Meditation and Beyond – Phenomena Beyond Materialism

In this paper I examine neuroimaging studies on meditation and its effect on the brain and I offer this as one of the areas which cannot be explained by the “mind = brain” equation. Besides meditation we will also briefly examine other scientific research that also puts into question a wholly materialist understanding of the mind. In the July 1995 issue of Time, Michael D. Lemonick had this to say:

Utterly contrary to common sense… and to the evidence gathered from our own introspection, consciousness may be nothing more than an evanescent by-product of more mundane, wholly physical processes.1

This quote comes from the middle of the nineties, also known as the “decade of the brain”. We learnt that the brain was not fixed for life but there was what came to be known as “the plasticity of the synapses.” Further, the assumption that the brain uses only two specific areas for language (Broca’s area for speech production and Wernicke’s area for speech comprehension) also fell through. These areas remain important but we have a series of other connected areas that control a number of tasks. Many of these connections were unearthed by neuroscientists Antonio and Hanna Damasio who went on to propose that similar connections may create our sense of self.2 So is the sense of self and consciousness some electrical discharge created by active neurons? The popular media seems to have already concluded ‘YES’ with the help of some neuroscientists. But basic concepts like consciousness, the mind, the self and free will have not been swept away. The hypotheses that reduce the mind to the function of the brain or deny that the mind exists are still in the hypothetical stage. They are not based on convincing demonstrations of evidence. Take for instance ‘qualia’ which are how things appear to us individually – the experiential aspects of our mental lives that can be accessed through introspection. The color ‘red’ for example affects us in different ways and differently at different times, yet as a society we agree to keep that one word for a wide variety of denotations and connotations, not just referring to it as a range in the light spectrum.3 But material neuroscience can’t make much sense of this for the simple reason that it cannot be reduced to a biological explanation. Neuroscientist Francis Crick puzzles over the issue:

It is certainly possible that there may be aspects of consciousness, such as qualia, that science will not be able to explain.  We have learned to live with such limitations in the past (e.g., limitations of quantum mechanics) and we may have to live with them again.4

Another neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran tries his hand at a solution:

The question is how does the flux of ions in little bits of jelly in my brain give rise to the redness of red, the flavor of marmite or mattar paneer, or wine.  Matter and mind seem so utterly unlike each other.  Well, one way out of this dilemma is to think of them really as two different ways of describing the world, each of which is complete in itself.5

Qualia are just one example in the larger picture of the quest to understand consciousness. Descartes in the 17th century put forward his view (substance dualism) that the mind is different from matter. But the question of how they connected was not answered satisfactorily (pineal gland!?!). The problem lies in the fact that conscious beings are observers and the observed at the same time. This results in:6

  1. the impossibility of objectivity
  2. consciousness not being directly observed
  3. the inability to locate one area of the brain which is active when we are conscious and inactive when we are not
  4. difficulty in finding a specific level of activity in neurons to signify that we are conscious
  5. the problem of deciphering a chemistry in neurons that always indicate consciousness.

B. Alan Wallace expresses the dilemma well:

Despite centuries of modern philosophical and scientific research into the nature of the mind, at present there is no technology that can detect the presence or absence of any kind of consciousness, for scientists do not even know what exactly is to be measured. Strictly speaking, at present there is no scientific evidence even for the existence of consciousness! All the direct evidence we have consists of nonscientific, first person accounts of being conscious.7

MEDITATION AND THE BRAIN

With so many questions at the back of our ‘mind’ let us now look at the studies done on the brain during meditation, in particular EEG studies of meditative states. Cahn and Polich use the word ‘meditation’ to describe practices that self-regulate the body and mind, thereby affecting mental events by engaging a specific attentional set. Meditative styles can be usefully classified into mindfulness and concentrative depending on how the attentional processes are directed.  But regulation of attention is the central commonality across the many divergent methods.8 This need not in any way downplay the affect dimension in meditation.

