Full PreFrontal

Ep. 151: Sara W. Lazar, PhD - Meditation on the Brain: Neuroscience of Toning Down and Tuning Out 

June 04, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 151
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 151: Sara W. Lazar, PhD - Meditation on the Brain: Neuroscience of Toning Down and Tuning Out 
Show Notes Transcript

What is common between a middle school teacher during the pandemic, a three-generation family living together with a terminally-ill child, and an employee who just lost their job? They all are stretched to the max and stressed to the limit. These individuals and the rest of America is stressed! Studies shows that when asked, close to 80% of doctor visits for health problems are associated with stress; however, as little as 3% of doctors actually talk to patients about methods and approaches to reducing stress.

Research in neuroscience is showing that by learning and practicing eastern mindfulness practices not only can change emotional experiences around stress, but also casts measurable changes in the neurochemistry and structures in the brain.

On this episode, Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital and Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., discusses the impact of skillfully developed non-reactivity states on the brain. Exploration such as “If I’m not my mind, then who am I?” is at the heart of contemplative sciences and investing in training the mind to stay open to present experiences and enter a non-judging state while caring deeply for one's self and others can have a profound impact on promoting Executive Function.

About Sara W. Lazar, PhD
Sara W. Lazar, PhD is an Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at
Massachusetts General Hospital and an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard
Medical School. The focus of her research is to elucidate the neural mechanisms
underlying the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation, both in clinical settings and in
healthy individuals. She has been practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation since
1994. Her research has been covered by numerous news outlets including The New
York Times, USA Today, CNN, and WebMD.

More information can be found at https://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Sucheta Kamath: Welcome back to Full PreFrontal where we demystify the prefrontal cortex and talk about self regulation, pausing, thinking, reflecting, and taking a better charge of our brain so that we can take better decisions, live more fulfilling life, or even find contentment along the way. And there are many, many experts and researchers who shaped our thought process. And it's such a pleasure because we have somebody who's very special, who has been very influential in my understanding of value of meditation, even more so than a guru might have told me, coming from India, and welcome to the podcast, Dr. Sarah Lazar. How are you today? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Thank you. I'm doing well. Thank you for having me. 

Sucheta Kamath: So let me give a quick background about you to our audience. Dr. Lazar is an associate researcher in psychiatry department at Mass General Hospital, and assistant professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. The focus of our research is to elucidate the neural mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation, both in clinical settings. And in healthy individuals. She has been practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation since 1994. Wow. And her research has been covered by numerous news outlets, including New York Times, USA Today, CNN and Web MD. So let's dive deep into this topic. So number one, first question, since we're going to talk about mindfulness and mind. Can we define mind? You are a neuroscientist, what do you think mind is all about?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D. : Okay, yeah, diving right into the deep end here. Okay. Right. So this most simple the so people often make the distinction between brain and mind. And so last month, you will say that your brain is a hardware and mind is a software of that mind is the, you know, the thinking the cognizing, the you what we think of is as thinking I'd say,

Sucheta Kamath: So, is it true? I often hear various numbers, but you know, they're almost more than 2 million thoughts a minute that come to mind, and we can attend to only 40 of them at a time. Is that even legit? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: I have not heard that. I have no idea. A lot. So, I mean, I imagined that 40 are happening, but I know that we can tend them all. We have 40 a minute or 40 a second?

Sucheta Kamath: Sorry, but what we are not able to attend to in fullest capacity, we are able to even be aware that they may be coming our way. So I'm thinking a lot of this is sensory information, just information about the world.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah, I suppose I could certainly. So I mean, just thinking about I mean, obviously, you know, so just sitting here, your your entire area of your skin is sending signals into your brain to say, okay, you know, there's something beneath and behind you, you know, something suddenly happened in like, I don't know, I think fell apart, you know, my couch. so terrible apart. You know, you would instantly feel it coming away from your body. And so I guess that is, but it's also conscious, though, I guess. I mean, it's not like I mean, I don't think you could consciously pay attention to 14 but I believe that, yeah, probably 40 pieces, and probably much more than that. No, but I don't know. That's interesting. I haven't heard that before. 

Sucheta Kamath: It's it's such an interesting thought. Because here we are. And I come from Eastern philosophy and religion. And talking about the source of your misery is the mind the uncontrolled mind, unchecked mind. And when once I my meditation journey is not as deep and wide as yours. I started maybe 12-13 years ago, taking it seriously. And one thing that I noticed is this idea of not reacting to it. So can you first set us up with the idea of mindfulness? And then mindful meditation? Are they two distinct things? Or they're the same?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Excellent question. Okay. Yeah, they're a little bit, there's a, there's an overlap. So the way I like to explain it is, so mindfulness is just a quality. And anyone can do it anytime, anywhere. And so, and really, it's kind of sort of awareness, but it's a self reflective awareness. So you know, that you're aware, like so right now. You know, you're aware of like, all the things that are in your field of vision, right? And so you're aware of that. But then when I point this out to you, then it's like, oh, yes, I know. I'm consciously aware the fact that okay, I'm looking at this thing over here and that thing over there like I'm, you know, that's what like meta awareness is what sometimes referred to is it's like, Okay, I'm actively aware that my mind is paying attention to this moment. So again, anyone can do it at any time, but we tend not to do it. And so that's where mindfulness meditation comes in. It's, it's practicing it so that it becomes more of a habit. And it becomes easier to do when you really need it. And so the example I like to give is playing soccer. So if you if I put you on a soccer field all by yourself with the ball in front of goals, of course, you could kick the ball into the goal. But if I put a goalie there and a bunch of other defenders, and then everyone's running around screaming and yelling, you know, could you get that ball mill goalpost? Maybe, maybe not, you know, and so, but if you practice and you know, then you know, there's a greater chance that you're going to actually be able to get the ball in. And so similarly, that's the idea with mindfulness is that, you know, if you got deadlines, and you know, angry co workers, and you know, traffic on the way home, you and you're all like this, you're not the mindfulness is not going to be there. But if you practice it if you don't practice it, but if you practice it regularly, it's much more likely to come up in those sorts of situations.

Sucheta Kamath: And it's so interesting, and you talk about this in your talks. And as part of a mindfulness community, there's a great, deep meaningful conversation about this, that mindfulness is staying present, being open, caring deeply, but in a non judging way. Yeah. So can you help us understand because there is like a big, you know, without the cultural background, I feel the Eastern philosophy has seeped into, you know, Western culture without the backdrop so that mindfulness can become self referencing and can become selfish way of being with oneself and warding off the world. So can you talk about these two things? One is non judging way. Yeah, but not indifferent. Right, because that can be bad, but also self referencing way but not in an enlightened self interest? We're not a selfish way.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yes. Okay. So two great questions. So I think you hit the nail on the head hit the nail on the head. Yes. When you talk about it's not indifference. So the non judging, but it's not indifferent. So what is it? So at least in from Buddhist tradition, it's a faculty called equanimity. Right? So people love that. Yeah, it's a really great word. And the idea is that so being judgey versus evaluating. So right now, you could say, Okay, well, you know, the room is a certain temperature. And maybe the room is kind of hot, or it's kind of cold kind of just notice, okay, the room is hot. Versus It's so hot. I need to get this fixed. And, yeah, oh, I just hate it so much when it's just so hot like this. Right? And so that's, you know, the valuation is it's hot that oh, my God, I don't like it. That's being judgey. And so can we, you know, you want to be able to keep the discernment. It's not like you just go around the world, just saying everything is fine. Everything is perfect. It's like, No, okay, the room is hot. I need to do something, address it. But I don't need to add the "uggh" to it.

Sucheta Kamath: No drama.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Exactly, exactly. And so one of my teachers talks about it, it's a is the heart. So that's sort of like in a sort of a generic bit in terms of dealing with other people is it can you do with an open heart versus a closed heart? So if say, you know, I came to you and saying, I had this story of like, oh, my goodness, you know, I was a car accident, I got injured, and this happened to me. And that happened to me, and I had this whole long sob story. You know, you could just be like, Sara, okay, that's too bad. Sorry. Right. And so and so you're not reactive, right? And so you're not reacting because you're being cold hearted. Versus Can you say, oh, Sara, I'm really sorry to hear that. And so you can be moved but not overwhelmed by it? Right, and your heart remain open? consent? Yeah. Okay. I feel you I, you know, I feel sorry for you, I hear you, you're in a lot of pain, but you're not being swept away by it. That's really the idea of it is that you can you can still care. But in a nice balanced way.

Sucheta Kamath: And I love that I think there's what you you just embedded there is this opposite of psychic numbing, psychic numbing, you know, there's Paul Slovic actually wrote an article about that. And I think that eventually gets so bombarded by all the wounds of the world that you feel like I'm out. I can barely wear this I can contribute this. So this can people be mindful without trying?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yes. So yeah, for sure. Anything A lot has to do with some people are just very mindful naturally. And I think a lot has to do with you know, your upbringing and your constitution and all sorts of things, right. And so, because again, it's just this awareness and we're all aware of something. And the question is, what are you aware of? And is that so can you get, but depends on this definition, right? So there's the awareness, but then there's a nonreactive awareness. And again, like the non reactivity. Again, some people are just mellow, you know, when they're just naturally, you know, things just roll off their back, and things don't bother them versus other people like you any little thing in there, you know, yelling, screaming. So, and again, I think there's a lot to do with, you know, genetics and upbringing, and, you know, life history and all those sorts of things. So, you know, it's not like it's a, it's an absolute on or off. You know, it's I think we all have different degrees of of how mindful we are, I would say.

Sucheta Kamath: So like that dialing up or dialing down and some people have better control over their own dial. Exactly. Yeah. It's so interesting. So a lot of my work also is with people with ADHD. And I mean, it was very clear when I worked with people with concussions and brain injuries, that these states that hyper reactivity was so high, but then I see a developmental disorders such as ADHD and a couple of things, I noticed that their default mode network checking out just roaming of the brain, they're far readily able to let the mind take its own trip, without any control over it. So not judging, but it's just not presencing. But then second thing I see is also not having any interest in the welfare of others, now maybe generalizing a little bit, but there's just general indifference. And so then they're often perceived as selfish or callous. And so is there any Do we have any understanding of who is more able to do this? So I love this explanation that temperamentally some people may be naturally gravitating towards that capacity to be present. But are there developmental disorders that make you go away from that capacity? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Well, it sounds like ADHD is. I hadn't, I hadn't heard that about ADHD. That's interesting. So um, yeah, I mean, I don't know, it's a short answer. But yeah, and I think, you know, and certainly trauma probably is my guess, you know, potentially, maybe something like schizophrenia, or that or Asperger's? I think, potentially also, you know, in autism, that sort of things. And again, it's hard to know, like, how much is brain wiring, like intrinsic brain wiring versus how much is, you know, adaptation to adverse life events? I mean, I just don't know yet. I don't know much about developmental.

