The Buddhist takes the lotus position and goes into the psychic space. He feels how he leaves the boundaries of the body, his “I” dissolves in being and merges with the One, which has no boundaries, forms and names.
At this time, he blocks the site of the posterior upper parietal cortex responsible for sensing the boundaries of his own body. It is thanks to the continuous work of this area of the brain that we always firmly distinguish ourselves from the outside world (which, in particular, allows us to move without bumping into obstacles). Always, but not in moments of deep passive meditation. Experiences that were considered mystical in the Ancient East have a clear neurophysiological mechanism.
This was clarified due to the young science of neurotheology. She has many amazing discoveries, details of which can be found in the remarkable book by Andrew Newberg, Eugene d’Aquili and Vince Rause, “The Mystery of God and the Science of the Brain.” The Neurobiology of Faith and religious experience “.
However, meditation has long gone beyond the boundaries of Eastern religions and has turned into an instrument of psychotherapists and the entertainment of bored managers. Nevertheless, the impact of this practice on the brain has not yet been studied in many ways. To eliminate the existing gaps in knowledge, Tanya Singer (Tania Singer) and her colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Sciences and the Human Brain Sciences, decided.
It has long been known that memorization and learning are associated with the formation of new inter-neural connections. It’s all the same whether it’s about learning a foreign language or about a dance lesson. If the reader has memorized anything from this text, then his brain has changed anatomically. The editorial office apologizes.
But until now it was not clear if such connections were formed during meditation. And if they are formed, in which zones? Does this depend on the type of meditation exercises? In other words, is the “comprehension of truth” in this spiritual practice a teaching in the neurobiological sense or just an illusion of that?
The research team led by Singer selected more than three hundred volunteers between the ages of 20 and 55 who had never meditated before. They had to go through three classes of classes, which can be conditionally called “Presence”, “Feelings” and “View from the side.” Each of these cycles lasted three months and included 30 minutes of meditation per day six days a week. From each other they differed in what kinds of meditative exercises were offered to participants.
Scientists were interested in how different courses will affect the brain of the subjects. In order to take into account the possible influence of the order in which the participant will attend these training modules, the volunteers were divided into three groups. The first studied in the order “Presence → Feelings → View from the side,” the second is “Presence → A View from the Side → Feelings,” and the third studied only the “Feelings” module.
The cycle “Presence” consisted of meditative exercises for attention. It was necessary to follow your heart rate, breathing, sensations in different parts of the body, to focus on visual or sound stimuli.
In the cycle of “Feelings” volunteers learned to love. In the process of meditation, they were first asked to imagine someone who caused them this wonderful feeling, for example, a child or a close friend. Then this feeling had to be transferred to people to whom the participant is neutral, then to those with whom there are difficulties, and ultimately on all living beings. To consolidate it was required to mentally repeat phrases like “Let you be happy”.
In addition to such meditations, this module included one more exercise. Participants divided into pairs and told each other about the events of the day, which caused them unpleasant emotions, as well as those who awakened in them gratitude to someone. The listener’s task was to listen to the speaker and try to penetrate his emotions. Then the participants changed roles. According to the authors, such exercises are designed to develop empathy and socially significant emotions, such as gratitude and compassion.
In the “View from the outside” cycle, you had to learn to see yourself “from a bird’s eye view”. The meditator observed the flow of his thoughts, not immersing in them.
In this module, exercises of a different kind were also added to meditation. Participants trained to see in their own and others’ personality components, such as “troubled mother”, “curious child” or “internal judge”. In the pair, the first participant tried to look at the events of the day through the eyes of one of these “subpersonalities,” and the second tried to guess from whose name he speaks.
Such practices are designed to develop what is called “meta-knowledge” and “theory of mind” (theory of mind), or a model of the mental state. This is our ability to imagine what is happening in our own head and in the partner’s head. For example, where will the child look for a toy – where he put it, or where it was then hidden without his knowledge? Healthy children begin to answer this question correctly from the age of five, autistic people, as a rule, make mistakes until the end of their life.
The experimenters monitored the results of their “experimental” with both tests and with MRI. The questionnaires showed that after passing through cycles, the corresponding abilities of the subjects improved, and an impartial device recorded anatomical changes in the brain.
Thus, the cycle “Presence” influenced the prefrontal cortex, which among other things is responsible for voluntary attention, goal-setting and will. The cycle of “Feeling” touched the limbic system – the generator of emotions. The “view from the side” acted on the area of the connection of the lower frontal and lateral temporal cortex involved in the formation of our subtle ability to imagine other people’s mental states.
Scientists also wondered whether a person becomes less stressed after meditation. To find out, the subjects were forced to produce in the public complex arithmetic calculations in the mind. Researchers were interested in both subjective data (do participants believe that meditation makes them calmer), and objective (the level of stress hormone cortisol).
It turned out that, in the opinion of the subjects themselves, any meditation calms. At the same time, an impartial blood test confirmed the effect only for the exercises of the “Feelings” module.
In general, it turned out that meditation works, but works selectively. Different types of this practice train different areas of the brain and differently affect susceptibility to stress. In this, as the researchers note, it looks like a sport. Between shooting and boxing, there is too much difference to not ask yourself what exactly you want from your body. Similarly, one must firmly understand what is lacking in reason, before choosing this or that kind of meditation.
The results of the work are set out in two scientific articles published in the journal Science Advances. The first of them is devoted to the influence of meditation on the anatomy of the brain, and the second – to susceptibility to stress.
By the way, we have repeatedly written about the benefits of meditation. For example, it strengthens immunity, and its artificial analog reduces anxiety in mice. Incidentally, virtual reality can help immerse in this unusual state.
Perhaps, if we combine the intuitive achievements of ancient mystics with all the power of modern neuroscience, we really will learn to be attentive, to love people and to look at the situation from the side, which sometimes we do not have enough.