Biological Anthropology Professor Pairs Brain Research with Mindful Meditation
You may have already known that mindful meditation reduces stress and anxiety, helps you sleep better and improves your test taking abilities. But, did you know that it shrinks your amygdala, which is the fear response center of the brain?
Kent State University offers a free, four-week meditation class at the Recreation and Wellness Center that everyone (students, faculty and staff) is welcome to attend.
The class meets for 75 minutes and students learn 11 different mindfulness and meditation techniques. They focus on a form of mindfulness and meditation called Koru, an evidence-based training specifically designed for emerging adults, according to Mary Ann Raghanti, Ph.D., chairperson of the Department of Anthropology and a professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences. She’s also one of the trained Koru Mindfulness instructors. They follow the lessons from the book “The Mindful Twenty-Something” by Holly B. Rogers, which aims to guide young adults through meditation and mindfulness as they go through the busyness of life.
“Koru was a program that was developed by two psychotherapists at Duke University,” Raghanti said. “Holly Rogers finished her medical school and then kind of came across meditation and mindfulness and thought ‘Wow, this would have been really useful to have when I was a student. I wish I had these skills’. She started working at Duke University and she really wanted to bring these tools to students there.”
Rogers partnered with Holly Mae Tae to develop a curriculum meant to help students with any major hindrance that they face and increase their academic resilience.
For Raghanti, meditation has been life changing. She started in high school and continued taking classes on meditation and mindfulness throughout her undergraduate education. But when she got to graduate school, she put it aside as she felt as if it wasn’t professional.
“But then I got a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences and I studied the brain and it’s in that context that I came back to meditation. I started reading literature about the benefits of meditation for the brain. So physiologically, neuro-chemically, neuro-anatomically, things that I could really sink my teeth into.”
Shrinking your amygdala
Raghanti read that in only eight weeks of daily meditation practice, people are able to shrink their amygdala, which is the fear response center of the brain.
“With a smaller amygdala, it means that you have decreased anxiety,” Raghanti said. “I was reading that at a time when I was going through a rough period, personally and professionally. I thought, ‘I want that, I want a smaller amygdala’. So, I started meditating daily and my ability to stay present in the moment and see things for what they are, has been tremendous; personally, professionally and in every aspect of my life.”
Staying in the present
“With the course, we always talk about the rushing river of thought, so your thoughts can get carried away,” Raghanti said. “There’s a quote in the book that says, ‘Your thoughts are only loosely based on facts, so therefore, you shouldn’t believe everything you think’. So, when we kind of get caught up in the rushing river of thought, that’s when we start to stress.”
An example of a rushing thought that Raghanti gave was: “Oh, I didn’t study enough for this exam. I’m not going to pass this exam. If I don’t pass this exam, I’m never going to get a job. If I never get a job, I’m going to end up homeless.”
Raghanti said while none of that would actually occur, it’s important to be mindful and stay in the present.
“A lot of people think that meditation or mindfulness is just about sitting quietly and focusing on your breath,” Raghanti said. “But there are actually a lot of techniques. There are different ways to do it because that one technique isn’t going to be right for everyone.”
In the classes, students learn to use their breath to regulate their autonomic nervous system to decrease the fight or flight response, sympathetic reaction and brings a calming feeling.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is,” Raghanti said. “All of these tools are accessible for everyone.”
To learn more about the Koru class, visit https://www.kent.edu/recwell/mindfulness.
More about Dr. Raghanti and her recent publication
Raghanti is a biological anthropologist whose primary research focus is the evolution of the human brain. Her lab uses numerous histological, immunohistochemical, and stereological techniques to investigate potential neuroanatomical correlates of human-specific cognitive and behavioral specializations.
One of her latest studies addresses why people struggle with overeating and addiction to drugs and alcohol. They led a study on Neuropeptide Y; which is a brain chemical that makes people have a preference for foods with carbohydrates. The study showed that humans have higher levels of Neuropeptide Y than any other primate. This may explain humans' tendency to eat high-fat foods, like potatoes and pizza. This also explains why some people have struggles with addiction to drugs and alcohol.
To learn more, visit Dr. Raghanti's laboratory website.
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Jim Maxwell, 330-672-8028, firstname.lastname@example.org