Sucheta Kamath: Got it.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah. And so um, yeah. And so that's the question you asked about, like, you know, is my place just becoming selfish and self absorbed? So it's not what you do, it's how you do it. And I think this is where a really good teacher is going to be useful. Because the thing is a lot of people, I find that a lot of people, I've had some people. Some people will use it as just a waste for checkout, and kind of just, you know, chill for a little bit, shall we say? But it's when you really talk to them. It's like, well, they're not really doing what the teacher said, they're not really trying to learn it just sort of like, okay, they found this way to sort of like, check out and have a little quiet time or whatever, and that they're doing their own thing. And they don't, they're not really paying attention. They're really trying to do it properly. That's in my experience, very limited experience. But that's the other. You know, I definitely some people like that, like, where if you really are asleep, or if you have a good teacher, and you're really trying to do what's being told, I think it'd be extremely difficult to do it in that way. You know, especially if you're getting good feedback and work. And that's why I think it's really important to work with a teacher, this is the question I always get is like, Oh, I just use the headspace app, may I just, I just use an app or you know, whatever. And I think, Okay, that's good. I have nothing wrong with using apps. But you also need a teacher, for this very reason. Because it's really easy to sort of pick and choose what you want from the apps, and not really doing what you're supposed to be doing. And so having the person to actually get the feedback from, you know, and so but then, like, during the week, you know, so you go to the class, you have a teacher, you talk the teacher, you get the real information, but then, you know, during the week, if you need a little help with an app, that's fine, I got no problem with that.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's interesting, this reminds me of the concept of the deliberate practice. So you can do practice, and then you come to a plateau, if you don't increase the challenge, and you don't receive feedback. You never cross over that. You know, plateau. Right. Exactly. Exactly. Brilliant. So one quick question before we get into your research, the, you know, in mindfulness, literature or field, contemplative science field, they talk about challenges. You know, in Buddhism, there are hindrances that actually make it really hard to mindfully meditate. What are your thoughts about that? These, one of the common challenge I'll explain to the listeners which is really now wanting to get good at meditation, that's considered opposite of what you need to do. Be doing when you're mindfully meditating? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah. Yeah, that's not considered a hindrance. But that's, well, that's just conceit. Right? 

Sucheta Kamath: Is it considered striving or no?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah, definitely. Well, depends. It depends on it. I just last this past week I was on a meditation retreat and the teacher have talked about this, because this question came up. So there's this idea of. So in Buddhism, the whole idea is that most of the problem comes because of this big sense of Me, me, me, me, me and I, I'm trying to achieve something, right. And so if you're doing it with that kind of mindset, like, I'm going to be an expert meditator, and I'm going to achieve enlightenment. And I'm going to do this. Yeah, that's a problem. But if it's more that, Oh, I see, this helps me. And I'm, you know, I'm motivated to practice because, you know, I see this is helping me. And it's more of, you know, just making a dedication to it. And actually, in the original language of the Buddha, there's two different words for striving, one for striving, for self aggrandizement, another one striving for like, exponential non selfing way, and they sort of use that other word. And so, so it's, it's a little bit different. So you can do the same, the same thing you can do in a slightly different way. And so the thing is, because if you're sitting there saying, I'm a great meditator, yeah, it's not gonna work. And so you really need to just like, let go of all that and let go of outcome. And just be like, Okay, I'm going to do this, because I know it's good for me.

Sucheta Kamath: And I love that. So that brings us to your so I want to start with your first study where you study the long term meditator meditators versus the control group, can you tell us a little bit about how you set it up? And why did you decide to pick that direction? Yeah.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: So my very first study, right, the who said it was 20, long term meditation practitioners and 15 controls. And because at that point, you know, we didn't know a whole lot, there weren't that many studies on meditation. And especially put them in the MRI scanner, I felt like I wanted, because I never published the rest of the study. It's actually interesting that my first study that got published, the part of that I published was about the brain structure. But that was actually not the reason why I did this day, there's nothing to say because I want to look at brain activity during meditation. I thought, okay, in order to study brain activity during meditation, I need people who are really experts. You know, I can't just take people who've been doing this a little while I need people who really been doing this for a while and can really go in there and meditate in the scanner. So I did that and put them in the scanner. And then like I said, then, um, but then what we know is what did analysis on the brain structure like, Wow, look at this. And so that's what got published. And that's sort of what you know, what's the starting point? Right? Rise to fame? Shall we say? So? Yes.

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah, the gray matter, Queen.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: So, so that was really and that was a thing, because at that point, it feel just like, what you're there, because there's the idea back then it's like, well, you're just sitting there quietly. And you'll have people I was just looking at Fufu. And, you know, they just, you know, the thought that message and do anything to your brain was just like, what? No, and so the having actual evidence, the brain actually changed. I remember the first time I actually show the data is actually to a group of meditators, right. It was a little conference for meditation practitioners. And I showed the data and they literally gasped, like, the whole audience was just like, yeah, like, they didn't even believe that the brain you could detect changes in the brain, you know, from long term meditators. So that was that was pretty, that was a pretty cool moment.

Sucheta Kamath: Can you talk about Sorry to interrupt you, but you talk, you saw increased amount of gray matter in the insolence sensory region, and gray matter? volume increase is actually cognitive change, right? It's actually improvement in quality of your intelligence even?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Well, okay, so so this is like matter, a lot of pushback from this, that first paper, right? So we just said, Hey, the brain is bigger, and it's in these regions. And there had been a couple of studies demonstrating that generally speaking, yes, more gray matter means more ability. So for instance, you know, professional musicians versus amateur musicians versus non musicians, right. That's one of the classic studies, right. And there had been like, one, there's one at that point, one longitudinal study, where they looked at, they taught people how to juggle, right, and then the area of the brain involved in detecting visual motion has gotten bigger. Right. And so there's this idea that yes, more is better. But to be fair, you know, we didn't give them any sort of test. I think that so we really didn't know what the more gray matter, man. Right and So it's consistent with more activity and more better performance related to those regions. But we couldn't actually say that.

