Your Brain… on Yoga

Yoga in all its forms has proven its benefits across multiple generations and continents. Interestingly, modern science is now confirming its usefulness for improved mental and physical health and even brain fitness.

Indeed, yoga has been shown to support healthy brain function and stave off neurological decline. That’s particularly good news for those with limited mobility or early onset dementia, as some form of yoga (such as chair yoga, water yoga, yoga for the blind, and gentle yoga) is accessible for a wide majority of people, regardless of age or fitness.

Here are yoga’s effects on the human brain:

  • Recent studies demonstrate a positive effect on the structure and/or function of the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and cingulate cortex.
  • Psychologically, regular practice has also been shown to lower stress, reduce body image dissatisfaction and anxiety.
  • Brain scans of regular yoga practitioners show they have thicker cortexes and greater gray matter volume and density in several brain regions, including the frontal, limbic, temporal, occipital and cerebellar regions. This research seems to confirm that yoga appears to negate the otherwise normal decline in total gray matter volume that occurs with age.

Interestingly, these beneficial brain changes appear to occur fairly rapidly when yoga is done at least once (one hour session) per week.

Other ways yoga has proven benefits for your brain

  • Twenty minutes of yoga weekly improves speed and accuracy of mental processing to a greater degree than 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (jogging).
  • Yoga helps improve a variety of mental health problems, including psychiatric disorders like anxiety, ADHD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia, in part by increasing brain chemicals like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA). Without GABA, nerve cells fire frequently and easily, triggering anxiety disorders, seizures and conditions such as addiction.
  • Yoga also boosts serotonin, and some studies suggest yoga can have a similar effect to antidepressants.
  • Yoga can help improve teenagers’ emotional resilience and ability to manage anger. This is especially helpful as teen frontal brain lobes (the seat of language and reason) are still being formed, leaving them to overly rely on their amygdala (the seat of emotions).

“It appears that the unique combination of physical movement and deep breath work of yoga offers these healthy brain benefits,” sums up Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback.

The evidence is clear. Regardless of your age or physical agility, consider finding a yoga class that you can do on a regular basis.

This is Your Brain… on Love.

According to a new study, you really can be addicted (using that word in the most scientific way) to love.

After researchers looked at brain scans of those who had recently broken-up with loved ones, they found that recovering from a break-up is very similar to kicking an addiction to a drug.

“Romantic love is an addiction,” said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of a recent study. Fishers believes that more contemporary addictions to things like nicotine, drugs, sex, or gambling are modern adaptations to the same ancient brain pathway that evolved millions of years ago. That love pathway evolved as a way to glue individuals to one another, focusing intense energy on a particular individual to ensure the continuation of our species.

Fisher, who has studied love, sex and relationships for more than a decade, previously focused on those happily in love. More recently, Fisher wanted to find out what was going on in the brain when sudden loss of love happened. She sees her most recent study using the just-jilted and dejected is he most important study she’ll ever do.

“Nobody gets out of love alive,” Fisher said. “You turn into a menace or a pest when you’ve been rejected. That’s when people stalk or commit suicide. (Love is) a very powerful brain system that has a dramatic effect on your entire life.”

The rejected love study

To test her love-as-an-addiction hypothesis, Fisher recruited 15 college-age, heterosexual men and women still raw and reeling from a recent break-up. On average, the participants had been rejected about two months prior to the study and said they were still in love.

As the participants looked at images of their ex lovers, the researchers looked at images of the participants’ brains.

Interestingly, the parts of the brain that lit up in Fisher’s study were the same ones associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction. The brain showed real physical pain as well as distress and attachment.

“There really is such a thing as a love addict,” says Helen Fisher. “When you are in love you absolutely crave the object of your affection. You’re willing to do crazy, stupid things, just as a person would while fighting a drug addiction.”

While psychologists have long helped clients cope with obsessions with love and relationships, some say the backing of science supporting love as an addiction could further help those seeking treatment for the condition.

“People have always said time heals love — and now using neurofeedback, we can add ‘addiction and love’ to the list of addictions for which we can help our clients,” says Leanne O’Neil. “As time goes on, the pain of rejected love does begin to fade, but in the meantime, there is a lot we can do to help our clients with resiliency and moving forward with their lives.“

What is going on in our emotional brain when we reach for a word and can’t quite get it to come to mind? 

We have all experienced that maddening “tip-of-the-tongue” state where we are desperately trying to recall a name or phrase but can’t quite get it to come to mind. “Brain researchers wonder about what is happening when this occurs, too,” says INDY Neurofeedback owner Leanne O’Neil, “and what they are finding is fascinating.”

“In fact a group of psycholinguist researchers decided to study this common phenomena. A new study published in the  Memory & Cognition journal has found that when people experience this state, the phenomenon can exert a surprising influence on completely unrelated behavior – risk-taking.”

Here’s what they found:  Interestingly, when study subjects are unable to recall a word but feel like they are on the verge of remembering it, they are more likely to report that that word they are searching for is positive, or that the forgotten name belongs to an ethical person.

Why might this be? Researchers speculate that compared to a complete inability to recall a word, having it just out of mind’s reach might provide an encouraging feeling that you have relevant knowledge, even if you can’t quite bring it to mind. So, those individuals may infer from those feelings that the word itself has positive qualities.

How does this lead to risk-taking? If subjects have a positive association with an idea, could that bias influence other decisions completely unrelated to the word retrieval behavior?

To investigate this possibility, researchers at Colorado State University conducted a series of studies on how the so-called Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon related to risk-taking decisions: specifically, whether or not they chose to gamble.

  • To test this, the team asked 19 students to answer 80 general knowledge questions.
  • If they couldn’t answer, the participants were asked whether they were experiencing a Tip-of-the-Tongue If so, after each question, they rated on a scale of 0 to 10 whether they felt inclined to gamble on the result of a coin-toss.
  • Of the 44 questions asked, students experienced the Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomenon on 8 of the questions. They rated their willingness to gamble as significantly higher than when they had no inkling of the answer.
  • The study was then replicated in a second study of 180 participants. These participants also showed a greater inclination to gamble after Tip-of-the-Tongue moments, but less so after a 10 second delay before the gambling question.
  • In a final study, participants were asked to make an actual (rather than hypothetical) decision to gamble on a coin toss. The participants were more overwhelmingly willing to gamble after Tip-of-the-Tongue moments rather than when they couldn’t answer the question.

What does this mean about emotions related to how we retrieve information? Researchers think that Tip-of-the-Tongue moments are experienced as “a partial form of retrieval success”, which is internalized as “more positive than no success at all.”

“In other words,” summarizes O’Neil, “Temporary positive experiences seem to affect our immediate future behavior in ways that we might not realize, providing very interesting food for thought.”