Altering Consciousness: The power of meditation and hypnosis

dvergara's picture

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
X-NONE
X-NONE

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:"";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin-top:0in;
mso-para-margin-right:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt;
mso-para-margin-left:0in;
line-height:115%;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif";
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

Normal
0

false
false
false

EN-US
X-NONE
X-NONE

MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:"";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin-top:0in;
mso-para-margin-right:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt;
mso-para-margin-left:0in;
line-height:115%;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif";
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;}

For years, the fields of psychology and psychiatry have used meditation and hypnosis as a means of therapy; using meditation and hypnosis to help relax patients and potentially, help them control behavioral and mental disorders. Not just limited to the medical field, hypnosis and meditation especially, is used regularly by many individuals worldwide (and used extensively by monks of several religions). What does this practice mean then? Can persons actually take control of their brains, and mold and shape it to fit their [emotional, mental] needs? Hopefully, the study of these practices and their effects on the brain can help answer an even greater question, Can we, and “how, can we alter what we are aware of in our nervous system,” (Grobstein 3/2), how can we alter our consciousness?
Before we begin this exploration however, it’s important to attempt to define awareness and consciousness, in the way it will be used here. Consciousness, as defined by German neuro-scientist K.A. Jellinger, is “a continuous state of full awareness of the Self and one's relationship to the external and internal environment, describing the degree of wakefulness in which an organism recognizes stimuli,” (3). Awareness is not the same as consciousness; while consciousness should be seen as a general state of being [of the mind], awareness is the state of perceiving a specific something, be it an object, a stimulus, etc. The two concepts are very similar, but for the sake of this paper the two terms will not be used interchangeably.  
If consciousness, as defined above, is in a ‘continuous state,’ how is it possible to change it? The practice of meditation by Buddhist monks sheds some answers to this question. In 2005, a study done by Australian scientists of the University of Queensland found that the monks could override mental responses previously thought of as ‘automatic,’ (4). The monks were given special goggles that would show two images, a different one for each eye; and while “most people’s attention would automatically fluctuate [between the two images]- the monks were able to focus on just one image.” Meditation is thought to be the center of this phenomenon because of the monks’ extensive use of “one-point meditation,” wherein they practice focusing on a single object, thought, point, etc. In addition, the monks with the longest training in meditation were able to override the “involuntary response” for the longest amount of time, in some cases, focusing “their attention on just one of the images for up to 12 minutes.”
A second study, led by Dr. Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania, attempted to study what happened to the brain during these practices. They attempted to study how the monks were modifying their consciousness, and ‘choosing’ what external stimuli they were aware of at any given moment, (or at least, were responsive to). What they found was that during meditation, “There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area that is activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task...[and] a notable decrease in activity in the back part of the brain, or parietal lobe, recognized as the area responsible for orientation,” (5). The decreased activity in the parietal lobe suggested that during meditation, the monks lost spatial awareness, that is, they lost a sense of space. The monks had a decreased sense of awareness of the self in relation to their external environment; their consciousness was altered.
Similarly to meditation, the use of hypnosis and self-hypnosis yields the same consciousness-altering results. Stanford psychiatrist Dr. Dan Spiegel is renowned for his studies on hypnosis, and hypnosis’ affects on the mind. A 2008 feature on hypnosis on Good Morning America showed how GMA staffers used self-hypnosis (as taught by Dr. Spiegel) to decrease the activity of pain centers in their brain, both to help overcome daily anxieties and stressors and prepare them for a dare; they were to “fire walk,” or walk on hot coals burning at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, in a week. During the feature, they present several cases in which hypnosis allows people to accomplish the ‘impossible’: “helping free divers hold their breath for up to eight minutes… In 1961, a hypnotized woman had a Caesarean section without anesthetics…patients of radiologic procedures needing only half the medication and reporting half the pain after using daily self-hypnosis,” (2). Dr. Spiegel elaborated on hypnosis, “It’s a form of highly focused attention…You control what you focus on and what effect it has on you and your body.” Essentially, a person is controlling how the mind relates to pain and how it responds to it; the feature also related studies done at Harvard, where MRI’s showed that “Before hypnosis, the pain centers of the brain are very bright, but during hypnosis, they're almost inactive.”
To test this theory, the GMA staffers tried out hypnosis for themselves. First, they each related a specific physical problem they were having, and which they wanted to improve; one staffer reported lower back discomfort and another reported issues with pain in her knees. Dr. Spiegel instructed them to imagine two screens, one showing a specific problem, and the other showing a pleasurable place (which held a possible solution to the problem). At no point in the hypnosis did Dr. Spiegel direct them to focus on their previously reported physical issue. After the hypnosis (which to me, seemed more like an exercise of meditation), all the staffers reported feeling less discomfort in those areas, and feeling generally happier and better than before the exercise. According to Dr. Spiegel, even those who are moderately hypnotizable would benefit from these exercises; and seemingly, he was right. A week later, as shown in the second article (3), the same staffers, including renowned reporter Dan Sawyer, all walked across the burning coals. Additionally, in the video, none of the staffers seemed to experience pain or discomfort when doing so, and each staffer walked across the coals more than once. Hypnosis apparently allowed the staffers (and persons in other hypnosis cases listed above) to desensitize their awareness of pain, simply by training the brain not to think of pain, and focus its attention to ‘pleasurable places,’ again, hypnosis allowed persons to alter their consciousness by decreasing their mind’s awareness of pain.
In conclusion, these cases show that some modification to consciousness is in fact going on during meditation and hypnosis. However, I want to make it clear that I am not implying that we can consciously set out to change the structure or activity of our brains, because the evidence simply does not prove that. My purpose in this review is to question the rigidity of something we so usually see as stable (ie, the brain, consciousness). Whereas, we usually see fluctuations in consciousness as being due to a mental disorder, fluctuating consciousness may actually help control disorders, as well as help any individual ‘train’ their brain. Again, an individual, through the practice of hypnosis and meditation can ‘train’ their brain to function in a certain way, or to disregard certain stimuli; for example, training the mind focus on one thought, may help alleviate stress or anxiety by desensitizing the brain’s reaction to several (unpleasurable) stimuli. The evidence given does not prove that you can ‘tell’ your brain to shut off certain areas and turn on others; it only proves that we can shut off certain areas or turn off others by practicing meditation and hypnosis, it is the practice that does so, none of the people examined set out to “alter” their consciousness or the activity of their brain. Nonetheless, the evidence does not necessarily disprove the idea that we can ‘tell’ our brain to change either. Simply put, we still do not know whether we can consciously alter our consciousness, we only know that our consciousness can be modified; knowing the answer to the first question would take further exploration of brain ‘training’ practices.
 
