Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Friday, November 15, 2013
Saturday, June 29, 2013
In many places we have used text passages out of order to support the narrative flow. For references, please refer to the original paper: Norman A.S. Farb et al. Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2013) 8 (1): 15-26. Extracted with permission from Oxford University Press.
This post, like the last one, resonates in an interesting way with Thomas Metzinger’s article on out of body experiences, in which one senses one’s own body more from an external perspective.
MBSR = Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
[I]nteroception involves sensation of the body itself, integrating visceral afferents associated with internal systems such as digestion, circulation, proprioception and respiration. ... [T]he posterior insula may constitute a primary interoceptive region, the anterior insula appears to integrate internal and external signals, regulating the direction of external attention both in constructive biases such as empathy and maladaptive biases such as addiction. ...While there are strong anatomical connections between the insula’s posterior interoceptive regions and its anterior zones, it is likely that the anterior regions are also heavily influenced by attention to external stimuli. Critically, the dominance of IA [Internal Attention] or EA [External Attention] in promoting anterior insula activity may be influenced by the attentional habits of the individuals being investigated...
The propagation of interoceptive signals from the posterior to anterior insula makes it an intriguing candidate mechanism for investigating training-related plasticity in interoceptive representation. Behaviorally, training appears to improve interoceptive accuracy for tasks such as heartbeat detection, suggesting possible neuroplasticity in an interoceptive representation network.
This interoceptive seed region was also strongly responsive to IA [breath] over EA [suppress or maintain] in both [meditation trained (MT) and untrained groups]... (Figure 4a), serving as a common region wherein attention modulates the representation of the interoceptive signal.
|Figure 4c [Note: Red represents internal attention; Blue represents external attention]|
Thus while untrained participants were able to voluntarily invoke IA to promote connectivity of interoceptive signal from the primary interoceptive cortex towards more anterior sensory intergration regions, MT participants appeared to possess this increased connectivity regardless of task. Such a finding is consistent with a...goal of MBSR practices, to provide individuals with a consistent ‘on-line’ representation of body awareness even in the face of exogenously cued stressors, weakening conceptual knowledge with competing knowledge of constantly changing interoceptive sensations.
VAC, ventral accessory gyrus; VS, ventral short gyrus; PL, posterior long gyrus;
AL, anterior long gyrus; PS, posterior short gyrus; MS, middle short gyrus;
AS, anterior short gyrus; AC, accessory gyrus.
Additionally ...MT enhanced interoceptive representation in adjacent anterior insular cortex, a region more responsive to towards exteroception than than interoception prior to training. [Data not shown]
Thus, participation in the in the MBSR program appeared to facilitate interoceptive integration across the MT group, regardless of practice compliance, consistent with an intention to integrate interoceptive information into present moment awareness. However only through daily practice was the tone of the primary insular representation enhanced...
Friday, April 5, 2013
We are pleased to excerpt William James’ lectures on mysticism from his book THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE: A STUDY IN HUMAN NATURE. The original lectures are a delight to read. We can capture but a fraction of their spirit here, however we hope this post will compel you to read the original. James (1842-1910) was well-known as a philosopher, psychologist, and physiologist. He was an astute observer of experience, as well as an incisive thinker. He is often thought of as the father of modern psychology. Certain passages below resonate intriguingly with Thomas Metzinger’s “Out-of-body experiences as the origin of the concept of a “Soul’” excerpted previously.
One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness. ... How do we part off mystical states from other states? ... [I] propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical... .
1 Ineffability. ...The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression… . [I]ts quality must be directly experienced… . [M]ystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists.
2. Noetic quality. -- Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. ... [A]s a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
3. Transiency. -- Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. ...Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
4. Passivity. -- Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways…; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. … Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence.
Our next step should be to gain acquaintance with some typical examples. … [P]henomena are best understood when placed within their series, studied in their germ and in their over-ripe decay... .
The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one. ... Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. ... We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.
A more pronounced step forward on the mystical ladder is found in an extremely frequent phenomenon, that sudden feeling, namely, which sometimes sweeps over us, of having "been here before,"
As Tennyson writes:
Moreover, something is or seemsA much more extreme state of mystical consciousness is described by J. A. Symonds; and probably more persons than we suspect could give parallels to it from their own experience.
