So now let’s get on to what’s
actually going on in the brain, and I’ll start with a story.
So Lolo Jones was an Olympic hurdler… She was favored to win the 2008 Olympics. In fact, she was in the finals, in the lead at the ninth of ten hurdles. And
what she said in an interview with Time Magazine was, I was in the middle of the race, and at one point I realized I was winning. And it wasn’t like, Oh,
I’m about to win the Olympic gold medal–it just seemed like another race.
And then at a point after that, I started to notice that I was telling myself
to make sure my legs were snapping out. That’s when I hit the hurdle. So
I overtried. Now, the idea here, it wasn’t that she had thoughts, it’s that
she got caught up in thinking, right? She got caught up, she tripped herself up,
literally. And it turns out that this is a pretty common process.
About half the time of the day, we’re actually spent either
daydreaming or getting caught up in our experience. And you can think of this as
a continuum–daydreaming, stress, and, of course, the far end is addiction. And
because we do this so much, we can actually study this in the brain, and it’s
now aptly called the default mode network, because this is what we default to. And
I’m going to highlight a particular part of
the brain called the posterior cingulate, which you can see here in the back
of the brain… Which turns out, when you look at all the data, there
are a bunch of different things that will activate the posterior cingulate–when
we’re thinking about ourselves, when we’re mind-wandering, when we’re
thinking about the past and future, judging things… When we’re thinking
about ourselves in social situation, liking choices that we’ve made,
when it’s involved in prevention goals, immoral behavior…
I’m just going through this large list… And finally, of course, craving.
What do all of these have in common? What does this brain region actually do?
The idea is that this brain region gets activated when we get caught up in
our experience. And, of course, with mindfulness training, the idea is to
notice what that feels like and to let go. So let’s see if this is actually true.
We did a study a couple of years ago where we took novice and experienced
mediators, and we scanned their brains while they were meditating. And we
had them do a number of different types of meditation to see what was common amongst
all these different meditation practices. And as you can see here,
these two regions, these two main regions of
the default mode network, are both deactivated in experienced
mediators compared to novices. So this was interesting, it was
relatively novel. We didn’t believe it. We wanted to see if we could
actually prove this more thoroughly. So we followed… This is actually
a technique that Christopher deCharms really piloted, and he’ll talk
a little more about it in his talk, but the idea is that we can take real time
neural feedback to bring the subjective experience together,
with brain activity. And we can give people feedback of their own
brains while their meditating. And this is what a typical graph
looks like. And the idea is, people can meditate with their eyes open,
letting the graph rest in the background. And then they can check in from time
to time to see if it correlates with their experience of getting in their own
way, as well as when they’re meditating, when they’re concentrating on their
breath. And our studies show that we have a very good correlation between this graph
and people’s subjective experience. Now, that was a novice.
Here’s an experienced meditator. Now, I’m not very good at statistics,
but I can tell the difference between these two people’s brains. I’ll just
walk you through what this looks like. Here’s a novice.
These are three minute runs, so he says there’s nothing special here.
Nothing special here, reporting that it was lining up with his
experience. In his third run he said, I don’t think your feedback works, because
I was thinking about my breath, and it was going red.
So there must be something wrong here. And the very next run, his brain looked
completely different, and he said, Oh, I get it…feeling the physical sensation
of my breath rather than thinking about it. So
he’d actually use this as neural feedback, even though this wasn’t the experiment.
Now, I’ll just walk you through how we can take
these data and bring them together so we can learn even more about what these
specific brain regions are doing. Here’s an experienced meditator
going through the experiment. And after each, these are one-minute runs
now, they’re describing their experience. And he said, I caught myself. I was trying
to guess when the words were going to end, and when the meditation
was going to begin. So I was trying to be like,
ready, set, go. And then there was an additional word that
popped up, and I was like, Oh, shit, and there’s that red spike you see there. And
then I sort of immediately settled in and I was really getting into it. And then
I thought, Oh my gosh, this is amazing, it’s describing exactly what I’m saying,
and then you see this red spike. And
I was like, Okay, don’t get distracted, and I got back into it and we got blue
again. And I was like, Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable! It’s doing exactly
what my mind’s doing. So he was laughing at this point, and he said, So I find it
really funny because that’s to the next question. That’s a perfect map, of what my
mind was going through. That’s a perfect map of what my mind was going through. So,
what exactly was his mind going through? We can take all of these data
from all these novice and experienced meditators, and bring them
together, and, in a data-driven fashion, we can figure out what exactly
this brain region is doing. And we can confirm what other people
have found. So, when you’re distracted, when you’re thinking about yourself,
the posterior cingulate gets activated. And you can see that here in this whole
line of distracted awareness. But we also found a new category, where
they were describing controlling things, trying to, effort, or when they’re
discontent, there was something that we hadn’t noticed before. With deactivation
of the posterior cingulate, again, when people are concentrated, the
posterior cingulate gets deactivated, we know this already, but there’s this whole
other category that came out as well. This effortless doing,
when people weren’t efforting… I’ll give you a couple of examples.
So this person said, I was worried that I wasn’t using
the graph as an object of meditation. So I tried to look at it harder, and
somehow pay attention more to it. Of course, it went red. Harder, ahh,
pay attention to it a little bit more… So here’s some examples of deactivation.
The first one, Toward the middle, I had some thoughts which I don’t see
in the graph, maybe because I just let them flow by. The second person
noticed that, The more I relaxed and stopped even trying to do anything,
the bluer it went. Stopped trying… Ahh, Yoda… No, try not.
Do or do not, there is no try. So we’re getting at this sense of flow. For those
of you that aren’t familiar with this, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’ described this
several decades ago, as this mental state where we’re fully immersed in the present,
totally energized, we’re selfless, it’s effortless… We’re just, we’re just
doing it. You can think of, you know, sports figures like Michael Jordan or
other folks that are just really in it, and it just seems completely effortless.
This is flow. And we even had some examples
where experienced meditators were reporting getting into
flow in our scanner, and that this was correlating with
decreased activity in their posterior cingulate cortex.