Tag Archives: insight

Brain Networks and Meditation

Caveat: I have very limited knowledge of neurology and brain processes. What I present here is my understanding of scientific reports about the working of a particular aspect of the brain as a metaphor to explore meditation.

          Brain imaging studies have recently identified a network of brain areas and their associated functions that have been named the default mode network. This network has been labeled default because it seems to be responsible for most brain activity taking place when one’s attention is not specifically engaged. It would appear that focused attention draws largely upon other brain areas and those areas represent a separate network, which to my knowledge has not been labeled. For simplicity’s sake let’s hereafter just refer to these as the Focused Attention Network (FAN) and the Relaxed Attention Network (RAN). These networks are illustrated in the figure at end of this essay. We are all familiar with the notion of left brain and right brain functions, but apparently there is another “divide” along the lines of a brain using focused attention and a brain whose attention processes are relaxed. As with the left and right brain concept, the RAN and FAN brain states do not necessarily mean exclusive functions for each network but rather primary functions. The FAN is frequently directed externally but can also be directed internally at specific cognitive tasks or physical states. The FAN appears to be more analytic and rational, while the RAN seems to be more metaphorical and imaginative.

The FAN appears to engage those areas of the brain that govern executive functions in the brain such as active attention, decision making, problem solving, planning and working memory. It accesses and engages knowledge and skills that an individual has acquired for engaging tasks of various sorts. It also exercises control over motor functions needed to engage in voluntary actions like drawing or surgery. If you’re trying to cognitively inventory the things that you will need to take with you on a trip, to relax a tight muscle in your neck, learn how to solve quadratic equations or teach a child to read, the FAN is engaged. However, when activities requiring focused attention come to an end, RAN is automatically your default state. Clearly, if you’re doing nothing but sitting staring out a window, the RAN will engage. However, when you’re engaged in routine activities that don’t require focused attention such as running on a treadmill or driving down a stretch of road with little or no traffic, you usually will default to RAN. Even when focused attention may be needed, boredom can result in inattention and defaulting to RAN.

When RAN is engaged what you get appears similar to free association or random presentation. In this state, thoughts, memories, images and feelings stream into awareness often with little or no apparent structure. As long as these stimuli stream, you remain in RAN. However, if you focus on one or more of these stimuli and begin to engage with it, FAN comes back into operation. Thus, FAN can be focused on either an external or an internal task. To illustrate the process of going from RAN to an internal version of FAN, think of standing in front of a conveyor belt and watching suitcases streaming by. This is analogous to RAN-generated thoughts and images streaming through awareness. If you grab one of these suitcases off of the conveyor belt and begin unpacking it, this is analogous to focusing on one thought or image and following a chain of associations elicited by your attention to it. You are now back in FAN. This, however, is usually a less engaged level of FAN than the level, for example, required for solving quadratic equations or teaching someone to read. This suggests that there are degrees of FAN and RAN, meaning that they are not “digital” states that are either on or off.

My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, again from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN is to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.

Initially, the mind begins a process of organizing this information into some sort of kernel story that is rooted in and identified with the body/mind. This becomes the core construct around which our fictive-self or personal narrative evolves. This fictive-self or ego largely has the function of providing a sense of coherence and continuity to our life experience. It becomes the basis of the meaning we assign to our lives. As our narrative becomes fairly well established more and more of what arises from the RAN are thoughts, ideas, images, attitudes, opinions and judgments (among others inputs) that reinforce our fictive-self and ensure our identification with the narrative.

The fictive-self can be recognized through the stream of “self-talk” that dominates your awareness when the FAN is engaged with content RAN has generated. Much of this “self-talk” can be recognized as rehearsal of one’s personal narrative. We become the fiction we have created to explain our self to our self. We are like a hamster trapped in an exercise wheel — always running but never getting anywhere. If you want to escape, you must first become aware of the structure of your personal narrative by examining the themes in your self-talk and what they imply about the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness and directing you like a puppet master. “Cutting” the strings linking you to your puppet master is the most essential step required for liberation.

I would suggest that very young children, before the core construct for the fictive-self is established, are not individuated. Therefore, their consciousness is more likely to be resonate with what some describe as Unity consciousness. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Or, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, regain your “natural mind.” In other words, you cannot access Unity consciousness or the Absolute (“kingdom of heaven”) unless you can first learn to stand aside from the fictive-self (“be converted”) and return to a less individuated manifestation of consciousness (“become as little children”).

