Monday, December 23, 2013

Psilocybin Therapy Documentary

A bit more about the psilocybin therapy documentary, The Medicine: Science and Psychedelics, an interview with producer/writer/director Roslyn Dauber.

Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines

A documentary:

"Through interviews with the world’s foremost researchers, writers, psychologists and pioneers in psychedelic psychotherapy, Neurons to Nirvana explores the history of five powerful psychedelic substances (LSD, Psilocybin, MDMA, Ayahuasca and Cannabis) and their now established medicinal potential."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Low dose psilocybin for PTSD?

The study "Effects of psilocybin on hippocampal neurogenesis and extinction of trace fear conditioning," showed that "mice administered low doses of psilocybin overcame the conditioned fear response faster than mice that did not receive the drug."

From: Digital Journal article

Although, the results apply only to mice, the researchers believe it paves the way for further studies exploring the possibility of using the psychoactive compound to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in humans.

Based on previous studies which found that psilocybin binds to a brain receptor that promotes neurogenesis (growth of brain cells) and enhances short-term memory formation, the researchers investigated the role of psilocybin in the formation of short term memories associated with conditioned fear responses as it occurs in patients with PTSD.

At the low doses of [psilocybin] that enhanced extinction, neurogenesis was not decreased, but rather tended toward an increase.

PSOP facilitates extinction of the classically conditioned fear response, and this, and similar agents, should be explored as potential treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

Link to Original Paper via Google


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

5 Ranks of Tozan

The 5 Ranks of Tozan is a Zen model of the stages of enlightenment.  The typical verses (which can be found lower down on the linked page) are relatively inscrutable, but the descriptions given here up front are pretty good.

Stages of Psycho-Spiritual Development

I previously mentioned some work by Cook-Greuter (Ego Development: Nine Levels of Increasing Embrace).  From Bill Harris' Centerpointe Blog, he goes into some descriptions of these levels of psychological and spiritual/contemplative development, in text and as podcasts.

Enlightenment Quiz

From an Advaita/Non-Duality site, the Enlightenment Quiz purports to measure how enlightened you are.

Apparently I am "provisionally enlightened" :)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Dharma Talk 002: Mahasi Insight (Vipassana) Meditation Noting Instructions

Mindfulness meditation in the style of a Burmese Theravada Buddhist master.  Arguably the predominate style of vipassana (insight meditation or mindfulness) practiced in the Theravada world (roughly southeast Asia).  Arguably the fastest path to technical stream entry (cessation), the first stage of enlightenment in the Burmese tradition, the tipping point.

Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (text)
Instructions to Insight Meditation - Mahasi Sayadaw (mp3)

The mp3 linked above is a 46 minute recording of a British guy reading the text that is also linked above, but it ends up being a nice guided meditation, a relatively painless way to receive the instructions.   I originally found the mp3 on a Hawaiian Vipassana group website, but as it has disappeared from that site I am offering it here.  The text is from Practical Vipassana Exercises by Mahasi Sayadaw, pages 30-44.

Kenneth Folk - Intro to Mahasi Noting (mp3)

This mp3 is a series of instructions edited from some Kenneth Folk instructional videos, totaling not quite 33 minutes in length, and I'll go ahead and place a link here to Kenneth Folk Dharma.  The topics are:
  • What is Meditation?
  • Noting based on Six Senses
  • Body Sensations (1st foundation of mindfulness)
  • Pleasant & Unpleasant (2nd foundation)
  • Mind States (3rd foundation)
  • Thoughts (4th foundation)
  • Freestyle Noting
  • Pressure Release Valve
  • Working Through Difficulty

I think at one time I would have been quite dogmatic about this style of meditation, for the simple reason that it proved effective for myself and a number of friends.  Clearly, many methods work, and frankly, anything that is getting you to something like 98% aware during formal practice will likely get it done, however, here are some of the reasons that this style may be effective:
  • Regular noting at approximately one second intervals doesn't allow much time for mind wandering
  • The noting actually requires you to continuously prove that you are aware, unlike most methods that merely make a suggestion that one be aware
  • Coming up with the note requires one to use up a certain amount of mental bandwidth that might otherwise be used to wander
  • Practiced earnestly, it allows for a very high rate of continuous presence awareness, aka awareness of awareness
  • Freely noting from any points in one's awareness, "dancing" from one object of awareness to another, trains mental flexibility and gives insight into impermance
  • Similarly, continually breaking one's experience into little parts, deconstructing the experience, "busting it up", gives insight into no-self
  • The regular noting (around 3600 times per hour) provides a unique type of feedback, allowing the mind to see patterns it might miss otherwise, at times providing insight into dependent origination, the billiard ball like physics of the universe (for example: loud sound > fear > body tensions > fearful thoughts > realization > relief > relaxation)
  • This style is perhaps exceptionally good for interrupting the conditioned prejudice towards, and attachment to, thought

There are some minor differences between the original Mahasi instructions and those of Kenneth Folk.

Mahasi has a style of dogmatically repeating each note twice, Kenneth does not.  In some ways the repeating could allow one to "sink into" the experience behind the note, a practice that Shinzen Young has advocated, but I would tend to go along with Kenneth's instructions.  Beginners typically have more of a problem with mind wandering and need more to do to keep them on task.  I would consider Shinzen's approach appropriate for more advanced students.

Mahasi also places a lot of emphasis on the breath.  Kenneth does not.  The breath has been the focus of many meditative practices and is of use as it is always available, always moving, always here and now.  Mahasi makes the breath a "fall back" mechanism if nothing else is going on, which makes sense, noting the ever present "rising" and "falling" of the diaphragm.  But I tend to agree with Kenneth's version, making the breath no more important than anything else going on in awareness.  We are looking for an insight practice, not a concentration practice.

Kenneth also advises people to experiment with out-loud noting.  This is a powerful technique which tends to automatically increase awareness as compared to mental noting.  If you are having trouble with mind wandering while mentally noting, try a session of out loud noting, which can be done sotto voce.


A brief article by Gil Fronsdal on Mental Noting

How to Practice Vipassana Insight Meditation by Sayadaw U Pandita (a student and successor of Mahasi Sayadaw)

A fairly long and detailed description of noting and mindfulness practice from the Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society

For a slightly different, more sparse noting approach, here is a retreat handout from Shinzen Young that gives an outline of his approach.  In simple terms, the notes are see - hear - feel - in - out - rest - flow - gone.  The in and out terms refer to whether the phenomenon is "inside" or "outside" of the body.  An internal, imagined image would be "see in", while looking at the television would be "see out".  Discursive verbal thoughts can be labelled as "hear in".

Free books by Mahasi Sayadaw from the Association for Insight Meditation.

And the post on Getting Stream Entry.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mapping the Meditative Mind

Mapping the Meditative Mind is a presentation from the 2013 Buddhist Geeks Conference.  David Vago of Harvard Medical School talks about some of the latest findings in contemplative neuroscience, along with Shinzen Young.  Video is next to last on the page.

The changes in brain activity for advanced meditators are sometimes massive.  For example, a 60% increase in areas of the frontopolar cortex, in a field where changes of perhaps 0.5-1.0 % are often considered significant.

