Perception, reaction & mindfulness

Codie Surratt, PsychCentral: I am frequently asked “What is mindfulness?”

I start by saying something poignant like “It’s being aware and in the present moment” or “It’s about allowing each experience to wash over us like a cool spring rain, without attachment or judgments.” I love these answers and they generally tend to spawn a lively conversation about experiences, judgment and simply allowing ourselves to be present.

Mindfulness, though, is also about perception and reaction. Here’s what I mean…

I love Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived a World War II concentration camp. He is a genuine hero of mine…

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The neuroscience of conditioning

On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins

Sometimes the best confirmations of the dhamma come from sources that have nothing to do with Buddhism. On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins is just such a source. Hawkins is an electrical engineer and entrepreneur whose interest in Artificial Intelligence has convinced him that the key to developing AI lies in understanding the brain. If that sounds a little obvious, it’s necessary to say that much of AI research – even on neural networks – has ignored the biology of the brain. As the name of the book suggests, this is not about consciousness or experience at an abstract level.

It’s about human intelligence and how that distinctly human (well, mammalian)  part of the brain – the neocortex – makes us as smart as we are. What I propose to do here is pick out some of the main points that Hawkins makes and show how they relate to the kind of things that we might notice in ourselves as we peer through the microscope of meditation. In particular, this book offers biological explanations for our ingrained habits – the conditioned responses that arise in us despite our best intellectual intentions and endeavours to behave otherwise. The closer we understand the nature of the mind, the better we can work with it.

The neocortex is structured in a uniform way in its entirety, regardless of function or location. That structure consists of 6 hierarchical layers, each as thick as a business card. Those 6 layers are further interconnected across sections of the neocortex to form hierarchies of hierarchies. Signals come in from the sensory neurons – like the nerves coming from your eyes or ears – in a rapidly changing fashion (both spatially and temporally) but as these chaotic signals filter up through the hierarchies, they stabilize and solidify. For example, input from the optic nerve (one million sensory neurons) is a firehose of light, colour and line shape changes due to the ever changing nature of the photons hitting the retina, and also the constant eye movements (saccades) we involuntarily make to scan our field of vision. By the time it filters through several layers of neocortex, this cacophony of electrical impulse has become something stable like, for example, a face.

It might even be your Aunt Susan’s face. If it is Aunt Susan, then effectively the memory of Aunt Susan’s face is encoded high up in the hierarchies of the cortex, and can be triggered by Aunt Susan no matter what the lighting conditions or angle of view are. The important thing to notice here is that the brain has an invariant representation for a vastly changeable (to all practical purposes infinitely changeable) set of input signals. But here’s where it starts to get really interesting. The flow of signal is not only upstream from the optic nerves to the memory of your aunt’s face. It’s also (perhaps even prevalently) back downstream. If higher layers are starting to see things that correspond to Aunt Susan, they feed this back down the line, and hone the incoming signal to check for Aunt Susan-ness. This is very efficient, as you can imagine, as it involves a narrowing of the search as early as possible. It’s a little like what happens when you type in a search term on Google and you are offered increasingly specific choice to select from. (For more details see the book’s wikipedia entry, or read the book!) This way of processing signals is elegant and much faster than a computational approach, but it comes at a price: At a very biological level, we decide what we perceive based on what we have already experienced. If that’s not an recipe for habitual reactive behaviour, I don’t know what is.

So if this is the way our brain works, how does it effect our everyday life, and how can we use this understanding to work better with our minds? On Intelligence has nothing to say about this, and what follows are my own – hopefully rational – extrapolations from Hawkins’ conclusions. His model of perception explains why changing habits through a conscious, intellectual application of will can be so frustratingly difficult. The processing described above takes place long before the filtered sensory signals reach our consciousness. The key interpretations of what we are experiencing are made long before they reach the ‘selfing’ processes of the brain, and so the the ego can really only dress things up as best it can – to claim ownership of that interpretation. But by that time, those interpretations have already begun to send signals to other centres of the cortex, including our motor neurons. In this way, habitually-wired reactive thoughts and actions are triggered. Our conscious ego, always behind the curve, tends to either justify the resulting behaviour in some way, or in general to tell some story about it. Brute force application of will is our favourite way to try to change those habitual thoughts and actions, but it can never reach into the depth of where those habits come from.

