Whether it’s prayer, meditation, tai chi, or just chanting, every major religion weaves some form of contemplative practice into its rituals. You don’t even have be religious to enjoy the widely acknowledged benefits of contemplation. Meditation is commonplace in the secular world too, as a way to develop insight and transformation by stilling the mind.
What’s happening in our brains when we meditate?
But what’s really going on in our mind when we meditate?
And what about when our mind “wanders” or when we’re suffering from delusion? Could these conscious states have benefits too?
These are the kinds of inquiry that Jakob Hohwy is keen to explore at Melbourne’s new Centre for Consciousness and Contemplation.
He’s a professor in the department of philosophy at Monash University, where the centre is based, and the author of The Predictive Mind.
Funded by philanthropy, the centre brings together a team of neuroscientists, philosophers, educators, and practitioners to address questions about the nature of consciousness, and how our conscious states change when we engage in contemplative practices like meditation.
“It’s a huge investment in this area,” Dr Hohwy says.
“I think it’s bigger than anything else that we’ve seen so far, at Monash certainly, but also in Australia, as an investment into humanities-oriented research and education.”
Moving beyond the ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness
Philosophers and scientists have grappled for decades trying to decipher exactly what consciousness is.
And while many other things have been discovered along the way, we still have no concrete answers about the nature of consciousness — which is why it’s become known as the Hard Problem.
“It’s the most important thing and it’s the most familiar intimate thing. It’s so intimate, in fact that it’s hard to explain to others sometimes what our conscious state is.
“You have a neuroscientific theory of consciousness, there are a few of those around, and they’re quite impressive theories. But they always have this explanatory gap built into them.
“That’s why philosophy still has a role to play in trying to figure out what is going on in this domain of inquiry.”
How does the brain change when we meditate?(Pexels: Samuel Theo Manat)
But as Dr Hohwy told David Rutledge in a recent episode of The Philosopher’s Zone on ABC RN, the centre is not trying to solve the mystery of consciousness.
Rather, he says, moving beyond this “Hard Problem” opens up some even more interesting questions to ask.
“How are we consciously aware of ourselves? How can we consciously engage in an active way with ourselves and change ourselves? How does consciousness connect to action?” he asks.
“I think we can answer some of these questions without knowing the ultimate nature of consciousness.”
Dr Hohwy says there’s value in studying the underlying cognitive processes at play, so we can work with our consciousness to shift our thinking.
“Whenever we have a change in our conscious states, or some kind of transformative experience, whether grief, or through meditation, or taking psychedelics … something must be happening in the brain.
“You can’t have a change in your consciousness without at the same time something changing in the brain, in the cognitive processing of information and beliefs that you have.”
It’s those changes that Dr Hohwy is hopeful can be described by scientific methods and revealed through analysis of experience.
Reassessing ‘negative’ mental states
While the centre aims to broaden our knowledge of different contemplative practices and mental states, Dr Hohwy is keen to avoid categorising them in a hierarchical way.
In psychology and psychiatry, for instance, some conscious states are viewed as normal while others (such as schizophrenia or psychosis) are considered abnormal, and Dr Hohwy wonders if that’s counterproductive.
“There’s research on psychosis and in particular delusion, where they’re looking at whether delusions might have a positive effect on your defence mechanism,” he says.
“This is not to underplay the hardship of people living with schizophrenia or other kinds of mental illnesses. But the way we stratify conscious states into good and bad … maybe it’s time to reconsider some of these things.”
Even the way meditation is pitched to us indicates the value we place on some mental states above others.
Meditation, we’re told, will train our minds to stop wandering so that we focus on what’s important.
But who’s to say that mind wandering is bad in the first place?
“At the moment, people are beginning to say, well, mind wandering might actually not be such a bad thing,” Dr Hohwy says. “Maybe there’s a reason we mind wander.
“Maybe it’s good for us that we mind wander. What are the underlying cognitive processes? What are the health benefits of mind wandering?”
And what about wisdom?
Wisdom is another area of research which Dr Hohwy is keen for the centre to explore.
One school of thought might say only the wise — typically men — have wisdom, and it’s not something the rest of us can aspire to.
“But once we think of wisdom as a cognitive, psychological construct with deep philosophical roots, we can open it up and make it a bit more accessible,” Dr Hohwy says.
To do that the centre has brought together a diverse team of secular and multi-faith experts from a range of disciplines.
“Cultures across the world and across history have found that there’s something special happening when we do some kind of contemplative practice like meditation.”
“But it can’t stand alone. It has to be plugged into a theoretical ethical framework that allows you to make sense of what happens when you meditate.”
Understanding the changes taking place in the brain will hopefully allow us to integrate them into our daily lives, making us better people, creating a better world.
“I hope the centre will be able to open up some of these discussions without going down some ideological route.”