One interesting finding, although the sample was small, was that the decrease in posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) activation (seen in Brewer's work, for example) was confounded by two meditators with the most formal practice who I believe showed increases, although I think this may be change from baseline as opposed to absolute values.

I also thought it interesting that Shinzen's maps, which in this presentation were based on the hearing-seeing-somatic axes, did not include thought.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Jud Brewer's Posterior Cingulate Cortex Hypothesis

From the article "The posterior cingulate cortex as a plausible mechanistic target of meditation: findings from neuroimaging."(pdf)

Brewer has found that advanced meditators have decreased activity in the default mode network (i.e. mind wandering network).  The default mode also has decreased activity when the mind is on a task (task network).  So this supports the idea of both the "non-task" mode of insight practice or vipassana, as well as the task mode of single-pointed concentration practice or shamatha. Although cumbersome and costly, real-time fMRI feedback on the PCC appears to have some promise.

"The posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), has been implicated in self-referential processing, including past and future thinking."

"As one might hypothesize, we found that undistracted and distracted awareness corresponded with PCC deactivation and activation, respectively, across the sample of individuals. Additionally, other themes emerged, including effortless doing (PCC deactivation), contentment (PCC deactivation), and trying to control experience."

"In our real-time neurofeedback experiments described earlier, we observed some serendipity: in addition to reporting high correspondence between real-time neurofeedback from the PCC and the subjective experience of meditation, a few novices also reported learning several key premises of meditation practice after receiving real-time neurofeedback from the PCC during meditation. For example, one novice reported learning the difference between paying attention to the breath in a forced rather than a relaxed way (Fig. 5A). Another novice learned the difference between thinking about versus feeling the breath physically (Fig. 5B). In these cases, meditation with real-time neurofeedback from the PCC enabled novices to recognize and learn subtle differences in mental processes that are difficult to convey conceptually, and might otherwise hinder learning meditation, such as the difference between self-referential processes (thinking) and the embodied practice of meditation."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Osho (Rajneesh) and Psychedelics (Nitrous Oxide)

So apparently Osho was indulging in a bit of the old nitrous oxide.  Quite a bit of it.  Interesting gossip.

"Rather than prohibiting the drugs, what is needed is to produce drugs which lead people to samadhi, which give an indication: if a chemical drug can be such a blessing, what will the real thing be? It is just a dewdrop in comparison with the real oceanic feeling, the oceanic ecstasy."

Apparently Osho dictated 3 books while in the "dental chair."
  • Glimpses of a Golden Childhood
  • Notes of a Madman
  • Books I have Loved

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Dharma Talk 001: The Axe and the Butter Knife

I thought I might use this as some kind of outlet for some thoughts from time to time.

The Axe and the Butter Knife

I recently checked out a nearby meditation group, trying to see if it might be a fit for me, if I might be able to contribute, maybe meet some people, etc.

It was a pretty standard group, fairly well read on Buddhism, a little bit of mindfulness practice, and some of that psychologizing or group therapy vibe.  And the people seemed to have practiced a bit, they seem to have some understanding of how to struggle with practice.

And yet it seemed pretty clear that no one was actually "getting it done".  The leader of the group was exploring and struggling with the meaning of the word "equanimity," for example.  Which is all well and good, fair topic, but I got the sense that she had never really experienced it for herself.  My thinking was that it's just not that hard to get to an actual experience of equanimity in meditation (11th nana), I mean, you don't even have to attain stream entry.

I was envisioning the task of enlightenment as something like chopping down a redwood, and it seems as if most of westernized Buddhism has insisted on using a butter knife.  So yeah, maybe I could help with that.  Say someone is using the dull side of the butter knife, I could point that out and suggest they try using the sharp side.  "Oh yeah, that's better."  Or I might point out that they could take a rock and sharpen the butter knife.  "Oh yeah, good idea."  Then again, some of them may not even want to chop the tree down - "nah, I just like to rub the wood with the knife every now and then".

I feel for these people and there is a level at which I'd kind of like to mention that I'm a lumberjack and I have this thing called an axe.  Would you like to try this axe thing?  "Ah, no thanks.  I'm real used to the butter knife, we use a butter knife here, and anyway my teacher uses a butter knife.  Everybody uses a butter knife."

I would say the axe is the Mahasi method of meditation.  At some point I'm probably too dogmatic about the technique, I suppose any method could work, as long as you can stay aware and present long enough.  I think about a theoretical measure of meditation that we could call "percent aware time", the percentage of time that one is actually aware and present, as opposed to spacing out or embedded in a train of thought.  I find that with a Mahasi type technique I can stay 99% aware.  I'm not sure how that would compare to other forms of meditation I used to do, I don't know, perhaps I was  hitting 85% or so?

I recall a guy I met through another meditation group, and after one of our 30 minute sits he commented that he was daydreaming for 20 minutes (i.e. 33% aware).  As a human being, I can understand how that happens, but I'd say that is probably not going to get the job done.  By the way, this was a guy with years of practice under his belt.

I have this theory that there may be some kind of tipping point with respect to percent aware time.  In my view, spending time daydreaming is anti-practice.  You're essentially practicing the opposite of what you're trying to do, you're practicing being embedded in thought.  I don't know where this tipping point may be, but I can say 99% seems to be effective.  Who knows, maybe if I had continued with the 85% method that would have worked out.

I think any method can work if you can stay aware like that, but there are a couple of other things that might be important.

A certain earnestness, a deliberate intent to stay aware and present, to let go of thought, to keep coming back to awareness.  There is a sense where you have to tell your mind that this is an important task.

Another point is that we have to keep on it, not only with persistence, but to keep it fresh with a sense of mild curiousity about our experience, a subtle investigative quality, a wordless exploration, feeling all those feelings and sensations and allowing them to be as they are without resistance or grasping.  Keep that axe sharp.

If you can bring those qualities and stay present, I suspect that any technique could work if you get the dosage right.

My take is that most techniques simply leave too much room for the mind to run off.  The beauty of the Mahasi style is that you keep the mind continuously busy by using up extra mental bandwidth with noting.

It is so strange to me that the axe is not a more popular tool.  How strange to be in an "insight" meditation group, the word literally coming from the word "vipassana", and yet the predominate form of vipassana used in Theravada communities is completely unknown.  Surreal.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Meditation Practice Journals from the old Kenneth Folk Dharma Site

EDIT: links fixed

This is a sampling of the meditation practice journals that were ongoing in the heyday of the old Kenneth Folk site during the flowering of the Pragmatic Dharma scene.  As Kenneth put it, these threads contain gold - the actual step by step progress and in many cases, instruction, of yogis systematically making their way through the nanas, jhanas, and paths.  Note that for the rapid progress we often see in these journals, one need not become a monk and devote decades of full time practice - an earnest practitioner with a daily practice can work their way thru a few Burmese paths in as little as a few years.

The primary technique here is the method of meditation espoused by Mahasi Sayadaw, in which practitioners endeavor to make a mental note of what is roughly predominate in their field of awareness, at a rate of about one note per second, silently, or out loud if necessary.  It is very difficult for the mind to wander when noting out loud at the rate of one note per second, and I suspect that is a big clue to the success of this or any method, practicing "original mind".  The approach outlined in this material (as well as tons of other stuff on the site and on Dharma Overground as well), what can I say, it worked for me.