Sucheta Kamath: And so I think maybe if you can explain to our audience the distinction between gray matter and white matter, because 60% of the brain is white matter, right? 40% is gray matter? Yeah. So it's less, but it does all the connections and yeah, talking to each other. Right?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Right. So the way I like to think about it is, you know, neurons look kind of sort of like trees, so they get the trunk of the tree, lots of branches and lots of roots. And so the white matter is the trunk of the tree. And so it's just sending information between the roots and the branches. And so the gray matter is where the branches of one tree interact with the roots of another tree.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, I love it. Love it that way. So I love that. So this ability to communicate, communicate with each other, and then once that communication is established, then they become thinner, because it's more robust pathway, right? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Well, it depends, right? So sometimes you can get right you can get thinning, you can get thickening. So the other thing that's important to know is in the gray matter, there's the neurons, you know, the end of the neurons, but there's also there's glia. And astrocytes, and so the helper cells, there's also blood vessels. And so in animals, they did things where like, you know, they took an animal, and they trained it on some tasks, like running through a maze or doing some sort of task. And then they would chop up the brains are, they would scan them before and after, right and show that, okay, and then they would chop up the brains. And what they showed is that, you know, sometimes depending on the type of tasks that was learned, sometimes you get more neurons or more branch in neurons, but sometimes you get more blood vessels or more of these, you know, astrocytes and glia, and whatnot. And so all of them support increased function. So we think, and maybe it's more gray matter, you're more more neural, no more neurons, for example, can get a bias with neurons, but in reality, it could be blood vessels or astrocytes, but in a way, it doesn't sort of matter. We know that all of them contribute to improve function, improve functioning.

Sucheta Kamath: And what's the other part of that study was the actual frontal cortex? I mean, sorry, your your gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is typically associated with higher functions, such as working memory and executive control. Yeah. What did you make of that? How do you explain that? Because that is so difficult to Yeah.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah. Yeah. No, I was I was just like, I was stoked when I saw that one. It's like, wow. And it's, in particular, there. We've got one of our my co authors was Jeremy Gray. And he done a study with fluid intelligence, right. So IQ, fluid intelligence. And what he showed is that activity in the exact same spot that we saw getting larger in the long term meditators was the same spot that is active during a fluid intelligence task. Wow. Yeah. And so that was really kind of cool. So I was just like, boom, they were doing something and so then we actually did a follow up study where we gave people the food and you know, the food intelligence test genes, Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices, say that five times five times fast.

Sucheta Kamath: I just call it Ray Osterith, right. That's it. Oh, no, not ? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: The reason which one Raven, ravens. ravens. When I speak fast I slur my words sorry. Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices. 

Sucheta Kamath: Got it. You gave Raven's I thought I thought because also Ray Osterith is also great to capture this complex planning and execution. Yeah, yeah.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: So we didn't do that, though. We did Raven's. And so and we showed and with that one, we did long term meditators, long term yoga practitioners and controls. And we show that both the meditators and the controls had higher scores on Raven's than the mentors and sorry, mentors and Yogi's had higher scores than the controls. And that it was related to another metric that's related to fluid intelligence, which has to do with how connected the brain is, like a different part of the brain. The idea being that in order to solve these really complex problems, you need, you know, this part of the brain to that part, brain turns with this heart brain and then used to be really good information flow between all different parts of the brain. And so it showed that yeah, that that, that that's preserved with advanced age. And that that, that IQ is also preserved with advanced age. 

Sucheta Kamath: Wow. And I mean, if that was not convincing, then I don't know what but your second study was even more fascinating. And so can you talk about the the study with the those who receive mbsr treatment training?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: So right, so for that study what we did, so that was great. We said, Okay, well, these are long term meditators. And so again, I got a lot of pushback from that first day saying, Well, you know, meditators, they're just different, you know, maybe it's the other way around, maybe people with thick insula are the ones who are more likely to start meditation or stick with meditation rays? And maybe it has to do with the natural ability. Right? You can't prove that the meditation made it bigger. And to be fair, that's very, very true. We don't know, you know, chicken and egg, right? also people said, Well, you know, maybe it's causing a lot more vegetarian. And they're taking time other day and all sorts of reasons why couldn't possibly do the meditation. So to address those issues, I thought back to that study to do with a juggling. So juggling study, what they did is they took people who never juggle before scan them, taught them how to juggle, and scanning and three months later, and they should in just three months, there was a change in brain structure in just three months. And so I thought, Okay, well, let's try it. And so there's this great program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. And it's a secular program, and you learn how to meditate, and you're told to practice every day for 40 minutes. And it's only two months long, but I thought, Okay, well, you know, who knows, two months, three months, you know, let's see, because of the animals, you can keep changing the brain structure in like a week or two with animals. So it's like, Okay, well, you know, let's see what happens. So we did that. So we put people either through the MBSR program, or we scan them eight weeks apart, and then they went to the MBSR program. I said, they wrote to the controls, there were several brain regions that got bigger in the meditation group. And so in just two months, you really can change the structure of your brain just by meditating. 

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, wow. Okay. Well, there are some Rockstar areas of the brain that kind of changed. And so maybe we can talk about them one by one. So one is the posterior cingulate cortex. Yeah, which I guess, function is not fully clear, but definitely associated with default mode network may have every form on network. Yes. So tell us what, what is the default mode network do? And how did that got impacted by meditation?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Right? So I'm just going to jump ahead. So not only the posterior cingulate, but also the hippocampus, the hippocampus is also part of the default mode network. So we're gonna talk about both of them. So right, so what is the default mode network? So let's define how it got came to be in the first place. So you would think most people would think that if I put me in you and 20 other people into the MRI scanner, and just said, Okay, sit there and do nothing, and we're going to scan your brain while doing nothing, you would think that our brains would look very, very, very, very different. Because you know, I'm thinking about my science, and you're thinking about, you know, your, your, your clients, or your, your your patients, and you know, someone else is thinking about the stock market. And so you think that all our brains will look very different. But turns out, when you put people in, you just have to think about whatever the brain activity is actually fairly similar. And there are some subtle differences, but mostly, it's very similar. And what you see is this network of brain regions called the default mode network, this idea that when you tell them just why they're doing nothing, there's a network. And over many years, what they've shown is that that network is involved in thinking about self related processes, because ideas that when you're not think about anything, in particular, you're thinking about something and it's usually team that has relevant to me so that I need to go to the store. And that's what do I need, while I'm at the store, I need to get, you know, I want to make this dish. And so and so there's all these things that are relevant to me, and oh, that person said this to me. And I said that to them, you know, and so there's usually has something to do with me. And the, as I mentioned, the main, main part of the default mode network, that's always on is called the posterior cingulate cortex are supposed to see posterior cingulate cortex.

