What is consciousness, and can it be changed or enhanced? This is a question that humans have struggled with for a very long time. The question of consciousness alone is daunting. Some even argue that humans will never be able to find the answer. Regardless, the quest for knowledge is not always about the answer, rather it is the journey that is revealing. This is true not only for our society, but the individual as well. The search for the truth often leads one down a path of self-reflection, and can lead to conclusions previously thought to be ludicrous. Here, I will argue that consciousness can be interpreted as an interpretation of reality, where the interpretation may become clearer and more accurate through practices such as meditation.
To articulate this idea, the concept of consciousness must firstly be discussed. There is an incredibly interesting TED talk given by Anil Seth, where he describes consciousness as an illusion. He explains how the brain receives signals from both the internal and external environment of the body, makes an interpretation of those signals, which creates our conscious experience. In his scientific writing, he claims that the brain can be viewed as a prediction machine1. He argues that the brain is constantly making predictions and error correcting in order to gain understanding of the signals it is receiving. He is not alone in this theory, and many other researchers concur that the constant comparison of internal predictions and external stimuli is what generates the brain’s sensations of causal forces2. There are plenty of reasons to believe this is true. Imagine, the brain is receiving all kinds of neuronal signals both from external stimuli sensors and sensors for our internal systems. These signals all shoot up the spinal cord to the brain. It is unclear that these neuronal signals are stamped with an identifier of where they came from, so the brain has to make a predictive model for not only where the signal came from, but also why the signal came at all. The latter is important for survival: the use of our senses to accurately predict our environment would be a critical reason why consciousness developed in the first place. Imagine you are an ancient hominid walking in the wild: you see a tangled cord like thing around a branch on the tree. You need to process that information, determine if it is more branch or a snake and act accordingly. This is a potential biological reason for the manifestation of thought and problem solving. This is a very meta-cognitive example of our brain receiving information and then using previous knowledge to generate a predictive conclusion on the external reality.
There are also examples of this outside of the more obvious meta-cognitive examples. A good example is the famous rubber hand experiment. The first rubber hand experiment was conducted in 1998 by Botvinick and Cohen3. In this experiment, a subject places their hand on a table with a screen blocking their view of their own hand. A rubber hand is then placed on the other side of the screen where it is visible. The experimenter rubs both the rubber hand and real hand with a paint brush. By the end of the experiment, subjects begin to feel as if the rubber hand is their own limb3. The brain, using the visual senses, detects that a hand is being stroked with a brush while sensory neurons send signals that the hand is experiencing the touch of a paint brush. These two signals cause the predicting brain to think that the rubber hand is our hand. This experiment has been repeated many times in different ways. It has been observed that participants begin to react defensively to the threat of pain or damage to the rubber hand4. This illustrates the powerful extent at which the brain processes and reacts to information that it interprets from reality. Amazingly, some research suggests that the touch aspect of the experiment isn’t even necessary to produce the illusion5. Others have recreated this experience using virtual reality, citing that when the virtual hand changed color in response to the subject’s heartbeat, a significant sense of body ownership was generated6. Body ownership, and our sense of reality is arguably determined by our brain’s interpretation of both internal and external stimuli.
