Attentional Effort, Mindfulness, and Altered States of Consciousness Experiences Following Quadrato Motor Training
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The scientific study of movement-related contemplative practices has proceeded without much attention to the range of psychological and phenomenological changes thought to occur during the practice. Quadrato Motor Training (QMT) is a specifically structured walking meditation, recently found to improve creativity and reflectivity, as well as neuroplasticity. This paper presents first-person reports related to QMT-induced experiences, derived from both practitioners of breathing meditation (BM) who practiced the QMT for 1 week (n = 15) compared to 4 weeks of daily training (n = 14) and control non-BM practitioners who practiced the QMT for 4 weeks of daily training (n = 14). Following factor analysis, the reported experiences were classified into three categories: Attentional Effort, Mindfulness, and Altered States of Consciousness (ASC). Our analysis revealed significant group differences, with increased ASC and attentional effort experiences reported by the groups that practiced the QMT for 4 weeks, but not in the group that practiced it for only 1 day. We further build on the previous QMT-induced electrophysiological and cognitive changes and the meditation literature to posit the possible underlying mechanisms of QMT-induced ASC experiences, in order to suggest a novel interpretation of QMT that calls attention to its structural similarities with meditation. By providing and contextualizing these reports of QMT-induced experiences, scientists, clinicians, and meditators can gain a more informed view of the range of experiences that can be elicited by whole-body contemplative practices.
KeywordsMovement Mindfulness Consciousness Attention Effort Meditation
While the study of meditation-induced mindfulness, attention, and ASC experiences have been extensively developed over the years, as well as their underlying mechanisms (e.g., Hölzel et al. 2011; Raffone and Srinivasan 2010; Sood and Jones 2013; Vaitl et al. 2005), movement-meditation research in this context is very rare, with a few exceptions (e.g., Tart 1972). “Meditative Movement” has been defined as a practice involving movement, a meditative state of mind, attention to the breath, and deep relaxation (Larkey et al. 2009) with varying levels of evidence for the efficacy of Qigong and Tai Chi, including bone health, cardiopulmonary fitness, and related biomarkers (for reviews, see Jahnke et al. 2010; Payne and Crane-Godreau 2013).
The Quadrato Motor Training (QMT) is a new specifically structured movement meditation aimed at improving creativity and reflectivity, as well as lowering habitual patterns of thought and movement (Ben-Soussan et al. 2013, 2015; Venditti et al. 2014). The QMT requires a state of enhanced attention, as it combines dividing attention to the motor response and cognitive processing for producing the correct direction of movement to the next point in the Quadrato space, in response to a verbal command (Ben-Soussan et al. 2013, 2015). Similar to other mindful movement practices, such as walking meditation, Yoga and Tai Chi, the QMT requires balance control. Yet, in comparison to other mindful movement practices, QMT has the advantage of being a relatively short training (possibly several minutes) and can be practiced in limited spaces. Several studies reported that a month of daily QMT can improve cognitive functions, namely enhance creativity, improve reading, as well as enhance alpha synchronization (Ben-Soussan et al. 2013, 2015).
In fact, a model was recently published suggesting the possible mechanisms through which QMT may exert its beneficial effects on cognition, focusing on alpha (8–12 Hz) activity as a possible mediating mechanism allowing cognitive improvement and molecular and anatomical changes (Ben-Soussan et al. 2015). This model is in line with the general notion that synchronization does not serve solely for binding of sensory attributes, but the overall integration of all dimensions of experience, including emotions, physical sensations, and cognition (Thompson and Varela 2001). Together, these emphasize the importance of integrated training paradigms involving these three trajectories, as well as the need to investigate the interconnected relationship between bodily motion, emotion, and cognition (Pesce et al. 2015; Paoletti and Selvaggio 2011).
While previous research on QMT has demonstrated its effect on various cognitive and electrophysiological aspects, it is equally important to study its effect on subjective experience (Varela 1996). As Varela and Shear (1999, p. 4) have claimed: “To accept experience as a domain to be explored is to accept the evidence that life and mind includes that first-person dimension which is a trademark of our ongoing existence.” Consequently, in the current study, we present the results of analyzing first-person reports concerning subjective experience during QMT practice, and in particular on emotions, physical sensations, and cognition. Breathing meditation has consistently been reported to improve emotional, physical, and cognitive functions, as well as to enhance alpha synchronization (Brown and Gerbarg 2005, 2009).
Meditation has been generally categorized into two types: focused attention (FA) meditation, requiring voluntary focusing of attention on a chosen object, and open monitoring (OM) meditation, which involves non-reactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment (Lutz et al. 2009). Mindfulness is the core feature of OM meditation, which involves non-reactive monitoring of the content of experience from moment to moment (Lutz et al. 2009). Similar to most meditative techniques which lie somewhere on a continuum between the poles of these two general methods (Cahn and Polich 2006). QMT includes both aspects, requiring both divided attention between body and external verbal commands, in parallel to waiting to the next command (Ben-Soussan et al. 2013, 2014).