A selection of meditation practice journals, mostly from the archive at Awake Network:

Edited to add:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013

Neuroscientist helps light up drummer Hart's shows

"SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has a new piece of equipment accompanying him on his latest tour — a cap fitted with electrodes that capture his brain activity and direct the movements of a light show while he's jamming on stage."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

LSD and Samadhi, and the Progress of Insight

I wanted to comment on the article LSD and Samadhi by Viveka Singh.

A reader asks if the samadhi they experienced under LSD was real, and Singh describes it as a mere projection, i.e. a person has read about samadhi, takes LSD, and then the mind is merely manifesting a projection of their ideas about samadhi as a kind of LSD dream.

I suppose that could happen, however Singh sounds a bit like a Hindu fundamentalist who wants to steer people away from drugs simply based on dogma.  Which is maybe not the worst idea, but I would make the case that these drugs can be used skillfully.

The psychedelic drugs can help quite a bit in terms of getting someone to a strong experience of samadhi (jhana).  In this sense they are like spiritual steroids, with the possibility of giving one access to higher concentration states than they may usually have access to, or giving one a stronger experience of the qualities of these states.

We have initial research showing that there are similarities in the brains of experienced meditators (Brewer) as compared with people on a high dose of psilocybin (Carhart-Harris), so all of this shouldn't be too surprising.

Most people who are familiar with these drugs have at least heard stories of people having some kind of big experience of bliss and light while on a psychedelic.  This would typically be an experience of 2nd jhana, a strong absorption into the area of the A&P (the so called arising and passing) on the Progress of Insight originally mentioned in the Vishuddhimagga, a 5th century commentary.  These states, if powerful enough, qualify as genuine mystical experiences on scales developed by Hood and Pahnke.

I think of the Vishuddhimagga (the Path of Purification) as mainly being a whole lot of ways to do jhana practice, but it does include a small bit about the Progress of Insight.  Other people talking about the Progress of Insight include Mahasi Sayadaw, and we also have Daniel Ingram's take on it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Parietal-Occipital Gamma in Meditators

Experienced Mindfulness Meditators Exhibit Higher Parietal-Occipital EEG Gamma Activity during NREM Sleep.

The area of significance (p=0.002) in red/pink:

Correlation with daily practice:

These days I wonder a bit about reported daily practice numbers.  As one progresses, the difference between on the cushion and off the cushion may become less pronounced, so that practice becomes essentially all day.  It would be interesting if there was a "years past stream entry" metric based on the Mahasi criteria of cessation.  Not that many would even know what that is.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Roast of the Pragmatic Dharma Community

The satirical website Tutteji.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

EEG Research Links

Sam Synder's blog came up in my standard search.  Here I link to posts categorized by the term meditation.  Many of these posts have extensive links to research.  Current posts under this topic include:
  • Meditation and PET or SPECT Scans
  • Meditation and MRI or fMRI
  • Meditation and EEG
  • Meditation and Depression
  • Meditation and Anxiety
  • etc.

Your Brain on Meditation - Jud Brewer

A bit more about Judson Brewer's research at Yale, experimenting with real time fMRI feedback on the PCC.

Your Brain on Meditation

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Roland Griffiths at Psychedelic Science 2013 on the Johns Hopkins Psilocybin studies

A video of Roland Griffiths presenting from the Psychedelic Science 2013, "Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Research Project: Studies of Mystical Experience and Meditation in Healthy Volunteers, and Palliative Effects in Cancer Patients".

The video covers pretty much all the ground that has been covered in the Johns Hopkins research since 1999.  It has no specific information on the cancer studies.

I was very interested to see the initial research on meditation and psilocybin, this starts around 32 minutes in.  There was frustratingly little information about results, as the study is not complete.  The design for beginning meditators includes 2-3 sessions of psilocybin over 6-7 months and looks at low (1mg) and high (20-30mg) dose and low and standard meditation support.  Initial results seem to be dose related psilocybin effects as opposed to meditation effects (or some combination), but it was teased that the final 3 months of data may prove more interesting.

Also disappointing that in various parts of the video, the graphics were not updated, apparently because these were ongoing studies.

The plan for studies of long term meditators and psilocybin will include fMRI and there will be some time for sitting meditation in the sessions.

Also covered were the web based survey studies, one based on psilocybin dervied mystical experiences as well as the study on difficult experiences.

From the mystical experience survey, analysis revealed 4 factors
  • unity, noetic quality & sacredness
  • positive mood
  • transcending space & time
  • ineffability
From the difficult experience survey, most people found even these challenging experiences to be mostly meaningful and beneficial, with longer difficult experiences less so.  Least effective means of dealing with such a challenge was doing another drug.

Griffiths felt that psychiatrists with largely negative impressions of psilocybin and the related research were essentially biased by their exposure to bad outcomes as part of their work, they were not seeing the overall results of the drug.  As he emphasized, overall negative effects are rare with good set and setting.

Future research ideas include
  • what factors effect the likelihood of a genuine mystical experience
  • what pharmacological and neuronal pathways are activated
  • possible therapeutic applications (addiction, depression, fear of dying)
Roland described the research as a "wedge" into understanding the human impulses to compasssion, etc.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Clinical Perspectives in Preparing and Managing High Dose Psilocybin Sessions

Another video from the Psychedelic Science conference 2013, Clinical Perspectives in Preparing and Managing High Dose Psilocybin Sessions: Insights from Johns Hopkins.

Various Recommendations:

  • "surrender to" and accept the experience
  • the TLO mantra: "trust, let go, be open"
  • move forward/into rather than avoiding
  • let go of self-consciousness; allow catharsis
  • be the witness
  • the breath is always with you
  • ask it what it has to teach you
  • convey love and acceptance
  • allow yourself to be devoured, dissolved
  • "enter into it and look out through its eyes" - Ann Shulgin
  • welcome difficulty
  • "bring it on" (to scary thoughts)
  • boomerang - you will come back

Thoughts about Microdosing: variable effects

Stumbled on this the other day:  Effects of ultra-low doses of morphine, naloxone and ethanol on morphine state-dependent memory of passive avoidance in mice.

This study points out the sometimes unusual dose response curves which prompts the old saying, the dose makes the poison.  And people's individual metabolism varies quite a bit.

Few would have guessed a result such as in this study, 1mg/kg of ethanol in mice improved memory recall, for example.  This would equate to around a quarter to a half of a normal drink in adults.

A review of the literature indicates that, for several drugs and chemicals, the effects of nanogram doses are the opposite of the effects of milligrams, because different doses have different sites as well as mechanisms of actions. In conclusion, from the above results one may suggest that, in determination of the dose-response of at least some drugs, the study of the effects of doses much lower than two orders of magnitude of the minimum effective dose are warranted.

What Can Buddhist Meditation Teach Us about Psychedelic Science?

Johns Hopkins researcher Katherine MacLean speaks at the Psychedelic Science conference (more videos) in What Can Buddhist Meditation Teach Us about Psychedelic Science?


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Psychedelic Truffles

The overly zealous ban on magic mushrooms in the Netherlands left an interesting door open - psilocybe fungi in the form of sclerotia, a dense, truffle-like mass, remain legal and have taken over the market.  The ban essentially did nothing except hurt a lot of existing businesses while creating an opportunity for a lucky few.

