Can you explain, in a nutshell, what it is you do?
I teach neuroscience-based meditation, where I merge the ancient practice of meditation with modern neuroscience evidence on how meditation can literally change and reshape your brain and significantly improve countless areas of your life.
Our scientific knowledge of meditation’s incredible brain benefits and rewiring abilities is fairly new, and people don’t know enough about it, so I’m highly passionate about making this knowledge as accessible as possible.
I teach different styles of meditation as different brain-enhancing tools. Just as different physical exercises enhance different parts of your body, different types of meditation have effects on different parts of your brain – so much so that meditation scientists have suggested that different styles of meditation are recommended according to what areas of your life you want to focus on and improve.
Can you explain what it means to be a neuroscientist?
In a nutshell, a neuroscientist studies and researches the nervous system (composed of the brain, spinal cord and nerve cells). The brain is as complex and mysterious as the universe, so it’s typical for a neuroscientist to specialise in a certain field of study; you can study brain anatomy, biochemistry, molecular biology of neurons, neuron circuits and pathways, psychology, neuropsychology, behaviour and so many other disciplines within neuroscience.
I’ve been very lucky to have been involved in a variety of interesting research studies before studying meditation, my main focus was researching stroke from a neuropsychological and neuroimaging perspective. Stroke is a form of brain damage that can occur in different regions of the brain, causing a multitude of different symptoms to the patient. I worked in a lab which uses state-of-the-art brain imaging methods to see what brain pathways and connections are affected by different types of strokes, and also how the other unaffected regions of the brain responded and adapted to the stroke, and how all of this related to function and patient behaviour.
I now study how different meditation practices can change different areas of the brain and create new neuronal connections.
What are the short-term and long-term benefits of mindfulness and meditation?
Some of the short-term benefits that you can notice straight away after a meditation practice are; calmer mind and body, a ‘lightness of being’, reduced stress, better focus and increased alertness.
In the long run, a frequent meditation practice starts to literally change and rewire your brain. We used to think that the brain was fixed, and that the brain that we were born with stayed with us for life, remaining relatively unchanged (and only losing cognitive abilities as we age). It was only around 70 years ago that scientists discovered that regardless of age, the brain has an incredible ability to adapt, adjust, reorganise itself, grow new brain cells and make new connections between regions, this is called neuroplasticity.
When you become a long-term meditator, your brain regions related to stress control, productivity, attention, focus, drive, emotional intelligence and resilience begin to rewire, giving you extraordinary enhanced mind power.
Can you explain some of your techniques to us?
The technique that I created combines the three most powerful and brain-changing styles of meditation (non-directive meditation, mindfulness and visualisation) into one practice. Based on cutting-edge neuroscience research, each technique has been proven to change different areas of your brain, so when combined, they become like your secret weapon to success and to a new, enhanced version of you.
The non-directive meditation component of the technique activates both left and right hemispheres of the brain and increases the speed of information that flows from one hemisphere to the other. This makes you a faster, more productive thinker, and it also boosts your production of dopamine, your feel-good hormone, so it’s like taking your brain to the gym! It also activates the creativity network in the brain, resulting in better ideas and quicker problem-solving.
The mindfulness component activates your prefrontal cortex (the CEO of your brain; responsible for logical, rational thinking) and it dampens down your stress response by changing the way you respond to stress – it helps you to engage the clear and rational part of your mind first, instead of acting on instinctual fight or flight.
The visualisation component is something that has been practiced by elite athletes for ages, I’m just re-directing where the technique is applied. By visualising your goals, you can bring yourself closer to them. This eliminates the novelty effect, the barriers that we create in front of us, and all the self-doubt and confidence issues that keep us from achieving our goals. The practice can bring you closer to your goals by creating a blueprint of them in your brain, thus keeping them in the forefront of your conscious awareness and making them easier to focus on.
What are ‘Neuroanatomy’ and ‘Neuroimaging’?
Neuroanatomy refers to the anatomy of the nervous system, its structure and organisation and the relationship between structure and function. You can study neuroanatomy at the macroscopic level (focusing on larger brain regions and structures and brain folds) or at the microscopic level (looking into how different types of neurons and another brain cell called glia, interact and connect with each other). Neuroimaging is the use of various techniques and tools to image the structure and function of the brain and the rest of the nervous system. It’s the only way to see inside and study the brain of living people and animals in a non-invasive way. This means that we can better understand the workings and modifications of the living brain and see how diseases of the brain possibly start and affect different brain structures. Neuroimaging can be used both in research and as a diagnostic tool and there are many different types of neuroimaging, for example, some techniques
measure blood-flow and oxygen in the brain to study structures and functions (such as an MRI and fMRI), others use electromagnetic energy to produce x-ray images such as the classic CT scan.
