BG 246: What Science Can Teach Us About Practice

Episode Description:

In this episode, taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference in 2011, Kelly McGonigal, PhD in Health Psychology, speaks on how the neuroscience of meditation can help us understand how practice shapes the mind and can also offer fresh insights into concepts like mindfulness and suffering. As Dr. McGonigal presents various scientific studies that show differences in the brain functioning between meditators and non-meditators, she highlights how meditation practice benefits the practitioner in various ways such as higher pain thresholds and reduced depression.

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Kelly McGonigal:
Well, hello. It’s really wonderful to be here. So at the Zen Center, my local Zen Center, every practice begins with a daily recitation. And the first line of that recitation is, “We are here to end suffering.” Of course it’s always wonderful to begin a practice with that remembrance because as you all now, as soon as you sit down to meditate, the mind tends to wander. And the ego can even try to turn practice against you for its own nefarious purposes.

So it’s always important to remind ourselves when we sit to practice that we’re here to end suffering, but it’s not just a practice where we might remind our self of this. When I was listening to Vince talk last night about the mission statement of this conference, it occurred to me that this might be a shared statement among everyone who’s in this room today, that we are here to end suffering. And so today I’d like to talk to you about what science can say about this process, of how practice supports ending suffering.

And so let’s start with a little bit of Dharma wisdom. What do we know from the tradition about what causes suffering and the process of ending suffering? And one of the most ideas that we’re all familiar with is that we carry the seeds of suffering in our own mind, primarily thru the human mind’s habit of carefully constructing and then rigidly defending a sense of self that is based on our preferences, our attitudes, our beliefs and our personal stories and that it’s this churning of the self machine that gives rise to so much of our daily experiences of suffering.

And as Kenneth nicely pointed to, this is something that modern science know, is not just one thing that the mind can do [Laughter] but it is the default of what the human mind does. So in the last decade, neuroscientists have gotten very interested in what does the brain do when you don’t ask the owner of the brain to do anything specific? And it turns out that the brain has a default state that all humans share when they’re not focused on a specific goal or a specific object of attention, the mind defaults to a pattern of co-activation.

A lot of different regions of the brain including for example the hippocampus and the parietal cortex which gives rise to thinking about the past, our memories as well as the medial prefrontal cortex which helps us imagine the future and also make an informed commentary about what’s happening in present moment like there’s something wrong and it should be some other way and to concoct some alternate realities that might improve the present moment.

And other regions of the brain including areas that process language that we can tell ourselves stories about the way things are, the way things should be, the way things might go. And what this commentary looks like or sounds like inside the head, so this is a comic in a recent New Yorker magazine, and I think this pretty much sums it up. This guy’s default mode process saying, “I wish she’d stop talking about her boyfriend. Maybe I should have sent back my chicken. Am I racist if I don’t like Yo-Yo-Ma?” blah, blah, blah, me, me, me, you, you, you, you; what do you think about me; what do I think about you. And so on and so forth. And you’re all familiar with this voice, right? It’s not just me?

Next slide. OK, so let’s take a little bit of a scientific koan and ask a question that perhaps science can give us an insight into. Is there a self of the no-self? If we want to turn off this constant what neuroscientists call self-referential processing, is there a way to have a self-awareness moment to moment that doesn’t engage to default network and produce so much suffering?

So this is the study that Kenneth was pointing to. Researchers at the University of Toronto lead by Norman Farb were very interested in whether there’s some other way to have a sense of awareness including an awareness of the self that’s not based on the narrative inside our head, the conceptual self, the stories. Is there what Farb and his colleagues call an experiential self that is based on the awareness of the constantly changing feelings, thoughts and things going on in our environment, not based on the stories that we have and that we cling to.

And they found that this is the case, but only in people who have trained in meditation. And what that mode looks like is quite different. So some of these regions here that you’re seeing and by the way I should always orient you to images of the brain. So what you’re seeing in these pictures here, these are composites. Everyone who is in the study, their brains get kind of smushed together into one composite image. And anything that’s brightly colored, that means this is something that is different between groups or between times. And the particular images that you’re looking at here, it’s as if it were to come along and just slice me thru the head and carefully take off half of my head so you could peer into the inside bit like this.

OK? So you got a nice internal view here. What you see is that among trained practitioners, there is this alternate default mode in which the areas we saw on the previous slide, they are deactivated, they don’t become more active. The medial prefrontal cortex is not making commentary on what’s happening. You’re not engaging areas of the brain that are reminding you of how it could have been or how it used to be. These areas become deactivated. And the areas that come online that become more active have to do with present moment embodied experience including to the insula which is attending to sensation to your body. And especially to that embodied aspect of emotions of our feelings.

