Neuro Chat with Chris Berka #003 - Featuring Maria Kozhevnikov, PhD
[00:08 – 05:44]
Chris: Welcome and thank you so much for taking the time to have a conversation with us today. Can you just start out introduce yourself? Tell us a little bit about your background, your training, your current position and research interests.
Maria: I’m Maria Kozhevnikov, and I’m a Cognitive Neuroscientist. I’m a social professor at National University Psychology Department at National University of Singapore and also a visiting associate professor at Harvard Medical School. My interest is in studying how, what I would call enhanced cognitive states, states of enhanced cognition and specifically how different activities like meditation specific types of meditation and particularly interested in Tibetan meditation affect people and help them to get into these high cognitive states. This is one of my research direction my other research direction related to visualization and visual imagery and I study how people use visual imagery and types of visual imagery to perform their work like artist, scientists, architects and people of other professions.
Chris: Fascinating and have you always been interested in the practice of meditation and how it affects the brain and the mind?
Maria: Not really. It started from my research on visualization. So I was looking for practices or training which would help to improve visual imagery capacity capacitive.
Chris: So there's two things overlap.
Maria: So I was doing cognitive neuroscience research and visual imagery and specifically because I was related to human factor research as well how to train visualization ability. So this is why I became interested in this is called Vajrayana Tibetan style meditation because in contrast to other type of meditation, contrast to mindfulness which is very popular, this type of meditation involves visualization very detailed and visualization. This is how I got there and my interest was how this Tibetan style can help to improve, to enhance this visualization capacity. They actually can do it. So I’m trying to understand the mechanism behind these Vajrayana style of meditations.
Chris: Right, that makes perfect sense. You know, our background together collaboratively is that you've worked extensively with our mobile EEG systems. Can you tell us a little bit about how you incorporated EEG into your research?
Maria: I found your system so useful because when I was doing my study in Tibet - I studied very secret types of meditation like Tummo, a fire meditation for example. I cannot be even near those practitioners. So those were field studies. I should have been like in another room. I could not even be near them while they were doing the secret style of meditation. So first of all I was looking for wireless EEG but at the same time, I needed to be able to look at the screen and see what they're doing because sometimes they were doing who knows what. So that's why I was looking for wireless EEG and this is how I actually found your company. A lot of people advise me that your EEG is quite stable and it's the best wireless EEG in the market. It was nine electrodes back then when going to my trip to Tibet.
I actually had several EEGs from other's company as well just to try whatever will be working but this one was in fact the best and the most stable because it was a very cold condition. This was the only one that worked perfectly. Well, the gel didn't get frozen. EEG was working, the battery was working, Bluetooth was working, everything was working and it was easy to use, easy to apply, really helped me a lot because in fact I was in a different room with this practitioner and I could actually see what they're doing. Not only see it but also understand looking at the EEG signal. It helped me a lot and now you have 20 channels, it's even better.
Chris: So that's great. So tell us a little bit more. I know that I’ve had many conversations with you about your travels and what you had to plan to get first of all, get to Tibet or Bhutan and then be able to work with these practitioners who are very experienced meditators and then the environmental things that you had to deal with, you mentioned the cold and then can you also describe you talked about the type of meditation practices that you've studied. Just give us a give us a more detailed description because most of us have no idea about you know these practitioners or how you might access them and look at their brains.
[05:45 - 10:31]
Maria: There are different Buddhist tradition and what people usually familiar here in the west. It's mindfulness, meditation which actually derivative from Theravada style of meditation and Vipassana style of meditation, mindfulness Vipassana Shamata. This is actually quite simple types of meditation and you don't need really need extensive training to learn how to actually do them. So this is what become popular in the west and usually scientific data shows that this meditation they can help to bring a person to a relaxed state or what is called Parasympathetic Activity. The person after 15 minutes show all the signals of relaxation symptoms of sensations.
Chris: So now which is a big deal for many westerners.
Maria: Yes. It's a big deal. Yes.
Chris: So yeah, that's what we associate with meditation and yeah and that's a good thing.
