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January 30, 2023

Dissolving the Self: Q&A with Aviva Berkovich-Ohana
A neurobiologist is mapping the boundaries of consciousness during meditation.
by Logan Chipkin
FQXi Awardees: Aviva Berkovich-Ohana
February 28, 2022
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Credit: CNRS
Those who meditate often describe experiencing a ’dissolution of the self’—dissolving their boundaries of consciousness and achieving unity with others and the environment. But while this concept has been an appreciated for a long time, it has rarely been studied scientifically. That’s partly because mapping internal experiences to external variables, such as neurological and chemical signals, is notoriously difficult. Moreover, there is no consensus on what the ’self’ really is. With an FQXi grant of over US$120,000, Aviva Berkovich-Ohana, a neurobiologist at the University of Haifa, in Israel, and an experienced mediator, set out to determine whether we can actively choose to dissolve our self-boundaries. Her experiments suggest that with training, we can, and this might have a positive affect on our social functions, like empathy.

You’ve been studying the nature of the mind for a long time. What drew you to this field?

I started as a biologist and did my master’s degree in marine biology. I then entered a PhD program in biomineralization—the study of biologically produced materials like shells, bone and teeth—but I experienced a spiritual crisis when my very good friend died of cancer. I felt that I was not living out my life mission. So I stopped that PhD after three years. For the next six years, I traveled the world and meditated a lot. At some point, I had a very transformative experience at a ten-day silent meditation retreat. I lost my sense of self, experiencing only vast space with no time or thoughts. This was the point at which I decided to go back to the academy and study this kind of experience neuroscientifically.

And so I started a new PhD, this time in neuroscience. From that point on, I pioneered neurophenomenology and studied the self-dissolution experience that had rarely been studied inside the lab. When I first started, these experiences were difficult to investigate in the lab, both due to the difficulty of participants to enter such deep states in the lab setup, but also in terms of investigation tools. Since then, our tools have improved by employing neurophenomenology, and we were lucky to find such proficient meditation collaborators, hence we are far more capable of doing so.

You’ve provided proof-of-concept neural and phenomenological evidence that the boundaries of self-consciousness can be dissolved in the lab. How did you do that?

I lost my sense of
self, experiencing only vast
space with no time or
- Aviva Berkovich-Ohana
When we don’t ’bump’ into the boundary of regular consciousness, we are usually endowed with a sense of self. Everything we do is endowed with a sense of ’this is happening to me. I am the center of this experience.’ The state of self-transcendence takes one beyond the regular boundaries of the self.

We were able to collaborate with a proficient meditator, 75-year-old Dr. Stephen Fulder (pictured below, right), using neurophenomenology. We sat down with Stephen and told him that we wanted to conduct a ’boutique’ experiment. He said that he could dissolve the boundaries of the self by volition, and that we could measure his brain activity via a neuroimaging technique called ’magnetoencephalography,’ or MEG, as he did so. We measured his brain activity during three states of mind: regular, completely dissolved sense of self, and somewhere in the middle. To our amazement, his neural signature showed robust reductions in brain activity only when he reported dissolving the boundaries in specific regions supporting the embodied self.

The surprise is that this kind of experience can happen by volition, in the lab, and that it yields interesting and robust neural correlates.

Mapping Meditation
Stephen Fulder with Berkovich-Ohana’s students
Why was it unexpected that it’s possible to achieve self dissolution in the lab, in this way?

I expected it based on prior experience, not theory. The leading theorists in philosophy of mind, Shaun Gallagher and Thomas Metzinger, both thought that there could be no state of consciousness devoid of any sense of self. But my experience told me otherwise. The question, then, is what needs to happen to the embodied self in order for such a dissolved sense of self to emerge.

How does MEG work?

MEG is a tool that combines the good spatial resolution of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and the good temporal resolution of electroencephalogram (EEG). Not many use these tools as they are highly expensive and quite complicated to work with. Fortunately, we have an MEG apparatus in Israel, and we were able to acquire the relevant expertise.

How did you establish that this process can occur in others?

We asked 50 meditators of varying experience levels to participate, because we wanted to see if the results from studying Stephen were a flash in the pan, or if they could be replicated. Some of our participants had only gone on one retreat, while others had been meditating for twenty-five years. We asked Stephen to train all of them in dissolving the self-boundaries for three weeks. By the time training ended, they came into the lab for experiments.

We asked them to play around with their self-boundaries while we recorded their neurological signature. We also added three tasks to the setup that were intended to capture agency, ownership, and embodiment separately because we wanted to understand the underlying mechanism of this dissolution. We measured electrical activity related to people’s heartbeats and used that as a marker for how people were perceiving and processing information about their internal bodily sensations. We also used sensory suppression—when a person is given two sensory inputs but perceives only one—as a marker of agency, and used their representation of their surrounding space as a marker of body ownership (see project description). We then interviewed them about how they dissolved their boundaries, and what happened to their different aspects of the embodied self.

Aviva Berkovich-Ohana (far end) and her group
University of Haifa
You’ve also studied the effect of self dissolution on other personality traits, like empathy and bias. How did you do that? And what did you find?

We defined an index to measure the degree of self-dissolution. For each participant, we then checked to see how the degree of dissolution correlated with an increase in emotion recognition, empathy, and group bias. For example, in one trial we show participants an image of a neutral face that morphs into a fully expressive face, and asked them to label the emotion. In another, participants are shown videos of people in distress and asked to rate their reactions. Bias can be assessed by first teaching people to associate certain geometric shapes and labels with themselves, their best friend, or a stranger, and then getting them to judge whether shape-label pairings we presented them with later are correct.

We learned that the meditators who experienced full dissolution exhibit reduced in-group bias compared to those who did not fully dissolve.

You also found that meditators are better at emotional recognition. What are the practical applications of these new results?

People can indeed manipulate their sense of boundaries. This is good news, because many psychopathologies are, at least in part, caused by the fact that the sufferer cannot volitionally regulate his or her self-boundaries. The possibility that they could learn to volitionally get a hold of their self-boundaries might help them to resolve their psychopathologies.

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