Event Abstract

Zen and Neural Plasticity without Training or Stimulation: ''Be Aware!''

  • 1 Ludwig-Maximilinans Universität München, Department Biologie II, Germany
  • 2 Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences, Germany
  • 3 Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Institute for Neuroinformatics, Germany
  • 4 BCCN Munich, Germany

Neural plasticity is the basis of the well investigated phenomenon that the external world shapes representations in the brain [1]. As a consequence, changes in the external world alter brain organization, which lead to changes in perception and behaviour. However, little is known [2,3] how purely internal, mental states – such as the focus of attention, imagery or meditation – affect behaviour and performance in the absence of external stimulation.

The effects of altered external stimulation of the body on somatosensory representations is well investigated by psychophysically measuring tactile performance of human subjects [4,5]. We here investigated psychophysically the effect of a three day meditative Zen [6] retreat on tactily abilities of the finger tips. The Zen retreat was held in total silence with long meditation periods (>8 hours per day). Tactile performance of ten subjects (age: 49.9 ± 5.7, 4 female) with ample experience in Zazen [6] was measured psychophysically before the beginning of the retreat. During the total meditation period of three days, subjects were asked to be completely aware of the spontaneously arising sensory percepts in their right index finger for two hours per day; while keeping their normal meditative practice for the rest of the day (6 hours). Due to the rigid meditation posture in Zazen, where meditators are completely motionless, physical stimulation of the finger tips can be ruled out. After the 3 day meditation, subjects' tactile performance was measured again. As markers of tactile performance we measured touch thresholds, spatial 2-point discrimination thresholds, and localization performance on the tip of digit 2 and 3 of the right hand, and digit 2 of the left hand. A group of 10 age-matched controls (age: 51.7 ± 4.2, 5 female) kept their normal meditative practice for the whole 3 days without focussing on somatosensory percepts.

After meditation touch thresholds in the right index finger of the sensory focussing group were lowered by a factor of 3.13 ± 0.15 in average (controls: 0.95 ± 0.27). Individual reduction of thresholds ranged from 1.75 up to 11.49 fold. 2-point discrimination thresholds in the right index finger were lowered by a factor of 1.2 ± 0.13 (controls: 1.01 ± 0.07). Localization performance remained on average unaltered in both groups. For touch thresholds, pre-post comparison revealed significant changes (t-test) for all fingers tested, while for 2-point discrimination thresholds significant effects were found for r2 and r3, but not for l2.

Our data show that focussing on a particular body part, here the right index finger, drastically improves tactile abilities indicating that merely being aware without external stimulation or training improves tactile abilities. Typically, neuroplasticity describes how the external world shapes brain organization. Our findings indicate that this framework has to be extended to incorporate the observation that intrinsic brain activity created without external events can similarly alter perception and behavior.


Supported by: Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, BMBF Bernstein Fokus State Dependencies of Learning, Willigis-Jäger Stiftung West-Östliche Weisheit


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3) Tartaglia, E.M., Barmert, L., Mast, F.W., Herzog, M.H. (2009). Human perceptual learning by mental imagery. Curr Biol, 19(24):2081-5

4) Godde, B., Stauenberg, B., Spengler, F., Dinse, H.R. (2000). Tactile coactivation-induced changes in spatial discrimination performance. J Neurosci, 20(4):1597-1604

5) Lissek, S.,Wilimzig, C.,Stude, P., Pleger, B., Kalisch, T., Maier, C., Peters, S.A.,Nicolas, V.,Tegenthoff, M., Dinse, H.R. (2009). Immobilization Impairs Tactile Perception and Shrinks Somatosensory Cortical Maps. Current Biology, 19, 837–842

6) Kapleau, P. (2000). The three pillars of Zen. Anchor, Rev Exp edition New York: Anchor Books

Keywords: Awareness, brain plasticity, Meditation, Perceptual Learning, Tactile Abilities

Conference: BC11 : Computational Neuroscience & Neurotechnology Bernstein Conference & Neurex Annual Meeting 2011, Freiburg, Germany, 4 Oct - 6 Oct, 2011.

Presentation Type: Poster

Topic: learning and plasticity (please use "learning and plasticity" as keyword)

Citation: Philipp S, Wachtler T and Dinse HR (2011). Zen and Neural Plasticity without Training or Stimulation: ''Be Aware!''. Front. Comput. Neurosci. Conference Abstract: BC11 : Computational Neuroscience & Neurotechnology Bernstein Conference & Neurex Annual Meeting 2011. doi: 10.3389/conf.fncom.2011.53.00097

Received: 24 Aug 2011; Published Online: 04 Oct 2011.

* Correspondence: Mr. Sebastian Thomas Philipp, Ludwig-Maximilinans Universität München, Department Biologie II, Planegg-Martinsried, 82152, Germany, seb.t.p@gmx.de

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