This Is Your Brain on Meditation

Friday, November 17, 2017

By Shannon Stockwell

Meditation is having its heyday in the Western world these days. Many people, from sports figures (Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll) to CEOs (Oprah Winfrey), espouse the benefits of taking a few moments out of each day to breathe, be still, and be in the moment. There are several reasons why people turn to meditation. In fact, mindfulness—the practice of being aware of one’s self and surroundings—has so many supposed benefits, it might seem at first glance to be nothing more than a pseudoscientific fad. But researchers around the world have been studying meditation using scientific methods and have made some surprising and convincing discoveries about its effectiveness, particularly the way that it can cause physical changes in the human brain.

Monk Barry Kerzin meditating with an electroencephalogram for neuroscience research.
Photo by Antoine Lutz. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In 2003, a group of scientists led by University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologist Richard J. Davidson performed a study on a group of 25 people who took part in an eight-week mindfulness course. Their brain activity was measured before and after the course. The 25 participants were compared to a control group which was measured at the same times. The scientists discovered that the meditators had significant increases in a process called “left-sided anterior activation,” which is associated with an increase in positive emotions. This may be why meditation is such an effective treatment for mental illnesses that are marked by a decrease in positive emotions.

Meditators have also claimed that their mindfulness practice has contributed to lower levels of stress. A 2013 study done by researchers in Pennsylvania found that the amygdala (two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located in the inner part of both hemispheres of the brain) shrinks in the brains of meditators. When faced with a stressful situation, the amygdala sends messages to the body, instructing it to release hormones (such as adrenaline) that cause the “fight or flight” response. It may be that the more robust the amygdala is, the more powerful the response. In meditators, however, the amygdala tends to be smaller, which might mean that they are better able to allow the more rational parts of their brains to control their responses to stressful situations, allowing meditators to remain calm under pressure.

Also investigating the connection between meditation and serenity, a group of researchers led by UCLA neuroscientist Dr. Eileen Luders studied the brains of a group of 44 meditators. Luders and her researchers discovered greater amounts of gray matter in the right orbital-frontal cortex and the right hippocampus. Both of these regions are associated with emotional regulation and response control, offering a physical explanation for why meditation helps practitioners to remain calm and positive.

Meditation, therefore, seems to have a positive effect on mental health. Why can't we know for certain? Because, when all is said and done, we still don’t quite understand exactly how the brain works. But maybe the connection between meditation and the brain can provide a clue.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the neuroscience of mindfulness and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Art Imitating Life: Mindfulness and the Cast of Small Mouth Sounds

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

For the seven actors in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, the line between their characters and themselves is easily blurred. “What’s wonderful about Bess’s play is that the actor and the character are charged with the same challenge,” says Brad Heberlee, who played Ned in the 2016 off-Broadway production. “Each character has ostensibly come to the retreat to listen and be present to the lesson of the Teacher, and at the end of the day, the actors [in the production] are there to achieve the same goal.”

Ben Beckley as Ned in A.C.T.'s production of Small Mouth Sounds.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
That sense of being in the moment is critical to mindfulness in acting. This awareness asks performers to be wholly engrossed in what they are doing in that exact moment. Small Mouth Sounds director Rachel Chavkin echoes this idea. She believes that many actors forget how riveting it can be to just “be” onstage. “Trust the silence and be present,” she says. “That’s compelling.”

A.C.T.’s production of Small Mouth Sounds is the second stop on a seven-month tour of the show, which has presented challenges and opportunities for the actors. Many actors aren’t given the chance to stay with a character or a cast for such a long amount of time. This length of time enables an actor to dive deep into their character, but it also requires a certain headspace to keep a role fresh each night for several months. “This is a challenging show. It’s different every night,” says Ben Beckley, who plays Ned on the 2017–2018 tour. “I write an intention for every performance to stay grounded. Every day our cast is listening to each other—and like the characters—trying to stay present while different things are emotionally resonating with us.”

For Orville Mendoza, who plays the retreat’s unseen teacher, performing in Small Mouth Sounds has helped to put him more in touch with his meditative side. “I’ve really delved into learning about meditation and mindfulness,” he says. “First it was only research, but now I’ve discovered the real benefit it gives me day to day.” Before each show, Mendoza meditates in the backstage sound booth where he performs his voice-overs during the play. “It feels like a cocoon and I treat it like a sacred space,” says Mendoza.

Connor Barrett as Jan in A.C.T.'s production of Small Mouth Sounds.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
It’s all about the journey for Connor Barrett, who plays Jan in A.C.T.’s production. “What’s most exciting about being a part of this play is getting to see how our storytelling will deepen over these next five months,” he says. “I’ve never done a play for this amount of time, so I think it’ll be a great challenge and I feel lucky to get to do that with this particular group of people. To me, Small Mouth Sounds is not just a play—it is a ritual.”

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about mindfulness and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Transcendental Meditation in the Halls of A.C.T.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

By Michael Paller

William Ball, founder and first artistic director of A.C.T., had a metaphysical side and was drawn to techniques of meditation for both spiritual and practical reasons. At the all-company meeting that opened the 1982 season and school year, he spoke about the light inside each student. That light was guarded by fear, which had to be overcome before the light—the source of their individual talent—could shine. “Fear is an illusion,” he said, “it is non-productive, it is non-meaningful to us and since it is . . . not a help to us we supersede it. In overcoming a fear we have to trust that nobody is going to hurt the sensitiveness of that light. . . . We create standards of self-discipline that will cause us to respect that sensitivity.”

William Ball. Photo by William Ganslen. 
Part of that self-discipline was Transcendental Meditation (TM), which had been brought to the West by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1959, and popularized by the Beatles in 1968, just after A.C.T. arrived in San Francisco. Everyone at A.C.T., from students to company members to staff, was encouraged to take up TM.

For Ball, TM was not only a way to dissolve fear and other barriers to creativity, it was also a practical technique for actors. Experiencing stressful emotional situations, Ball told the students, is what an actor does. However, unlike a musician, who can put her instrument down and walk away when she’s done, an actor is often left with the stressful emotions she experienced while performing. TM, Ball said, enabled actors to purge those emotions. “Meditation is a technique that will free you of the encumbrance of accumulated stress. That’s why we introduce it as an acting technique.” It had the added benefit, he believed, of adding to one’s quality of life.

To that end, a room on the fifth floor of the company’s headquarters across the street from The Geary was dedicated to meditation. No work was to be done there, Ball told the students; it was strictly for meditation and rest. Everyone at A.C.T. was encouraged to try it. Many found it beneficial and continued to practice it long after leaving the company. Others were less taken with what they regarded as its cultish aspects, including the practice of placing an offering of a flower and a piece of fruit on an altar during the earnest ceremony in which each participant received a mantra from the TM instructor.

Judy (Cherene Snow) reads her partner Joan's mantra in A.C.T.'s production of Small Mouth Sounds.
When an instructor refused an actor’s request to change his mantra, stage manager Jim Haire (who eventually became the company’s producing director) rebelled. He announced to the instructor that he’d taken it on himself to change his mantra to “tiko-tiko”—the title of the Brazilian song that became an American pop hit in the 1940s, sung by Carmen Miranda and the Andrews Sisters. The instructor was appalled. The company was amused. There is no record of Ball’s reaction.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about meditation and the production? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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