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Are you ready to feel like a kid again? Try this childhood play meditation.

You’re invited to try a 12-minute meditation about childhood play, designed by MSU Media and Information professor Carrie Heeter.  Revisit a piece of your childhood as you learn about play and about yourself.

The Childhood Play meditation was part of a workshop at the Meaningful Play conference in early October.  People who came to Meaningful Play share a deep love of games and the magical idea of play. The workshop used meditation as a tool for attendees to connect with and explore unique nuances of their personal experience of play.

Heeter is a game designer, user experience designer, and a meditation expert.  The meditations she teaches could be considered “yoga for the mind.” The meditations combine breath, gentle movements, and mental focus. Careful sequencing helps you relax the body and quiet the mind. This prepares you to connect with a meaningful play experience.

No prior meditation or yoga experience is needed.

You want to have room to be able to stand, to raise your arms up from the front and up from the side, and bend forward. You want enough space to be on the floor on your hands and knees. And you want to have a chair handy when it comes time to sit comfortably.

People who did the meditation at the workshop found it easy to do.  If any instruction does not feel comfortable for you, don’t do it.  Remember that you can stop at any time.

The meditations Heeter teaches are designed to be emergent. Her guidance help set a general direction, but every person has their own experience. Something shows up for you. It can be fascinating to observe what emerges – what you learn about yourself and about your experience of play.

Game designers and game design students think about and work with the idea of play all the time.  They could benefit from doing the Childhood Play meditation to gain a different kind of understanding of play, one that is very personal.

Other grow-ups, even those who are not game designers, may enjoy “feeling like a kid at play” again for a little while.

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Breath Impacts Cerebralspinal fluid

by Carrie Heeter, spring 2018

The system of yoga and meditation that I study and practice uses attention to breath and conscious breath control to change the state of the system and focus the mind. A high speed MRI study revealed one of the powerful ways breath affects the brain.

Cerebralspinal fluid (CSF) carries immune cells throughout the brain and removes waste and toxins.

When CSF flow is impeded, the brain can become suffused with inflammatory immune cells. This process may play a key role in traumatic brain injury, auto-immune diseases like multiple sclerosis and neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

CSF flow, long believed to be influenced by heart beat, has been shown to be much more heavily impacted by breath.

Specifically, CSF flow increases during inhale and slows during exhale.

For all subjects in this high-speed MRI study, “inspiration was the dominant influence of CSF flow.” Some individuals have a stronger heart rate influence on CSF flow than others.  But for everyone, breath was the dominant influence on CSF flow. Continue reading

Focused Attention and Open Monitoring Meditation

by Carrie Heeter, PhD, May 25, 2017

As a student, practitioner, designer, and researcher of meditation, I am interested in scientific findings about meditation and the curious methods scientists use to arrive at those findings.

In this blog I write about a recent neuroimaging (fMRI) brain scan study of the relationships between mind-wandering and focused attention meditation.

A different team of neuroscientists explored underlying neural circuitry of two distinct forms of meditation —  Focused Attention (FA) meditation, on a specific, chosen object versus Open Monitoring (OM) meditation, where attention focuses on the experience from moment to moment. (Lutz et al., 2008).

Research Questions

Scheibner and colleagues (2017) wondered whether Focused Attention meditation when the object of attention was internal (in this study, breath) had the same or different effects on mind-wandering as when the object of attention was external (in this study, sound).

Mind-wandering (thinking about anything other than present moment experiences) is known as the Default Mode neural Network (DMN).  Mind-wandering is what human minds tend to do in a resting state, and also throughout the rest of life.  For the most part, ruminating about the past and worrying about the future are not beneficial to health, well-being, or happiness. Continue reading

Meditation, Compassion and Compassion Fatigue

by Carrie Heeter, Ph.D., November 11, 2014

“Compassion” appears 228 times in the 120 page program for the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, which I attended recently in Boston. Sessions related to compassion included meditation practice led by masters and presentations of research findings by top scientists from neuroscience, psychology, clinical science, the humanities, philosophy, and education.

I’ve always casually aspired to approach life with compassion and kindness, until now without ever thinking deeply about what that means.

In this blog post I explore ideas related to compassion and compassion fatigue among health care professionals inspired by three of the myriad fascinating talks. This is not the only or the most interesting takeaway from the conference, but has big societal importance and it relates to a grant proposal I’m working on.

I think of health care professionals, and especially nurses, as professionally compassionate. It was upsetting to learn that burnout and compassion fatigue are extremely common among nurses and physicians. 30% of primary care interns will leave the field within their first 5 years. 61% of palliative care clinicians experience burnout, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization. Health care workers, administrators, and academics are aware of the extent of the problem, but I wasn’t. Continue reading

Meditation May Help With Depression and Anxiety

By Carrie Heeter, Ph.D, August 23, 2014

High users of health services drive up health care costs. Individuals who are anxious and depressed often focus on and worry about physical sensations and symptoms. As a result, they may seek out health care appointments sooner and more often than necessary to maintain health.

A recent 8 year retrospective analysis of health care utilization comparing high users of health services who were treated with Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and patients who received other forms of group in a Canadian hospital system found a significant reduction in health care utilization in the year following MBCT treatment (Kurdyak, Newman, and Sengal, 2014).  Specifically, the researchers found one fewer non-mental health visit per year for every two MBCT patients treated.

