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Contemplating Oneness: The Neuroscience of Meditation

August 17, 2009

Neuroscientists at New York University study
longtime meditators to glean insight into how our brains work.
By Carina Storrs
August 13, 2009.

Far from the proverbial mountain top or a quiet
shrine, one group of meditators is attempting the
ancient practice inside a brain-scanning machine.
It is as narrow as a coffin, and they lie inside
with foam cubes packed around their heads so that
they don’t shift. And even though they wear ear
buds to block out noise from the machine, the
steady thumping seems to set the mood more for disco dancing than meditating.

This is the unnatural setting in which Zoran
Josipovic and David Heeger at New York University
have been scanning monks and secular meditators
with functional magnetic resonance imaging — or
fMRI. The fMRI machine allows the scientists to
track the monks’ brain activity based on blood
flow as they try to enter a meditative state. The
researchers are interested in a special type of
meditation in which the practitioners try to
merge the external world with their own internal,
personal thoughts, explains Josipovic, who is a
Tibetan Buddhist as well as research associate in
Heeger’s neuroscience lab. Since 2008, the pair
has been working to identify if there is a
pattern of brain activity that accompanies the experience of “oneness.”

What they find could help illuminate poorly
understood brain disorders such as stress,
depression and even Alzheimer’s and autism. These
diseases are very different from each other, but
they share a common feature: In those afflicted,
brain scans reveal strange behavior in the same
region of the brain. Zoran and Josipovic believe
this part of the brain is associated with
internal thoughts, a poorly understood area
referred to as the “default network.” It is
called default because it seems to activate when
people are not doing any particular task.

Average people are conscious of either the
external world or their personal world, and they
alternate their attention between the two. These
worlds push us into and pull us out of our
awareness. Imagine how concentrating on a
situation in the present, like listening to a
friend’s story or solving a math problem, can
make you less self-aware — that is the pull of
the external world. But then a lapse of focus
creeps in, and you begin to wonder if you missed
your doctor’s appointment this morning, or what
you want to do on vacation next week — and you
have felt the push into your inner world.

While neuroscientists have made strides toward
understanding the brain activity associated with
external tasks, the areas that control
self-related thoughts remain shrouded in mystery.
Roughly speaking, external or goal-oriented tasks
activate regions around the outer part of the
brain known as the external network. The default
network, on the other hand, is about one-third of
the brain nestled inside the external network’s
crown. It is an area that is quiet when the
external network is active, and active when the
external network sits idle. While scientists
first thought this area might just be active when
the brain had no task to focus on, a growing camp
of brain researchers, including Josipovic and
Heeger, believe that it is the seat of self-related thinking.

To learn about this mysterious network, they are
probing the brains of people who practice a type
of meditation called nondualism. Unlike common
meditation approaches, such as focusing on an
external or imaginary object for a prolonged
stretch of time, nondualism trains meditators to
watch their own minds. All the while they remain
fully aware of their surroundings. “What I think
is important here is the use of trained
meditators to get at a subjective mental state,”
Heeger explains. Because these meditators can
control whether they are reflecting on themselves
or on external issues, or on both, they can
describe their experiences to the researchers
after their fMRI. If they achieved a sense of
“oneness,” the researchers can look to see if the
machine recorded any unique brain activity that
could be associated with this mental state.

Stumbling upon the brain’s "resting" network

Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the
Washington University School of Medicine in St.
Louis, Mo, served up the game-changing idea of
the default network in 2001 in a study he
published in Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences. By scanning the brains of control
subjects who were awake but had no task to do, he
noticed areas of the brain that crackled with
activity, which he dubbed the default network.
His critics rushed to point out that his taskless
subjects could be thinking about anything during
the scan but, to Raichle, it was exciting just to
discover that there was an area of the brain that
waxed as the external network’s waned.

Experiments in the laboratory of Rafael Malach, a
neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute of
Science in Israel, first raised the suspicion
that the default network did more than oppose the
external network, that it might control
self-related thoughts. Malach’s team made the
surprising discovery that people’s brains
responded in identical ways to certain dramatic
scenes in films such as “The Good, the Bad, and
the Ugly” and movies by Alfred Hitchcock. But,
during other parts of the movies, each viewer had
his or her own pattern of brain activity. Malach
believes that, during less intense scenes, with
less gunshots and bloodshed, people began
comparing the action to their own personal
experiences, letting their thoughts turn inward.
Their brain activity spiked upward in the areas
known then as the default network. Now, five
years after this “neurocinematics” study, which
was published in Science in 2004, Malach says
that, “We are [still] very much in the dark about this system.”

FMRI-based experiments usually monitor the brain
activity of subjects as they respond to stimuli,
whereas the default network tends to activate in
the absence of external stimuli. This means that
fMRI is an unlikely tool for studying the default
network. There are no tests to study the wide
range of internal thoughts that could come from
this network, such as reflections on the past (do
I like the shirt I just bought?), or the future
(where will I wear that shirt?) or anticipating
other people’s opinions (will my friend think
that shirt looks good?). These thoughts often pop
into our heads seemingly out of nowhere.

Good luck studying spontaneous thought, says
Malach. Still, he commends this approach for
illuminating the network, saying that the
Western-style studies using fMRI scanning “fit
like a glove on Eastern meditation.”
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