A year ago, the largest project in the history of Russian science was launched to study altered brain states during Buddhist meditation. Scientists from leading institutes and research centers of the Russian Federation, including Professor Alexander Kaplan from Moscow State University and Professor Yuri Bubeev, Head of the Department of Psychology and Psychophysiology of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, took part in the study led by Academician Svyatoslav Medvedev (Institute of the Human Brain RAS) … All investigated types of meditations for research were personally recommended by the XIV Dalai Lama.
A year later, scientists began to talk about the first results. We talked with one of the project participants, Ph.D. Yulia Boytsova.
Yulia Boytsova, Ph.D. in Biology, employee of the Institute of the Human Brain of the Russian Academy of Sciences N.P. Bekhtereva
How did the idea to study the effects of meditation on the brain come about?
We are not exploring meditations per se, but the so-called altered states of consciousness using the meditation model. Altered states of consciousness can occur in the life of every person, and more often than one might think. For example, sleep is an altered state of consciousness; altered states of consciousness can also appear for a short time while listening to music or creative inspiration.
Usually, altered states of consciousness are of an adaptive nature. They arise to better perform certain activities. For example, even concentration before an exam helps to pass it. But sometimes the occurrence of an altered state of consciousness can pose a threat to life or contribute to the commission of serious mistakes, for example, in difficult psychological conditions, during the intense work of a human operator.
It is very important to investigate these states, and the states that are achieved during meditation can also be considered as changed.
A distinctive feature of the study of meditation is that an experienced practitioner can achieve such a state in a purposeful and stable way, which creates better opportunities for their study. It is the effect of these states on the brain that we are studying.
Was it difficult to get the research project approved with colleagues at the Brain Institute? Have you encountered any prejudice against meditation among colleagues?
No, nothing like that happened. Our research is an initiative project. Several years ago, after a conference attended by leading Russian scientists, Academician Svyatoslav Medvedev had a conversation with the Dalai Lama. The result of this conversation was that Russian scientists were allowed to conduct a number of studies in Tibetan monasteries with monks who have been engaged in meditation for most of their lives. That is, they are perfectly trained people, experts in the field of meditation. This was the start of this project under the leadership of Academician Medvedev.
I must say that the practices of meditation in Buddhism are, in fact, practices aimed at working with consciousness. In the course of applying certain techniques, practicing monks learn to understand how their consciousness works and to control it. And for us it was a great opportunity to explore how the brain work of such practitioners changes in the process of applying similar techniques of working with consciousness, techniques that have been used in Tibetan monasteries for more than two thousand years.
Indeed, when conducting psychophysiological studies, the big problem is that the subjects cannot maintain the state necessary for the study for a long time. A person's thinking is usually quite spontaneous, we jump from one thought to another. In psychophysiology, this is called "mind wandering" or "mind wandering". And practicing monks specifically learn to arbitrarily reduce this spontaneity of thinking, they can maintain concentration of attention for a long time, maintain one state, and extraneous thoughts do not distract them. This is an important fact for our research.
The question of bias in meditation research is probably related to the fact that meditation can be viewed in a religious context. But, in essence, the works of meditation are techniques for training consciousness, they can be performed outside of a religious context. And this is what is happening in the West now. We immediately determined for ourselves what we were examining - namely, altered states of consciousness based on the model of traditional Buddhist meditations. And we do not touch upon the religious context here. We conduct strictly scientific research with modern methods.
Traditional Buddhist meditations were chosen because we had the opportunity to work in Buddhist monasteries. It also allows us to limit the scope of research rather than investigating the effects of meditation on the brain at all. This is important because the term "meditation" is now used to refer to a variety of practices in completely different religious traditions and outside religious traditions.
Buddhist monks of the first group during practical classes at the Department of Human and Animal Physiology, Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University. Moscow. September 10, 2019 © Save Tibet Foundation
Is it true that the first such studies were carried out in the USSR? What is the history of the study of meditation by Soviet and Russian scientists?
To be honest, I do not know about such studies in the USSR, if they did exist, then they were very few and probably did not reach the stage of publication. But the tradition of studying altered states of consciousness, the possibilities of human consciousness, his psyche goes back to Academician Vladimir Bekhterev. Despite the fact that meditation has been studied abroad for a long time, we can probably say that our project is the first team project organized on this topic in Russia. It is a team one, since these studies unite a team of scientists from different institutes - this is Professor Alexander Kaplan from Moscow State University, and Professor Yuri Bubeev, head of the Department of Psychology and Psychophysiology of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and employees of our Institute of the Human Brain in St. Petersburg …
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What is your research, what are its goals? What did the first results show?
At the first stage, we concentrated on the fact that the types of meditations that we study are associated with a strong concentration of attention, moreover, on internal objects. The practitioner removes himself from the outside world. In the Buddhist philosophical tradition, these one-pointed concentration practices are associated with a decrease in the perception of sensory stimuli, stimuli from the five senses. Therefore, to begin with, we checked this statement: we presented the sounds to the monks-practitioners during meditation and in the control state of calm wakefulness without meditation. A common situation is when the brain reacts differently to frequent, repetitive, familiar sounds and produces a stronger signal amplitude response to a rare, unexpected sound of a different frequency. This is exactly the picture we observed in the control state without meditation.But during meditation, this difference in brain responses greatly decreased or disappeared altogether in individual monks.
