2017 EVA Recipients & Projects

Overview (click on the name to read the abstract)

Oussama Abdoun

Investigating the Deconstructive Effects of Open Presence Meditation on Neural Representations of Perceptual Objects and Bodily Signals Using Magnetoencephalography

INSERM UMR 1028 Lyon, France

Michelle Carr

Dream Work, Dream Yoga: A Comparative Neurophenomenological Study of Intentional Practices for Healing Nightmares

Swansea University, United Kingdom

Liudmila Gamaiunova

Effects of Two Different Meditation-Based Programs on the Dynamics of Stress Response

Institute of Social Sciences for Contemporary Religion (ISRRC), University of Lausanne, Switzerland

Annika Lübbert

Assessing the Subjective Experience of Engaged Interaction: How Asking Questions About Experience Influences Experience and Behavior in the Mirror Game, an Interactive Coordination Task

Department of Neurophysiology and Pathophysiology, University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf (Germany)

Patricia Milz

Do Personality Traits and Brain Electric Activity Predict How Meditation Affects Individuals’ Psychological and Physical Well-Being? – A Combined Electrophysiological and Mobile App-Based Experience Sampling Approach

The KEY Institute for Brain-Mind Research, Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, University Hospital of Psychiatry, Zurich, Switzerland

Willeke Rietdijk

A Micro-Phenomenological Exploration of Vipassana and Shamatha Meditators' Experiential Shifts into Deeper Meditation

University of Southampton, United Kingdom

Frank Schumann

Mindful Movement and Skilled Attention: Quantifying Changes in Spatial Awareness Induced by a Mindful Sensorimotor Intervention Based on the Feldenkrais Method

School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Oussama Abdoun - INSERM UMR 1028, Lyon, France

Investigating the deconstructive effects of Open Presence meditation on neural representations of perceptual objects and bodily signals using magnetoencephalography

In Buddhist psychology, the root of suffering and dissatisfaction is said to lie in erroneous conceptions of reality—the most fundamental mistake being our deeply ingrained tendency to reify oneself, as well as the objects of our perceptions and thoughts. As a remedy, Buddhist contemplative traditions offer practices that aim at uprooting this maladaptive mental habit by investigating the conditions and dynamics of emotional and cognitive processes.

The purpose of this project is to investigate how such self-inquiring meditations affect the practitioner’s brain internal models of the world and of her self as an experiencing subject. The study will derive hypotheses from the predictive coding framework and test them using brain imaging techniques and modeling approaches. It will also test the idea that subjectivity is grounded in the brain representation of visceral inputs coming from the body.

More specifically, the study will use magnetoencephalography—a brain imaging technique that combines excellent temporal resolution and good spatial resolution—and computational modeling to investigate in expert meditators how an Open Presence state may modulate 1) the formation of perceptual habits in the brain, 2) the flow of information across the cortical hierarchy, and 3) the neural representations of heartbeats and gastric motility.

Thanks to its interdisciplinary and novel approach, this project has the potential to open a new way of linking first-person and third-person approaches, from phenomenological reports to computational models of perception and action. We also hope that this study will contribute to illuminate the mechanisms behind the embodied nature of conscious experience.

Michelle Carr - Swansea University, United Kingdom

Dream Work, Dream Yoga: A comparative neurophenomenological study of intentional practices for healing nightmares

Nightmares (NM) can be defined as intensely negative dreams that awaken the dreamer and are associated with physiological stress and psychological distress after awakening. About 5% of the population experience frequent NM, occurring more than once per week. Current treatments focus on transforming the content of NM through cognitive behavioral therapy. However, a major obstacle in helping NM sufferers is that they do not seek treatment in psychotherapeutic settings (Nadorff et al., 2015).

In our recent theoretical paper (Carr & Nielsen, 2017) we lay out complementary approaches to working with NM. In particular, training in intentional dream practices may improve attitudes towards dreaming, increase resilience, and more generally be more accessible, and thus more effective, than traditional psychotherapeutic approaches to nightmare treatment.

The overall goal of the current study is to compare the effects of four types of intentional dream practice on primary outcome measures of NM frequency, distress, and content, and on secondary outcome measures of neurobehavioral response to an emotional and a social-emotional task.

