E18. Jay Sanguinetti – Technoboosting Mindfulness

Stitcher_Listen_Badge_Color_Light_BG

US_UK_Apple_Podcasts_Listen_Badge_RGB

In this episode I speak with Jay Sanguinetti, Research Assistant Professor and Director of the NICE Lab (Non-Invasive Cognitive Enhancement Lab) at the University of New Mexico, and Science Director of the SEMA Lab (Sonification Enhanced Mindful Awareness) Associate Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. 

Dr. Sanguinetti investigates the use of noninvasive brain stimulation to enhance cognition and well-being. We discuss Jay’s work investigating whether focused ultrasound can be used to augment meditation practice in the development of mindfulness. I found this conversation fascinating as it highlights how modern brain technologies could enhance wellbeing and also because the impact could be significant; while mindfulness is an effective intervention for pain, addiction, and mood disorders, many people don’t persist with mindfulness training long enough to experience the full benefits. 

Show Notes

1:13 – What is Jay working on?

4:10 – How does Jay think about enhancing mindfulness?

8:30 – How does Jay measure mindfulness?

13:10 – Do the changes in the foundational attentional constructs tend to be correlated? 

17:05 – How does Jay think about particular brain networks involved in mindfulness?

21:43 – Do the targets of brain stimulation change depending on the experience of the practitioner? 

24:00 – What is the experience of brain stimulation while meditating like?

26:00 – How does the stimulation enhance people’s ongoing mindfulness practice?

29:05 – What is the meditation-stimulation protocol?

33:00 – What is the experience like for experienced meditators?

39:30 – How are they progressing with bringing the technology out of the lab and into the world?

43:30 – Is the close collaboration with a meditation teacher typical of contemplative neuroscience labs? And what has the experience been like?

46:00 – Jay’s advice for student pursuing similar interest to his.

Episode References

Jay’s collaborator, meditation teacher Shinzen Young’s website and YouTube channel.

Shinzen’s meditation system, Unified Mindfulness, and meditation app, Brightmind, which exemplify the style of meditation practice that participants in Jay’s research undergo.

Meditation researcher, Richard Davidson.  

Meditation and habit researcher, Jud Brewer.

 

1:13 – What is Jay working on?

At the SEMA lab, Jay is working on understanding mindfulness, how mindfulness influences the brain, how to measure the impacts of mindfulness on the brain, and how the practice of mindfulness can be accelerated. 

At the NICE lab, Jay is looking to use technology to enhance learning and attention. 

4:10 – How does Jay think about enhancing mindfulness?

Firstly, defining mindfulness is not straightforward. For the purposes of the lab, Jay defines mindfulness as a state supported by three attentional constructs: concentration (focusing and sustaining one’s attention on stimuli), sensory clarity (tracking moving stimuli) equanimity (being balanced and not prone to being highly reactive). The idea is that these three attentional constructs work together to enable a present centred form of awareness known as mindfulness. 

And once these three constructs are measured, and the brain processes that underpin these constructs are identified, brain stimulation is used to enhance each.

8:30 – How does Jay measure mindfulness?

Jay uses a mix of self-report, behavioural tasks and neuroimaging to measure each of the attentional constructs that he considers foundational to mindful awareness. 

13:10 – Do the changes in the foundational attentional constructs tend to be correlated? 

You can be really good in one or two of the attentional constructs, but you seem to need all three for mindfulness. Equanimity might be the most important of the attentional constructs for mindfulness. Equanimity can be thought of as the stickiness of your mind. High equanimity is when information can just come and go, flowing effortless through your brain without triggering a strong emotional reaction. Low equanimity is when information is ruminated on, causing the brain to get kind of stuck, and triggering strong emotional (or numbing) reactions. 

17:05 – How does Jay think about particular brain networks involved in mindfulness?

When you’re beginning to learn to meditate, the attention centres in the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) become more active. This probably reflects the practice of noticing when your attention wanders off it’s anchor (commonly the breath). 

But after a sustained period of practice (months in duration) the noticing process becomes implicit. The monitoring of where your attention is becomes somewhat automatic and the practice becomes about being kind to yourself when you realise that you have failed at the task (and your mind has wandered). That is, the networks that underlie emotion (and the sense of self) are increasingly effected.

21:43 – Do the targets of brain stimulation change depending on the experience of the practitioner? 

Yes. You wouldn’t want to induce a profoundly different experience for someone (such as ego-dissolution) if they aren’t going to have the ability to navigate it well. 

