Meditation: A Key for Unlocking the Human Brain

Interview with Dr. Shanida Nataraja, author of The Blissful Brain
Author: Jair Robles

Practicing some technique that allows quieting the mind and stilling the body has been a fundamental part of most spiritual traditions. And their benefits are said to be many and varied. But for a long time, these reports have mostly come from those who actually practice such techniques and the religious or philosophical texts that promoted them.

It was until very recent times that science began to look into the veracity of such claims and attempted to understand both the physiological as well as the psychological effects that such practices have on those who practice those techniques.

Meditation: A Key for Unlocking the Human BrainIn an effort to compile the most important findings from such research, and increase our acceptance and understanding of the positive effects that meditation has on our body and minds, Dr Shanida Nataraja published a book called, The Blissful Brain.

Dr Shanida Nataraja has a BSc (First Class Hons.) in Human Science and Neuroscience and a PhD in Neurophysiology, both from University College London. She is currently Editorial and Scientific Director in a global healthcare consultancy firm and is also a member of the Scientific and Medical Network, an organization “promoting open exploration in science and human experience, whose common objective is to deepen understanding in science, medicine, and education through both rational analysis and intuitive insights.”

SuperConsciousness recently spoke with Dr Shanida Nataraja, about the most recent scientific findings on the connection of meditation and the brain as well as the implications that such understanding could have on healthcare, education and our spiritual development.


SuperConsciousness: How did you become interested in doing research on the relationship between meditation and the brain?

Dr Shanida Nataraja: I grew up in a household in which meditation was very much part of everyday life. Both my parents meditated and I was therefore exposed to a number of different meditative traditions as I was growing up. At school, I became entranced by science and this interest led to me doing a PhD in neuroscience to deepen my understanding of how the brain gives rise to the human behavior that we can see. It seemed almost a natural step for me to turn my attention to meditation, to explore whether meditation has any effect on the brain, and, if so, what did that mean for us as human beings.

SC: At what age did you start meditating?

SN: I meditated on and off when I was a child. I was very musical at a young age, and playing the piano and singing were my way of de-stressing and centering myself. I think it was one of those things whereby, when you are a child, you don’t necessarily want to do what your parents do. So it was really only in my twenties that I would say I started practicing mediation regularly.

SC: There is a large variety of meditation techniques and names given to these techniques, and for someone who is not familiar and just beginning to explore meditation this can be a bit confusing. How can we know that what we are learning and practicing falls within what can be called meditative practice?

SN: Meditation, irrespective of the form it takes, has a number of defining characteristics. If we look at all the different types of meditation, we can see that they usually involve a technique or practice that is very clearly defined and is taught to the practitioner. And in many cases, it is a mental technique that involves a reduction in logical processing in the brain, as well as relaxation of the body as a whole. For me meditation is anything that is a mental technique that promotes stilling the mind and stilling the body. Importantly, it is a self-induced relaxation, in contrast to hypnosis, and it is often taught within the framework of a spiritual tradition.

SC: What are the most relevant findings that science has discovered in regards to the effects of meditation on the brain?

Meditation: A Key for Unlocking the Human Brain

SN: There are a number of key findings, and the first is that we have two sides of our brain and each of those sides contains a different way of thinking and perceiving. In our modern world, a lot of us tend to be very left brain focused. So we’re very rational, analytical and strategic, and our society in many ways encourages those characteristics. Meditation gives us a tool by which we can switch our brain activity from the left to the right brain, because sustained attention is a right-brained function, and in doing so, we gain access to a different way of thinking and perceiving. This is not to say that right-brained activity is better than the left-brained activity, but it complements it. If you start to look at where true insight stems from, it is from activity on both sides of the brain.

The other thing the research shows is that there are a number of changes in the brain during meditation that can perhaps shed light on the subjective experiences that people have when they meditate. For example, lots of people during meditation describe a sense of leaving the concept of “self”, and a forming a connection with some kind of reality that transcends their normal personal reality. We can see that during meditation the parietal cortex, which is involved in maintaining that self/non-self-boundary, actually become less active. This provides a concrete basis for an experience that meditators have been reporting over the years. Other subjective experiences have also been shown to have their basis in changes in the activity of specific areas of the brain.

meditation is anything that is a mental technique that promotes stilling the mind and stilling the body. Importantly, it is a self-induced relaxation, in contrast to hypnosis, and it is often taught within the framework of a spiritual tradition.