In the present study, we examined the first-person experience during and following QMT, in breathing meditation (BM) practitioners as well as in novices. Since we expected an interaction between previous breath-focused meditation and subsequent QMT practice, we examined the effects of QMT on emotional, physical, and cognitive experience and the interaction with previous meditation experience, investigating the added value of this movement-contemplative practice for individuals previously engaged with BM. The main research questions that guided us were as follows: (1) Is there a different QMT-induced subjective experience following 28 days of daily QMT compared to 1 session of QMT? (2) Is there a different QMT-induced subjective experience following 28 days of daily QMT in practitioners of BM compared to non-practitioners?
Forty-three healthy volunteers participated in this three-group study. Two groups of participants comprised practitioners of the same BM, in which the participants focus their attention on the sensations of the breath in their body, keep their attention on their breathing, and when their mind wanders, they refocus their attention on their breathing. These participants were recruited from Ideas—Knowledge of Excellence, International School of Self-Awareness, Italy (http://schoolofselfawareness.org/index.php/pages/page/40). This institute trains individuals with the aim to foster contemplative awareness and psychological growth. The BM practitioners had an average of about 900 BM hours, for an average period of 5 years. The first BM group comprised 14 individuals (8 females, 6 males), who completed a 28-day program of daily QMT (M28, 35 ± 6 years in age, 904 BM hours). A second BM group comprised 15 practitioners (9 females, 6 males), who completed a single session of QMT (M1, 34 ± 4 years in age, 905 BM hours). The meditators were allocated randomly to the M1 and M28 groups. Our third group comprised 14 control participants, non-practitioners of meditation (8 females, 6 males), who completed a 28-day program of daily QMT (C28, 34 ± 5 years in age). All practitioners practiced their meditation individually. The C28 group was recruited in Israel, comprising mostly university students, and served to control for the previous meditation expertise of the participants. The study was approved by the ethics committee of Bar-Ilan University. The participants were examined as a part of a physiological study (Ben-Soussan et al. 2014).
Upon entering the lab, the participant provided written informed consent. Then, we recorded baseline electrophysiological data for 5 min (2.5 min eyes open and fixed and then 2.5 min eyes closed). Subsequently, two tasks were presented (data not reported here). All data were collected both before and after a single QMT session lasting 7 min. The semi-structured interview was completed following the second task session. Groups M28 and M1 were examined in the cognitive neurophysiology laboratory of the Research Institute for Neuroscience Education and Didactics, Fondazione Patrizio Paoletti, in Italy. Group C28 was examined in the MEG unit at the Gonda Brain Research Center, Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. Most of the participants participated in other research with us (Ben-Soussan et al. 2014). The experimental protocol and the experimenter (T. D-B-S.) were the same in both labs. Interviews were conducted at the lab following the 28-day program of daily QMT for M28 and C28 and following the single session of QMT for M1.
The QMT was developed by Patrizio Paoletti, as part of an education model (Paoletti 2008). The QMT requires standing at one corner of a 0.5 m × 0.5 m square and making movements to different corners of the square in response to verbal instructions given by an audiotape recording indicating the next corner to which the participant should move (“one four” means move from corner 1 to corner 4). There are three optional directions of movement, and the movement is always in one step. We used a specific sequence of movements provided by Patrizio Paoletti, founder of the QMT training. Each movement can be forward, backward, left, right, or diagonal. The instructions direct participants to keep the eyes focused straight ahead, hands loose at the side of the body. They are also told to immediately continue with the next instruction and not to stop due to mistakes. At each corner, there are three possible directions to move (for example, from corner 1, the participant can move to corner 2, to corner 3, or to corner 4). The training thus consists of 12 possible movements (3 directions × 4 corners): 2 forward, 2 backward, 2 left, 2 right, and 4 diagonals. The participant is required to move from one corner to another according to the number on the recording. For example, if the sequence required is 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 2, 4, 3, 1…, this means moving to the first corner, then to the second, then back to the first, and so on.
A semi-structured oral interview regarding QMT-induced experience was conducted. The study team developed an interview guideline that was piloted in preliminary work to assess if the information that was needed to answer the research question was being produced. The final interview guideline included questions regarding the participant’s physical, emotional, and cognitive experiences during QMT. All questions were open-ended. QMT-related experiences have not been well-documented in the literature; thus, it was crucial that the interview content be driven by the participant, and not by the researcher. The duration of the interview was 20 min on average. Participants responded freely to the initial three open-ended questions: (1) “What was your physical experience during QMT?” (2) “What was your emotional experience during QMT?” and (3) “What was your cognitive experience during QMT?” Additional queries included non-specific prompts for elaboration such as “Can you tell me more about that?” In order to minimize the researcher’s influence on interview content, directed queries about specific experiences or queries that interrupted the narrative were discouraged.
