History and Science of Meditation: Andrew Huberman

Brief History of Meditation: Consciousness, Psychedelics, fMRI

In the late 1980s, meditation was introduced to the mainstream American audience through books like “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

At the time, there were few studies on the mechanics of meditation, but that changed in the 1990s with the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Before the rise of fMRI, discussions about meditation were often intertwined with conversations about consciousness and psychedelics.

In the 1960s and 1970s, figures like Timothy Leary at Harvard University promoted the use of LSD and other psychedelics as part of the counterculture movement. This led to their dismissal from the university and a split in the conversation about meditation and psychedelics.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the focus shifted back to meditation as a standalone practice, thanks to the work of individuals like Kabat-Zinn. However, it took some time for the scientific community to embrace and fund studies on the effects of meditation on the brain and body.

With the widespread use of fMRI technology, researchers could observe the brain’s activity during meditation.

These studies revealed a significant number of brain changes and benefits associated with regular meditation practice, even when the sessions were relatively short.

As a result, meditation has become more widely accepted and promoted by major tech companies and businesses worldwide. However, it is essential to recognize that meditation, like exercise, can take many forms and produce different results depending on the specific practice and its frequency.

Neuroscience of Meditation: How the Brain Interprets Bodily Signals and Emotions

The prefrontal cortex, particularly the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, plays a crucial role in interpreting emotions and bodily sensations. When this area is active, we are better equipped to make sense of our emotional state and make informed decisions based on that interpretation.

The left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex works in tandem with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula to create a neural conversation.

The ACC is responsible for interpreting various bodily signals, such as breathing rate and heart rate, in relation to the current circumstances. For example, a racing heart during exercise is expected, while a sudden increase in heart rate while at rest may be cause for concern.

The insula, on the other hand, interprets both internal and external signals, helping to determine whether bodily sensations align with the external environment.

Huberman emphasizes that humans possess the unique ability to be aware of memories, the present moment, and anticipation of the future.

This awareness allows us to understand that our bodily state may not always match our current activity, as thoughts about the past or future can influence our physical and emotional responses.

Meditation practices often aim to cultivate mindfulness, which involves being present and aware of internal sensations, thoughts, and emotions. While there is no universally accepted definition of mindfulness, it generally involves focusing on the present moment, particularly on one’s breathing and thoughts.

Neuroscience of Meditation: Perceptual Spotlights and Brain Activation

Huberman begins by describing a typical meditation practice, which often involves stopping movement, sitting or lying down, and closing one’s eyes.

While closing the eyes is not a requirement for all forms of meditation, it is a common practice that leads to a profound shift in the way the brain and other neural circuits function.

When we close our eyes, we shut down a major avenue of exteroception, which is the sensing of things outside of our body.

Huberman distinguishes between sensation and perception, explaining that perception is the act of paying attention to specific sensations. He introduces the concept of “spotlights of attention” or “perceptual spotlights,” which can be either narrow or broad in focus.

Huberman explains that we can split our attention into two spotlights, but probably not more than two.

These spotlights can be focused on different aspects of our environment or our body, and we can consciously adjust the intensity and acuity of our perception within these spotlights.

This ability to direct our attention is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, particularly the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Throughout the podcast, Huberman emphasizes the incredible power we have to consciously adjust our perception and attention.

By understanding the neural mechanisms at play during meditation, we can better harness this power to enhance focus, improve mood, and even benefit our sleep.

As Huberman continues to explore the neuroscience of meditation, he sets the stage for a deeper understanding of how different meditation practices can be tailored to achieve specific goals. By breaking down the complex neural processes involved in meditation, Huberman provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the brain and the power of conscious attention.

Interoception vs. Exteroception: Understanding the Continuum of Perception

Interoception, spelled with an “I,” refers to the sensing of everything at the level of our skin and inward, such as sensations in our stomach, heartbeat, and temperature.

On the other hand, exteroception, spelled with an “E,” is the perception of everything outside or beyond the confines of our skin.

Huberman points out that when we close our eyes, especially during meditation, we shift our perceptual state from being split between the outside world (exteroception) and our inner state (interoception) to primarily focusing on interoception.

This shift in perception activates the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula, brain regions responsible for registering and paying attention to various internal sensations.

However, he emphasizes that heightened levels of interoceptive awareness are not always beneficial. People with excessive anxiety, for example, may be overly aware of subtle changes in their heart rate or breathing, which can exacerbate their anxiety.