That touches me with mystic gleams,
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams --
"Of something felt, like something here;
Of something done, I know not where;
Such as no language may declare.
It consisted in a gradual but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time, sensation, and the multitudinous factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call our Self. In proportion as these conditions of ordinary consciousness were subtracted, the sense of an underlying or essential consciousness acquired intensity. At last nothing remained but a pure, absolute, abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content. But Self persisted, formidable in its vivid keenness, feeling the most poignant doubt about reality, ready, as it seemed, to find existence break as breaks a bubble round about it.The next step into mystical states carries us into a realm that public opinion and ethical philosophy have long since branded as pathological, though private practice and certain lyric strains of poetry seem still to bear witness to its ideality. I refer to the consciousness produced by intoxicants and anaesthetic, especially by alcohol. The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function in man. It brings its votary from the chill periphery of things to the radiant core. It makes him for the moment one with truth. Not through mere perversity do men run after it. To the poor and the unlettered it stands in the place of symphony concerts and of literature; and it is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of that larger whole....
Certain aspects of nature seem to have a peculiar power of awakening…mystical moods. Most of the striking cases which I have collected have occurred out of doors. ... I take this from Starbuck's manuscript collection:
[T]he consciousness of God's nearness came to me sometimes. I say God, to describe what is indescribable. ... I felt myself one with the grass, the trees, birds, insects, everything in Nature. I exulted in the mere fact of existence, of being a part of it all -- the drizzling rain, the shadows of the clouds, the tree-trunks, and so on.Here is a similar record from the memoirs of that interesting German idealist, Malwida von Meysenbug:
I was alone upon the seashore as all these thoughts flowed over me, liberating and reconciling; and now again, as once before in distant days in the Alps of Dauphine, I was impelled to kneel down, this time before the illimitable ocean, symbol of the Infinite. I felt that I prayed as I had never prayed before, and knew now what prayer really is: to return from the solitude of individuation into the consciousness of unity with all that is, to kneel down as one that passes away, and to rise up as one imperishable.[F]rom the Autobiography of J. Trev[a]or.
For nearly an hour I walked along the road to the 'Cat and Fiddle,' and then returned. On the way back, suddenly, without warning, I felt that I was in Heaven -- an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light, as though the external condition had brought about the internal effect -- a feeling of having passed beyond the body, though the scene around me stood out more clearly and as if nearer to me than before, by reason of the illumination in the midst of which I seemed to be placed.The writer adds...
The spiritual life...justifies itself to those who live it; but what can we say to those who do not understand? ... This, at least, we can say, that it is a life whose experiences are proved real to their possessor, because they remain with him when brought closest into contact with the objective realities of life. Dreams cannot stand this test.We have now seen enough of this cosmic or mystic consciousness, as it comes sporadically. We must next pass to its methodical cultivation as an element of the religious life. Hindus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and Christians all have cultivated it methodically.
In India, training in mystical insight has been known from time immemorial under the name of yoga. Yoga means the experimental union of the individual with the divine. It is based on persevering exercise; and the diet, posture, breathing, intellectual concentration, and moral discipline vary slightly in the different systems which teach it.
[Quoting] from VIVEKANANDA, Raja Yoga, London, 1896.
All the different steps in yoga are intended to bring us scientifically to the superconscious state or Samadhi. ... Just as unconscious work is beneath consciousness, so there is another work which is above consciousness, and which, also, is not accompanied with the feeling of egoism. ... There is no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, objectless, bodiless.The Buddhists used the word "samâdhi" as well as the Hindus; but "dhyâna" is their special word for higher states of contemplation. There seem to be four stages recognized in dhyâna. The first stage comes through concentration of the mind upon one point. It excludes desire, but not discernment or judgment: it is still intellectual. In the second stage the intellectual functions drop off, and the satisfied sense of unity remains. In the third stage the satisfaction departs, and indifference begins, along with memory a self-consciousness. [Refer to the text for the fourth stage!]