Maria: Yeah. But because I was not interested like, my personal scientific interest, it's not really about relaxation but how to boost visual imagery capacity which is very difficult to do. I mean so far you can boost them only by pharmacological manipulation and you cannot really train them. I mean the training’s very limited. So this is why I study different style of meditation which is Tibetan meditation styles and many people don't really know they exist or think they're the same as these Theravada style but they're very different and they're based on very different mechanism and approach and so I studied them for many years and the interesting result is that they completely different because they based the idea is not to build on relaxation, the idea to build on arousal sympathetic activation.
The idea is built on stress because when a person is in stress, the whole system, the whole body gives this extra capacity to survive and deal with threat. So apparently what's happening, this stressful situation they give extra resources to deal and extra cognitive and brain resources to deal with situations to survive and during these states, these people exhibit I mean amazing cognitive boost of cognitive capacity is temporary. So boost of visualization capacity, boost of attentional capacity but again those are states. Those are not long-term improvements but very different idea they but it's not just stress or panic they really learn how to control. What we're talking about sympathetic activation. So it's more arousal so they're not that distressed or in panic the extremely aroused kind of adrenaline rush, yeah and they're ready to meet the challenge.
So all these visualizations, sometimes very aggressive visualization of deities full, very symbolic full of blood with scalps with all kind of yeah. So this is the idea. It's all based on visualization. It's also based on breathing, special breathing techniques also to boost this sympathetic activity. So this is how they boost themselves into this adrenaline rush kind of states and this is how they show this state of amaze visualization or attentional cognitive capacity with what are called ‘enhanced cognition’, enhanced cognitive state and I do what I do. I study there I use EEG brain signal. I also look at heart rate.
So I use also EEG and because heart rate can actually give us the level of this arousal and I also measure temperature because apparently during these very high arousal states, they can even regulate the core body temperature - This is Tummo meditation. I also give them behavioural tests like attentional visual tests before and after this meditation and you can see they, in fact if even before meditation, perform like regular people average population but after during this stage, they perform like geniuses. Three times more than we actually can even more than known capacity of a visual spatial working memory.
[10:32 – 15:09]
Chris: How long do those effects last? Has anyone measured that or is it different in different meditators?
Maria: So I actually. Yeah it's individual and as they report it depends on how well they feel, how houses they are when they're doing this meditation, how well they slept. So actually how strong their body and how long they meditated but after many experiments what I see. So when you're doing this EKG like, you're looking at the heart rate this HRV analysis, you can see there in a very raw state. So the effect lasts as long as then this state of arousal as soon as the heart recovers back to baseline, the effect disappears. So as long as they feel they're in a very kind of adrenaline rush state you see the effect and you can sustain I mean they visualize for several hours they still in these states but after stop visualizing, you can see that as soon as the heart goes back to normal the whole capacity.
Chris: As you probably know there's been an explosion in research and to the flow state. How do you compare and contrast some of that recent research with the investigations that you've done?
Maria: Actually, it's we're talking about flow here. This is how, because I was doing research in parallel. I mean clearly you see parallel with flow. So I was doing research with video gamers playing aggressive video games. First person shooter and the effect is very similar. The Tibetan don't like it very much.
Chris: I’m sure they don't. I’m sure they think it's a completely different entrance but there are some similarities in this, the actual state.
Maria: Yes, there are similarities but I just want to say that this is the point, by looking in this comparison I realized what Vajrayana meditation technique is doing. It teach people how to get into the state systematically from very low flow state to very high.
Maria: Because this data visualization, which I mentioned this is kind of small arousal, small flow states but with Tummo mediation, when they breathe and they imagine they're on fire, they cause paradoxically high arousal and the stable flow and they teach very systematically how they get higher and high. Now they teach it not because of flow itself. They teach it because they're doing their final meditation, non-conceptual meditation like Dzogchen or Mahamudra. So this is currently what I’m writing in the paper to show the point that all this state of flow they use just to get to this non-conceptual type of meditation.
Chris: That's fascinating. So you're writing a review paper comparing models and because you know obviously the motivations are very different.
