Updated: Jul 26, 2021
Meeting Your States of Consciousness
Part II: Contemplation
We all need sleep, and for good reason—but all wish we could have that time back in our (conscious) life. Is there another state of consciousness that enhances our learning ability, balances our emotions, and repairs our body? If sleep is work, how about a career change?
Contemplation and Meditation
Contemplation; from the Latin contemplari, “to observe,” and meditation; from meditari, “to reflect” – together, they inform a mental practice which is distinct from ordinary thinking but is not exclusive from it. Contemplation and meditation are the meta-training for the mind: I wouldn’t meditate on a calculus problem but meditation, like sleep, makes learning and calculus an easier quest.
By endeavor, diligence, discipline, and self-mastery, let the wise man make (of himself) an island that no flood can overwhelm
(Dhammapada, ‘sayings of the Buddha,’ Verse 25)
Contemplation and meditation—let’s just say, contempla-meditation—is taught in some form in every religion as a foundational practice for well-being. Brain scans and blood samples can never show the ineffable, inner experience of contempla-meditation, but we do have some grasp on how contempla-meditation transforms the mind. Contempla-meditation, like sleep, can take place in stages; in fact, being meta-training, these contempla-meditative stages correspond with certain cognitive modes:While I write this article, I am in “effortful processing” mode. I sustain my attention on the ultimate objective of synthesizing research on contempla-meditation, and I adjust my approach (and expectations) as I progress. Effortful processing can be trained by “controlled focus,” a contempla-meditation stage wherein the practitioner ruminates upon a selection of information. Catholicism teaches lectio divina, “sacred reading,” where the practitioner reads a passage of Scripture slowly and thoroughly and then hypothesizes its meaning by connecting the passage to other texts, by imagining one’s self in the scene described, by searching for subtext, and so on. Buddhism encourages similar practices, as in the famous lotus flower sermon: Gautama pulled a lotus up by its roots from a pond and held it aloft. His students gazed on the flower until one, Mahakasyapa, smiled—having understood the message of the lotus. Controlled focus elicits the same fast brain waves, gamma and beta (13-50 Hz), which signify effortful processing.
Recall and reorganization of information without explicit problem-solving, or, planning, can be trained by open monitoring, where the practitioner permits their attention to wander around their sensory environment, their memories, or any experience at all. The practitioner engages with none of those thoughts. Lectio divina, Hindu Vedanta, Daoist Qigong, Zen Buddhism—most traditions encourage that controlled focus gives way to open monitoring.
Open monitoring, like planning, elicits theta brain waves (4-7 Hz), especially from the prefrontal cortex.
When it seems that the mind ceases even to wander, the practitioner enters “self-transcendence.” The brain is still active: powerful alpha waves (8-12 Hz) surge throughout the default mode network (DMN). In waking life, large-amplitude alpha waves (10-12 Hz) suppress task-irrelevant processing and create an index or ‘ready’ state so that the brain can enter the other cognitive modes, and smaller alpha waves (8-10 Hz) signify mental imagery—usually, of the external world. In contempla-meditation, the focus shifts inward—effectively, the mind maps itself. DMN regions govern autobiographical reflection, including this mind-mapping, as well as theory of mind—our concept of how others think. Mental imagery filtered through this biographical-autobiographical scheme may explain the profound yet consistent perceptions of cosmic unity and interconnectedness which characterize self-transcendence.
Consistent discipline in contempla-meditation induces progressive systemic changes in the form and function of the brain. A few months of practice grow the hippocampus, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the caudate nucleus of the basal ganglia. Working memory and attentional capacity increase, and anxiety and fatigue markedly decrease when handling new tasks. Old memories are also sent back to the hippocampus and reconsolidated just as in sleep with help from the caudate nucleus, working from the striatum of the basal ganglia. The caudate nucleus flexibly assesses goal-directed behavior and recommends new plans to the executive regions of the brain—especially those which govern problem-solving, verbal reasoning, empathy, and sociability. Bolstering these three structures also lays the groundwork for the long-term impact of contempla-meditation.
Over months to years, continued practice realigns the brain with the priorities set by the caudate nucleus. Additional growth occurs in brain regions governing metacognition and self-regulation, such as the left rostrolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. Growth of the somatosensory cortices improves tactile acuity; coupled with improved processing in the insula, practitioners are able to consciously separate the emotional and sensory qualities of pain. Temporal lobe growth enhances visual imagery; with somatosensory improvements, this may augment spatial reasoning. So, whether you are a scholar, a student athlete, or a creative type—or all three—contempla-meditation can benefit you.
The hippocampus remains critical for the reassessment of old behaviors, and growth of the hippocampus, especially in glucocorticoid receptor density, further promotes emotional resilience and adaptability.
Structural decreases are really only seen in specific nodes of the default mode network which are redundant in function to other nodes which increase in thickness. For example, the posterior cingulate cortex decreases, while the medial prefrontal cortex increases; both drive autobiographical recall and future planning, especially in regard to other people. Default mode network activity imbalanced in either direction results in mental dysfunction: hyperconnectivity correlates with depressive rumination, while hypoconnectivity correlates with avoidant patterns of attachment and autism.
So, all this sounds exciting—but will we have time for it? Can contempla-meditation replace the need for sleep?
Partly. Total sleep deprivation will hurt contempla-meditation as much as it would hurt any form of learning, but up to three hours of sleep can be replaced by an equal time in contempla-meditation by experienced practitioners with no sacrifice in vigilance the next day. It’s equivalent to conventional sleep therapies like paradoxical intention and scheduled exercise. See, the brain activity elicited during contempla-meditation resembles the brain during sleep:
Waking and dreaming (REM, rapid eye movement)) brain activity generate beta and gamma waves like in controlled focus, and intermediate NREM (memory consolidation) generates theta waves like in open monitoring. In fact, the augmented activity entrained during contempla-meditation redounds directly to the sleeping brain—and reappears.
Using an electroencephalographic map of the scalp, we can see differences between experienced meditators and novices emerge around the anterolateral regions of the cerebral cortex. The activity sites are consistent with the left rostrolateral and medial prefrontal cortices, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the middle temporal gyrus (which subsumes the hippocampus)—some of the cortical structures which develop most with long-term contempla-meditative practice. There could be a reciprocal relationship here: replicating the waking waves during sleep increases efficiency, and the efficient signaling during sleep assists the cortical growth.
Contempla-meditation cannot replace the deep delta-wave sleep, during which the body and brain repair themselves and clear out metabolic waste—but it’s clear that sleep and contempla-meditation are natural partners in creating a healthy, effective mind.
Wake up, go about the day, sleep, repeat—no more. Contempla-meditation serves as a perfect transition between waking and resting, adding a sense of calm and thoughtfulness to the day—and to ourselves!
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