In the Christian church there have always been mystics. ... The basis of the system is "orison" or meditation, the methodical elevation of the soul towards God. ...The first thing to be aimed at in orison is the mind's detachment from outer sensations, for these interfere with its concentration upon ideal things.
[Saint Teresa writes]
In the orison of union the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world and in respect of herself. During the short time the union lasts, she is as it were deprived of every feeling.... God establishes himself in the interior of this soul in such a way, that when she returns to herself, it is wholly impossible for her to doubt that she has been in God, and God in her. ...The deliciousness of some of these states seems to be beyond anything known in ordinary consciousness. I confess that it is all a mystery in which I am lost.
|The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome|
Do mystical states establish the truth of those theological affections in which the saintly life has its root? ... In spite of their repudiation of articulate self-description, mystical states in general assert a pretty distinct theoretic drift. ... We pass into mystical states from out of ordinary consciousness as from a less into a more, as from a smallness into a vastness, and at the same time as from an unrest to a rest. We feel them as reconciling, unifying states. They appeal to the yes-function more than to the no-function in us. In them the unlimited absorbs the limit. ... In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think... .
Our own more "rational" beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs. Our senses, namely, have assured us of certain states of fact; but mystical experiences are as direct perceptions of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us. The records show that even though the five senses be in abeyance in them, they are absolutely sensational in their epistemological quality, if I may be pardoned the barbarous expression -- that is, they are face to face presentations of what seems immediately to exist.
But more remains to be told, for religious mysticism is only one half of mysticism. The other half has no accumulated traditions except those which the text-books on insanity supply. Open any one of these and you will find abundant cases in which "mystical ideas" are cited as characteristic symptoms of enfeebled or deluded states of mind. In delusional insanity, paranoia, as they sometimes call it, we may have a diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down. ... It is evident that from the point of view of their psychological mechanism, the classic mysticism and these lower mysticisms spring from the same mental level, from that great subliminal or transmarginal region of which science is beginning to admit the existence, but of which so little is really known. ... Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods, so long as we are not mystics ourselves.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Matt Rossano’s article provides an interesting contrast to our previous two posts extracting Thomas Metzinger’s article on out of body experiences. Altered states here are seen as a prelude to the evolutionary development via Baldwinian selection of working memory and eventually the ability to symbolize, which characterizes modern humans. Rossano is a professor of Psychology at University of Southeastern Louisiana University. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post (Link). His recent book is SUPERNATURAL SELECTION : HOW RELIGION EVOLVED, and a list of his recent publications can be found here. The original article contains more extensive citations.
The thesis of this article is that this commonplace activity, which I will call campfire rituals of focused attention, created an important selective pressure in the evolution of the modern human mind. Ritualized gatherings before an open fire — repeated night after night, generation after generation for thousands of years — contributed significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, to the evolution of the enhanced working memory capacity required for symbolic thinking.
The scenario is grounded in the following five propositions.
1. Convincing evidence of symbolism in the form of ceremonial tools, artwork and grave goods appears late in the archaeological record (largely after 50,000 bp) and post-dates the emergence of anatomically modern humans.
Late emergence of symbolism
In this article, ‘symbolism’ is Peirce’s definition, arbitrary referents based on cultural convention. Peircian symbolism is what appears to have arrived late in the archaeological record and it is this that required enhanced working memory. Genetic and fossil evidence points to the emergence of anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) somewhere between 200,000 and 150,000 years bp in Africa . Some have argued that the relatively sudden appearance of sophisticated tools, burial with grave goods, and image-making in the European Upper Palaeolithic signifies a ‘revolution’ in human thought and behaviour . Peircian symbolism most likely did not occur until the Upper Palaeolithic, when grave goods, sophisticated tools, image making and what appear to be purely ceremonial artifacts arrive on the archaeological scene. For the purposes of the current model, what is pivotal is that the evidence for this‘higher-level’ symbolism emerges late and post-dates the arrival of anatomically modern humans.
2. Recent work combining cognitive science and archaeology has built a compelling case for explaining the late emergence of symbolism as the result of a fortuitous genetic mutation (or combination of mutations) that enhanced human working memory capacity.
