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Meditation methods and the scientific method are teaming up to explore some of the deepest questions about our existence and human nature.

Hosted by: Anthony Brown
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[♪ INTRO].

People have been using meditation to explore themselves and the world around them for thousands of years. But traditionally, this method has been at odds with the scientific method, which relies on experiments that are objective and repeatable.

Because there’s no objective way to measure what someone is thinking or feeling, or to replicate their experience. But despite these differences, in the last few decades, neuroscientists and experienced meditators have been coming together to explore some of the deepest questions about our existence and human nature. And together, they’ve been able to accomplish things that neither method of inquiry could have done alone.

Now, we’re not talking about the studies that show how practicing meditation may help people live better lives, although there are plenty of those.  They deal with questions like how to manage stress and anxiety, reduce symptoms of depression, and even improve cognition. But what we’re talking about is how neuroscientists and meditation practitioners can come together to better understand much deeper truths about human nature. This approach is often called contemplative science.

And while meditation itself can’t produce testable truths, the experiences of meditators can still help researchers figure out what questions to ask, how to design experiments, and how to interpret what’s going on in the brain. For instance, neuroscientists working alongside meditators have changed the way we think about our sense of self. We naturally perceive our “self” as separate from the world around us.  Like, we’re distinct individuals with thoughts, feelings, and experiences that only we have access to, and we can’t experience being anyone, or anything, else.

But through a type of contemplative practice known as non-dual awareness, skilled meditators report feeling their consciousness spreading beyond them, in what some people might call “oneness with the universe.” Neuroscientists were curious about what was going on in the brain when this happened. So in a 2011 study, researchers teamed up with Buddhist monks, who meditated while the researchers watched their brains during an fMRI scan. And the researchers found that when meditators were experiencing that sense of nonduality, or oneness, more parts of their brains were active than usual.

In particular, two networks that are typically active at different times were suddenly both active at once. And that gave scientists a clue. Because, generally, one of those networks is active when you’re interacting with things in the external world, like other people or a cup on the counter.  The other, known as the default mode network, is active when you’re thinking about your past or future, or generally sitting with your feelings and thoughts.

But when someone is experiencing nonduality, the seesaw relationship between the two networks weakens, and the brain is able to hold both perspectives at once.  This suggests that our fundamental notion of a “self” that’s bounded from the world is actually all constructed in the brain, and our brains can also deconstruct it. Now, a lot of the collaborations between neuroscientists and meditators are aimed at figuring out how certain experiences manifest in the brain, which might not seem that illuminating.  But that can be important because it often reveals unexpected connections and gives us new ways to interpret things we experience. For instance, neuroscientists and meditators worked together again to understand another mysterious phenomenon: spontaneous thoughts.

You know, those random ideas that pop into your head in the shower, or when you zone out while listening to something boring. We know those thoughts have to come from our brains, but we don’t actually know how. To figure it out, scientists again turned to meditators, in particular, those with experience in focused meditation.

In focused meditation, people direct their attention to a single thing, like their breath or a sound. Whenever their attention wanders, they notice and redirect back to their focal point. So in various studies using fMRI scans and EEGs to record brain activity, scientists asked experienced meditators to press a button as soon as their mind wandered, so that they could see what was happening in the brain.

In 2011, they found that when someone’s mind starts to wander, the type of brain activity shifts.  There are more neurons firing slowly than quickly, and the brain resembles that of someone who’s drowsy, hypnotized, or in deep sleep.  The next year, a second study showed that there’s also an uptick in activity in that default mode network, which focuses on internal thought. We still don’t know exactly what triggers this, but the authors of a 2016 study did figure out that it starts before you’re even conscious of it: . Right before your mind wanders, there’s activity in parts of the brain associated with remembering things, planning for the future, and simulating situations in your mind.  And then it produces a spontaneous thought.

Although meditation is an internal practice, contemplative science can also shed light on our external experiences. For instance, neuroscientists have used this approach to get a better understanding of empathy. They did this by studying people engaged in loving-kindness compassion meditation, which is a practice that involves creating a general feeling of unconditional compassion.

In a 2004 study, neuroscientists looked at what was happening in the brains of both experienced and beginner meditators while they practiced loving-kindness meditation.  Some of their findings weren’t too surprising: For instance, they found that this practice activated parts of the brain typically associated with positive emotions and monitoring how you feel, which all seem like important parts of empathy. But what was surprising was that the amount of activity in those areas was linked with how much experience the subject had with this type of meditation.  That suggests that empathy is a skill, not just something you’re born with.  And like any other skill, empathy can be trained, honed, and improved.  All of these studies show that this field of contemplative science gives us an unconventional way to explore some of our biggest philosophical questions. And just like a meditator experiencing the internal and the external world at once, by uniting two disparate perspectives, we can access even deeper truths about ourselves and the universe.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you liked this video, you might like our episode on how meditation can affect the brain, which you can watch right after this. [♪ OUTRO].