The underlying premise on which measurement of the brain response to meditative practice is based is the different conscious states which are accompanied by different neurophysiological states and on the reported distinct states and traits of consciousness that are induced by meditation. State refers to the altered sensory, cognitive, and self-referential awareness that can arise during meditation practice. Trait refers to the lasting changes in these dimensions that persist in the meditator irrespective of being actively engaged in meditation (Austin, 1998; Shapiro & Walsh, 1984; West, 1987).9

States, relatively short-term and traits, longer lasting, are produced by regular meditation practice. Some of the changes in state that are reported are a deep sense of calm peacefulness, the cutting down of the chatter in the mind, perceptual clarity and conscious awareness which merges with the object of meditation. This could be a mantra, an image or the entire phenomenal experience as the focal point (D. P. Brown, 1977; Wallace, 1999; West 1987). Many experience a meta-cognitive shift in the relationship between thoughts and feelings. It is as if one is viewing a television screen. They no longer seem to occupy centre stage (Wallace, 1999; West, 1987). One could also have a “peak experience” called variously samadhi, nirvana or oneness where one feels absorbed in the present moment.  Traditions use different names to describe the ineffable states (Forman, 1990; Goleman, 1996; Mahesh Yogi, 1963; Wilber, 1977) affected by the duration of the practice (Travis et al., 2002; Wallace, 1999).10

Some of the changes in trait are an abiding sense of calmness, greater sense of comfort, heightened awareness of the sensory field, including a different way of perceiving the relationship between thoughts, feelings and experience of self. One experiences an altered self-identity which diminishes the feeling of a separation between the perceived and the perceiver (Austin, 2000; Forman, 1990; Travis et al., 2002; West, 1987).  When this perceived lessening of separation comes into being, the sense of self seems to move from mental thought centered in the body to an impersonal beingness.11

EEG Meditation Studies

From a truly impressive number of studies (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2001; Anand, Chhina, & Singh, 1961; Arambula, Peper, Kawakami, & Gibney, 2001; Banquet, 1973; Deepak, Manchanda, & Maheshwari, 1994; Dunn et al., 1999; Echenhofer, Coombs, & Samten, 1992; Ghista et al., 1976; Kamei et al., 2000; Kasamatsu & Hirai, 1966; Khare & Nigam, 2000; Lee et al., 1997; Litshcer, Wenzel, Niederwieser, & Schwarz, 2001; Saletu, 1987; Taneli & Krahne, 1987; Wallace, 1970; Wallace, Benson, & Wilson, 1971; Wenger & Bagchi, 1961), Cahn and Polich have put together the following summary. When meditators are evaluated during meditation (in comparison with controlled conditions) there is an increase in alpha power which remains stronger even after the meditation period is over as compared with nonmeditator controls. This points to both state and trait alpha changes emerging from meditation practice and correlates to biofeedback studies12 showing a relationship between greater alpha activity and lower levels of anxiety and feelings of calm and positive affect.  However, some studies attributed the increase in alpha activity to relaxation and selection bias for those who choose to meditate or stay with the practice. Also, increased alpha activity was not shown for all meditation studies. Hence, what we can conclude is that alpha power increases are associated with relaxation, which is observed in some individuals when meditating compared with baseline.13  Having said this, we need to also consider Prof. Kensinger’s analysis on this complex issue as to whether some pre-existing influences lead some to benefit more from meditation or maybe to sustain meditative states for a longer duration.14 These could be genetic or environmental. More research is needed in this area.

As a specific state effect of meditation practice, increased theta rather than alpha power seems to be emerging in a number of studies. Also increases in theta were found to be associated with proficiency in meditative technique in studies of yogic meditative practices and zen meditation. Self-selection effects cannot be ruled out because EEG slowing is found in both state and trait effects. Further there have been some findings of alpha power decrease and some findings of no change in the EEG.  Cahn and Polich attribute this variability to technical environments that impair relaxation or focus before or during a meditative session as well as participant-experimenter interactions and expectation influences during psychophysiological recordings.15  We also need more topographic information because most studies have used relatively few recording sites with little consistency of location (frontal, parietal, temporal, or occipital).  So what we do have is that theta and alpha activity seem to be affected by meditation (state) possibly resulting in a more sustained neuroelectric profile (trait).