Sucheta Kamath: Say that five times.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: The PCC for posterior cingulate cortex, and then the hippocampus is really a secondary part of it. And so the hippocampus courses, memories and learning the PCC again. So it's the main note of the default network is also it's implicated a lot in mind wandering in general. So if you have someone in the scanner and doing something, the best indicator that their mind is starting to wander, they're going off type of task is the PCC activity starts to come up. The PCC and the hippocampus are the two main regions that are impacted by Alzheimer's disease and they get wiped out and also for disease. 

Sucheta Kamath: And that's why it's so important this research.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: And Exactly, exactly. And then I said it's also sort of self related processes. And so um, and sometimes it's important to know sometimes more gray matter is more activity and sometimes more gray matter is less activity because we have inhibitory neurons. And that's what we think is happening with the PCC because what we know from other people's research since then is that When you're actually meditating, the PCC gets turned off very strongly and treat like. So, after eight weeks of practicing, even when you're lying and doing nothing, the default network is less active after MBSR than before MBSR. So it really does seem like it turns it off and keeps it off. And so that's what we think that increased PCC is doing is turning off and keeping off that default mode network so that you're spending less time mind wandering less time thinking about yourself and more time. And it's open what you know, awareness state?

Sucheta Kamath: Because if I can ask you about that one interesting thing, I thought, because typically, when we think about hippocampus, we think about memory and forming new, you know, the particularly the left. hippocampus is more verbal processing. Correct. So I found that very interesting that the left hippocampal activity had gone down, along with so is it that also referencing to self talk diminishing?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Possibly, possibly, um, it's maybe self related talk, because again, this idea of being so what is the hippocampus is contribution, the hippocampus is contributed to, in order to access your old memories, you have to use the hippocampus, right? So I'm just sitting here, moment, I'm looking at a window looking at a tree if I'm just sitting there looking at the tree and saying, Oh, that's a really nice tree. And oh, yeah, there's some bugs coming out. I don't need my hippocampus. I'm not thinking about me. Right. So there's still plenty of self talk going on. Right? There's plenty of talk happening. But it's not all about me. And so I don't need to, you know, so again, it's sort of getting away from the, it's not about me and just aware of what's actually happening in the moment.

Sucheta Kamath: Got it. So that was fascinating. Because the, this is like, you know, you're really sharpening the hold on the dial, so to speak, I don't know, if the dial, it always exists, you just have your hands on it. The third area, which was very interesting, the TPJ, the temporal parietal junction, and it is my favorite area, because it's involved in mentalizing. That theory of mind, you know, thinking about other people's thinking, can you talk us talk to us about that? Why did we see some changes there? robust changes.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: So it's actually interesting. So we've actually found we have two more papers now, where we have identified the TPJ again, Oh, yeah, yeah. And so definitely is through my talk with us again, but it's also and now we're thinking is more probably about top down control, because it's entering the TPJ does a bunch of different things. And it's looking like it's probably more about directing what you pay attention to, because it's part of the attention network. Hmm. And so but it might also be because what's interesting is that the TPJ, like you said, it's part of your mind, what is theory of mind theory of mind is guessing or understanding my understanding is very understanding what someone else is thinking. So the classic example is, if you and I go into the kitchen, and I put my leftover food in the fridge, and then I leave, and then you take out that food and throw it away. And then someone were to ask you, okay, what is? Where does Sara think her food is? Right? So most of the people who say okay, Sara thinks her foods in the fridge, right? Because, right, you know, you know that. But people with Asperger's, Asperger's, well, Asperger's and autism, you know, a lot of times they have really poor theory of mind. They'll say she thinks it's in the trash, because they can't think about what the other person's thinking like they know it's in the trash. And so of course, everyone else thinks it's in the trash.

Sucheta Kamath: They can't separate and track their thinking about their thinking and others knowledge about the truth or experience or whatever.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Exactly. And so being able to so it's a key component of empathy, because rikes in order to have empathy with you, I have to understand how you're thinking and feeling. So I have no idea how you're thinking feeling. All I know is like, Okay, well, you know, you're telling me, you know, oh, you know, my car crashed or something. I can't keep up with car crashes. I don't know why you're like, it's like, if I have no experience with that, then I can't it's like, okay, that's too bad. All right. Yeah. What do you have for lunch? Yeah, I'm not gonna be able to understand how you're feeling because that part of my brain is just not understanding that. And so it's probably important for empathy and compassion. And there's no normal everyday functioning. And that's certainly something that improves with with mindfulness and so, so it might be related to that, but again, like the newer data suggests that it's probably also more related to whether you're paying more attention to internal or external events. And so this idea and that's part of, I think maybe the power of how it's working with a theory of mind, I don't really know a lot about theory of mind. But this idea that you know, and this gets into the mindfulness, because of the mindfulness, it's always about, well, how is my body reacting right now? So like, if something happens, noticing, oh, yeah, that like when I talk to certain people, I hunch my shoulders, right, or my clench my jaw, clenched my fists, sometimes, you know, when I'm under certain circumstances, you know, okay, and this is causing the tension. Okay, I'm gonna use that information to realize I'm getting tense, I'm gonna relax this now, right are noticing that, you know, when I talked to people, certain people, there's certain types of thoughts that go through my mind, like, Oh, this person always makes me angry, this person always, you know, makes me feel defensive or something like that. You know, and just be getting more and more in tune with those little things inside you. And that's what the TPJ is doing, as well as sort of better tuning you into what's going on inside.

