“Symbols, images, and archetypes…are the key regulators and main ‘switches’ of human consciousness and of one’s inner life. It is through them that all alterations, focusing, and expansion of human consciousness take place, for they are the regulators, accumulators, and transformers of human consciousness. They enable a person to connect himself (and his field of consciousness) temporarily and to identify with something greater and larger than he is and, thus, slowly to transcend himself and actualize his latent energies, faculties, and potentialities.”
–Peter Roche de Coppens (American Writer and Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Psychotherapy at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania)
Most of us have been told something about the potential benefits of visualizing an outcome, and I know from working with many athletes, chess players, dancers and even surgeons, that most are very good at visualizing exactly what they want and where they are going to be.
There is some important confirmatory research from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College in London. A study led by Dr Eleanor Maguire has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It involved five participants with dense amnesia caused by damage to the hippocampus on both sides of the brain.
The researchers asked the participants – and a control group without amnesia – to imagine several future scenarios, such as visiting a beach, a museum and a castle, and then to describe what the experience would be like. They then analyzed the subjects’ comments sentence by sentence, scoring each statement based on whether it involved references to spatial relationships, emotions or specific objects.
All but one of the people with amnesia were worse at imagining future events than people with normal memory. Their visualizations of future events were more likely to be disorganized and lacking in emotion.
Here is a quotation from one of the subjects:"It’s not very real. It’s just not happening. My imagination isn’t…well, I’m not imagining it, let’s put it that way."
The hippocampus does not simply relive past experiences, it also supports our ability to imagine any kind of experience including possible future events.
This is yet more evidence against the idea that memory works like a kind of video camera, passively recording your life. It is a far more dynamic process that include your own beliefs, emotions and expectations.
“A rock-pile ceases to be a rock-pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (French Aviator and Writer, 1900-1944)
“All acts performed in the world begin in the imagination.”
–Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (Italian-America Journalist, Essayist and Author, 1934-2002)
“I visualize things in my mind before I have to do them. It’s like having a mental workshop.”
–Jack Youngblood (American Football Player and Member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1950-)
Following my post on Meditation and the Brain a perceptive reader just asked a great question:
“Has any of the research found any difference between hypnosis and meditation as it relates to brainwaves. And do people in a state of hypnosis demonstrate these high gamma waves?”
This is so interesting that I thought it was worth a short note of its own.
On the first occasion that I was hypnotized during my training, I remember thinking that the experience was very like the first stage of meditative practice: I was primarily using Vipassana back then. Subsequent subjective experiences have all tended to confirm that view: there are some similarities between trance and early meditative experiences.
There is a good amount of empirical research that tends to confirm that. John Gruzelier’s group at Imperial College in London has published some very fine work using not just electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements, but also functional MRI (fMRI). Gamma waves are between 30 to 100 Hertz, or cycles per second, and appear to reflect the way in which cells exchange information about the environment and form mental impressions. Gamma oscillations have a role in the subjective experience of pain. Not only has Gruzelier’s group shown some of the same gamma wave coherence, but also, research published in October of last year suggests that individual differences in hypnotic susceptibility are linked with the efficiency of the frontal lobe attention system. Hypnosis appears to involve a dissociation of the prefrontal cortex from other neural functions. Both the meditation and hypnosis studies have indicated that the key regions are primarily in the left frontal lobe.
The difference is that although people can demonstrate similar gamma wave activity when hypnotized, in the experienced meditators the gamma wave activity was there all the time, but would increase dramatically when meditating. How dramatic? Thirty fold higher activity than in a non-meditator. The trained brain is physically different from the untrained one.
Bob McCarley’s group at Harvard has done some interesting work in which healthy volunteers and people with schizophrenia were asked to look at images. The people suffering from schizophrenia showed no gamma wave activity at all.
Interestingly, there is also a very recent paper out in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs showing the same EEG gamma coherence in two experienced people using the Brazilian drug ayahuasca, which suggest further similarities between meditation and shamanic psychedelic practices.