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Meditation as a first-person method in the neuroscience of consciousness: a comparison of the information content and reliability of first-person data measured with meditators and non-meditators in a new Libet paradigm

In order to make sense of the physiological data collected in neuroscientific consciousness research, there is a need for reliable and accurate methods that capture subjective experience, the so-called first-person perspective. Recently, phenomenological inquiry methods have been developed that provide more reliable access to higher order cognitive processes. In order to also provide access to more subtle cognitive processes, there is a need to improve the introspective skills of the subjects. Interestingly, there are a number of practices in contemplative traditions that are designed to develop more refined and sustained forms of inward-looking attention. As a result, some research teams are now working with meditators to increase the reliability of introspection data in their experiments. Our own research groups have also successfully conducted several studies with a particularly talented meditator (Jo, Wittmann, Borghardt, Hinterberger, & Schmidt, 2014; Schmidt, Jo, Wittmann, & Hinterberger, 2016). However, since the assumption that meditators have better introspective access to mental processes has not yet been empirically tested, such studies are not yet on a solid scientific foundation.

The present project will therefore test whether first-person data collected from meditators are more accurate and reliable than those from non-meditators and whether they are meaningful for neuroscience research. To this end, 10 experienced meditators and 10 subjects in a control group will perform a novel version of Libet's voluntary movement execution experiment and report introspectively on the decision-making process. Our previous research using this paradigm has shown that positive and negative phases of slow cortical potentials (SCP) in the EEG, have different effects on the experience of movement execution.

In our modified version of the Libet experiment, real-time EEG neurofeedback is used to present runs during positive and negative phases of the SCP. Participants are then asked about their experience of movement execution during the two types of phases using a so-called micro-phenomenological interview (MPI). The MPI allows for the investigation of experiences of high temporal accuracy (on the order of .25 s) and is therefore particularly well suited to cognitive research paradigms. In addition, the MPI allows for the uncovering of structures of experience that are shared by multiple participants. In addition, the MPI provides a range of instruments to test the reliability and validity of the collected first-person reports. These include a range of verbal, paraverbal and nonverbal cues, as well as procedures for intersubjective validation and matching with neuroscience data. Using these instruments, as well as linguistic analyses, we will compare the reliability and validity of first-person reports collected from experienced meditators and non-meditators. Consistent with previous findings, we hypothesize that meditators, when interviewed using phenomenological methods, will be able to access and report deeper layers of experience compared to non-meditators, and that their first-person data will have a better fit to neurophysiological data as a consequence.

As a result, we expect to make an important contribution to the field of consciousness studies and contemplative science. Furthermore, our study will contribute to understanding the experiential nature of brain activity recorded in the Libet paradigm, one of the most discussed paradigms in consciousness science.


Project Management:

Prof. Dr. Stefan Schmidt



Lukas Hecker

Prisca Bauer, PhD

Dr.Fynn-Mathis Trautwein


External cooperation partners:

Dr.Marc Wittmann

Han Gue Jo

Funding: BIAL Foundation

Relevant publications and results

Schmidt, S., Jo, H.-G., Wittmann, M., & Hinterberger, T. (2016). 'Catching the waves' - slow
cortical potentials as moderator of voluntary action. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68,
639-650. doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.06.023