The Meditative Brain

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Filtering by Tag: neuroscience

Cross-Cultural Cognitive Science and the 5 Aggregates (the illusion of self)


What exactly creates the sense of a permanent self? Buddhists will tell you to turn to the 5 aggregates. Bridging the gap between traditional Buddhist teachings and modern neuroscience is a large hurdle that will obviously be instrumental in advancing the science of meditation. Part of that bridging includes examining the lexicon used in Buddhist texts and comparing that to our contemporary knowledge of consciousness. That being said, what does neuroscience and psychology have to say about aspects of Buddhist teachings? I read an article recently that examines, among several things, the correlates between cognitive science/western philosophy and the five aggregates (Rupa, Vedana, sañña, Samskara and Vijnana). I'll present here a very condensed version of what is discussed in the article in hopes of furthering some understanding for those who don't want to dedicate too much time in dissecting the article. If this interests you, I encourage you to read the article in the link to get a better understanding of what I have presented here.

The Five Aggregates:

1. Rupa

Rupa, the aggreagate of the body's matter or form, also refers to the body's "...mobility, temperature regulation, fluid, and digestive systems, as well as its processes of decay". Some may argue that emotion also plays a part in bodily reactions (ex. rising of blood in embarrassment) while emotional theorists obviously extend the definition of emotion as encompassing the feelings associated with them (pleasant feelings/unpleasant feelings/indifferent feelings).

2. Vedana

This latter aspect of "feeling" correlates with the second aggregate of vedana (feeling or sensation). Psychologists may refer to this aspect as "affective valence". Both the Buddhist and neuroscience perspective describe that vedana or affective valence can be present with or without conscious awareness and in more than just emotional mental states.

3. Sanna

The third aggregate, sanna, (or perception) is the aspect of consciousness that can identify, recall, and report experiences and correlates with what philosopher Ned Block calls “cognitive access". Cognitive access consists of "...having the content of an experience enter working memory so that one can identify and report on this content". Samannāhāra (or bringing together thoughts/stimuli) and manasikāra (or attention) are concepts helping to further refine this aggregate. It roughly corresponds to the alertness hypothesized to be dependent on the thalamus and brainstem (and not requiring selective attention).

4. Samkhara

The fourth aggregate, samkhara (mental formation or volition), can refer to cognitive processes that occurs when committing to a course of action, and the habitual routine that determines how we behave without our awareness. Samkhara corresponds to models of cognitive events such as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". In other words, small changes in our mental conditions can greatly shift trajectories of thought because of "...self-forming processes arising from non-linear interactions between components at neural and motor levels".

5. Vinnana

Viññāṇa (or consciousness), the fifth and final aggregate can correlate with Block's, "phenomenal consciousness", which is defined as, " a moment of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, or mental awareness". It can be described as "what it is like" to have an experience. For example, what is it like to see the colour red? I believe these types of mental phenomena are referred to as qualia.

Now that the aggregates have been outlined, how do we bring that all together? The article states it nicely so I'll leave the authors to summarize it best,

"This core or ground-floor level of consciousness depends on a basic kind of alerting function distinct from the higher-level mechanisms of selective attention that come into play in determining what one is conscious of. On this view, the fact that there is a phenomenal feel – the fact that there is something it is like for a subject – depends on the basic alerting function. In contrast, the content of phenomenal consciousness – what it is like for a subject – depends also on how this consciousness is directed to particular objects and properties through selective attention. Put another way, the particular contents of phenomenal consciousness can be seen as modifications or modulations of a basal level of awareness dependent on the alerting function (see also Searle 2000)." (Link to main article) (Davis and Thompson)

Additional references mentioned in the above article:

Block, N. (2007). Consciousness, Accessibility, and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience. In Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30, 481–548. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X07002786.

Block, N. (2008). Consciousness and Cognitive Access. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 108(3), 289–317. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9264.2008.00247.x.

Searle, John R. (2000). Consciousness. In Annual Review of Neuroscience 23, 557–78. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.23.1.557.

Why We Love Music

To this point, I've been posting a lot of scientific evidence/research papers etc. So I don't want you to be confused by this post. I'll be stating my opinion for the most part (a running hypothesis of mine) mixed in with some evidence... I've always been fascinated with the fact that, as humans, we immediately have a connection with music. Maybe you've seen this viral video at some point - "Notorious B.I.G. calms down crying baby". Its a good chuckle:


There are many more examples like this; Just search around on Youtube. Generally, a baby hears music (who in my opinion shouldn't have a reference point to enjoy music), and almost like hypnosis, they become magically engaged, seem to forget about their worries, and simply listen and enjoy the music. But why does this work? Is Biggy just that good?.....Yes and No.