Areas that process somatic information, somatic sensory cortex that give you a full sense of what’s happening, not just in your body but in the environment, in the present moment. And even the lateral prefrontal cortex which is really important for paying attention, so here we see the physiological correlative of what Kenneth was talking about; paying attention to what’s happening in the body and in your environment and turning down that commentary, the evaluation.

Next slide. And again, it’s really important to note that this research team found you only see this alternate default mode in experienced practitioners. And in fact, when you bring in people who don’t meditate and you tell them what to do; pay attention to your body, pay attention to your environment, be in the present moment. They can’t do it no matter how well you describe what that internal process would be like.

And in part that’s because in most of our brains, there’s an automatic coupling between the experiential system, what’s happening in my body, what’s happening in the environment, and the evaluation system, that default mode. So that as soon as we turn our attention to something, the inner commentary starts, the blah, blah, blah and it turns out that when you practice, this neuro coupling goes away. It is you can activate the experiential system without automatically bringing online the inner commentary, the judging and the evaluation and that this is essentially what mindfulness practice is training us to do.

And over time with consistent practice, the regions of the brain that are detecting what’s happening without making commentary on it, those regions of the brain actually become thicker, they become more dense so that your brain becomes better able to attend to experience and less relying on the inner commentary.

So let’s go into another little bit of Dharma wisdom here, something that we also are familiar with is the idea that pain is not the same thing as suffering; that suffering is what we layer on to the inevitable experiences of physical pain, of illness, of loss, of grief, of anxiety, of jealousy. And so we all have that inner voice, that inner commentary that has an opinion about whatever pain we’re experiencing. What does that inner voice sound like? What is something that that voice might say?

Audience: Oh, my god!

Kelly McGonigal: Oh, my god!

Audience: It will never stop.

Kelly McGonigal: It will never stop.

Audience: Why me?

Kelly McGonigal:
Why me? Yeah, so I just wanted to make sure again this is not just in my head that you all have this voice. Good. So next slide. So there’s a lot of research looking at how it is that practitioners experience pain that might be different than non practitioners. So this study which is lead by Joseph Grant at the University of Montreal, to experienced Zen meditators and non-meditators and gave them all the exact same type of pain experience.

So they were strapping on to the calf thermal heat that’s going to be quite painful. Sort of a point of curiosity, it turns out that experienced meditators need higher levels of heat in order to achieve the same level of moderate pain. So that’s kind of interesting. What you’re going to see here is what happens, the difference between meditators and non-meditators in their brains while they are asked to attend normally to the experience. They are not meditating. The meditators aren’t meditating. This is the new default.

OK. So next. What you’re going to see here is that non-meditators show more activation in the evaluative regions, that default network, the typical default network. And these slices the brain that you’re seeing here, rather than pulling this half of my head off, it’s like you’re slicing me this way. We’re going to pull the top of my head off and peer on to the inside.

So this is the front of the brain. And what you see here, the blue parts, those are the areas of the brain that are more active in non-meditators. OK. And you’re seeing, this is essentially looking like that default network that I showed you earlier. Meditators on the other hand, what you see is the only area of the brain that is more active are the areas that are listening to pain. The areas of the brain like the insula or the thalamus that are just waiting to feel the pain that is happening, that are giving you perfect information about what is happening in your body.

And yet, meditators were able to tolerate much more pain, even as they carefully attended to it. And I think those of you who have a strong practice will immediately recognize this is how we dissociate pain from suffering that when we attend directly to the experience and turn off that inner chatter, suddenly the experience of suffering that seems to arise from pain starts to dissolve.

And within the meditator’s group, the greater the decoupling, the functional decoupling between these two brain systems, paying attention to the feeling of pain and making a commentary about it, the greater they were dissociated, the higher the meditator’s pain tolerance was.

OK now, it is really important I think as a teacher of meditation to notice that this is what happens in experienced meditators.

This is the study lead by researchers at Wake Forest University that took brand new meditators. They’d only been meditating for four days. Mindfulness meditation. And when they were brought into the laboratory and given the exact same pain test, the heat stimulations to the leg, turns out that the successful meditators, those who could tolerate greater levels of pain or found the pain less unpleasant, that they were doing exactly the opposite in their brain than what experienced practitioners too.

They were inhibiting sensory information that somehow they were shifting their attention to ignore what was happening in the present moment. And that was giving rise to less suffering, inhibiting awareness rather than carefully attending to. And I think those of you who teach recognize this as something that often happens when we start to practice. We accidentally end up doing exactly the opposite of what the practice is asking of us. And sometimes we experience what seems to be pretty good results. And I think studies like this can really give teachers insight into how that process is happening in the mind and in the brain so that we can better guide people thru and beyond that.