Conversely, those with little interoceptive awareness may ignore important signals from their body, such as symptoms of a heart attack or high blood pressure.

Huberman suggests that individuals should consider their natural tendencies towards interoceptive or exteroceptive awareness when choosing a meditation practice.

Some people may benefit from a practice that focuses more on exteroceptive awareness, such as a walking meditation or a seated meditation where they bring their focus to a place outside their body.

Link Between a Wandering Mind and Unhappiness

In a groundbreaking study published in the journal Science, researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Dan Gilbert explored the connection between a wandering mind and happiness.

Their findings, which have since become a classic in the field, shed light on the importance of being present in the moment and the emotional cost of letting our thoughts drift.

The study, titled “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” involved over 2,200 adults who were contacted via their smartphones multiple times a day. Participants were asked about their current feelings and activities, allowing the researchers to assess the relationship between what people were doing and what they were thinking about.

One of the key findings was that people’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of the activity they were engaged in.

In nearly half of the samples, participants reported thinking about something other than what they were doing.

The only exception was when individuals were engaged in intimate activities, during which they claimed to be more focused on the present moment.

The researchers also discovered that people were less happy when their minds were wandering compared to when they were fully engaged in their current activity.

This held true across all activities, suggesting that the act of mind-wandering itself, rather than the specific content of thoughts, was linked to lower levels of happiness.

Perhaps most interestingly, the study revealed that what people were thinking about at a given moment was a far better predictor of their happiness than what they were actually doing.

This finding challenges the common belief that engaging in certain activities or suppressing negative thoughts is the key to happiness. Instead, it suggests that being fully present and engaged in the moment, regardless of the nature of the activity, is crucial for emotional well-being.

The authors conclude that while the ability to think about things beyond the present moment is a remarkable cognitive achievement, it comes at an emotional cost.

This insight has important implications for our understanding of happiness and the role of mindfulness practices in promoting emotional well-being.

The study’s findings underscore the importance of developing a meditation practice that helps individuals adjust their focus along the continuum of interoception (awareness of internal sensations) and exteroception (awareness of external stimuli) to match their current experience.

While many people associate meditation with focusing inward, there are also forms of meditation that emphasize external awareness, both of which can contribute to greater happiness and improved mood.

Interoceptive or Exteroceptive Bias, Meditation Challenge

Huberman suggests that individuals can determine their dominant awareness type at any given moment by closing their eyes and assessing whether their attention is naturally drawn to internal sensations or external events.

This dominance can vary depending on the context, situation, and even one’s level of rest.

To develop a more adaptive and effective meditation practice, Huberman recommends working against one’s default state. For instance, if an individual finds it easy to focus on internal sensations, they should engage in a meditation practice that emphasizes exteroceptive awareness, such as focusing on an external object or landscape.

Conversely, if someone is easily distracted by external stimuli, they should practice interoceptive-focused meditation, concentrating on sensations within the body or the breath.

The key idea is that challenging oneself and pushing back against the default mode network can lead to greater neuroplasticity and more significant shifts in brain states and circuitry.

By actively suppressing one’s bias toward interoceptive or exteroceptive awareness, the brain is forced to adapt and change in response to the new experience.

Huberman notes that even short meditation sessions, as brief as three minutes, can be beneficial for enhancing focus and managing anxiety.

He emphasizes that the discomfort or difficulty experienced during meditation is a signal to the brain and body that change is needed, triggering the mechanisms necessary for neural circuitry to adapt.

State & Trait Changes, Interoceptive & Exteroceptive Meditations, Refocusing

This involves asking yourself whether you are more focused internally (in your head) or externally (outside your head).

Based on your assessment, you should choose a meditation practice that runs counter to your current state, pushing you in the opposite direction.

Interoceptive-biased meditations typically involve setting a timer, closing your eyes, and focusing on your third eye center behind your forehead, your breathing, or bodily sensations.

On the other hand, exteroceptive-based meditations require you to select a focal point outside or beyond the confines of your skin, such as a point on the wall, a plant, or a distant point on the horizon.

It’s important to note that during exteroceptive-biased meditations, it is perfectly acceptable and necessary to blink, relax your face, and change your expression. There is no rule dictating that you must maintain a fixed gaze without blinking.

Similarly, during interoceptive-biased meditations, it is natural for your thoughts to occasionally drift away from your breathing or third eye center.