Fortuitous Mutation (s)
The ultimate mechanism [responsible for symbolism] must come down to a fortuitous genetic mutation that reorganized brain structure and function, thus giving Homo sapiens a cognitive advantage over other archaic hominin forms . While Klein typically talks in terms of a single genetic mutation (terminology, which for simplicity’s sake, I will retain), this change could have involved a series of mutations that affected the interaction of genes and, or, their manner of expression. Coolidge & Wynn (2001...) have elaborated on Klein’s proposal, arguing that the most likely target of this mutation would have been an enhancement of working memory capacity. In this context, working memory capacity refers to the ability to hold information in mind, especially information about behavioural procedures and intended goals, in spite of interfering stimuli or response competition .
Enhanced working memory capacity, however functionally envisioned, is a prerequisite to the emergence of symbolism. Our ancestors had an enhanced capacity to recall, consciously retain and manipulate information. This enhanced working memory capacity was essential to crossing the threshold to purely arbitrary or convention-based symbolism . To understand this level of purely arbitrary reference, one must be able to hold in mind both what the signifying image is perceptually and what it means conceptually, while at the same time understanding that these two are not the same.
The exact time of emergence is less important than when this change became widespread, which, I would argue, was not until around 50,000 bp, immediately prior to the emergence of symbolism.
3.Evolutionary developmental biology indicates that genetic adaptation can sometimes follow somatic adaptation (the Baldwin effect). Put another way, environmental conditions that require bodily adaptation (such as high-altitude conditions which require the production of more red blood cells) simultaneously create selection pressure for genetic mutations that more permanently establish the adaptive phenotypic state.
The Baldwin effect updated
Environmentally induced somatic modifications (resulting from either learning or physiological adaptation) ... become heritable changes. According to this principle, acquired traits do not directly affect genes but these traits could create or importantly contribute to selective conditions that would, in time, genetically establish them in the population.... In other words, an initially environmentally induced trait eventually became encoded and transmitted genetically. .
This could provide a model for how hominins acquired increasingly complex cognitive skills. These skills may first have appeared as novel acquired traits induced by atypical environmental demands. Then, as those demands persisted, a Baldwinian process could have led to the traits becoming genetically heritable and stabilized. Over the course of hominin evolution, the atypical environmental demands were increasingly products of hominins themselves.
Wright (2004) has recently reviewed a range of studies providing support for the process of ‘stress-directed mutagensis’, where feedback mechanisms within the organism allow environmental stressors to target specific genes that must mutate in order to surmount the stress. Though a great deal is still to be learned about how mutations arise, it is becoming increasingly clear that dismissing them as simply random is too simple.
Modifications are more likely to arise in those systems that are under selection pressure — where the adaptive range of a physiological system is under stress. Any mutation or genetic reassortment that resets the range of a physiological system to a more adaptive level would then be positively selected by environmental conditions. Thus, a population of humans relocated to higher altitudes is biased toward the expression of any mutation that permanently resets their baseline levels of red blood cell production.
4. Neuroscience studies indicate that meditation produces short-term and long-term effects on both the structure and function of those areas of the brain closely associated with working memory and focused attention such as the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex.
Meditation and the brain
Recent brain-imaging and EEG studies have shown that areas in the frontal lobe of the brain associated with working memory and focused attention, especially the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate, are activated during meditation . [For example,] Newberg et al. (2001) found increased activation in the dorsolateral and orbital prefrontal cortices, anterior cingulate cortex, and the sensorimotor cortices of the brains of eight meditating subjects. [Moreover,] Carter et al. (2005) found that Tibetan monks experienced at one-point meditation (a type that involves focused attention on a single object) were able to exert conscious control over a typically automatic phenomenon of attention, binocular rivalry.
This accumulating body of research indicates that meditation produces long-term changes in those areas of the brain involved in attention and working memory. These areas are critical for the enhancement of working memory capacity. This enhancement may have given Homo sapiens a competitive edge over other hominins and produced the emergence of symbolism about 50,000 bp. However, it can rightly be pointed out that it seems quite unlikely that our ancestors of 100,000 years ago or more were engaging in one-point or compassionate meditation. While true, numerous other studies have shown that far more mundane memory and attention tasks also activate the same brain areas.
