Meditation Neuroscience Brain Contemplative Neuroscience Ken Wilber Buddhism Philosophy

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Before examining some of the research in contemplative neuroscience, it is important to discuss what contemplative neuroscience is and what relevance, if at all, it has to the study of brain and behavior. Contemplative neuroscience is primarily the study of how contemplative practices like meditation affect the brain and nervous system. However, contemplative neuroscience can take on a second but equally valid definition: the contemplative philosophical view of neuroscience itself. As such, a careful philosophical foundation for this emerging science will be presented first, followed by a review of the research and its implications for psychotherapeutic treatment.

Attentional training and contemplative discipline, in light of neuroplasticity, seem to afford new possibilities for further mental and neurophysiological development. According to Sharon Begley (2007), by making the best possible use of brain plasticity through attentional training, “the goal is not merely the absence of mental illness, which seems to be all that psychiatric and psychological therapies strive for these days, but the enduring presence of robust mental and emotional health” (p. 221, emphasis mine).

Specific Mental training can influence changes

The research on neuroplasticity clearly shows that specific kinds of mental training can influence changes in neural firing habits, and therefore strongly implies that emotional and mental well-being can indeed be cultivated through the development and discipline of the mind. In other words, emotional set-point can be shifted toward higher levels of well-being. Conventional psychiatry, on the other hand, typically approaches treatment by treating the symptoms of mental and emotional discomfort through psychopharmacology without necessarily addressing the deeper causal issues behind such discomfort. The conventional emphasis instead seems to be on the manipulation of neurotransmitters to alleviate symptoms, relegating the person who is suffering from such discomfort to the role of a victim of brain chemistry and physiology, sentenced as it were to rely solely upon psychopharmacology for any hope of future relief. Furthermore, such medication often requires additional medication to counteract its own distressing side effects, for the rest of the life span. While the use of psychopharmacology is often necessary for the short-term treatment of symptoms, psychopharmacology by itself is incapable of offering long-term treatment capable of teaching the brain new and healthy neurological habits. Contemplative training, however, is capable of such long-term treatment.

The primary cause of mental and emotional discomfort

One of the reasons for the conventional approach in psychiatry is the assumption that the primary cause of mental and emotional discomfort and dysfunction is biological in nature. Interior subjective experience is usually not even considered as a causal agent because the mind is often reduced to neural processes, and causality is viewed as uni-directional, originating in the brain and resulting in psychological experience and consciousness itself. Contemplative neuroscience does not question the notion that biology plays role causation. It does, however, make the claim that causation between brain and mind is not merely uni-directional but bi-directional, and thus acknowledges the mind’s capacity to exert causal efficacy over the brain, particularly when it is systematically and consistently trained over a period of time. In other words, while the brain influences attention and mental functioning, attention and mental effort can, in turn, influence the brain. This, of course, raises the issue of dualism between mind and body, otherwise known as the mind-body problem, which some neuroscientists have attempted to solve simply by reducing the mind to neural processes. This aptly illustrates how one’s ontological assumptions influence and determine the course and quality of treatment as well as one’s methodology for researching further treatment possibilities. Simply stated, philosophical and metaphysical assumptions can and often do limit the spectrum and quality of treatment offered by a psychiatrist or psychologist to a suffering client.

While there are numerous ideologies connected with contemplative neuroscience, one of the most prevalent is that of Buddhism, which has birthed many of the meditative techniques studied and published in the literature. The Buddhist approach to the mind-body problem has been one that acknowledges the essential unity of body and mind while emphasizing consciousness, or interior subjective awareness, as primary. The body is seen as the densest layer of a spectrum of being that ranges in quality from the dense (body) to the subtle (mind) to the very subtle (pure awareness without thought). This very subtle quality often referred to in Zen Buddhism as “Big Mind,” is considered to be the essential quality of all things, even the body. And because, using Ken Wilber’s phrase, Big Mind or pure awareness “transcends and includes” (1995, p. 60) and permeates virtually all things, there can be no actual duality between mind and body. In other words, though they differ superficially in quality (i.e., one is gross in quality and the other subtle), they are not essentially different in quality. And while awareness is said to be primary, this is not to say that it is a kind of “first cause,” as that would again propose a duality between the first cause and that which is caused; and Buddhist philosophy states the reality of things to be fundamentally nondual-absent of any subject-object duality.