One activity that comes to mind while thinking about RAN is sitting meditation. When one sits to “practice” meditation, two things are likely to happen. First, the FAN is disengaged and, second, the RAN is engaged. These are operations that most of us easily do with hardly a thought. However, the purpose of meditation cannot be to simply engage the RAN, because if that were true, then there would be no difference between meditation and daydreaming. So, the question arises, what is the relationship between the RAN and meditation?

Many meditation teachers initially advocate the practice of sitting  meditation. Sitting meditation is usually described as concentrating on a specific focus such as a rhythmic function like the breath, an auditory stimulus or a visual stimulus. The nature of the auditory or visual stimulus suggested will vary depending upon the tradition from which the suggestion is coming, but there is no evidence that I am aware of from brain imaging studies indicating any functional difference between the effects of different stimuli from different traditions. For example, if the focus is on a sound such as “Aum” or “Amen,” then during mindfulness meditation one simply uses this sound either vocalized or sub-vocalized as a focus, and whenever one recognizes that the focus of attention has drifted, the instruction is to simply mentally note the deviation and return to the focus.

It seems that the basic process in this form of meditation is to learn to use a solitary focus of attention that requires no thought, which engages FAN at a low level. Keeping FAN engaged at a low level with a stimulus requiring no thought helps avoid becoming entangled in the activity of the RAN. Once this condition is met, one can observe the products of RAN running in the background, so to speak. It has been said that the function of the mind is to generate thoughts, just as the function of the heart is to pump blood. If that is so, it is the RAN that is largely responsible for generating the thoughts.

What one must learn to avoid is engaging FAN with any of the stimuli thrown up by RAN. Of course, this will happen and happen regularly for beginners. The only solution is to gently withdraw FAN from the RAN product it engaged and move it back to the meditative focus.

In the process of learning to hold FAN at “arms length” and simply observing the products of RAN passing through awareness, one begins to get a good sense of what sorts of stimuli are being generated by RAN. Frequently, patterns will emerge among the stimuli passing through awareness. This is how one begins to get a handle on the beliefs, opinions and attitudes largely operating beneath your awareness. Many people may also have emotional reactions to patterns of stimuli that relate to negative events in their lives and may be initially overwhelmed by their emotions. These events have probably made contributions of importance to your personal narrative. They may also be the source of especially problematic attitudes, beliefs and opinions that affect your functioning. Becoming aware of these potent cognitive components “pulling your strings” is the first step in cutting those strings.

Most spiritual teachings that point one toward Self-realization consider being able to sustain full presence in the moment (the natural mind) to be a necessary condition. Regaining the natural mind first requires cutting those puppet strings directing your life from outside of conscious awareness. By presence what is meant is that what you experience, whether events, thoughts, feelings, sensations, objects or people, are simply that. You register these stimuli in your awareness but your mind brings to them no preconceived interpretation and makes no judgment arising from such interpretations. This does not necessarily mean that you will draw no conclusion about what you are aware of but that any such conclusion will be untainted by the content of ego. You will discover that in most instances no conclusions are necessary at all. What you observe simply is what it is and requires nothing from you.

It would seem that insight meditation is the next step in one’s meditation practice. The transition from sitting to insight meditation is not a sharp or clear transition. However, at some point the process of noting the activity generated by the RAN and recognizing patterns related to your beliefs, opinions and attitudes begins to develop into an intuitive understanding of the conditioned nature of that aspect of consciousness we call the self. With this intuitive insight comes an opportunity to begin the process of standing aside or dis-identifying with the “fictive or narrative self” that is the illusion you refer to as “me.”

 The illusion of permanent self dissolving as awareness penetrates and knows the illusion. Moving deeper, beyond the small self, beyond aversion and attachment, beyond ignorance.Barbara Brodsky and John Orr (meditation teachers).

Meditation then becomes a natural abiding in awareness of awareness. One’s attention is both relaxed and focused in the present moment. One does not dwell on the imagined future or recollected past. One does not spin “ego stories” about the self nor explanatory stories about others, which can include institutions, organizations or people. One is in the natural mind. Knowing Unity consciousness or the Absolute still depends upon grace (see Taken), but one has done all that is possible to prepare for it and is able to expand into it should it occur.