Maria: They’re different. There's a point here that this argument in the literature, that Tibetan rigpa, this is non-conceptual type of meditation which leads you to rigpa - such as Dzogchen or Mahamudra. Mindfulness is kind of a claim in current literature. Those are the same meditation because the techniques are very similar but Tibetan would never agree with this. The difference is mindfulness is done in a very relaxed state while Mahamutra is done in a state of extreme arousal.
So maybe the technique is the same but Tibetan would never do it in the state of relaxation. So this study and go down to show that we're not talking about the same things. So I asked the nurse practitioner to do Mahamudra after rest in a restful state and there was mindfulness correlates. But if you ask them to do Mahamudra, as they usually do after the visualization or Tummo, you see completely different. It's not the same type of meditation. So according to them, you need to be in flow to watch your mind, to observe your mind. You cannot be in a relaxed state. It's not the same kind of meditation.
[15:10 – 20:02]
Chris: That is fascinating and I look forward to reading anything that you've written in that area because I’ve had a number of discussions with people in the flow community and I mean it's fascinating. But very different motivations and preparation and it'll be good to compare and contrast.
Maria: It would be very good to compile and not just that. That's why I’m interested in visual artists right now because they're going into very similar state of flow but they're spontaneous. So all these artists or gamers or people who experience flow, they experience them spontaneously. They cannot control them. It's extremely tired exhausted after that. So what my idea is to take some elements from Vajrayana Buddhism practices.
You can actually teach them not only how to get in a controlled way into the states to maintain these states and actually to get out of the states with no damage to the body because they have all kind of practices in Vajrayana, how to dissolve this arousal, why their heart is going back to normal much faster than the heart of video gamers because they have all this relaxation technique after that to bring themselves back to normal which these gamers don't know. That's why these gamers get very tired and depleted and they cannot recover. So it’s something we can learn from Vajrayana. We can use it for people with creative profession who use their creativity.
Chris: Have you used our EEG systems with the flow studies?
Maria: Yes, I just submitted paper for review and I use your system for video gamers.
Chris: That's fantastic. I didn't even know you were doing that.
Maria: Yesterday, this is recent study.
Chris: And can you tell us a little bit about that study, the finding?
Maria: They're playing first-person shooter game for half an hour and you need to be experienced gamer to get in the state of flow. You need to play at the edge of your kind of experience. So it should be very difficult level but still manageable. So because if it's very difficult, they just show stress response. Looking heart rates don't show really arousal. So very difficult game but still manageable and experienced players play half an hour of first-person shooter. Actually most of them show exactly the same state as Tibetan meditation. I didn't do EEG, I just used EKG in that video gaming study to show that they are similar to those expert meditators.
Chris: That's fascinating. So obviously you're coming to us from your home environment. How has COVID affected your research and on even on the flip side of that? Do you see your research having an effect or benefit as we come out of the pandemic?
Maria: So the first thing is my Tibetan meditation research because we were planning two conferences and I submitted a grant with centre for Bhutan study to UNESCO for conference organization of conference on Vajrayana. So the first conference to show that those are different meditation techniques and their potential enhanced cognitive capacities. Then National University of Singapore gave me funds for conducting this conference in Singapore. So now, it didn't happen because of COVID. So actually, that's what I wanted to mention, we want to organize this conference the first one online. Probably sometime in December and I wanted to ask if you will be willing to join you know.
Maria: It’s really kind of pre-conference to the second one which I hope still will happen in Bhutan maybe after one year, after everything will go back to normal from COVID. So this is pre-conference and the topic is really breaching science with Vajrayana practices. What Vajrayana is about, how it's different and how neuroscience method could help us to understand these practices.
[20:03 – 25:03]
Maria: What we have available what kind of equipment and everything we have available to move this study of Vajrayana somewhere.
Chris: Absolutely, that sounds great then.
Maria: I wanted to do another study in Bhutan which is also will be later. The second direction I wanted to do study with visual artists on the state of flow in Italy and it also delayed you know until I will be able to go there and so I wanted it's more difficult because this visual artist. They completely spontaneously experiences experience this flow but because the way they're getting into flow states - very similar visualization and emotions. So, I think teaching them a little bit of breathing techniques which kind of help to boost these states. Giving instruction to focus on their paintings, I think I will be able to get this in a controlled way.