SC: Has there been any neuro-correlation detected in the ability of precognition? Is there any research that has identified an area of the brain that’s activated when people have precognitive images or thoughts of future events come to them?

SN: I don’t know of any specific research that has looked into the areas of the brain involved in precognition. Cornell Professor Daryl Bem recently did a study that revealed that the human brain does seem to have some kind of innate precognitive powers, but pinpointing where in the brain these powers arise is near to impossible. It is worthwhile noting, however, that what we do know is that people, when they have that kind of aha moment – perhaps they have a problem that they’ve been thinking about and during mediation spontaneously they get an insight into that problem – that insight really seems to be the result of synchronous activity on the left and the right side of the brain.

During mediation, you first have to still the mind and switch off all the thoughts, and in that silence, having access to the right brain way of thinking and perceiving, as well as the left brain way of thinking and perceiving, insights can spontaneously occur. I imagine that what you’re describing, in terms of precognition and having a sense that something might occur or making a choice that in hindsight ends up being a good one, does come back to having access to a different way of thinking and perceiving that is offered by our right-hand side of the brain.

SC: Different instruments are being used to study the brain when people are meditating, and you have mentioned that some of these instruments could be used as tools for a person to get feedback as to how they are meditating. Can you talk about these instruments and how they can be used as feedback tools?

SN: The technology that I describe in The Blissful Brain is really focused on two areas. The first area is very simple; biofeedback. You have the Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) meter, which basically measures the resistance of your skin, which seems to be an indirect measure of your level of alertness. When you are alert and prepared to take action, our whole body kicks into gear and parts of our nervous system kick in to make us ready for response. What the GSR is able to do is measure that response and give us a sense of how alert we are.

Meditation: A Key for Unlocking the Human BrainEspecially now in our modern day society, many of us are in a state of constant alert. I think what the GSR can do is give us more awareness of our internal state. This technology can have a lot of applications in terms of meditation because a lot of people try different types of meditation and can’t quite find the right type for them, or perhaps they are unsure about whether using a mantra or the breath as an effective way of reaching this state of relaxed alertness. And so what the GSR does is it gives the meditator insight into what’s happening in their body and mind and the impact that different techniques can actually have on their internal state. Especially for beginners in meditation, using the GSR can give the practitioner some insight into what techniques seems to be work better than others.

The second type of technology that I describe is neuro-feedback. That’s feedback in terms of being able to modulate the activity of the brain. There’s been a lot of work out there that suggests that different patterns of brainwave activity can be correlated with different states of awareness or states of consciousness. For example, we know that alpha brain waves are very relaxing. If you are meditating, or perhaps relaxing in a hot bath or something, your brain will be generating more of these alpha waves. If you are being more creative and you’re painting a picture or composing a piece of music, you’re going to have more theta waves. We now have this understanding of the kind of brain wave pattern that represents the different optimal state of brain functioning, the optimal mix of brain waves types.

Knowing what the brain wave pattern is that’s best for creativity or for relaxation has allowed people to come up with technologies that basically entrain the brain to specific brain wave patterns, thereby promoting creativity or encouraging relaxation. And you’ll see that there are countless different systems and CDs out there that are focused on either specifically increasing one of the different types of brain waves, or in fact, reproducing a certain type of optimal brain wave pattern in people that has been associated with high performance.

SC: Has there been any data or research done with instruments that measure the effects mediation has on the environment around the people meditating?

SN: Well I think that’s an example of where, despite our technological advances, we don’t yet really have the instruments that can detect that kind of effect. I know there have been a lot of psychology experiments in terms of the effects that positive thinking or prayer can have, even at a distance, or the effect of the laying of hands on patients. So I think from that aspect we’re seeing some research, but certainly in terms of meditation, I think the effects we are now picking up are the large-scale effects: the effect that it has on the mental and physical health of the practitioner, both on the short term or the long term; or psychological and emotional related changes, such as the ability to deal better with interpersonal relationships or regulate ones emotional state better. I think that is the focus at the moment. I just don’t think we have the instruments that can detect the subtle energy changes brought by meditation.