ERP Meditation Studies

The raison d’Ítre for ERP (cognitive event-related potential) research comes from the EEG studies above.

Meditators sometimes produced altered amplitudes and shorter potential latencies when stimuli were presented and EEG was recorded, thereby suggesting increased attentional control and CNS quiescence (Banquet & LesÈvre, 1980). This interpretation is consonant with results from the 1970s in normal individuals that selective attention and later cognitive processing were reflected by different ERP components. Advanced concentrative meditation practitioners seemed to demonstrate decreased amplitude and latency for several sensory EPs (e.g., Anand et al., 1961; Gordeev, Baziian, & Liubimov, 1992), whereas mindfulness-based practices sometimes induced a decrease in habituation (e.g., Banquet, 1973; Kasamatsu & Hirai, 1966). Thus, these methods were used to characterize sensory and cognitive information processing in meditation as has been done with behavioral measures indicating enhanced perceptual acuity (D. P. Brown, Forte, & Dysart, 1984a, 1984b; Panjwani et al., 2000).16

The various types of stimuli could be auditory, visual or somatosensory. CNV (contingent negative variation) is another type involving two stimuli in succession such that the first serves as an indicator to an incoming second stimulus to which a response is called for. I put forward some conclusions. Similar to EEG, here too we have a wide range of effects being produced because of different methods being used, critical conditions not being replicated and no consistency in the task and study populations. Could stimulus modality differences in assessing meditation also be responsible? More research is needed to answer this question. However, on the plus side, there does seem some reliability in reports of meditation affecting early cortical auditory processing and possibly also P300. Also, simple CNV tasks yield an increase in amplitude for both state and trait effects of meditation implying that CNV effects may reflect changes in attentional resource allocation.17

fMRI Meditation Studies

In 2000, Lazar and others using fMRI studied a form of kundalini yoga involving a mantra and heightened breath awareness.  When viewed alongside the control activity (mental construction of animal names) kundalini meditation resulted in activity increases in the putamen, midbrain, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, and the hippocampal-parahippocampal formation, as well as areas within the frontal and parietal cortices. When the early and late meditation states were compared substantial activity increases were found in these areas along with a greater number of activation foci, greater signal changes, and an increased proportion of meditators with significant changes during the late meditation states. What this points to is that longer meditation results in altered brain states that may index changed states of consciousness with continued meditation. Lazar and the team make a note of the fact that their findings were different from older studies (Lou et al., 1999) because a guided meditation procedure would involve less executive attentional engagement resulting in a lack of prefrontal cortex enhancement.18

Paths for the future

Considerable discrepancy exists between various literatures available. Cahn and Polich base it on the facts that there is a lack of standardized designs for assessing meditation effects across studies, differences in the practices themselves and a lack of technical expertise especially in some of the earlier studies.  They are more optimistic about the consistency found in EEG meditation studies with power increases in theta and alpha bands and overall frequency slowing generally found. Also emerging is increased power coherence and gamma band effects with meditation. Although we do not have too many ERP meditation studies, increased attentional resources and stimulus processing seem to be suggested. Also some consistency of localization with regard to meditation practice is seen in neuroimaging results wherein frontal and prefrontal areas are shown to be activated. These results seem to index the increased attentional demand of meditative tasks and alterations in self- experience. However, and this is an important point that the authors make, “None of the approaches has yet isolated or characterized the neurophysiology that makes explicit how meditation induces altered experience of self.”19  The state effect of intense absorptive experience where the self and the phenomenal world are merged needs study. The trait effect of subtle neural alterations that underlie the shift in the locus of self-experience and the development of stable unchanging awareness needs prospective longitudinal assessments.20 Some of the difficulties encountered in measuring both state and trait effects are the question of administrating, the problem of defining appropriate control groups and conditions and the complementary association between the meditative states and traits (Goleman, 1996; Travis, Arenander, & DuBois, 2004; Walsh, 1980; Wilber, 1977). The developing field of neuroimmunology emphasizes the need to define the underlying neurophysiological correlates of conscious states and internal experience. Mindfulness-based practices have produced positive clinical outcomes for anxiety, immunoprotective functioning assays, pain, and stress-related skin disorders (Beauchamp-Turner & Levinson, 1992; Carlson et al., 2003, 2004; R. J. Davidson et al., 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 1982, 2003; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1998; J. J. Miller, Fletcher, & Kabat-Zinn 1995; Shapiro & Walsh, 2003). Different meditation practices imply different neurophysiological outcomes so that the neurophenomenological comparison of meditative practices with other methods of altered state induction are needed to isolate the functional brain activity associated with psychological states.  Quantitative differentiation between meditation and early sleep stages is also needed as periods of alpha and theta enhancement overlap a lot with early drowsing and sleep states (Corby et al., 1978; Pagano et al., 1976; Rechtschaffen & Kales, 1968; Younger et al., 1975).21

