Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Subtle Body as the Mind's User-interface.

           Sacred Mirror by Alex Grey

Buddhist visualizations of the subtle body
One of the most perplexing aspects of Buddhist practice to a scientifically trained Westerner is the system of meditational chakras, energy channels (nadis), subtle winds (pranas) and bindus (drops).  This system doesn't correspond to any physical anatomical structure known to modern Western medical science.

But it's unlikely that the system of chakras etc was dreamed up by ancient Buddhists in ignorance of the true 'physical' structure of human anatomy,  because anatomical knowledge would be available from doctors, and hacked up corpses in the charnel grounds, not to mention battlefields.  So if this 'subtle body' it isn't part of the physical anatomy, what is it?

The chakra system is visualized and manipulated during advanced meditations, and it does indeed seem to correspond to some kind of functioning reality, because as well as producing subjective mental effects, the meditator can also produce objectively measurable physiological effects,  the most well-documented of these being 'tummo' or inner fire.

Tummo is a measurable increase in body temperature, heat production and metabolic rate resulting from meditational visualizations of jets of flame burning in the chakras and energy channels.  There have been various reports of this phenomenon in the scientific literature. One of the best known exponents of tummo is Wim Hof, the ice-man.  

So the chakra system is a mentally-projected visualized model of the body which bears little resemblance to physical structures, yet  nevertheless it can be mentally manipulated to produce physical effects.

A strange Western parallel - visualization for treatment of arthritis.
These chakra phenomena have seemed esoteric and unrelated to Western medical science until recently, when another totally independent example of manipulation of a visualized mental projection has produced physiological and anatomical benefits:

"A chance discovery by academics in Nottingham has found that a simple optical illusion could unlock a drug-free treatment for arthritis.  The computer-generated mind trick has been tested on a small sample of sufferers and found that in 85 per cent of cases it halved their pain.

Research is still in the early stages, but initial results suggest the technology, called Mirage, could help patients improve mobility in their hands by reducing the amount of pain they experience.  For the illusion to work patients place their hand inside a box containing a camera, which then projects the image in realtime onto a screen in front of them.

The subject then sees their arthritic fingers being apparently stretched and shrunk by someone gently pushing and pulling from the other side of the box.

Chance finding
The Mirage mind trick has been developed by The University of Nottingham's Psychology department. It was first used at an open day last year as part of research project into the way our brains put together what we see and feel happening to our bodies.  The machine was a big hit with children at first, but it was one of their grandparents who made an unexpected discovery.

Dr Catherine Preston, from Nottingham Trent University, who is collaborating on the study said: "The grandmother wanted to have a go, but warned us to be gentle because of the arthritis in her fingers.

"We were giving her a practical demonstration of illusory finger stretching when she announced, 'My finger doesn't hurt any more', and asked whether she could take the machine home with her. We were just stunned - I don't know who was more surprised, her or us."

The chance find was followed up by recruiting 20 volunteers with osteoarthritis to put Mirage to the test.  The subjects averaged 70 years old and had all been clinically diagnosed with arthritic pain in their hands and fingers. Before starting the test they were asked to rate their pain from 0-20, with 0 indicating no pain and 20 representing the most unbearable pain they could imagine.

Pam Tegerdine, from Nottingham, volunteered for the first study. She has suffered with osteoarthritis since her 30s and now has constant pain in her hands, feet, and lower back.  Physiotherapy and numerous prescription drugs help, but she said the optical-illusion technology was like nothing she had ever experienced.

"It was a very weird sensation, but as my finger was being 'stretched' it felt more and more comfortable. I just wanted it to stay like that, to keep that image in my head. If this could lead to a drug-free treatment for arthritis then that would be fantastic...  FULL ARTICLE,   also BBC4 interview

Chakra visualizations as high-level user interfaces.
So how do we account for these 'high-level' mental projections and visualized models having effects on the 'low-level' structures of the body such as cells, neurones and hormones? A possible analogy might be with the levels of  'user interfaces' to computer systems.  

The low level structure of a computer consists of millions of microscopic semiconductor devices, which are difficult and tedious for the user to access and manipulate in any sensible fashion. For example, the lowest level user interface to the oldest computers consisted of sixteen switches and a seventeenth ACCEPT switch on the front panel.

A low level user-interface

The user set the computer going by programming in the bootstrap routine as double-byte 'words' by setting each of the 16 bit switches, then pressing the 17th ACCEPT switch, and doing this sequentially until the entire bootstrap routine had been loaded. A single wrong switch position in the sequence of 16-bit words would invalidate the entire operation.  After this, the user could use higher level interfaces such as punched tape, cards, or later technological marvels such as teletypes. 

Slightly higher level interfaces were cathode ray tubes, where sequences of commands could be typed in on a keyboard (anyone remember MS-DOS?). Later on came the WIMPS (Windows, Icons, Menu, Pointing Device) interfaces and desktop metaphors which are ubiquitous nowadays.

This analogy with computer interfaces demonstrates how the more visual and tactile an interface becomes, the more useful it is to the user.  In contrast to the old 16-bit switch banks, these modern graphical user interfaces bear no obvious correspondence to the basic 'anatomy' of the computer, yet they are far more powerful.

So might these chakra visualizations and similar mental projections be the mind's 'software configuration' for providing access to otherwise complex and inaccessible anatomical, neurological and endocrine systems?  

A simple visual and tactile interface to a complex biological system
The idea of chakras appears throughout history and across different cultures

So is the chakra model normally hidden within everyone's subconscious, but has been discovered and brought to the levels of conscious awareness by meditators?  

Is the fact that we're already half aware of the model the reason that it seems to resonate even with Westerners who are increasingly using chakra visualizations as alternative therapies?

Crossing your arms 'relieves hand pain'
Crossing your arms across your body after injury to the hand could relieve pain, researchers suggest.

The results from both participants' reports and the EEG showed that the perception of pain was weaker when the arms were crossed over the "midline" - an imaginary line running vertically down the centre of the body.

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