The four techniques include: The Ullman Dream Appreciation method, a cognitive technique designed to uncover the waking life memory sources of dream content; Focusing-Oriented Dreamwork, an embodied approach that attends to the felt quality of imagery to generate insight; a novel Contemplative Dream Practice, which combines focused attention and open monitoring techniques to visualize a NM in a guided state of equanimous observation; and Compassion-Based Dream Yoga, a Tibetan Buddhist technique of generating loving-kindness towards fearful imagery from within a lucid dream state.

Liudmila Gamaiunova - Institute of Social Sciences for Contemporary Religion (ISRRC), University of Lausanne, Switzerland

Effects of two different meditation-based programs on the dynamics of stress response

Meditation-based interventions have been intensively studied in their relationship to stress, with rather solid evidence from the studies using self-report and less consistent finding from the research using biological markers. Open questions of the research on meditation-based interventions and stress lie in two dimensions: we know very little about what type of interventions are most effective for stress-related outcomes and what are the mechanisms behind this relationship.

This project has for its aim the comparison of the effects of two different interventions on the stress associated with social evaluation: a standard Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, and a modified program, which introduces elements of Buddhist philosophy. We propose to look at the effects of those programs on the distinct stages of stress response and associated mechanisms, such as cognitive appraisal, affective response (self-conscious emotions) and emotion regulation. Meditation-naive participants (N=90) will be randomized in a standard MBSR group and a modified program group that will include introduction of Buddhist philosophy in the form of talks and analytical exercises. After the completion of the 8-week interventions, the participants will undergo two sessions of assessments: Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and Emotion Regulation task. In addition, participants will give interviews allowing phenomenological assessment of their stress experience and will fill up a survey. The study aims to look complexly at the effects of different programs on the distinct stages of stress response. The results of the study will help to understand how different types of interventions affect the experience of stress associated with social evaluation, and can be helpful for designing targeted interventions for specific problems.

Annika Lübbert - Department of Neurophysiology and Pathophysiology, University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany

Assessing the Subjective Experience of Engaged Interaction: How Asking Questions about Experience Influences Experience and Behavior in the Mirror Game, an Interactive Coordination Task

Assessing subjective experiences of participants is of frequent interest in cognitive science: To make sure that participants are doing what they are supposed to be doing, to control for individual differences and variations over time, or to study other levels of organization, such as behavior, movement or neurophysiology, as a function of subjective experience.

The ways in which subjective experience is commonly assessed, however, fall short of the central role it plays in cognitive science. Questionnaires and closed Likert-scale, or yes/no type of questions are administered ‘blindly’, without further testing of whether participants actually understand and answer the questions as intended. Questions may further lead participants to perform and experience the experimental task differently from how they would, were they not asked about their subjective experience, in particular if the questions do not match their originally most relevant game-related experiences.

With this project, I respond to these concerns. Using a modified version of the mirror game, an interactive coordination task around leading, following and jointly improvising simple movement with another person, I rely on phenomenological interviews to, in a preparatory experiment, check whether participants actually make the kinds of subjective experience I want to study. In the main proposed experiment I then systematically vary the amount of closed Likert-scale questions I ask participants while they play the mirror game, to test whether behavior and subjective experience as assessed in phenomenological interviews changes as a function of the experimental group.

I expect (1) critical feedback about the experimental design, (2) lower engagement and less co-confident motion in pairs that had to answer more closed questions during the game, as well as (3) a different overall experience and understanding of the mirror game depending on whether or not participants were asked such questions at all.

Patricia Milz - The KEY Institute for Brain-Mind Research, Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, University Hospital of Psychiatry, Zurich, Switzerland

Do Personality Traits and Brain Electric Activity Predict How Meditation Affects Individuals’ Psychological and Physical Well-Being? – A Combined Electrophysiological and Mobile App-Based Experience Sampling Approach

Regular meditation practice has a wide range of beneficial effects including improvements in psychological and physical well-being. However, of the studies that have investigated these effects, only few were long-term prospective, and even fewer considered the heterogeneity in individuals’ response patterns to meditation practice. The proposed project is a one-year pilot study for a larger subsequent project that aims to identify such response patterns and the personality traits they rely on by continuously monitoring novice meditators over an 8-year period. This becomes possible through the integration of laboratory-, web-, and mobile-technology-based assessments of psychological and physiological measures, as well as characteristics of meditative practice.