 
 
 
References
1.     "Diane and 'GMA' Staff Prepare for Their Dare: They Believe Focusing Their Minds Will Help Them Meet the Dare." (Video also cited) Good Morning America. ABC News, 20 Feb 2008. Web. 2 Apr 2010. <http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=4344885&page=1>.
2.     "Diane Sawyer Walks Across Burning Hot Coals: After Mentally Preparing Herself, the GMA Anchor Walks Across Hot Coals Four Times." (Video also cited) Good Morning America. ABC News, 27 Feb 2008. Web. 2 Apr 2010. <http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/WaterCooler/diane-sawyer-walks-burning-hot-coals/story?id=4353123>.
3.      Jellinger, K.A. "Functional pathophysiology of consciousness." Neuropsychiatrie (Trans. from German) 23.2 (2009): Web. 25 Mar 2010. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19573504?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_SingleItemSupl.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=5&log$=relatedreviews&logdbfrom=pubmed>.
4.      "Meditation 'brain training' clues." BBC News: Health. BBC News, 13 Jun 2005. Web. 27 Mar 2010http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4613759.stm. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4613759.stm>.
5.      "Meditation mapped in monks." BBC News: Sci/Tech. BBC News, 01 Mar 2002. Web. 27 Mar 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1847442.stm>.

 

Comments

Gita's picture

Brahmakumaris Meditation

hi , all of my friends, I would like to share my own feeling regarding benefits of meditation. Why Meditation? Happiness and peace refer to states of mind. Moreover, there is another kind of experience, which is the highest and is independent of worldly objects and senses. It is called Bliss. Brahmakumaris offers foundation courses in meditation through each of its centres spread across the world.

Paul Grobstein's picture

conscious alternation of consciousness?

"some modification to consciousness is in fact going on during meditation and hypnosis ... we still do not know whether we can consciously alter our consciousness ..."

I'm intrigued by the distinction between consciousness as something that can be changed and consciousness as something that can ... change itself?  Meditators are aware of trying to change their state, no?  So in this sense the changes in consciousness are a result of conscious activity, no?  Perhaps what is at issue here is whether the I-function can change itself directly, as opposed to via acting on other brain activities which in turn alter the I-function? 

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.