What’s out there when our brains quit telling us stories?
Reading | Neuroscience
Hans Busstra | 2021-06-18
In this interview with University of Oregon neuroscientist Prof. Marjorie Woollacott, journalist Hans Busstra explores a critical question: if the reality we think we inhabit is but a story confabulated by the brain’s ‘default mode network,’ what is the world ‘out there,’ and the self ‘in here,’ when the inner storytelling is subdued through meditation?
Every day our brains boot up narratives about our identity and what life’s all about.
Like breathing, this goes fully automatically and is done by a part of our brain that’s called the ‘default mode network.’ But sometimes the default mode network can go into overdrive and become such a convincing storyteller that its useful fictions cloud our perception of the world around us. What if we could tune the storytelling down once in a while, to broaden our sense of reality?
On questions like these, I interviewed Marjorie Woollacott, PhD, who has been a neuroscience professor at the University of Oregon for more than three decades and a meditator for almost four. In her latest book Infinite Awareness: The Awakening of a Scientific Mind, she explores the nature of consciousness and shares some of the stunning research findings around the power of meditation and altered states of consciousness.
Talking to Marjorie made me realize that we not only engage in storytelling in relation to our own life, we also unavoidably do so in relation to the nature of reality and consciousness. On both these levels it can be an eye-opening exercise to try and quit the storytelling.
What do we know scientifically about the effects of meditation on our brains?
More and more studies are showing the beneficial effects of meditation on the brain. What my colleagues and I showed in one of our publications, about 7 years ago, was that meditation is an important factor in allowing people to be faster at suppressing inappropriate impulses. We put an EEG cap over people’s heads to measure brain potentials while they were playing a computer game to see how quickly they could respond to a stimulus that comes on. As the rules of the game changed all the time, they had to be very, very focused. What we found is that the group of meditators in our study outperformed the non-meditators significantly.
Was there a visible difference in the brains of meditators versus non-meditators that could explain this difference in performance?
I found it amazing that the EEG showed that the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain associated with how we allocate our focus, is actually more active with experienced meditators. Other studies have shown that it is larger as well. What the anterior cingulate cortex does is that it catches the fact that our mind has wandered and it brings us back to focused tasks. In the case of meditating: the moment you start meditating and start focusing on your breath, distractions pop up and you start thinking about dinner tonight for instance. This happens because a very different part of the brain has taken control of your thoughts: your ‘mind wandering network,’ which we call the ‘default mode network.’ The default mode network tells us the stories about who we are and how we relate to the universe. As meditation trains and enlarges the anterior cingulate cortex we develop a stronger ‘check’ on the default mode network. It begins to become quieter. You could say: the stories, narratives in our brain are tuned down.
As someone who believes in the power of storytelling I would think: why is this relevant? Because, isn’t our ability to tell stories to ourselves about who we are one of our most powerful tools to navigate this world? So why tune down the default mode network?
Well, the default mode network, which is indispensable for our functioning, can also be a source of distraction and unhappiness. Matthew Killingsworth at Harvard University has shown that there is a direct correlation between mind wandering, losing yourself in narratives about your life, and not being happy. When we’re focused on a task we are much, much happier. So developing a strong anterior cingulate cortex that prevents the default mode network from dominating our brains directly contributes to mental wellbeing. In other studies we see that a reduction of the activity in the default mode network is accompanied by people reporting an experience of unity and enlarged awareness. To me this is fascinating, because it seems as if the default mode network and its narrative function is actually one of those filters on the brain that is keeping us from a more expanded awareness. And once we turn off that particular filter, or turn it way down, we suddenly have experiences and perceptions that we don’t usually have with our normal waking awareness.
The paradoxical idea that brain activity operates by actually reducing, instead of increasing, awareness is explained by the filter thesis, the idea that our brains are simply ‘filtering’ a much larger consciousness, reducing it to our ego-consciousness. Do we have any scientific leads on how this filtering actually would take place?
I think this is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. When I write articles about this filtering process that keeps us from a more expanded awareness I immediately go to our brain and our nervous system and explain how all the input from our five senses is being processed. That’s the first level of filtering. And then there’s the default mode network we’ve discussed, that’s another level of filtering, where your narrative cuts you off from a broader awareness. So that’s my neural story. But it can’t be all of it. Because what we also see is that, even when people describe having left their body in a near-death experience, they don’t seem to necessarily feel an absolute oneness immediately with everybody; they still experience a sense of self.
This is puzzling because it seems as if the filter thesis falls short here: even without any filtering of the brain—because it is clinically dead—there still is ego-consciousness?
I don’t know whether, as humans, we will ever have complete answers to that, but I think what all of us interested in this want to do is simply to have scientists and humanists have the time to explore this together further. We need to answer questions like: what really is this consciousness all about and what does it mean to have a filter? And are there people that, for example, leave this body, go to the other side and they still have a filter on? And could it be that one of the reasons they may come back to this body is because they are still a separate psychological entity, and they are attracted to going back one more time to having this great drama of being a human in this universe? Who knows?
For me, as someone who is highly interested in all of this, it is easy to get carried away by ideas like these. Since you are also open about your own mystical experiences as a meditator, I’m curious how you keep yourself from getting biased, from wanting certain outcomes to be true…
First of all, it is unavoidable that our subjective experience biases us toward our understanding of reality. So we have to be open about that. When it comes to having or not having had a mystical experience it works both ways: when you haven’t had a mystical experience, your lack of that experience probably tells you that there is nothing beyond physical reality because that’s all you know. That also is a subjective bias. What I think as a scientist is that we need to get together people who have an interest in exploring the primacy of consciousness and those that believe that it is impossible, but who are willing to collaborate on an experiment. In this way, if they agree on the experimental methods to test a particular phenomenon, both groups will be inclined to accept the validity of the results.
So you say, let’s bring in the skeptics…
Yes, but one of the problems of making real scientific progress is very practical and has to do with funding. We’ve discovered quarks and bosons by putting incredible amounts of money into these machines that allow us to prove the existence of subatomic particles. If only we would invest a fraction of these kinds of budgets into consciousness research, I think we could make considerably more progress. Unfortunately, when it comes to funding research on mind and consciousness, governments worldwide don’t see it as important because they are so caught up in a materialist framework of reality.
Apart from the need for more funding, what is the best way forward, you think?
We need to have an open mind. When I was a true materialist scientist, before I had any experiences of expanded awareness through meditation, I would hear stories about the police using a psychic to help solve a problem and I would just sort of smile and say: ‘oh, come on.’ But now, I’m more openly looking at the evidence we have for such parapsychological phenomena. Take for instance the research of Dean Radin, who was for many years at Princeton University, on distant intentionality, the ability to affect matter with your mind. Radin and others have shown that an ordinary person can literally shift the output of a random number generator toward higher or lower numbers, through their distant intentionality. Now I know his research is regarded by skeptics as controversial and pseudoscience, but statistician Jessica Utts, who was not involved in the research, critically looked at the statistical analysis of all the experiments performed in this area and concluded that if this were an ordinary set of experiments in mainstream science, it would be absolutely accepted as perfect evidence for this phenomenon.
When I was teaching pre-med students at the University of Oregon, I gave a course on alternative and complementary medicine and I gave them the assignment to just go online to peer-reviewed journals and read every research article they could find, for or against the efficacy of a specific complementary modality, like acupuncture or energy healing, and to write a paper about it. By the end of the term, most of them had turned around from being skeptics to being convinced that things like energy healing or acupuncture are really valid, by having looked at the research literature. To me that’s hopeful, that a young generation of scientists really are developing an open mind.
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