Controlling your mind to sharpen your senses

We may dream of having an owl's hearing or a cat's vision. But if certain senses are more highly developed in animals, it's largely thanks to their anatomy. However, we do know that it's possible to sharpen our senses, as is the case for the visually impaired, whose senses of hearing and touch are well above the norm. What if it were possible to sharpen our senses using only the power of the mind?

German researchers at Ruhr-Unviersity Bochum and Ludwig-Maximilians-University München used a group of meditators to study the impact of mental concentration on the sense of touch. The goal was to determine whether it would be possible to improve tactile perception through targeted mental training.

The participants all had several years of experience with Zen meditation, a practice found in Buddhism. Accompanied by the researchers, the meditators participated in a three day retreat at the Benediktushof spiritual center in Germany. They meditated in silence for eight hours each day according to Zen practice, which consists of observing one’s thoughts and surroundings.

For two hours each day, the researchers asked half of the participants to focus on their index finger during the meditation and to become aware of any sensory percepts in this part of the body. The other six hours were spent practicing classical meditation.

The participants’ tactile acuity was then measured using a standard tactile discrimination test. The researchers measured how far apart two tactile stimuli needed to be for them to be perceived as being two distinct points (rather than a single point). The results were convincing: the scores of participants who meditated on their index finger for two hours each day improved by 17%. In comparison, the visually impaired generally score 15 to 25% higher than sighted individuals. No improvement was seen in the group that meditated for eight hours a day without focusing on the index finger.

“The results of our study challenge what we know about learning mechanisms in the brain. Our concept of neuroplasticity must be extended, because mental activity seems to induce learning effects similar to active stimulation and physical training,” suggests Hubert Dinse, director of the Bocham Neural Plasticity Lab and a co-author on the study.

Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to adapt and restructure itself according to the environment. Over the last several years, studies have shown that training can affect brain plasticity. Currently, new studies such as this one have gone further by suggesting that the mind, without any physical stimulation, can itself cause these changes in perception and plasticity.
Source: Philipp S.T., Kalisch T., Wachtler T., Dinse H.R. Enhanced tactile acuity through mental states. Scientific Reports, 2015; 5: 13549 doi: 10.1038/srep13549

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