SC: When it comes to the effects of meditation in our body and particularly in health, what are some of the most relevant findings that have come out from this research?

Meditation: A Key for Unlocking the Human Brain

SN: Perhaps the most compelling evidence, certainly here in the UK, but I imagine it is very similar in the U.S., is the potential role for meditation as a treatment for patients with depression who continue to have depressive episodes, despite receiving a number of different kinds of anti-depressants. And to me, that is really a key step forward for us, in that, here you have an illness that is an area of huge unmet need, and meditation has been shown to really help those people and give rise to a lot of benefit in terms of their emotional state. Here in the UK, mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) it is now accepted by some of the regulatory bodies that dictate the types of treatment available to patients. So that’s a real step forward.

There has been an enormous body of research that’s looked into the health benefits of meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn has done research in a wide range of different patients, including those with chronic pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis and anxiety. In all of these patients, he has really shown that meditation can have a huge impact, in terms of not only alleviating symptoms and enhancing quality of life, but also just improving the individual’s ability to cope with the disease or its treatment.

SC: You are an advocate for the use of meditation in different areas of our modern-day life. What are some of the areas that you would like to see where meditation is used?

SN: I think that meditation has a number of potential applications, if you want to discuss it in that way. And I think that the most important one is in the context of healthcare. Our modern healthcare systems are struggling under the burden of the number of patients that are presenting with diseases, particularly chronic diseases. So really there has to be some way of offering patients more holistic and supportive therapies, without that being associated with a dramatic increase in healthcare cost. In that respect, I see meditation as being a very cheap way of essentially giving patients a tool that they can use that really empowers them to take responsibility for their own health. Meditation can be part of a new healthcare system where the patient takes as much of the responsibility as the doctor, not only tackling disease but also maintaining health.

I also think that meditation plays a huge role in terms of optimizing our performance and that is especially relevant in the case of the work place. We are now seeing a large number of companies, such as Google, that are now providing meditation to their employees. They believe that doing so is increasing productivity, reducing stress in the work place, reducing absentees from work, and boosting people’s creativity. There is an increasing body of evidence that shows that meditation is something that we can consider offering to people in the workplace, in order to achieve higher performance, but also to achieve that performance not at the cost of the individuals and the amount of stress that they have to tolerate in their work environment.

meditation can have a huge impact, in terms of not only alleviating symptoms and enhancing quality of life, but also just improving the individual’s ability to cope with the disease or its treatment.

I guess the final one is defining a role for meditation in our schools. If we are saying that this is a tool by which we can optimize the performance of our brains, that we can access the left-hand side of the brain or the right-hand side of the brain and the two different ways of thinking and perceiving that those two sides of the brain offer us, then why aren’t we teaching this technique to our kids in school? Increasingly we are seeing, especially in the U.S. and in the UK, programs that are showing that delivering meditation classes in the school help children interact with each other, process information, and deal with the stresses and the anxieties of performance in the school setting.

SC: With all the research that’s been done, and the evidence produced on the effects of meditation on our body, boosting our immune system, etc., what are challenges that you have noticed from the medical establishment to implement more broadly this practice as therapy?

SN: I think the key problem in many cases is being able to provide a compelling argument to the funding bodies within the health system that dictate how the money is spent and what treatments, including supportive treatments, can be made available for patients.

The key is to be able to demonstrate to those bodies that even though the effect on disease may not be as dramatic as giving an anti-hypertensive medication, for example, that actually in the long run what you’re doing is empowering patients, giving them a tool that they can use to manage their health and support the other treatment that they receive. Meditation addressing the psychological impact of disease on patients and their need for psychological and emotional support. A level of patient care that unfortunately due to time and resourcing pressure often gets overlooked.

If we are saying that this is a tool by which we can optimize the performance of our brains, that we can access the left-hand side of the brain or the right-hand side of the brain and the two different ways of thinking and perceiving that those two sides of the brain offer us, then why aren’t we teaching this technique to our kids in school?

SC: From your personal experience as someone who has been practicing meditation for some time, what are the benefits that you experience?

 

SN: I think the greatest benefit would be an ability to not respond to everything that happens in one’s life in a knee-jerk kind of way. The benefits of meditation extend far and beyond the time you may actually sit in a room meditating. It is how that meditation practice infiltrates your everyday life and that’s where I’ve seen the greatest benefits. In the work place, I can see its benefits in that I don’t become as stressed about deadlines or client problems in the way that I used to. Being able to put things into perspective, and being able to let go of that continuous striving and achieving, I would say is the way I have benefitted the greatest.