There is one practice, which I think of as contemplative meditation, that is worth mentioning separately. This is the use, by one school of Zen meditation, of what is known as a koan. A koan is a riddle that is used as the focus of meditation. For example, the widely quoted koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Zen is not the only source of such riddles. Here are a couple from non-Zen sources, “The only way out is in” and “There is only one mind.” It appears that the purpose of a koan is to shut down the RAN by silencing its near incessant chatter with an intellectual conundrum that has no rational solution. This not only serves as a focus for FAN but exhausts FAN’s efforts to bring rational understanding to the conundrum. At the point of exhaustion one might say rationality implodes, leaving what Zen refers to as “no mind” or, according to the Hindu sage Pantanjali, puts one beyond words and concepts. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff describes this state as consciousness without an object.

Figure

 

Two views of the brain with the RAN in blue and the FAN in orange and yellow.

 

Addendum

In the above, I discussed what in neuroscience is called the “default mode network.” In that section, I relabeled the default network as the “relaxed attention network” (RAN) and the alternate state as the “focused attention network” (FAN). To review part of the above discussion:

 My hypothesis is that RAN is largely responsible for the creation of a fictive-self, self-narrative or ego and especially for maintaining and reinforcing it [emphasis added]. One way of thinking about the ego is as a psychological construct that functions as the subject or “doer” assigned responsibility for our activities. This fictive-self begins forming early in the developmental period and generally becomes stronger as a child ages into an adult. It seems to me, from introspective observation, that most of the activity generated by RAN serves to bring into awareness thoughts, images and memories associated with our experiences. These become the “bricks” from which we build, repair and reinforce our fictive-self.

Now, a recent study discussed in the New Scientist has provided evidence that supports my hypothesis:

“The team gave 20 volunteers infusions on two days, once containing 75 micrograms of LSD, the other [day] a placebo. Then volunteers lay in a scanner and had their brains imaged with three different techniques, which together built up a comprehensive picture of neural activity, both with the drug and without.”

Carhart-Harris et al.

MRI scans showed that LSD caused brain activity to become less coordinated in regions that make up what is called the default mode network. The size of the effect was correlated with participants’ ratings of their own ego dissolution, suggesting that this network underlies a stable sense of self [my emphasis].”

          Another imaging type, magnetoencephalography (MEG), showed that the rhythm of alpha brainwaves weakened under LSD, an effect that was also correlated with ego dissolution. Alpha rhythms are stronger in humans than other animals, and Carhart-Harris thinks it could be a signature of high-level human consciousness.

Click here for journal paper.

 

David Bohm’s Reformulation of Quantum Physics

David Bohm was an eminent quantum physicist. Early in his career he worked with Albert Einstein at Princeton University. With Yakir Aharonov he discovered the Aharonov-Bohm effect. He was professor of theoretical physics at Birkbeck College, University of London and author of several books on quantum physics. He died in 1992. The David Bohm Society.

I.            Holomovement:

The holomovement is a quantum field (QF) outside of space-time in which everything exists simultaneously as a unified whole creating a seamless, multidimensional field that is imbued with consciousness, intelligence and meaning. The QF is a vast sea of light energy in a state of constant flux and is the ground for all that is. The fundamental reality thus created is a unity that is causal but nonlocal. This means that events arising from the holomovement are determined but are independent of space and time (see two Figures, at end).

A.            Super Implicate Order:

Creativity has its roots in the super implicate order, which is governed by the super quantum potential where possibilities are infinite. The super quantum potential is the source of the processes, laws or principles that give rise to the forms that are taken on by quantum potential (Q), which gives rise to implicate orders. Creativity is expressed through the QF as it generates implicate orders in a manner that could be compared to the way in which a fractal algorithm generates ordered forms in a seemingly random process.

B.             Generative Order:

The QF is permeated by and is in correspondence with Q from which both waves and particles arise. Q acts on the entire QF and relates every particle to every other particle. Q does not carry energy but rather information. The effect that Q has on a particle is determined by Q’s form and the information carried by Q determines its form. Form is the structure, pattern, shape or organization conferred on a particle by Q. It is distinct from the particle itself and is analogous to the way the rules of syntax are independent of a sequence of words forming a sentence but guide its formation. Thus, Q can be thought of as the formative cause that guides the activity of a particle.

