Drift away from the daily thoughts and settle into a new mindset, at least for the moment. Let your inborn ego drop the loudspeaker it holds over your internal monologue and detach from the emotions occupying your mind; losing that sense of self-importance being carried through each day. These teachings branch from mindfulness meditation, a mind-clearing practice with its roots instilled in Buddhist and Hindu traditions . Mindfulness meditation (MM) encourages finding stillness in the brain by quieting all mental chatter and hushing one’s egotistical self, almost like merging out from the traffic and rigidity of regular consciousness to slow down along a noiseless new view . This tranquility of temporarily altering consciousness, or this merging out, is what motivates reaching a deepened meditative state. Navigating into such a state of mind is accomplished with long-term mindfulness meditation, controlled psychedelic usage, and potentially via the emerging industry of “technodelic” technologies .
In this context, steering into an altered consciousness means to strengthen the mind by temporarily occupying a more perceptive, eye-opening awareness where there is no concept of self . Finding a deep state of consciousness allows one to intensify their introspection by removing the spotlight from any self-centered way of thinking. Instead, one learns to shine equal light onto the entirety of the moment, as if zooming out on a camera and adjusting the focus to be nonselective . In a deeper state of consciousness, this means to feel so holistic that the interactivity of environment, body, and tangibility are melded into a perception of oneness. Scientifically this is called reaching global non-selective, non-judgmental awareness: in which rather than perceiving individual objects as separate, the meditator can perceive all as one without egocentric emotions involved .
The most common and safe way to study altered consciousness is from the effects of mindfulness meditation. MM teachings reinforce this notion of emotional disengagement while feeling grounded in the present moment, and encourages feeling fully integrated and immersed with one’s environment. While neuroscientists do not fully understand all of the neural mechanisms involved in MM and altered consciousness, there is a scientific consensus of an improved sense of wellbeing across various self-reported and experimental MM studies . MM is strongly correlated with fine-tuning the brain’s connectivity by fostering enhanced emotional management, stronger attentional control, and more perspective self-awareness–all of which involve different brain regions . The neural signatures–or the distinct physical changes of the brain as a result of meditating–are also reportedly observed with the controlled use of psychedelics . Moreso, today these neural signatures are being clinically researched for replication using non-invasive electrodes placed on the scalp, with an intention to find a shortcut for attaining them using brain-stimulating technology . But what exactly are these neural signatures we want to achieve with modern technology and how do they improve one’s well-being?
The Neural Signatures of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is shown to refine large-scale brain networks by either increasing or decreasing the level of activity across certain brain regions. Brain activity is measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technology that produces visual scans of blood flow distribution in the brain. Essentially, a region with more blood flow is more active . In most MM experiments, neuroscientists use these fMRI scans of participants before and after meditation training to track how the delivery of their blood flow changed, indicating different levels of brain connectivity within certain regions as a result of the experiment. Across many of these studies, improved self-regulation of emotion, attention, and self-awareness are some of the most notable discoveries .
The amygdala, a brain region in charge of regulating fear-associated emotions, is strongly impacted by meditation . An experimental study conducted by the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zürich studied the benefits of MM to learn cognitive control strategies for counteracting emotional dysfunction using fMRI technology and psychological examinations–which included exposure to photographic stimuli and generalized questionnaires . With a randomized group of healthy participants that underwent mindfulness training, one of the most significant results displayed decreased activity in the amygdala and increased activation of certain subregions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) . The PFC, located right behind the forehead, is in charge of cognitive control, attentional processes, and impulse restraint . This means it is involved in processes that utilize more rational thinking by putting emotional thinking to the side . This shift of blood flow between the amygdala and PFC demonstrated more cognitive control over emotions because in the uncertainty of waiting for stimuli, the participants became less likely to use fear-based thinking, thereby expressing a significantly decreased reaction toward the emotion-provoking images . The downregulation of the amygdala was an important finding for relieving anxiety symptoms, as it is the hyperactivity of this region that instigates the ruminating thoughts that intrusively and uncontrollably affect people suffering with anxiety or depression . For those without clinical symptoms, the shifted amygdala-PFC connectivity strongly reinforced emotional regulation by promoting rationalization and decreased emotional reactivity .