OTHER PHENOMENA AND THE BRAIN

As seen from the statement of Cahn and Polich above, none of the methods have been able to isolate or characterize the neurophysiology of meditation and altered experiences of self. If we believe the mind is equivalent to the brain we have problems also accounting for other phenomena. A nonmaterialist point of view can offer science based explanations of neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, placebo effects, phenomenon that materialists cannot explain such as psi and mystical awareness resulting in life changes.22 

Beauregard and O’Leary strongly believe that “a nonmaterialist approach to the mind is not only philosophically defensible; it is also critical to alleviating some psychiatric disorders.”23  This can be done, according to them, if the mind recognizes destructive brain patterns in diseases such as obsessive-compulsive disorders and phobias, not withstanding the role of drugs and other interventions.

OCD

In the case of OCD the neural channel has got wider and thicker after repeated practices of a particular obsession. To reverse this, behaviorist reconditioning did not help while drugs had unpleasant side effects. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz put forth a four-step program wherein the patient is asked to ‘Relabel, Reattribute, Reassign and Revalue’ the OCD activities. Schwartz found out that, “Reattributing is particularly effective at directing the patients attention away from demoralizing and stressful attempts to squash the bothersome OCD feeling by engaging in compulsive behaviors.” He was not getting people to simply change their opinions but to change their brains as well. He did this by substituting a “useful neural circuit for a useless one” until the neuronal channel for the new activity became wider than the channel from the OCD activity which hopefully in the course of time would reduce its width.24 In this therapy the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted and for Beauregard and O’Leary is the basis of the success of this therapy.  One could however, find traces of the “chicken and egg” problem here.

Phobias

With respect to phobias, the mind has a very important role.  Johanne Levesque and Vincent Paquette were responsible for twelve women getting over their fear of spiders using Cognitive Behavior Therapy. During this time they scanned their brains with fMRI.  This is what they observed:

Before CBT, exposure to the film excerpts of spiders produced significant activation of the right lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC; BA 10), right parahippocampal cortex, and visual associative cortical areas (bilaterally) in phobic subjects. It was hypothesized that the LPFC activation reflected the use of metacognitive (pertaining to thinking about thinking) strategies aimed at self-regulating the fear triggered  by the spider film excerpts, whereas the parahippocampal  activation related to an automatic reactivation of the contextual fear memory that led to the development of avoidance behavior and the maintenance of spider phobia. At the conclusion of the treatment, all twelve spiderphobes showed a marked reduction in fear, and no significant activation was seen in the LPFC and the parahippocampal cortex.  In other words, the pattern of activation in these subjects showed that they had become much more like the control group who did not fear spiders.25

Placebo Effect

The placebo effect has shown the greatest results when used to treat depression. But placebo effect on other conditions which are less subjective like Parkinson’s disease also showed results wherein the tremors were eased by the use of a placebo (saline solution).26   It was not simply of a case of the patient making it up because neural activity associated with tremors declined as the symptoms decreased.  Just the fact that they believed they had received a powerful medication resulted in the release of dopamine in their ailing brains.

