Mind, Brain, Consciousness
The EEG study described on this website demonstrates the potential of relating a meditator’s subjective experience of different stages of focused meditation, to corresponding processes in brain activity. It vividly demonstrates how a meditator is able to powerfully affect the brain’s activity, and how the brain responds to the meditator’s willed acts of attention. In effect, meditators are researchers in the laboratories of their own brains.
There are intriguing parallels with the development of Science, and particularly Physics, and Quantum Physics. Up to the end of the 19th century, classical physics still held the view that interactions and states of matter were deterministic, that is, that they could be accurately predicted and worked out by knowing the prior state of any system. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, led by pioneers such as Max Planck, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Neils Bohr, Schroedinger, Pauli and Dirac, there came a revolution in physics. What became known as quantum physics, now spoke in terms of probability, rather than certainty. Particles could sometimes behave like waves, and vice versa. And, particularly relevant to our discussion here, it was realised that even the most subtle act of “measurement” profoundly affects what is being observed or measured. An act of measurement implies an observer, and this came to be known as the “observer effect”. For example, a “quantum” of light has the potential to behave like a particle, or as a wave. Until observed, both states exist in potential, as “superposed states”, one or other state being precipitated by an act of measurement or observation.
This recognition of the human observer as participant, fundamentally challenged assumptions about the nature of an objective reality, independent of observers, and therefore independent of the human mind. Wolfgang Pauli, one of the key figures in developing quantum physics, stated:
“The only acceptable view appears to be the one that recognises both sides of reality – the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical – as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.”7
Even in the earliest stages of starting to practice meditation, a meditator will start to become aware of whether he/she is a passive observer of the breath, or whether attending to it, i.e. observing the breath, affects what is being observed. This relates to an earlier comment on this website that Samatha and Vipassanā meditation are intricately interrelated; the question “who or what am I?” is present at some level from very early in Samatha practice.
The progression through the stages of jhāna, described earlier, may be seen as a gradual refinement of the impact of the observer. By not attending to the details of the nimitta, by resisting the “normal” moment-to-moment urge to “re-cognise”, allows the nimitta to be used as a sign or guide, towards the mind settling into absorption. In the rūpa jhānas, this reaches its acme in the perfectly balanced 4th rūpa jhāna, separate from, and protected from, any impact from the sensory realm. As noted earlier, “the experiencing of the mind is the state of the fourth meditation jhāna” (Vimuttimagga). It is important to note that the 4th rūpa jhāna is a powerful and “held” state, even though the meditator may not be “acting” in the usual sense. It is also traditionally regarded as the base for developing psychic power, through acts of will.
In contrast, the 4th arūpa jhāna goes far beyond the subtle sense of self still present in the rūpa jhānas, approaching levels of freedom and insight related to the Buddhist concept of “not-self”, and the approach to the stages of enlightenment.
In the Meditator-Brain “system”, the question of interaction, and how to change the state of the “system”, such as from one jhāna to another, is a fascinating topic. Cognitive “thinking oneself” into a state of jhāna quickly becomes too coarse, hence the importance of the nimitta.
In the rūpa jhānas, similes such as those mentioned – a Bell, a Pool of Water, a Lotus Flower, and a White Cloth – are helpful in evoking the quality being sought. The quality has a form, and a feeling. Once a meditator is familiar with the experience of a particular jhāna, through repeated practice and, particularly, the practice of recollection, they will become able to develop a degree of mastery of that jhāna that will allow the meditator to simply “go there” by an act of will.
In the arūpa jhānas, visual similes are too coarse. To try to encapsulate the experience, meditators may find it helpful to use words, such as “Space…Space”, “Consciousness… Consciousness”, “Empty… Empty”, “Neither-Nor; or n’evasaññā-n’asaññā”, bringing the words to mind momentarily as an act of will, or as a transitional object to set a direction into the jhāna. This is similar to the very old tradition of mantra and yantra, where syllables or signs are used to encapsulate or symbolise a whole body of knowledge, bypassing the normal cognitive processes. “Namo” or “Itipi so” are evocative examples in Buddhism.
A meditator’s interaction with their brain may be seen as a living experiment into the “observer effect”. As the meditator refines attention through the jhānas, at each stage the observer effect becomes ever more subtle. In the rūpa jhānas this culminates in the supreme balance of the 4th rūpa jhāna, and in the arūpa jhānas there are the experiences of “In-between” in the 3rd, and the mysterious description “Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception” for the 4th. Is there some similarity here to the notion in quantum physics of superposed states, that can exist only so long as they are not disturbed by an act of measurement, or observation; that is, ultimately by a mental act of will.