One of the key elements of any meditative practice, regardless of its focus, is the act of refocusing. The more times your mind wanders and you have to bring it back to your chosen focal point, the more effective your practice becomes. Each instance of refocusing contributes to the neuroplasticity and improvement of your meditation skills.

Huberman emphasizes that rather than striving for perfect, unwavering focus, the true measure of progress lies in your ability to refocus quickly and consistently over time.

Expert meditators, as demonstrated by neuroimaging studies, excel not in maintaining a narrow trench of focus but in swiftly exiting and re-entering focus repeatedly.

Exploring the Concept of the “Third Eye Center”

The pineal gland, located deep within the brain, is responsible for releasing melatonin and regulating sleep-wake cycles.

In some animals, such as birds and reptiles, the pineal gland is directly responsive to light, acting as a “third eye.” However, in humans, the pineal gland is not exposed to light and does not function as a literal third eye.

Instead, the “third eye center” referred to in meditation practices is more closely associated with the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead.

This region of the brain plays a crucial role in consciousness, intention, and decision-making. Studies have shown that inactivating the prefrontal cortex can lead to reflexive, machine-like behavior, highlighting its importance in higher-order cognitive processes.

Interestingly, the brain itself lacks sensory neurons, meaning that we cannot directly feel sensations within the brain tissue. This is why brain surgery can be performed on a conscious patient without the need for anesthesia on the brain itself.

When we focus our attention on the “third eye center” during meditation, we are essentially directing our perception to a location devoid of physical sensation.

As a result, our thoughts, emotions, and memories tend to become more prominent in our awareness.

This phenomenon can make it challenging to simply observe our thoughts as they arise, as they can seem overwhelming and disorganized.

Huberman suggests that the best way to reduce the intensity of wandering thoughts is to focus on external stimuli or bodily sensations. By directing our attention outward, we engage in perception rather than solely in thought.

The podcast also references a study that found most people tend to have an interoceptive bias, meaning they are more focused on their internal experiences than on the external environment.

While mindfulness and self-awareness can enhance happiness and well-being, it is equally important to be mindful of our surroundings and the experiences of others.

Mastering Meditation: Exploring Practice Types, Focal Points, and Consistency

Huberman begins by recapping the brain networks activated during meditation, including the prefrontal cortex, ACC, and insula. He also emphasizes the importance of understanding the difference between interoception and exteroception, and how one’s position on this continuum can influence the choice of meditation practice.

Huberman suggests that individuals who find themselves more “in their head” or “in their body” should focus on an exteroceptively biased meditation to build up that set of circuits.

Conversely, those who are more exteroceptively focused should engage in an interoceptively focused meditation practice.

The duration of the practice is also a crucial factor to consider, with studies showing the benefits of both shorter and longer sessions.

Dr. Wendy Suzuki’s research from New York University highlights the effectiveness of a daily 13-minute meditation, focusing on the traditional third eye and breathing.

This practice, done consistently for about eight weeks, has been shown to improve mood, sleep quality, cognitive ability, and focus memory.

Huberman’s own laboratory has also demonstrated the benefits of a five-minute daily meditation in reducing stress and improving sleep.

When establishing a meditation practice, Huberman emphasizes the importance of consistency. He encourages individuals to honestly assess how often they can commit to meditating and adjust the duration accordingly.

For those who can only meditate once a week, longer sessions of 10-30 minutes may be more beneficial.

On the other hand, those who can meditate daily have more flexibility in terms of session duration, ranging from one minute to ten minutes or more.

Huberman stresses that the key component of a successful meditation practice is consistency, as evidenced by the research presented in the book “Altered Traits” and recent studies. He also advises against burdening oneself with the expectation of always having to meditate for the same duration, as flexibility can help maintain a consistent practice.

Interoception vs. Dissociation, Trauma

Huberman began by highlighting the numerous benefits of regular meditation practice, backed by tens of thousands of scientific studies. From improving sleep and focus to reducing inflammation and alleviating symptoms of mood disorders, the positive impact of meditation is undeniable.

However, the main focus of the discussion was on the brain and body changes that occur during meditation and what constitutes a true meditation practice.

Huberman introduced three key components: the interoceptive versus exteroceptive bias continuum, breathing (default or deliberate), and the interoception-dissociation continuum.

Interoception refers to the process by which the nervous system senses, interprets, and regulates signals originating from within the body, providing a moment-to-moment mapping of the internal landscape.