The placebo effect also works in healthy people as the University of Michigan survey of young men, whose jaws were injected with saltwater, demonstrates. PET scans measured the painful pressure experienced and the subsequent decrease in pain, when they were told that they were receiving pain relief. They further write:

In two… (fMRI) experiments, we found that placebo analgesia was related to decreased brain activity in pain-sensitive brain regions including the thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulated cortex, and was associated with increased activity during anticipation of pain in the prefrontal cortex, providing evidence that placebos alter the experience of pain.”27

The results obtained refute the allegation of report bias in the placebo effect. Further proof was obtained with the results of Petrovic and colleagues who showed by an fMRI treatment that placebo treatment could change neural activity in brain regions mediating perception of emotions, as it does in the brain region supporting perception of pain.28 W. Grant Thompson puts it together for us:

Recent functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI experiments have found that placebo analgesia is related to decreased brain activity in pain-sensitive regions of the brain known as the thalamus, insula, and anterior cingulated cortex.  Pain relief was also associated with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (where thinking occurs) during anticipation of pain, suggesting that placebos act on pain-sensitive areas of the brain to alter the painful experience.29

Neuroimaging studies have shown that the placebo effect works. There are a number of explanations for that. However the materialist view which holds that the mind does not exist or if it does it has no influence does not match these explanations. All the explanations assume that the mind is changing the brain and the body.  Further more if we reverse any of them we can account for the placebo’s evil twin, the nocebo effect.

Nocebo Effect

While placebo has the meaning of pleasing, the word ‘nocebo’ which first came into usage in 1961 has the connotation of harming. It refers to the sickness caused or the increase in the illness of a person who believes that a source of harm has been directed towards him. If a person is convinced that a particular medication is useless or worse still harmful then that person will develop symptoms keeping in line with that belief. Beauregard and O’Leary present the following cases for our perusal:

Volunteers for medical studies who have been warned about the side effects of the medication often develop those effects even though they are in the sugar-pill control group.

Pills of a size or color that communicate the wrong “message” may work according to expectation, nor pharmacology.  Red and orange may stimulate but blue and green may depress, contradicting the chemically expected effect. By contrast, a trusted brand printed prominently on the side usually helps, even if the pill is only sugar.

People who are convinced that they will get an illness are much more likely to get it.  For example women in the massive Framingham study, begun in 1948, who believed that they were more likely than others to develop heart disease, were indeed twice as likely to, even when they did not engage in the behaviors that promote heart disease.30

The underlying principle of the nocebo effect is the power the mind has on the brain and subsequently the body. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School concurs, “Surgeons are wary of people who are convinced that they will die. There are examples of studies done on people undergoing surgery who almost want to die to re-contact a loved one. Close to 100 percent of people under those circumstances die.”31

Alan Anderson, a journalist who writes on science issues says, “Trust and belief are often seen as negative in science and the placebo effect is dismissed as a kind of ‘fraud’ because it relies on the belief of the patient. But the real wonder is that faith can work.” Quoting him, and putting all the evidence together,  Beauregard and O’Leary, while admitting to some research methodology being faulty in the past, hold that the placebo effect is one of the best-known facts of everyday clinical medicine and critical to assessing the usefulness of drugs. They assert, “Like consciousness, it cannot simply be defined out of existence. In any event, the fact that neuroimaging data demonstrate the placebo effect obviates questions about its existence.”32

CULTURE AND THE BRAIN

A strong support for an immaterialist view of reality from another angle is a study done to see how cultural influence on self-representation is accomplished in the human brain. The researchers used a self-referential task to localize the neural substrates of self-representation.  The task requires that the research subject judge a trait as to its suitability in describing self or others. This encoding phase is followed by checking the ability to remember the maximum possible words from the previous task. The researchers found that self descriptive traits could be remembered more easily than traits that describe others. With the use of similar paradigms,  neuroimaging studies revealed “stronger medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activation when linked to self as compared to other judgments (Craik et al., 1999; Kelley et al., 2002; Liebermann et al., 2004; Zhang et al., 2006), indicating that MPFC is engaged in representation of self-knowledge such as one’s own personality traits.”33

