Posts Tagged ‘Neurology of Art’

Visual meditation is great for brain/mind training!

December 14, 2008

Welcome back to the discussion on visual meditation and mandalas!

Within major wisdom traditions of meditation, be they spiritual, religious or scientific brain and health training programs, there is typically the path of education or entrainment. Meditation or mental practice, after all, is not the default mode of a mature human central nervous system that is wired for turbo”different detecting” in space/time! Remember, difference detecting is that old survival mechanism that helps all mammals determine: Will that eat me or will I eat that? Is it safe to sleep here or is it not? And now in our modern jungle version where we communicate and travel at the speed of light, our human brains and central nervous systems race faster and faster to keep up with the deluge of information, images, and experiences we encounter day after day!

It makes sense that in response to or retreat from cultures drunk on speed, we would turn to “best practices” of earlier times, namely the ancient art and science of meditation, to help us slow down, to assist us in creating equilibrium in our bodies and in our lives. The good news is that at the dawn of the 21st century, meditation traditions practiced around the globe are finding their way into translation in order to prevent suffering and benefit all humankind. A grand project indeed!

So how does visual meditation figure into all of the hoopla about meditation as being great for creating inner peace. lowering stress and brain training?

Drawing upon both Buddhist and Hatha Yogic traditions, we find two key lessons to enable the learner: Turning Inward and Consciousness of Abstracting.

Turning inward allows us to find the most important radar signaling systems of the human body: Breathing and Paying Attention, both made possible by a “conscious” brain. [I’m using the term “conscious” in the here and now, scientific sense of brain activation.]

Paying attention enables us to “consciously abstract” or selectively focus upon a sign, an feeling, a sensation, a process of movement out of all that we might experience at any given moment.

Now, suggesting that someone turn inward seems to be completely counter intuitive to surviving in a culture that demands external focus for reading signs for survival! In gung ho American culture, think of the mockery we make of the quiet, reflective types — the teen who hides in in fantasy novels, the poet who sits and reflects on life, the college student who prefers to study Art, Sufi Dancing or Zen practice rather than ice hockey!

The irony of course is that in today’s sports training, “turning in” is one of the key training tools of Olympic training practice! (Think of Michael Phelp’s incredible ability to turn inward and “focus.”!!!). So turning inward, drawing one’s attention away from the noise of the outside world and turning it toward the space of one’s own inner life is a key step of Hatha Yoga, Zen, T.M. and Vipassana or Mindfulness traditions.

You might be saying at this point, “O.K., turn inward. And consciousness of what? How exactly do I use a visual image placed outside my own body?

Good question: Here’s the neuro-scoop and poop on using visual mandalas: (more…)

Meditation, Mandalas and the Brain

December 9, 2008

Greetings readers, a follow up on questions concerning choosing a visual meditation practice:

First a few words about the practice itself:

With respect to stress reduction and the desire to create a sense of inner well being, visual meditations may be ideal for

a) Those who find deep appreciation and calm in viewing visual art; and

b) Those who find the visual complexity of a mandala, the perfect sensory road to travel on in the quest for time/space centering of one’s “self.”

Put in everyday (well sorta) terms, visual meditations call on rehearsed neural circuits that enable the human brain to “pattern recognize” in ways that stretch beyond ordinary looking and seeing. Pattern recognition, after all, is basic to the acts of looking and seeing.   As the great anthropologist and cognitive theorist Gregory Bateson pointed out, “pattern recognition” is that which binds mind to life. Or as AI theorist Ray Kurzweil maintains, pattern recognition constitutes the first sign of biological intelligence (something that can be shared with non-biological intelligence, presuming we program the “thing,”).  Following this line of thinking, rehearsed pattern recognition creates the neurochemical connections necessary for the production of  new “brain maps” —  neural networks that correlate with learning and memory retention.

Practice, in other words, creates greater synaptic connections in our brains that form and correlate with sense perceptions, images, ideas, feelings and intuitions. With respect to using visual meditation as a way to reduce stress, some evidence suggests the less complex visual image, the easier it is to perceive and focus attention upon.  Let’s take. for instance, the act of attending to a single image like this week’s Hubble Telescope shot of a globular cluster of stars in the Northern Sky!

hubble

Northern Sky, Globular Cluster M13 captured by the Hubble Telescope

If you’re prone to nature mysticism (C.F. William James), then you might first sense the awesome beauty of the cosmic start system. If you’re given to the metaphysics of geometry, you might pause on the elegance symbology of a cosmic circle. But if you’re interested in using the image of a cosmic star system to train your attention toward calmness and stability, then I suggest bringing along with visual attention, your sensory awareness of ordinary breathing. As one learns from the ancient Buddhist practice of mandala gazing, its the repeated experiential pairing of “looking” and “breathing” that helps one move from image perception and analysis to image experience. Meditative looking, to put it neatly, is embodied.

Today, neuroscientists reporting on perception and cognition, tell us that visual meditation experiences, like all other visual experiences, are synthesized in the visual cortex, related to other areas of the brain, e.g. the somasensory cortex. By adding breathing to the mix, visuality is further grounded in the body of experience.

Or to put it another way,

Bringing the art of breathing to the art of meditative visual image gazing transforms the neuroscience, if you will, of the visual experience.

What then do we make of the complex patterns one finds in Buddhist mandalas or Islamic mosque imagery, such as we find anew on Phil George’s sublime surfboards?

To be continued in my next blog….

Synaptically yours,

Dr. G.