On neuroscience

Q & R
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What do you feel is the relevance of science in the field of spirituality and Yoga?

What fascinates you about neuroscience’s understanding of meditation?

How are the discoveries of neuroscience changing our perception of consciousness?




RUBY CARMEN
Psychologist and social worker
London, UK

In ancient times, science, spirituality and Yoga were often treated as one, and science was viewed in a more holistic sense that included spiritual aspects as well as the mundane. More recently, you could say that there is a reunion of science and spirituality, as both can compliment one another with different perspectives, illuminating our vision of the world across multiple spectrums.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the growth of neuroscience is its investigation of internal phenomena, such as meditation. As a meditator and meditation trainer with a background in psychology, I am intrigued to know about the different areas of the brain that are activated or de-activated during meditation. Indeed, longitudinal studies in neuroscience offer possibilities of examining changes within the structures of the brain over time. This is providing evidence that correlates to the personal experience of meditators.

The journal, The Neuroscience of Consciousness, is devoted to the study of consciousness, which traditionally fell within the realm of philosophy before a distinction emerged between philosophy and psychology. The development of neuroscience enables another perspective on our understanding of consciousness. It provides an alternative means of exploring consciousness, including possibilities of ‘locating’ it within the human system. The renewed appreciation that exists for the study of consciousness goes beyond a ‘reductionist’ view of the mind to take into account the richness of our internal worlds.

https://academic.oup.com/nc https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180322125028.htm



JIM OTIS
Certified Functional Neurologist
Oakland, California, USA

I think science and spirituality are relevant to each other. Right now what is increasingly important in society is that we’re going through a really big transformation on our planet. As our official intelligence is growing and growing and growing, spirituality and neuroscience need to embrace each other; they need to enhance each other. And there’s no bigger example of this than the development of a direct Brain- Computer Interface (BCI). That will be happening sometime within the next 15 years – that’s the prediction – where we just think a thought and that’s our interface with the cloud or computer, rather than speaking through Siri or typing through a keypad. That’s going to change human experience on this planet in a really big way and demand a lot of spiritual wisdom to ground this thing.

What fascinates me about neuroscience’s understanding of meditation? Everything! Number one, as we develop a neuroscientific understanding of what happens in the brain in meditation, that will and does have practical implications. There will be ways to enhance the quality of our life as we can identify the brain states associated with different forms of experience, meditation included.

The discoveries of neuroscience are changing our perception of consciousness. Number one, consciousness shifts states all the time. We are waking, sleeping, meditating, in Samadhi, absorption; there are all different kinds of manifestations or presentations of consciousness. And neuroscience is pretty good at understanding the neurological signatures of different states of consciousness. So if there’s an astronaut out in space and we’re measuring the brain signals only, we know when they’re awake, when they’re dreaming, when they’re sleeping, when they’re meditating, and what kind of meditation they’re doing. So that’s just fascinating and it does have practical implications.

I think of spirituality as seeing the big context – helping to give meaning to life. In every experience there are two poles: the context and the content, the big picture and the small picture, the details. Spirituality helps gives the big picture, and that’s a function of the right side of our brain. The right side of our brain is context-providing – the big context, the emotional, the body language. The left side of the brain is more content-oriented – the verbal meaning of the language. Artificial Intelligence is developing in a way that gives us so much more capability: if I want to find out what the weather is like in Jakarta at this moment, I can find out what the temperature is, the wind velocity; I can speak into a computer and order a 3D printer to print a cup.

We’re developing a huge capability that needs to be contextualized. So when we do that brain-computer interface, there will be a huge data stream that will be available to us. We have to slow it down and contextualize in order to make meaning and sense of it. That meaning and sense needs to in turn guide the big data stream, that AI, which we can now harness.

https://braintime.com/story/



DR KRISHNAMURTHY J
Global Community Health Specialist
Bangalore, India

Today, we know quite a lot about the effects of meditation on the brain and behavior. Of course, there are methodological and conceptual limitations in meditation research and we may not be able to study all changes as objectively as we would like to, but the progress made in the last few decades in uncovering neural correlates of meditation is worthy of appreciation.

Functional MRI scans among long term meditators have revealed structural changes (neuroplasticity) in the prefrontal cortex and anterior insula, the brain regions associated with improved attention, interoception and sensory processing. Changes include thickening of the somatosensory cortex associated with heightened self-awareness, and the shrinking of the amygdala associated with fear and anxiety.

Electroencephalogram (EEG) studies, which analyze electric activity of brains, have revealed heightened theta and alpha pattern among meditators, reflecting calmer and more relaxed states.

Studying neural correlates of consciousness is gaining a lot of momentum today. By default, our minds are in a restless state, not accustomed to living in the present, and this is akin to a state of unhappiness. This state is reflected by the activation of a neural network that deals with self-referential processing, known as the default mode network (DMN). Studies have revealed that in experienced meditators, the main modes of DMN are actually deactivated indicating reduced restlessness. In long term practitioners, this change has become permanent.