Another study used fMRI to measure brain activity from Western and Chinese subjects who judged personal trait adjectives regarding self, mother or a public person. I quote:

The researchers observed a self-reference effect for both Chinese and Western subjects. However, personal traits related to self-judgments were remembered better than those associated with mother-judgments for Western but not for Chinese subjects replicating the results of their prior behavioral study (Zhu and Zhang, 2002). They add, “Our fMRI studies showed stronger MPFC activation in the self-relative to other-judgments, consistent with previous studies of Western subjects (Kelley et al., 2002; Liebermann et al., 2004). In line with Heatherton et al. (2006), we demonstrate that self-judgments even induced stronger MPFC activation relative to mother-judgments in Western subjects. The ROI [region of interest] analysis showed further that self-judgments were qualitatively different from mother-judgments in that, relative to the null condition, self-judgments increased MPFC activity whereas mother-judgments reduced MPFC activity. The fact that Western individuals showed selective MPFC activity for judgments about themselves relative to their mothers, and that activity in mother-judgments did not differ from that in other-judgments, indicates that, for Westerners, MPFC is specific to the self.”34

Let us tackle the same question from another level. Could we find evidence in the brain of changes taking place due to one’s culture with increase in age? Findings from behavioral science point to the fact that different cultures process specific aspects of information and employ diverse information-processing strategies. A recent study of aging identifies age-related neural changes that persist across cultures as well as the changes that are driven by culture-specific life experiences.35

Nisbett and Masuda have given us strong evidence to show difference in cognitive function as a result of culture. The evidence from behavioral sciences points out that relationship and group focused cultural norms lead East Asians to develop a bias towards the environment more than Westerners do, leading to context sensitivity and holistic understanding of a situation. On the other hand, individualistic society of Westerners leads to a bias towards focal objects and consequently analytic way of functioning.36

Markus and Kitayama have shown that representations of self differ across culture through looking at the neural circuitry underlying such differences and its evolution with age.37

FEEDBACK TO THE BRAIN

“Neuro-directed behavior” is a term is used for the process of controlling stimuli, task parameters, or subject behavior based on localized brain activation.38  The subjects were asked to perform an imagined manual action task and provided with continuous feedback with respect to their cognitive processes. They received feedback about their current level of activation in a target ROI (somatomotor cortex) derived using real-time fMRI (rtfMRI), and automatically-adjusted instructions for the level of activation to achieve. The experiment demonstrated that if subjects are given the right directions, practice and rtfMRI information, they can to a great degree enhance activation in a specific brain region while performing an assigned task.  Activation of the targeted brain area increased as the subjects learnt to modify attention, strategy or other cognitive processes based upon the feedback they received. The answer that the researchers give to the question of why we see enhanced activation even in the absence of overt movement is, “While primary motor neurons within motor cortex directly effect movements, the majority of the total neuronal population in somatomotor cortex do not serve this role.”39 Thus the authors reason out somatomotor cortex can increase its activation in the absence of overt movement or muscle tensing, more so if there is real-time fMRI-based training. We see in this experiment that subjects can learn to exert additional, volitional control at the time of performing an assigned task. This study, through the use of real time neuroimaging demonstrates clearly that we can use cognitive strategies to control a target brain region in real time. 

ANALYSIS

We have looked through various kinds of evidence that demonstrate that mental phenomenon which includes cultural ways of thinking, do significantly affect brain activity. These include EEG, ERP, and fMRI studies about attentional/affect self-regulation, the impact of CBT in spider phobia, functional neuroimaging studies on the placebo effect and feedback directed to the brain. (Future studies would also have to consider the differences in the time-scale of influence which varies from a short time frame in the case of the placebo effect to much longer ones in the case of culture.)   To interpret these studies Beauregard and O’Leary offer us the Psychoneural Translation Hypothesis (PTH) which posits that “the mind (the psychological world, the first person perspective) and the brain (which is part of the so-called “material” world, the third-person perspective) represent two epistemologically different domains that can interact because they are complementary aspects of the same transcendental reality.”  Mental processes such as volition, emotion, desire and beliefs are neurally located in the brain, but cannot be reduced to nor are identical with neuroelectric or neurochemical processes. This is because one can’t from merely researching the activity of the neurons come to know what a person is thinking. PTH holds that conscious and unconscious mental processes get converted automatically into neural processes at the various levels of brain organization (biophysical, molecular, chemical, neural networks). These are then translated into processes and events in other physiological systems, such as the immune and endocrine system.40

