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A Different Experience of the Self

Another recent stream of research on meditation has explored the way that practice affects the experience of the self. One recent set of reports from the University of Toronto explores the way meditation affects the way we construct a self out of our experience and the relationship between the narration we use to create a self and our direct moment-to-moment experience. Two distinct neural networks in different parts of the brain contribute to our experience of a “self.” Activity in one region is associated with a descriptive narrative: thoughts about what is happening and how we are. The other region is associated with a more direct experience of sensation and emotion in the present moment.

The two areas are linked so that activity in the “present-moment” awareness region activates the storytelling region. So a shift away from more direct sensory awareness into thinking is not just random; it is literally built into the nervous system. This might explain why the experience of nonconceptual mindfulness and awareness is often so fleeting. A moment of nonthought jumpstarts the storytelling areas of the brain.

In the study, participants were asked to employ different types of focus, corresponding to the two distinct modes of self-reference. “Narrative focus” calls for elaborating mental constructs within our minds, weaving a story as it were, which reduces attention toward sensory objects available in our immediate experience. By contrast, “experiential focus” calls for inhibiting our elaboration on any given mental event in favor of broadly attending to the objects in our experience and “canvassing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without selecting any one sensory object.”

Narrative focus is associated with ruminative thoughts about the self, while experiential focus avoids rumination. It disengages the brain networks that lead to self-referential story-making. The researchers noted that while a focus that centers on experience in the present includes a strong component of paying attention to bodily sensations, meditation practice is associated with developing moment-to-moment awareness of all available stimuli. Accordingly, when participants were instructed to maintain an experiential focus, they were encouraged to include “internal thoughts, emotions, and external sensory events, in addition to bodily sensations.” A mindfulness-trained group was compared with a novice group in how they performed in working with these different types of focus and, by extension, the two different neural regions: the one associated with story-making about the self and the other associated with immediate experience.

The Toronto group demonstrated that meditation practice enhances the ability to disconnect these two regions and engage more robustly in experiential focus. As a result, the likelihood that an experience of present-moment awareness will automatically be followed by a self-centered monologue is reduced. Even the habitual patterns that are deeply built into the body can be changed with practice. Norman Farb, the lead investigator of the study, says that the work demonstrates how “mindfulness changes the very ground of the way that we experience the self.”

Dr. Michael Baime is clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and is based at the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia. He founded the Penn Program for Mindfulness in 1992 and is involved in a wide variety of projects exploring the effects of mindfulness and similar practices.

From the July 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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