Researchers are trying to explore and investigate the ancient practice of meditation and the results are stunning.
In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems encountered by researchers was that they didn't understand the practice in depth. What they needed were better mechanisms to generate theories that could be tested - theories that were relevant both in terms of lived experience but also medically.
Nowadays, researchers are beginning to get the tools needed to track specific brain activities that correlate with the experiences described by people who meditate.
For example, a couple of years ago, according to The Epoch Times, a team of researchers from Brown University, led by Juan Santoyo, presented the results of their studies at an annual International Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at Massachusetts Medical School.
"We will discuss how it can be applied as a general tool in the development of treatments for mental disorders. We can explore how certain experiences conform to certain patterns of brain activity. We know that certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric conditions," said Catherine Kerr, part of the team.
Exploring The Practice Of Meditation
The team studied two meditation techniques that come from different Eastern traditions, and that had what seemed like only a small difference between them: whether the people who meditate focused on the sensation of nasal or abdominal breathing.
The information recorded and carefully coded by the researchers showed that the two techniques resulted in different states of mind.
"We found that when students focused on abdominal breathing, the experiences they described focused largely on sensations in the body and specific somatic areas."
"When students described experiences they had during practice that focused on nasal breathing during meditation, their descriptions referred to a quality of mind, and specifically said that their attention could be felt."
The researchers then conducted a standardized analysis of the experiences described by students following meditation sessions. Such an analysis was called "grounded theory methodology".
"Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of the experiences had by the group focusing on the abdomen breathing, we expected even more than that. Their brain activity correlated with large parts of the brain region called the insula, which encodes somatic, visceral sensations and provides a description of emotional aspects called intuitions, hunches."
Merging Experiences With The Brain
The next step is to correlate the information encoded during experiences with the activity of the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Yale University's Kathleen Garrison, which included Juan Santoyo and Catherine Kerr (from Brown University), published the results of their analysis in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013.
The team worked with experienced people who meditate to correlate the mental states experienced during meditative self-awareness with simultaneous activities of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured them using real-time imaging provided by functional magnetic resonance imaging.
The team found that when several people who meditate coming from different traditions experienced a feeling described as "effortless action" and "uninterrupted awareness" during their meditation, their PAC showed decreased activity, but when they reported feeling distracted and having to exert effort to concentrate, their PAC was much more active. When given the chance to watch their brain activity in real time, some people who meditate were able to control their brain activity levels.
"You can analyze these phenomena together and discover how they influence each other. In a session of just 10 minutes, they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a particular experience that was then used to drive the signal (depicted by images from the MRI machine."
The theme of the conference, and one of the main reasons Kerr and Santoyo did the research, is to turn such research into practical medical benefits. People who meditate have long benefited from these qualities, but only recently have they caught the attention of neuroscience and psychiatry.
The team of researchers believes that people who practice self-awareness can gain increased control over the rhythm of alpha sensory signals in the cortical area, similar to the ability of people who meditate to control activity in the PBC.
These brain sensory signals may normalize the way the brain processes and filters both sensations, including pain, and memories such as those during periods of depression.