Catherine Kerr, PhD, renowned expert on neuroscience and meditation, presents her research findings on why mindfulness meditation begins by focusing on the breath, and how mindfulness-based somatic awareness (cultivated through attention to breath, body sensations) changes the brain.
Mindfulness is a secular form of meditation that is being portrayed in health care settings all over the world, including Brown (University). It’s really effective at high risk of depression relapse, people who have been previously depressed. It’s really helpful for people with multiple sclerosis, and it reduces the tendency to worry or self-criticize.
Do you know what mindfulness involves? Most of the published studies have used a standardized format and it’s designed by someone named Jon Kabat-Zinn, and practices are labeled like sitting meditation, walking meditation, etc.
Mindfulness Starts With the Body
I want to give you the secret key to mindfulness that goes beyond these descriptive labels. Here’s what people who are enrolled in a standardized mindfulness course actually do: they learn to direct their attention to the body and the breath. And that’s why mindfulness starts with the body.
So here are the instructions from the first exercise of the first class. It’s a 45-minute long exercise, and it focuses on detail in every part of the body. And it starts with the toes. So everybody take a second, check in with yourself, notice your breath, and see if you can direct your attention to your left foot, so that you’re experiencing the big toe in the left foot, and if you can, the little toe, not moving them, but just feeling them individually and perhaps the toes in between. You notice in the simple act of focusing, the room became quiet.
Here we see a key to mindfulness. Mindfulness, especially in beginners, involves a very close focus on physical sensations in different parts of the body, and also sensations to the breath. It asks you to notice the quality of the sensation. For instance, is it cool or is it warm.
How Focusing on the Body Reduces Negative Thoughts
So here’s the question. Remember that mindfulness is protective against depression. It reduces negative thoughts. How does a practice that begins with paying close attention to the toes, how does that reduce negative thoughts? That’s the question. That’s the mystery.
I arrive at this question in an unusual way. I had a health crisis a long time ago and I became interested in body-based mind-body therapies like tai chi and yoga. I found them really helpful. I was originally trained as a historian but I received a NIH career award fellowship to retrain as a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. There I developed a research focused on the mind’s attention to the sense of touch and healing. Not just in mindfulness but in tai chi and even in placebo effect.
When I began my research, I viewed mindfulness as a body-focused mind-body therapy. But it turns out most mindfulness researchers are psychologists. They look at it as a mind-focused mind-body therapy. So I’m going to talk to you about “which is it?” at the end of this talk. I’ve been working here at Brown and collaborating with humanists and philosophers as well as neuroscientists and that’s given me a deeper perspective I will share with you at the end.
So let’s consider the question how might body-focused attention in mindfulness produce specific benefits for the mind. It turns out when you pay close attention to your toes, or to your breath, you are actually learning how to use your attention to control the sensory volume knobs in your brain. You can control how loud the sensation is, or you can turn the volume up or turn the volume down. This is something that all of us do all the time, and if you’re focusing on your toes or your breath, this will be processed in the brain’s primary somatosensory cortex. This is where the surface of the entire body, including the hand, the toes, the lips, all are represented there.
How does the volume knob system that I told you about work? It actually involves a structure that sits underneath the cortex, called the thalamus, and the thalamus is the gatekeeper for the cortex. Basically there’s a loop that connects the thalamus and the cortex, creates an oscillating rhythm that pulses ten times per second, and this pulsing rhythm is called the alpha rhythm. It’s basically an online editor, and what it’s doing is editing sensations that are irrelevant. So when you focus on a specific body area, this alpha wave gets small–think of Walden pond on a Sunday afternoon. When that happens, the sensation is amplified. In areas that you’re not focused on–think Cape Cod on a choppy day–the sensation is blocked.
So it turns out you can use your mind to regulate the height of the alpha wave in a really fine-grained way. You can use your mind to regulate this editing mechanism. If you weren’t able to do this you would be flooded with sensations, with extra sensory inputs.
Take, for example, right now you hear my voice. But your thalamus is also registering the sensations in your buttocks. You can focus on what I’m saying because the alpha rhythm is being used to turn up the volume on my voice and to turn down the volume on the sensory stream representing your buttocks.
So what happens when people do mindfulness and they focus on the toes, they focus on the breath? We looked at this question and we recruited a bunch of people, split them into two groups. We trained half the group in mindfulness, and then we measured really precisely with a special instrument for recording the brain’s magnetic fields called magnetoencephalography. What we found was that people who received the mindfulness training, who received the traininig focusing on the body, were better able at controlling the alpha rhythm in the hand map in the primary somatosensory cortex when we cue them to attend either towards or away from the hand. In other words, they were able to flexibly increase or decrease the alpha rhythm as needed.
So after training, meditators were able to change their alpha power in the small region in the hand map. They were able to switch quickly and flexibly from the “Cape Cod” waves to the “Walden Pond” waves depending on the needs of the moment.
We know that people with chronic pain and depression and people with stress have a lot of trouble making these kinds of switches–switching sensory streams, switching tasks, switching brain dynamics.