With the help of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) the scientific discipline that investigates the relationships between the mind, brain, and immune system we can try to understand how the psychoneural translation mechanics works i.e. how the mental processes affect the brain and the body in positive and negative ways.  Using an analogy let us suppose that the language of the mind is translated into the language of the brain just as a computer program can translate a sentence from one language to another (within limitations, of course!). When I achieve something, thoughts of happiness cause a release of endorphins into the blood and when I am faced with perceived danger thoughts of fear result in the production of adrenaline.  Thus the mechanism by which information is transducted allows mental processes to causally affect the functioning of the brain and also to change the brain in the long run (plasticity). Beauregard and O’Leary along with others measured changes in regional brain serotonin (5-HT) during self-induced states of sadness and happiness in professional actors:

We measured serotonin (5-HT) synthesis capacity using the radiotracer 11C-alpha-methy-tryptophan (11C-aMtrp) combined with PET.  The reason we use tryptophan is that it will cross the blood-brain barrier, but serotonin will not. The subjects recalled autobiographical memories to induce sadness, happiness, and a neutral emotional state on three separate scan acquisitions. Results showed that the reported level of sadness was negatively correlated with 11C-aMtrp trapping increases in the left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC; BA 11) and the right anterior cingulated cortex correlated with 11C-aMtrp trapping increases in the right ACC (BA 32). In view of PTH, these findings suggest that a specific emotional state that is voluntarily self-induced can rapidly be translated into a selective modification of brain regional 5-HT synthesis capacity.41

Beauregard and O’Leary sketch out a number of conclusions. A purpose driven rather than a random biological evolution has enabled humans to consciously and voluntarily shape the functioning of our brains resulting in us being able to create new social and cultural environments. Ethical achievements according to the authors are the outcome of contact with a transcendental reality behind the universe and not simply the outcome of “selfish” neurons and genes. And, “[b]y virtue of the Psychoneural translation mechanism, moral values associated with a given spiritual worldview can help us to govern our emotional impulses and behave in a genuinely altruistic fashion.”42 The brain mediates but does not produce religious, spiritual, meditational experiences (RSMEs).  There is no scientific evidence showing that delusions or hallucinations produced by a dysfunctional brain can induce the kind of long-term positive changes and psychospiritual transformations that follow RSMEs. 

A NEW SCIENTIFIC PARADIGM

I have brought together studies of the effects of meditation on the brain/body. We also looked at other scientific research on a number of phenomenon which are not easily explained by a “mind=brain” understanding. A materialist dogma that humans are biological robots is limiting of reality, trying to accept as real only what can be proved materially is even more constricting of reality and demonstrates an unwillingness to acknowledge a large chunk of human experiences. This paper does not claim to solve the mind body problem but my hope is that it has shed more light on this thorny issue which has plagued scientists for centuries and philosophers for much longer. If we have to really progress in our understanding of the total human person, we need an understanding that accounts for a greater number of human experiences. Confining ourselves only to the physical or material world limits this understanding. As physicist James Jeans (1877-1946) points out, “The concepts which now prove to be fundamental to our understanding of nature… seem to my mind to be structures of pure thought… The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.43 Beauregard and O’Leary plead:

“A scientific frame of reference must bring together the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective, first person perspective and third-person perspective. Mystical experience from various spiritual traditions indicates that the nature of mind, consciousness, and reality as well as the meaning of life can be apprehended through an intuitive, unitive and experiential form of knowing. A scientific frame of reference must address the evidence for that.”44

We have grown in our understanding of the macro world, the universe and space entities. We have also learnt much about the brain and its workings, neurons and their plasticity. What we need to learn more about is the interaction between mental and material events, the relation between the mind and the body. Being open to the unfolding spiritual consciousness will help us bridge this gap.

