Episode 96: How Meditation Works & Science-Based Effective Meditations | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • In the 1960s and 1970s, meditation and psychedelic use were talked about as one in the same practice
  • To get better at falling asleep or manage lost sleep, try yoga nidra or non-sleep deep rest at some point during the day
  • If your goal is to increase focus, and mood, and deliberately control shifts in interoception/exteroception, traditional meditation is beneficial
  • A wandering mind is an unhappy mind: what people are thinking at any given moment is a better predictor of happiness than what people are doing – being fully engaged in what you’re doing is the strongest predictor of happiness
  • Choosing the right meditation for the moment: test whether you are in an interoceptive or exteroceptive state; then, choose the meditation that allows you to go against the grain of your natural state to train your body, brain, and increased neural plasticity for trait changes
  • Meditation tip: instead of dwelling on your ability to remain focused, think about your ability to refocus – that’s where the training and magic happens
  • Key question to ask before meditation: do you want to be more relaxed or more alert through the meditation practice
  • How long should you meditate? Just like exercise, the best form of meditation is the one you do consistently
  • Turning focus on breathing pattern can in itself be a form of meditation practice
  • General rule of breathwork: if inhales are longer than exhales, you will shift into more alert state; if you focus on longer, more vigorous exhales you will relax
  • Three main considerations of meditation practice: (1) exteroceptive versus interoceptive focus; (2) breathing pattern; (3) continuum between interoception and dissociation
  • Practice to start meditation:
    • Close your eyes and try to put 100% of focus on the third eye or breathing for three breaths;
    • Open eyes and visually focus on one body part or area for three breaths;
    • Look at something in the environment for three breaths;
    • Focus on something further for three breaths;
    • Acknowledge you are a small body in a large world for three breaths;
    • Step back to interoception for three breaths
    • Remember, pay attention to breathing the whole time

Introduction

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

In this episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, Andrew Huberman dives into all things meditation – how and why we should meditate, biological changes that occur through meditation, different types of meditation, protocols, and much more. 

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

The Neuroscience Of Meditation

  • Benefits of meditation last beyond the actual practice itself
  • Meditation isn’t just one thing – like exercise, different meditation practices have a specific focus or goal
  • You can dial up or down particular areas of the brain with different meditation practices
  • Left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex can control bodily senses and interpret emotions, bodily signals, and make decisions accordingly
  • You can consciously adjust the acuity of your attention because of the ability to engage the left prefrontal cortex 
  • The “third eye” is the prefrontal cortex, not the pineal gland as once thought
  • Anterior cingulate cortex interprets bodily signals (e.g., how fast you’re breathing, heartbeat, appropriateness of heart rate); gets input from the heart, gut, other parts of brain, lungs, etc.  
  • Insula interprets signals in the brain and body and gathers information from the external environment
  • Brain tissue does not have sensory neurons

Awareness of Mind, Body, & Environment

  • Mindfulness: being present in our bodily sensations, breathing, and thoughts in the moment
  • Meditation practice involves generally stopping and closing your eyes which majorly shifts your body – exteroception (external stimuli) is turned off and we turn focus to the level of the skin and inside the body (interoception)
  • Measure & improve interoceptive awareness: without using an instrument or physically measuring pulse, estimate the number of heartbeats per minute
  • It’s not always beneficial to have high levels of interoception – people with high levels of anxiety are also usually keenly aware of the bodily state in maladaptive ways
  • Meditation practice trains you for interoceptive practice – if you are prone to anxiety, walking or moving meditation may be more beneficial to avoid intrusive interceptive thoughts
  • Default mode network: a collection of brain areas active when we’re not really doing anything or not focused on a task; areas responsible for mind wandering
  • A wandering mind is an unhappy mind: what people are thinking at any given moment is a better predictor of happiness than what people are doing – being fully engaged in what you’re doing is the strongest predictor of happiness
  • Dissociation: you can see and react to what’s going on but the bodily emotional response is shut down
  • Interoceptive vs dissociative continuum = feeling everything vs feeling nothing – we want to be in the middle; meditative practice can teach us to deliberately move along continuum based on circumstances or necessity

Deciding On A Meditation Practice

  • Test whether you are interoceptive or exteroceptive at the moment: stop, close your eyes and assess whether you are focused on an internal state or something external to you – this will change throughout the day, test before each practice
    • Then, choose the meditation that allows you to practice working against the default state – train the thing that you do less easily
    • The friction allows you to change neural circuitry
  • Exteroceptive bias meditation – focusing on something in the environment around you
  • Interoceptive bias meditation – focusing on the internal state and breathe
  • Any time your mind wanders, it’s just an opportunity to improve – your ability to refocus is where the magic is; you will refocus quicker and easier over time
  • Even a 3-minute daily meditation practice is beneficial
  • Key question to ask before meditation: do you want to be more relaxed or more alert through the meditation practice
  • Where to start: close your eyes and try to put 100% of the focus on your third eye or breathing for three breaths; open your eyes and visually focus on one body part or area for three breaths; then look at something in the environment for three breaths; then focus on something further for three breaths; acknowledge you are a small body in the large world for three breaths; then back to interoception for three breaths – pay attention to breathing the whole time

Breathwork

  • Active exhale and focus on breathing forces interoception
  • Tummo or Wim Hof style breathing: this is rapid, deliberate hyperventilation – this will make you feel alert and liberate adrenaline
  • Cyclic hyperventilation: deep inhale through nose immediately followed by deep exhale through mouth x 25-30 then fully exhaling until lungs are empty and repeating – cycle for 5 minutes
  • To increase heart rate – inhale longer and/or more vigorously than exhale
  • To slow the heart rate down – exhale longer and/or more vigorously than inhale
  • Cyclic breathing: inhale, repeatedly exhale with different patterns to slow or control breathing deliberately
  • Box breathing: inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale, repeat for equivalent duration
  • In many breathwork practices, you actively inhale and actively exhale
  • Physiologic sigh: double inhale through the nose followed by long exhale through the mouth

Meditation Effects

  • Positive effects of meditation on mood: being present correlates to happiness
  • Be cautious with meditation time: meditation too close to sleep may actually disrupt it since it’s a practice of focus
  • It’s a controversial finding but regular meditation may reduce sleep needs and allow people to function better cognitively and physically via cortisol management
  • Yoga nidra can reduce cortisol and enhance neuromodulators as much as or more than traditional meditation
  • To get better at falling asleep or falling back asleep in the middle of the night, try yoga nidra or non-sleep deep rest at some point during the day
  • If your goal is to increase focus, mood, and deliberately manage interoception/exteroception, traditional meditation is beneficial

Resources

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Notes By Maryann

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