The Neurology of Meditation:
Implications for Meditation Therapies
by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.
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The perspective of this paper favors the concept of the existence of neuronal brain networks, that are not only more specialized than others in the creation of awareness, but also that are capable of expansion, both in their anatomical configurations and in the output of their electro-chemical activity. Herewith explored are meditative practices as activators of awareness development.
Awareness is a term that carries different meanings. While to most people it refers to the capacity to be conscious of oneself, herewith it is also applied to the property of the nervous system to generate energies that make such self-awareness possible. As such, awareness ultimately takes root in the nervous system’s capacity to create energy, which is a core expression of life itself.
This paper examines awareness from a neurological perspective, then as it applies to the practice of meditation, aiming to enhance the many promises that it embodies. Meditative therapies thus may enhance not only the creation of new neuronal networks, but also stimulate the corresponding creation of new dimensions of awareness, both quantitative and qualitative.
Knowing about mechanisms of awareness is important because it satisfies the rational mind’s quest to understand all that surrounds it. Reasons for meditation thus gather greater logical impetus.
Awareness is the experiencing of life in the very instant of time and space, in wakefulness, and also in dreams. Experiencing, if one focuses on its flow, is poignant, intense, and relentlessly ongoing, whose only respite is possibly dreamless sleep. Awareness, in its streaming of thoughts and emotions, is felt in unique ways by each individual. And although awareness changes its outward expression as it courses through life’s stages from infancy onward, there is shared universality in its very essence.
The question has been posed a thousand ways: How can the grey mass of the brain reconcile with the evanescent substance of its flame: awareness? The mind/body problem thus posed is as beguiling today as it was thousands of years ago when early anatomists doggedly dissected the most obscure body recesses seeking the magic home of the sentient soul... only to come out empty handed.
Cracking the code of awareness will not be easy, because awareness is the very tool that is used to study itself. This can be somewhat problematic (if not a bit embarrassing) for the field of science which, in its sustained attempts to explain life’s highest elixir, awareness, has so far only yielded conjectural mazes whose exits invariably return to their entrance.
Focusing solely on its extremes will likely not solve the mind/body problem: the body’s matter on one extreme, and the ungraspable substance of mind on the other. These poles are conceptually far apart, and logic thus perennially fails to see their links. The mind/body dichotomy is in fact so polarized that awareness, as it lives in its physical body, has often been referred to as “the ghost in the machine.”
Brain is indeed matter, but it is matter that embodies the electrical phenomena of its individual cellular elements and of its greater neuronal networks. Quantum perspectives also respect the energies of brain's atoms and the forces that give them structure and motion: Forces that bind atomic nuclei together, such as electromagnetism, gravity, and the “weak” and “strong” nuclear forces. Fundamentally, all brain matter, as all matter, can be translated to energy and vice versa, and the brain, with and beyond its electro-chemical properties, respects that rule.
On the other extreme, awareness, in all its evanescence, can also be seen as an energy form. In the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, the ultimate stuff of awareness belongs to a substance called the “subtle body” which, with a minor stretch of imagination, can be conceived as belonging to a yet unidentified energetic dimension.
The mind/body problem can thus be grasped so that it is no longer a duality, but rather a continuum in a panoramic spectrum linking the electromagnetism of neuronal elements to the energy form that we all experience while experiencing: awareness itself. It may be that brains, as specialized organs, have evolved to bridge these disparate forces, allowing them to be expressed as the fundamental fabric of life.
Awareness in the brain
The magical quality that is awareness remains a cardinal conundrum. Gathering all current knowledge about how neurons work, what makes possible the leap to experiencing? And where can all this awareness be located in the nervous system?
Despite the concerted forays in the labyrinthine soft fortress that is the brain, via anatomical dissection, neurological mapping, medical imagery, and decades of pondering by means of various psychotherapies on how thoughts and feelings dynamically flow in the mind, the fundamental riddle remains: How does the material substance of brain relate to awareness? What purpose does awareness have? Can evolution’s demand for adaptation be invoked, or does the existence of awareness correspond to other imperatives?
