Your Brain, Your Body, Your Meditation

By Chris Fields


by Alison Tinsley and Chris Fields

A thought pops into your head. Where did it come from? Why did it arrive now? And most importantly, what are its consequences for you and what you’re doing?

Everyone has a “stream of consciousness” consisting of more-or-less uninterrupted experience: thoughts, images, sounds, emotions, pains, feelings of being cold or hungry or exasperated or whatever. What we experience obviously affects what we do and vice-versa. Most of that experience, however, is not remembered and cannot be recalled. Most people do not remember their dreams or what they had for dinner last Thursday, and hardly anyone can answer the question “What were you doing at 3:35 PM on Monday, June 16, 2014?” without consulting their diary. Most people “blank out” for long periods of time even when they aren’t sleeping. Have you ever arrived at the grocery store with no memory of the drive from home? Psychologists call this ability to do things (even complicated, dangerous, attention-demanding things like driving a car) without noticing or remembering what we’re doing “automaticity.” The rest of us call it being on “auto-pilot” and, of course, only notice it when we’re reminded of it.

Meditation asks us to do something with our stream of consciousness that sounds impossible: we’re supposed to be mindful and pay attention and at the same time let it go, whatever it is, and allow the mind to relax into silence. We’re supposed to pay attention, in other words, while working – and it’s work! – toward a state of mind in which there’s nothing to pay attention to. Sages and self-help books tell us that doing this will make us happier, better people, and now legions of doctors tell us that it’s good for our health. “Huh?” is a perfectly natural response to all this advice. How could something so hard and unnatural-sounding be good for us?

Twenty years ago, practically nothing was known about why meditation might be good for you. Now we know a lot. Understanding it requires delving into a bit of neuroscience and what’s now called “systems biology,” the far more integrated view of what organisms are and how they work that grew out of two massive science projects from the 1990s, the Human Genome Project and the Decade of the Brain. This chapter touches on some high points of this new understanding. It explains how what works for you depends on your brain, your body, and your history of experiences in the world.

Before delving into the details, though, it’s important to get a non-detail out of the way. Rivers of ink have been spilled on the chicken-and-egg problem of which came first, matter or experience? It’s easy to become paralyzed worrying about whether experience is produced by the brain (as most neuroscientists assume) or the brain, body and external world are just aspects of experience (as philosophers have argued for millenia). The good news is, you don’t need to pick a side in this endless debate to understand how meditation works or why it is good for you. We’ll talk about what your brain is doing when you experience something or other, and leave it at that.

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Try this experiment: close your eyes for a few seconds, and then open them again. What just happened? You opened your eyes and your experience suddenly changed, from whatever it was before you opened your eyes (counting seconds, thinking this is dumb . . .) to a bright, vivid visual image of whatever you’re looking at right now. In your brain, two things happened. First, the entire area in the back of your head, your occipital cortex, became suddenly re-activated after a few seconds of not much going on back there. Second, your attention immediately refocused on the new visual input. Human beings are highly visually oriented creatures, and sudden changes in what the world looks like generally grab our attention.

Now ask yourself: where did the new visual experience, the one you had immediately after opening your eyes, come from? Your stream of consciousness was happily streaming along when your eyes were closed, counting seconds, thinking or whatever, and then suddenly – wham! – there’s a bright vivid image in there. How did it get there?

One obvious answer is: the world put it there. We all know the story: light that’s been bouncing around in the world hits our eyes, our optic nerves send signals to our brains, and we see something. It’s important to us to know what’s going on in the world, and the world conveniently tells us, by sending light into our eyes. Sometimes it sends sound waves into our ears, aromatic chemicals into our noses, tasty items of food into our mouths, and objects of one kind or other to touch our skin. Our five senses – vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch – are the ways that the world lets us know what’s going on.

When you think about it a bit, though, it’s pretty clear that this standard story can’t be all there is to it. Right now you’re looking at a page of print, and you’re seeing words. Not colored pixels or little blobs of ink, or even individual letters, though you can switch to seeing those if you try. But what about 两种时空线索条件下表面颜色特征线索对客体保持的作用? Unless you read Chinese, you are seeing characters you recognize as written language, but without knowing where the word boundaries are or what any of the characters mean, there is no understanding. Now try reading this: WITHOUTSPACESITISHARDERTOREADENGLISH. You can read it, maybe with a little effort, because you can mentally add spaces and hence create boundaries between words.

Now look around. If you’re in a typical human-inhabited environment, virtually everything you see has some meaning to you: furniture, art, other people, or, if you happen to be outside, trees, houses, the beach. To see this meaning, however, you have to visually distinguish the objects around you from the undifferentiated “background” of the world. You must, in other words, identify the objects that you see as things before you can see them as meaningful things. Your brain does this separation from the background for you automatically, except in rare cases like picking out the boundary of a distant seashore on a foggy day, when it might take some conscious effort. But in every case, these boundaries are being added by you.

Once you have added boundaries to the objects in the world, you can add meaning: seeing a particular bounded object as a person, and then as a specific, individual person, and then as a specific, individual person with whom you have an important emotional relationship. Your brain, thankfully, generally does this addition of meaning to the objects that you see automatically too, though in some cases you have to think, how do I know this person? Neuroscientists who study vision and visual object identification have a good understanding of how this largely automated addition of object boundaries and meaning to the visual inputs that the world gives you works. What is important here, however, is merely that it works and that you do it.