The lucky winners were the proprietors of Magic Truffles, who had a culture of these psychedelic truffles, so-called philosopher's stones.  A series of videos (and text), Hamilton and the Philosopher's Stone, tells the tale.  They can produce up to 18,000 tons a year.

The history of this formerly rare fungi goes back to the slightly crazed doctor and mycologist Steven Pollock, who found a specimen around Tampa, Florida and named it psilocybe tampanensis.  Pollock was later murdered under mysterious circumstances (Harper's, pay wall).

In the article about Pollock, I found it fascinating the lengths that a later researcher went to in order to spread and preserve the strain, i.e. "with news of the coming of Hurricane Erin he quadrupled production, inoculating fifty-pound bales of straw day and night ... dispersing billions of spores into the stratosphere."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Drug Laws Censor Science

Kurzweil's blog reports on Professor David Nutt's recent paper, "Effects of Schedule I drug laws on neuroscience research and treatment innovation."

"This hindering of research and therapy is motivated by politics, not science," said Professor Nutt. "It’s one of the most scandalous examples of scientific censorship in modern times."

They argue that the use of psychoactive drugs in research should be exempted from severe restrictions. "If we adopted a more rational approach to drug regulation, it would empower researchers to make advances in the study of consciousness and brain mechanisms of psychosis, and could lead to major treatment innovations in areas such as depression and PTSD," Professor Nutt said.

fMRI image from Nutt's research showing decreased cerebral blood flow in certain areas of the brain after administration of psilocybin:

Monday, June 10, 2013

Meditation - How to Practice Better

From Gary Weber's Happiness Beyond Thought Blog, "Are 10,000 hrs needed for awakening?"

My re-hash:

The 10,000 hour figure comes from Ericsson's research, studying "the cognitive structure of expert performance in medicine, music, chess, sports, and many other skills, investigating how expert performers acquire their superior performance through extended deliberate practice, high concentration practice beyond one's comfort zone."  I like that emphasis on deliberate.

I am reminded of one of my first guitar teachers, who reminded me that practice makes permanent (along with an admonishment to practice well and carefully), and coach Vince Lombardi's similar quote, "practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect."

Sitting in perfect physical form on a professional zafu for 8 hours a day may not do much if you're off daydreaming the whole time.  In fact, I sometimes wonder if such people aren't sometimes ending up worse off, i.e. by practicing and perfecting their daydreaming skills.  Instead of practicing being in the here and now, gently investigating, exploring and relaxing in presence awareness, they end up spending too much time practicing the default network, the wandering mind.  But I may be a bit pessimistic here.

10,000 hours is a nice rule of thumb, but certainly people who practice regularly, intelligently and deliberately, making use of resources such as the pragmatic dharma community and personal coaching as needed, can often attain stream entry (1st path, the first level of enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism, the tipping point) in 6-18 months, perhaps 500 hours on the cushion.  In my and many other people's experience, regular daily practice is more important than long retreats (in fact I've met post 4th path yogis that have never been on a retreat), but some long sits can be useful every now and then. And ...

... it does appear, anecdotally, as if some exposure to some psychedelics may be useful in the awakening process. The studies being conducted now @ Johns Hopkins on psilocybin +/- meditation ("the latest psychedelic research meditation +/- psilocybin studies") may yield some insights.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Snippets from a Contemplative Science blog

From Eileen Cardillo's blog on Contemplative Science (also permalinked at right).

The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds did some research showing compassion can be trained.  Some audio and scripts used in the study for compassion (traditional metta or loving kindness meditation) and reappraisal are available for download.

Some quotes from Daniel Dennett's new book:
The mind? A collection of computerlike information processes, which happen to take place in carbon-based rather than silicon-based hardware.

The self? Simply a “center of narrative gravity,” a convenient fiction that allows us to integrate various neuronal data streams.

The elusive subjective conscious experience — the redness of red, the painfulness of pain — that philosophers call qualia? Sheer illusion.

Human beings, Mr. Dennett said, quoting a favorite pop philosopher, Dilbert, are “moist robots.”

On Kant's Critique of Pure Reason
Kant’s insight was that, in order for the knowledge we get from our senses at any given moment in time to mean anything, our minds must already be distinguishing it and combining it with the information we get in prior and subsequent moments in time. Thus there is no such thing as a pure impression in time — no absolute, frozen moment in which we know the sun is rising now without being able to infer anything from it — because such a pure moment without a before or after would be nothing at all.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Albert Hoffman and His Discovery of LSD

I wonder how this book compares to Hoffman's own book, "LSD My Problem Child: Reflections on Sacred Drugs, Mysticism and Science."

A couple of personal reflections on LSD:

I only did LSD once, my first psychedelic experience, it would have been around 1980, blotter with the artwork of a blue dove.  Although I had only one experience (vs. probably more than a hundred experiences on psilocybin), I would be tempted to say that there was something more absolute about LSD.  Something more intellectually perfect, less emotional than mushrooms, more perfectly abstract.

Under the influence, I played my best game of Asteroids, a primitive arcade game, hitting a high score that I don't think I ever exceeded.  I think that was related to the fact that "I" was out of the way.  Reminds me of baseball's Dock Ellis pitching a no-hitter on LSD.

I also recall that during the peak of the experience I was unable to understand music.  I could hear everything, I just couldn't make sense of it.  The problem was that I couldn't really perceive anything that was outside of the present moment.  Music requires that you keep in mind such things as continuity, the rhythmic expectation of the beat, and melody, the sense of placing one note after another in a context within a harmony.  But I was unable to conceptualize those basic things, so I could only hear the individual sounds in each moment, as if they existed only as noise without the context of melody or rhythm.

Also some visual difficultly in terms of separating one object from another.

All of these things jibe well with my understanding of things after a lot of experience with mushrooms and meditation.  I look back on it and think, "I was so close!"  I wish I had known to just stay home, lie down and close my eyes, raising the odds of having a genuine mystical experience.  That might have changed my life significantly.  Oh well, I guess I had to wait a couple of decades.  At the time, it was just a fun afternoon and evening.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Compassion can be trained

The practice of metta, or loving-kindness meditation, seems to work.  Subjects received training in metta, repeating phrases such as "May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease."  Those trained subsequently tested higher on scores of altruism.

Meditation - Effortless Awareness

Some good meditation pointers from Judson Brewer's lab in the abstract "Effortless awareness: using real-time neurofeedback to probe correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report."

Pointers to meditation (posterior cingulate cortex deactivation):

undistracted awareness:
  • concentration
  • observing sensory experience
effortless doing:
  • observing sensory experience
  • not efforting
  • contentment
Pointers away from meditation (posterior cingulate cortex activation):

distracted awareness:
  • distraction
  • interpreting
  • controlling
  • efforting
  • discontentment

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Meditation - Maps of Developmental Progress

Various events and shifts occur during long periods of contemplative practice.  Many attempts have been made to make sense of this, to map this progress in a meaningful way.  A good overview of these maps can be found in Daniel Ingram's book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, or MCTB.  Towards the end there is a section called "Models of the Stages of Enlightenment," which contains around 30 of these maps, some more technical and precise, others being more loosely defined beliefs or prejudices about enlightenment.  Perhaps the most useful map here is Daniel's Revised Four Path Model, based on the 4th Path model of the Theravada Buddhists:

  • 1st Path, complete one cycle of the Progress of Insight
  • 2nd Path, complete another cycle of the Progress of Insight
  • 3rd Path, "perceiving the emptiness, selflessness, impermanence, luminosity etc. of sensations in daily life"
  • 4th Path, "untangled the knot of perception, dissolved the sense of the center point actually being the center point, no longer fundamentally make a separate Self out of the patterns of sensations as they used to, even though those same patterns of sensations continue."

