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Neural mechanisms, state effects, and trait correlates of meditation-based changes in self-awareness.

A central aspect of human experience is the sense of being a perceiving, thinking, feeling and acting subject, associated with a personal identity as well as a biographical narrative. Current conceptualizations of this multifaceted phenomenon converge in terms of a dual differentiation: the minimal self describes the immediate experiencing subject that inhabits the body and is the originator of thoughts and actions. The narrative self, in turn, involves a reflected knowledge of what it means to be "I." While disturbances in self-awareness are thought to underlie various mental illnesses, a change in the self is also thought to be a central mechanism mediating effects of mindfulness meditation on well-being as well as social skills. To contribute to a more comprehensive mechanistic understanding of these processes, this project investigates meditation-induced changes in self-experience.

In a first project, data recorded in a study at the University of Haifa, Israel (see cooperation partners) with 46 trained meditators will be analyzed. These are MEG (magnetoencephalography) data, which were measured while the participants were supposed to influence minimal self-experience through meditation. Detailed descriptions of the subjective experience (based on so-called micro-phenomenological interviews) suggest that various dimensions of the minimal self were attenuated or suspended altogether, including the spatial anchoring in the body and the (mental) acting self. In the analysis of the data, these phenomenological descriptions are differentially related to different neuronal MEG markers (specific frequency and connectivity values as well as event-correlated magnetic fields), which are related to the mentioned aspects of the minimal self. We thus follow the approach of neurophenomenology, according to which the study of mental processes explicitly includes subjective descriptions and relates them reciprocally to neural data. In another study, also in cooperation with the University of Haifa, we investigate correlations in trait markers of mindfulness, minimal and narrative self, and social interaction (identity and compassion).

In a Freiburg-based pilot project, building on previous research, we pursue the hypothesis that meditation influences multisensory integration processes that underlie the minimal self based on current theoretical models. For this purpose, existing experimental procedures that allow manipulating multisensory integration processes using virtual reality (VR) will be adapted and applied.

Furthermore, in a project funded by the BIAL Foundation, neurofeedback will be used to signal in real time the neural markers measured in the first mentioned study. This approach should allow investigating the (causal) implication of these markers in the meditation process and at the same time to refine the understanding of the neuronal processes contributing to minimal self-experience.

We use the active inference approach as the overarching theoretical framework of the project. This is closely related to computational models of the brain (predictive processing). In this context, meditation can be understood as a suspension of expectation-driven mental and physical processes, which enables qualitatively new ways of experiencing and acting to emerge. Overall, we hope that these studies will shed new light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness meditation and at the same time contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the embodied self.


Project Management:

Dr. Fynn-Mathis Trautwein


Students and research assistants:

Niklas Hein; Patrick Röhr


External cooperation partners:

Prof. Dr. Aviva Berkovich-Ohana

Prof. Dr. Yochai Ataria

Prof. Dr. Bigna Lenggenhager



DFG Fellowship (2018-2019)

DFG Return Fellowship 2020

BIAL Foundation


Relevant publications and results:

Nave, O., Trautwein, F.-M., Ataria, Y., Dor-ziderman, Y., Schweitzer, Y., Fulder, S., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2021). Self-boundary dissolution in meditation: A phenomenological investigation. Brain Sciences, 11(819), 1–32. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci11060819

Berkovich-Ohana, A., Dor-Ziderman, Y., Trautwein, F.-M., Schweitzer, Y., Nave, O., Fulder, S., & Ataria, Y. (2020). The hitchhiker's guide to neurophenomenology - The case of studying self boundaries with meditators. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01680/full.

Millière, R., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Roseman, L., Trautwein, F.-M., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2018). Psychedelics, meditation, and self-consciousness. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(September), 1475. https://doi.org/10.3389/FPSYG.2018.01475

Trautwein, F.-M., Naranjo, J. R., & Schmidt, S. (2016). Decentering the Self? Reduced Bias in Self- vs. Other-Related Processing in Long-Term Practitioners of Loving-Kindness Meditation. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01785

Trautwein, F.-M., Naranjo, J. R., & Schmidt, S. (2014). Meditation Effects in the Social Domain: Self-Other Connectedness as a General Mechanism? In S. Schmidt & H. Walach (Eds.), Meditation -
Neuroscientific Approaches and Philosophical Implications (pp. 175-198). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-01634-4