Excavating Connections: Exploring Brain Waves and Connections in Mind-Wandering and Trance States

September 7, 2023
IONS Science Team

In the intricate realm of consciousness lies a phenomenon that has both puzzled and intrigued humanity for centuries—trance. A type of altered state of consciousness, trance states cause the mind to transcend its ordinary boundaries by quieting the cognitive chatter that often fills our minds and altering levels of self-awareness, cognition, affect, orientation to time and place, wakefulness, and perception. Someone in a trance may not feel the passage of time, may feel that the boundaries of their body have dissolved, a slowness or cessation of thought, and vivid visual imagery. 

There are various ways to induce trance, such as using chanting, music, drumming, binaural beats, or even fasting. Within this intricate landscape, the depth of trance varies. From light states like daytime reverie to the profound depths of trance channeling or hypnosis, consciousness unfolds like petals of a flower, revealing layers of awareness. 

By inducing mental silence, trance states can move the mind away from its propensity to meander, or what is called mind-wandering. But what lies at the heart of this mysterious state? How does trance relate to mind-wandering, and how are these two different states represented in the brain? That’s what we set out to explore in our new study, Evaluating brain spectral and connectivity differences between silent mind-wandering and trance states.

Trance channelers give insight

Certain individuals can easily slip into various depths of trance states at will, such as trance channelers, who use trance states to allow a supposed disincarnate entity/spirit to use their body to communicate directly through the channeler’s voice, body movements, etc. In new research, we investigated the delicate interplay between trance and mind-wandering with the help of trance channelers and advanced brain analysis techniques. 

Thirteen adult trance channelers were recruited for the study. During two separate sessions, participants would repeatedly alternate between doing five minutes of trance channeling and five minutes of mind-wandering while we recorded their brain activity with electroencephalography (EEG; a method of measuring the brain’s electric fields through electrodes attached to the head). For the trance condition, participants were asked to enter their trance channeling state, as usual, staying as still and quiet as possible. For the mind-wandering condition, they were given three optional scenarios to think about, such as thinking about all the places they had traveled to or wanted to travel in their life. Afterward, participants reported the depth of their trance states by using a scale from 0 for “Fully conscious” to 11 for “Fully unconscious.”

The study evaluated the differences in brain activity in different brain areas between trance and mind-wandering. We also compared the connectivity between different brain areas – or how they interact with each other – during these two states.

Different neural signatures

The brain has an array of different frequencies that are related to various activities. For example, when we’re fully awake and focused, we are likely to find beta waves being produced. When our eyes are closed and we are relaxed and calm, we expect to see alpha waves. 

When comparing trance versus mind-wandering in the study, we found different levels of frequencies in different parts of the brain. Taken together, the frequency patterns across the brain suggest that during trance states we see more internally-focused attention, as well as cognitive control to maintain a state of internal silence. Mind-wandering states, however, unveiled a different pattern of results, possibly indicating self-referential thinking and less cognitive control. These findings suggest that different brain regions orchestrate unique harmonies, defining the boundaries between trance and mind-wandering.

Zooming out to look at overall brain connectivity, in contrast to what we expected, no significant differences emerged between the two states. The brain’s intricate web seemed to maintain its overall connections, regardless of whether the mind was wandering or dancing in trance. 

Although whole-brain connectivity – or synchrony between different parts of the brain speaking to each other – between the two states did not show differences across all the participants, trance is a highly subjective state where each individual has a personalized experience. So, we compared whole-brain connectivity against the participants’ subjective reports of how deeply they each went into trance. Since previous studies have shown that there is increased whole-brain connectivity in other altered states of consciousness, we predicted that the deeper the level of trance the participant reported, the more whole-brain connectivity would be observed. However, we found that the deeper the participant went into trance, the less coordination, synchrony and coherence we saw between different brain areas during trance states, especially for higher frequencies (beta, gamma) that are associated with being alert. This might suggest that brain activity in each region becomes more localized in trance. 

What does this mean?

Although the study was exploratory, it confirmed that the subjectively different states of trance and mind-wandering have different neural signatures. Since trance channeling is not a common skill found in the general public, this study was a unique opportunity to peer into the brain mechanics of this type of exceptional experience. These findings are important as we continue to map the connections between the mind, brain, and human experience. The realm of consciousness continues to inspire researchers to venture into uncharted territories, seeking to uncover the hidden codes that shape our experiences.

As we stand on the threshold of understanding, let us marvel at the complexities of our own experiences. Trance and mind-wandering, two sides of the same coin, invite us to peer into the depths of our consciousness and ponder the intricate symphony that shapes our reality.

Read the publication this blog was based on

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