Next, attentional regulation, or the ability to choose what to pay attention to, is suggested to be opposite amongst novice meditators and long-term meditators. In a controlled 6-week meditation intervention hosting novice meditators, researchers studied cognitive control and neural plasticity using psychological examinations and fMRI scans, giving insight into neural processing differences between meditators . Although MM emphasizes not focusing on momentary experiences, these people with no familiarity to meditation actually needed to pay more attention toward their mentor and meditative techniques like breath control. Hence with extra selective attention toward the practice itself, more activity was prompted in the PFC . These participants could not fully ignore emotional thinking to the same degree as long-term practitioners, but could control their emotions better than before their exposure to meditation technique. Specifically, these novice participants displayed top-down processing behavior in response to the experimental stimuli–meaning their perceptions were influenced by anticipating emotion and expectation, making them more reactive toward the given stimuli . This implies that six weeks of meditation cannot alter awareness, though there are likely mental health benefits such as more cognitive control of emotions and stronger attentional management. However, at this point, there is no suggestion of any significant development of the global non-selective, non-judgemental awareness of an altered state of consciousness.
In contrast to this, fMRI scans of long-term participants showed decreased activity in the PFC, an opposite observation . This comparison of novice and long-term meditators was cross-sectional, with long-term meditators often being practitioners with hundreds to thousands of hours worth of practice . That being said, it is observed that long-term meditators tended to be less anticipatory for reward and less affected by exposure to negative stimuli–in other words, they were literally keeping calm, and carrying on. As opposed to novice participants, long-term meditators demonstrated bottom-up neural processing behavior, in which their perceptions were situated upon neural input received after stimulus-exposure. By retaining a mentally accepting, loosened reaction to stimuli, long-term practitioners had developed a sense of non-judgemental awareness . This is the first step, or the merge, onto the ramp of altered consciousness–losing sense of emotional reactivity. This reduced PFC activity in conjunction with the aforementioned shifted amygdala-PFC connectivity also halts the natural tendency to scrutinize, thereby deepening the meditative state by finding non-selective awareness–the meditator is essentially at mental peace. At this point, the meditator has established the foundation of a global non-judgemental, non-selective awareness. But what happens if they continue occupying such a state of mind?
Achieving an augmented altered consciousness (AAC), or “pure consciousness,” as controversially termed, can be accomplished by reaching intensely deep meditative states learned over time . The idea is to cease any internal thought processes, and fix one’s intention toward feeling resonant with the external world. Although current research is insufficient to prove just how an AAC is attained, with observed neurological changes, and abundant self-reports of people having experienced such a phenomenon, it is predominantly agreed upon that an AAC exists . The adventure into this “pure consciousness” by long-term mindfulness meditators and prepared psychedelic users can induce what we call, ego dissolution.
Holding an Augmented Altered Consciousness
Commonly known by the term “ego death,” ego dissolution is proposed to be one result of transcending into a far deeper state of global non-selective awareness, attained from either intensive mindfulness meditation or a contained consumption of certain psychedelic drugs . The latter method is referred to as drug-induced ego dissolution (DIED), and has far less experimental research than MM. It’s important to note that experiencing ego dissolution, especially when drug-induced, is not an identical experience for everyone. For most, it is described to be a grounding experience, whereas for others it was so destabilizing that some allegedly suffered temporary retrograde amnesia and lost sense of identity . Look at it this way–a meditator must take steps into ego dissolution with each practice, whereas DIED can induce the state too quickly for someone who may not be mentally ready. With the self-reported and surveyed evidence of people advancing into deeper states of consciousness, findings of shifted activity in brain networks dealing with self-focused thinking and awareness allowed introspection-focused neuroscience to sort AAC into recognizable stages . The stages are not scientifically definitive, but ongoing research intends to learn more about the generated neurological changes, and understand why the concept of AAC is forward-looking amongst neurotechnology companies–commonly being called “consciousness hackers” or “enlightenment engineers” in the media. Although ego dissolution is not proposed until the final stage, the three levels of occupying an altered consciousness are as follows:
1. The first stage is described as quieting your first-person narrative train of thought–or to downturn self-referential processing . These thoughts are your daily, mundane thoughts that are very egocentric and self-involved, such as when you think, “where should I go for dinner tonight?” In this state you have supposedly dismissed any present emotions or noisy thoughts to feel stillness in the mind, as notably obtained by long-term meditators . Neurologically, it is suggested your brain decreases its activity in the default mode network (DMN), a set of regions dealing with autobiographical memory and self-focused thinking–beginning your ponder into a self-detached consciousness .