The next test of this embodied mindfulness approach will be to see whether mindfulness helps people with depression or chronic pain by making the sensory attentional system more flexible and responsive to rapid changes in context. We know that in chronic pain the attentional system can be very inflexible because processing resources are biased towards the pain sensations. And in depression, even in people recovered from depression, the sensory attentional system can be inflexible because attentional resources are consumed by negative preoccupations and thoughts and worries.
The main thing is that in depression, chronic pain and other situations, people are not able to process the sensory world in real time. This ability to respond to immediate context is so important for well-being. It’s something that we use all the time. When it matters in social situations, in situations involving complex memory tasks, the loss of this ability to switch streams and switch tasks can make people feel isolated and alone.
So we know from our study that this simple body-focused mindfulness practice can help improve flexibility in the brain’s sensory attentional system, and according to our theory this sensory attentional flexibility, the ability to flexibly vary the alpha rhythm should enhance emotional and cognitive processing. That’s going to be our next test, and we’re hoping to see whether this metric is associated with reductions in depression and reductions in negative thoughts, and reduce distressing chronic pain.
First Foundation of Mindfulness
Now interestingly it turns out that the early Buddhists advanced a similar theory 2500 years ago in a famous practice text called “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” Guess what the first foundation of mindfulness is: mindfulness of the body and breath. Mindfulness of the body and breath is the first step, the critical first step to learning how to regulate emotions and learning how to regulate repetitive and negative thoughts.
This type of view is radically different from descriptions of how sensation and thought are related in the Western tradition, for example, with Descartes, where body sensations and sensations were generally viewed as totally discontinuous with thoughts; whereas in early Buddhism aspects of sensation were viewed as continuous with aspects of cognition. What I’m saying is that the sensory world and the thought world are related.
The reason I mention this, and I think it’s important, the only reason I’ve had access to this text is because of the prior work of Buddhist scholars. This is important because here at Brown we’re taking an interedisciplinary approach that we’re developing in the contemplative studies initiative where we have meditation neuroscientists working side by side with textual scholars. And the reason this is important is there may be other ideas that could improve human health that are deeply buried in these texts. So we need the humanists and scientists to work together to see, to explore, to contest these questions.
So let’s just engage and focus on our breath for a second, checking in, and focusing on the sensations in the belly or the tip of the nose, noticing the quality of the sensation that you feel. Many people actually feel something quite tangible when they do this exercise. Ask yourself if you felt something, did you feel your attention.
The reason this is interesting is because the beautiful thing about attending to the body is that when we do this we are both the observer and the observed. And it may be that in mindfulness what you’re learning is how to feel your mind and attention. You feel the quality of your mental focus–does it jump around or is it steady. From the philosophical perspective you might say that this mindful curiosity about body sensations is neither mind nor body, but is actually right at the mind-body interface.
So the clinical psychologists and I were both right. That’s the answer to that question. Now if you look at it from an engineering perspective, you may be learning how to feel your own cortical dynamics, which is an interesting idea. These are the questions that an embodied mindfulness approach allows us to ask. It allows you to check in with your sensory experience at a different level.
I want you to think about how different this view of sensation is, as an object of curiosity, so your sensations are something you’re curious about. This is so different from the usual approach in mainstream culture where we’re flooded with sensation from televisions and the internet. You know that sensationalism is not a recent thing. Byron, the Romantic poet, talked about this thirst for sensation, and the craving void, the drive to agitate or distract ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can develop a different level of consciousness about our sensory environment, the sights and sounds and body sensations that we’re taking in. So this embodied mindfulness practice is available to us in any moment during the day. The simple act of closely attending to body sensations, on the bottom of your feet as you walk, has the potential to give huge benefits for well-being.
This might be good not only for patients but also for physicians who work in challenging, chaotic environments, as well as medical students who can become cognitively fatigued from taking in so much information. And we’re starting a mindfulness wellness program here to begin to look at some of these questions.
So I’ve given you a key for exploring how simple embodied mindfulness may be able to reset cognitive and emotional baselines, and help not just patients but those who are called to serve them. These are just some of the potential benefits that mindfulness practice that starts with the body might offer for help.
About Catherine Kerr
Catherine Kerr received a B.A. from Amherst College, and a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. Before arriving at Brown, she was at Harvard Medical School where her original focus was on developing innovative approaches for investigating placebo effects. In 2006, she received a K01 award from the NIH to investigate attention, somatosensory cortical dynamics and mindfulness, resulting in numerous publications including a report (Kerr, Jones, et al 2011) on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the ability to use attention to regulate a localized measure of cortical responsiveness (alpha rhythms recorded in primary somatosensory cortex). In 2011, she joined the Department of Family Medicine and the Contemplative Studies Initiative (for which she is Director of Translational Neuroscience) at Brown University. Her work has been published in Journal of Neuroscience, BMJ, Brain Research Bulletin and other journals, and has been covered in the New York Times, Technology Review and Forbes.
Check out our other videos on the benefits of meditation practice.