Sucheta Kamath: And that's so helpful, because I think, one, I see it in two ways. One is your thinking less about you and your needs. So you're not at the center of your thinking, yeah, that also creates that openness and room for other people to take a seat maybe. And once you they are in your view, then you begin to think about their needs and their perspective. And sometimes, even if that perspective is not accessible to you, once you I don't mean force, but that opportunity is created for you. Maybe you will take all the inventory of that situation or their needs, and such a beautiful way to kind of be a better socialized that way. Right? 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Again, again, it's not all about me. Yeah, exactly. 

Sucheta Kamath: So that brings me to this next thought about mindfulness. And you kind of started talking about this empathy and compassion. Are people who are mindful or practice mindfulness? Do they have significantly better interstates and their capacity to? Because isn't there? Can you distinguish for empathy and compassion? Isn't this acting on your feelings for other people are carrying feelings for other people?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah, that's come out is one definition. I don't know that everyone has that distinction in their definition, I but something definitely coming out, especially out of Tibetan Buddhism, they make this distinction that that's a distinction between everything compassion, is that your empathy is sort of more of a cognitive you know, and sort of getting drowned in the person's story versus compassion, sort of more of a, you're less drawn to the story, and you're sort of more open just hearing it. And you there's the they feel that there's the distinction is that there's this this strong desire to act to relieve the other person's suffering. Um, and so I mean, I don't know. But it's certainly that's when that's one definition of it. And so, uh, so yeah, so this idea that that is not just an understanding, but it's also this desire to help alleviate them.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I like the Buddhist saying that strong, soft front and strong back, meet people. In situations, there's a soft front to you, which doesn't mean me weak, but it actually means open and appreciative and enable incredibly encompassing of their needs. But firm back is, you're not going to compromise your values, or giving up your morality or none of that exam. It's a combination of two, and then that, that also equanimity, you're staying strong, that feeling drawn into the flood of other people's emotions,

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: it's important to know because sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is nothing. And to let the person figure it out for themselves. Truly, truly, and I think that's sometimes something that people don't always understand. And so sometimes you have to consume a little, it's like no, and think about like, sort of like a little kid who falls down and gets hurt. The parent goes, Oh, baby, baby, you know, and Oh, poor thing. You know, kids gonna start crying versus the parent doesn't say anything, the kid falls down they scrape their knee and they get up and run away, you know, and they keep running. You know, so if you don't make a big deal out, the kids, they, they learn to deal with themselves. So So sometimes, you know, it's it's not always clear, or it's something that is obvious. But yeah, sometimes the best thing to do is inaction though.

Sucheta Kamath: I and so hard, particularly if they're your children, or they're the ones who are depending on you. Doing nothing is a very beautiful thing, a gift. Tell us about now the actual mindfulness training. Do you have some ways you can explain to us what that training looks Like,

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah, yeah, no, it's very simple. One of the things is very simple to do. It's very, I won't say difficult that it takes patience and determination and need a little emotional regulation, in order to really do it consistently every day. You know, it's really that easy to really commit yourself to it. And also, to really see you're not just sitting there spaced out, you know, you really have it's an active process, a very active process, right. So anyone can do it for a few seconds, but then to really continue to do it non stop 40 minutes. That's, that's where the comes in. And I should point, I should also say that no one can do it, like, even like the Dalai Lama is not going to be able to sit there. Well, maybe he could. But even people who have been practicing for 10,15,20 years, you know, it's not like they're going to be totally focused. For the whole 40 minutes of practicing. Now, even 10 million thoughts are gonna come in, like, you can't stop the thoughts. Um, but the question is, how quickly can you let go with a thought and come back? Right? And so so I'm sort of jumping a little bit. So it's very simple. So what do you do so you sit down, and there's a couple different ways of doing it. But the most common way is just watch your breath. So just noticing, as you're inhaling, you could notice like the air passing through your nostrils, or like your chest or your belly, inhaling and exhaling, and just noticing so again, what is mindfulness, mindfulness, paying attention to the present moment is open, nonjudging way, so just noticing, I'm inhaling. Okay, now I'm exhaling. inhaling, exhaling. Yeah, it really is that simple. And okay, what are the what are the sensations? How do I know I'm breathing? Like, so it's not and so really trying not to think about it and really just feel it. So just feeling the belly expand and contract. Right? So yeah, anyone can do that for two, three seconds. The question is, can you keep doing it? Cuz Of course, it's gonna get boring. It's like, okay, I've been doing it for five minutes now. What's going on? Yeah. And then the doubt comes up. And as I'm doing it, right, and oh, this is hard. In my mind. He's wandering. Yeah. So which is all just being judgey? Right. And then the, you know, I got, oh, I was shopping right now. No, I don't think that should be doing No, no, no, that's okay. So those are the hindrances. So these are the hindrances. It's like, you know, when you fall asleep, falling asleep, that's another hindrance. No doubt that isn't working doubt that I'm doing it. Right. Yeah. And there's all these different ways that that you sabotage your own practice. And through all of that, you just have to say, No, this is that it's just this, and I'm just practicing, even if I fall asleep, it's okay. I'm practicing and learning. And you know, it's just even my mind wanders the whole time. I'm getting something out of it. And then really, there's really does show the data really does show that that even people whose minds racing the whole time, you're getting stuff out of it. And so and so that's it, and it's just, you know, keeping doing that. And again, you can do, yeah, I mentioned the headspace app earlier, it's very, very popular, is just 10 minutes a day. And there's a little bit of evidence now demonstrating that even just 10 mins a day can be beneficial, right. And so because teachers always say you have to do it every day for 40 minutes. But more and more data suggests that, I mean, I think it's a lot like exercise, right. And so if you run every day, for half an hour, 45 minutes, obviously, you're gonna have a very strong body. But even if you run just like 20 minutes, two or three times a week, you're still gonna get some benefit. Same with meditation. So even if you just do 10 hours a day, you're going to get some benefit. And you know, if you can do say, 30-40 minutes, once a week, great if you can do sometimes a week, even better.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, as you're talking about some of these roadblocks, in mindful as this cartoon comes to mind where this family, you know, is on camels, the father is riding the camel in front of the mom and two kids and he looks very angrily looks, turns back and says, Stop asking me if we are almost there. We are nomads for crying out loud. Love that. So this these thoughts that you know what one of the surprising things I discovered now that I'm going through my mindfulness, meditation, teacher training and receiving feedback. Is this. How active and uncontrolled My mind is exactly. Oh my god, it's mind blowing. And then secondly, to patiently sit will sit with it. One of the analogies I give when I talk to other people who are not part of this training is it's like imagine you are locked in a room with a two year old and there is no toy and there's a socket, electric socket. Child keeps putting fingers want to put fingers in the socket. What will you do and people come up with things like oh, take him out of the room. I said that's not a choice. Give him a toy. I said, That's not a choice. Talk to the kid. I said, That's not a choice. A hit the kid. I said, That's not a choice. So basically, you pick the child up and turn the child away. That's the only thing you have. And I feel this mindfulness practice is literally lifting that two year old, turning away from the socket. And that's I love that analogy. Yeah. Because again, you can't get away from it. You can't get away. You're stuck with your own dang mind.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah, exactly. And so but you can get curious about it.