2. The self-detachment proceeds to where you feel loss of body ownership. In this sense of depersonalization, you allegedly feel the sensations of your body, such as hearing the rhythm of your heartbeat or feeling wind tingle upon your skin, but you do not directly perceive your limbs or body as your own. This uncoupling from your body is described as becoming deeply “centered”. One long-term mindfulness meditator reported the experience as “it was to be aware of the body, the sensations, pulse, location of limbs, sounds and sights—to be only a witness to all this” . At this point, long-term MM studies suggest that the brain increases activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insular cortex. Although more research is needed to confirm these ideas, it is suggested that the increased activation of the ACC blocks out more distracting information from the meditator’s attention, thereby diminishing any self-focused thinking. The increased activity in the insular cortex on the other hand, could represent having heightened sensory processing of one’s environment; thus inducing a heightened present-moment awareness while disregarding self-importance .
3. The third level includes loss of spatial self-location. Naturally, you unconsciously locate yourself by looking around and perceiving everything in its relative distance from you. However, expert meditators and psychedelic practitioners emphasize feeling integrated with the world in a way where their skin does not really feel like a boundary between their internal and external environments–which at this point, is considered to be experiencing ego dissolution. Many long-term meditators keep their eyes closed, causing some to lose their locational sense to such a degree that they hallucinate seeing their body from the outside . A long-term mindfulness meditator described their psychedelic experience as, “an immediate complete dissolution of any identity and a merging into the oneness, timeless, pure awareness… similar in some ways with a previous Samadhi meditation experience,”. Here, some research suggests there is decreased connectivity between the PFC and central precuneus, the brain region dealing with congregating the mental imagery of how you perceive your environment . With this neurological shift on top of all aforementioned activation changes, it is speculated that an individual has immersed into the global non-judgemental, non-selective, integrated awareness of an augmented altered consciousness .
Reaching such an intensely deep state of global non-selective awareness has always astonished neuroscientists. Can we replicate this mental clarity without devoting years of meditative practice towards the cause? How can we alternatively ease distressed brain activity and provide therapeutic neuromodulation to patients with clinical mood disorders? How can we enhance user experience by combining conscious-altering technology with virtual reality?
At the 2005 national conference for the Society for Neuroscience, the Dalai Lama famously stated, “If it was possible to become free of negative emotions by a riskless implementation of an electrode–without impairing intelligence and the critical mind–I would be the first patient,”. This kickstarted a new era of neurotechnology, introducing concepts such as “consciousness hacking”, “enlightenment engineering”, and “technodelics”–most of which aim to stimulate specific target regions of the brain to replicate the known effects of meditation and psychedelic usage . Today, one newly developed invention is transcranial-focused ultrasound technology (tFUS), a non-invasive technique of stimulating deeper brain structures by placing electrodes on the scalp . Although it is currently being used clinically as recurring medical treatment for those with mood or somatic disorders, the capabilities of this technology are transcending into the ideologies of self-help and entertainment industries; where it could potentially be worn by meditators to catalyze reaching a deep state, or augment the effects of virtual reality while playing video games. Essentially, modern technology is paving the way for a shortcut toward fostering the neural signatures of MM by externally stimulating the brain to a particular connective arrangement. Beyond this, leftists are further exploring the possibility of a technological-induced AAC experience. Whether this is safely feasible is still in question, considering neuroscientists still do not have abundant, precisely measured data concerning the neural mechanisms and cerebral connective changes elicited from MM and psychedelic usage–especially the latter.
The phenomena of physically refining brain connectivity with intentional breathing, and further being able to hold deeply introspective states of consciousness is such an incredible capability of the brain. Consistent MM practice for over six weeks can improve mental wellbeing with both emotional and attentional regulation, continued commitment can imprint a sense of composure and groundedness; and further mental shifting can enlighten one into cruising with a wisdom complex alongst a new view . It is no wonder that these benefits are desirable at an expedited rate of ease. With learning more about these forthcoming technologies, consider the preparedness upon exiting onto a ramp, consider the sporadic speed limits in reaching the noiseless view. Consider where you could navigate from there.
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