“Insight is not a matter of memory, of knowledge and time, which are all thought. Insight is the total absence of the whole movement of thought as time and remembrance. So there is direct perception. It is as though I have been going North for the last ten thousand years, and my brain is accustomed to going North, and somebody comes along and says, that will lead you nowhere, go East. When I turn round and go East the brain cells have changed. Because I have an insight that the North leads nowhere.
I will put it differently. The whole movement of thought, which is limited, is acting throughout the world now. It is the most important action, we are driven by thought. But thought will not solve any of our problems, except the technological ones. If I see that, I have stopped going North. I think that with the ending of a certain direction, the ending of a movement that has been going on for thousands of years, there is at that moment an insight that brings about a change, a mutation, in the brain cell.” —Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
Sujata Krishna offered this passage from Questioning Krishnamurti after listening to our show with Rex Jung. During the interview, he described how the brain, with training, can actually change shape, beef up like a muscle that’s been trained:
“I think there are some strategies to cultivating creativity. It takes a lot of time to change the structure of your brain and there are several studies out there now. You know, the famous juggling study where they have novices who don’t know how to juggle. They image them, then they juggle for three months, they image them again and they see that literally a portion of their brain, a small chunk, but a portion of their brain is beefed up like a muscle in service of that concerted thing that they’re doing with their brain and that is the thing.
The important thing is they’re doing a very new thing in a concerted way. And their brain says, hey, if we’re going to be doing this thing in the environment over and over and over, I’m going to build tissue to do that so that we can do it easier and more efficiently. So if you’re going to be creative, pick one thing, get a lot of experience in that one thing, and do it over and over and over.”
Think about that. We can actually change the shape of our brains. Time to get to work. Putting that idea to work, methinks this magnified image of stained neurons is a fitting pairing.
Image by Mr. McGill / Flickr
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled “Investigating Healthy Minds.” While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet.
The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding.
—Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, as quoted in “How to Train the Aging Brain.”
I rather enjoyed this observation and the additive notion of our brains growing older and not just simply deteriorating. And, by regularly jarring our brains with a “disorienting dilemma” (which I hope we accomplish with the many voices on SOF), we can probe and add to that depth and interconnectedness of knowledge.
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Tools of the Mind
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Krista is away at the Vancouver Peace Summit in Vancouver, British Columbia where, among others, she’ll be interviewing psychologist and neuroscientist Adele Diamond. In April 2009 Diamond was invited by the Dalai Lama to speak at a conference in Dharamsala, India, “Attention, Memory and Mind.”
Diamond is interested in how “Executive Function” (EF) skills develop in children’s brains. As I understand it, EF skills reside in the brain’s prefrontal cortex and they help us to stay focused on a task, even when our impulses and other flashy distractions get in the way.
Diamond has studied an early childhood curriculum called Tools of the Mind that uses dramatic play and other techniques to help foster EF skills in young kids. Some researchers, including Diamond, say these EF Skills are better predictors of academic success than IQ scores.
This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature article about Tools of the Mind, “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” that cites Diamond and her research. The article really helped me to get a better handle on how Tools of the Mind actually works in the classroom, especially how dramatic play teaches children mental focus. As a producer, I get excited when a person or topic we’re covering reveals itself in the popular culture unexpectedly.
Update (12/23): You can now listen to our produced program with Adele Diamond on the SOF Web site: “Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education.”