The content units with some examples
Stability and harmony of the body
“In the beginning there was tension, now there was more lightness, the body was relaxed during the movement….” (M28-10)
“A sensation of stability. Also when I moved from point to point, I felt really secure. A sense of equilibrium.” (M28-11)
“I felt tired during and after…” (C28-15).
“In the beginning it made me very tired.” (C28-10)
“It made me feel relaxed.” (M1-15)
“In the emotional level I was calm, also when I made a mistake one time on the instruction.” (M1-17)
“…Stress. More in the beginning, afterwards less.” (M1-20)
“…Towards the end I rebelled…I didn’t enjoy it like I enjoyed in the start.” (C28-7)
Attention and concentration
“In the beginning I had to be very concentrated in order to perform it”. (C28-3)
“It made me more focused and oriented both after and during the training.” (C28-10)
“Many times I was not focused, I would hear but I would think thoughts to pass time…My thoughts would wander”. (M28-14)
“…Even when my mind wondered because I thought what I have to do 5 minutes after, the fact that I have to perform the training and focus on it, it kept me in the frame.” (C28-6)
“Being in the waiting”
“…I remained with the instruction, and then the step became a part, related to the rest of the point, ‘2’ is within a specific structure. And this made me more accurate, calmer. I understood that I am being told exactly where to go, and where to put my legs”. (M28-9)
“There was a waiting for the command…” (M1-16)
“… Many times a certain geometrical figure came, both during the training, and following the training.” (M28-2)
“…I could close my eyes for a brief moment and see in my head a cathedral. A cathedral with light…And I saw these geometric figures.” (M28-17)
“…there are more possibilities. There is not only one possibility. As if all is possible. Before, the mind knew everything is possible. But now it is incarnated, with unusual answers to different situations… You see that you can choose. It is as if a new world opened….” (M28-17)
“I had more intuitions; the thought becomes more dynamic….” (M28-26)
Sense of wonder
“…This surprised me.” (C28-10)
“…how could that happen from a 5 minute practice?” (M28-17)
Altered perception of time
“An elongation of time, after a while, I had time to move from point to point, I didn’t have to be in hurry. I was faster and the exercise was slower.” (M1-18)
“In the last day, when I finish, the precision - I can do many more things in a time, which I didn’t think I can do.” (M1-19)
Altered perception of space
“The feeling of space was lost to me. I did not know where I was. I was floating in space.” (M1-20)
“Space disappeared to me. I have never had experiences like this, that there was no space. Everything was one.” (M1-27)
Three-factor solution, with the factors (categories) assigned labels based on the content units loading on each
Altered State of Consciousness
Stability and harmony of the body
Attention and concentration
“Being in the waiting”
Sense of wonder
Altered perception of time
Altered perception of space
In order to obtain the individual final scores for each category, ASC, Mindfulness, and Attentional Effort, their sum (0–3) was computed separately for each participant. Data were then square-root (sqrt) transformed to normalize the score distribution.
Analysis of the first-person reports of QMT-induced experiences revealed 12 content units (Table 1), with three emerging categories following the factor analysis (Table 2: Mindfulness (63 % of the reports), Attentional Effort (27 %), and ASC (10 %)). ASC includes the content units spontaneous visualization, intuition, and sense of wonder (Glicksohn 1993; Tart 1972). The Mindfulness category included the content units “being in the waiting”, positive emotion, and stability and harmony of the body (Brown and Ryan 2003; Cahn and Polich 2006). Attentional Effort includes the content units attention and concentration, tiredness, and distraction (Kahneman 1973; Paoletti and Selvaggio 2011).
The content units found in the current study are in agreement with self-reports following meditation of subtle changes in a subjective state (Lazar et al. 2000; Shapiro et al. 2008). For example, an intense sense of happiness and bliss was reported in experienced meditators compared to novice meditators of Sahaja Yoga meditation (Aftanas and Golosheikin 2003). Lindahl et al. (2013) have further found meditation-induced spontaneous visualization of light experience. Mindfulness and Attentional Effort have also been reported following meditation (Shapiro et al. 2008). Several important content units were not further considered, given the results of the factor analysis. Thus, alterations in the sense of space and time, which have consistently been reported in the meditative literature (Austin 1998; Berkovich-Ohana et al. 2013) as well as in the ASC literature (Glicksohn 1993; Tart 1972; Vaitl et al. 2005). were reported but then excluded from the analysis. This may be due to the small sample size, as only about 10 % of the reports belonged in the ASC category. Note, however, that these experiences were predominantly reported by the participants with prior meditative experience, M1 and M28 (Fig. 1). Another important content unit excluded from the categories is negative emotion, often studied in meditation research (Chambers et al. 2008; Davidson et al. 2003; Davidson et al. 1976). Note, however, that these experiences were predominantly reported by the novice participants C28 (Fig. 1).