I specialised on a type of neuroimaging called diffusion tractography – which is a technique that follows water molecules inside a certain type of neuron, thus allowing us to see how those neurons create different connections and pathways to and from various regions of the brain, like a complex and fascinating railway system.
What are your top tips for people who suffer from anxiety/stress?
The first thing I’d say is that we are all collectively experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress at the moment, and it’s important to honour that, as we normally tend to feel like we are the only one who suffers, which is not the case at all. The second thing is that even in the face of a lot of uncontrollable sources of stress, it is still possible to manage our experience and not let stress and anxiety overwhelm us.
One way of containing anxiety is to understand its triggers and how it physically affects your body (and health!). It can be helpful to shift our focus to what we can do, because here’s the catch: nothing was ever certain, we just lived under an illusion of control, of a somewhat secure reality. The truth is that we never actually knew anything about what tomorrow might bring.
Some more practical tips are; connect with your breathing, even if just for a few seconds. Simply inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 – always make your exhale longer than the inhale, as this will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system (the system of calm) to kick in and your heartbeat to slow down.
And of course, start a regular meditation practice, no matter how short (you can even start with 2 minutes a day, I’m completely serious, that’s already beneficial!). Meditation is the most powerful way to keep your cortisol and adrenaline production down (these two hormones fuel stress and anxiety). When you meditate, you are in the calmest state your mind and body can ever experience. Scientific studies have found that frequent meditators experience an increase of 64% of dopamine levels that last for at least one hour after meditating, compared to only resting quietly.
How can meditation help depression? I feel like it’s a lot clearer how it can help anxiety, but not as much for depression?
If you suffer from stress and anxiety, these can be major triggers of depression if left unchecked. Meditation helps retrain the brain to achieve sustained focus and attention and to return to that focus whenever negative and depressive thoughts and emotions begin to take you down a spiral.
Studies have shown that meditation can change specific brain regions that are typically associated with depression; one is the amygdala (the ‘fear centre’ of the brain). The amygdala triggers the classic ‘fight and flight’ response when you experience stress, danger and fear, alerting your adrenal glands to produce cortisol (stress hormone) which takes over your body. People with depression tend to have a hyperactive amygdala, that gets triggered more often than in people with no depression. Another region that becomes overactive in people with depression is the
medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which is your “me” centre – where you process information about yourself, where you create scenarios about the future or ruminate about the past. People with anxiety tend to have an overactive mPFC too. These regions are heavily interconnected and feed off each other. However, meditation can help you break the connection between them.
When you meditate, you train and ‘tame’ your brain to respond differently to negative feelings and thoughts when they begin to pop up. You literally teach yourself a brand-new response, like a break pedal to depressive thoughts. You teach your brain to rewire itself to create a more positive self-talk.
It’s important to highlight that when you meditate, you’re not supressing the negative thoughts and stress, you are still observing them, welcoming them in and understanding them, but from a more controlled experience, where you know you don’t have to act on them. It’s a profound experience of gaining self-wisdom.
There is scientific indication that meditation is a more power antidepressant than medication. I can attest to this with all my heart. I have suffered with depression on and off all my life and being introduced to meditation and starting a regular practice has transformed my outlook on life and on myself.
All of this fills me hope and passion to carry on spreading the knowledge that meditation isn’t just a good and sensible self-care, but it can quite literally transform how your brain is connected and how you talk to and treat yourself.
What are your top tips for people who struggle with meditation?
Being sceptical about it is not a bad thing, a lot of us grew up with the mainstream view that meditation is hippy-dippy, non-scientific and an ‘alternative’ practice. But, as I have mentioned, science has been catching up with it, and it has shown us that we can safely toss all that blind judgment out the window. Meditation is now the secret weapon routine of CEOs, high-performers and influential individuals, it continues to be implemented in workplaces as a tool to directly improve focus and productivity (think Facebook, Google, Golden Sachs – they all have meditation training and designated meditation rooms for their employees!). If you are new to meditation, start small. Don’t try a 45 min guided session, it will bore you out of your mind. Begin by educating yourself about the benefits and start with baby steps, practice for 5 minutes or less, per day, and built it up with time. Once you begin to feel the benefits, you will want to increase the length of your practice, and progress will come naturally. And once you understand that meditation is not a mere self-care habit, like having a bubble bath, but a crucial component of taking care of your ‘brain hygiene’, that’s when the habit will begin to stick!
You can also read my “Myth busting: 10 reasons why you don’t meditate” post on my website www.thebrainedit.co and check out my “Meditation to rewire your brain course” as a place to start or to delve deeper into the practice 😉 (all levels welcome!).
Next 4-week course starts on February 20th and I promise it’s an investment of a lifetime.
BSc in Psychology, MSc in Neuroscience, PhDc in Neuroanatomy and Neuroimaging, CPD Accredited Meditation & Mindfulness coach
5 Willoughby Street
London WC1A 1JD
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7255 1921