Imagine being in a dark room holding a flashlight. You can only see where you’re pointing the light, and only what the light reaches. This room is your mind, and what the flashlight reveals is your limited awareness of it.
But a new study suggests that people who practice meditation may extend the boundaries of how aware they are of their unconscious intentions. In other words, they might have a bigger flashlight.
As scientists are increasingly realizing, our conscious awareness is only the tip of the iceberg — a lot of brain processes for which we take credit are in fact happening under the hood of our awareness. Some of this was shown in classical experiments in the 1980s carried out by psychologist Benjamin Libet: In those experiments, people were instructed to press a button at their leisure and watch the clock as they did it, then report the exact timing of their decision to press the button. However, electrodes placed on their scalps picked up on brain activity in areas controlling physical movement starting to ramp up a couple of hundred milliseconds before the time participants reported as the time of making the decision to move.
This finding sparked a series of follow-up experiments and raised big questions. If the unconscious brain has already made the choice to move the finger, is our sense of agency only the story we tell ourselves after the fact? Do we have any say in the matter, or are we merely puppets?
There’s no clear-cut answer to that question. But in the debates that followed, many researchers have argued that those experiments didn’t really measure free will. Instead, they measured how much high-level awareness we have when it comes to small things happening in our minds, such as intending to move a humble finger.
Does high-level awareness ring a bell? Mindfulness meditation is supposed to increase exactly that — our awareness of internal processes, or “metacognition.” A meditator practices control over what to attend to (the breath, for example) and decides what other experiences are irrelevant and have to be let go (such as thoughts that pop up).
“Mindfulness meditation is thus intrinsically an exercise in the (metacognitive) control and monitoring of mental processes,” psychologist Peter Lush and his colleagues at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., wrote in their study, which was published on June 21 in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness.
Lush and his team decided to test experienced meditators using a version of Libet’s experiments (minus the brain electrodes). They recruited 11 long-term meditators with at least three years of meditation practice and 36 undergraduate students without significant meditation practice.
It turned out that experienced meditators seemed to be quicker in picking up on their intention to move the finger, reporting their intention to move about 150 milliseconds before the physical movement. Other participants reported their intention about 70 milliseconds before the movement.
“We interpret this as mediators having an earlier access to their unconscious states,” Lush told The Huffington Post. “An intention can be unconscious. It’s only when you have a thought about that unconscious intention that it becomes conscious. And people can vary in how much access they have to the unconscious events happening in their brain.”
The team also tested the degree to which the non-meditator participants were prone to hypnosis. While it’s not clear how exactly hypnosis works or even whether it’s a real phenomenon, researchers believe that it is possible for some people to enter a mental state in which they intentionally and voluntarily let go of their sense of agency.
There are standard tests to figure out the level of this ability in people. Generally, about 10 percent of the population is categorized as highly hypnotizable. Another 10 percent is categorized as very hard to hypnotize. Everybody else is somewhere in the middle.
The researchers found that those who could be easily hypnotized reported the timing of their intention to move later than those who were hard to hypnotize. In other words, people with high hypnotizability didn’t have early access to their unconscious intentions.
Lush emphasized that these results don’t mean that meditators have more “free will” or that hypnotizable people have less. Rather, the findings suggest “that highly hypnotizable people on the one hand, and meditators on the other, lie at two ends of a spectrum of metacognition.”
The study suggests that meditation can provide earlier access to our unconscious states, the researchers said. But to be certain that meditators didn’t start out with more aware brains in the first place, the team is conducting another study in which amateurs are trained in meditation, to see if that changes their performance.