Chris: That’s fantastic.
Maria: So that's I really want to do this study and I plan and but again don't know when everything will go back to normal. Hopefully in one year.
Chris: Right and that's something you probably can't do virtually or it will be difficult to do it.
Maria: Yeah, I need to teach them this in person. I need to give them instruction which is but I need to prepare everything, the whole procedure, the whole instruction to this visual artist everything for the experiment.
Chris: Well, hopefully next year.
Maria: Yes, hopefully next year.
Chris: I don't know if we've had this discussion but have you ever looked at groups of people meditating together and explored hyper scanning or concordance across brains or heart.
Maria: They don't want that. If you're talking about Tibetans, they're never meditate together, ever. They’re usually in retreat centers and everyone has their own room - never in group. They only get transmission. They're all together but then they go and meditate on their own. They don't want anyone to be nearby them.
Chris: Very interesting. Yeah, well and very often the flow state is an individual experience too.
Maria: No, actually that's an interesting question because we actually ask ourselves whether flow is completely individual experience. We study how people go into flow when they're in escape rooms.
Chris: So then you have a group of people in the escape room.
Maria: Right, four or five people in escape room. I picked it because it's the same idea, you need to survive and you have a certain period of time. It's a game - it's really immersive. So they do go into the same state of flow right after they're coming out from the escape room. They don't have ton of experience like the video gamers. They don't have experience but yet almost all of them show these kind of boosts.
Chris: That’s fantastic. I’d love to get some EEG on those people.
Maria: Yes, great. We did only EKG. No, we didn't do EKG in escape room because back then, they were walking an escape room from one room to another. It was really difficult to connect anything to them but now they're a virtual reality escape room. So now, they in and the virtual reality escape room also shows the same effect of group flow. So I think because they're mostly standing there they're not moving too much. I think would be great to check their EEG.
Chris: That's our future collaboration project, definitely.
Maria: That would be extremely interesting.
Chris: That would be fantastic. Is there anything that we can do to provide help for you with your research.
Maria: You know if we do this group research I was thinking about, that if you're interested, if you can do this collaborative study, I will need more EEG system. At least first how it works and if there are any results at least in a pilot stage.
Chris: So where were you doing the escape room was that at Harvard?
Maria: No, the thing is I did I think it's not a problem to find escape room anywhere like in Boston or here. I’m currently in Virginia. I mean they're everywhere but I did my research in Singapore.
Chris: Okay, great.
Maria: Yes, with escape room in Singapore.
[25:04 - 27:19]
Chris: Yeah, but that would be a fun project to collaborate on - looking at group flow.
Maria: Yes. So that would be that with the group flow and EEG and EKG. I do think there will be some synchronization between the EEGs when they’re trying to escape.
Chris: Do you is there anything else that you want to discuss with- Believe it or not we're coming up almost on the end of our half hour.
Maria: Yes, okay. So first thing I wanted to discuss that I will send you invitation. I will send you more detail about these online pre-conference on Vajrayana because we're still trying to set up the final date of the conference and also this group EEG project - I would be very interesting.
Chris: Okay that's great and another thing certainly any details that you have about the conferences the planning.
Maria: Conference info I will send. Now this escape room in Singapore - they're doing online escape room games. So people can do it from different places in the world to get into the same escape room.
Chris: So that's interesting. How engaging is that experience when you're on not just-
Maria: It's not as engaging. They're still developing so I’ll check. I’ll let you know what they have right now. Trying to come up with something more engaging. So because that would be easy to do, they don't need to be, you know.
Chris: Yes, definitely. Yeah, all right. Well, this has been exciting as always. I love talking to you. You're one of the most creative, interesting people that we've had the privilege of working with, over the years. So keep up the good work.
Maria: Thank you. Thanks all your help with EEG
Chris: Yes, all right. Thanks so much Maria.
Maria: Thank you.
Chris: Take care. Bye.