As soon as I landed in Paris and stepped off the plane, I kept repeating to myself: take a deep breath, and appreciate all that this wonderful city has to offer. I have done countless hours of walking aimlessly around Paris, discovering cute hidden spots and narrow passages. I love the culture and the rich history which surrounds me in all of my visits.
Our course curriculum on this Neuroscience in Paris summer program includes visits to museums and landmarks around Paris, which broadens our perspective and gives context to some of the concepts we learn. Museums we have visited this week include the Musée de l’Orangerie, the Musée Dupuytren and the Musée de l’Histoire de la Médecine. These thought provoking visits bring me back to a topic which I have become very interested in: mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness comes from ancient Tibetan Buddhists, and promotes one to be aware of thoughts that arise in the present moment. Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses words such as attention, alertness, awareness and observation as examples of some possible synonyms. This methodology allows increased concentration and increased appreciation of the artwork seen in museums, and allows one to truly capture and experience each moment. While at the Musée de l’Orangerie, I was in awe of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, highlighted by a skylight.
Monet’s enormous works panned almost the entire length of the large, white oval-shaped walls. As I sat down, I employed practices of mindful-attention to really enjoy the work. Based on traditional papers, attention training represents a centripetal element of meditation practice. Meditation greatly influences one’s ability to act mindfully and it also works to improve awareness.
In an article published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Desbordes et al. (2012) found that the beneficial effects of meditation training on emotional processing can likely transfer to non–meditative states. The study, titled: Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary non-meditative state, aimed to test if the amygdala’s response to emotional stimuli would decrease after mindful-attention meditation training for eight weeks.
Located in the temporal lobe of the brain, the amygdala contributes to memory processing, decision-making and emotional reactions. As a main component of the limbic system, the amygdala involves many functions such as emotion, behavior, attention, sensory processing and motivation. You can think of it as the human center for emotion. Many studies (at least 10 that I know of) have found that meditation training can improve one’s attention skills, which motivated me to explore this subject.
In this study, the 8-week mindful attention training involved personal awareness in addition to a focus on external environments. This training involves mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of mental events and awareness of awareness (sounds strange, I know, but bear with me). This study also examined the effects of compassion-based meditation on amygdala activity, but my primary interests lie in mindfulness meditation since it directly relates to art appreciation, and to my recent museum visits. During recordings, participants did not enter a meditative state. This methodology was used to see if the meditation has a long lasting effect. This study examined participants aged 25-55 with no prior experience in meditation. Researchers took two fMRI’s; the first occurred three weeks prior to the meditation intervention, and the second, three weeks after. The fMRI, also known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, measures brain activity through changes in blood flow (Wikipedia). The researchers presented various images to the participants, just as I was looking at various Monet paintings. The scans showed decreased brain activation levels (blood flow) in the right hemisphere of the amygdala (associated with negative emotions) but not in the left.
There was no significant difference in activation levels before training, meaning that the introduction of the meditation practice changed the blood flow in the amygdala. Researchers also found that as you increase the amount of time you spend meditating, blood flow in the right amygdala continues to diminish. These results led to the conclusion that practicing meditation can affect your emotional response to stimuli.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a pioneer in this work, promotes mindful living in daily activities, relationships, and health behaviors. Nhat Hanh focuses on the concept of “interbeing”, which describes the interconnection of all things around us. Looking at Monet’s paintings, I thought about the interdependence of all the elements in the painting itself, and how all of those elements combine to make the final masterpiece. For example, the lilies rest on the water and depend on it for support, the flowers grow on those lilies, and the sun and moonlight hit the water to create beautiful reflections at different times of day.
From another perspective, I thought about the work Monet put into those paintings, specifically, the different colors and brushes and tables he may have used. Mindfulness allows one to go deeper into these works of art and see them not as stand-alone objects, but as a multitude of interconnected elements. The authors hypothesized that their results may indicate an improvement in attention skills. This research does not stand-alone. Previous research also determined that experimental tasks which involved rating based on emotions, reduced amygdala activity (Hariri et al., 2000; Taylor et al., 2003; Hutcherson et al.,2008a). Furthermore, another study by Taylor et al. (2012) examined connections between multiple brain areas, and found that meditation training changes connections between certain areas, which could also explain increased awareness. Therefore, we can understand reduced amygdala activity as an increase in attention and awareness, an ideal practice to employ during museum visits.
I hope to expand my knowledge in this field by engaging in Emory’s Cognitively- Based Compassion Training (CBCT). This training program encourages students to engage in meditative and reflexive practices in their day-to-day lives. If you have any interest in learning more about meditation, optimism, well-being, empathy and many more happiness boosting topics, I encourage you to visit http://www.happify.com. For those of you interested in science, this list of research articles at http://www.happify.com/research/, ties together information from the articles on the general site with scientific research. Have fun exploring the website! I hope you consider incorporating mindfulness in you day to day lives and hope that you try out meditation!
Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TWW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz (2012) Effects of mindful-attention and compassion mediation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Front Hum Neurosci. 6:292
Hariri A. R., Bookheimer S. Y., Mazziotta J. C. (2000).Modulating emotional responses: effects of a neocortical network on the limbic system. Neuroreport 11, 43–48
Hutcherson C. A., Goldin P. R., Ramel W., McRae K., Gross J. J. (2008a). Attention and emotion influence the relationship between extraversion and neural response.Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 3, 71–79 10.1093
Taylor S. F., Phan K. L. L., Decker L. R., Liberzon I. (2003). Subjective rating of emotionally salient stimuli modulates neural activity. NeuroImage 18, 650–659 10.1016/S1053-8119(02)00051-4
Map of Paris:
Monet’s Water Lilies:
Thich Nhat Hahn Quote: