Monthly Archives: December 2015

Meditate Better by Leaning Your Head Back

I had started using Heartmath again after hearing a great podcast by Damien Blankensopp on paced breathing and its positive effects on the autonomic nervous system. As a result, I had started doing paced breathing sessions each morning for 20 minutes. That morning ritual provided a great source of data for experiments on how to meditate better.

My friend Dr. Keppen Laszlo is a chiropractor and I mentioned to him my work with heart rate variability (HRV). He suggested I could improve my HRV by leaning my head back during my measurement session. As he explained it to me, this head position relieves negative pressure on the nerves that are connected to respiration.

If following this advice led to more stable respiration and respiration is the foundation for increasing HRV, it would be possible to capture the improvement during my Heartmath sessions. I decided it was worth investigating.
Meditate Better

My Question

Would leaning my head back while doing paced breathing meditation increase my Heartmath scores?

What I Did

Each morning I do a paced breathing session for twenty minutes during which I measure my heart rate variability using Heartmath. A paced breathing session means that I breath use an app to ensure I breathe in for seven seconds and out for seven seconds during each respiratory cycle.

For twenty-one sessions, during each session, I either leaned my head back at an approximately thirty degree angle from the verticle or leaned it slightly forward based on a randomly generated instruction. I measured the differences in outcomes of these two head positions by comparing the resulting Heartmath scores.

How I Did It

During the paced breathing sessions I used Heartmath EMWave Pro to measure a score based on the resonance between my respiratory rate and my heart rate. Heartmath gives a score for the amount of time the heart rate frequency is near .1 Hz. When the meditation is more focussed this “meditators peak” is more pronounced.

At the end of each session, I divided the total Heartmath points generated during the entire session by the exact number of minutes and seconds yielding a Points/Minute score. Some sessions were a few seconds longer than 20 minutes and I wanted a precise comparison.

Prior to the twenty-one sessions, I generated a “0” or “1” randomly in a spreadsheet for each day of the study. On the days that a “0” was generated I leaned my head slightly forward during the session. On the days a “1” was generated I leaned my head back during the session.

When the twenty-one days was complete I separated the head forward and head back data into two sets that I then compared using a Student’s TTest. I also looked at and compared the averages.

What I Learned

Leaning my head back during meditation significantly improved my Heartmath measured meditation scores versus leaning my head forward.  Here are the averages for the two data sets:

Meditate Better

The TTest p value was = .0337. Anything less that .05 is a statistically significant result. There was a clear advantage to leaning my head back during the paced breathing meditation.

I was struck at how conventional wisdom on the standard meditation posture could create a misunderstanding.

Meditate Better

If the novice meditator tries to create an upright posture by pushing the back of the head up (at red arrow) the net effect would be the head leaning forward. This would reduce the ability to keep the respiration stable and have the reverse effect of what is desired in the meditation.

If you are a meditator looking to improve your practice, consider your head position. While keeping your back and torso upright relax the neck and ensure you are not leaning forward. This will stabilize your respiration and the positive from this will be more time in meditators peak and a more robust autonomic nervous system.

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Grounding Myself to Improve Disposition

I believe that we create our own reality in how we interpret and react to the world around us. If we have a positive interpretation, we find ourselves living in a positive world. If our disposition is negative, the world reflected back to us is negative. I’ve always been interested in how to reshape my own reactions to the world through regular routines similar to those we find in physical fitness programs.

Grounding Myself to Improve Disposition

Borrowing from the various lessons I have learned from Byron Katie’s The Work, Liberation Unleashed and the writings of Anthony DeMello, I decided to test a technique of grounding that looked more like doing repetitions in the gym than any once a week spiritual routine. I designed a fast way to ground myself in simple, sensation based direct experience using a survey as one “repetition” and did nine reps a day.

My Question

Could grounding myself in direct experience nine times a day change my overall disposition?

What I Did

I created a routine that I could easily repeat multiple times a day where I captured my mood, identified any negative thinking in the previous hour then regrounded myself in direct experience.  By filling out a web-based survey on my smart phone, I walked through this process in a pragmatic and easy way. The key was for me to identify my thinking, then ground myself in direct experience.

Direct experience is a sight, sound or felt sensation in a given moment. Thinking is everything else. For example, “sound of fan” is a direct experience of hearing a sound and “fan being on is costing me money” is my thinking assessment of my situation. Understanding the difference takes practice. The idea was to in each iteration of the exercise I would bring myself out of thinking or negative thoughts and bring myself to the experience of the current moment.

