Pain and Transcendence
New research has begun unveiling the neurophysiological correlates of the benefits brought on by techniques like meditation.
This side of neurophysiology is exploring a few related avenues. One of these is the study published in the journal Zygon, which analyzes cerebral functional changes associated with religious sensations such as “out-of-body” experiences (OBEs).
As it turns out, people who meditate to reach an OBE feeling share some intriguing aspects of brain function with patients who have undergone certain types of cerebral traumas. In particular, the left temporal lobe shows more activity – while activity decreases in the right temporal and parietal lobes, which are known for maintaining self/other distinctions:
The ability to connect with things beyond the [perceived] self, such as transcendent experiences, seems to occur for people who minimize right parietal functioning. This can be attained through cultural practices, such as intense meditation or prayer or because of a brain injury that impairs the functioning of the right parietal lobe. Either way, our study suggests that ‘selflessness’ is a neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences.
While this research is intriguing, it mainly represents an expansion on existing ideas – the ability of monks and nuns to modulate activity in the temporoparietal areas (and a few others) through prefrontal focus has been studied in fMRI research for years.
The new concept here is that similar “transcendent” changes may be induced by brain injury or disease – which lends weight to the long-held hypothesis that many famous religious leaders may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.1
Meanwhile, other meditation-related studies are exploring a different set of outcomes and benefits. This research focuses on the technique of mindfulness meditation, which dates back several millennia, but is gaining increasing attention in cutting-edge psychotherapy:
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad.
For one example, a group of researchers at Wake Forest University took a class of volunteers through a mindfulness training program. After only a few days of training, the patients reported an average 57% reduction – not in their pain itself – but in their perception of its “unpleasantness“:
A brain scanner showed how the intervention worked. Learning to meditate altered brain activity in the very same regions, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are targeted by next-generation pain medications. It’s as if the subjects were administering their own painkillers.
It’s also worth noting that the insular cortex (called the “insula” above) plays a major role in interoception – that is, the perception of one’s own interior states and feelings – and in one’s senses of self and personal agency. This region lights up with activity during both mindfulness and transcendental meditation.
As Jonah Lehrer points out in his article, pain itself is perhaps better understood as a mental state than a purely physical one. Our central nervous systems have the ability to flood themselves with soothing and uplifting chemicals like opiates, endorphins, and dopamine – and as we saw above, at least some of these abilities can be brought under our conscious control.
But I think there’s an even deeper truth coming to light here: many people have a tendency to seek an escape from themselves when the going gets tough – through drugs (prescription or otherwise), through distractions like TV or the Internet, or just by keeping their thoughts anywhere in the past and future, as long as they stay out of the present.
Now, none of those things is necessarily wrong in and of itself. But there’s no escaping the fact that we all have to fall back into ourselves at some point, and many people seem to fight that point off as long as possible.
It is wrong to think that misfortunes come from the east or from the west; they originate within one’s own mind. Therefore, it is foolish to guard against misfortunes from the external world and leave the inner mind uncontrolled.
Wouldn’t it be nicer if it already felt comfortable in there? If the interior of your mind joyfully welcomed you home?
What I’m saying is, it seems that these sorts of meditation practices focus not on muting our interior perceptions, but on coming to peace with them.
1. The novel Lying Awake by Mark Salzman provides a gripping (and admirably even-handed) exploration of this debate from the perspective of an increasingly skeptical nun.