Meditation and Neurobiology: Our Urgent Need for a "First Person" Science

Kathleen Myers's picture

Meditation and Neurobiology: Our Urgent Need for “First Person” Science 

     As I am going to argue for a place for first person accounts in the activity of science, it seems fitting that I begin this paper by addressing the development of my own interest in mediation. Seventeen years ago, when I was still a high school student, I began suffering from anxiety and persistent insomnia. Upon the recommendation of the uncommonly sensitive, open-minded and skilled therapist I was seeing, I began practicing meditative techniques in an attempt to quiet the mental “noise” that besieged me during the day and prevented me from enjoying a good night’s sleep. (While I had no trouble falling asleep, I would frequently wake in the middle of the night and begin thinking obsessively about matters of no real consequence.)

     Meditation enabled me to gain some mastery over my own habits of thinking and patterns of emotional response. I remained an irregular meditator over the following ten years, but did not begin to pursue it as a daily discipline until I embarked on recovery from hard drugs at age 26.  Then, meditation became something of a lifesaver: a mental sanctuary of deep relaxation, safety and quiet, as well as a source of self-knowledge. People who meditate have long extolled its beneficial effects on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. While I have not (yet) been fortunate enough to experience the profound states of transcendent awareness described by many practitioners of meditation, I can personally attest to its other healing capacities. And I am elated that Western science has begun to take meditation seriously. Given that this “technology” dates back to our oldest recorded religious tradition, Hinduism, it would seem that our scientists have a lot of catching up to do.

     While there are a multiplicity of meditative techniques, most can be (very) roughly grouped into two styles of practice: mindfulness mediation, in which the meditator attempts to be fully present to the flow of her breath and notice her thoughts non-judgmentally and without becoming attached to them [1]; and focused meditation, in which the meditator attempts to turn the whole of her attention to a single form, idea, image, sound or emotional orientation (such as compassion). [2] Each technique requires the meditator to detach her conscious awareness from the sensory inputs feeding information to the brain and turn her attention “inward”. Many people who meditate as part of a spiritual discipline report feeling the dissolution of ego boundaries and a sense of  ecstatic cosmic unity.[3] The subjective nature of  these and other meditative mental states presents a difficulty to neurobiologists seeking to understand them, but many seem eager to meet this challenge.

     Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and self-described spiritual seeker, directs the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1992, after learning of his research into the neurobiology of meditation, the Dalai Lama brought Richardson to his exile home of Dharamsala, India to interview Tibetan monks with a wealth of meditative experience . This invitation initiated a long, (and some say scientifically inappropriate) professional and personal relationship between them. In 2002, Richardson and his associate Dr. Antoine Lutz were given the opportunity to investigate the brain activity of meditating Tibetan monks in their own lab. What they found astonished them.[4]

     When Mattieu Ricard (a monk with more than 10,000 hours of meditative experience) was hooked up to an EEG and asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion”, Lutz discovered powerful gamma wave activity, and that “…moreover, oscillations from various parts of the cortex were synchronized.” Because the gamma activity was so powerful, Richardson and Lutz  initially thought there was a snafu in their procedure or equipment, and so they tested more monks and also added a group of college students as a control group. The monks’ gamma wave activity was thirty times stronger than the students’. Davidson also noticed that larger regions of the monks’ brain were active, especially in the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of positive feelings, Wired magazine reports. [5]

     Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania has also studied the brains of  practiced meditators. These subjects were asked to concentrate on a single image, and then tug on a string to indicate when they began experiencing a sense of cosmic unity. At that moment a radioactive dye “tracer” was injected via IV in order to track the regions of the brain where blood flow and activity were most pronounced. A brain scan was taken. Comparing these images with images that had been taken when the subjects were in a non-meditative state, researchers found that the areas of the brain that regulate attention were extremely active during meditation. But far more compelling to Newberg was the discovery that the parietal lobe, the region responsible for distinguishing between the self and others, was far less active during meditation than when the  subjects had just been sitting. Bob Holmes writes, “Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual’s sense of their own body image, while its right hemisphere equivalent handles its context- the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut those areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.” [6]