Numerous other studies with similarly simple cognitive demands have indicated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to be an important high-level filter of attention, sustaining cognitive energy on relevant information while suppressing the processing of and responding to irrelevant signals.
Campfire rituals practiced by our hominin ancestors need not have been as disciplined as those of Tibetan monks to have activated the brain regions important for attention and memory. However, they were probably more intensive than the tests used in typical neuroscience studies. Those most susceptible to the rituals’ physical and psychological healing effects reaped the greatest survival and reproductive advantage — a Baldwinian process. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that these conditions were unique to Homo sapiens and not a regular part of the social worlds of Neanderthals and other archaic hominins.
5. Hypnotizability, or the ability to achieve a ritually-induced, health-enhancing, suggestibility-prone conscious state, is individually variable and heritable; and would have been fitness-enhancing in our ancestral past.
Shamanistic healing rituals
Strictly speaking, shamanism is a practice confined to cultures of the higher latitudes of Eurasia where the term originated. More broadly, however, the shaman is anyone who uses consciousness-altering ritual as a means of connecting with the spiritual world for the purpose of individual or community healing.
There is considerable evidence that shamanism (broadly defined) is humanity’s oldest form of religion. It is found in nearly all traditional societies. An increasing number of scholars agree that some of the Upper Palaeolithic cave art and artifacts reflect shamanistic rituals and, or, experiences . If so, they also suggest that shamanism pre-dates the Upper Palaeolithic, since the depiction reflects an already present system.
McClenon (1997; 2002) has marshalled considerable evidence indicating that those of our ancestors who were most susceptible to the beneficial physical and psychological effects of shamanistic rituals had a selective advantage over others in surviving illness or injury, overcoming debilitating emotional states and enduring the rigours of childbirth. Ritual healing is often highly effective for a range of maladies where psychological factors are involved, such as chronic pain, burns, bleeding, headaches, skin disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, and the discomforts and complications of childbirth .
Furthermore, only minimal verbal expression is required (if any at all) to add to the persuasive impact of the ritual (‘relax’, ‘heal’ etc.). Indeed, part of the power of spiritual healing is that it is something beyond words and logic. What is required for spiritual healing appears to be well within the behavioural and cognitive repertoire of our hominin ancestors: a belief in a healing spiritual power accessible through conscious-ness-altering ritual.
More than likely, it was the immediate positive psychological (ecstatic emotions/social bonding) and physical (placebo benefits, ‘miracles’) effects of these rituals that provided the motivation for enactment. What is critical is that these rituals required focused attention which activated those areas of the brain associated with attention and working memory.
What made humans different?
These rituals may have been one of the few activities that consistently differentiated Homo sapiens from other contemporary hominins.
When Homo sapiens moved into Europe around 40,000 bp, it was for good. Neither Neanderthals nor cold conditions stopped them from laying claim to the entire continent. Whatever it was that changed them did not similarly affect Neanderthals. So what was the difference?
The evidence suggests that a capacity for symbolism was present in some nascent or measured form in Neanderthals and, under certain environmental conditions (such as close contact with Cro-Magnons), this capacity flowered; but apparently those conditions were not a regular aspect of the Neanderthal world prior to the Upper Palaeolithic. This again emphasizes the fact that something was different about the Homo sapiens world, something generally not present in that of other hominins.
Why Neanderthals did not meditate
If the critical difference between Homo sapiens and other hominins was campfire rituals of focused attention, then why did Neanderthals not engage in this activity? Were they and other archaic hominins not just as likely to have been singing, chanting and encountering healing spirits around their campfires? Odd as it may seem, the answer to this seems to be no. Evidence suggests that Neanderthals had neither the time nor the energy to engage in such activities. They lived hard lives— harder, apparently, than Cro-Magnons’.
They did not invest as much as Cro-Magnons in home bases and the activities associated with them, including (and especially) communal ones involving a central fire.
Intensified or altered states are characterized by increasingly non-rational processing and internally-directed focus ranging from fantasy to hypnagogic imagery to sensory hallucinations.