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The Neuroscience of Meditation

An Introduction to the Scientific Study of How Meditation Impacts the Brain


Eric Thompson

Published by: iAwake Technologies, LLC www.ProfoundMeditationProgram.com www.iAwakeBlog.com www.i-Awake.net

Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

Other Publications, CDs, DVDs or Audio Programs by Eric Thompson or iAwake Technologies: The Profound Meditation Program - w/ iNET Technology The Neurophenomenology of Spiritual Development - eBook Meditation and the Brain DVD - Coming soon! The NeuroCharger Attention & Mood Enhancer - Coming soon! The Profound Joy Meditation System - Coming soon! BrainCatalyst - For Students - Coming soon! Centering Meditation - Coming soon!

Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

Contents
Introduction 1. Contemplative Neuroscience, Neuroplasticity and the Transformative Power of Consciousness 2. Brainwaves - What They Are 3. Brainwave States in Science 4. Brainwave States in Meditation 5. Brainwave States in Traditional Buddhist and Hindu Teachings 6. Attention-Gate Theory: How Awareness Changes the Brain 7. Meta-Awareness: Deepening the Transformative Power of Attention 8. Neurological Processes During Passive Meditation 9. Meditation and the Tao of the Human Nervous System 10. How The Brains of Advanced Meditators Differ from Non-Meditators - Part 1 11. How The Brains of Advanced Meditators Differ from Non-Meditators - Part 2
12. Scientific Studies on Tibetan Buddhist Loving Kindness Meditation

Meditation & Cortical Thickness

Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

CHAPTER 6 Attention-Gate Theory: How Awareness Changes the Brain


Meditation as Attention

The scientific literature generally defines meditation as a form of attentional training, either active or passive in nature. In its active form, meditation concentrates on a single object until the subject-object duality of the observation collapses in on itself, giving rise to nonduality. Meditation can also take on a more passive quality in which, instead of putting forth effort to meditate, one simply allows oneself to be meditated. You could say that the former type of meditation is yang, while the latter is yin. Regardless of whether its active or passive in nature, a legitimate meditation practice, as defined in the scientific literature, must involve: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Self-induced attentional activity A focal point for anchoring attention A significant minimization of logical processes Muscle relaxation A specific, teachable technique

In essence, meditation involves the way in which we engage attention. Whether were practicing Vipassana, shaktipat meditation, Tai Chi, qi gong, yoga or centering prayer, each of these practices involves the development of diffuse modes of attention. In fact, virtually all spiritual practices and teachings are, at their heart, modes of attention. Think about it. When Jesus told the multitude on the mount to Seek ye first the kingdom of God, he was pointing to a mode of attention in which God and alignment with God were the sole objects of desire and attention. Islams emphasis of submission of the will to God is, again, a unique mode of attention. And the Eightfold Path of Buddhism (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) is itself a mode of attention
Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

made up of sub-modes of attention. As mentioned in Chapter 4, attention, undergirded by intention, can be imagined as the enlightened drill sergeant that sets the pace for the ordered, synchronous firing of large neuronal networks. To better understand this principle, lets take this illustration into the realm of experience. What is your attention focused on right now? And what is the quality of that attention at this very moment? Is it stable, erratic, detached? At this very moment, both the object and quality of your attention are activating neurological pathways that will affect your behavior and experience of life in beneficial or adverse ways. Seen from this perspective, meditation (in some form) is something that is happening all the time, because some form of attention is in constant play, whether consciously or unconsciously. Conscious attention is currency. Thats why we have the expression paying attention. Sometimes it flows vigorously, and at other times it seems to be impeded. Some people are more affluent in certain forms of attention than others. And like wealth, attention is something that must be managed if it is to be properly grown, maintained and used for the betterment of society. Through proper cultivation, meditation can in the same manner become a deep reservoir of full-bodied presence from which the opportunities and challenges of daily life are met. Attention-Gate Theory

The attention-gate theory, put forth by researchers Richard Davidson and Helen Neville, states that attention acts like a gate, recruiting neurological cooperation, thereby exerting mental influence over the brain. Author Sharon Begley has documented an example of this gate-function of attention, offered by scientist Helen Neville: if an individual attentively reads a book while
Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

passively listening to music in the background, the visual areas of the brain will be activated and the areas associated with hearing will not. Conversely, if the music is listened to attentively while passively looking at a book, the areas associated with hearing will become active. It is apparent from this example that conscious attention directs the flow of energy and information within the brain. In terms of the mind-body problem mentioned in Chapter 1, conscious intention and attention seem to act as the gateway for mental causation in the physical realm. You may have heard this observation expressed elsewhere as Energy goes where attention flows. We can see this principle at work in various Hindu forms of meditation, for example, wherein attention is placed on the third eye, located at the point just above where the eye brows meet. It just so happens that key brain areas involved in certain forms of meditation are located just behind this point, not the least of which is the pituitary gland. As attention is stabilized in this area, a positive feedback loop is developed that increases the amplitude of the signal until, at some point, the pituitary gland releases neuropeptides conducive to deep relaxation. While understanding how attention acts as a gateway to directing the flow of energy and information in the brain is of great importance, it is also helpful know how that gateway is maintained as an ever-present way of being in the world. The theory of Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb can help us in this regard. Hebbian Learning

Donald Hebb theorized in 1949 that, as a brain cell repeatedly and persistently excites another cell, the firing process between these two cells becomes strengthened. The electrochemical bonds between these brain cells are reinforced and enhanced through continued use. And the more these pathways are strengthened, the more prominent are their psychophysiological correlates in the personality and in conscious experience. In this way the brain learns behaviors by the repeated and sustained activation of particular neural and synaptic pathways over time, until they become more or less hardwired into the brains neural circuitry. You have probably heard this notion expressed as, Neurons that fire together wire together.
Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

