The myth of mindfulness: a “neurocentric" view of meditation

Original author: Evan Thompson, Michael Lifshitz
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Original article “What's wrong with“ the mindful brain ”? Moving past a neurocentric view of meditation ”was published in 2019 by Evan Thompson, an associate member of the Department of Asian Studies and the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Lifshitz, a researcher at the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, in the magazine“ Shedding light on the dark side of the brain ”(Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging).


Meditation is now in trend. Our culture is fond of meditation as a powerful tool for training the brain and forming an internal mental state - to make us happier, more productive and calmer inside. But meditation is not just training our brain. It is a deeply social and fundamentally embodied collection of cultural practices. If we reduce meditation practices only to a set of brain patterns, we lose sight of how these practices work and ignore much of what they should teach us about our own subjective experiences.

The growing hype around mindfulness revolves around a particular view of mindfulness meditation as a form of brain training. This trend is based on a simple attractive idea: the practice of meditation, we are told, literally “rewires” your brain. This is a catchy idea: train your mind, change your brain. But this idea has its own problems, both empirical (regarding the strength of the available data) and conceptual (regarding whether it makes sense to even think about meditation
in these conditions).

If we reduce meditation practices to a set of brain patterns, we lose sight of how these practices work and ignore much of what they teach us about human experience.

In the modern world, mindfulness is understood as a state or a trained ability to be focused in a certain way. To be attentive means to be aware of and accept the constant stream of experiences of the present moment with curiosity. In accordance with this widespread understanding, mindfulness is to notice what is happening with your thoughts, your body and your emotions - to analyze the subtle nuances of life experience that we tend to hide in our busy lives. By teaching certain networks in our brains, we can learn to be mindful in such a conscious way. It is easy to understand why this idea appeals to our "modern" feelings. We live in an electronic world that constantly assaults us with its complexity. Mindfulness seems to offer private access to a simpler mode of consciousness.
The popular, albeit erroneous, idea that mindfulness is in the brain suggests that the key to our happiness, peace, and productivity lies within, and that by controlling our brain we control our own subjective well-being.
If there is something that our modern culture values ​​more than individual self-determination, then these are tangible results. We believe in what we can measure. The concept of a conscious brain suggests that the practice of mindfulness meditation does something — something physical, concrete. The evidence seems to be "brain pudding." Studies show that among Buddhist monks ("Olympic athletes" of meditation), the brain in all the right places is "thickened" (meaning the thickness of the cerebral cortex - approx. Transl. ), and that even busy Westerners will be able to "thicken" their brain after just a few weeks of daily meditation. The meaning is clear: if we are ready to meditate just a few minutes a day, we can also rebuild our brain to gain more awareness and control over our own mind - to become happier, more productive and calmer inside.

It is good to think that we can define a specific brain signature of the state of awareness. Then we could optimize meditation in order to achieve this state faster and easier. We could skip everything that accompanies meditation (religious cosmology, moral teachings, bells and clothes), and focus on what some people consider to be the real essence: strengthening the networks of the brain responsible for attention in order to achieve awareness of our own experience. Allegedly, this optimized approach to neural inactivity will give us the results that we want, and quickly. Since the advent of the “mindful brain", finding the inner world has never been so easy.

These days, you don’t even need to look for a meditation teacher or community - you can just download the mindfulness app or put on a headband sensitive to brain activity to increase your brain waves.

For a small price and just a few minutes of your time, you will also get your own “mindful brain”.


So what is wrong here?

The discovery that meditation is changing your brain is often seen as evidence of the effectiveness of meditation. The tacit understanding seems to be that documenting the effects of meditation on the physical tissue of the brain makes these effects more significant and reliable, more reliable more real.
But all mental activity is supposedly reflected in the level of brain functions, therefore it is not surprising that a change in mental behavior corresponds to a change in the brain. Any repetitive activity you do can leave marks in your brain. Learning to play a musical instrument, learn a second language, play video games or even read lines on a screen - all these actions have been shown to form the brain. Meditation is far from unique in this regard, so it makes no sense to appeal to the idea that the practice of mindfulness changes your brain as a way to prove that it really has effects. If practice changes subjective experience, it almost certainly changes the brain.
However, it remains less obvious whether modern brain imaging techniques can accurately identify and understand the changes in the brain caused by practices such as mindfulness meditation. The scientific evidence that meditation practices produce a long-lasting positive effect in the brain remains experimental. First, most of the data available is based on correlation, not causality. In most studies on neuroplasticity caused by meditation, people who meditate over time are compared to beginners. Only from these studies can we not establish whether the observed differences in the brain are really related to the practice of meditation or simply reflect the preexisting differences between the groups. Maybe,

It is important to note that most studies of meditation on neuroimaging have a very small sample size.

Even if we assume that the changes in the brain that are reported in the neurovisual studies of meditation are sustainable, there remains a deeper conceptual problem with the idea that we can correlate complex behaviors or mental processes with changes in specific areas of the brain. There is something in mindfulness more than just accepting a brain state or training it.
Mindfulness is not an internal cognitive process that accurately displays on brain activity; this is a complex combination of cognitive skills embodied in a specific social context


Consider parenting as an analogy. Parenting skills certainly depend on the brain - and their application changes the brain - but they are not private mental processes and do not exist inside the brain. Specific patterns of brain activity may correlate with being a good parent in a given context, but these brain patterns alone hardly explain what it means to be a good parent. Good parenting is not inside the brain; this is the way that the whole person (including the brain) is involved in the world. Moreover, what is considered good parenting differs depending on the culture.

Therefore, turning to the brain simply will not tell us what it means to be a good parent. To understand this, we need a broader perspective that takes into account the context of the whole person, as well as the social and cultural environment. The same applies to mindfulness.

One of the main points in meditation practice is the idea that our minds are inextricably linked with our bodies and with the wider social and environmental contexts in which we are involved. We hope for a science of mindfulness, which would make us more, not less, remember how our brains fit into this big picture.

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