If this description invokes a certain hopelessness, and calls into question the notion of free will, then I think there’s no harm in that. I think it is probably hopeless and pointless to believe that we can impose our conscious will on activities that are upstream of the consciousness process. We can certainly modulate and moderate some of the grosser behaviours that we perceive to be in need of change. But we cannot by sheer intellectual will simply decide to be, say, more compassionate individuals from one day to the next. So what can be done?

Surrender. First and foremost to the nature of your own mind. You can’t work well with a system if you don’t have some understanding of how it operates, and the science is telling us in an ever-clearer way: we are not who we think we are. Our minds are not a centralized command-and-control system. Control is distributed across thousands of drivers (to borrow an image from Bodhipaksa), each struggling to grab the steering wheel. We are bags of competing habits, so let’s give up all hope and pretense of being in charge and let’s look instead to work with what we really have. Instead of trying to pull imagined levers and throw non-existent switches, we can plant seeds, in the form of new habits.

Incidentally, Buddhism has been saying the same thing for a very long time. The cognitive function of recognizing Aunt Susan’s face is called sañña in Pali, sometimes translated as perception. It is one of the Five Aggregates (khandhas) and is described by Bhikku Bodhi as follows:

The characteristic of perception is the perceiving of the qualities of the object. Its function is to make a sign as a condition for perceiving again that “this is the same,” or its function is recognizing what has been previously perceived. It becomes manifest as the interpreting of the object…by way of the features that had been apprehended.

The sign referred to by Bhikku Bodhi, corresponds to Hawkins’ invariant representation.

Once we surrender to this unintuitive and perhaps emotionally difficult way of understanding the brain, we can work with it instead of against it by gently initiating new regular habits – without any grand expectations – and see where it leads. This is where the blunt instrument of conscious intellectual will comes into play. The will is just another process struggling for control. It arises and falls away like everything else and we cannot expect it to change our habitual thinking and behaviour. But our will can help us to initiate new habits and support them in their infancy. In those moments when it is available, we can use its direction and energy to take the micro-actions that, in the long run, can rewire habits.

We can decide to ‘feed the wolf of love‘ day in, day out as Rick Hanson suggests, and then let that work its own way through deeper and mostly unseen habits. And we can introduce meditation as a life habit. One of the most important habits that I’ve built up recently is the habit of daily meditation. Thanks to the 100 day challenge in the Wildmind community, I can say that the habit of sitting has become strong and has very little trouble grabbing the steering wheel at least once a day. I have found over the years that meditation itself has the effect of rooting out old useless or harmful habits. A few of them have just fallen away. Others put up a fight and fade in and out over time.

So what might be learned here? I have come for now to this conclusion: A better understanding of how our minds work tells us that there is no self there in control, but there are features to human intelligence that can be harnessed in order to favour certain drivers over others. The way to bring about positive change is to plant seeds, water them regularly and be patient. If that sounds a lot like love, I don’t think  it’s a coincidence.

On Intelligence can be bought on

(I’m very grateful to Bodhipaksa for reviewing this article and bringing my attention to Bhikku Bodhi’s definition of sañña.)

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UC Davis study finds that practicing meditation can improve perception

Om mani padme hum.

Repeat the ancient mantra—Om mani padme hum (“Hail the jewel in the lotus”), om mani padme hum—again and again until the chaos of your thoughts quiets, the thump of your heart becomes clearly evident and your attention turns to the easy movement of breath through your nostrils … in and out … in and out. You’re no longer lost in thought. You’re not spaced out. You’re paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment. You’re meditating.

Buddhists have been practicing meditations like this one and hundreds of variations for more than 2,500 years. It’s only in recent years, though, that the contemplative practice has moved into the mainstream. In 2007, more than 9 percent of Americans were meditating according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The fascination with meditation continues perhaps driven by a desire to gain health benefits, find spiritual comfort or to say “no” to high-velocity lives that leave us disconnected from ourselves and others.

