This is Your Brain in Love: Scenes from the Stanford Love Competition

in LifeStanfordTechnology | February 16th, 2012 13 Comments

Can one person experience love more deeply than another? That’s whatThe Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging and filmmaker Brent Hoff set out to understand when they hosted the 1st Annual Love Competition. Seven contestants, ranging from 10 to 75 years of age, took part. And they each spent five minutes in an fMRI machine, thinking deeply about love and allowing the imaging technology to measure activity in their dopamine, serotonin and ocytocin/vasopressin pathways. If you think this sounds unromantic, you’ll want to reserve judgment. Though science may be the explicit focus here, the film has a touching human dimension to it.

The Love Competition was made as part of Wholphin, the short film quarterly published by McSweeney’s. You can subscribe to Wholphin to find more films.


Practical Neurobiology

Earlier this year I began studying Neurobiology and got completely fascinated and enthralled by the sheer magnitude of what our brains are capable of and how maleable they are. One day in late August I read 2 things which particularly impacted me: "each time we think a thought, we create a neural pathway" and "One reason we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound"*.

I was stunned! At that time I was feeling particularly discouraged about my life and noticed how frequently I was thinking some version of the thought "I'm not OK"! Imagine the deep groove I was creating as, over and over, I thought the same thought!

An inspiration came to me: what if I used my imagination/visualizing abilities to change old, life alienated beliefs?

For several years now, I've had a morning visualization practice so I decided to add a new dimension to my daily routine. I began "seeing" limited beliefs, represented by the neural pathway, then sending light/love to it and noticng what happened to the pathway. Typically it begins to change and transform, sometimes I see my child self beginning in a constricted posture and then moving to a much more open and alive posture.  

This in itself is amazing to me, being able to "see" my neural pathways; what's even more amazing is that very soon, within a week or so, I began to notice I was responding differently to what previously would have stimulated anger or pain inside me. I was getting triggered less frequently with less intensity and much shorter "recovery" time.

As an example, I was in Best Buy, and had an experience that was so different from the past that I cried when I came out of the store! I had gone online to search for a recording device for an iphone (I wanted a better quality sound than with the built in mike). I found a product that plugged into the phone. When I got to Best Buy, I asked the salesman if they had this product, he responded that he'd never heard of such a thing!

In the past I would have immediately gone into jackal thinking "he thinks I don't know what I'm talking about, he thinks I'm stupid, he thinks he knows better than me" etc. This time I didn't go there! I told him that I'd found it on their website but that first I'd found it on Walmart's website and suggested we look. We found it and he was really appreciative about learning something new! I was blown away by how differently I responded and that I changed my behaviour without any conscious intent.  Ah, the sweet joy of unconscious competence!

If you'd like to learn more or make an apt for a session, please contact me at 805 687 6961, 403 926 0242 or

I look forward to connecting with you! Anne

*From Norman Doidge's "The Brain that Changes Itself"


Three Insights from the Cutting Edge of Compassion Research

Three Insights from the Cutting Edge of Compassion Research

By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | September 7, 2012 | 5 comments

A recent gathering of compassion researchers reveals new discoveries about how and why humans help each other.

Several weeks ago, a who’s who of thinkers and researchers convened at a conference in the mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, to explore the science of compassion. Their discussions revealed growing consensus that the biological, physical, and behavioral properties of compassion—the feeling we get when confronted with suffering, infused with the urge to help—have evolved to help us survive.

The conference—called The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions—encouraged rich cross-disciplinary collaboration and promised to accelerate the pace and progress of scientific inquiry into compassion. (The conference was organized by Stanford’sCenter for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education; the GGSC was a co-sponsor.) Here are three key insights I took away from the four days of discussion.

1. Compassion is push-pull

It turns out that feeling safe is a precondition to activating biological systems that promote compassion. In the face of another person’s suffering, the biological mechanisms that drive our nurturing and caregiving can only come online if our more habitual “self-preservation” and “vigilance-to-threat” systems (e.g. fear, distress, anxiety, hostility) are not monopolizing the spotlight.

In the other direction, having a genetic disposition and life history that’s led to a strong sense of social support, trust, and safety around people puts your “self-preservation” impulses at ease and opens the door for you to feel compassion.