I believe that part of what music does for us is based in its rhythm - and its inherent ability to entrain our brain waves to pulse at the same frequencies as the rhythms in the music. Confused? Here's another way to put it - When you hear a sound, your nervous system transmits the sound wave to your brain by way of the auditory nerve - producing an electrical potential in your brain. If you hear a pulse at a certain frequency your brain becomes entrained to that pulse and fires electrical signals at that same rate.

Here is a real life example: your brain hears a bass drum pulsing quater notes at 120bpm (beats per minute), it receives sound waves at 120bpm and transmits that information in pulses to other neurons at 120bpm throughout your brain. The rhythms played between those notes (high hats, snare drums, vocals etc) are also transmitted through your brain at their respective frequencies. Through enough repetition, the music likely entrains your brain to the rhythm. If that rhythm/frequency happens to be similar to the frequencies that we experience during meditation (alpha, theta, delta frequencies/waves), that should have some interesting effects (See my post on alpha brain waves/meditation/sensory focus and benefits:

Ever hear of Yucatecan trance induction beats? They probably induce a similar effect: A drummer repeatedly beats his drum at 210bpm for about 30min. Apparently, after about 15 minutes, church goers listening to the beat go into a trance-like, euphoric state.  Here's another example - entrainment even works during sleep. Pulsing a delta frequency (1-2 Hz) has shown to induce an entrainment effect on slow wave sleep patterns. Researchers have generated slow delta waves in the brain's of subjects by entrainment to an audible delta pulse. I'm guessing yet another example of this effect comes from Tibetan Singing Bowls, commonly used to help induce a meditative state. Here's a video if you're unfamiliar with these bowls:


Do you hear the pulsing sounds? I'm hearing pulses in the delta to theta range (frequencies ranging from 1-7 Hz). Research shows that when our brains go from an "everyday life" beta wave state (varying from ~14Hz-30Hz), usually associated with higher thinking, concentration, worry, anxiety, and agitation, to a slower alpha wave state (8-13 Hz) or theta brain wave state (4-7Hz), we have a greater sense of relaxation, happiness, and joy. On a molecular level, its been shown that greater levels of serotonin are released into the synapse during the alpha state (and I'm guessing also in theta). Are you using a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft etc) to help you with your depression? Similarly, these type of drugs act to keep serotonin in your synapses, thereby helping to treat your depression.

But how does this relate back to the baby video?  When we listen to,

"Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can't you see..."

we're hearing rhythmic frequencies around 5-6Hz (in theta) and a various mix of other alpha frequencies. To register those sounds as information, your brain needs to fire neurons at that rate (and as discussed, these frequencies are shown to have positive effects). Don't you love being absorbed in your favourite songs? The more we focus on the sound, the greater amount of our brain's resources begin to fire at those rhythmic frequencies, and thus we get greater enjoyment from the music.

So is this why the baby is loving Biggy so much? And is this why we love music? Maybe. Albeit, its probably much more complicated. My request to you - maximize the experience you can get from music - be like the baby. Stop doing other things while listening to music, be present with it, stop thinking, and get absorbed in the music (i.e. close your eyes and put some headphones on). You'll be happier and more fulfilled for it...and well, that is just being mindful, isn't it.

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Genome-wide expression changes in a higher state of consciousness.

Genome-wide expression changes in a higher state of consciousness.

Wow...I didn't think I'd find research like this already. This research group rounded up a small number of "experienced meditators" (again, its difficult to assess what this really means without a solid descriptor used by all, but the researchers did their best) and used a micro-array to determine what genes are upregulated and downregulated during higher states of consciousness. Some similarities and differences were found, as expected. 

What does it mean? Who knows. Its really hard (for me) to interpret micro-array data. They had more similarities in under-expressed genes than over-expressed genes. Generally they noticed a down regulation of "metabolic and cell cycle processes, signaling, protein transport, regulation of gene expression, DNA repair, epigenetic mechanisms.". 

While not being grilled for this during my dissertation, I'd say that this is what we might expect right? Everything seems to be slowing down when we meditate for long periods - our thoughts, our breathing, ability to regulate temperature. 

Very cool if this type of research begins to take hold. This is a very small study - but at least someone did it (AND GOT FUNDING!?)


Alpha brain waves correlate with sensory focus = Meditation + Secondary Benefits

This is very interesting. For years, meditation researchers have noted that meditators produce different (often slower) types of brain waves when they meditate compared to "regular" awake states. But we haven't really come up with any great reason how or why these two things correlate.


