Scientists have found evidence that people who practice mindful meditation are more aware of their unconscious brain activity, leading to a feeling of conscious control over their bodies.
The study, by researchers from the University of Sussex in the UK, questions previous experiments examining the nature of free will and how many of our decisions are made unconsciously.
To understand the new results, we first need to look at a previous experiment from back in 1983 by famed neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, who wanted to find out how much conscious control individuals had when making decisions.
According to Clare Wilson from New Scientist, this experiment involved a participant having the ability to push a button whenever they felt like it. As they were doing this, Libet monitored their brain activity and examined the time difference between when the decision was made in the brain and when the person consciously hit the button.
In the end, he found that people decided to push the button about 200 milliseconds before the physical push occurred, but the person’s unconscious brain makes the decision to press the button a full 150 milliseconds before that conscious decision, leading to him conclude that we might not have as much conscious control - or free will - over our bodies as we might think.
The new study basically did the same thing, but wanted to see if mediation affected these numbers in any substantial way.
In the experiment, the team gathered 57 participants - 11 individuals who practised mindful meditation regularly and 46 who didn’t - and calculated the same behavioural information that Libet did in the '80s.
After the experiment, which had participants push a button while watching a clock, the team found that those who meditated regularly had a bigger gap - 149 milliseconds - between when their decision was made and the actual press occurred compared to non-meditators, who came in at 68 milliseconds.
These findings suggest that those who meditate are more in tune with their unconscious brain, noticing the decision-making process earlier than those who do not meditate.
The team coupled this experiment with another that aimed to find out how easily those who didn’t meditate could be hypnotised. They then compared how those who are easily hypnotised faired in the same button-pushing experiment.
They found that those who easily fell into a hypnotic state were slower to acknowledge the decision of their unconscious mind, and pushed the button later than those who were more resistant to hypnosis. This suggests that those who are more susceptible to hypnosis might be less consciously aware of their intentions.
So what does this all mean? Well, the team’s findings suggest that those who meditate might have a better connection to the unconscious parts of their brains.
Without getting all philosophical, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of us are walking around being unknowingly dictated by our unconscious decisions. Instead, it seems to suggest that we simply do not pay much conscious attention to many parts of the decision-making process.
While the findings are definitely interesting, there are some important limitations to take into account. It was only conducted using only 57 volunteers - not a big enough pool to make any sort of sweeping conclusion.
Plus, the team didn’t examine any sort of brain activity like Libet did. Instead, they had participants record when they felt the decision and when the action actually occurred, leaving quite a bit of room for error.
But the study adds more weight to the apparent benefits of regular meditation. Back in February, researchers from the US found that those who meditate have reduced levels of Interleukin-6 - an inflammation biomarker - that, in high levels, is often associated with cancers.
The team’s findings were published in Neuroscience of Consciousness.