Close your eyes for a few seconds again, and let any idea at all pop into your head. The chances are very good that the thought you just had was both about something and meaningful. Your imagination constructs such thoughts with no trouble at all. What is imagination? One of the greatest discoveries of the past 20 years in neuroscience, due in large part to visual neuropsychologist Steven Kosslyn and his colleagues, is that your brain does not have an “imagination system.” When you imagine something in a thought, you’re activating the same parts of your brain that are activated when you’re identifying something that you see, hear, or touch as a “thing” that is meaningful. When you imagine a visual scene or a conversation, in other words, you’re doing the very same thing that you’re doing when you look at a scene or talk to someone, just without any help from the world.

With this in mind, we can start to make sense of meditation. Quieting the mind is turning the volume down on this process of constructing boundaries and adding meaning. Turning down these processes has a large, immediate effect on the brain, which in turn has several side effects. Let’s talk about the main effect first.

The key to understanding the main effect of meditation on the brain is to notice that what is meaningful to me is meaningful to me and what is meaningful to you is meaningful to you. When I see Alison, for example, my brain instantly reactivates lots of information about my life, because everything I know about Alison, everything that contributes meaning to my seeing her, I learned through one of my experiences. Indeed, everything that you or I or anyone know about anything was gained through some experience. We tend to remember emotional events, not run-of-the-mill events; it’s being emotional that makes an event important. When you see and recognize someone or something, hear a song, notice an aroma, or feel a touch, the meaning that you give it is largely an emotional meaning, and it is an emotional meaning tied to your life, your history, your loves, fears, hopes, worries, likes and dislikes, goals, and things you’d just as soon avoid. This role of emotion in meaning may seem obvious. It was, however, major news to mainstream cognitive science when neurologist Antonio Damasio published his landmark book Descartes’ Error in 1994.

Turning the volume down on the construction of boundaries and addition of meaning, either in your sensory interactions with the world or in your imagination, thus turns down your personal, emotional response to what you are sensing or imagining. It makes what you are sensing or imagining less “about you” and hence less attractive and exciting on the one hand, or scary and worrisome on the other. It makes you, in other words, less “reactive” in either the positive or negative direction. Within your brain, this turning down of the “me-related” emotional volume corresponds to a de-activation of what neuroscientists call the “default system” (sometimes also called the “intrinsic system”), a network of brain regions and connections that couples your sensory, emotional, and decision-making systems to your sense of self. This network was first characterized in the early 2000s, and working out its basic functions took much of the following decade. Studies of the effects of meditation on default-network activity were already being reported by 2007. Typing “default network meditation” into Google Scholar™, a search engine for the scientific literature, now yields 13,000 entries. Searching on “meditation neuroscience” yields over 25,000.

Turning the default network down allows at least four things to happen – the “side effects” of meditation mentioned earlier. First, it often allows thoughts that you didn’t know you had to “bubble up” to the surface of your awareness. These are frequently useful thoughts – creative ideas, solutions to problems you’ve been worried about, memories you haven’t been able to access – that have been there, but haven’t been strong enough to compete with the constant, emotion-laden, me-relevant boundary-drawing and meaning-making. Second, it allows sensations – often sensations indicating what some internal part of the body is doing – that have been there but been too subtle to compete with the emotional noise to rise to the surface. Meditation, in other words, allows your attention to find and focus on information that you didn’t know you had.

Because meditation turns down the process of drawing boundaries, it also allows you to see the world as having fewer of them. Many of the meditators we’ve talked to in this book have emphasized experiences of “oneness,” “union,” or “non-duality” as important components of their practices. Finally, turning down the default system turns down the association of emotions with “me,” allowing them to become associated with others and, as the self-imposed boundaries disappear, with the world itself. Practices such as loving-kindness that specifically focus on this broadening of emotion to the rest of the world are designed to enhance empathy, but greater empathy and a sense of warm connection to the world can be expected to follow any practice that turns “me” down.

It is easy to see how these four side effects of meditation could contribute to greater health and well-being. We tend to be happier and to generally feel better when we are being creative, solving problems, and remembering things we want to remember. Those subtle, easy-to-miss signals from your body – how your heart feels, how your gut feels, how your muscles and joints feel – are important indicators of what’s right and what might be needing some attention. Feeling one with and empathetically in love with the world is the classic mystical, ecstatic experience. And empathy toward others motivates kindness, which often leads to love and kindness in return.

How will these side effects appear in your experience? It depends on how your particular brain is connected. And that, in turn, depends on every aspect of your life experience, including your experience in the womb before you were born. Everything you see and do, everything you eat, every conversation you have, book you read, movie you watch, flower you smell, and day you spend wandering in the woods re-wires your brain. So does every stressful meeting at work or argument with your spouse. We don’t know what our brains are doing most of the time – try recalling exactly how to ride a bicycle, compose a sentence with a dependent clause, or sign your name. And these are the simple things: your brain is also managing your digestion, coordinating your immune system, and regulating the size of every blood vessel in your body to efficiently deliver oxygen to where it is most needed, 24 hours a day. So you can’t predict how your brain will respond when you sit down to meditate, and no one else can either. Every session is an experiment, a let’s-see-what-happens-this-time exploration.

Your brain, moreover, is by no means the whole story. The revolution in neuroscience over the past two decades is only one part of a larger revolution in biology, one that sees your entire being, from your thoughts to your social relationships and from your DNA to the food you eat and the air you breathe, as one interconnected system. This “systems biology” perspective erases the distinction between “mental health” and “physical health”; it also chips away at the distinctions between individual health, community health, and environmental health. From this larger perspective, it is inevitable that meditating – indeed, everything you do – affects the DNA you pass on to your children, the emotions you pass on to your work colleagues and the ideas, artworks, and other products you pass on to your culture. The questions are, how and how much? We can look forward to exciting decades ahead in the science of meditation.

Resources:

Frontiers in Consciousness Research

International Journal of Wellbeing

Excerpt 3 of 3 from the book Meditation: If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: Conversations with Meditators

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