2022 EVA Recipients & Projects

    Donagh ColemanTukdam, cultural bodies, and questions of consciousness
    University of California, Berkeley, USA
    Jo HolmbergDisentangling the roles of psychopathy and equanimity in resilience: cross-cultural study in UK-migrant and UK-domestic populations
    Brunel University London, London, UK
    Rocio Martinez VivotImpact of a multimodal school program on social relationships, emotional, attentional and physiological stress regulation in children presenting multiple adverse childhood experiences
    Argentinean Natinal Council for Research and Technology (CONICET), Buenos Aires, Argentina
    Hamed MohammadiImpact of mindfulness meditation on the modulation of the sensory and affective dimensions of pain by expectations and uncertainty: a bayesian modeling approach of intracortical EEG and behavioral measures
    Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, INSERM, Lyon, France
    Nicolas PellerinSelf-transcendence and happiness in spiritual vs. secular contexts
    University of Nimes, Nimes, France
    Christopher TimmermannA neurophenomenological investigation of ego-dissolution induced by 5-MeO-DMT and different meditation practices 
    Imperial College London, London, UK

    Donagh Coleman – University of California, Berkeley, USA

    Tukdam, cultural bodies, and questions of consciousness

    In tukdam, meditators’ bodies do not show usual signs of death for days or even weeks after clinical death. According to Tibetan Buddhists, they are resting in a subtle state of consciousness with an associated subtle energy present, keeping the body from decaying. I highlight incommensurable aspects of Tibetan Buddhist and biomedical understandings of the death process / tukdam, paying particular attention to the scientific Tukdam Study lead by UW Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds (CHM). Medical and ontological turn anthropology offer ways to think through this incommensurability, which can also be approached as a problem of cultural translation. My EVA project updates my prior PhD research/fieldwork, looking at developments in the Tukdam Study and how involved Buddhists, Tibetan medicine and Tibetan alleopathic doctors, and scientists conceive-perceive tukdam and its significance, especially in relation to questions of consciousness. The non-decaying body is paradoxically taken as potential proof of consciousness transcending the brain-body complex; for Tibetans, the body becomes a signifier of consciousness. This is not obvious to biophysical scientific perspectives, however. Also, life-like bodies of meditators are known in other Buddhist traditions where they do not signify a present consciousness, which departs at death. As the Tukdam Study shifts emphasis from neuroscience to forensic science, my EVA project explores competing interpretations of what these extraordinary bodies signify – and how resultant tensions may be productive of new insights, pushing boundaries of the knowledge systems at play. I’ll also do fieldwork with Tibetan teachers and practitioners on recent cases, and the significance, theories, and practices associated with tukdam. Methods include participant observation, interviews and visual anthropology, in continuation of my research methodology and collaboration with CHM that resulted in my 2022 documentary “Tukdam: Between Worlds.”

    Jo Holmberg – Brunel University London, London, UK

    Disentangling the roles of psychopathy and equanimity in resilience: cross-cultural study in UK-migrant and UK-domestic populations

    Background: Resilience, an ability to adapt to life’s challenges and recover from negative emotional experiences, is linked to positive psychological outcomes and lower depression levels in the face of adversity. Resilience levels differ across populations, with recent research suggesting that immigrant populations may have higher resilience than non-immigrants. Resilience is a multifaceted construct, with other factors having a possible contribution. So-called ‘adaptive’ psychopathy, characterised by fearlessness and stress immunity, has been linked to resilience. Equanimity, a state of mental calmness and serenity, is another construct of relevance not previously studied in relation to resilience. Both adaptive psychopathy and equanimity are expected to be associated with resilience via low emotional reactivity, albeit via different emotion-regulation mechanisms of detachment and non-attachment, respectively.

    Aims & Objectives: i) To examine whether adaptive psychopathy and equanimity mediate the relationship between resilience and depressive symptoms in UK-migrant and UK-domestic populations; ii) to investigate the relationship between self-reported resilience and associated constructs (adaptive psychopathy and equanimity) with encephalography (EEG) indices of affective style and emotional reactivity, and iii) to apply machine-learning methods to identify novel EEG ‘biomarkers’ of resilience.