On the other hand, dissociation is the lack of bodily awareness or the removal of one’s conscious experience from one’s bodily experience and awareness.

While dissociation is often associated with traumatic events, such as violent or sexual trauma, Huberman argues that the optimal place to reside on the interoception-dissociation continuum is somewhere in the middle. Being too dissociated or too feeling can both be problematic.

Huberman also touched on the concept of narrative distancing, where individuals become overly immersed in the experiences of others, losing a sense of self.

This highlights the delicate balance between being sympathetic and empathetic while maintaining a rational perspective.

The interoceptive-dissociative continuum is a crucial aspect of understanding how meditation can serve mental health and the ability to focus.

Those who are extremely interoceptive may feel everything in their body, while those on the dissociative end may react to their surroundings but have a shut-down bodily response.

Model of Interoception & Dissociation Continuum

Interoception, the sense of the internal state of the body, plays a crucial role in our overall well-being and self-awareness. It encompasses the ability to perceive and interpret sensations such as hunger, thirst, pain, and emotional states.

The discussion also touched upon the dissociation continuum, a spectrum that ranges from normal, everyday experiences of dissociation to more severe and pathological forms.

Dissociation, in this context, refers to a disconnection or separation between thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

The podcast explored the interplay between interoception and dissociation, suggesting that disruptions in interoceptive processes may contribute to dissociative experiences.

When individuals struggle to accurately perceive and interpret their internal bodily states, they may feel disconnected from themselves and their surroundings.

Furthermore, the podcast highlighted the potential impact of trauma on both interoception and dissociation.

Traumatic experiences can alter an individual’s ability to tune into their bodily sensations and emotions, leading to a heightened risk of dissociative symptoms.

The discussion also emphasized the importance of understanding and addressing interoceptive difficulties and dissociative experiences in clinical settings.

By recognizing the relationship between these two aspects of human experience, mental health professionals can develop more targeted and effective interventions.

Meditation & Dissociation: Mood, Bias & Corresponding Challenge

Dr. Huberman explains that meditation and dissociation share some common ground, as both involve a sense of detachment from one’s immediate surroundings or thoughts. However, he emphasizes that while meditation is often associated with positive outcomes, such as reduced stress and increased focus, dissociation can be a symptom of underlying mental health issues.

The podcast explores how meditation can alter mood states, potentially leading to a temporary sense of dissociation.

Dr. Huberman notes that this effect may be more pronounced in individuals with a predisposition to dissociative experiences.

He suggests that it is crucial for meditation practitioners to be aware of these potential outcomes and to approach the practice with caution.

Furthermore, the discussion touches on the role of bias in the context of meditation and dissociation.

Dr. Huberman highlights that personal beliefs and expectations can significantly influence one’s experience during meditation. He stresses the importance of maintaining an open and objective mindset when engaging in these practices.

The podcast also addresses the challenges that may arise when individuals encounter dissociative experiences during meditation.

Dr. Huberman advises seeking guidance from qualified instructors and mental health professionals to navigate these challenges effectively. He emphasizes the need for a personalized approach, as the impact of meditation and dissociation can vary greatly from person to person.

Choosing a Meditative Practice: Mindfulness to Hypnosis

For those who may not have the time or inclination to meditate regularly but still want to experience the benefits of relaxation and mental state adjustment, Huberman recommended practices like non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) or yoga nidra.

He also suggested using guided meditation apps, such as Sam Harris’ Waking Up, which can be immensely beneficial for many people.

Huberman discussed the concept of interoception and exteroception, which refers to the focus of attention during meditation.

Depending on an individual’s current state, they may benefit from focusing their vision and attention inward with eyes closed or outward. Cyclic breathing, where the focus is less on the breath itself, can also be helpful for some people.

The choice between natural breathing and controlled breathing techniques is another important factor to consider.

Huberman explained that meditation practices designed to enhance focus, such as slow cadence breathing or third eye meditation, can also be relaxing. On the other hand, practices like yoga nidra and NSDR are more geared towards replenishing oneself and potentially reducing sleep need.

Huberman also touched on the topic of hypnosis, which he clarified is distinct from breathwork, yoga nidra, NSDR, and meditation.

While hypnosis may include some components of these practices, such as focused attention and specific breathing patterns, it is typically designed to address specific problems, such as quitting smoking, reducing insomnia, or alleviating pain.

In contrast, meditation and related practices are generally not directed toward a particular line of thinking, although they can help with issues like anxiety and sleep problems.

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