The first 2 paths are fairly straightforward, based on completing 2 Progress of Insight cycles.  Completing a cycle is marked by the "experience" of cessations or fruitions.  The Progress of Insight cycle was recognized by the time of the Vishuddhimagga, a 5th century meditation manual, and was slightly updated by Mahasi Sayadaw in the 20th century.  The cycle is described in the MCTB and in Mahasi's works.  If you really want to geek out about it, Daniel has an interesting detailed view of the cycle with jhanas, nanas, and sub-nanas in a kind of spreadsheet form.  Keeping a daily meditation diary can be a big help in determining where you are in the cycle, but eventually the cycle becomes less important.

Kenneth Folk has proposed a 9 stage model that is very similar to Daniel's Revised Four Path Model, but adds a stage at the beginning, basically acknowledging the importance of the Arising and Passing, a point on the Progress of Insight cycle that occurs early in 1st path which can be a very big experience.  Psychedelic drugs sometimes take one into this territory.  Kenneth's model is then virtually identical to Daniel's for the 4 path stages, and then adds a number of stages to flesh out the territory after 4th path.  A good personal description of Kenneth Folk's model can be found at QuietMind Meditation Co.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meditation - Mahasi vs. Goenka

Vipassana (insight) is the meditative practice that led Buddha to enlightenment.  My take is that the basics were more or less retained over the years, but Buddhism became perhaps overly focused on jhanas and samatha (concentration) practice over the centuries.  In the time frame of 1850-1950 around Thailand and Burma, there was a lot of change and renovation in Buddhism and vipassana.  That period of experimentation settled out into perhaps two main camps of vipassana, Mahasi (mental noting of the sense doors) and Goenka (slow scanning of the body).

Goenka has spread a fairly secular form of vipassana worldwide.  With a veritable factory mindset, they provide a cheap and intense meditation retreat if you are willing to put up with their extensive level of control.  I recently came across a description of a first timer at a Goenka retreat, "The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation."

I was struck by the insanity of traveling to India for a retreat that could be had almost identically anywhere in the world, and as always, by the pain experienced.  Sitting on the floor is a remnant of a society that didn't have chairs.  We have chairs today.  If you're complaining about knee or back pain at a retreat nowadays, I have some sympathy, but mainly concern for your dogmatic views about sitting.  We need to get beyond the idea that there is something magic about sitting on the floor.

A comparison of Mahasi and Goenka:

Goenka Pros:  Slow body scanning is nonverbal and continuous, I like both of those characteristics.  I have a sense that for many verbal westerners, this may be a good entry into the meditative world and combined with the intense retreat setting may be one of the biggest generators of a big initial "awakening", the experience referred to as the Arising and Passing.  If you get one of those big experiences, you are more likely to keep going.

If you are hardcore enough, and advance from the 10 day retreat to the 20 day retreat to the 30 day retreat, apparently Goenka practice becomes a total body awareness - open awareness thing.

Goenka Cons:  The scanning is dogmatic movement, head to toe and back, so at least as initially defined it doesn't allow for jumping to areas that might need immediate attention.  (Although I believe the instructions eventually allow the attention to go to anywhere it is needed.)  The focus is only on the body, while there is tremendous insight value to be had from attending to emotions, mind states and thoughts.

Mahasi Pros:  Noting covers all possible experience and allows one to focus on what is predominate in consciousness at every moment.  Noting interrupts thought and begins to break up one's experience into the original building blocks.  Noting directly points out what Buddhists refer to as Dependent Origination, an important insight.

Mahasi Cons:  Mental noting is verbal, which may not be ideal, although it is kind of like taking the typical mind's strength and using it against itself.  On the other hand, simple noting doesn't seem to be quite analytical enough to disturb the "original mind".  Noting requires a bit of vocabulary and has a longer learning curve.  Beginners typically don't like it, preferring something like following the breath or a mantra.

It should be said that even many of the teachers who do not favor a hard core, once per second noting style like Mahasi, tend to acknowledge its relatively high rate of success at getting students to stream entry, 1st path.  Indeed, some have referred to the Mahasi Center in Burma as a stream entry factory.  I've never heard that said of IMS or Goenka, or anything, frankly.  I do hear about people having a big initial experience on a Goenka retreat, but I don't hear much about further progress.  This could be due to ignorance, one reason I recently posted a few things about stream entry.

Anything that one does to stay aware and present and relaxed is likely to help, and clearly people awaken with different methods.  My bias is to Mahasi, what can I say, it worked for me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Meditation - Getting Out of Your Own Way

Yale researcher Judson Brewer on How to Get Out of Your Own Way (and the Brain Science Behind It).  The reminder is to let go of those waves of thought arising and stay relaxed with the body (and mind).

I was reminded of the title of Alan Watts autobiography, In My Own Way, which most people would think of as an egoistic statement in the same vein as Frank Sinatra's song "My Way".  But Watts is referring to the same thing as Brewer, that with our wandering minds (our Default Mode Network), we end up getting in our own way.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Optimal Dosing for Psilocybin II

Part of the Johns Hopkins research on psilocybin included observations of different dosage schemes that I related in Optimal Dosing for Psilocybin, and what I pulled out of that research was that the best recommendation seemed to be to start with a low dose (~1-2 grams of mushrooms) and gradually work up.

I recently noticed that another article from around that time, "Johns Hopkins study finds Psilocybin dosage 'sweet spot' for positive and lasting effects" teased out an interesting point,

At the highest dose (30 mg/70 kg, p.o. - meaning "per oral" or by mouth), 78 percent of the volunteers were reporting one of the top five most spiritually significant happenings of their lives but those suffering anxiety, stress and fear episodes increased by six times, so that around a third of those participating in the study showed signs of psychological struggle.

By contrast, only one of the volunteers receiving the second highest dose (20mg/70 kg, p.o.) reported having negative issues, and all benefited from positive experiences, although with less intensity than at the highest dose.

So if you were looking for some kind of one shot deal, and you were really okay with yourself and open to the experience, the kind of person that could pass all the screening for the study, then 20mg of psilocybin might very well be a good dose to try.  20mg of psilocybin would be roughly 4.5 grams of magic mushrooms, based on the numbers from the Magic Mushroom Dosage Calculator at the Shroomery, which would be a pretty steep dose, around a highest category "Level 5" trip.  Trip levels are described as:

  • Level 1 - This level produces a mild "stoning" effect, with some visual enhancement (i.e. brighter colours, etcetera). Some short term memory anomalies. Left/right brain communication changes causing music to sound "wider".

  • Level 2 - Bright colors, and visuals (i.e. things start to move and breathe), some 2 dimensional patterns become apparent upon shutting eyes. Confused or reminiscent thoughts. Change of short term memory leads to continual distractive thought patterns. Vast increase in creativity becomes apparent as the natural brain filter is bypassed.