The researchers analyzed hospital system billing records between 2003 and 2010 and were able to identify and compare 10,633 patients of MCBT physicians and psychiatrists to 29,795 patients of non-MBCT physicians and psychiatrists.  (The non-MBCT patients would have experienced group therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy, and/or psychodynamic group psychotherapy).  Among patients in the study who were high utilizers of health care, MBCT resulted in a reduction in non-mental health service utilization, and also resulted in fewer psychiatrist visits in the year following therapy. Continue reading

A Biological Mind Control Device

By Carrie Heeter, PhD, February 17, 2014

New neuroimaging research documents dramatic effects of an embedded brain controlling device: our eyes.

Neuroscientists have been examining what parts of the brain are activated when eyes are open (EO) compared to brain activation when eyes are closed (EC). It turns out that opening your eyes, even in a totally dark room, instantly changes how your brain operates.

People who meditate experience this shift when they begin a meditation by sitting comfortably and closing their eyes. Other forms of meditation, such as walking meditations, occur with eyes open. All of us have convenient access to eyes we can experiment with opening and closing while we reading this blog about the latest research. Continue reading

Why I Study Presence

by Carrie Heeter, February  10, 2014

In the early 1990s I designed and studied virtual reality experiences. My generation dreamed of VR experiences as real as Star Trek’s holodeck. (For newer people, think The Matrix or Avatar.) Our goal was to design systems and experiences so real you felt like you were actually inside of the virtual world. VR experiences often required a $150,000 system, including heavy, bulky 3D immersive headsets, position trackers, lots of wires, and expensive computers.

In 2014 my company, Mindtoon Lab, designs and studies  meditation experiences, played inside of your body and mind with eyes closed. But I’m still fascinated by many of the same issues.  Technologically mediated experiences and meditation experiences both involve designed experiences, and both ultimately depend upon the experiencer.

My VR experiences were built with the Mandala Second Person VR system, using a video camera and blue screen chromakey key to separate the person from the background and insert them into a computer-generated scene.  Edge detection software could be programmed to react when their body touched a virtual animated object. (Today, Microsoft’s Kinect and other systems do the same and more.)

Heeter et al. 3D Undersea VR Experience, exhibited at CyberArts, 1990

Players stood in front of a blue screen looking at a 3D camera and a large screen. They saw video of themselves on the large screen, inside of 3D “undersea” video recorded at the Monterrey aquarium.  A small animated octopus swam into view. When it reached the player, it grabbed onto whatever body part it touched, held on, and made a gurgling sound.  If you moved slowly, it moved with you. If you moved quickly, you shook it off and it swam away.  After a while, a much larger octopus showed up and the interaction happened again. Continue reading

Mediation Moves Attention from Narrative to Experiential

by Carrie Heeter, February 2, 2014

Wandering minds are distracted from the present moment by stream of consciousness narratives. Brain scans show that the default mode of resting attention in western society resembles a wandering mind. We habitually allow our experience of the present moment to be interrupted and superseded by thoughts and rumination about the past and future.

Adapted from Daniel Siegel’s Mindsight Institute Wheel of Awareness

Recent research shows that focusing attention on stream of consciousness narrative (NF) such as memory and reflective self-knowledge uses a separate neural pathway than focusing attention on sensory experience of the present moment (EF). According to neuropsychologist Norm Farb, there is a fundamental neural disconnect between these two distinct modes of self-awareness. Continue reading

Meditation Changes Brains

by Carrie Heeter, 1/27/2014

Media effects scientists study immediate and long term effects of media exposure such as playing video games. Some of those effects are positive.  For example, playing World of Warcraft quests as a member of a guild over time improves leadership skills.  Playing first person shooter games before surgery improves doctors’ laparoscopic surgery skills. We call these effects “incidental” because the games were not designed to result in those outcomes.

Meditation effects scientists study incidental effects of meditation.  What they are finding is more dramatic and stranger than anything I have seen in three decades of media effects research.  Let’s look at three recent studies published in Psychological Science in 2013 that examined incidental effects of a mere two (or for one study, eight) weeks of beginning mindfulness meditation practice.

Study 2: Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering

Continue reading

Meditation and Higher Education

by Carrie Heeter, 1/19/2014

Scientific methods used to study yogic-meditative practices document wonderful outcomes but ignore the process and experience of meditation. Today I write about a review of empirical evidence of how meditation practices complement and enhance higher education, conducted by Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2011). They identified three primary rationales for incorporating meditation into higher education: 1.) Improving Cognition and Academic Performance; 2.) Improving Mental Health and Psychological Well-Being; and 3.) Development of the Whole Person.

Within the outcome of improved cognition, the authors reviewed four empirical studies of the effect of meditation on attention, where meditators were compared with control groups. Three of those administered standard psychological tests to measure attention, and one used fMRI brain scans. Four experiments examining the impact of meditation on information processing were reviewed. This section concluded by describing an experiment in which subjects randomly assigned to a semester-long meditation intervention had significantly higher GPAs at the end of the semester. Continue reading

Why A Neuroscientist Studies Meditation

by Carrie Heeter, 1/12/2014

In a TEDxTalk posted in July, 2011, Professor Willoughby Britton talks about the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience, which is neuroscience applied to studying the family of mental training practices in major religions of the world designed to cultivate positive qualities of mind. One of these qualities of mind is attention. being able to bring your attention back to an object that you are intending to pay attention to.  Her work focuses on empirical study of meditation.

She referenced Killingsworth’s 2010 study, “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” published in Science, November 12.  A pervasive tendency or habit of mind is that we do not pay attention to what we are doing, nearly 50% of the time, and doing things while the mind wanders makes us less happy than when we are paying attention to what we are doing. Continue reading