People who are beginners at meditation often struggle to keep their attention focused on an object because of being lost in distraction. This can make meditation difficult, frustrating and time-consuming. Through this project, we will examine whether using advanced, high-resolution, and safe brain-based technology (functional MRI neurofeedback) can solve this issue. In other words, we aim to provide precise and live feedback of the brain dynamics of beginner meditators while they are meditating. Such live feedback can teach beginners to engage the desired brain state with the correct meditation technique. Our interdisciplinary team of engineers, psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, physicists and meditation practitioners aims to further develop understanding of the key brain mechanisms involved in meditation. We hypothesise that learning to meditate with precise live guidance from brain activity will improve the efficiency of future meditation practice, and make meditation less time-consuming and less frustrating for beginners.
University of Melbourne contributors:
Saampras Ganesan, PhD Candidate, School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology
Our team has made great progress in the first six months of receiving seed funding. Some highlights include:
Completed establishment and feasibility testing of fMRI neurofeedback system for the first time at the 7 Tesla functional MRI scanner in the University of Melbourne.
Concluded pilot study involving meditation without neurofeedback inside the 7 Tesla MRI scanner, to investigate and validate key brain areas subserving focused attention meditation in beginner meditators (see https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2023.01.02.522524v1 preprint for more details on this study).
Completed refinement of neurofeedback experimental design, which included calibration and testing of key variables, such as neurobiological source of feedback, length of paradigm, participant fatigue inside MRI scanner, participant instructions, and ordering of behavioural assessments pre- and post-MRI. This was performed through fMRI neurofeedback pilot scanningof 2 experienced meditators and 3 beginner meditators.
Evaluated the effect of breathing changes during meditation on fMRI signals and tested various methods for controlling breathing artefacts affecting neurofeedback signal.
Performed various fMRI phantom scans and offline simulations to identify and troubleshoot critical real-time data transmission bugs.
Forged international collaborations with Laureate institute for Brain research, Tulsa, USA and Harvard meditation program, USA to gain technical expertise and assistance in refining the experimental design and adopting novel technical features.
Preliminary findings from pilot experiments show that beginners at meditation can indeed learn to improve their quality of meditative focus on breathing sensations with support from live fMRI neurofeedback signals.
Project lead | Saampras Ganesan
Saampras is undertaking his PhD with the Biomedical Engineering department at the University of Melbourne. His research is focused on developing and improving brain-based technological solutions to support meditation practice and make it accessible to more people. Since childhood, he has always been curious about the brain. He has a broad background in biomedical engineering, robotics engineering and neuroimaging, along with a natural inclination towards psychological mindedness. He has also been meditating for about 4 years. This has helped him become increasingly sensitive to many practical challenges encountered during the process of meditation, especially at the beginner stage.
These experiences together have molded his motivation to pursue this interdisciplinary project that delves into neuroimaging, engineering, and contemplative science. He and his team have recently established capacity for real-time neurofeedback at the 7T MRI scanner in Melbourne Brain Centre, to be able to conduct this study. Furthermore, his previous experiences in academic teaching and content development have assisted him in designing the project to be as learner- and beginner-friendly as possible.
Outside of research, Saampras enjoys travel, cooking, exercise, playing the guitar and singing. He also tries to squeeze in a meditation session everyday, and over time this has helped him develop a healthy space between his responses and emotions & thoughts.