OK. So I want to show you now a very similar study that just looking at emotional pain rather than physical pain. And so they’re comparing brand new meditators with experienced Zen meditators and how they process emotionally evocative images that might trigger fear or that might trigger a kind of sense of distress and compassion. And what you’ll see is something very similar to the physical pain study.

OK. So what you’re looking at here, this is one last type of view, cut here me ear to ear, pull off the front of my face and look right in. And what you’ll see, I know this is – good thing you haven’t had lunch yet, right? What you see here is an area of the brain that became deactivated in the new meditators, the amygdala. And this is kind of the first relay station of emotional information. New meditators are tuning this of, turning this down, less emotional processing.

And you can see here, this is, so beginners are here in the sort of orangey red. And so when they are practicing mindfulness, they are not attending to the emotional experience that is arising. They are actually inhibiting it. Or as an experienced meditator, there is no difference between when they are not practicing mindfulness and when they are practicing mindfulness. They are basically keeping this channel open of attending to emotional experience. What they turned down, you can probably guess, is this inner commentary, this default network that we’ve been talking about for the last 15 minutes.

Experienced meditators, they’re deactivating that. New meditators are deactivating the actual direct experience of the emotions. And again I just think you know, when people sit down like this, you don’t always know what’s going on up here, but studies like this can be very helpful both in understanding what new meditators are doing. And also, I use studies like this. I now show this stuff when I teach beginners.

In a way, as a little bit like a stick that’s waking up a sleeping practitioner and that people who really had no idea what I was asking them to do with mindfulness, that they were going into this instinctive strategy of shutting things out rather than opening to them, they see brain pictures like this and again, it is almost like that koan where suddenly, we realized that there’s a gap between how we’re functioning in the world and how we might function in the world. And just that knowledge of that gap can allow us to progress in our practice.

So last study that I want to talk about is the study that took people who were suffering in the way that we typically mean in the West; people who are depressed and this study randomly assigned adults who were moderately depressed into either an eight-week MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training or to a weightless control. And then after that eight weeks, they expose them to a number of film clips that were carefully chosen to just rip your heart wide open, to make you cry, to make you sad, to make you think about things in your own life that had happened, we’re going to skip this.

I’m not going to subject you to the – you’re lucky enough that we don’t have enough time for me to show you the clips that broke those hearts wide open.

OK. So what you’re going to see here, last brain imaging slide, is again the difference between people who’d been trained in meditation. And now, this is just eight weeks. The previous studies, that was like thousands of hours of practice. This is after eight weeks of mindfulness training. You’ll see the difference between those who trained and those who didn’t.

So what you’ll see is that after the mindfulness training, there is greater activation, this is what you’re seeing here, in regions of the brain that help control attention, that’s that little blip at the top, and this is the insula, that region of the brain I mentioned that allows you to feel your emotions as they are happening, the direct experience of emotions, not the stories.

That became more activated among the people who were trained in meditation. And what you’ll see in the control group greater activation are all these regions we’ve been talking about that are part of the default network. OK. So when people who aren’t trained in meditation are exposed to sad stories, their own story machines, that machine of suffering starts kicking in. Eight weeks of training, and instead, people are tending to their direct experience of emotions as they arise.

So this is the finding that I think is really intriguing and it brings us back to the question of how do we end suffering. So the greater that the insula became activated while attending to things that make you sad, it is the more practitioners were attending to the feelings of sadness. The more their depression decreased from before training to after training. And so we’re seeing here a possible mechanism that mindfulness training allows us to actually open up to the experience of sadness and that itself is therapeutic and that you’ll see reduced depression.

OK. So I opened by reminding us that we’re here to end suffering. And the next two lines of the daily recitation are not just that we’re here to end suffering but that if ending suffering is more important than anything, we will end suffering. If ending suffering is not more important than anything, we will not end suffering. And I think that is not just as important a reminder as our intention.

And so as we move forward today and tomorrow in conversations about how we are modernizing Buddhism and how we are giving away Buddhism thru technology, I hope that we will keep this in mind that just as when we are learning with our teacher, it is so important to know how easily it is to kind of have a neuro-practice where we intend to end suffering and yet somehow just miss the mark a little bit in a way that perpetuate suffering. I think we should that same sort of insight and clarity to how we are giving away the practice and to always use that question of is this actually helping to end suffering as our guiding thought. Thank you.


Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is the author of Yoga for Pain Relief and the upcoming The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and How to Get More of It (Penguin, Jan 2012). She teaches psychology, yoga, and meditation at Stanford University. Website: