BY LINDA EGENES

My dad holding me at 6 months old

Growing up, I was taught that creativity was a highly prized commodity. My father was a product engineer for International Harvester, designing plows and farm equipment, and earned 22 patents. When he retired from that, he and his brother designed a nifty cable-laying machine that laid wires in the ground while leaving behind only a tiny slit—and is still popular 40 years later. His most amazing creative achievement, though, was a passive-solar home that he designed in 1959 and built out of all-natural materials with his own hands. Our family dearly loved the magical and beautiful home he built for us.

My dad taught us that anyone can be creative. You didn’t have to be a famous scientist like Madame Curie or a famous dancer like Isadora Duncan to be highly creative in your everyday life, he said. He pointed out that the world is filled with people who create amazing things every day.

Yet even as a child it was clear to me that some people come by the creative gene more easily than others. So I was interested to read a new study on creativity by Fred Travis, Ph.D., and Yvonne Lagrosen, Ph.D., published recently in Creativity Research Journal. The researchers found that brain integration is a common feature among highly creative people.

“It’s a simple fact that some people stand out as creative, and we’re trying to tease out why,” Dr. Travis says. “We hypothesized that something must be different about the way their brains work, and that’s what we’re finding.”

Dr. Travis has developed a measure that he calls “brain integration.” He analyzes EEG patterns to assess brain wave coherence (connectedness) in the frontal brain. He also assessed alpha power, a measure of inner directedness of attention, and the brain’s preparation response, which measures how efficiently the brain responds to a stimulus.

In this study, Dr. Travis and Dr. Lagrosen studied 21 Swedish product engineers—who, like my dad, were designing new products as part of their jobs. The researchers found that those with the highest brain integration scored the highest in creativity as measured by standardized Torrance measures — as well as other characteristics of highly creative people such as speed of processing information, speed of executive decision-making and a factor called “Sense-of-Coherence,” which means a sense of being in control of one’s situation.

In previous studies in collaboration with Dr. Harald Harang, Dr. Travis had found greater brain integration in world-class athletes, top managers and professional musicians. In other words, he is finding that brain integration may be the underlying factor that leads to success in many different areas.

Dr. Travis says, “While there’s a common notion that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary for high achievement, some people put in long hours and do not excel. This new research and previous studies suggest that brain integration may be the inner factor that leads to outer success.”

So the next question is—can a person develop greater brain integration, and thus increase their creativity and ability to succeed?

As Dr. Travis points out, the regular practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique has been found to increase levels of brain integration and to increase creativity in many randomized controlled, peer-reviewed studies.

There are other ways that the TM technique heightens mental abilities. For instance, it helps relieve the mental fatigue that can stand in the way of creativity. For instance, when women are tired or stressed, they can’t be as clear, present or creative as they would like to be.

I found my own creativity soaring when I started to practice TM at age 19. Gone was the writer’s block, the struggle with realizing my inner vision on paper. And as I was able to express my true self in my writing, I felt happier and more self-confident in other areas of life as well.

It is my belief that creativity is an essential part of being a woman—after all, we have the ability to create the miracle of human life. So a practice that allows us to come in contact with our inner source of creativity, happiness, and power is something that can benefit every woman.

So if you want to give your creativity a boost, consider learning the Transcendental Meditation technique and seeing the effect of regular transcending on inner happiness and outer success.

I think that Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, says it so well: “But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint or clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.”

Here’s a video by my friend Cheryl Fusco Johnson where I talk about my creative process. Check out other videos of writers talking about their writing on Cheryl Fusco Johnson’s YouTube channel. 

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, May 12, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

Hedging Against AlzheimersIn January of 2009 both my parents were diagnosed with “dementia of the Alzheimer’s kind” on the same day. I was expecting such a diagnosis for my mother, who was suffering from short-term memory loss (and who had a history of Alzheimer’s in the family). But the diagnosis for my father? My siblings and I were stunned. At 84 he had slowed down, for sure, but we had attributed his sudden disinterest in yard work and taking care of his finances to an infection that he was fighting.