 Sucheta Kamath: Oh, talk about that. That's another very important thing we didn't talk about. And I do want you to talk about play. How does this all relate to improving men's mental health? Because this just once you open your mind, you create expansiveness. Then you be curious. So I want to hear that, because that's nothing but play.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yes. Yeah. No, that's it's really, really, really important. Because so there's kind of two different ways of trying to do price mindfulness practice. So there's some people so it's important. So backing up a little bit. So we're gonna get into the nitty gritty a little bit. Look at you. Yes, yeah. So there's two things at play. There's attention. And there's mindfulness. They're not the same. And this is really important. So attention is just paying attention. Right? And not mind wandering. Mindfulness is the awareness and like, sort of the more than meta awareness and sort of the monitoring. And so you're trying to pay attention. And then mindfulness is what's sort of watching and saying, Okay, well, am I paying attention? Or is my attention starting to wander a moment?

Sucheta Kamath: And am I paying attention to the right stuff?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Exactly. Exactly. That's executive attention. Yeah, exactly. And then once your mind does start to wander, the mindfulness is noticing, okay, like, what are the patterns? And that's where the playfulness comes in. And or the the curiosity, I think curiosity is really important. It's like, so noticing, so for instance, like when I first start practicing, as a scientist, right? And so I started practicing, it's like, oh, but this has happened to my brain. Oh, I can do experiment. Yeah. And my mind always went to my hands and planning experiments, right. But that was really important information to notice, like, okay, you know, and so that's also triggers, like, okay, when I start thinking about that put aside, and that's because your mind is looking for ways for distraction, right? And so that's the third of the 80 distractions, like, okay, no, I can think about that later. Right. Now, I'm just gonna keep paying attention to the breath. Right. And so it's like, okay, and I start to start thinking about the brain. No, no, no, no, back. Right. And this is, like you said, so if you sort of know, okay, well, that's the electric shock today, but then the next day, then, okay, it's going off in some other direction, right? It's thinking about, you know, I don't know what, you know, that thing that that person said, Oh, this person's Oh, yeah. It's like, No, no, no, no, but that thing, that person said, Oh, no, no, no, I knew that that person, that person that is like, okay, cool, I have an issue with this person, right now. But when I get done, I think about my relationship with this person, right? So so that's really the two and you really, you're trying to develop both of them. And they kind of you can develop one into them independently. So for instance, like, Video game players, right, and these sorts of things, they've really good attention, but no mindfulness, yes, versus, but you can also develop mindfulness without necessarily developing intention, again, if you just practice being sort of open and aware and mindful. But what's really interesting is that they kind of go hand in hand. And that's really how you get to the really advanced meditative states is when you develop both of them. And then because then you're focused, and then the minute starts to your brings it back, and then goes off and brings it back. And so when they're really working well together, then you just get into these really deep, beautiful states.

Sucheta Kamath: And you know, that feels to me, like the deep work state where you are most efficient, you get things done, there is no stickiness, there's nothing no residue of previous experience or next experience. You're just as as you're done, wrapped up moving on. Exactly.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah, it's definitely a flow state. And what does that mean? Well, how is it different than flow? So meditation really, truly is a flow state is that you just a great example of an explanation of the flow state, right? And so but the idea is that when you're in a flow state with yourself, so you're not a flow state with music, you're not in flow state with sports, you're not a flow state with your work, you're in flow state with yourself and your inner workings. And that's been what leads to the enlightenment.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, that's a little bit far away mountain for me, but he has that's an odd mountain. I'm keeping my eyes on. So as we end, can you tell us a little bit about stress, anxiety, depression and mindfulness? You thought I would never ask. Exactly.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: So what is stress? So the way I like to define stress is wanting things to be other than they are at least emotional stress is wanting things to be different than they are. right because it's sort of like You know, I've got all these deadlines. I've got five hours until this big project is due. And I'm stressing out because oh my god, there's only five hours and having to do this, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, right, this whole thing I can stress All I want is not gonna change at all. In fact, I have five hours, it's not going to change the quality of my work. So I can stress out about and say, Oh my god, I only have five hours. Or I can say, Okay, I five hours, what can I get done in five hours? And just like, Okay, I've got five hours, that's all I can do. It's all I've got, I'm going to do my best. And that's all I can do. Right? Or, you know, there's that person and drive me nuts. Oh, no, no, no, no. Right. And so you can go on and on and on about that person and how horrible they are and how bad the situation is. Or you can say, Okay, this is this person, that's who they are. This is the situation is I can do this. Um, but yeah, about it is not going to affect anything. So I have to learn to live with this person, I can try to talk to this person, I can try to change the situation, but just stressing out about it. Because stress really doesn't do anything for you, for the most part. I mean, you can, a moment of stress is good, because it's sort of something needs to be done. Right. And so you need that, like, so one analogy we gave is driving and someone suddenly cuts in front of you, like you need that moment, oh my god, you have to slam on the brakes and swear, by the way to save your life. You know, you don't it's not just like being okay, whatever. Right now you need that initial burst of, you know, anger or frustration or whatever, to sort of get things going. But then can you drop it. And that's really what Buddhism is all about is. So it's not about not reacting, you react, but then you let go of it. And then it's like, okay, so you get the stimulus to act. It's like, Okay, I got five hours, I really got to focus. Now I gotta get this done. Okay, this person, they're being difficult, I gotta do something to address this issue with this person. So I need to do something about it. But I don't have to carry on the, the agitation. So that's what stress is. And that's really what mindfulness is all about is sort of recognizing, okay, my brain is going in circles here. And I'm just keep going out, like, Oh, my God, I have Irish Irish of ours. Yeah. And, you know, doing something productive. And so the mindfulness, that's where the awareness comes in, right? So the awareness says, Okay, I'm fixated, instead of fixating working on what I need to do, I'm fixated on Oh, my God only have five hours. So I'm gonna turn the child away from the fact that I only have five hours, and I'm just gonna focus on what I need to do, which is get as much done as I possibly can in five hours. Right. And that's really again, sort of how it's, you know, it's, again, the awareness of what's going on and the habits of the mind. That's really what my house all about.