In terms of my own health, I’ve seen that meditation has taken me from being someone who was borderline hypertensive, to someone who has perfect blood pressure. That’s a very physical manifestation of the benefits of meditation.

SC: Are there benefits in practicing meditation as part of a broader spiritual perspective or does it really matter?

Meditation: A Key for Unlocking the Human Brain

SN: So far what we have talked about in terms of the benefits of meditation and the effects on the brain and the body of the practitioner is one level of understanding the effects of meditation. The effects of meditation on the spiritual well-being of the practitioner, as well as the effects on their life and their way of interacting with the world, is another layer.

Spirituality provides a richer context for the experiences that we begin to have as a result of the practice of meditation. As meditation offers you access to a different way of thinking and perceiving, a spiritual framework to the practice of meditation gives the practitioner some way of reconciling the experiences that they have during their meditation into their everyday lives. I am a strong believer that you can practice meditation, especially the kind of non-denominational MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) that Jon Kabat-Zinn put forward, and you can derive benefits from doing so. However, there are also more deep-rooted effects of meditation that are linked to the use of meditation as part of a spiritual life.

SC: The title of your book is The Blissful Brain. Why did you choose that particular word, bliss? What is the relationship that you see between meditation and the state of bliss?

SN: If I am honest, the title was recommended to me by my publisher, some bright spark in the publicity department said if you combine these two concepts, you’re really speaking to the core message of the book. And I think for me — why I liked it — is that this area of research is very much sitting on the boundary between science, objective, rational analysis of our experiences and reality, and spirituality, which is a completely different, more intuitive and esoteric kind of way of processing our experiences and understanding our reality. The term “blissful” has historically been linked with esoteric practices and the experience of enlightenment. It is therefore not an area that we would expect rational and analytical science to shed any light on. But it does. Whether enlightenment is, as some suggest, the manifestation of an optimal, high-performance brain wave pattern remains to be proven. But we do know that meditation is a tool that can change brain activity to bring it closer to this optimal, high-performance brain wave pattern. Subjective experiences of meditators with this optimal brain wave pattern reveal that they experience bliss in this state.

SC: There’s a statement in your book when you’re talking about the brain that I found fascinating. I would like to read it to you and see what are your thoughts and why you chose to put this in your book? “The precise wiring of the brain’s network is continually changing, and the network can adopt any one of an unlimited number of different configurations . . . It is estimated that there are more possible configurations than there are elementary particles in the universe.”

we do know that meditation is a tool that can change brain activity to bring it closer to this optimal, high-performance brain wave pattern. Subjective experiences of meditators with this optimal brain wave pattern reveal that they experience bliss in this state.

SN: With this statement we really touch on a topic that is very close to my heart. The research I did for both my PhD and my first post-doctoral research job was very much focused on the plasticity of the brain. Every experience we have, every behavior that we learn, is imprinted in our brain. But that is by no means a permanent thing. In the same way that connections between brain cells can be formed or strengthened, they can also be removed or weakened. This is a really important insight because when we look at most of us in adulthood, we have managed to accumulate what we refer to as emotional baggage during our lifetimes. This emotional baggage is essentially a collection of conditioned responses that are the result of our experiences.

What the plasticity of the brain really does is it gives us the hope that all behavior can essentially be changed, can be replaced by more positive and constructive behavior. Even an old dog can learn new tricks, so to speak.

With that analogy, what I was really trying to do is just give people an idea of the scale involved here. The sheer number of brain cells that we have, and how those brain cells connect with each other to form a biological network that can adopt an infinite number of possible configurations, is mind-boggling. Our brains are an amazing feat of biological engineering. By unlocking the potential of our brains, we can realize more of our potential as human beings.

The sheer number of brain cells that we have, and how those brain cells connect with each other to form a biological network that can adopt an infinite number of possible configurations, is mind-boggling. Our brains are an amazing feat of biological engineering. By unlocking the potential of our brains, we can realize more of our potential as human beings.

How advanced will our education systems be if meditation was part of the normal curriculum in schools? Tell us below!