Benefits for the Brain
“Studies of well-being have found that the best predictor of health and happiness is having an integrated brain, what the researchers call an “interconnected connectome.” This means that having the differentiated areas of the brain linked to each other, a process that enables coordination and balance of the brain as a whole, is likely the mechanism enabling regulation to be optimized – how he regulate attention, emotion, thought, behavior, and our relationships. In meditation studies, too, increases in well-being are associated with the growth of integrative regions of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, corpus callosum, hippocampus, and the connectome.” – Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatry professor at UCLA, in his book, “Aware”
Disruption of Our Inner Dialogue and Enhanced Neural Integration
Dan Siegel advocates for Presence because of its ability to enhance neural integration, which is, according to him in his book, “Aware,” one of the best predictors of health and happiness. Initially a medical graduate of Harvard, Siegel went on to study “family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative.” This work led him to be a pioneer in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, an interdisciplinary field that explores neural patterns in the brain with social correlates. According to his research in this field, Neural integration is the functioning of neurons together in groups that contribute to larger neural functions. Siegel theorizes how when our brain is not integrated, we cannot shift smoothly between states of rigidity and chaos. When the brain is integrated (various regions are communicating more often with many others, versus fewer pathways of communication), there is harmony of the mind. Siegel believes it fluidly connects these states and leads to a greater sense of well-being.
As we get older and gain more life experience, our brains become hard wired toward habits and thought patterns we have practiced over and over. When we practice Presence, we disrupt these hard-wired networks (such as the Default Mode Network) and introduce new connections. Siegel states that it leads to “stronger and more refined filters of consciousness” and enables further learning and growth.
Current research in psychedelics has shed light on structural changes in the brain that may inform us of the neurological correlates of Presence. Psychedelics have been shown to disrupt the DMN in similar ways and provide a neural “reset” for the brain to make new connections. As normal activity in the DMN is associated with self rumination, depression, and anxiety, it follows that disruption of it (whether in relation to meditation practices or chemically-induced brain alteration such as the ingestion of psychedelics) can be associated with meditators’ and psychedelic experiential reports of feelings of wholeness and a lack of self. These are similar to subjective reports of Presence. New research into psychedelics is indicating that accessing different states of consciousness (such as Presence) disrupt the rigid and chaotic neural patterns that Siegel referred to, and thus lead to integration and healing. (Carhart-Harris 2012, Carhart-Harris 2014, Ekman 2019, Milliere 2018, Carhart-Harris 2017)
When the DMN is interrupted and subsequently integrated more thoroughly with the rest of the brain, the sense of being a secluded self is loosened. The self is not lost per se, rather it expands to a sense of belonging to a larger whole, including deep meaning and connection to the world.
Meditation and Mindfulness-Related Benefits for the Brain
While meditation and mindfulness are not the same thing as Presence, many of the benefits gleaned from attaining various states of Presence through mindfulness meditation techniques apply.
Increase in Grey Matter in Brain Regions Associated with Psychological Well-being
Grey Matter is a part of the brain that contains the most neuronal cell bodies. According to Wikipedia, it plays a role in “muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.” Several studies have linked meditation and mindfulness practices to an increase in Grey Matter. (Holzel 2010, Singleton 2014)
Increased Emotional Regulation, Stress Reduction, and Resiliency to Pain
In a study by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson on meditation in monks, monks in deep states of Presence showed increased activity in areas associated with positive feelings and anxiety reduction. When these brain areas are more active, they are correlated with faster recovery after experiencing negative feelings and an increase in long-term equanimity. (Remmers 2016) Furthermore, studies have indicated that practicing Presence increases subjective resilience to pain. (Perlman 2010)
Increased Focusing Ability
Training ones’ attention through meditation has been shown to increase a person’s ability to focus on tasks in their lives beyond their practice. (Zeidan 2010, Moore 2009, Zanesco 2018)
Brain Waves Shift from Beta to Alpha or even Gamma
Especially relevant to higher states of Presence achieved by expert meditators, it has been demonstrated that brain waves are affected by cultivating Presence. (Lutz 2004) With this comes the benefits of Alpha and Gamma brain waves. Alpha waves have been used in biofeedback to treat anxiety and depression, as they are linked to states of focus, relaxation, and reflection. Gamma is related to increased cognitive functioning and information processing. (Malik 2017)
equanimity[ ee-kwuh-nim-i-tee, ek-wuh- ]
Benefits for the Body
Beyond brain functioning, states of Presence not only offer the same physiological benefits that Mindfulness practices do, but more beyond them.
- Stress hormones such as cortisol reduce and calm the nervous system (Jacobs 2013, Blase 2019)
- Heart rate and blood pressure drop (Tomfohr 2015)
- Decreases inflammation and may contribute to disease prevention (Creswell 2016, Merkes 2010)
- Breathing and Heart Rate slow (Delizonna 2009)
- Improved immunity and cellular aging through telomerase strengthening (Davidson 2003, Jacobs 2011)
“Unconsciousness creates [pain]. Consciousness transmutes it.” – Eckhart Tolle
Benefits for Subjective Well-Being
“Eudamonia: a deep sense of wellbeing, equanimity, and happiness that comes from experiencing life as having meaning and connection to others and the world around you.” – Dr. Dan Siegel
Presence gives us greater access to meaning through consciously connecting with our experience of being alive. The following meaningful experiences are enabled by and savored through Presence.
- Resilience: By mitigating repression and avoidance, Presence teaches us how to be with discomfort and increases our tolerance for intense feelings.
- Vigor: A sense of vitality and richness is experienced by feeling our aliveness deeply
- Empathy: Through sensing our connections
- Wonder and Awe
- Secure Attachment: Evidence shows a connection between secure attachment and mindful awareness.
- Sense of Safety: In the present moment, nothing is ‘wrong,’ as it is an experience outside of interpretation and judgment. Through being acutely aware of consciousness, practitioners report a sense of security and safety in knowing that nothing can truly be threatened.
- Agency: Through Presence we can come to know our choices and responsibility. This empowers us to have agency in our lives.
Ultimately, Presence gives us the power to savor our lives. It becomes a means of showing up for our experience instead of bypassing the moments that make up our lives in search of something better.
“Encountering the world as real can be a source of pleasure – indeed of quasi-religious feelings of wonder and gratitude – in light of which manufactured realities are revealed as pale counterfeits, and lose some of their grip on us.” – Matthew Crawford, “The World Beyond Your Head”