 


Endnotes

1In “Glimpses of the Mind,” Time, July 17, 1995.

2 Michael D. Lemonick, “Glimpses of the Mind,” Time, July17, 1995.

3 Mario Beauregard & Denise O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain.  (HarperOne, 2007), p105.

4 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Simon & Schuster, Touchstone, 1995), p258.

5 V. S. Ramachandran, Reith Lectures, Lecture 5, 2003; http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2003/.

6 The Spiritual Brain, p109.

7 B. Alan Wallace, Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p3.

8 B. Real Cahn & John Polich, “Meditation States and Traits: EEG, ERP, and Neuroimaging Studies” in Psychological Bulletin 2006, Vol 132, No. 2, p180.

9 Cahn & Polich, p181.

10 Cahn & Polich, p181.

11 Cahn & Polich, p181.

12 Please refer the latter half of this paper.

13 Cahn & Polich, p182.

14 Conversations with neuroscientist Dr. Elizabeth Kensinger, Ph.D., December, 05, 2007.

15 Cahn & Polich, p187.

16 Cahn & Polich, p193-194.

17 Cahn & Polich, p196.

18 Cahn & Polich, p199.

19 Cahn & Polich, p200.

20 Cahn & Polich, p200.

21 Cahn & Polich, p202.

22 The Spiritual Brain., p126.

23 The Spiritual Brain p126.

24 The Spiritual Brain, p130.

25 V. Paquette et al., “Change the Mind and You Change the Brain: Effects of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy on the Neural Correlates of Spider Phobia,” Neuroimage 18.2 (February 2003): 401-9.

26 F. Benedetti, L. Colloca, E. Torre, et al., “Placebo-Responsive Parkinson Patients Show  Decreased Activity in Single Neurons of Subthalmic Nucleus,” Nature Neuroscience 7 (2004): 587-88. 

27 Tor D. Wager, James K. Riling, Edward E. Smith, Alex Sokolik, Kenneth L., Casey, Richard J. Davidson, Stephen M. Kosslyn, Robert M. Rose, Jonathan D. Cohen, “Placebo-Induced Changes in fMRI in the Anticipation and Experience of Pain,” Science 303, no. 5661 (February 20, 2004): 1162-67.

28 P. Petrovic, T.R.Dietrich, P. Fransson, J. Andersson, K. Carlsson, M. Ingvar, “Placebo in Emotional Processing-Induced Expectations of Anxiety Relief Activate a Generalized Modulatory Network,” Neuron 46 (2005): 957-969.

29 W. Grant Thompson, The Placebo Effect and Health: Combining Science and Compassionate Care (Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 2005), p42.

30 In The Spiritual Brain, 145-146.

31 In The Spiritual Brain, 145.

32 The Spiritual Brain, 148.

33 Zhu Ying, Zhang Li, Fan Jin and Han Shihui, “Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation” in NeuroImage 34 (2007), p1310.

34 Ying et al., p1314.

35 Denise Park and Angela Gutchess, “The Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging and Culture” in Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 (2006) p105.

36 R. E. Nisbett & T. Masuda, “Culture and point of view,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 100, pp11163-11170.

37 H. R. Markus & S. Kitayama, “Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion & motivation,” in Psychological Review, 98, pp224-253.

38 R. Christopher deCharms, K. Christoff, G. Glover, J.M. Pauly, Susan Whitfield, and J.D.E.Gabrieli, “Learned regulation of spatially localized brain activation using real-time fMRI” in NeuroImage 21 (2004) p436.

39 deCharms et al., 442.

40 The Spiritual Brain, p150-151.

41 The Spiritual Brain, p152.

42 The Spiritual Brain, p152.

43 Quoted in Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (San Franscisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 264.

44 The Spiritual Brain, p294.


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