Over the past 50 years, scientists have also been asking questions about the human mind and attempting to figure out the benefits of training it through meditation. Type “meditation” into the PubMed index, and it returns nearly 2,000 published research articles on the subject. Much of the early work is today considered too deeply flawed to be meaningful. But recent work provides evidence that meditation can offer relief for conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression, pain and insomnia. Functional MRIs reveal changes resulting from prolonged meditation in the brains of Buddhist monks.

Now, led by UC Davis researchers, the longest and most complex study of meditation ever undertaken is beginning to publish its first results after more than two years spent analyzing mountains of data.

The Shamatha Project sought to discover whether anyone can achieve the remarkable calm, focus and joyfulness that monks and yogis display often in the face of great hardship and suffering. It’s a question that hounded Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and leader of a team of 25 prominent neuroscientists and psychologists working on Shamatha, since meeting some of these extraordinary people through a study he organized in the 1990s.

Just how long or often someone would have to engage in meditative practice to gain these characteristics remains unanswered, although 60 people enrolled in two groups in the project appear to have made strides toward achieving enhanced states of calm, focus and joyfulness after three months of intensive meditation training at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. Progress was assessed using a variety of state-of-the-art measures, including electrophysiological testing using EEG/ERP and other standard psychological assessment tests.

The first official findings released from the Shamatha Project uphold a claim by meditators that the practice improves perception. An article published last month online in Psychological Science reports that study participants became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.

Lead author Katherine MacLean, who also works at the UC Davis Center and whose work on the project formed the basis of her doctoral dissertation, derived her tests from those used to assess vigilance in radar operators. It’s a lot more complicated than this, but simply put: People watched lines appear on a screen and clicked a mouse each time they spotted one that was shorter than the others. By midway through the study, those who meditate had become better at identifying a smaller difference between long and short lines and at sustaining attention.

Adults are usually lousy at paying vigilant attention, especially when the task is monotonous or boring. Most begin making mistakes on this test within 10 minutes. But as it became easier for meditators to pick out the shorter lines, they were able to sustain their attention for longer periods.

“To show that in just a month and a half of intensive mental training, that is a pretty remarkable feat,” MacLean said. “It’s encouraging to see that there can be changes well into adulthood.”

What does all this have to do with whether or not ordinary meditators can achieve the kind of joyful compassion that Saron witnessed in yogis and monks who’d spent a lifetime in meditative training?

Most of us have trouble tapping into what we’re thinking and feeling in the moment, or a few minutes later, or even hours or days later. That’s understandable since more than 99 percent of our experience is not in our conscious awareness. But what if through meditation we were able to rest between our thoughts and feelings long enough to identify them as they occur? We then might be able to gain control of our thoughts, learn to regulate our emotions, and improve our ability to act with kindness and compassion.

This is the potential some believe mediation has for transforming our lives. It’s what the Shamatha Project set out to examine: How does meditation practice affect people’s lives in the world?

Although the Shamatha Project was first conceived by Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies years ago, it didn’t officially begin until early 2007. That’s when two groups of 30 people ages 21 to 70 with varied experience with meditation—one served as a control group and later also took the training—were recruited. During the three-month experiment, they spent on average five hours a day practicing an array of meditation techniques taught by Wallace, including a focus on breath.

Did intensive practice help participants regulate their emotions or increase compassion? The scientists assessed emotional responses by showing the meditators graphic scenes of human suffering and recording the minute changes in facial expressions that reveal emotions. They will compare these observations with how the retreatants said they felt when viewing the images to evaluate awareness of emotions.

To get at emotion regulation and compassion from another angle, researchers showed documentary footage of soldiers bragging about getting psyched up to shoot Iraqis. These were followed by images of suffering—including children—and soldiers describing the difficulty of the war. Preliminary findings indicate that those who had been practicing intensive meditation were less likely than controls to show emotions that may be interpreted as distancing themselves from others.

In addition to the improvements in what Buddhists call “attentional vividness,” those receiving the intensive training overall experienced greater well-being and less anxiety than those who did not undergo the training. Reports that tie results together will be forthcoming.

Saron, who doesn’t maintain a regular meditation practice today but has participated in many retreats over the past 35 years, described observing the openness, warmth and joy among participants toward the end of the study as one of the high points of his life. He concluded: “I didn’t need any scientific evidence for the utility of seriously investigating one’s mind. But that’s me.”