  • Level 3 - Very obvious visuals, everything looking curved and/or warped patterns and kaleidoscopes seen on walls, faces etc. Some mild hallucinations such as rivers flowing in wood grained or "mother of pearl" surfaces. Closed eye hallucinations become 3 dimensional. There is some confusion of the senses (i.e. seeing sounds as colors, etcetera). Time distortions and "moments of eternity".

  • Level 4 - Strong hallucinations, i.e. objects morphing into other objects. Destruction or multiple splitting of the ego. (Things start talking to you, or you find that you are feeling contradictory things simultaneously). Some loss of reality. Time becomes meaningless. Out of body experiences and e.s.p. type phenomena. Blending of the senses.

  • Level 5 - Total loss of visual connection with reality. The senses cease to function in the normal way. Total loss of ego. Merging with space, other objects, or the universe. The loss of reality becomes so severe that it defies explanation. The earlier levels are relatively easy to explain in terms of measureable changes in perception and thought patterns. This level is different in that the actual universe within which things are normally perceived, ceases to exist! Satori enlightenment (and other such labels).
In Optimal Dosing for Psilocybin I estimated this 20mg to be around 3.3 grams of magic mushrooms, or about an eighth of an ounce, not sure where I got the figures, notice that above I estimate it to be around 4.5 grams.  I still think that rather than get caught up in the idea of an optimal dose, as people vary so much in metabolism and psychology, it is more reasonable to start with 1 or 2 grams and work up about a gram at a time.

I suspect that people with "rigidities" from dogmatic world views, a strong left brain perspective, or those with a history of abuse or trauma may need to work up to higher doses to finally break through to a Level 5.  I would say that I have experienced Level 5, but it took mushrooms combined with some fairly abusive use of nitrous for me to get there.  I would also say that I'm not at all sure that it is necessary to go that far, personally, I just kind of had to see what it was about, to push it to that edge.

After a lot of hardcore meditation, I find that 0.05 grams frees my mind up just beautifully, but my guess is that most people wouldn't feel much of anything at that dose.

Erica Rex writes about the Psilocybin Cancer Project

Erica Rex is one of the subjects in the Psilocybin Cancer Project at John's Hopkins and writes about her experience in the article "Hallucinogens Could Ease Existential Terror" in Scientific American (pay wall for now).

Much of the content is available in her article "Magic mushrooms and cancer: My magical mystery cure?"

Considerable preparations were made for these experiences but the overall advice for participants was summarized by one researcher as "trust, let go, be open."

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Body on Meditation (the effects of meditation)

Nifty, large graphic of meditative effects on the body from Huffington Post.

EEG of Jhanas III

"Subjective reports from the subject indicated extremely high magnitude of reward, comparing [1st jhana] (which was not recorded due to head movement) to continuous multiple orgasms."

"Case Study of Ecstatic Meditation: fMRI and EEG Evidence of Self-Stimulating a Reward System" appears to be some kind of rehashing of data from a study that actually launched this blog (EEG of Jhanas) and is based on data collected from Leigh Brasington.  In the article, the following hypotheses were substantially confirmed:

H1: Jhanas should show decreased activation compared to the rest state in the visual (BA 17–19) and auditory (BA 41-42) processing areas.  Since all jhanas share the experiential characteristic that external awareness dims, then the brain regions associated with vision and hearing should become less active.

H2: Jhanas should show decreased activation compared to the rest state in Broca’s area (BA 44,45) and in Wernicke’s area (BA 39,40).  Because internal verbalization fades in jhana, the brain regions associated with speech should become idle or less active.

H3: Jhanas should show decreased activation compared to the rest state in the orientation area (BA5).  Since the normal sense of personal boundaries is altered, the orientation area of the brain should show changes from normal rest.  Newberg and Iversen [8] showed that monks and nuns experiencing “union with God” exhibit decreased activation in this area.

H4: Jhanas should show increased activation compared to the rest state in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) (BA 32,33).  Because attention is highly focused on the object of meditation in the jhanas, we would expect high activity in the ACC, which regulates and monitors attention.

H5: Jhanas should show increased activation compared to the rest state in the dopamine reward system of the brain (NAc in the ventral striatum and medial OFC).  A broad range of external rewards stimulate this system (food, sex, beautiful music, and monetary awards), so extreme joy in jhana may be triggered by the same system  (the VTA is also part of this system, but is too small to image with standard fMRI methods,  but see [35] for successful imaging methods).

H6: Jhanas should show no increased activation compared to the rest state in the areas responsible for rhythmic movement, including motor cortex (BA4), primary somatosensory cortex (BA 1,2,3), and cerebellum.  Increased activity in these areas would support an alternative hypothesis that the reward system is being stimulated not by internal means but by subtle rhythmic movements that are known to induce ecstatic states [3].
We really need some sample size here.  The pragmatic dharma community could supply a few subjects.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stream Entry/Cessation/Fruition Awareness Program

There is the possibility that there are a number of meditators out there who have attained stream entry but don't know it (here I refer to so called 1st path as described in the Burmese Theravada tradition).  It can be easy to miss, and in reality most people have probably never heard of a path anyway.

Most commonly it is not a very big moment.  The first one is important as a major milepost, though, because for most people this will mark the beginning of an acceleration of their spiritual/meditative progress.  It might be important because if you are constantly working up to a high equanimity and not getting a fruition, ever, after years, who knows, maybe it might be a signal to change something, increase the dose, work with a teacher, whatever.

I think the word cessation is probably the best English word to use for this neurological phenomenon.  This is one meaning of the word nirvana, an extinguishing.  Also known as a fruition, being the so-called fruit of the path.

When the mind is in high equanimity (11th nana according to the Progress of Insight) and one truly lets go and is okay with everything, there can be a little discontinuity, a "blip" where one loses time, perhaps a fraction of a second.  A common response is "what was that?"  It is as if the mind lets go of the "self" for a moment, or "reboots".  In that moment there is nothing - no seeing, no hearing, no taste, no smell, no physical sensation, no thought, no sense of time or space.  If eyes are open, it's kind of like a blink.

But it is very brief, and it seems the mind has this strong bias to assume everything is "normal", that things are continuing as before, and so you have to really be aware and see things as they are in order to notice this.  But it's not like you really see it, it's more like you pick up the edges of the event horizon on either side of the black hole, you perceive the glitch, and some describe picking on some clues as to the lost time - i.e. "wait, my breath was at the bottom, now it is at the top".  This blip moment is often immediately followed by a flash of light (technically, one is sent "back" to the 4th nana), often followed by a somewhat blissful wave of sensation through the body.

This phenomenon will eventually repeat, and can come in a variety of slightly different forms.

Some of these seem to be "deeper" than others.  For stream entry, it apparently has to be deep enough to do the damage, as it were.  It is as if something is seen through or perhaps the mind, constantly trying to understand and deal with it's surroundings, is confronted with the possibility that instead of being something, perhaps it is nothing and must take that information into it's calculations.  That seems to change something.  Stream entry is generally followed by a "honeymoon" period where one's mood is very good and concentration is excellent.  Jhanas may become more obvious.
Some people can bring these on at will, and I have heard that Judson Brewer at Yale has recorded some of these with fMRI, but I suspect he will need a much larger sample before we begin to get a clue as to what is going on with this.

