Neuroscience of Yoga

By: Berrak Ugur

Perseverance. It is a word that I had to deeply internalize during my graduate studies.  It is repeated over and over starting with your graduate school applications and continued throughout your training. But how do we manage to stay in power when everything seems like it’s falling apart? And more importantly, how do we make sure that our whole world does not burst into flames when one tiny little thing goes wrong? How do we deal with the fluctuations of mind that seem to go into places that are not always made of rainbows and unicorns? Especially in the beginning of my graduate research, I struggled a lot with these thoughts. Sometimes, it can be challenging to acknowledge a thought without letting it become a constant worry. In order to take my mind off of failed experiments and worries about the future, I tried many physical and mental activities. Among these, yoga has helped me a lot to become a better researcher. I started practicing yoga a couple of years ago and now it has become a fundamental part of my life; along the way, I became a yoga teacher. Through the practice, I am able to acknowledge a thought and then let it go and focus on my work.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says ‘yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ,’ which translates as ‘yoga is the cessation (nirodhah) of fluctuations (vrtti) of the mind (citta).’ I do not know or understand how practicing yoga changes my mindset and that is totally fine. Nevertheless, I wanted to see if there were any studies performed to document if practicing yoga actually changes neuronal communication.

I turned to Pubmed and came across a nature neuroscience review titled ‘The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation’ (Tang, Hölzel and Posner, 2015), which is a good summary of the current state of the field. This review summarizes a handful of current studies, mostly focused on brain imaging. According to the review, initial studies on meditation were cross-sectional, meaning that they compared a larger group of meditators (e.g.~100 monks) to completely unrelated group of non-meditators and observed differences in their brain morphology. However, the authors make a very important point that “although these differences may constitute training-induced effects, […] it is possible that there are pre-existing differences in the brains of meditators, which might be linked to their interest in meditation, personality or temperament.” In other words, perhaps the brains of those inclined to meditate were different even before they started meditating. On the other hand, longitudinal studies that are performed at multiple time points with more directly comparable control subjects offer a better understanding of how brain morphology/function is altered through meditation.

The part of the review that surprised me most was about studies that document increase in volume and density of grey matter (the part of central nervous system that contains majority of the neuronal cell bodies) in people who mediate compared to non-meditators. One study, performed by Sarah Lazar in 2005, shows that the thickness of cortical regions related to somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing correlates with meditation experience (Lazar et al., 2005). Of note, the authors show that the mean thickness across the entire cortex is not significantly different between meditators and non-meditators, indicating that meditation affects certain areas of the brain selectively. Currently, the research in Sarah Lazar’s lab completely focuses on neuroscience of yoga and meditation. You can check out her lab page for more info:

http://scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar

Also you can check-out the TEDx talk she gave about meditation and brain morphology:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxCambridge-Sara-Lazar-on-how

Certainly, there needs to be more detailed and case controlled studies on how meditating changes neuronal communication. One thing that is sure is that meditating trains people to acknowledge a thought and then let that go. After all that is all you need to persevere.

Namaste 🙂

P.S. : In case if anyone has any questions about yoga, don’t hesitate to write a comment. I would be more than happy to discuss any questions.

 

Berrak is a guest author for Science ACEs. She is a PhD student studying molecular and human genetics and she teaches yoga in her spare time.

Featured image credit: http://magazine.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=6&action=detail&ref=835

The Future is Now! Jetpacks in Real Life!

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Man flying jetpack at the 1967 Superbowl. Photo: Vic Stein/NFL/Getty Images

Jetpacks are awesome, so I’m going to write about jetpacks. Lots of us grew up thinking that someday people would be zooming about in the skies attached to small rockets. Freedom from our earthbound existence is attractive for a number of reasons, including applications for first responders, law enforcement, military, structural engineering and simply how awesome it would be. Before we strap in to infinity and beyond, we’ll talk about three things: How do jetpacks work? What are the jetpacks of today capable of? Why should we maybe not have personal jetpacks?

The physics behind jetpacks are pretty simple. These rely on the conservation of momentum or   that says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Jetpacks (a lot like rockets) will spit out fuel, water, or air in one direction sending you off in the other direction. Fuel particles are very small and light, so they have to be sent out very fast to make up for the comparatively large weight of a human. The speed of tiny particles is another way of thinking about heat (higher temperature air has faster moving molecules than lower temperature air), so the exhaust of the jetpack is likely very hot.

 

Today’s jetpacks boast some impressive numbers. Some jetpacks are capable of flying nearly 10,000 feet (3050 meters) in the air at speeds of over 100 miles per hour (160kmph) using turbojets. Unfortunately the constraints on fuel mean that it is only operable for about 10 minutes at a time. Other designs run on gasoline with an effective range of about 10 miles (16 kilometers) with 28 minutes of flight time. These options are great, but if you’re concerned about your carbon footprint and still want the weightless flight experience there are aquatic variants. These, in somewhat cartoon fashion, strap you to a pair of giant firehoses that propels you about 30 feet (10 meters) into the sky.