Several theoretical frameworks are postulated to study consciousness. I personally find the ‘Global neuronal workspace framework’ very fascinating, which tries to explain the conscious and unconscious processing of information. It also relates to long distance connectivity between workspaces. Yes, these are still theoretical at the moment, but I feel science has made a bold attempt to begin exploring these aspects that were once regarded as mystical and subjective. There is some initial learning from neurophysiological, anatomical, and brain-imaging data to support a major role of the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, and the areas that connect to them, in creating the postulated brainscale workspace. The future of consciousness-related research will only be even more exciting!



DR HESTER O CONNOR
Clinical Psychologist
Wicklow, Ireland

We can change our brains!

I love hearing about the capacity of the brain to change. The idea of neuroplasticity, our inbuilt capacity to form new neural connections in our brains, gives me hope that it is possible with repeated practice to form new habits. Why do most of us find it incredibly difficult to keep up with our own good intentions? The concept in neuroscience of neuroplasticity helps to answer this question.

Neuroplasticity means the brain can and does change throughout our lives. The brain is a dynamic interconnected power grid with billions of connections that light up every time we think, feel or do something. If we think of these pathways like an oak tree with billions of interconnecting roots, then it is not difficult to understand that when we want to form new habits it is going to take time to weaken the old ones.

An example is deciding after a big meal that you are going to start walking every day. The next morning it is raining and you reassure yourself that you will start the next day. It takes a lot more than good intentions to form a new habit. The encouraging thing about neuroplasticity is that it means that because we have plastic brains we can learn new habits, and with a lot of practice we can reach our goal.

Two things are critical here: One, in order to change an old habit we need to practice the new one hundreds of times for the neural connections to become ‘automatic’ and hard wired. Two, we need to have a lot of compassion for our failed efforts knowing that we are doing our best and we are willing to keep trying. Berating ourselves will serve to reinforce existing pathways because that is what most of us have always done when we try to learn a new habit. Learning to meditate is no different. It is better to sit for ten minutes every day than for an hour once a week. The ten minutes will really help the new neural pathways to get firmly established. Along the way we need to be kind to ourselves. In the words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”



VASCO GASPAR
Mindfulness Corporate Trainer
Lisbon, Portugal

More and more I believe that science is finding out through the objective 3rd person perspective what yogis and practitioners of spirituality have know for millennia from the 1st and 2nd person perspectives. Unifying these three perspectives allows a more integrative view of the whole, leading to a better understanding of yoga and spirituality. And since science serves as the 21st century’s religion for many people, to have scientific studies proving spiritual claims gives trust to some people to try these practices.

What fascinates me the most about neuroscience is what is yet to be discovered. Phenomena like neuroplasticity, showing that parts of the brain change according to the type of meditation we do, is very inspiring. It gives confidence that meditation is not just something to believe but something that changes us at the core level of our being.

One of the main discoveries is that mind and consciousness are not limited to the brain. That is a very narrow view, I believe. The more scientists ‘dig’ into the brain and the activities of neurons to understand and explain consciousness, the more they realize that they don’t find it there. It is much more complex than that, and I believe that fields like Yoga bring complementary views that give us a better understanding of the whole picture.



DR NATWAR SHARMA
Pediatric Intensivist
Chennai, India

Science takes an evidence-based approach and needs explanations for everything. It requires formulae, objective tools, machines and equipment to gauge anything, while spirituality is largely subjective. Can you measure the calmness or peace felt during meditation in absolute terms? We can only explain the relative effect or difference in our states of mind.

Although today we have several psychological and mental scales, like the stress scale, and equipment like EEG and MRI to assess what difference we feel with the practice of Yoga and meditation, science has not developed enough to measure the effects of meditation completely. For example, if a person today were to go back 200 years in time, he would wonder why people are struggling with small things. If a person from 200 years ago travels to today’s time, she would be wonderstruck at the advancements! She is likely to look at a plane flying in the sky and exclaim, “Is that a new species of bird?” Similarly may be science backing spirituality, which we have not discovered yet. Ultimately, at any point in time it’s difficult to explain everything scientifically, because science is also evolving.

As a doctor I am trained to look for evidence, so the empirical approach of neuroscience is what interests me. There is enough research to show how meditation helps with health, not only in the mind but also it reduces cortisol levels and heart rate variability, thereby reducing the occurrence of cardiovascular disease, strokes, stress, hypertension and even diabetes. It is found to improve sleep, mental cognition functions, focus and memory. I have been meditating for 24 years now and absolutely enjoy the experience, so much so that as part of my PhD I am conducting a study to see the effect of meditation on the body, mind, heart and aura of a person.

In my own work I have found that when people see and understand things objectively, it boosts them to move forward. Their awareness or consciousness expands with the changes they perceive over time. Here we are talking about individual consciousness, but if things have to change at a global level there has to be some groundbreaking discovery that can produce a shift in the consciousness of human beings collectively. Neuroscience also shows the potential of meditation to affect people on a large scale and bring about a change in our global consciousness.


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