Typically, when a person closes their eyes, they immediately produce a spike in alpha brain waves (8-12 Hz). The beginnings of meditation also show an increase in these brain wave frequencies. When they open their eyes, their brain waves speed up to produce beta wave states (13-38 Hz). Experienced meditators show greater quantities of even slower brain waves. Theta waves, (4-7 Hz) are found in greater quantities in experienced meditators and in sleep states of normal individuals. Delta waves (< 4 Hz) are also found in sleep and deeper meditative states. Oddly, very experienced meditators show deep states of meditation correspond with very vast brain waves called Gamma waves (>40 Hz). 

Research from Brown University using magnetoencephalography (MEG) show that sensory attention correlates with alpha rhythms in the cortex. Additionally, persons who have mindfulness training are better able to regulate localized alpha brainwaves  than non-trained individuals. A computer model was also built by the investigators that simulates electrical activity of neural networks and makes predictions about how the alpha waves are produced. 

The model predicts that timing and strength of alpha waves can be controlled,

"from two separate regions of the thalamus, called thalamic nuclei, that talk to different parts of the cortex. One alpha generator would govern the local “tuning in,” for instance of sensations in a hand, while the other would govern the broader “tuning out” of other sensory or cognitive information in the cortex."

So, as we gain control of our focus of thought during meditation, we also gain control of our focus of thought on our sensory system and our regulation of our alpha wave brain states. Let's not forget that the alpha wave brain state also seems to correlate with people being able to overcome depressive thoughts or chronic pain signals. There are a lot of correlates in this train of research, but nonetheless, its very interesting.


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Video Series - The Compassionate Brain with Dr. Rick Hanson

This is a great video series really on point with this blog. I encourage you to check it out. You'll first need to register at:

Here's a run-down of the whole series with some heavy-hitters in this field:

Session 1: How the Mind Changes the Brain Recorded on Monday, October 8, 2012 With Dr. Richie Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin and co-editor of The Asymmetrical Brain

Session 2: Mindfulness of Oneself and Others Recorded on Monday, October 15, 2012 With Dr. Daniel Siegel, executive director of the Mindsight Institute and author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation

Session 3: Cultivating a Forgiving Heart Recorded on Monday, October 22, 2012 With Dr. Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington and author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

Session 4: The Evolution of Compassion: From Gene to Meme Recorded on Monday, October 29, 2012 With Dr. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Session 5: Balancing Compassion and Assertiveness Recorded on Monday, November 5, 2012 With Dr. Kelly McGonigal, senior teacher and consultant for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

Session 6: The Power of Self-Compassion Recorded on Monday, November 12, 2012 With Dr. Kristin Neff, professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas, Austin and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind

Session 7: Compassion in the Wider World Recorded on Monday, November 19, 2012 With Dr. Jean Houston, co-founder of The Foundation for Mind Research and author of The Possible Human: A Course in Enhancing Your Physical, Mental, and Creative Abilities

Session 8: At Home in the Heart—Practical Takeaways from This Series Recorded on Monday, November 26, 2012 With Dr. Rick Hanson

Learn from a 3D Brain/Einstien's Brain Facts

Learn from a 3D Brain/Einstien's Brain Facts

A LITTE GROUND WORK FIRST - Over the next while, I'll be posting some information that will talk about different brain structures. Its always hard learning about something if you don't actually have an idea about what the structure does, what the structure looks like, where its located, and what is beside it!

If you want to follow along or go back and reference this post, I'd suggest this tool from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a fun way to learn about structures and functions. 

Just hover over the brain to identify structures and use the dialog box to the right to learn about the features of 29 different structures.

Check it out here:

........Ready?....Ok....Now that you've learned about some of the structures, here are two facts about Einstein's brain. Go find these structures on the map!

  • Einstein's parietal lobes were wider than normal parietal lobes. In addition, he had extra grooves and ridges in his parietal lobes (perhaps related to his advanced visual, mathematical, and spatial thinking)
  • Einstein had knoblike structures on his motor cortex. (perhaps related to Einstein's musical ability)

The direction of meditative research

This article is a great introduction to the history of our definitions of mindfulness and where our definition of mindfulness is going both theoretically and neurobiologically. I'm not going to dare to comment on it. But it'll be a great intro for anyone who wants to dig in deeper to what's going on in the brain during mindfullness AND what we really mean by mindfullness.


Welcome to The Meditative Brain - Some Interesting Links

How exciting! This blog will be dedicated to my journey through all things (contemplative science, neuroscience, Buddhist and technology related) that I'm doing and finding interesting at the moment. While I'm figuring it out, it will help me organize my thoughts, and maybe it will let my readers discover interesting questions (and hopefully some answers!) of their own. I'll be posting things from all over the web. But for now, I thought I'd post my favourite, most-visited sites! Please share some of your own favourite sites! Or let me know what awesome content I may have been missing on any of my favourite sites....Maybe they'll become yours too:

That's probably good to get started....back to practice....

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