This is not to say that meditation at these levels is crudely a quantum process, or that the brain is a quantum machine with which the meditator interacts. But it does suggest that there are some features of the meditator’s interaction with his or her own brain that have quantum-like characteristics. It also raises the intriguing possibility as to whether, under some circumstances, the brain might in fact behave as a quantum computer.
A normal computer is based on millions of simple on/off switches, each a bit, with a very basic two-state yes/no logic. Over recent years, enormous resources have started to be directed into developing quantum computers that operate on quite different principles, and simple prototypes have already been demonstrated.8
A quantum computer depends on superposed states; for example, that an atom can be in both a spin-up and a spin-down state, superposed both at the same time, a situation that persists until an act of “observation”, which then forces it into one or other spin state. This presents a far more powerful opportunity to computing than a simple 2-state “bit”. The superposed state represents a range of possibilities as to whether the atom will “choose” the spin-up or spin-down state, once interacted with, and this in its application to computing has been given the name qubit. This is a revolutionary field that not so long ago would have been regarded as science fiction.
A quantum computer does not operate in the same linear way, A to B to C etc, as that of a normal computer. It is as though all possible solutions to a problem are known in the complexity of the superposed states, and it then becomes a matter of how to “interrogate” the computer so that it “collapses” out of the enormous range of possibilities of the superposed states, to reveal the answer. This interrogation is done through a software algorithm that in turn has to be conveyed to the quantum computer without disturbing the superposed state for long enough for the operation to be performed. In other words, a big problem with quantum computers is how to completely insulate the computer absolutely from outside influences for long enough for it to perform.9
Here again there are intriguing parallels to the processes in Samatha meditation, and the experiences of a meditator developing the jhānas. The progression through the rūpa jhānas can be seen as a gradual withdrawal from the “observer effect”, with the 4th rūpa jhāna being regarded as the highest achievement in the realm of form, in detaching from the world of the senses, or any intrusion that could disturb the meditator from the fully developed tranquility, or upekkhā, that characterises the 4th rūpa jhāna. Within the Buddhist meditation tradition, the 4th rūpa jhāna is also regarded as the access or take-off point to develop the so-called supernormal powers (see Vimuttimagga). It is as though the 4th rūpa jhāna holds a position of almost limitless possibilities, until disturbed, or “interrogated” to use the language of quantum computing, by an act of will, at which point it immediately brings the willed-for state into being.
For the brain to act like a quantum computer, it would be necessary to hold it in a state perfectly isolated from any sensory impact, and this would be no mean feat since the brain is supremely sensitive. It has been demonstrated, for example, that even a single photon of light impacting on the retina has the potential and probability for the brain to perceive light. Could it be that the isolation of the 4th rūpa jhāna, where the mind turns inwards to be aware only of itself, may be a way, and perhaps the only way, that this could be possible?
There are other indicators of the possibility of quantum-like, instantaneous processing. Samatha meditators have long known that bringing to mind a question, very briefly, before letting the question go and then entering meditation, often results in the “answer” spontaneously presenting itself on arising from the meditation.
A milder and more background process related to this may occur in the slow-wave Theta-enhanced states of Samatha meditation more generally. Theta waves are often present when emerging from sleep, and many people, not only meditators, have remarked on having creative ideas at those times. Gruzelier10, for example, a researcher at Goldsmiths College, London, trained a group of professional musicians to enhance their Theta wave activity by neurofeedback (not meditation), in studies during 2003-08. After 5 to 10-week periods of training, the musicians all improved very significantly in the three domains of performance: instrumental competence, musicality and communication.
It would be interesting to test how meditators’ measures of creativity might develop from novice to experienced stages of Samatha meditation, where Theta activity is enhanced in a completely natural manner.
In the past, ideas of parallel computing have been voiced to explain the brain’s enormous computing capacity, but the possibility of quantum features, or that under certain circumstances it might act as a quantum computer, are relatively recent. A difficulty is to understand how, in the wet and messy biological environment of the brain, how neuronal brain regions could organically remain sufficiently isolated and immune from disturbing impulses for long enough periods for quantum processes to develop. Interesting possibilities have been suggested11, but it is very early in the development of this field.
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