September Neuroscience Roundup for Mindful Leaders

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by The Mindful Leader Team

For this month’s Round-Up, we dive into the science behind TikTok’s #vagusnerve obsession and explore how VR can help us achieve a psychedelic-like trip. We also look at transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings, the newly proposed psychological diagnosis of  “maladaptive daydreaming”, and why restoration skills training (ReST) might be a better option than conventional mindfulness training (CMT). We have summarized the main ideas and key takeaways below with links to the full articles.

Vagus Nerve Stimulation: This Lifestyle “Hack” Claims to Alleviate Anxiety. But Does it Actually Work?     

Among the latest fads to sweep social media is #vagusnervestimulation. Content creators across TikTok and Instagram have posted videos explaining how to stimulate your vagus nerve to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and more. While trends such as “vagus nerve tapping” (tapping your chest to activate your vagus nerve) aren’t necessarily backed by science, there is a lot of scientific evidence that vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can successfully engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and coaxes our bodies to relax. The vagus nerve consists of two bundles of nerves that run from the brainstem to the abdomen, each of which contains around 80,000 nerve fibers. Collectively, these nerves communicate motor and sensory information between the brain and the organs, helping to coordinate our immune system and inflammatory responses.

Key Points:

  • Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is the process of using either a handheld external device or implant to apply electrical impulses to the vagus nerve. This stimulates the nerve, sending the signal to the brain and other organ systems throughout the body, including those responsible for coordinating the inflammatory response in the spleen.
  • VNS has successfully been used to treat a wide range of inflammatory conditions, including epilepsy, depression, opioid withdrawal, IBS, and most recently, PTSD, but it’s still unclear the exact mechanism(s) by which VNS works. 
  • You can stimulate the vagus nerve, and therefore activate the parasympathetic nervous system, without the use of devices, but what works for some, does not necessarily work for others. Some of the techniques that have shown success include meditation and breathwork, exercise, and cold water immersion (or cold stimulation on the neck/chest)

Read the full article here

Restoration skills training in a natural setting compared to conventional mindfulness training: sustained advantages at a 6-month follow up    

When it comes to mindfulness training, restoration skills training (ReST), a course during which participants are taught to draw support from a natural practice setting, is generally seen as less demanding than conventional mindfulness based (CMT). Prior research has indicated that ReST overcomes the compliance problems of CMT (i.e. people will continue to follow through with their mindfulness practice after the course ends) with no decrease in benefits obtained, as far as five weeks after the course has ended. In this study, researchers surveyed participants to see if the same were true after six months.

Key Points:

  • Even after six months, ReST participants continued to demonstrate higher dispositional mindfulness and fewer cognitive lapses than prior to taking the course. 
  • Analysis revealed no significant disadvantage of taking ReST in place of CMT. In fact, 92% of ReST participants continued with at least occasional practice, as compared to only 67% of CMT participants.
  • Collectively, these findings indicated that participants who completed the less-demanding ReST did not lose the benefits of the course after six months. Rather, they continued to use their skills and benefit from the improved psychological functioning gained during their training. 

Read the full article here

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence.    

A self-transcendent experience is characterized by the dissolution of the self, in which you cease to identify as a discrete entity separate from others and the environment. Instead, your self-concept expands to encompass everything and everyone around you, fostering intense feelings of unity and connectedness. Meditation, near-death experiences, and psychedelics can all lead to such an experience, and now, virtual reality (VR) may be another pathway. Artist and computational molecular physicist David Glowacki created his VR experience “Isness-D” in the hopes of replicating the experience of self-transcendence. During the experience, four to five participants from around the world join together in what he calls “energetic coalescence” — each person is virtually represented as a cloud of smoke and light, so when they all gather in the same virtual landscape, the boundaries of self overlap and diffuse together into one collective self. 

Key Points:

  • The VR experience “Isness-D” elicited an emotional response indistinguishable from participants who had taken a medium dose of either LSD or psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms). 
  • Psychedelics have demonstrated remarkable clinical benefits for treating depression, OCD, addiction, and other mental health conditions, which is believed to result from both the subjective experience and neurochemical effect of the trip. While Isness-D has successfully replicated the subjective experience of psychedelics, it’s unclear if the same clinical benefits will emerge from such VR experiences, given that the neurochemical component is absent.

Read the full article here

Transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings associated with prosocial tendencies    

Using a lab-in-the-field approach, a team of researchers examined the psychological aspects of transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings, particularly as they related to prosocial behaviors and moral expansion in the long-term. Data was collected from participants at six secular multi-day mass gatherings (more than 500 people in attendance and no explicitly religious component) across the US and UK, both during the events and after six months. Self-reports of a transformative experience, both with and without the use of psychedelics, were common at these mass events and remained at six months follow-up. Importantly, psychedelic substance use was more strongly associated with changes in perception of reality and self, which suggests that psychedelic-induced transformative experiences differ in significant ways from those elicited solely by attending a mass gathering.

Key Points:

  • The most prevalent features of transformative experiences were socially-oriented in nature, mainly increased feelings of connectedness between the self and all human beings. 
  • Participants showed higher moral expansion (expanding the boundary of one’s “moral circle” beyond one’s group to encompass more and more of humanity) with each passing day.
  • Generosity was not correlated with transformative experience, but long-term changes in moral orientation were. 

Read the full article here

‘I just go into my head and enjoy it’: the people who can’t stop daydreaming    

While everyone experiences brief moments of mind-wandering, a small subset of individuals find themselves completely absorbed in complex daydreams for hours on end. It’s a psychological phenomenon that clinical psychologist Eli Somer has coined “maladaptive daydreaming”, which, he argues, needs to be formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder. Those who engage in maladaptive daydreaming enter into complex, detailed, and compulsive mental fantasies, often as a means to escape negative emotions like fear and pain. Individuals engage in such daydreaming voluntarily, which separates it from other forms of psychosis. However, for many people, these super-rewarding, ultra-compelling fantasies form a kind of addiction, negatively interfering with their daily life and mental health.

Key Points

  • In a study of maladaptive daydreamers, participants reported increased negative emotions on days of excessive daydreaming. Another study found that maladaptive daydreamers were more likely to develop higher levels of depression and anxiety. Together, these suggest that while it offers short-term escape, it does not help solve the root problems causing their distress.
  • Early research indicates that as many as 1 in 40 people may experience maladaptive daydreaming, with it being even more prevalent in people with ADD/ADHD. One study found that among those with maladaptive daydreaming, 77% also had ADHD.
  • It’s still unclear how best to treat maladaptive daydreaming, but based on the findings of a yet-unpublished clinical study by Somer, cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training appear promising. 

Read the full article here


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