Sucheta Kamath: I love it, because it just reminds me of, we are tilling the soil for acceptance, as is, this is how it is the worst best condition, nothing is gonna change, except you can change maybe your anger about it, you know, exactly. But the you are the person inviting you to take a different stance or different attitude or inculcate a different response to the same situation, nothing has changed about the situation, right? It's just this is how it is. And so and then I can just say, this is how it is. And nothing about that says, A defeatist attitude or a given I'll give up, it's just a great mature response. Exactly, exactly. It's like, Okay, this is it. So what do we do with it? Yeah. And don't you think that this is what mature prefrontal system looks like, anyways, where it has kind of come to terms with life, by understanding, it has such a large deck of experiences and say, things sometimes go this way, sometimes go this way. Sometimes they just don't go anywhere.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Exactly. And just like, Okay, and so, whatever happens, I'll then you know, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. You know, right now, right now, I'm on this part of the bridge. Okay. And so I'm just worrying about the next steps, and doing what I can to get to this goal. And then, yeah, yeah. So again, so the future.

Sucheta Kamath: So this is not a fair or good question. But how would you certify your medication, meditation? meditation? self? Let me rephrase it. How would you? What marks would you give yourself for how well you're doing with your meditation? It's not even a good question. That's a good question. Are you pleased with it? Yeah. Are you pleased with your meditation practice? Oh, yes. Yeah. Everyone knows, what is a good question, actually. What so when should we think about it? So

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: again, this is something that Monk was talking about. And this is really, really, really, really important. It's not so much about getting into these deep states. And this is where the mindfulness is really key. It's much more The way to really measure practice is to see how it's influencing your life. Hmm. So are you less reactive? You know, when there's lots of pressure? Can you stay focused and calm? You know, when these you all these difficult people in your lives? How are you dealing with difficult people in your lives? How are you responding to that? That is how you measure the quality of your meditation practice. And so in that regards, yeah, like, my life has changed dramatically since I started practicing. Maybe it would have changed more if I practice more practice differently, potentially, yes. But it's clearly what I've done has made a huge impact on my life. So I don't know if it's, you know, I know something is happening, for sure, or something.

 Sucheta Kamath: And it's so funny, because I think my family will describe me as I'm less ambitious, which is kind of counter intuitive, but I feel very pleased with the effort that I make. If it goes anywhere, that's fine. If it doesn't, that's fine. So it's not less ambitious, but I'm more okay with, with whatever. Economy, equanimity, yes, yes. Well, as we close, do you have suggestions for our audience? What are your two most influential books that have influenced you or you love? And think other people should read them as well?

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Yeah. So a fantastic book, especially for people who are just getting into meditation and learn more about it is a book called Seeking the Heart of Wisdom. Great title, right. And so it's by Joseph Goldstein, and I'm trying to think of his name right now. 

Sucheta Kamath: One of my reading requirements, I've been reading that. Oh, yeah.

 Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: The other author, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield. Sorry,

 Sucheta Kamath: yeah, of course. Yes. 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.:  So it's by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. Okay, so that's, that's In the Heart of Wisdom. And then, um, oh, there's so many good books. Right. Another great one is by Sharon Salzberg, and it's about compassion. And I don't know this name of it, is

Sucheta Kamath: That's not radical compassion? That's, yeah, that's Tara Brach's. Yes. 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: I think it's a Real Love. I think it's called Real Love. And I think that's the reason when I heard that interview. 

Sucheta Kamath: I will list that in our show notes. For sure.

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: I forget Oh, yeah. I'm horrible with names. So it's because I've read them all a while ago.

Sucheta Kamath: So it's a no, that's right. That's the right book. Okay, yeah. So yeah, so real happiness. real happiness. 

Sara Lazar, Ph.D.: Real love. Real love. Real love. Yeah, exactly. There you go. Sorry. So yeah, so those are just a few ones. Yeah. And then, um, yeah, yeah, there's so many. There's so many good books.

Sucheta Kamath: It's called the Art of Authentic Connection. There you go. That's the real love. Well, thank you so much for being you being an amazing guest and so generous with your thoughts and wisdom and really simplifying these complex concepts. You know, for a neuroscientist, you're very chilled and awesome. Appreciate that. That's not even. That's, that's what I mean is you're so you're able to translate neuroscience so readily. Sometimes that's not easy for everybody. Okay, I really appreciate that. Thank you, everyone. Stay tuned for our next episode. If you love what you're listening to please, share and have a wonderful robust brain day.