Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV. One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010]. Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions. More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen. Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use. It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use. That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.
Very neat indeed! although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical. This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough. In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds). Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).
The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present. As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”
Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions? This research makes it seem possible. Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators? Who knows. As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity. One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,
“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.
Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it. Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!