From the Heart of Wisdom Sutra:

So, in emptiness, there is no body,
no feeling, no thought,
no will, no consciousness.
There are no eyes, no ears,
no nose, no tongue,
no body, no mind.
There is no seeing, no hearing,
no smelling, no tasting,
no touching, no imagining.
There is nothing seen, nor heard,
nor smelled, nor tasted,
nor touched, nor imagined.

I guess this post was for people that are experiencing relatively straightforward cessations.  I should mention that also people might notice nothing more than a shift in awareness, a relatively sudden and significant increase in their mindfulness ability.  And technically, it could plausibly happen so slowly that you would never notice anything.

But yeah, if you're noticing these blip-flash-bliss wave moments repeatedly, and particularly if you are experiencing the shift in mindfulness, maybe noticing jhanas for the first time, yeah, that's stream entry.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Legalize Research Already!

"LONDON (Reuters) - The world's first clinical trial designed to explore using a hallucinogen from magic mushrooms to treat people with depression has stalled because of British and European rules on the use of illegal drugs in research."

Sigh.  Can't we just all get along and do a little clinical research on promising substances?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

LSD helps to treat alcoholism

The Nature article, "LSD helps to treat alcoholism" reports on the 

"first-ever quantitative meta-analysis of LSD–alcoholism clinical trials. The researchers sifted through thousands of records to collect data from randomized, double-blind trials that compared one dose of LSD to a placebo. Of 536 participants in six trials, 59% of people receiving LSD reported lower levels of alcohol misuse, compared to 38% of people who received a placebo. “We were surprised that the effect was so clear and consistent,” says Krebs.
That's ONE dose.  Wow.  I suspect these are old trials from the 50's or so, the days of Grof and others.

I would guess that few alcoholics are familiar with the fact that Bill W, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was greatly changed by an LSD experience.

My take is that psychedelics can help one gain insight and let go of troublesome ego based patterns.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Psychedelics and Plasticity: Doors of Reception

The  fascinating thesis "Doors of Reception" provides an interesting view of psychedelic research.  I found the information about gene expression, plasticity, and attention to be particularly compelling.  A slight bit on the technical side, but readable. Some quotes:
Even more notably, they found that there were certain gene expressions that were induced by the hallucinogenic agonists but not by the non-hallucinogenic ones (Gonzalez-Maeso et al. 2003). These particular genes mainly belong to the family of early growth response (EGR) elements which are primarily known to be involved with neural growth and plasticity (Leah & Wilce 2002).
The hallucinogen-specific transcript for the protein Egr-2 showed particularly robust expression.
Gene expression of neural growth and plasticity helps explain the long term benefits that have been seen with psychedelics.
The level of Egr-2 expression was proportional to the magnitude of attentional demand.
Meditation has a great deal to do with attentional demand.
As neuroplasticity-based therapies emerge and begin their refinement, the two novel and central attributes they entail, that of qualitative activity-dependence and potentially permanent curative capability, parallel precisely the two key aspects of psychedelic therapy that have, over the past six decades, been a conceptual and ideological challenge for conventional medical science to address and antithetical to its economic landscape.

Skepticism about fMRI analysis

As reported in "Stanford psychologists uncover brain-imaging inaccuracies," apparently the smoothing techniques used to make sense of fMRI data may cause researchers to miss activity from smaller scale structures and thus possibly assign that activity to larger structures nearby.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Skepticism about Meditation Research

The article "Research on TM and Other Forms of Meditation Stinks" highlights some of the flaws in meditation research.  An important point to be made is the difficulty of precisely defining meditation itself.

Even more difficult would be capturing details of brief, spontaneous peak experiences.

My sense is that we are slowly getting better at this, with some of the older research being more of a stone knives and bearskins kind of thing.  Many people are aware that private research funded by a group with an agenda (such as Transcendental Meditation) may not constitute the highest expression of reasonable investigation.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Skepticism about EEG biofeedback

In the article "Read this before paying $100s for neurofeedback therapy" the author points out a number of reasons to be skeptical about alpha biofeedback.

I do think there are a surprising number of not so well informed practitioners out there providing neurofeedback with little knowledge or sense of scientific discipline, and in some cases bordering on outright charlatanism.  So there is definitely a case for skepticism.

But I would add a couple of points.  The initial research cited, from the 80s and 90s, is quite a long ways from modern biofeedback.  Personal computers with the necessary speed and processing ability, software, equipment, and protocols had not been developed at that time.  It was after that time period that EEG biofeedback exploded.

The article seems to focus a bit more on alpha biofeedback than biofeedback targeted to specific anomalies (although ADHD is mentioned).  In some ways it is easy to slough off the alpha training of the sixties as hippie nonsense.  My take would be that alpha training, in general, is akin to meditation.  And if you don't go about meditation in the right way *, for example, you could spend decades and not attain stream entry, i.e. in some way be wasting your time.  Off the top of my head I can point to the addiction rehab studies of Peniston and later Scott as examples of successful alpha-theta training.

However, overall the article does have a balance to it, and I would agree generally with the skeptical attitude.  The problem is when skepticism becomes knee jerk.  I am reminded of an old researcher who commented on Tibetan monks meditating, and expressed the opinion that they were simply wasting their time.

I can say that EEG biofeedback definitely helped me, but for my particular set of conditions I suspect proper meditation would have done about the same thing.  For certain disorders, I think EEG biofeedback does have the ability to produce miraculous results.  Hopefully more and better research will point the way.

* One proven way, The practical meditation instructions of Mahasi Sayadaw (~40 minutes mp3).

Meditation: Alpha Brain Wave Control

Researchers studied a group of meditators who were initially taught a body scanning technique (similar to Goenka), moving on to other forms of mindfulness.  The researchers seemed to be focused on the somatosensory cortex, what I think of as the central strip running from ear to ear (C3-C4).  Researchers believe that top down control of alpha leads to "faster and more sensitive filtering of sensory information in the brain," which may explain many of the benefits of meditation.

As reported in the article "Controlling Brain Waves May Be Key to Meditation's Benefits," the original paper is "Mindfulness starts with the body: somatosensory attention and top-down modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in mindfulness meditation"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mindfulness shifts mid-frontal alpha asymmetry

In the article "Approaching dysphoric mood: State-effects of mindfulness meditation on frontal brain asymmetry" two groups of women with recurring depression were exposed to meditation via a mindfulness support group and showed positive shifts in alpha asymmetry (i.e. more alpha on the right).


► mindfulness meditation has a protective effect in remitted recurrently depressed patients.
► anterior EEG alpha asymmetry is associated with depressive vulnerability and motivation.
► meditation has a state-effect on alpha asymmetry, yielding an adaptive, approach-related pattern.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Video: Understanding How Psychedelics Work In The Brain

Interesting talk, here are a few highlights.  LSD hits many receptors, unlike, say psilocybin or MDMA, including dopamine receptors.  Rats can be taught to discriminate between drugs, which allows us to do some forms of testing without humans.  LSD may have a longer effect (than say psilocybin) based on a metabolite which seems more active on the dopamine receptors.