 

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              Jetpack demo by Apollo Energy Gum in Denver, Colorado                  Photo: Jet Pack International

A big limitation on jetpacks come from the constraints of burning fuel. Jetpacks suffer the same problems as rockets in that they have to carry their heavy fuel with them. Making the jetpack heavier means more thrust is required to move it, requiring even more fuel. Fuel is heavy making the problem worse over again. Burning all this fuel will also unfortunately impact the environment and contribute to global warming unless we implement nuclear power in some way. However, as this Guardian op-ed points out, people are likely not going to enjoy being strapped to small nuclear reactors (no matter how cool Iron Man makes it look). Speaking of Iron Man, he showed us just how dangerous it can be when something goes wrong while flying miles above the surface.

Jetpacks are out there and it might not be too long before we begin to see them doing rescue or regulatory work. If you have deep pockets you can buy your very own jetpack and fly around for a few minutes which should be just long enough to impress your friends or an Olympics opening ceremony. The rest of us earthlings must look forward to high speed rail and autonomous vehicles to get us from place to place. I hate heights, so that’s fine by me.

 

Bryan Visser (Vice-President & Editor in Cheif)
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Bryan is a 3rd year graduate student studying DNA replication. He hopes to make a career in science advocacy, science journalism or science policy. In his free time, Bryan enjoys board games and ballroom dancing.

WE ARE GRAD STUDENTS, HEAR US ROAR!

Written by Ben

I have a riddle for you: I was not hired, but my boss can fire me. I am in school, but do not attend class. I earn credits each term, but not grades. My job is learning and I learn by working. I’m 27 years old, but I have never been unemployed, underemployed, or fully employed, nor have I ever been a part-time student, failed a class, or changed majors. Who am I?

And more practically, do I have the right to form a labor union with those like me?

I am a graduate student. But does that make me a student or employee? This is the riddle that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) answered last week, when it issued a ruling declaring that “students who perform services at a university in connection with their studies are statutory [(legally)] employees” according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This ruling overruled a previous ruling from 2004 (Brown University), which overruled an earlier decision from 2000 (New York University), which reversed a decision from 1974 (Stanford University), which ruled that “payments to the [research assistants] are in the nature of stipends and grants to permit them to pursue their advanced degrees and are not based on the skill or function of the particular individual.” This legal back-and-forth shows that many people don’t really understand who and what graduate students are.

The essential role of a student is to learn, and the essential role of an employee is to provide a service for their employer. A PhD student does a little of both. As a PhD student in Microbiology, I take courses and read scientific literature in order to learn what’s already known. But a huge part of my role is to add value to my institution by conducting novel research and publishing my findings, and this constitutes a full-time (or more than full-time) job that is compensated accordingly.

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“Piled Higher and Deeper” #1892 by Jorge Cham

 

My direct boss, the Principal Investigator (PI) of my lab, makes her career by publishing the science that comes from her lab in scientific journals. She doesn’t have time to conduct all the experiments that go into these publications, so, like any employer, she delegates tasks and assigns projects. Her job is to keep the lab funded, contribute to the success of her department, and oversee her employees. In this way, the PI-student relationship is just like any employer-employee relationship.   

The difference is that I work at a school, and this school has different rules for students and its other employees. Employees get time off, floating holidays, retirement plans, etc. Since there is no reason for undergraduate or medical students to get these benefits, why should graduate students? The argument against allowing graduate students to unionize is that collective bargaining would disrupt the educational relationship between students and school. This makes sense if you think about a union of students bargaining for easier graduation requirements.

But that’s not what is going to happen.

Graduate students at public universities have been allowed to unionize for years without ill effects (employees at public universities are considered government employees, and thus are not covered by the NLRB). Instead, students are going to bargain like employees: insisting that their work is properly compensated, having reasonable procedures in place for lodging complaints against faculty and administrative policies, and having the NLRB able to mediate disputes between parties.

The school’s goal is to have me graduate with a PhD, which happens to entail getting work done that is good for the school. That happens to be my goal as well, which brings us to the question, why would graduate students want to unionize?

The answer to that question is the same as it would be for other groups of workers: to not be taken advantage of! One of the biggest arguments for unions is that graduate students are often treated as cheap labor and are asked to teach classes for low compensation, no time off, few if any benefits, etc. For example, schools may pay graduate students the same amount for being the head teaching fellow of a large course as they would for teaching a small section of a course. A union could demand a fair pay scale based on class size or teaching hours required (e.g. class time + recitations + office hours).

While I personally don’t feel the need to start a graduate student workers union (my school has a graduate student council that represents us to the administration), there are many graduate students out there who feel their school does not address their needs.

So who am I?

I am a human being who wants best for my fellow human beings.

Because graduate students are, first and foremost, human beings, who deserve fair treatment.

Ben 
benBen is a sixth year PhD student in Virology and Microbiology. He plans on pursuing a career in Public Health after finishing his degree.