How I Did It

I created a Google form on my iPhone to capture my mood, an upsetting thought, and an observable direct experience when an alarm sounded. This simple survey I could fill out in under fifteen seconds.

The process would be that the alarm would sound, I would open the form and record my mood via a multiple choice question. I could rate myself as upset (1) to completely in flow and happy (5). The form also had text entry boxes where I would capture a negative thought or worry I had from the previous period and a noticing of direct experience in that moment I was recording these impressions.

I set the alarm for nine sessions a day and captured 317 sessions over a 45 day period.

What I Learned

Grounding myself in direct experience multiple times a day improved my overall disposition. Here is a graph of my disposition over the period of the experiment.

Grounding Myself to Improve Disposition

The trend line rises over the period. Though a 3 or 4 remained a consistent state most of the time, the number of 1’s and 2’s reduced, increasing my average. So I wasn’t becoming more euphoric, I was reducing the time I spent in a grumpy state.

I had a baseline of 200 mood readings prior to this experience for comparison. When I compared the 200 baseline readings with the 317 readings post test, I found a significant difference after the test was started: PValue

My average mood score had increased and comparing the two data sets using a Students T-Test there was a statistically significant difference in my disposition (P Value smaller than .05).

The lesson for me is that improving the tendency to be grounded in the moment can be trained, like any type of fitness.  By using the interruption of thinking with a very simple self-assessment process, I had created a repeatable exercise, and with sustained repetition of that exercise had gotten tangible results.

 

Using TDCS to Zap Subconscious Bias

A hot topic in Quantified Self (QS) circles is transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) and its ability to nudge the brain toward different types of growth. I wanted to see if I could start using TDCS to zap subconscious bias. The QS community has a love/hate relationship with TDCS. There are people who embrace it or those who slap a big warning label on it.  I decided to do my own tests to see what results I could get.

Paraphrasing Wikipdia: “TDCS uses a constant, low current delivered to the brain area of interest via electrodes on the scalp. TDCS can increase cognitive performance on a variety of tasks, depending on the area of the brain being stimulated. It has been utilized to enhance language and mathematical ability, attention span, problem solving, memory, and coordination.” This is not a photo of me, but when I do a TDCS session the application of direct current to my brain it looks like this:

Using TDCS to Zap Subconscious Bias

My Question

Could I use TDCS to change a subconscious bias?

What I Did

I took 21 subconscious bias tests while running TDCS (or not) based on a random schedule. The bias test was from a web instrument offered by Project Implicit of Harvard. You can take fourteen different tests to determine if you have a subconscious bias.

These tests can measure your bias with respect to weapons, skin tone, religion, sexual orientation, etc. I am purposely not going to report on which bias I measured so the topic of this study remains altering the subconscious vs which biases I might have. If you are curious about your own biases I recommend you try a test.

How I Did It

I generated a “0” or “1” randomly in a spreadsheet for each day I was going to do the tests. On the days that a “0” was generated I took the bias test without modification by TDCS. On the days a “1” was generated I took the test while applying TDCS.

When applying TDCS I used a commercial TDCS device to apply 2 milliamps of current to my prefrontal cortex. There are over 50,000 “montages” (placements) for TDCS electrodes so I chose a common and straightforwad one that reportedly improves learning rates. Here are the placements for the montage:

Using TDCS to Zap Subconscious BiasAfter taking the test, I translated the result of “strong, moderate, slight or no” bias into numbers (1 – 5) that would allow me to run the math on whether there was a statistically significant change to my bias when applyint TDCS.

What I Learned

Direct application of current to the learning area of the prefrontal cortex did not immediately alter my subconscious bias during that session. Over time, either due to TDCS stimulus or my getting “better” at taking the test, my subconscious bias was reduced.

When I compared those sessions where I was either using TDCS or not, I ran a Student’s T-Test on the two groups of results. The result showed the groups were not statistically different with a p-value of .38. If the p-value was under .05 the results would have been significant. This means the use of TDCS in a session did not change the bias in that session.

When I looked at the scores over time, a trend emerged. It appeared that over time my bias decreased. Here are my scores over the 21 sessions:

Using TDCS to Zap Subconscious Bias

The trend goes down. So either I learned how to take the test more efficiently or the TDCS had an effect. The tests are designed to not be modified by conscious effort so any learning is likely to have been at a subconscious level.

There is more work to do. The theory is that the TDCS current nudges the brain toward more plasticity while learning. I was not learning other than taking the test multiple times. An alternate test would be to apply TDCS while learning something new about the bias. This first study provided the basis for future views, but did not deliver a complete result. So goes science and so goes Quantified Self.