In the following months, as my father’s mental condition declined precipitously, my sister and I scrambled to rearrange our lives to give our parents the care that they needed. And as we talked endlessly about what had caused this, we found out that there was also Alzheimer’s in my father’s family—his mother had been diagnosed with what they termed then as “hardening of the arteries”—with symptoms that today would likely be classified as dementia of the Alzheimer’s kind.

Needless to say, with a history of Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family tree, prevention is on my mind. So I was interested to see a new research study that, to me, points toward stress relief as a way to hedge our bets against this debilitating disease.

The landmark study on Alzheimer’s, conducted at Harvard Medical School and published in Nature, pinpoints a protective protein in the prefrontal cortex (called, interestingly enough, REST) that switches on in the aging pre-frontal cortex in healthy people—but fails to switch on in those with Alzheimer’s. This, the researchers believe, could explain why some people with the amyloid plaques and brain tangles associated with the Alzheimer’s brain have no symptoms of dementia. Researchers have long suspected that another factor was involved, and these researchers think it’s the REST protein that provides the missing link.

Here’s what caught my eye: The protective REST protein is switched on as part of the brain’s stress response.

“Our work raises the possibility that the abnormal protein aggregates associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may not be sufficient to cause dementia; you may also need a failure of the brain’s stress response system,” said Bruce Yankner, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and leader of the study, in an article by Shelley Emling in the Huffington Post.

So in other words, the onset of Alzheimer’s could be related to a failed stress response, which is often caused by chronic stress.

This makes sense to me.

Researchers already know that when a person is under stress, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, planning and coordinating functions, becomes less able to engage with the demands of the environment. It’s as if it goes “offline.” Loss of memory, impaired cognitive functioning, inability to make decisions, ADHD and a host of other mental deficits are symptoms.

One of the best ways to protect the pre-frontal cortex from stress, research is finding, is the daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique. Practicing TM not only reduces day-to-day stress, it breaks the cycle of chronic stress and fatigue. And while stress takes the pre-frontal cortex offline, TM has an enlivening effect, switching it on, in effect.

“The Transcendental Meditation has the exact opposite effect on the pre-frontal cortex as stress,” says Dr. Fred Travis, a researcher who has published more than 100 studies in peer-reviewed journals on stress and the brain. “Neuroimaging studies show increased activity in the frontal area of the brain during Transcendental Meditation practice, as compared to just sitting in eyes-closed rest. In addition to increased activity in the frontal areas, we also see increased activity in the back of the brain—the parietal areas. These two parts of the brain are part of the attentional circuit.”

The aging brain, especially, can benefit from the protective benefits of TM on the pre-frontal cortex. Even in healthy, younger people, chronic stress can affect memory, cognition and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. At any age, when we are restricted by stress, fatigue, and other negative factors, then the brain is less adaptable, and we become handicapped in how we process and respond to our world.

I’m suspecting that my daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique can help protect my brain from the dementia and Alzheimer’s that has plagued my family for generations. I’m basing my lifestyle on other research as well. Aerobic exercise is found to build brain cells. Inflammation may be the cause of Alzheimer’s, some researchers say, so eating lots of antioxidants can help. Exercising your brain with plenty of mental stimulation is important. Having a wide social network may be a protective factor, say other studies. Getting enough sleep is another protective factor, a recent study at Temple University recently found.

It all comes down to a balanced lifestyle, and I’m aiming for chronic health rather than chronic disease—for now and into the future.

And while it will take years for researchers to follow up on these studies and others to find the true cause of dementia, who knows? Perhaps by keeping my stress response nimble and strengthening my pre-frontal cortex through TM, getting a good night’s sleep and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, my brain will switch on the REST protein to protect it from the disease that is affecting so many American families, including my own.

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, April 30, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

Students Meditating, Transcendental Meditation relieves student stressFred Travis, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management. He is the author of more than 50 research papers that investigate the relation between brain wave patterns, conscious processes, states of consciousness, and meditation practice. He regularly teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, gives seminars, and speaks at conferences on brain development around the world.

