A couple of decades ago, meditation was considered fringy. Today it is progressively being embraced by all walks of life. Its beneficial effects for general wellbeing have become widely acknowledged, especially for improving emotional regulation and the immune system, reducing depression and increasing concentration. Dr. Aviva Berkovich-Ohana trained to be a meditation instructor, but she wanted to take its impact one step further. Drawn to the academic world and with a desire to bridge her interest in the natural sciences (she has an MSc in Biology), she knocked on many doors to broaden and fortify scientific study of meditation. “I am driven by a curiosity to understand consciousness and sense of self, as well as altered states of consciousness and self, which can broaden the understanding of such experiences available to the human mind,” she explains.
At a time when the academia was still largely unfamiliar with the field, she was repeatedly turned down by researchers who then saw no place for a meeting of the two worlds. She finally achieved collaboration and conducted a PhD in Neurobiology on meditation at Bar-Ilan University, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Since then she has opened many doors to researching aspects of meditation and its Western version known as “mindfulness”. Now she is balancing interconnected applications of study, researching and teaching at the University of Haifa’s Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center, and in the Departments of Counseling & Human Development, and Learning, Instruction & Teacher Education. “I am conducting neurobiological studies that employ a broad spectrum of tools, including EEG, MEG (magnetoencephalography) and functional MRI, to learn how mindfulness – a trained contemplative state of nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment – and self-transcendence, change brain structure and activity.”
This work is conducted in collaboration with proficient meditation practitioners, who undergo neuroimaging while practicing varying levels of meditation. Her research has shown that the primary change in brain activity during meditation is in the default mode network (DMN) of the brain. This network of interacting regions of the brain is usually most active when a person’s mind is wandering and concerned about self and the past/future, which can trigger stress and anxiety. “When a person is practicing mindfulness, DMN activity is reduced, giving the individual a calmer state of mind and a way to experience the here and now better,” Berkovich-Ohana explains.
Another study that she has led explored the experience of dissolving the sense of self-world boundary, from both phenomenological and neuroscientific directions. The MEG results indicated neural plasticity in several regions of the brain known to mediate the experiential unity of self and body and the self’s representational system. “This data may hold clinical implications for populations with post-trauma and ADHD,” she says. Berkovich-Ohana is also studying possible applications of mindfulness in the field of education. “I am very keen to see the practice infused in schools and informal education environments and I believe new research will help bring it into the fold,” she says and adds that a number of case studies have already shown the benefits of meditation for children with and without pathological symptoms. “It increases attention, creativity, meta-cognition and even altruism. My current research of mindfulness intervention for children with ADHD builds on this point. In people with ADHD, the DMN is more active. So reducing that activity may help them focus and reduce mindwandering.” She also trains students of teacher education in mindfulness meditation, contemplative pedagogy and their neurobiological effects, enabling them to advance the practice in their work. “The University of Haifa is truly pioneering in its openness to this field, to influencing broader research and developing new models for wellbeing. The bottom line,” Berkovich-Ohana emphasizes, “is that empirical research is opening doors to mindfulness training that can benefit just about anyone. And what is really exciting is its potential contribution to therapy for behavioral and neurological disorders.”