It would seem that this is an obvious situation and everyone can say that when he is strongly carried away by something, for example, an interesting book, he stops hearing what is happening around him and completely goes into the story. But if at this moment your cat in the next room drops a flower from the windowsill, you will involuntarily react to an unexpected sound. This is a natural reaction. So, in the case of practicing monks, it is precisely this involuntary, uncontrollable reaction that is greatly reduced. In our opinion, this is quite interesting. In order to make it clear how unusual this situation is, we can say that a decrease in this reaction is observed in such a strongly altered state of consciousness, such as sleep, or in patients in a coma.
But these are only the first results. Fortunately, before this difficult coronavirus situation began, we managed to organize three expeditions to India to collect data. Therefore, more than 100 practicing monks have now been surveyed, and we have something to do. Data collection is only a third of the work, another two-thirds is processing and analysis. So we are working further and hope for new interesting results.
Participants of the internship at the Human Brain Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. St. Petersburg. September 16, 2019 © Save Tibet Foundation
When did your project start? What did it take to launch it?
Systematic research began a year ago. But before that, a huge preliminary work was done with visiting monasteries and organizing scientific laboratories on their territory. It was necessary to purchase modern equipment, to assemble a team of interested scientists from Russia who were ready to go to India. A team of monks-explorers has been trained who act with our eyes, ears and hands. They can now conduct independent research in monasteries. This is very important, since the flight from Russia to India is quite expensive and therefore it is not possible to organize frequent expeditions. Plus, work in the south of India is not always possible due to weather conditions: either it is very hot or it is raining.
The training of monks-researchers was also important because it is like in quantum physics - the very fact of observation affects the observed processes. In our case, many monks speak only Tibetan, which means that we need a translator who knows all the subtleties of Buddhist philosophy in order for the translation to be adequate. And it is much better when interviews with monks-subjects are conducted by monks-researchers, it is psychologically easier for the subjects when not some foreigners work with them, but their own people, monks like them.
The goal was that the monks-researchers did not just mechanically place electrodes or translate, it was necessary to ensure that they understand exactly what they are doing, how neurophysiological research is structured. Therefore, preliminarily monks-researchers underwent a course of training in neurophysiology, they were lectured by leading scientists of Moscow State University and the Institute of the Human Brain in St. Petersburg.
Then every time a trip to India was being prepared to collect data, it was the preparation of a real expedition. Working in monasteries is very interesting, but requires a certain concentration, since it includes long flights, and changing time zones, and submission to the regime of the day, which is adopted in the monastery, unusual food and a generally different way of life. As they say, with their own rules in a strange monastery … I had to adapt. But over time you get used to it and then you even start to get bored.
How do you define meditation yourself?
As I said, now the term "meditation" refers to all kinds of practices - both included in various religious traditions and existing outside of any traditions. The most common meaning of this word is contemplation, deliberation, concept development. We understand meditation as specific techniques for working with consciousness. And what all these techniques have in common is, probably, that these are the practices of observing your mind, consciousness, practices aimed at understanding how the stream of consciousness unfolds and how to control it.
We stopped at certain practices, since this allows us to outline the circle of our interests and not drown in a huge number of meditations at all. You cannot investigate everything at once, you need to advance in small steps and clearly understand what exactly you are researching. The traditional Buddhist meditations of one-pointed concentration were recommended for us to study by the Dalai Lama.
In the classroom at the Institute of the Human Brain RAS. St. Petersburg. September 16, 2019 © Save Tibet Foundation
What works of Russian and Western colleagues on the study of meditation seemed interesting to you?
Meditations have been studied for over 50 years, and therefore there is a huge number of works on this topic, large reviews are published almost every year. The most famous works of Richard Davidson is an American neuroscientist and psychologist. His team has been meditating for a long time, they have many finds. And now we are joining forces in some areas of research.
However, despite the great interest in this topic, there is still no comprehensive understanding of which brain mechanisms are associated with meditation. How the mode of the brain changes during meditation. That is, there is a lot of data, but, unfortunately, they are contradictory. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the term "meditation" unites a large number of the most diverse practices, and although they are all called meditations, from the point of view of physiology, these are different states.
What are the prospects for studying the neurophysiology of meditation?
We hope that research into how the brain works during meditation will help us gain insight into how the human mind works, whatever that means. Here it must be said that consciousness is another term that does not have a clear scientific definition that would be accepted by all scientists.
However, in the Buddhist philosophical tradition, one way or another, a certain classification of states of consciousness has been developed, and meditation practices are aimed at identifying the patterns of the work of consciousness. Therefore, our task is to check, as far as possible, the philosophical postulates by modern scientific methods. This concerns the combination of the study of consciousness in the first person (Buddhist approach) and in the third person (scientific methods). This is a problem in all cognitive sciences.
As for the benefits of research on meditation for people far from science, at the moment most scientists agree that meditation helps to improve attention, stabilize the emotional sphere. There are scientific studies showing the effectiveness of the use of meditation practices to reduce symptoms in mental disorders and generally to improve the quality of life. Moreover, these studies were conducted regardless of the religious preferences of the authors, and for the application of many meditation practices there is no need to become a Buddhist.
Do you meditate yourself? What does it give you?
I cannot say that I am a Buddhist or a practitioner, I am primarily a researcher. For such a person, cognition of the world is associated with experiment, sometimes with an experiment on himself. And, as I heard in an interview with a famous Russian Buddhist, "if you study Buddhism for a long time, you gradually become a Buddhist." We, of course, do not study Buddhism, we only come into contact with it tangentially, our area of interest is a person's consciousness, his psyche and the ability to explore these things using scientific methods. But in any case, when answering this question, I will probably adhere to the Buddhist tradition, and within the framework of this tradition it is not customary to talk about my practice, let alone discuss its fruits.
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