 

Enlightenment: A considerable amount of research is being conducted on the brain. Can you tell us why this area of research is so important?

Dr. Fred Travis: The brain is our interface with the world. We perceive the world and respond to the world based on the functioning of our brain. The brain transforms our experiences of the outer world so that our consciousness can understand it, and it transforms our conscious impulses so we can respond to the world around us.

A healthy brain, functioning without the restrictions caused by stress, is especially important. Probably the most important characteristic of a healthy brain is adaptability because the world is constantly changing and the brain has to change with the moment-by-moment demands of the environment around us. When we are restricted by stress, fatigue, and other negative factors, then the brain is less adaptable, and we become handicapped in how we process and respond to our world.

Developing the Total BrainResearch demonstrates how alcohol, drugs, stress, poverty, and sleep deprivation change the brain so that it has a diminished ability to reflect, remember, and process. Everything we do has an impact on the brain and will physically change it.

Enlightenment: What does research reveal about the effect of the Transcendental Meditation technique in helping the brain recover from stress?

Dr. Travis: When a person is under stress, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making and executive functions, is less involved in activity. It’s as if it goes “offline.”

The Transcendental Meditation technique has the exact opposite effect on the brain. Neuroimaging studies show increased activity in the frontal area of the brain during Transcendental Meditation practice, as compared to just sitting in eyes-closed rest. In addition to increased activity in the frontal areas, we also see increased activity in the back of the brain—the parietal areas. These two parts of the brain are part of the attentional circuit.

Repeated experience changes the brain, and what we are doing every time we practice the Transcendental Meditation technique is strengthening our attentional circuits. If we want to build up our shoulder muscles, then we do specific exercises to strengthen the shoulder muscles and then use those muscles, for example, to carry our groceries home. Similarly, the Transcendental Meditation technique strengthens the attentional circuits so that when we need broad comprehension it will be there—even when we are under stress—because these frontal circuits are stronger than before.

Also, the unique experience of restful alertness during Transcendental Meditation practice gives rest to the core of the brain, the thalamus. The thalamus is like a switchboard: all sensory information comes into the thalamus and then goes to the brain. With the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique, the switchboard of sensory experience becomes more rested.

Dr. Fred TravisEnlightenment: Can you talk about your research study at American University, in which the students experienced such deep rest through TM practice that they were able to function better even under the pressure of exams?

Dr. Travis: College today is a time of incredible stress. Many students self-medicate to cope with stress. Almost half of college students binge-drink, and 20% use non-prescribed drugs. According to research, 80% of college students report being fatigued on a regular basis.

In our randomized controlled research study, published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, we asked: how are students’ brains functioning before they start the TM technique and how are they functioning after they’ve been practicing the TM technique for three months. The three-month measurement was taken right before spring semester exams—probably the most stressful time of the year. During final exams, students typically stay up late for several days, eating bad food, getting no exercise, and feeling acute anxiety. Any one of these factors by itself is known to decrease the integrated functioning of the brain.

We found that students who did not practice the TM technique experienced a decline in brain functioning, alertness, and ability over the three-month period in which the study was conducted. In contrast, the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique by students buffered the effects of the high-stress college lifestyle. Meditating students were less tired and fatigued; they recovered from stressful stimuli better and showed increased scores on the Brain Integration Scale, which is correlated with emotional stability, higher moral reasoning, and decreased anxiety.

The Brain Integration Scale measures whether the brain is functioning as an integrated whole or as isolated parts. Not only was the stress of finals week not affecting the meditating students, but they were actually functioning at a higher level than before they learned the TM technique. Transcending through Transcendental Meditation practice fundamentally changes brain functioning so that students are able to live life more effectively and successfully, without suffering from the deleterious effects of stress. It allows students to live life in a state of evenness and wholeness rather than in anxiety and stress.

Enlightenment: Does the TM technique work with people who have learning challenges such as ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

Dr. Travis: Yes, we found that the TM technique had a positive effect on children diagnosed with ADHD in a 2011 study published in Mind & Brain, The Journal of Psychiatry. Dr. Sarina Grosswald and Dr. William Stixrud were coauthors on this research. In this study, 18 children aged 10-14 years, who attended a special private school for learning disorders, were randomly assigned to either learn the TM technique immediately or to continue their normal academic activities and learn after three months.

Three months of TM practice significantly affected brain functioning and performance on a test of letter fluency. ADHD is marked by a pattern of brain waves in which there is high theta (4-8 Hz) EEG activity. The brain naturally generates theta activity to block out irrelevant information during any task, for instance, during memory tasks. Children with ADHD have higher levels of theta activity than normal, which has the effect of blocking out relevant as well as irrelevant activity. If you call their name, they do not respond because they don’t hear it.

Also, children with ADHD have too little of a second frequency, called beta activity, which is involved in thinking and executive functioning. A child with ADHD has too much theta and too little beta. Their brain is blocking things out, and it’s hard for them to focus. The ratio of theta to beta activity (dividing one by the other) is used to quantify the severity of ADHD symptoms.

At pretest, the theta/beta ratios of all of the students were three times above the normal range. Three months later, the theta/beta ratio of the TM group moved closer to the normal range. And after six months of practice, the TM group was at the upper end of normal brain functioning.

In just six months, the brain functioning of the meditating students had moved from being solidly within clinical ADHD symptoms to just within normal brain functioning. What that means in practical terms is that they will be able to start self-regulating both physical and mental impulses. So, for example, they’ll be able to remember to raise their hand before speaking.

We also looked at a second EEG measure, called coherence, which reflects how the different parts of the brain are working together. From the baseline to six-month posttest, we saw significant increases in coherence in all parts of the brain in four frequency bands: theta (focused inner attention), alpha (sense of self), beta (processing), and gamma (focused outer attention). Higher coherence in all frequencies implies that the parts of the brain involved in these different processes were coordinated together—the children could regulate their behavior. The brain is ceasing to function as isolated modules and is beginning to function more as a whole.

Greater integration of brain functioning was reflected in their cognitive functioning. The TM group also improved in letter fluency, which measures the ability of the frontal lobes to generate many new ideas.

Consciousness, and Cognition

Our brain is constantly changing; 70% of synaptic connections change each day. The brain is a river, not a rock.

Enlightenment: Thank you for discussing the latest TM research on the brain. Is there anything else that we should know about how the brain functions to help us live a more successful, stress-free life?

Dr. Travis: All of your readers should know that every experience changes the brain. Research shows that 70% of brain connections change every single day. This is called neuroplasticity.

On the cellular level, when two neurons fire together they get wired together. When two neurons fire, proteins in the cells support growth of more input and output fibers, the axons get larger in diameter, and the two cells become primed to fire again, which is called long-term potentiation.

If we add the experience of transcending to our daily routine, then brain connections that support the experience of pure consciousness are strengthened. This is the reality of growth to enlightenment. It happens every day with every session of the Transcendental Meditation technique.

It’s a constant cortical dance. Our brain is a river and not a rock. Every time you experience something in your life, it creates a pattern of activation over the brain that gives us experience. At the same time, it’s leaving its mark in the connections between neurons. Maharishi has said that what we put our attention on grows stronger in our life. This is happening on the material level of brain connections.

For instance, in violin players, because the left hand is responsible for playing the notes, the part of the brain that corresponds to the left hand is more complex than the part of the brain that corresponds to the right hand, which is holding the bow. Another study looked at expert taxicab drivers in London and found bigger brain structures underlying the thinking processes that generated routes, identified landmarks, and determined how to change a route when road construction blocked the highway.

If we are constantly under stress, then the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response grows thicker, and we find ourselves reacting to small stresses as if they are life-threatening.

But—and this is the take-home point—if we add the experience of transcending to our daily routine, then brain connections that support the experience of pure consciousness are strengthened. This is the reality of growth to enlightenment. It happens every day with every session of the Transcendental Meditation technique.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment MagazineIssue number 4. Reprinted with permission.)