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Meditation

“The ultimate purpose of meditation is to recognize what consciousness is like prior to identification with thought…it is ultimately the simple recognition of the nature of mind, the pure freedom from self that is available in each present moment that has changed my life for the better.” Sam Harris, the Paradox of Psychedlics

In 2022, I took a six-month leave of absence from work and explored meditation.

Neuroscience has a field of study for neural correlates of consciousness (NCC). What I was most interested in neural correlates of meditation. In other words, I was less interested in what meditation does for the brain and more in how it does it, under the assumption that if I understood that better, I may be able to develop meditation techniques focused on specific cognitive outcomes. Why does meditation increase the ability to focus?

Not all meditation is the same:

Neuroimaging studies find common patterns during meditation and in long-term meditators reflecting the basic similarities of meditation in general; however, mostly the patterns differ across unique meditation traditions. (Brandmeyer, “The neuroscience of meditation: classification, phenomenology, correlates, and mechanisms”).

Meditations on meditation

Samatha, calm abiding, which steadies, composes, unifies and concentrates the mind;
Vipassanā, insight, which enables one to see, explore and discern "formations" (conditioned phenomena based on the five aggregates).[5] [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samatha](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samatha)

The driving question: why does meditation increase brain function?

…I didn’t think that the answer was either not something that was in the traditional realm of quantitative research because it was a philosophical question. I thought that maybe it was one of those topics that required subject matter expertise in two disciplines and therefore was unstudied.

Here were some answers I found, and they generally aligned with my lay theories:

We start from simple axioms. First, the brain makes predictions based on past experience, both phylogenetic and ontogenetic. Second, deconstructive meditation brings one closer to the here and now by disengaging anticipatory processes. We propose that practicing meditation therefore gradually reduces counterfactual temporally deep cognition, until all conceptual processing falls away, unveiling a state of pure awareness. Our account also places three main styles of meditation (focused attention, open monitoring, and non-dual) on a single continuum, where each technique relinquishes increasingly engrained habits of prediction, including the predicted self. This deconstruction can also permit certain insights by making the above processes available to introspection. Our framework is consistent with the state of empirical and (neuro)phenomenological evidence and illuminates the top-down plasticity of the predictive mind.

From many to (n)one: Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind

Classifications of meditation techniques

One way of grouping: endogenous attention, access consciousness, phenomenal awareness, metacognitive consciousness, and a non-referential form of unified consciousness. (Raffone 2009, “An adaptive workspace hypothesis about the neural correlates of consciousness: insights from neuroscience and meditation studies”).

I use Josipovic 2013 as a way of classifying meditation techniques, as this system of classification groups existing techniques as correlated with two networks in the brain: the intrinsic network (self awareness/consciousness) and the extrinsic network (sensory perception).

Subject-only meditation techniques (endogenous attention, or samatha), where the mental process or the mind of the meditator is the focus, and to understand “consciousness of the self”. Techniques that fall into this category include loving kindness meditation, mantra meditation.

Object-focus meditation techniques (exogenous attention, or vipassanā), where attention is focused on something other than the mind – a chant, or the sensations of the body in the environment, focusing on following ones stream of thought nonjudgmentally, or even concentrating on suppressing stream of consciousness thought altogether.

Neither subject- nor object-focus, where mental events related to both intrinsic mental processes and awareness of extrinsic stimuli have ceased. This is perhaps the generic lay stereotype of the “end goal” of meditation (even though object-focus meditation is actually much more common in contemporary practice).

Nondual approaches facilitate of an awareness that intrinsic and extrinsic are always interacting and dependent on each other, actively rejecting the common separations of inside-outside or self-other. The theory is that this corresponds to a cognitive process or state that precedes the heuristic of binary thinking that our brain uses. A proposed example of nondual thinking in the brain is nonreferential love or compassion. I might add “empathy” – the ability to literally feel inside what is going on outside of oneself.

Attempts have been made to classify dif- ferent meditation techniques into two broad cate- gories on the basis of the attentional mechanisms they engage: focused attention (FA) and open mon- itoring (OM), with NDA meditation (Tib. rig-pa) being classified in this second category. 41 As pointed out by our group and others, key features of NDA differentiate the NDA meditation style as a third category of meditation.

Neural correlates of nondual awareness in meditation

Subject-only approach:

Research on techniques that have this objective has shown increased activity of nodes in the intrinsic or de- fault network, in particular, the medial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices. 46–48 The goal of such meditations has been traditionally spoken of as “increasing self-awareness” or “realizing the pure consciousness or the self.”