The third-person methodology of scientific empiricism generally does not trust subjective or inter-subjective experience, often refusing to even acknowledge this interior universe as a real domain in its own right, when considering theories of causality in mind-body interaction. A good example of this common oversight is a recent biopsychology class in which the author’s professor presented the diathesis-stress theory regarding anxiety disorders, and in doing so repeatedly referred to stress as occurring “in the environment.” Yet stress categorically does not occur in the environment, as it is an internal, subjective, and therefore very individual, response to external stimuli. Furthermore, the external environment is not identical to internal environment, so that “nurture,” often equated only with the external environment, includes not only outward surroundings but inter-subjective nurturing and shared meaning as well.

This qualitative difference between the internal and external environment, according to Daniel J. Siegel (2007), is precisely why individuals placed in the exact same physical environment exhibit very different internal responses. These differences, he believes, can be traced to the quality of attunement-the inter-subjective focus of attention on the interior experience of another-one underwent in infancy and childhood (xiii). He theorizes that intrapersonal attunement-that is, a feeling of connection and attunement with oneself (such as that cultivated through Buddhist mindfulness meditation)-may “lead the brain to grow in ways that promote balanced self-regulation via the process of neural integration, which enables flexibility and self-understanding” (p. xiv).

Tibetan Buddhist Study

A study of Tibetan Buddhist monk Lama Oser, as related by Daniel Goleman (2003, pp. 1 – 27), demonstrates this cultivated interior flexibility quite well. When viewing a disturbing video featuring a burn victim whose skin was being surgically removed, Oser’s response, unique and atypical, showed that he was even more relaxed while viewing the video than he was during baseline monitoring. His interior subjective response was decidedly the product of extensive training in meditation on compassion.

The Buddhist approach to subjectivity’s suspect nature is to train subjective awareness and hone it into an instrument worthy of empirical research into the relationship between mind and body. Buddhist philosophy has always maintained that when such training is pursued carefully for some time, the cultivation of mental and emotional well-being can result. To cultivate such well-being, however, requires first that subjective interior experience be acknowledged as a legitimate domain of reality.

THE INTERIOR WORLD

The neuroscientific literature abounds with statements claiming conscious experience-the mind-to be merely the by-product of neuronal firing, thus denying and devaluing any claim to legitimacy the domain of interior subjectivity might have; yet it often does so without a genuine empirical basis upon which to base its claims. Instead, such claims are often based simply on metaphysical assumptions. Such claims reflect beliefs about the relationship between brain and mind, without offering any evidence to substantiate their claims. Alan Wallace (2000), examining John Anderson’s textbook Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications (1990), shares an example of such claims based not on empirical research but on metaphysical assumptions:

In Anderson’s presentation of the neural basis of cognition, cognitive terms are uniformly objectified. He asserts, for example, that “[c]ognition is achieved by patterns of neural activation in large sets of neurons,” and “resides in patterns of the primitive elements of computers” (Johnson, p. 59, p. 40). While he declares that “the brain encodes cognition in neural patterns” (p. 40), he acknowledges that no one knows how this occurs. And he offers no justification or explanation for asserting that brain cells experientially detect, rather than merely electrochemically react to, visually related physical stimuli (Wallace, p. 149).

Because contemporary neuroscience often fails to acknowledge the validity claims of the subjective domain, while making claims based on appearances and metaphysical assumptions, it can be argued that the spirit of genuine empirical science is being ignored in favor of entrenched beliefs about the nature of reality. This is unfortunate because, in light of certain research, acknowledgment of this domain as one of several legitimate perspectives can open new possibilities for the cultivation of well-being-in both those suffering from mental and emotional disorders and those who are considered to be quite normal. Though contemplative neuroscience acknowledges the importance of first-person approaches that validate the reality of the mind, it equally acknowledges the importance of third-person, objective approaches as used in science, and therefore endeavors to forge a science not only of objective empiricism but of subjective empiricism as well.

An important contribution to validating and articulating the reality of the interior world has been posited by Wilber (1995) in the form of his four-quadrant model (figure 1), of which, for the sake of space, only two quadrants will be covered:

. . . The Upper-Right (UR) is the exterior form or structure of an individual holon [i.e., a whole or context that is also a part of larger wholes/contexts, which themselves are parts of larger wholes, and so on]. This quadrant runs from the center-which is simply the Big Bang-to subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to cells to neural organisms to triune-brained organisms. With reference to human beings, this quadrant is the one emphasized by behaviorism. Behavior can be seen, it is empirical-which is precisely why empirical science is always concerned only with the behavior of holons (the behavior of atoms, the behavior of gases, the behavior of fish, the behavior of humans) and wants nothing to do with nasty ‘ol introspection, which involves, of course, the interiors of individuals.