The Neuroscience and Meditation
It is hypothesized that the anterior insular cortex (AIC) is involved in the comparison of the stimuli to the predicted model1. Interestingly, the same brain region is associated with the anticipation of pain7. For those unaware, there is some research to suggest that much of the pain we experience is not due to the actual noxious stimuli (physical pain sensation), but from the anticipation of that pain. Evidence for this can be found in studies such as Al-Obaidi et al. from 2005, that concluded that the pain experienced in patients with chronic low back pain could not be solely attributed to the sensor signals, but from the anticipation of the pain8. Additionally, the anticipation of pain relief is the primary contributor to placebo analgesia (placebo pain killers)9. Furthermore, a large body of research has been conducted showing that meditators show a decreased anticipatory attitude towards pain, subsequently experiencing less unpleasant pain 7,10,11. For example, chronic pain in multiple areas such as the low back, neck, shoulder, and arms have been shown to reduce after meditation practice12. Finally, an extreme case study worth noting is of a yogi master who claimed to not experience pain at all13. When this master was brought into the lab, not only did he not experience pain, but his thalamus showed no additional activation following painful stimuli13. What is fascinating about this is that the thalamus is the main relay station for all incoming somatosensory information14, and some argue that this is a candidate for the location of consciousness15. To not have strong activation here after painful stimuli is to suggest a radical change in how the brain receives incoming stimuli, and perhaps is indicative in a dramatic shift in how this individual’s conscious experiences the world. Though this is but one small example, the previous studies outline a strong case for meditation’s ability to alter the way the brain processes information. Given meditation involves the active practice of generating an open and non-judgmental attitude towards all incoming stimuli, perhaps this alters the processing of incoming stimuli, thereby changing the predictive model. On a similar note, perhaps it relates to neuroplastic changes that occur within the brain. It has been noted that the AIC is activated during times of awareness of mind wandering16. This suggests that the AIC is in use frequently during meditation practices. Perhaps it is strengthened then by meditation, thereby also allowing for greater prediction model generation. Imagine the mind as a pond. If the pond is calm and still, one single rain drop rippling in the pond is clearly identifiable. One would easily know information about the droplet, because the ripple could be easily analyzed. Now imagine a pond during a rain storm, where an uncountable amount of rain drops is hitting the pond and there are ripples everywhere. One could not adequately make out where each ripple came from, because there would be too much overlap in the ripples. This may be how the brain functions as well. When the signals are low, and no extraneous thoughts and interpretations are created from signals, then the brain’s prediction model can easily determine where and why a signal it received came from. If, however, the mind is chaotic and full of internal noise, then the brain has a harder time creating an accurate understanding of incoming stimuli and generating a correct model.
Enlightenment, from a scientific point of view, has been defined as a form of awareness where a person feels that s/he has gained a new understanding of reality 17. In this sense, it bears a striking relationship to the topic of consciousness. If consciousness can be defined as our interpretation of the external and internal environment through our mental prediction model, then experiences of enlightenment are defined by moments where our interpretation is completely changed in a profound way. The experiences are often characterized by the loss of individuality and consequent identification of being part of a greater oneness 18,19. As an interesting side note, this same experience is common amongst subjects, who in a double-blinded study, take psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms)20,21. The neuroscience of enlightenment is particularly interesting. The temporo-parietal junction of the brain is involved with self-location and body ownership22. Unsurprisingly, this area is highly involved in the illusion of the rubber hand experiment23. This is the same brain area that is hypothesized to be related to these enlightened experiences of oneness 17. If this brain area, which handles the interpretation of where and what the body is, was to decrease in activation, then the brain would generate a more ambiguous interpretation that the self and the external environment are less distinct than previously thought. This is a possible explanation to why enlightenment experiences involve a feeling of oneness with everything. To bring this all home, meditation has been shown to decrease parietal lobe activation 4,24. Suggesting that meditation can be a method of adjusting the brain’s interpretation of stimuli to generate an outlook that is unifying in perceptive.
The evidence that meditation may lead to an altered conscious living has deep philosophical implications. Meditation is a practice that, in part, involves an open awareness to all incoming stimuli alongside the absence of any meta-cognitive interpretation or processing of said stimuli. This generation of a still mind may generate a more accurate prediction model of incoming stimuli, void of any corruption on the part of our thoughts. Given the observation that meditation, both scientifically and culturally, can lead to an understanding and experience of a greater oneness amongst all suggests that this interpretation of incoming stimuli is the more accurate interpretation. It is hard to imagine that anyone would not advocate the beauty and usefulness of this perspective. If more people had this perspective, we would have a much more peaceful, happy and unified society and planet. Ironically, our culture often aims to arrive to this philosophical perspective through analytical thought. However, given the evidence in this post, perhaps it is the absence of analytical thought, and the stillness of the mind that truly grants this perspective.
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