Object-only approach:

Such attentional focus on the sensory dimension of experience de-emphasizes subjectiv- ity and self-related meaning in favor of objective perception. This emphasis has also been expressed in terms of a hypothesized shift from egocentric to allocentric spatial processing. 55 Spontaneous think- ing or mind wandering is discouraged, and one’s progress is measured in stages that are mostly indica- tive of one’s capacity for attentional absorption. Research on meditations using the objective-only approach has found increases in the activity of nodes in the extrinsic network, specifically in the areas related to FA and monitoring, 57 together with decreases in the activity in nodes of the intrinsic network, specifically in the medial prefrontal cor- tex and posterior cingulate cortex. These changes have been accompanied by increases in anticorre- lation between the nodes of intrinsic and extrin- sic networks. 58–60 Such increases in anticorrelation have been interpreted as increases in functional seg- regation between these two networks.

Neither subject or object:

These approaches envision a state of deep absorp- tion (Sansk: Samadhi) akin to deep sleep, in which all mental events, both those related to intrinsic and those related to extrinsic aspects of experience, have ceased. 71 What is left of one’s actual cognitive ca- pacity in such absorption, and in what way, if any, this state may be different from deep non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, has been a matter of some debate.

Nondual approach:

NDA meditations present an alternative to the abovementioned monistic approaches. Rather than eliminating one or the other pole of experience, NDA meditations facilitate realization of the natural unity of human experiencing, which is free from fragmenting into opposing dualities of, for example, inside–outside, self–other, and good–bad. These meditations rely on a background NDA that precedes conceptualization and intentionality, and cognizes without fragmenting the experience into dualistic opposites, hence the term nondual for this awareness.

In current meditation research, NDA meditation is also often confused with open nonjudgmental or choice-less awareness meditation, a form of mindfulness med- itation in which one monitors or follows whatever becomes a salient feature of one’s experience from moment to moment, without engaging it or inter- fering with it.

Personal meditation techniques

1. The three brain cells

There are cells in the brain that perform three distinct functions: the grid cell creates a map-like reference for itself; the place cell contains sensory information; the orientation cell tells the brain where this is in relation to other things. In essence, our brains are communicating three basic types of information: “Where is it?” “What is it?” and “How am I oriented to it?”

Use this as a meditation practice: explicitly loop through the three questions, with the following prompts.

  1. Where is it? Focus at a point between the eyes and actively empty your mind of thoughts.
  2. What is it? Categorize the outside sensory stimuli, and the body’s stimuli.
  3. How am I oriented to it? Explore the feeling of the mental shift between step 1 and 2.

2. Retrace your steps

  1. Allow the mind to wander as it does.
  2. After a time, see if you can correctly retrace the flow of thoughts that led you to the most recent one.
  3. Identify how each shift in thought was related in the brain.
  4. Derive a label for the abstract process that the brain did to shift to that: was the brain recalling an emotion related to the previous thought? Was it shifting into “predictive” mode (thinking about upcoming tasks or events)? What it shifting into “filing cabinet” mode (reiterating recent thoughts to solidify them in memory)?

3. Focus on the narrator

Mindfulness meditation’s goal could be summarized quite simply as being more aware of what you are thinking when you’re thinking it, and being conscious that you are thinking. This act provides all the intervention goodness of mindfulness, such as being able to reevaluate whether a sudden emotional reaction to something is justified or in proportion, or to recognize that your brain is stuck on thinking about something that is anxiety producing in a way that is not constructive (and then you can actively adjust your thinking).

This act requires the brain to think about what it’s thinking. To strengthen this ability, focus on the ways you’re getting your brain to think about thinking. One way would be to imagine a kind of internal narrator that is commenting on what you’re thinking while you’re thinking it (or a stadium announcer?). By focusing on what this voice is narrating, you’ll more easily be able to invoke it in the future.

4. Priming the pump

We’re familiar with phrases like “Take a moment to gather your thoughts,” or “imagineering.” These are simply heuristics for engaging a part of your brain that will be needed for an upcoming task, and more abstractly, establishing the upcoming task as what the brain should be focusing itself on (a mechanism that allows the brain’s natural stream of consciousness thinking to perform a sort of feedback loop to accomplish a specific task out of many possible ones).

We can’t always be prepared for every upcoming task and event in a way that itemizes what that specific task will need, but if the brain is primed for that task, it’ll probably perform better.

In this meditation exercise, take an upcoming todo that you have to do (like a work meeting, or writing a short story) and focus on the meta tasks that your brain will be doing (not the subject matter of the meeting, or how you want to come across to those in the meeting, or the story) and imagine yourself performing those brain functions.