How, then, can we relax vigilant, self-preservation systems so that our compassionate biology can more readily get into gear? University of Wisconsin researcher Helen Weng suggests the secret lies in the brain’s frontal lobes, which her studies show do a better job of calming alert signals from the amygdala (the brain’s almond shaped threat detector) when people complete a brief course in compassion.

This means that we can actually train our brains for compassion. When Charles Raison, another presenter, and his colleagues at Emory University also evaluated the effects of a compassion training course, they found lower stress hormones in the blood and saliva of people who spent the most time doing the compassion exercises.

But what’s in compassion training, one might ask? How does it boost the frontal lobes and attenuate stress hormones? Read on…

2. Compassion hinges upon mindfulness

The regular practice of mindfulness—moment to moment awareness of your body and mind—turns out to be a common theme across programs for training compassion, including those based at the University of Wisconsin, Emory University, CCARE, the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, a consortium of clinicians in the United Kingdom, and, of course, 2,000 years of Buddhist tradition.

The opposite of mindfulness is sometimes referred to as “mindwandering”—reflexively thinking about what has happened, might have happened, or could or should happen. This very common non-mindful habit has been shown by Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert to decrease happiness. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist at Yale University, has shown that mindwandering involves a predictable brain area (the posterior cingulate cortex), and that people can phase out activation in this brain area by practicing mindfulness.

Compassion, data suggest, comes more readily if people can be more openly aware of the present moment as it is occurring, particularly in the presence of other’s suffering, without reflexive thinking or judgment. (For more on the links between compassion and mindfulness, stay tuned for details about the GGSC’s conference on the relationship between the two, to be held in March of 2013.)

3. Brains like helping the group more than helping the self

Studies using optogenetics, a technique for making populations of living brain cells fire, and fMRI, which measures how much oxygen neurons are using, show that the brain’s pleasure systems also play an important role in compassion.

For example, extending compassion toward others biases the brain to glean more positive information from the world, something called the “carryover effect.” Compassionate action—such as giving some of one’s own earnings to charity—also activates pleasure circuits, which some people call “the warm glow.”

In the words of Dr. Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford, “humans are the champions of kindness.” But why? Zaki’s brain imaging data shows that being kind to others registers in the brain as more like eating chocolate than like fulfilling an obligation to do what’s right (e.g., eating brussel sprouts). Brains find it more valuable to do what’s in the interest of the group than to do what’s most profitable to the self.


In his keynote address, Richie Davidson, the director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, highlighted the legacy of philosophical thought—now corroborated by a growing body of research—suggesting that compassion is both fundamental and beneficial to human survival. Davidson advocated that academia—and all workplaces, for that matter—provide facilities and paid time for training compassion. When he shared a photo of the Tibetan-Buddhist-inspired onsite meditation facility at his center and discussed their “time off for retreat” policy, the crowd cheered enthusiastically.

While speakers like Davidson might have been academics, their insights can be applied to many domains of life—from marriages and neighborhoods to workplaces and schools—to spread compassion well beyond the mountains of Telluride.


The Power of Failure (An Opportunity for Growth)

Video from KarmaTube


Grab the Reigns! Training the Mind to Find Happiness

--by Joanna Holsten , Original Story, Feb 3, 2012

Until recently, meditation was a very fuzzy concept to me. Growing up in a pretty homogenous, East coast suburb, I never knew anyone who meditated. My understanding consisted of abstract and puzzling instructions, like ‘sit, quiet your mind, and think of nothing.’ “Nothing! Why would you think of nothing?! What a waste of time,” I thought. Hence, meditation wasn’t at the top of my list of things to try.

But I felt a bit stuck in life. While I had many happy parts of my life, I didn’t feel a baseline of contentment. External things would unglue me more easily than I would like, and negative thoughts and emotions would too often creep into my mind. I had no idea how to feel more consistently content, but I thought there must be a way. I tried many things to find a more peaceful state - including sheer willpower, increasing positive experiences or things around me, and other self-help strategies. Some of these things provided small gains, but the results were fleeting.