Arguably most developed and refined in humans, this fundamental elixir of life is nevertheless shared in some manner by the spectrum of higher animal life, perhaps crossing all species’ boundaries to kindle all life. Awareness, for lack of a better word denoting the very substance of life’s energy, is fundamentally all-permeating.
Awareness brings to life the messages of the senses, vivifies emotions, and personalizes the uniqueness of every thought. Moods are background awareness symphonies, complex mélanges of affective colors and thought, all unique in their individual configurations. Every feeling in mind space is paired, in physical brain space, with the activation of corresponding neuronal circuits, and each thought, in theory – and increasingly in fact - can be identified by a unique neuronal chain reaction, from one neuron’s span, to the billions of neurons in the most complex mental processes.
Raw nervous system energy feeds the brain’s cortical circuitry. The elements of higher self, such as personhood, depend on networks fueling the brain with neuronal force. An approximate metaphor is for the brain ‘s power supply to be likened to a generator outputting electrical amperage and voltage. Connected to the generator can be myriad appliances performing any number of tasks: lamps, microphones, speakers, rechargers, fans, etc. Hence the difference between awareness nature (as in electricity), and awareness content (as in the appliances).
The reticular activating system (RAS), as its name implies, is a core contributor to the basic tonus of awareness. Composed of billions of neurons with trillions of interconnections, with beginnings in the bulbous upward continuation of the spinal cord, the medulla oblongada, and moving higher through the brain, it looks, under high magnification, like a packed dense and diffuse cellular net (Greek: reticulum, net), coursing into ancient brain structures (pons, mesencephalon, thalamus), eventually lighting up the cortical landscape.
Like an island in a vast sea, awareness floats on an ocean of brain activity that is not granted cognizance, the unbounded domain of the unconscious. Indeed, most bodily activities, most thinking, most emotions, and increasingly recognized, most decisions, take place in the more surface pre-conscious, and the more unattainable unconscious. Nature has rationed conscious perception. Floating on this subterranean unconscious mass is the atoll of awareness, the “Experiencer,” embodying the conscious kernel of “Me.”
Networks linked to conscious awareness, appear in scans as clouds of mostly cortical neurons, with neuronal filaments reaching out into the brain. The shape of these neuronal nebulae shift with attention and focus. Meditations inviting visual imagery, for example, will also involve occipital cortical areas. Proposed is that neurons in this network be called “A” (awareness) neurons.
Like memory, which gathers from all neurons for complete reconstruction, awareness, in its final expression, receives contributions from pan-neuronal networks. The “A” neuronal networks, however, are more specialized than others in the generation of awareness. “A” neuron networks are all important in the practice of meditation because the crux of meditation lies in the sustained kindling of awareness.
Regardless of the nature of its essence, awareness is closely connected to proper neuronal functioning. Could awareness ever exist without a nervous system? Many spiritual schools seem to think so; modern science, however, is highly skeptical.
“A” neurons, awareness content, and awareness essence
Meditation centers on igniting awareness to new levels. Staying with the experiencing of awareness is fundamental to most, if not all forms of meditation. In fact, devoid of a sustained focus on awareness, no practice can properly be called meditative. The thrust of meditation is centering on awareness. Once awareness is brought to the foreground, where may it be channeled? Choices exist, and this accounts for the different styles of meditation.
The many styles of meditation all aim to prime awareness. Meditative focus, in such priming, can center on a physiological process such as breathing, on a bodily space such as an energy plexus, on internal sensations such as heat and light (Tummo Meditation), on a movement sequence as in Tai Chi and Qi Gong, on the vibrations of a mantra, or on the illumination of a global feeling state, such as joy, peace, love and compassion. The art of meditation resides in electing an optimal personal meditation style.
In Autogenic Training, a Western style of meditation, awareness is channeled to sensory experiences, such as feelings of bodily heaviness and warmth, and eventually to coolness of the forehead (Luthe, 1965).
Certain meditation practices develop the ability to distinguish awareness content from awareness nature. Any thought, any emotion, any memory manifesting in consciousness belongs to awareness content. Beyond all content, there is essence. In zazen meditation, all mental constructs are seen as clouding the perception of pure awareness.