Which would be the Upper-Left (UL) quadrant. This quadrant-the interior form of an individual holon-runs from the center to prehension, sensation, impulse, image, symbol, concept (and so on). These interiors (UL) are correlated, we saw, with specific exteriors (UR), so that emotions “go with” limbic systems and concepts “go with” the neocortex of complex triune brains, and so forth (that is, every point on the right side has a correlate on the left side: every exterior has an interior). With reference to humans beings, this quadrant contains all the “interior” individual sciences (among other things), from psychoanalysis to phenomenology to mathematics (nobody ever saw the square root of a negative one running around in the external world; that is apprehended only interiorly) (pp. 127-8).

Wilber goes on to delineate the lower quadrants, the interior, and exterior of the collective, in this way revealing how causality is more accurately expressed as the result of a causal nexus, a confluence of causal influences originating from all four quadrants (p. 128-31). Interestingly, nearly any perspective that can be imagined can fit into anyone, or a combination of, these quadrants. In addition, Wilber is careful to show that, although each quadrant tetra-arises holistically with the others, therefore having correlations with the other quadrants, none of these quadrants can be reduced to the others. For example, even though neuroscience may be able to locate virtually all of the neural correlates (UR) of, say, a particularly disturbing dream, none of those neural correlates can convey the interior experience (UL) of that dream. This simple observation is enough to imply, then, that conscious experience-the internal world, both subjective and inter-subjective-is more than its neural correlates, and consequently makes intelligible the notion that, though the external universe does indeed influence the internal universe, interior experience and exterior behavior are indeed qualitatively different, yet correlated, dimensions of one essential reality, both of which need to be acknowledged and honored.

THE RESEARCH

Tibetan Buddhist Loving-Kindness Meditation

Antoine Lutz and colleagues studied eight long-term Tibetan Buddhist meditators who had engaged in contemplative practice for periods of time ranging from 15 to 40 years, with anywhere from approximately 10,000 to 50,000 hours logged in meditation (2004). A control group consisted of 10 students averaging 20 years of age, each of whom had only ten hours of training in meditation. The meditation technique studied in this case, a Buddhist loving-kindness meditation, evokes a state of objectless compassion that is allowed to pervade the meditator’s mind.

All meditators exhibited atypically large amounts of synchronized gamma activity 5 to 15 seconds after beginning the meditation, with significant asymmetrical gamma synchrony appearing in the left midfrontal areas. The analysis revealed that the long-term meditators showed greater such synchrony than controls, as well as higher baseline levels of gamma activity. Likewise, even among the long-term meditators, the ones with the most hours of meditative practice logged also exhibited the highest levels of gamma activity. Long-distance synchronization between frontal and parietal lobes also increased in all meditators, with the highest degrees of synchronization again being found to positively correlate with the number of hours logged in meditative practice. Using fMRI, there was also discovered significant activity in the thalamus, caudate and putamen, right insula, and anterior cingulate.

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation

According to the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills (KIMS: Baer, et al, 2004), mindfulness consists of nonreactivity to inner experience, attending to sensations and feelings, actions with awareness, labeling sensations and feeling states with words, and a non-judgmental attitude toward experience.

Sara W. Lazar and cohorts discovered this meditative practice to be correlated with increased cortical thickness in the middle prefrontal areas, as well as enlarged right insulas, inexperienced practitioners (2005). Additional studies have revealed mindfulness practice and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to animate neural structures involved in attention (Lazar, et al, 2000), serve as viable treatment modalities for ADHD (Zylowska, et al, 2008), counter the tendency toward diminished left-frontal activity in severe depression (Barnhofer, et al, 2007), and significantly reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms in bipolar affective disorder (Williams, et al, 2008). And according to Siegel, “[m]indfulness meditation appears to produce a left shift in frontal activation” (2007, p. 220).

TREATMENT IMPLICATIONS

These combined research data suggest that attentional training can induce both temporal and stable changes in neural firing patterns. The temporal changes evoked during meditative practice, such as the high occurrence of alpha and theta wave activity, are stably integrated into the brain’s neural circuitry when practiced consistently over time. Such alpha and theta wave activity is believed to be indicative of states of inner calm and stability (Siegel, 115). Meditative discipline, then, appears to offer not only a hopeful treatment option for various mental, affective, and neural disorders but a path for more fully developing the brain’s potential as well.

Gamma Activity Implications

The increased gamma wave synchrony generated during Tibetan Buddhist loving kindness meditation may have applications in the treatment of disorders where feature binding has been found to be deficient. Because gamma activity has been repeatedly observed as active in perception and implicated in associative learning (Miltner, et al, 1999), it has been theorized that gamma wave synchrony may play a significant role in binding the disparate information conveyed by the central nervous system into coherent perception (Singer, 2001).