Jay started with three main targets in experienced meditators: the basal ganglia (key to habit formation), the default mode network (key to narratives about the self) and the anterior cingulate. 

24:00 – What is the experience of brain stimulation while meditating like?

Jay’s current protocol aims to disrupt the functioning of the default mode network. People report that the mental commentary and elaboration while meditating is greatly reduced. People often ask when they can come back again!

26:00 – How does the stimulation enhance people’s ongoing mindfulness practice?

By inhibiting the default mode network, the stimulation reduces the mental commentary and elaboration that get in the way of mindfulness, allowing people to have more successful initial attempts at meditation. This initial success is probably important in many ways.

29:05 – What is the meditation-stimulation protocol?

The current protocol is a 2 program in which everyone starts with the same kind of meditation practice, inspired by Shinzen Young’s teachings. Over the course of the 2 months, people receive 4-6 stimulation session. In each stimulation session, people being meditating and then the ultrasound stimulation begins while people are already practicing. Half people get real stimulation and half get placebo stimulation. For the rest of the 2 months, people are practicing meditation without any stimulation. 

33:00 – What is the experience like for experienced meditators?

When experienced meditators meditate, they show reduced activity in the default mode network that underlies self-referential cognition. When this is further inhibited by stimulation, people sometimes report having experiences that are similar to the experiences of ego-dissolution commonly reported in psychedelic studies. However, doing this reliably, or being able to induce such experiences in novices is likely difficult and not the focus of current studies. 

39:30 – How are they progressing with bringing the technology out of the lab and into the world?

Funding has slowed translation efforts, and most of the pilots Jay has run to day have had ~15 participants. Jay had recently secured significant funding to build a clinical to treat chronic pain and opioid addiction and run 40-60 person studies. However, this all fell through due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, they are doing work stimulating while people are in an fMRI scanner. 

43:30 – Is the close collaboration with a meditation teacher typical of contemplative neuroscience labs? And what has the experience been like?

There are pros and cons to the collaboration. A positive is that there is a lot of nuance and debate around mindfulness that you may miss if you don’t collaborate with a meditation scholar and/or teacher. On the other hand, there is the risk that you may be biased by the relationship with the teacher. Balancing these pros and cons is key. One way which Jay tries to do this is to consult with multiple meditation teachers. 

46:00 – Jay’s advice for student pursuing similar interest to his.

Firstly, try to figure out how to keep your curiousity alive. Formal education can often kill people’s curiousity. Work out what question is really driving you. At the same time, develop your analytical logic and math. If you are interested in studying mindfulness, Jay thinks that you should have a practice yourself as the object of study has fundamentally to do with changing your experience. Then learn cutting edge methods that will allow you to understand the phenomena on many different scales. 

 

E3. Bernado Kastrup – Consciousness and reality

Stitcher_Listen_Badge_Color_Light_BG
US_UK_Apple_Podcasts_Listen_Badge_RGB

My guest today is Dr. Bernardo Kastrup, a philosopher of consciousness with a background in computer engineering.

Bernardo has written 7 books, numerous academic papers and many popular articles, including a slew of the most read articles on Scientific American. Bernardo makes a case for a universe in consciousness claiming that it both explains more and is more parsimonious (which means its simpler, a quality preferred by the scientific method, all else equal). In making these claims, Bernardo draws on neuroscience, quantum physics, psychology and philosophy – which made for a fascinating conversation that was both as deep as possible, yet directly relevant to us as mental health professionals and meaning making humans.

Episode References

To learn more about Bernardo’s work, please visit www.bernardokastrup.com

Bernardo’s books

For a short, easy-to-digest summary of the main points of Bernardo’s philosophy, see his articles on Scientific American

See 1:40-3:50 of this video for another take on the flying speaker metaphor and more on the failings of the emergentist explanation

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Synchronicty and parapsychological phenomena

Study examing the link between brain damage and mystical/spiritual experiences in Vietnam Veterans

Study examining the link between brain damage and feelings of self-trancendence

Near-death experiences

Land-mark study finding that phenomenologically rich psychedelic states are associated with reduced brain activity. Also an exchange between Bernardo and other researchers on the findings and their interpretation (in chronological order); Article, reply, rejoinder, discosure and commentary, further response

Study on Brazilian mediums and the complexity of writings under trance states

Bernardo’s upcoming book, The Idea of the World, is now available for pre-order