    Methods & Desing: Study 1: Trait resilience, psychopathy, equanimity, and state depression will be assessed by self-report in 150 UK-migrant and 150 UK-domestic participants. The roles of self- reported adaptive psychopathy and equanimity in the relationship between self-reported resilience and depression will be investigated using mediation analysis. Study 2: A Study 1 sub-sample of 60 participants (30 UK-migrant, 30 UK-domestic) with low and high self-reported resilience will be assessed using two EEG paradigms presenting stimuli (words and images) of three valence categories: neutral, negative, and positive, interlived with resting state periods. This design will enable: i) investigating the associations of established EEG indices of positive emotionality and low emotional reactivity with resilience, adaptive psychopathy and equanimity; ii) capturing resilience as an ability to recover from emotional perturbation by exposure to stimuli of negative valence and/or to experience positive affect following exposure to stimuli of positive valence.

    Significance: This will be the first investigation of the roles of adaptive psychopathy and equanimity in resilience using self-report and EEG methods. The finding will contribute to advancing the resilience research, informing the development of novel, resilience-boosting interventions to enhance well-being in UK-migrant and UK-domestic populations, as well as identifying the neural biomarkers of resilience to be used as objective outcome measures of resilience-boosting interventions.

    Rocio Martinez-Vivot – Argentinean National Council for Research and Technology (CONICET), Buenos Aires, Argentina

    Impact of a multimodal school program on social relationships, emotional, attentional and physiological stress regulation in children presenting multiple adverse childhood experiences

    Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been associated with a wide range of diseases, unsafe behaviour and shorter life expectancy and can be defined as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). In Argentina, 91% of the patients from a psychiatric hospital had experienced at least one ACE, reinforcing the link between psychiatric illness and ACEs. However, evidence on effective interventions for children undergoing these difficulties is scarce. Hence, we propose a 28 week long interventions in residential or semi-residential child-care organizations in Buenos Aires, situated in vulnerable and marginalized neighborhoods, comparing two randomised groups of 12 year olds. One group will be assigned to an active control program (CG) and the other to an intervention group (IG) involving mindfulness-based practices, empathic collaboration activities, and group EMDR therapy. Previous research led by the collaborators of the present proposal showed that group interventions in which mindfulness is a key ingredient are effective in (i) reducing PTSD symptoms, and increasing mindful awareness, (ii) modulating the DNA methylome at sites of potential relevance for health and behavioural disorders associated with ACEs, and (iii) reducing stress and cortisol level and improving social integration. We present a new “merged” program, optimised from these previous experiences with children and adolescents and we will analyse its impact on anxiety, mindfulness trait, social integration and compassion in correlation with first person perspectives and physiological parameters (heart rate variability and chronic cortisol levels) at baseline (t0), 14 weeks (t1), after the intervention (t2) and a 1-year follow- up (t3). We will also collect saliva samples at t0, t2 and t3 to assess DNA methylation changes, epigenetic aging and inflammatory gene expression in a second phase of the project if the previous outcomes are encouraging. Finally, we propose the creation of a youth community safe space to empower this vulnerable population through a guided program of peer- mentoring. We expect that the outcomes of this research will further support this multimodal group intervention as a feasible and promising program for reducing the psychological burden in children living in vulnerable situations and highly exposed to early trauma, in an attempt to promote a safer childhood, the basis of a healthier society.

    Hamed Mohammadi – Lyon Neuroscience Research Center, INSERM, Lyon, France

    Impact of mindfulness meditation on the modulation of the sensory and affective dimensions of pain by expectations and uncertainty: a bayesian modeling approach of intracortical EEG and behavioral measures

    The perception of pain is sensitive to various mental processes such as expectation about the nociceptive stimulus or individual differences in the affective and cognitive evaluations of pain. Accumulative evidence from clinical and neuroimaging research has shown the importance of these mental processes in physical and mental health problems. Several clinical studies have shown that mindfulness meditation practice can alleviate acute and chronic pain. Studies using meditation experts further reveal an uncoupling of the sensory and affective pain dimensions during meditation. Neuroimaging evidence has shown the critical role of the insula cortex in this regulation. A study using event-related potentials (ERP) showed that the meditation group exhibited decreased activation in the primary somatosensory cortex (SI) and posterior insula compared to a healthy control group, which led to a reduction in pain perception. In the present project, we are proposing to collect pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings on novices with ongoing intracortical electrode implantation in the insula, during a pain paradigm manipulating expectations and uncertainty about impending electrical stimulations, following short periods of mindfulness meditation. From these data, we will first model trial-wise pain ratings as a Bayesian inference process integrating probability distributions over sensory information, cue-based expectations, and a trait-like prior about pain. We will further extend previous computational models to successfully account for modeling both sensory and affective dimensions of pain. Then by analyzing and combining the oscillatory correlates of the acquired iEEG data from the posterior and anterior insula and behavioral data, we will build on previous attempts to construct a neural sensory-affective model of pain perception.