    In both of the cases detailed above (and there are many, many more- but my space here is limited), the meditators’ subjective reports of their states of consciousness seem to be confirmed by scientific observation of their brain activity via technologies such as EEG and SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Topography). Researchers are moving past merely investigating the relationship between meditation and enhanced mental and physical health; they are now seeking to discover how meditation changes the brain. Scientists who themselves meditate, such as Richardson, neurologist Dr. James Austin (author of Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness) and Dr. Michael Baime, who was both a participant and researcher in the Penn study, have been leading this movement. [7] The Dalai Lama believes that neuroscience will confirm meditation’s ability to manage and transform attention and emotion. [8]

     Some see this intermingling of personal interest and professional involvement as an anathema to the ideal of objectivity which underpins traditional science. Richardson was criticized (and petitions were drawn up, boycotts were organized, and paper were withheld) when he invited the Dalai Lama to speak about “The Neuroscience of Meditation” at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. (I should note that most of those who protested were Chinese or Chinese-Americans, and most of the articles I’ve read on this subject contend that their rejection of the Dalai Lama as speaker was motivated by political concerns- we all have our “cracks”!)Yi Rao, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University, claimed that Davidson is a “politically-involved scientist”  whose work is “substandard”, and  who, along with the Dalai Lama, possesses “questionable motivations”. Davidson countered by saying, “I tremendously value my friendship with His Holiness and feel that it has benefited my research…I have no intention of giving it up.”

     As Nietzsche pointed out more than a hundred years ago, objectivity is a fiction- “truth” is necessarily perspectival, arising as it does, in human beings, who are conditioned by genetics, culture and temperament to apprehend the world in distinct ways (the “crack” of our “seriously loopy science”). As philosopher Dr. Alison Wylie discussed at a March 21st colloquium here at Bryn Mawr entitled “Standpoint Matters: What’s Feminist About Gender Archaeology”, all scientists think, work, and engage in research  from a particular point of view.  The scientific method does not “neutralize, counter or wash out the effects of the standpoint-specific interests we inevitably bring to the endeavor of science.” [9]

     As I see it, good science begins with acknowledging our particular standpoints, and an ownership of and role for our subjective experience can only enrich it. As Eugene Gendlin of the International Focusing Institute and Don Hanlon Johnson of the California Institute for Integral Studies write in their Proposal for an International Group for a First Person Science, “We need to develop a publicly recognized science in which experiencing by persons (you and I) is not systematically dropped out.”[10] I commend those meditators-scientists who have who have begun to interrogate traditional science’s valorization of detachment and “objectivity”.

[1] “How to Do Mindfulness Meditation”: http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2125

[2] “Neurophysiology of Meditation” : http://www.geocities.com/neovedanta/a28.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Buddha on the Brain” : http://wired.com/wired/archive/14.02/dalai_pr.html

[5] Ibid.

[6]  “The Neurobiology of God” : http://www.alternative-doctor.com/soul_stuff/brain_god.htm

[7] “Science Explores Meditation’s Effect on the Brain” : http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4770779

[8] “Meditation Finding Converts Among Western Doctors” : http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/02/0201_060201_meditation_2.html

[9] Sorry…couldn’t find this paper online, but I’d be happy to share a hard copy with you…

[10] http://www.focusing.org/gendlin_johnson_iscience.html

Comments

Rafael Espericueta's picture

Meditation and Neurobiology

Note that the critics are politically (not scientifically) motivated. Dogma and belief tend to be impediments to scientific progress. Meditation lessens ones attachment to concepts and beliefs, which should result in an increase in "objectivity". One could argue that without a practice like meditation, to clear the mind of habitual patterns of thought, one may be too biased to do good science.

Richard Lang's picture

First Person Science

The philosopher Douglas Harding wrote a book called The Science of the 1st Person. There is lots about his scientific approach with respect to consciousness on our website. Also, I have made a series of films that illustrate his experimental approach. They are available on our website

http://www.headless.org/experiments-video.htm

Best wishes,
Richard Lang

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