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Rick Hanson, PhD gets it. Hundreds of other people get it too. But Hanson may just barely win the prize for being the most explicit about using neuroscience to enhance meditation:
“To ‘naturalize’ something is to place it in the frame of the natural world, to operationalize it in natural terms. […]
“What could be a [neurobiological] operationalization of dukkha, tanha, sila, samadhi, panna, bhavana, or nirodha?”
So far so good, and he’d be willing to throw out the traditional concepts for better ones and add new ones, hinted at by objective investigation, that Buddhism missed. And Hanson will happily talk about the insula, the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, gamma waves, and functional connectivity. And he offers strategies for people to reliably light up brain regions (which albeit needs some careful unpacking re brain versus mind), and he responsibly qualifies all the brain enthusiasm by noting that “[m]ost big changes in the psyche involve tiny changes in soma; mental plasticity holds more promise than neural plasticity.”
This is great. He’s trying to ground this stuff. He’s carving up the territory in objective ways to try to teach accessibly and palatably. And he’s got a profitable media empire going. I’m jealous.
But, here’s what I think isn’t good enough, yet:
Hanson is still offering an unintegrated grab bag of techniques, and there’s only so much time during the day. Ditto Shinzen Young who is still awesome. Ditto classical Buddhism. Not quite ditto the Mahasi noting crowd (Ingram, Folk), which offers one to three techniques at a time, but I think the payoff of those techniques might be too narrow.
I think there must be better ways to cut across the intervention phase space. The brain is homeostatic. Retrospectively reflecting, here’s the pattern I usually see when I do something new:
- Nothing happens because I’m still learning how to do it in a precise, sustained way. (Five minutes to one week)
- “Big” or at least obvious changes happen as I quickly “use up the neural slack” and push my brain to the edge of its accessible operating mode (couple days)
- Start either losing ground or stop seeing big changes, as the brain adapts, or short-term maxes out, to whatever pressure I’m applying (4 days)
- Slowly layering bedrock of lasting change (weeks, months, years)
The last one (step 4) is kind of interesting because that step is what seems to reshape (2) over time, the neural phase space you have to roam around in. The work you do in (4), you seem to lose it much more slowly if you stop, or, even if it seems to fade, you can often seemingly get it back to where you left off within a few days.
I think the little spot interventions (“inner smile,” “inner pause,” “pay attention”) do add up, in that they can kind of become habit, but the brain is “fighting back,” evening you out, stealing your gains. Bad brain. Or bad Hawthorne Effect.
But do those little spot interventions anyway: be an inner ninja in your daily life. I’m not knocking them.
But I want to do better. I want to develop new practices that efficiently cut across many inner lines of development at once. You can only do those steps (1)-(4) on so many practices at a time. Money and sex and love and friends and fun and impact and the reasons you’re doing steps (1)-(4) in the first place should be high priority.
How big can your practice become?
I feel like the ideal is folding absolutely everything one possibly can into a single process, a single meditation protocol. That might be phenomenologically complex, but there’d be a subjective simplicity on the far side of that complexity. I’ve used the analogy of a symphony before: you might think of yourself as simultaneously being both the conductor and the entire symphony at the same time while you’re meditating.
In that “single” ideal meditation protocol, there’s room for experimenting; there’s room for surrender; there’s room for not attacking yourself with exacting standards; there’s room for warmth, intimacy, safety folded into the practice itself, yet there’s room for precision, for striving; you can radiate and gamify at the same time.
Subjectively, how big can your practice become? How much can your practice embrace?
Objectively, crudely, somewhat literally, how much of the brain can we light up with a single practice?
Classical meditation is a feedback loop:
You can’t control your reactions, they already happened, but you can perform volitional acts in response to your reactions, and those volitional acts shape future reactions and the volitional actor itself.
And, so, I ask, can we do better than classical meditation?
Meditation leaves out profound aspects of mental life. Or, meditation can touch all aspects of mental life, but meditation doesn’t necessarily operate on all aspects of mental life in its core feedback loop.
Let me try to explain.
Part of it is that some mental gears don’t seem to easily turn while you’re meditating.
1. Here’s one example: Call it daydreaming, call it reverie, call it getting lost in thought, call it the default mode network: Some vital mental activity only happens when “you” are not calling the shots or are not even on the scene at all.
Now, reverie isn’t so much of a “problem.” You just incorporate entering and leaving this state into your model of meditation, which I do in foreground background meditation:
2. But, here’s another one that’s a bit more of a “problem.” Recall Focusing, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, Emotion-Focused Therapy, Coherence Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, the Lefkoe Methods, and more. These practices don’t easily fit into the meditation feedback loop framework:
You activate or find particular referents in consciousness with nonsymbolic internal structure. You engage in subtle, profound acceptance of the truth and inner logic of those referents and accompanying behaviors. You patiently, tenaciously, obliquely, humbly work to explicitly model and put words to those referents. You humbly let those referents and juxtapositions of other referents evolve in relationship to you and accordingly change the words. Sometimes it takes seconds, sometimes it takes months. And then abruptly, BAM—resonance, involuntary sigh, catharsis, one-shot learning, neural protein synthesis, radical synaptic change: Starting right then and ending within twenty-four hours, you are different, better forever, effortlessly from that point on. Sometimes it’s more subtle, and sometimes it happens in steps.