Again, we can see the conscious focus of attention as the drill sergeant that establishes at least three important factors in involved in meditation: 1) the direction of the flow of energy and information; 2) the overarching cadence of that flow; and 3) the amplitude, or power, of that resulting signal. We can envision a cultivated meditation practice as a means of directing the flow of energy and information in such continuous, rhythmic and synchronous fashion that it eventually establishes a positive feedback loop that builds in amplitude. The resulting coherence is experienced as lucidity, clarity and penetrating insight. The Narrow Gate as a Strange Attractor Jesus said, "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14, New American Standard Bible). He is also recorded as having stated, . . . the kingdom of heaven is within you (Luke 17:21, New International Version). Buddhist teaching in the Madhyamaka tradition likewise emphasizes the potential for enlightenment (which can be seen as the Buddhist equivalent of the kingdom of heaven) as being readily available. Yet the conditioned mind remains oblivious to the liberating reality of its immediate proximity.

This chapter theorizes that the wide gate that leads to destruction is the culturally and neurologically conditioned mind, which is oblivious to the enlightened Buddha-nature. In other words, inefficient modes of attention that were established as the result of ingrained neurological
Copyright 2010-2011 Eric Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

conditioning throughout the lifespan act collectively as the wide gate that leads to an inner experience of hell. The distinction between wide and narrow in this regard refers to one gate being more easily noticed and having a stronger attractive pull than the other in immediate experience. The wide gate is a strange attractor of sorts, because it habitually attracts our attention based on our previous, mostly unconscious, conditioning. Inherent in such conditioning are top-down processesglobal neuro-electrical currents that entrain and therefore distort local processes involved in perception. Through this top-down process, certain neural networks create persuasive attractor patterns, some of which have been linked to various psychiatric disorders. The term attractor pattern is used in chaos theory to denote systemic patterns toward which chaotic systems tend to evolve. It is further theorized here that the narrow gate which leads to life is nothing other than the mindful and conscious awareness of the Buddha-natureconsciousness as presencewithin; i.e., meta-awarenessthe awareness of awareness. This gate, then, is narrow because it is less obvious to the conditioned mind and because it is mediated by both an enlightened intention and an exclusive neural circuit involving the middle prefrontal areas. Scientific evidence suggests that these areas work together in mindfulness meditation to preclude the top-down neural processes involved in the expectations of attachment and aversion arising from the conditioned mind. Sometimes referred to as a bottom-up process, this narrow gate involves present-moment awareness, attentive not only of mental and bodily processes, but of conscious presence as well. This anchoring of awareness in the present moment, as such, acts to override the conditioned mind, effectively making embodied meta-awareness a strange attractor for heightened consciousness.

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Further Reading Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. New York: Ballentine Books. Combs, A. (2002). The Radiance of Being: Understanding the Grand Integral Vision; Living the Integral Life. St Paul, MN: Paragon House. Creswell, S., B. M. Way, N. I. Eisenberger, & M. D. Liberman. (2007). Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness during Affect Labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 560-565. Davidson, R., & Neville, H. (2004). Neuroplasticity: The Neuronal Substrates of Learning and Transformation. Mind and Life II. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the The Mind and Life Institute, Dharamsala, India. Engel, A. K., Fries, P., Singer, W. (2001). Dynamic predictions: Oscillations and synchrony in top-down processing. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 704-716. Ewen, R. B. (2004). An Introduction to Theories of Personality. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Hoffman, R. E. (1992). Attractor Neuro Networks and Psychotic Disorders. Psychiatric Annals, 22(3), 119-124. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness. New York: Hyperion Press. Li, E., & Spiegel, D. (1992). A Neuro Network Model of Associative Disorders. Psychiatric Annals, 22(3), 144-145. Mathew, R. J. (2002). The True Path: Western Science and the Quest for Yoga. New York: Basic Books. Nataraja, S. (2008). The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and proof of the power of meditation. London: Hachette. Pinel, J. P. J. (2003). Biopsychology. New York: Pearson. Prigogine, I., & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of Chaos: Mans New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam. Pujol, J., Lopez, A., Deus, J., Cardoner, N., Vallejo, J., Capdevila, A., & Paus, T. (2002). Anatomical variability of the anterior cingulate gyrus and basic dimensions of human personality. NeuroImage, 15, 847-855. Ramel, W., Goldin, P. R., Carmona, P. E., & McQuaid, J. R. (2004). The effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive processes and affect in patients with past depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 38, 433-455.

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Sarnot, H. B., & Menkes, J. H. (2000). Neuroembrylogy, Genetic Programming and Malformations of the Nervous System. In J. H. Menkes, H. B. Sarnot & B. L. Maria (Eds). Child Neurology. Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Schwartz, J., & Allen, S. (2007). Lead Your Brain Instead of Letting It Lead You. The Complete Lawyer, 3(3), 1-6. Schwartz, J., & Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins. Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: W. W. Norton. Taylor. J. B. (2006). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientists Personal Journey. New York: Plume. Tomasello, M. (1993). On the interpersonal origins of self-concept. In U. Neisser (Ed), The perceived self: Ecological and interpersonal sources of self-knowledge. Emory symposia in cognition, 5 (pp. 174184). New York: Cambridge University Press. Trevarthen, C. (1993). The self born in intersubjectivity: An infant communicating. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Sources of Self-Knowledge, (pp. 121173). New York: Cambridge University Press. Waller, M. (2007). Awakening: Exposing the Voice of the Mosaic Mind. Livermore, CA: WingSpan. Wilber, K. (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala. Wilber, K. (2007). Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Shambhala.

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