    Nicolas Pellerin – University of Nimes, Nimes, France

    Self-transcendence and happiness in spiritual vs. secular contexts

    Research on contemplative practices relies mainly on the study of mindfulness meditation, with an emphasis almost exclusively made in attentional training, putting traditional setting deliberately aside, thus neglecting the ethical and philosophical training associated with the practice. Recently, contemplative scholars have pointed to the need to include all varieties of meditation (i.e., constructive and deconstructive) and prompted researchers to investigate Second Generation Mindfulness Practices (SGMP) in particular, that explicitly associate traditional ethical and philosophical training with the practice. We hypothesize that the incremental benefits of SGMP, compared to the first- generation mindfulness practices, lie amongst other things in the experience of self- transcendence and its central role in the experience of happiness, which is highly emphasised in traditional settings but yet relatively understudied. Thus, we aim to deepen the understanding of the role of self- transcendence (ST) in the relationship between meditation and happiness, in close collaboration with the Buddha Project, a traditional-based Buddhist training that is geared towards the specific needs of westerner meditators. Using mixed methods, Study 1 will focus on the meditative development of seven intermediate Buddhist practitioners, who engage in an intensive, multifaceted (attentional, constructive and deconstructive) one-year meditation training, that includes regular instructions and personal guidance from the instructor. Micro- phenomenological interviews and analyses will be conducted in order to explore the synchronic and diachronic structures of the self-transcendent experience (STE). A survey will be concentrated on the STEs intensity, frequency, context, perceived meaning, and outcomes. Building on the insights of Study 1, Study 2 will use an intensive longitudinal design to explore the links between meditation practice, self-transcendence and happiness in people during ordinary life, and to compare these outcomes with a sample of Buddhist students enrolled in a four- year course on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. For this purpose, a new questionnaire of ST will be developed and validated. These studies aim to contribute to the understanding of the consequences of the meditative development in traditional yet modern settings, in terms of STE’s and happiness on the one hand and of the potential incremental benefits of constructive and deconstructive types of meditation relative to attention- based mindfulness practices on the other. These studies can moreover contribute to the theoretical understanding and testing of the contemplative tradition’s assumption that self-transcendent wisdom is the key factor in the emergence of a deep and long-lasting happiness.

    Christopher Timmermann – Imperial College London, London, UK

    A neurophenomenological investigation of ego-dissolution induced by 5-MeO-DMT and different meditation practices

    The sense of self is considered a fundamental feature of consciousness, and some theories state it acts as a center of gravity for human cognition and alterations in mental health. Psychedelics and some meditation practices constitute a powerful probe into human consciousness, and have a promising transdiagnostic potential by significantly modulating the sense of self during ego-dissolution (ED) experiences. While it has been hypothesized that both psychedelic and non-dual meditation practices lead to similar ED experiences, no studies have explored the overlaps of psychedelics and advanced meditation states using disciplined methods combining phenomenology and neurobiology. 5-MeO- DMT is a psychedelic with an exceptional capacity to safely produce profound alterations in consciousness and sense of self. The experience lasts only 30 minutes, but is often regarded as deeply meaningful, sometimes even life-changing. Preliminary studies indicate that 5-MeO-DMT generates high-scores of ED which resemble those reported by advanced meditation practitioners. This project will employ a neurophenomenological approach to understand how the sense of self and the structure of experience are modulated via the use of the use of 5-MeO-DMT and provide preliminary evidence of how it relates to states achieved during various meditation practices. The project will also determine how the neurophenomenological underpinnings of ED predict changes in wellbeing and mental health. Two studies will be performed. The first study consists in a single-blind, placebo-controlled study in which 5-MeO- DMT and placebo will be administered to 35 healthy volunteers. High-density electroencephalography (HD-EEG) will be recorded during the acute drug effects. Followed by in-depth micro-phenomenological interviews (MPIs) upon return to baseline. The second study consists in an exploratory naturalistic and prospective survey study of meditation practitioners undergoing different meditation retreats (with in-depth MPIs also to be acquired for select volunteers, when feasible). Both studies will use complementary psychometric questionnaires to assess the degree to which people experience ED. Follow-up surveys will be completed remotely to assess changes in wellbeing and mental health. The outcomes of this project will provide preliminary neurophenomenological insights into the modulation of sense of self via psychedelics, and the relationship between ED states experienced under 5-MeO-DMT and meditation states, advancing the scientific understanding of this central feature of consciousness and cognition. Finally, this study may help elucidate which ED and EEG features are related to changes in wellbeing and clinical outcomes, thereby providing meaningful bridges between consciousness and mental health research.

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