Order is dynamic and controlled by the information available in a specific context. What appears random in one context will be seen to be part of an ordered pattern in a broader context where more information is available. For example, evolutionary theory attempts to create an orderly description from apparently random events. Bohm’s model, however, suggests that what appear to be random events are actually embedded in a higher order that provides a broader context in which the random events become part of an orderly pattern. Order exists along a spectrum of orders that represents an open and potentially infinite system. For example, when a mystic perceives the reality of an implicate order, the mystic’s context has been enlarged or broadened. However, the level of detail or content available will be less than that perceived by a physicist from the context existing in the corresponding explicate order.

  C.            Implicate Orders:

               1.            Formative Order:

             Bohm’s second implicate order. The subtle level of formative, organizing and creative activity. The “blueprint” for the material order.

               2.            Material Order:

             Bohm’s first implicate order (first in the sense of being the first level above the explicate  order). At this level particles (the basic building block for matter) undergo rapid creation  and annihilation causing matter to appear to be blinking on an off. Particles are created by  the convergence of waves in the QF causing an interference pattern or ripple referred to  as a wave packet. The process described as “blinking” is also referred to as enfolding and  unfolding and as projection and injection. A particle is explicated, unfolded or projected  into the explicate order and then implicated, enfolded or injected back into the implicate  order. One complete cycle is called a moment. The more rapid this process the greater the  appearance of seamless continuity as perceived from the explicate order. It is the unfolding of the implicate order to produce the explicate order that creates the perception of time. The more separation between unfolding and enfolding the less apparent is continuity and the more events appear to be random. For example, when an electron  appears to “jump” unpredictably from one position to another, the amount of separation in the electron’s moment causes it to display what appears to be random, discontinuous activity. One way that this can be thought of is as a series of photos. When presented  slowly, one merely has a set of individual pictures, which may appear random. When presented rapidly, one has a movie.

  D.            Explicate Order or Three Dimensional Reality:

Three dimensional reality is a derivative of multidimensional reality. The appearance of direct causal connections in the explicate order are actually representations of relationships in the implicate order. Bohm’s model indicates that space-time was enfolded into the implicate order and was explicated in a pulse of light energy (comprised of all waves that move at the velocity of light). This pulse is now described as the big bang, which brought our expanding universe into existence. In some ways, matter can be thought of as condensed or “frozen” light. Since the QF is infinite and eternal, there is no reason to doubt that there are other universes created in the same manner.

Physical (soma) and mental (significance) are reciprocals of one another and there is a two-way flow of energy and information between them. Each significance has a corresponding soma structure. The relationship between soma and significance is meaning. Meaning is roughly equivalent to consciousness and spreads out over a spectrum. Consciousness thus is implicit in all matter in 3D reality but consciousness is not equivalent to self-awareness. The deeper meaning is enfolded into the implicate order the more subtle it is. The perception of shades of subtle meaning requires insight and cannot be attained through analysis alone. A change in meaning changes soma and a change in soma changes meaning. Content is meaning extracted from a given context.

Formative cause is similar to meaning and gives form to the activities of an entity as well as goals toward which the entity is moving. In a sentient being consciousness is its formative cause and thus a sentient being has the ability to self-direct its activities and the goals toward which it is moving; i.e., the being can exercise free will.

The manifest world provides a display. The 3D world then is like a computer monitor that allows the display of relationships between objects and events that are free to vary and create new relationships within limits imposed by the underlying software. Having a display allows consciousness or intelligence to become active. Recall that the pulse between the implicate and explicate order is two-way. The explicate order enfolds or injects information back into the implicate order. The implicate order then assimilates this information and incorporates it into what is unfolded or projected into the explicate order. The holomovement appears to be experimenting and thereby learning or evolving. A process that implies purpose for the 3D universe.

The above is my less than complete understanding of the presentation of Bohm’s reformulation (or interpretation, if you prefer) of quantum physics taken from the section on Bohm in: Friedman, Norman (1990). Bridging Science and Spirit: Common Elements in David Bohm’s Physics, The Perennial Philosophy and Seth.

Here is an expert opinion on Bohm’s reformulation quoted in the above book. John Bell, of Bell’s Theorem fame, upon reading Bohm’s reformulation said, “…one could see immediately that what he was saying was right.”