhaps.


Sarah Vallely

Because of these studies that are associating these mental health disorders with this intermittent activity, which means the people aren't going into these states as often, then yes, I think that's fair to say that someone who has a meditation practice is probably less likely to have one of these mental health disorders. What this is really showing to me is that if you have a mindfulness practice, you have a permanent shift in your brain activity. It's not just when you're meditating. It's a permanent shift throughout your day. And I remember when this happened to me was about 10 years ago when I practiced mindfulness for 60 minutes every day for nine months. It changed my life. And I remember when I noticed it felt like a permanent change. The first few months, I was like, Okay, I'm starting to feel better, especially when I'm meditating. But I think it might have been around the six month when I realized that I had just a fundamental difference in my whole being.


Jacob Derossett

So if you're somebody that's listening to this, and you're saying to yourself, “Okay, I have a clinical level of depression or anxiety. I'm heavily medicated, and I don't think that mindfulness is going to help.” The answer is we definitively know it will help. If you do it the way Sarah has outlined, and you really consistently do it, you will get better. And then the more you practice, the better it'll get.


To me all this is just telling you just start, just do it consistently over time, and you are guaranteed a result. It's like lifting weights. If you lift weights, you will get stronger. Even if you do it poorly and incorrectly, you will still get stronger. You could go into a gym with no idea what you're doing. And literally just take dumbbells off the rack and set them on the floor and put them back and do that every day, you will get stronger for sure. Just doubling down on “we now know definitively your mental health will improve if you practice mindfulness regularly.” For sure, full stop.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, and you had mentioned medications. The research shows that meditation alone, nor medication alone, are as effective as combining meditation and medication, you can do both and get a better bang for your buck.


Jacob Derossett

The medication helps you to take the burden off of you just enough so you can started to implement positive lifestyle habits--cold showers, getting up early light exposure, exercise, social interactions, all those things.


Sarah Vallely

I feel like we're the Jacob and Sarah pep talk show!


Going back to that research that I was mentioning, also what they measured, were the amount of time the people in the study were in the microstates. So the control group, (the group that was just sitting there doing nothing and they didn't have a meditation practice) on average, they were in each microstate for about 95 milliseconds. The group that were meditators, but we're not meditating, while they were getting measured, they were just sitting there at rest, their average time for being in a microstate was 120 milliseconds. And then the group of meditators who had a practice and meditation, and they were practicing mindfulness while they were getting measured, they were in the microstates, on average, 130 milliseconds. So first of all, that's a 37% difference between the people who didn't meditate, and we're just sitting there at rest. That's a huge difference. And it's a fairly big jump up from the meditators who were not meditating. I think it was the same group of people. I think they just took the meditators and they measured them once when they were just sitting there doing nothing. And then they measure them again, when they're meditating.


It looks as though when you practice meditation on a regular basis, and you meditate, you go into the microstates, about the same amount as you would if you weren't meditating. But when you're meditating, you're in those microstates for longer periods of time. And if you've ever been on a retreat, or you have a really dedicated mindfulness practice, what you experience is things slow down. Everything just seems to slow down. It is as if you are in slow motion. And so I think this is what explains that. Your brain activity is literally slowing down. You're entering these microstates in a more stable way for longer periods of time, which I think is allowing you to experience your reality in more of slow motion.


Some of my clients don't like it when I point this out. But I think some of us who are in these really busy lives and things seem like we can't catch up and we're overwhelmed. I think there's a big part of that. That's actually just our brain function, though, because we're jumping around between these different states, we're experiencing our life as super fast and we can't catch up. I mean, I know that some of us have lives where there's so much going on, but I think if you were to meditate, your life would not feel like it was going as fast. Have you experienced that Jacob?


Jacob Derossett

On an experiential level? I didn't notice slowing down. I'm more or less noticed, I noticed more things. Like I think Ram Das said, “I've become a connoisseur of my neuroses.” It helped me to not take myself so seriously. Because once you start and you examine all the thoughts that you have, it's like, wow, okay, really, this is it, this is the the best I got? Your human. People have more or less have some things, but everybody has the full spectrum of the humaneness. For me sitting was examining that.


Sarah Vallely

A couple other points of interest in this study--they took data on the number of years that the people had been meditating. And the longer the people had been meditating, the more often they went into the states, and the longer they were able to hold these states.


And it also matters which of these six states, you spend time in--that's an additional factor to leading to these health benefits. I won't go into all of the six states, but I'll give an example. One of the most beneficial out of the six microstates is microstate C. They are labeled A, B, C, D, E, F, and in this microstate C, we have lower activity in our anterior cingulate cortex, which has to do with being impulsive. So if we have less activity in that area, then it would make sense that it would be helpful. And there's also less activity in the thalamus, which I think is helpful, because the thalamus breaks your attention four times per second, on average. The reason the thalamus breaks your attention is it's scanning your environment for threats. You probably feel a bit more relaxed, if the thalamus isn't engaged as much. And also, the lower activity in the insula, which has to do with arousal, getting emotionally excited and decision making. So that would make sense that having lower activity in that center would be helpful.


And then there's higher activity in this microstate C in the anterior and posterior cerebellum, which is highly associated with mindful movement, being intentional about how we're moving our bodies, and also cognitive functions.


Do you think is plausible that on a very physical, neurological level, staying in these microstates for a longer period of time and being in the microstates more often, is what's supporting us to have all these health and cognitive benefits from our mindfulness practice?


Jacob Derossett

It makes sense to me. I've wondered how is it that mindfulness is good for your immune system. It makes almost no sense if you just think about it from an experimental standpoint--what about sitting down and focusing or being aware is good for my immune system? They seem completely unrelated. So yeah, I would say that drawing that conclusion makes--the most sense of anything I've heard so far. So basically, the longer you meditate, the more positive brain things are going to happen. That's my, my redneck way to describe what I just said.


Sarah Vallely

Yes, I would say that's true.



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