The fuck? 🙂 Not that I’m not bordering on religiously grateful that this capacity somehow ended up in our DNA.
Now, first of all, again, this framework does not easily fit in with the meditation feedback loop framework. Meditation cross-trains with this class of practices, in that meditation can make you better at them and vice versa, but they seem to exercising very different (albeit interpenetrating) functional brain networks.
To qualitatively summarize the differences, it seems like meditation changes your relationship with everything, but coherence-therapy-related stuff changes everything.
Unpacked, very loosely speaking: Meditation intervenes on your deep participation and relationship with self and world as they unfold around and within you; Coherence Therapy intervenes on your absolutely true 😉 personal global causal models that govern life, love, opportunity, and safety.
(Sidebar: And, by the way, I’m ignoring for now how all this relates to the big, hairy abstractions of System 1, System 2, Keith Stanovich’s reflective rationality, the five-second level, and the rationality checklist (except that I can suggestively lump all that under “muscles you didn’t know you had”):
Second of all, the Coherence Therapy class of practices have diminishing returns: You might pick off low-hanging fruit yourself. And then you pick off higher-hanging fruit with a good therapist. And you get profound and permanent changes initially proportionate to the time and energy you put in, and they are worth it. And it’s worth putting in time intermittently, forever, for spot reasons or gut intuition.
But, the long-game of deliberate memory reconsolidation (the target of this class of practices) is a really laborious process. I’m working on a couple ways to make it easier, but you still have play brilliant scientist and poet of your past, present, and future. It’s hard.
In contrast, meditation seems to have at least linear returns in the long game.
Granted, meditation is always going to be hard in that you’re noticing something just out of reach, and what is that, and oh wow I didn’t realize I could do that, and crap I lost it and I want it back, and how do I stabilize this, and how do I surrender to that, and how do I relate to all of that. Meditation is infinite meta: Qualia phase space is constrained by the hardware and how fast the hardware can change, but it’s qualia phase space; It’s ouroboric manifold combinatorial interpenetrating evolving vastness beyond all reason and comprehension.
That said, my point is that, in contrast to the diminishing returns of memory reconsolidation practices, meditation does tend to acquire a radical simplicity over time that embraces that ouroboric manifold combinatorial vastness.
So, I’ve been wondering for a while if there’s a way to unify the meditation feedback loop with the memory reconsolidation processes. Sure, you can kind of switch back and forth and weave them together, and I do sometimes, but it’s not an entirely smooth process.
Meditation has this amazing harmony of symbolic and nonsymbolic process, and it feels like there should be some way to incorporate the analogous symbolic / nonsymbolic processes of Coherence-Therapy-related stuff, so that they can also participate in the radical simplicity of meditation, too.
I want one, unified practice with at least linear returns, where it doesn’t feel like different stuff is bolted together.
I don’t know. I’m working on it. Based on the classical meditation maps, I may have some changes ahead that will make this clearer to me: Foreground background becomes foreground background reversal, and objects in the phenomenal field become objects as the phenomenal field. So maybe seeing how to do this integration is just a matter of time, though I’d like to speed it up for myself and for others.
So, where to go from here? Is it time yet for formal science? Or is it better to let science-informed communities of practice keep doing their thing for a while, while science and technology catch up?
The science is clear: Meditation causally influences structural changes in both gray matter and white matter in many different brain regions. Causation not correlation. It’s not subtle. That’s even a little surprising if we have Hanson’s intuition that “[m]ost big changes in the psyche involve tiny changes in soma.”
So can we use any of that (yet?) to figure out how to choose better meditation practices and to teach meditation better?
Real-time fMRI is something else to think about. People can learn to modulate their BOLD responses given real-time feedback, and this can have subjective and behavioral consequences.
Sulzer, James, et al. “Real-time fMRI neurofeedback: progress and challenges.”Neuroimage 76 (2013): 386-399.
People are already using rtfMRI to do meditation stuff:
Garrison, Kathleen A., et al. “Effortless awareness: using real time neurofeedback to investigate correlates of posterior cingulate cortex activity in meditators’ self-report.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 7 (2013).
So can we use any of that (yet?) to figure out how to choose better meditation practices and to teach meditation better?
I don’t know. Let me know if you have ideas. It seems like trying to design and carry out a longitudinal study is not the correct little bet to be making at this stage.
[Personally speaking, it’d be gratifying to leverage this PhD in bioengineering and all this industry and academia programming experience. I might collaborate on brainy grants if it seems like there would be a win-win-win payoff.]
So where does scientifically-noncontradictory, non-metaphysical, evidence-based transformative practice go next?