Some researchers found that the second half of the LSD experience was often marked by paranoia or unsatisfactory qualities, Nichols believes this may be due to the metabolite.  With my buddhist geek background, I'd give another hypothesis and say people got up in the "ecstatic" range of the 4th nana/2nd jhana early in the trip and then moved on to the unsatisfactory dukkha nanas (5th-10th nana, 3rd jhana) as the trip continued.

Description from youtube:
This talk presented a brief overview of what psychedelics are, and several significant events in this field in the past four decades. A comparison will be made between molecular structures, and how they were related to the structure of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The receptors that have been identified as targets for psychedelics were discussed, and their brain localization noted, followed by a brief description of where the receptors are located, and what happens inside the cell after the receptor is activated by a psychedelic. Comments included about the different intracellular signaling pathways that can be activated, and which one(s) may be important for altering consciousness. A diagram of connectivity between key brain regions was discussed, which will show how some of the effects of psychedelics may be induced. Particular note will be made of the difficulty in identifying psychedelic molecules in the absence of human experimentation, which is illegal. There will then be a discussion of the use of drug discrimination to identify "LSD-like" molecules, and an example from the author's laboratory of the use of rigid analogues to identify important structural features of molecules such as LSD. Finally, a discussion was presented of the unique psychopharmacology of LSD, which occurs in two time-dependent phases, and the hypothesis that LSD may be converted in the body into an active metabolite that may be responsible for this time-dependent activity.

Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century, a conference in San Jose, California, April 15-18 2010, organized by MAPS - the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in collaboration with: the Heffter Research Institute, The Council on Spiritual Practices, & the Beckley Foundation

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mind Wandering reduced after neurofeedback

By way of the article "Brainwave Training Boosts Network for Cognitive Control and Predicts Mind Wandering", which references the study "Mind over chatter: Plastic up-regulation of the fMRI salience network directly after EEG neurofeedback", subjects were rewarded for suppressing alpha at Pz, resulting in less mind wandering.

“The effects we observed were durable enough to be detected with functional MRI up to 30 minutes after a session of neurofeedback.”

I get what they are doing, and it makes sense, but it is kind of interesting that I did several hundred hours of neurofeedback doing the exact opposite, rewarding increases in alpha at Pz, which also seemed to eventually reduce mind wandering, perhaps by some other mechanism.

Buddhism and Psychedelics

By way of the the Secular Buddhist Association, a couple of videos featuring James Fadiman and Kokyo Henkel discussing the crossover between Buddhism and psychedelics.

Buddhism and Psychedelics part 1

Buddhism and Psychedelics part 2

I enjoyed part 2 which had more Q&A.  My take is that there is definitely something there, particularly the idea of getting a quick helicopter ride to the top of the mountain.

Additionally, the psychedelics help point out the jhanas.  The classic first "big" spiritual experience of bliss, love, and light points pretty clearly to 2nd jhana.  And you ain't experienced 5th jhana (infinite space) until you've experienced it on psychedelics (or spent years cultivating it).  That sucker is big.

And, I think small or microdose amounts can be judiciously used to gauge progress.  Over time you see more and more subtle things opening up.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Johns Hopkins "Bad Trip" Survey After Psilocybin Mushrooms

If you've had a "bad" trip on psilocybin mushrooms - psychologically difficult or challenging experiences while under the influence of mushrooms, you might want to take this survey and provide some information for the researchers.

The Johns Hopkins survey of "bad trips" on psilocybin mushrooms (a.k.a. magic mushrooms or shrooms).

The main survey will take about 45 minutes to complete, and an optional open-ended section could take another 10-15 minutes.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Meditation Increases Sensitivity to Psychedelics

It has been my experience that meditation has increased my sensitivity to psilocybin.

Fairly early on (pre stream entry and pre jhanas in meditation terms) I experimented with around 2 grams of mushrooms, eventually working up to a peak of around 6 grams.  But at some point (after stream entry) I slowly began to notice that higher doses seemed to be a bit too much, that there was a certain load of tension from the drug that I found unpleasant, and I've been decreasing the doses of my "experiments" ever since.

Even last summer I was tolerating doses of 1 or 2 grams, but that seems a bit much now.  I've experimented with low doses before, but now I'm getting into a range that some might legitimately consider a microdose.  Lately (post 2nd path) .06 - .08 grams seems to be plenty, and I've alternated with doses of around .15 - .17 grams which now seem slightly high.  My guess would be that .06 - .08 grams might barely get the average person to the equivalent of a mild cannabis high.

The early FMRI research showing similarities between the effects of psilocybin and meditation might explain this.  Or, I could be an anomaly.

At these lower doses I don't get nearly so much in terms of visuals, but the "mind-freeing" aspect seems to work just fine, which is mainly what I'm looking for.  Higher doses seem to cause this tension that I referred to, kind of playing off the stimulant effects of the drug, and seem to emphasize the more unpleasant aspects (dukkha).

I would also mention that I haven't noticed this kind of "reverse tolerance" in other recreational substances that I use, i.e. cannabis, alcohol, and nitrous oxide.  Just psilocybin.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Three Videos - Psychonauts, Gary Weber, Roland Griffiths

Psychonauts is a 40 minute documentary that shows interviews with some relatively young and intelligent people about psychedelics.  It seems to me like most of these people "got it" and are integrating their psychedelic experience into their lives and their spirituality.  Subtitled.

A 19 minute clip of Gary Weber's talk at Science and Nonduality, Exploring the Self Scientifically - Magic Mushrooms or Meditation.  Gary talks about his experience of no-thought, the default mode network, the effects of meditation and the effects of psilocybin.

An 11 minute clip of Roland Griffith's talk at Science and Nonduality, The Mystical Experience: Insights from Psilocybin Research.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Hallucination Goggles

The Laxman mind machine (link to cheesy BBC Gadget Show coverage) boasts trippy ganzfeld induced multicolor visuals.  But it's expensive ($650).

Various information for a do it yourself version are supplied on the We Alone On Earth blog, as well as interesting information on related topics like "The Origin and Properties of Flicker-Induced Geometric Phosphenes."

Meditation Improves Telomerase Activity ... Maybe

For longevity, you want long telomeres, and that requires telomerase.  If you have an increased sense of purpose in life, you might just have longer telomeres.

From the article "Meditation improves telomerase activity: a healthier life – but not for all!"

The study furthermore showed that the increase in telomerase activity was a result of psychological factors, namely the increase in perceived control and the decrease in negative affectivity the participants experienced as a result of the retreat.

In sum, the meditation practice resulted in increased telomere activity, which is considered to indicate improved physiological health with implications for telomere length and immune cell longevity.

However, there also is a small catch. When scrutinising the results further, the researchers found that only those participants of the 3-month shamatha retreat who experienced an increase of ‘Purpose in Life’ had higher telomerase activity at the end of the retreat, whereas those who did not experience such an increase did not. It seems that just sitting in a retreat and practicing meditation does not suffice – our biology seems to respond even to our views and motivations. The study did, however, not investigate what exactly the purpose of life is the participants experienced, but defined it in rather general terms as experiencing life as meaningful, organised around clear aims, and clearly directed.

As loving kindness and compassion meditations were a central part of the retreat programme, I dare speculating that the increased purpose in life may be related to this: Seeing one’s purpose in life as bringing benefit, meaning and fulfilment to others, may have the side-effect of better biological health and reduced effects of age on the body. – This would be good news!