Meditation is an example of how our experience changes as our understanding changes. Often meditation has been thought of as producing paranormal or supernatural experiences. As we learn more about the brain, psychology, and physiology in meditation, its effects are seen as normal or natural, though some experiences may seem extraordinary.
What are the effects of meditation on our senses and perceptions?
In this post we’ll explore the effects of meditation and discuss three psycho-physiological concepts—habituation, inhibition, and proprioception–and how understanding these three concepts can change our understanding of the effects of meditation from something supernatural to natural.
Let’s begin our discussion with how meditation is monotonous stimulation and involves habituation.
Monotonous stimulation and meditation
Our nervous system is designed to respond to stimulus change. After awhile we stop noticing continuous, unvarying stimulus. The diminished sensitivity of our senses to a constant stimulus is known as habituation.1 For example, when we first hang a new picture on our bedroom wall we are stimulated upon entering the room and notice the new picture. After a while though we don’t notice the picture at all. Habituation is when we cease to respond to stimulus after repeated exposures.
Most of meditation practice involves monotonous stimulation. Meditation involves habituation. The meditator sits in one pose, concentrates on or repeats one thought, mantra, visual image, breath, and so on. With habituation, with unvarying, monotonous stimulus over time our nervous system “habituates” and ceases to be aware of the stimulus. Excessive practice of meditation can produce a physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal from people or activity.
Sometimes with withdrawal, depersonalization-derealization occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or that you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. [Read my post on Depersonalization and Derealization.]
Later we discuss how habituation relates to understanding meditation experiences. Next we explore inhibition and meditation.
Inhibition and meditation
The mental ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the physical or mental task at hand is called inhibition. Occasionally when concentrating intently on one task at hand you may have noticed you forget time, space, and may not even hear noises such as a doorbell or phone ring. Cognitive inhibition can be experienced wholly or partially, intentionally or unintentionally.2 Inhibition, in physiological psychology, refers to the suppression of neural electrical activity.3 Inhibitory neurons, inhibit or block the activity of other neurons. Inhibitory neurons, writes Andrew Neher in Paranormal and Transcendental Experience, in essence cancel our awareness of a stimulus.4
Meditation practice can produce habituation and inhibition. Adept meditators may, through inhibition and habituation, be unresponsive physically and psychologically to stimuli such as loud noises that normally would startle or cause involuntary reaction. A coveted by-product and goal of meditation practitioners is sensory withdrawal and deprivation.
Sensory withdrawal and deprivation
Sensory isolation, similar to sensory deprivation—such as floatation tanks, extreme fasting and sexual abstinence—can produce altered states of awareness and transcendental experiences. Short-term sessions of sensory deprivation may be relaxing and conducive to meditation. But extended sessions of sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, and depression.5
Meditation, like other religious rituals such as holy rolling (whirling dervishes), chanting, and prayer with repetitive and monotonous stimulation, can produce habituation, inhibition, and sensory withdrawal and can produce anxiety, hallucinations, and bizarre thoughts.
A simple experiment may demonstrate to you the effects of habituation and inhibition: Stare intently and unblinkingly at one still object for a few seconds or a minute. As your gaze remains fixed on a singular stationary object without moving your eyes you may produce the sensation of hovering outside your body or expanding into space outside of your body. Through non-blinking, non-moving of your eyeballs you can maintain an unvarying and monotonous stimulus and may feel an altered state of awareness. Your location of your mind and body in space—proprioception—has been altered.
Out of body, out of mind—proprioception and meditation.
Our perception of body location and movement in space relies on receptive sensations—proprioceptors—“in the inner ear and in the muscles, tendons and joints of the body”.6 The perception of stimuli related to one’s own body posture, position, equilibrium, and internal condition or sensation is proprioception.
People who have proprioceptive disorders have difficulty knowing where their body is in space, difficulty understanding physical boundaries when interacting with other people or objects. When our proprioception is altered we may also lose our sense of gravity, feel a weightlessness or extreme heaviness of our body.
When one or more of our senses—even one eye or ear—is not functioning properly we lose our sense of balance and distance from objects and ourselves. We may bump into objects, lose our sense of direction in space, or may fall down or injure ourselves.
I used to wear contact lenses to correct my nearsightedness. Occasionally I would get pink-eye, a common eye infection. Then I would remove my contact lense from my infected eye, keeping one lense in my healthy eye. With my vision lopsided, my ability to judge distance between my body and objects in space—my proprioception—was altered. With good vision in one eye only my proprioception was altered. It was not uncommon for me to bump my head in low doorways or to smash my toes into furniture. Maybe observers thought I was a klutz or drunk from bliss from meditation?
Natural or supernatural effects of meditation?
During meditation, when the body is still and when habituation and inhibition are operating, proprioceptors sometimes stop signaling a sense of body and mind location. When that happens our awareness of body and mind changes. We may feel a sense of “self” expansion, levitation, or a “pure” consciousness detached from or hovering outside the body.7 You may have experienced this feeling when falling to sleep. Or, as you wake up and before your awareness or sensation has fully returned to your body.
Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak when waking or falling asleep. The Mayo Clinic estimates there are more than 3 million US cases of sleep paralysis each year.8 Perhaps you have experienced sleep paralysis. I have. The experience can be terrifying. As I lay awake I panicked: paralyzed, unable to move, a lump of flesh in bed. Within moments though I was able to muster the will to move my limbs. What a relief to be able to move again.
Some people may interpret temporary paralysis, habituation, and proprioception imbalances as “out of body” experiences, astral projection, or altered states of awareness.
Meditation experiences as natural phenomenon
If our premises are that meditation is a “gateway” to supernatural or paranormal dimensions then that’s what we interpret or make our experiences mean. But, when we understand natural, ordinary sensations—such as habituation, inhibition, and proprioception—we are less prone to interpret these sensations as paranormal or supernatural.
Probably so-called samadhi, nirvana, or cosmic consciousness experiences are partially or wholly caused by a combination of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception imbalances.
The psycho-physiological concepts of habituation, inhibition, and proprioception don’t explain all the effects of meditation. Mystery not fully solved. However, by understanding these concepts we may better understand many meditation experiences as natural phenomenon. Through understanding habituation, inhibition, and proprioception we have alternative and plausible explanations for what many believe are paranormal and supernatural effects of meditation practices.
Top image credit, Ryan Somma, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
1 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
2 “Cognitive inhibition.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_inhibition.
3 “Inhibition.” Britannica. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/inhibition-psychology.
4 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
5 “Sensory deprivation.” Wikipedia. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensory_deprivation
6 Neher, Andrew. Paranormal and Transcendental Experience: A Psychological Examination. New York: Dover Publications, 1980 and 1990. pg 25
8 “Sleep Paralysis.” Mayo Clinic and Google. Accessed August 20, 2016. https://g.co/kgs/z2HyyL.