While neuronal “A” circuitry is activated in meditation, one other network is needed to make that happen. Willfulness is an essential ingredient. Willfulness pipelines attention’s thrust into awareness networks. Gentle sustained willfulness activates “A” circuitry. Highly developed in humans, the neuronal conglomerate generating willfulness mainly resides in the brain’s frontal lobes and its connections. The partnership and synergism linking these two networks form the crux of meditation’s contribution to awareness expansion.
Meditative therapies, brain growth and awareness extension
What happens to brain’s circuitry when meditation is consistently practiced? In light of discoveries showing the capacity of neuronal generation (Duan, 2008; Gould, 1999; Gage, 2013; Guo-li Ming, 2005; Kaneko, 2011; Zhao, 2008), is it possible to incite awareness’ neuronal networks to expand its brain demographics? Can the voluntary arousal of awareness, as in meditation, increase this “A” population, the sum total of its connectivity, and therefore the sheer energetic output of awareness neurons?
Research shows that meditation can indeed alter the morphology of selected brain components (Fox, 2014; Lazar, 2005; Luders, 2015; Vestergaard-Poulsen, 2009; Xue, 2011). What are the implications of these findings? Can mental mechanisms that engage awareness networks stimulate neuronal connectivity, or even neurogenesis? What happens to the experiencing of awareness when its physical components are transformed through meditation?
Meditation therapies: Stages and promises
The term “meditation therapies” implies that techniques of meditation have the capacity to redress disharmonies of well-being. Indeed, this is so. Numerous studies have reported on meditation’s therapeutic action in a spectrum of psychological conditions (Schmidt, 2014; Brown, 2015; Cvetkovic, 2011). Meditation therapies also show beneficial influence on the body’s functioning. Of particular interest are meditative studies of cardiac reactivity, the tendency of the cardiovascular system to become nefariously activated in response to stress (Travis, 2009; Barnes, 2004). This type of research is, in essence, symbolic of the calming effects of meditation on autonomic nervous system networks.
Meditation therapies address dysphoric symptomatology. Symptoms relative to anxiety, in the anxiety/apprehension/fear/worry spectrum, are the first to be mollified. The meditator is often surprised that formerly gripping anxiety has gradually dispelled, and that new vistas of relaxation are revealed. Learned experientially is that relaxation has many subjective layers, seemingly limitless in their reach. Also assuaged by meditation therapies, is the irritability/anger/aggression spectrum. Angers can be dissolved with consistent meditation, as are the unfortunate sequelae that derive from them. New landscapes of peacefulness are opened. Also bolstered by meditation is the self-esteem/self-image/self-confidence dimension. Distressing feelings that connect to this dimension have to do with the mind’s tendency to compare self with others. Feelings of inadequacy give way to new perceptions of personal centeredness, and social equipoise.
Especially pertinent to meditation therapies is their capacity to highlight the immediacy of life. The empathy/sensitivity/love spectrum is involved. Meditators find themselves with new capabilities to capture the intensity of interpersonal contact, to resonate with others emotionally, and to project expressions of goodwill, friendship and love. In the context of meditation, there often begins an awakening to the fact that awareness of one’s awareness is a reckoning of the existence of fundamental life energy, and with it, a revelation that this energy – and conceptually, spirit - is not only always positive, but profoundly immutable. Revelations often feature the fact that awareness nature is ever more fundamental than awareness content.
Meditation therapies invite the development of dimensions of the psyche that correspond to higher, if not the highest of personal aspirations. They open portals to experiencing states of mind that ordinarily surpass us, belonging to domains of the “Overself” (Brunton, 1965).
Techniques that develop heightened entente between mind and body can easily complement contemporary psychotherapies. In fact, to be maximally effective, psychotherapies need to be integrated into the body’s networks. Meditation is a generic term for a variety of techniques that center on the activation of awareness. Sustained priming of awareness independently leads to positive personal transformations, in the psychological, the psychosomatic, and the transcendent dimensions of being.
Research has shown that consistent meditation correlates with actual and measurable physical modifications in the nervous system. In turn, awareness tends to shift toward relaxation, psychological harmony, organ balance, and importantly, toward states of experiencing that, like a staircase ascending, invite novel realizations of the Self.
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