For this pilot project, 200 volunteers who decided to start a regular meditation practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition will be recruited. Five personality traits that might predict the effect of meditation onset on well-being (motivation, volition, attention, emotion regulation, brain functional reactivity to meditation-like tasks) will be assessed with questionnaires (mobile-based), cognitive tests (web-based), and the microstate analysis applied to two electroencephalographic recordings (laboratory-based, subgroup). Subsequently, participants’ well-being and practice characteristics will be continuously monitored at pre-defined time intervals over a one-year period (mobile-based).

Participants will be grouped based on their well-being change curves. Mixed modeling will be applied to evaluate whether practice extent and quality affect response patterns and whether the latter mediate effects of potential predictors.

The proposed project aims to pioneer a new field of research by applying latest advances in technology to identify for whom meditation may work and why.

Willeke Rietdijk - University of Southampton, United Kingdom

A Micro-Phenomenological Exploration of Vipassana and Shamatha Meditators' Experiential Shifts into Deeper Meditation

In contemplative research, a strong emphasis exists on establishing the neurophysiological effects and neurological correlates of meditation, whereas little attention is paid to the lived experience of meditation during meditation itself. This study would be a follow-up of my PhD research into the micro-phenomenology of processes and mechanisms of mindfulness meditation, in which I obtained, from in-depth micro-phenomenological interviews with Vipassana meditators, rich detail on how participants' meditations unfolded experientially. I identified a key temporal aspect in the phenomenology of contemplation which warrants further investigation: a 'shift' into deeper meditation which is characterised by a feeling of grounding and release, and accompanied by the experience of spaciousness, connectedness, peacefulness, emptiness, presence, and of a less centred yet more authentic self. As this shift appeared to consist of common sub-phases in my previous participants, without the transitions between these becoming clear, the unfolding of each of these sub-phases warrants further exploration to fully capture their micro-dynamics, the transitions between the phases, and the meaning of the overall shift. Micro-phenomenology interviews will be conducted twice with 12 experienced Vipassana or Shamatha meditators directly after their usual meditation, divided into four groups to focus specifically on one sub-phase in each group. Further, four experts in relevant fields such as contemplation, sleep and other consciousness processes will be interviewed for an interdisciplinary exchange about the findings. The outcomes may contribute to our neurophenomenological understanding of contemplative processes and to the development of new language, typologies and categories in describing these. They are pertinent to mindfulness practitioners and instructors and may have theoretical and practical value for education and mental health.

Frank Schumann - School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Mindful Movement and Skilled Attention: Quantifying Changes in Spatial Awareness Induced by a Mindful Sensorimotor Intervention Based on the Feldenkrais Method

The Feldenkrais Method is a contemporary contemplative movement practice aimed at cultivating mental skills such as attention, self-control or mindfulness. The present proposal aims to investigate the commonly observed improvements of spatial awareness reported by Feldenkrais practitioners behaviorally and with neuroimaging methods. We quantify the extent of spatial awareness via the extension of the useful field of view (UFOV). The useable field of view is the sub-part of the physiologically available visual field that is used in everyday activities. It presents a good target for quantifying effects of a training intervention on spatial awareness because deficits in the useable field of view (‘tunnel vision’) appear to be driven by the central nervous system (and not pheripheral degradation of the eyes themselves). Exp 1 and 2 quantify an extension of the UFOV following Feldenkrais lessons instructed either fully verbally or fully non-verbally (manually), respectively. Exp 3 examines neural mechanisms underlying practice-induced extensions of the UFOV using neuroimaging (fMRI). The proposed research is significant because it investigates a core element of Feldenkrais and potentially other mindful movement practices: the close relation between movement and spatial awareness. It is impactful because it lays essential groundwork for future investigation of the relation between movement, spatial awareness and other mental function (i.e. emotion and cognition) predicted by Feldenkrais and others.