[Nancy Brands Ward,]

For more information on the Shamatha Project, go to the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain website at, or to

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Visual perception heightened by meditation training

Intensive mental training has a measurable effect on visual perception, according to a new study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. People undergoing intensive training in meditation became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.

A paper describing the results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science and was posted on the journal website May 11. It is the first paper to be published from a major scientific study of meditation training, the Shamatha Project.

“These results show for the first time that improved perception, often claimed to be a benefit of meditation practice, underlies improvements in sustained attention,” said project leader Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron has been interested in meditation since the 1970s. In the 1990s, under the auspices of the Dalai Lama’s private office and of the Boulder, Colo. -based Mind and Life Institute, he organized a field study of adept practitioners. During that project he was inspired by meeting exiled Tibetan monks and yogis in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, who had achieved remarkable emotional calm, focus and joyfulness in their lives, sometimes despite great hardship and suffering.

Saron and his colleagues wanted to know: Can these states be achieved only by individuals with an unusually serene disposition? Or can they be achieved by most people through intensive training?

The Shamatha Project is an attempt to answer those questions. It is the first long-term, detailed, control-group study of the measurable effects of meditative training on physiology, mental functioning and emotional state, Saron said.

In the project, 30 participants attended a three-month meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. They received ongoing instruction in meditation techniques from Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, while attending group sessions twice a day and engaging in individual practice for about six hours a day. Wallace had worked with Saron on the field study in India and brought the idea for the Shamatha project to Saron and his UC Davis colleagues in 2003.

At the beginning, end, and in the middle of the course, participants were tested on attention and cognition, psychological and emotional measures, and physical and physiological changes.

A control group of 30 people matched for age, sex, education, ethnicity and meditation experience was assessed at the same time and in the same place, but did not otherwise attend meditation training at that time. The control group did undergo identical training later.

The visual attention experiments were led by UC Davis graduate student Katherine MacLean. Based on tests long used to assess vigilance in radar operators and other professions requiring long durations of uninterrupted attention, participants had to watch lines appearing on a screen and click a mouse when they saw lines that were shorter than others.

By midway through the retreat, meditators had become better at making fine visual distinctions. They were able to identify a smaller difference between “long” and “short” lines, and were better able to sustain attention during the half-hour test. Those findings are consistent with Buddhist claims that meditation cultivates “attentional vividness.”

People who continued practicing meditation after the retreat still showed improvements in perception when they were retested about five months later.

Meditation training may free up mental resources so that attentional focus can be sustained more easily for extended periods of time, Saron said. Meditators may also be more aware of normally subtle changes in experience that others miss, and have better emotional regulation.

The Shamatha Project shows that women and men of diverse age, ethnicity, education, and meditation experience can achieve measurable changes in their mental state and capabilities if they can commit to intensive training, Saron said.

While few individuals have three months to commit to such training, other studies have shown improvements in aspects of health and well-being with a less demanding regime. The minimum level of training required to produce the perceptual improvements seen in the Shamatha study remains to be determined, Saron said.

While the Shamatha Project is the largest and most comprehensive attempt yet to study changes brought about by mental training, its results cannot capture the full, first-person subjective experience of meditation, Saron said.

“We’re not trying to bottle someone’s experience,” he said. The project may, however, give insights into the nature of the mind and the relation between psychological and physiological traits using data from both first- and third-person perspectives.

Papers describing the other results of the study are in press or submitted for publication. The other authors on the Psychological Science paper are graduate student Stephen Aichele, Associate Professor Emilio Ferrer, postdoctoral scholar Baljinder Sahdra, Professor Phillip Shaver, and Professor George R. Mangun from the UC Davis Departments of Psychology and Neurology; research specialists Anthony Zanesco and Brandon King, both now admitted graduate students at UC Davis; postdoctoral scholar Tonya Jacobs and consulting scientist Erika Rosenberg from the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain; and graduate student David Bridwell, Department of Cognitive Science, UC Irvine. MacLean is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Major support for The Shamatha Project comes from the Fetzer Institute and the Hershey Family Foundation. Additional support comes from numerous private foundations, individual donors, and a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellowship to MacLean, and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellowship to Sahdra.

[via UC Davis]
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