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Marieke van Vugt

Meditation as a tool for training introspection?

Meditation as a tool for training introspection? http://heartofaleader.files.wordpress.com/
An important idea in the Mind and Life dialogues is that meditation is a way to train introspection. It is a different kind of science, in which we are our own laboratory. Francisco Varela used to call it the portable laboratory. Surprisingly, there has been little scientific investigation into whether meditators really get better at introspection. A recent paper changes this.

Kieran Fox and colleagues did a cross-sectional study in Vipassana meditators where they tried to assess how accurate their introspection was. Of course introspection is notoriously difficult to study because you cannot directly observe someone else's introspection like you can her/his brain. The trick they used was looking at introspection about your body, for which there also some objective measures. For example, different parts of your body are associated with specific areas in your brain. The larger the piece of cortex associated with a specific body part, the more sensitive people tend to be in that area. In addition, you can do experiments where you give little pricks to a body part and you ask the person whether they observed two or one prick. If you can give pricks to pieces of skin very close together and the person can still feel two different pricks, then they are very sensitive in that area.

As it happens, a meditation technique in the Vipassana tradition is the body scan, in which you pay close attention to different parts of your body. This obviously lends itself well to an introspective experiment! They recruited meditators with a wide range of experience: from 1 to 15000 hours. All participants did a body scan meditation, and then were asked about how well they could feel a certain body region. They then compared these sensitivity ratings to the objective sensitivity ratings based on brain area devoted to that body part, and prick-discriminations. They found that the meditators with more experience had subjective ratings that were quite well correlated with the objective sensitivity ratings, while for novices, there was no correlation at all. Although of course these data cannot support causal claims about whether meditation leads to better introspective accuracy, but at least it is suggestive. Another question that remains is whether this improvement in introspective accuracy generates to different types of introspection, e.g., introspection about your thoughts and emotions. And how do other types of meditators do? Nevertheless, it is an intriguing idea that meditation may provide you with a better-equipped portable laboratory. And this is a laboratory that is quite useful because if you can discriminate your thoughts and emotions better, you may also be better able to handle them.