The mental processing behind meditation

Here’s a summary of an interesting article written by researchers based in Wisconsin that has classified meditation types into three broad categories based on their underlying brain processes.

1. Attentional
2. Constructive
3. Deconstructive

Attentional meditation
This includes both focused attention and open monitoring styles of meditation. Attention can be both narrow in scope (e.g., the breath) or attentional control can be released and awareness placed on non-judgmentally noticing thoughts and feelings (e.g., opening monitoring).

Cognitively, attentional meditation is underpinned by meta-awareness- the cognitive state of being aware of the state of consciousness.

Without meta-awareness we become “experientially fused” with what we experience. When this happens we are aware of the objects of our attention but we are unaware of the processes that result in their perception. 

Other terms for experientially fused include ‘cognitive fusion’ and ‘object mode’. The act of becoming aware of thoughts and feelings has also been termed 'cognitive distancing', 'cognitive diffusion', and 'decentering'.

A classic situation where a person fluctuates between moments of meta-awareness and experientially fused is when watching a movie. An individual can become so engrossed in a movie that can become largely unaware of the environment around them, instead they’re experientially fused with the story. However, they can also experience moments of meta-awareness where they attend to the fact they are actually watching a TV or movie screen.

Overall, meta-awareness is the ability to “take a step back” and observe the mental processes that govern thoughts and feelings.

Constructive meditation
Examples of meditation types that fall within this category include meditation on loving-kindness and compassion and contemplating ones own mortality (found in Buddhist as well as Platonic philosophy).

Some constructive meditation types cultivate feelings of patience and equanimity- and nurture pro-social interpersonal relationships (e.g., loving-kindness). Others aim to restructure priorities and values and ultimately reorientate the mind towards what is important in life (e.g., contemplating ones own mortality).

The two meditation types above illustrate the broadness of this category. However, overall meditation types within this category foster an increased state of wellbeing by targeting maladaptive thoughts concerning the self and others and replacing them with those that are more adaptive.

Constructive meditation differs from attentional meditation in that it not only involves monitoring thought patterns and emotions but also involves systematically changing the content of thoughts in a positive manner.

Cognitive processes central to these broad types of meditation are 1) cognitive reappraisal and 2) perspective taking.

Cognitive reappraisal involves changing how we think about situations and events so that ultimately our responses to them are altered. Reappraisal is important for regulating emotion and recruits brain areas involved in cognitive control. In this way we can learn to become aware and then regulate maladaptive thought patterns replacing these with feelings and thoughts that are substantially more positive.

Perspective taking requires an individual to consider how they or another person would feel in a particular situation.

One common aspect of constructive meditation is the ability to transform empathy into compassion, where an individual cultivates thought patterns orientated away from themselves and more towards others.

In psychology, empathy is defined as the ability to understand and resonate with others emotional state, while compassion is defined as concern for the wellbeing of another with a motivation to help.

Without compassion empathy can lead to negative emotions. For example, those with a high level of empathy show increased corticosteroid response when they perceive stress in another individual. They themselves can become engulfed in that emotion. So through the use of both meta-awareness and a sense of compassion an individual can appraise the situation “step back” and become motivated to help.

Deconstructive meditation

This subgroup of meditation styles aims to decrease maladaptive cognitive thought patterns by exploring the dynamics of perception, emotion and thoughts. The aim is to generate insight into ones internal model of the self, others, and the world. Meditation styles that fall within this category include mindfulness styles and Vipassana.

The central cognitive mechanism in this form of meditation is ‘self-inquiry’, which the authors define as the process of investigating the dynamics and nature of conscious experience.

Essentially an individual cultivates a sense of contemplation and discursive analysis of self-related processes. They then learn to identify assumptions that underlie an experience in an abstract manner without trying to control the thoughts or feelings; they can then question the logical consistency of these assumptions.

For example, if an individual is anxious, they may aim to identify the fearful assumptions that underlie the emotion and then inquire into the rational basis for their beliefs.

Another approach involves an individual directly examining their experience by dissecting the feelings of anxiety into its components (thoughts feelings and physical sensations) and notice how these are consistently changing.

This sort of analysis can also be applied to the dynamic nature of perception, thoughts and emotions, nature of awareness, or the concept of the self.

The overall goal of this deconstructive meditation styles is to elicit insight- a sudden shift in consciousness that involves awareness and understanding of a concept that previously eluded ones grasp. It’s when we have these moments of insight that maladaptive thoughts lose their strength.

With practice these moments of insight can extend beyond the meditation practice. Within Buddhist practices fleeting moments of insight become systematically solidified and integrated into ones life. However, this also requires a meta-awareness.

For example, when a person is angry often their sense of self becomes infused with the anger. The arising anger isn’t seen clearly but instead becomes the lens through which the experience is observed. With a meta- awareness based appraisal of the anger one can then begin the process of self enquiry; deconstructing the associated thoughts and feelings into its various components leading to an examination of how this relates to an individuals sense of self and then questioning the validity of these beliefs.

Overall these classifications of meditation types based on cognitive processes highlights the diversity by which different meditation styles can foster increased wellbeing. The authors conclude by stating that these classifications could help researchers investigate how meditation practice can lead humans to flourish.

Personally I would enjoy seeing a shift in scientific research towards examining not only how we can cure mental disorders but also prevent and, furthermore, increase wellbeing beyond the norm.

Dah, C. J., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practice. Trends in Cognitive Neurosciences, In Press.