After moving to California, I started to meet people who practiced meditation. Something was different about their disposition. They seemed calm at their core, and imbued with a kind of grounded optimism. Sensing that this might be what I was missing, I asked about their experiences with meditation. They described their discovery of meditation as a pivotal experience in their life. “Maybe this is not such a waste of time after all,” I thought. I find that when people describe experiences as life-altering, even if I don’t understand why, I must learn more. Similar curiosities led me to study aboard in college and volunteer in Africa. People said these experiences would change me. Maybe they even described how, but I didn’t fully understand until I went myself.

Still unsure about exactly what meditation was, I dove in. I registered for a 10-day silent meditation retreat. While this was still months away, I realized that I should start learning about what I signed myself up for. What is meditation? I asked the friend that recommended the retreat and about how to prepare. She suggested a book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham (2003). I didn’t get too far into the book before realizing that it was a very concrete and practical explanation of meditation. It explained that the mind was like a wild horse and you were on its back. Without awareness of this arrangement, let alone training, the wild horse/the mind would go wherever it wanted to go, and you had no choice but to come along for the ride. My mind would lead me through negative thought patterns and harmful emotions in response to relatively minor stimuli, and I was just an oblivious passenger trying to hold on.

As the book explained it, the promise of meditation was that with consistent practice you could learn to lead the wild steed. You could form a mutual relationship with the horse, but you have to patiently come to know it, and work with it to overcome engrained patterns. Like a wild horse, my mind was responding to circumstances and experiencing thoughts and emotions based on patterns I was often unaware of. Sometimes I grasped these patterns on an intellectual level, but the understanding didn’t necessarily provide me with practical tools to recondition my responses. For example, when someone would express anger toward me, I felt scared, internalized the situation to develop negative self-concepts, or struck back defensively. But this pattern, could be just that, a pattern. I didn’t have to respond that way. I could lead my mind to different reactions. I didn’t have to just remain powerless on top of the wild horse. 

The actual practice of meditation includes sitting silently with proper positioning and focusing your attention. This book directed me to focus my attention on breath. Anytime a thought or emotion would come up that was not breath, I would recognize that I was thinking or feeling something else and then return my mind back to breath. It was hard for me to believe that something this simple would help me, but I was determined to try it.
At first, I sat on a couch cushion in the middle of my living room, and meditated for 5 minutes using my kitchen timer. At the beginning, I experienced what the book referred to as a “waterfall” of thoughts. Having never tried to focus my mind on something so simple as respiration, so many thoughts poured down on me: “What am I going to have for lunch?” “What if this doesn’t work?” “I should do a load of laundry.” In these instances, the wild horse takes off. Then you have to grab the reigns, and lead the horse back to the path: your breath. The important thing is to commit to doing this, and not leave your seat until the timer goes off, otherwise the horse is in control instead of the rider.
In meditation, you practice noticing your feeling and thoughts. You train in redirecting your mind rather than allowing it to be swept away. The more you practice, the more you break down the old patterns and establish new ones, improving your ability to redirect when stronger and stronger thoughts and emotions come along. It is not about purging all your desires and thoughts, but learning to react differently to them, leading to a more peaceful existence.

Every other day I would add another 5 minutes to my total time. To build these skills and develop strength in leading the horse, I would have to practice regularly. Weight lifting was used as another helpful metaphor in the book; you can’t expect to walk into a gym, be able to lift the largest weight, and walk out all finished with your training. In the same way you can’t expect to meditate for a week and be able to handle your strongest emotions with peace.

I noticed some immediate positive effects in my everyday life. I was able to recognize emotions more easily than before and at least be aware of them. After more practice, I was able to gain space from the emotions in certain situations. I realized that I had a choice in where to place my mind even when I was not meditating. I was able to remain calmer through difficult situations - arguments with my partner, critiques of my professional work, and small rejections from friends. With further practice, I am learning a lot more about myself and how I want to live in the world.
There are many types of meditation. This is my novice interpretation of only one – mindful breathing. There is lots of nuance I have not captured here. I am just beginning to learn, and I wanted to share how I first came to understand meditation and why it was important in my life, before I deepen my practice and lose the perspective of an initially skeptical and then wide-eyed and amazed beginner.

This article is posted here with permission from the author. Joanna Holsten blogs at "Let's Live Nice,"which documents her journey towards a more critically compassionate life, exploring ideas and actions for a world with less suffering and more happiness.