The fact that neuroscience still has not fully identified the neural correlates of such coherent perception has been referred to as the “binding problem” (Roskies, 1999). If gamma wave synchrony does, in fact, play a significant role in perception, this could explain why long-term practitioners of loving-kindness meditation exhibit a readiness and willingness to compassionately respond to the interior experience-both positive and negative-of others. In other words, attentional training with a compassionate embrace as its focus seems to develop the brain’s capacity for unifying sensory information into coherent patterns of perception that support both personal and interpersonal connection. Such a sense of connection can be vital in the treatment of disorders like severe depression and schizophrenia, both of which involve a profound interior experience of isolation.

The lack of gamma wave activity during perception in schizophrenia in left and frontal sites (Haig, et al, 2000) has been postulated as being due to a shift in the binding of synchronous and divided activity, preventing neural integration of various areas of the brain (Bob, 2007). Moreover, attention has been decisively shown to be central to 40 Hz gamma activity, so that when external stimuli are not consciously attended to, gamma activity is not registered (Sokolov, 1999). Attentional training using techniques like the loving-kindness meditation, which seems to systematically drive and educate the brain toward producing more gamma wave activity, may offer a new set of developmental tools with which to treat schizophrenia. Moreover, the fact that long-term meditators exhibited higher baseline gamma activity than controls attests to the intention in long-term Buddhist meditation to slowly but consistently integrate meditative temporal states into permanent traits. According to Lutz and co-workers (2004), their research findings are “consistent with the idea that attention and affective processes, which gamma-band EEG synchronization may reflect, are flexible skills that can be trained (Posner, et al, 1997)” (p. 16373).

Neurologist James H. Austin (2006) links the coherent firing of both the frontal and parietal lobes within the gamma ranges with the conventional view that such synchrony is indicative of behavioral acts, or the preparation thereof, thereby implying that such activity, within the context of a loving-kindness meditation, may bespeak a practical readiness for compassionate action (50). This readiness to readily and practically express compassion has always been the main objective of such Buddhist practices. Austin goes on, within the same context, to link the simultaneous activation of the caudate and putamen, in addition to the long-distance gamma synchrony between the frontal and parietal lobes, with the formation of “habits at successively higher-level behavioral and cognitive levels” (50). Taken together, these data could point to meditative training as a means of highly unifying sensory information to the point of producing unitary-that is harmonious-interpersonal perceptions and relations.

Left Frontal Asymmetrical Activation Implications

Heather Urry and colleagues (2004) correlated left prefrontal asymmetry, as evidenced in both the mindfulness and loving-kindness forms of meditation, with eudaimonic well-being, defined by Siegel (2007) as enveloping “the psychological qualities of autonomy, mastery of the environment, positive relationships, personal growth, self-acceptance, and meaning and purpose in life” (p. 216). This left anterior activity has also been correlated with resilience, the capacity to rebound after particularly negative experiences (Davidson, et al, 2003), which would make mindfulness meditation a viable modality in the treatment of the bipolar affective disorder, sufferers of which can experience great difficulty in rebounding after difficult depressive periods.

Conclusion

This article has attempted to cover the philosophical basis, research, and treatment implications for contemplative neuroscience, focusing most intensively on this emerging field’s philosophical critique of conventional neuroscience. This article’s weakness lies in the fact that, due to a lack of space, only a minute amount of the research in the field was covered. Likewise, the treatment implications discussed were but a few of many that could be mentioned. However, as it is intended to be a short introduction to contemplative neuroscience, it should serve to foment further investigation into the growing literature substantiating the idea that plasticity allows the brain to be shifted toward optimal functioning-emotionally and cognitively-through consistent attentional training. The inference given by Lutz and colleagues, which was still in the press when it was quoted by Siegel (2007), sums up the potential for contemplative discipline in the cultivation of well-being:

Many of our core mental processes such as awareness and attention and emotion regulation, including our very capacity for happiness and compassion, should best be conceptualized as trainable skills. The meditative traditions provide a compelling example of strategies and techniques that have evolved over time to enhance and optimize human potential and well-being. The neuroscientific study of these traditions is still in its infancy but the early findings promise to both reveal the mechanisms by which such training may exert its effects as well as underscore the plasticity of the brain circuits that underlie complex mental functions (p. 101-2).

References

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Zylowska, L., Ackerman, D., Yang, M., Futrell, J., Horton, N., Hale, T., et al. (2008, May 19). Mindfulness Meditation Training in Adults and Adolescents With ADHD: A Feasibility Study. Journal Of Attention Disorders, 11(6), 737-746.

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