Contemplative Neuroscience

Contemplative Science: The field of science which investigates the neurobiological, psychological, and philosophical facets of introspection.

The field of contemplative science was first conceived by a cognitive neuroscientist named Francisco Varela.  “On the one hang, science proceeds because of its pragmatic link to the phenomenal world; indeed, it’s validation is derived from the efficacy of this link.

On the other hand, the tradition of meditative practice proceeds because of its systematic and disciplined link to human experience. The validation of this tradition is derived from it’s ability to transform progressively our lived experience and self-understanding.”


The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures, and Interventions – Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

1. The neural origin for compassion is uniquely mammalian and dependent on the phylogenetic changes in the autonomic nervous system from reptiles to mammals.

2. Compassion is “neurophysiologically” incompatible with judgmental, evaluative, and defensive behaviors and feelings that recruit phylogenetically older neural circuits regulating autonomic function.

3. The effectiveness of meditation, listening, chanting, posture and breath on fostering mental states and health is due to a common phylogenetic change in the neural regulation of the ANS.


Unique Mammalian Modifications

Bi-directional interactions among brainstem source nuclei of the myelinated vagus and several cranial nerves that regulate the striated muscles of the face and head result in a “face-heart” connection with “portals” that regulate “state”.


Emergent Portals

Face-heart connection

Voice – heart connection (chants)

Listening – heart connection (music)

Breath – heart connection (pranayama)

Posture-heart connection

(Dance and other movements)


Compassion requires turning off defenses

How we feel determines whether we become friends, lovers, or enemies

Our feelings are dependent on our physiological state (autonomic nervous system)

**The sensory processing is bi-directional. 80% of the vagus is sensory.

Defense turns off the mammalian “innovations” of the ANS and the face-heart connection

** People where a polygraph on their face because affect reflects the ANS activity in people. When the face becomes flat because of fear, the neural tone to the heart decreases.

Compassion requires turning off biobehavioral defense systems int he “dyad” to enable both the “compassionate” individual the other to feel safe, to be proximal, and to enable physical contact.

Polyvagal Theory

Explains the functional relevance of the mammalian modifications of the ANS and emphasizes the adaptive consequences of detecting risk (ie. safety, danger, or life threat) on physiological experience(including compassion) and health.

  1. Evolution provides an organizing principle to understand neural regulation of the human ANS. as an enabler of “positive” social behavior.
  2. Three neural circuits forma  phylogentically-ordered response hierarchy that regulate behavioral and physiological adaptation to safe, dangerous, and life-threatening environments. (Jacksonian principle)
  3. “Neuroception” of danger or safety r life threat trigger these adaptive neural circuits

**Life threat vs. Fight-flight. Relationships are bi-directional

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 1.27.33 PM

**There is a need to down-regulate mobilization to get people in a safe state. Immobilization with fear. Vasovagal Syncope.

Striated muscles in the face connected to the Corticobulbar pathways.  Social engagement. Dyads are important for regulating physiological state.


A Neural Love Code:

Face-to-face interaction. Special visceral efference. Immobilization without fear.

Importance of physical contact  while immobilizing without fear. Social engagement and immoiliztion without fear.

Compassion is a manifestation of our biological need to engage and to bond with others.  Compassion is a component of our biological quest for “safety” in proximity of another.

Cingulate Gyrus Functioning

The cingulate gyrii lies next to the midline of the brain, just above the corpus callosum. The cingulate contributes to a large network in the brain which integrates the limbic system with the cortex. Among it’s many functions, two pivotal higher order functions are:

  1. The way the individual responds subconsciously to good or bad outcomes
  2. The way we express responses to situations that involve suffering, pain, and conflict 1)Austin, 2010

Studies have shown that people who are prone to be worried, “worry-warts”, show increased fMRI signals in both the anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex. 2)M. Paulus, J. Feinstein, A. Simmons, et. al. Anterior cingulate activation in high trait anxious subjects is related to altered error processing during decision making. Biological Psychiatry 2004, 55:1179-1187

Humans and higher primates have a cluster of large spindle-shaped nerve cells int he anterior cingulate and fronto-insular cortex. It’s posited that these cells are in a position to sample emotionally valenced messages related to past experiences and relay them to the frontpolar cortex at Broadmann area 10.


References   [ + ]

1. Austin, 2010
2. M. Paulus, J. Feinstein, A. Simmons, et. al. Anterior cingulate activation in high trait anxious subjects is related to altered error processing during decision making. Biological Psychiatry 2004, 55:1179-1187