Attention-related experiences strongly emerged in the novices (C28), and to a lesser extent, in the meditators (M1 and M28). This is in line with the claim that meditation trains attention or Attentional Effort (Jensen et al. 2012; Jha et al. 2007; Lutz et al. 2009; Tang et al. 2007; Tang and Posner 2009). possibly in an expertise-related manner (Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007). This may suggest that non-practitioners had to invest more Attentional Effort in the QMT practice compared to meditators during the QMT (Hasenkamp et al. 2012; Hölzel and Ott 2006). Indeed, QMT may require similar effort until a level of expertise is achieved where attentional stability can be maintained with little or no effort (Malinowski 2013). In addition, Attentional Effort requires “fuel” for sustaining cognitive processing, which can easily run out in the untrained mind, leading to momentary tiredness (Glicksohn 2001; Kahneman 1973; Paoletti and Selvaggio 2011). The mindfulness experience occurring for the meditators (both M1 and M28) can be related to lasting changes in this dimension that persist in the meditator irrespective of being actively engaged in QMT (Austin 1998; Cahn and Polich 2006).
Mindfulness-related experiences emerged as the main reported experience in both meditation groups (M1 and M28). This is in line with many meditation models, which find attention and Attentional Effort to be the core of mindfulness training (Malinowski 2013; Sood and Jones 2013; Sperduti et al. 2012; Tang and Posner 2009). The fact that the Mindfulness score in M28 was significantly higher than that in the novices C28 is in accord with previous studies reporting higher trait Mindfulness following meditation (Brown and Ryan 2003; Cahn and Polich 2006). Another interpretation of the data suggests better capacity for identifying experiences in M28 compared to C28 (Baer et al. 2004; Paoletti and Selvaggio 2011). Alternatively, this could be due to the cultural background and country differences, as M28 were Italian, while C28 were Israeli. Although this interpretation is feasible, it can be partly ruled out, given that mindfulness-related experiences are thought to be universal (Gifford-May and Thompson 1994).
Although various traditions differ in the conceptualization of the stages of attainment (Goleman 1988). it is claimed that they resemble each other in the structure of the depth of experiences (Hölzel and Ott 2006; Vago and Silbersweig 2012). Irrespective of the meditation technique, advanced practitioners report rather similar experiences, which can be arranged along a dimension of meditation depth, ranging from an effortful struggle with the requirements of the chosen technique to the realization of the fundamental ground of all being, where all dualities dissolve (Hölzel and Ott 2006; Piron 2001). For example, Piron (2001) suggested that meditative experiences can be placed into five stages along a dimension of increasing depth. The first stage, hindrances, includes difficulties in meditation like boredom, impatience, and problems with motivation and concentration. The second stage, relaxation, contains a positive feeling, inner peace, and calmness. The third stage, concentration, describes the experience of being detached from thoughts, having a deep understanding or insight and feeling centered; the fourth stage, essential qualities, includes feelings such as love, devotion, thankfulness, and connectedness. The last stage, non-duality, comprises the disappearance of cognitive processes and the experience of the unity of everything. Consequently, a question may arise, namely are the three components of Attentional Effort, Mindfulness, and ASC found following QMT gradual and thus dependent steps, or simply related to three independent attentional systems?
The three categories found in the current study may be hypothesized as three gradual steps, with similarities to Piron (2001). in which Attentional Effort found in the current study can be easily related to Piron’s first stage of hindrances. Mindfulness, as we defined our second category, is related to Piron’s second and third stages of relaxation and concentration and ASC to Piron’s fourth stage of essential qualities and to some extent fifth stage of non-duality (e.g., “Space disappeared to me. I have never had experiences like this, that there was no space. Everything was one”—M1-27, although this did not enter the final categories following the factor analysis). These can similarly be related to Goleman’s (1984) description of the stages of the path of concentration based on Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, namely the “material states,” “intermediate states,” and “formless states.” Thus, it can be suggested that the category of Attentional Effort found in the current study can be related to the material states, Mindfulness to the intermediate states, and ASC as preliminary formless states.
The number of experiences related to QMT-induced ASC of the BM practitioners was significantly higher in M28 compared to M1, emphasizing the added value of a month of QMT to meditation practitioners. Moreover, participating in a 4-week QMT program increased ASC in non-practitioners as well (with no significant difference from M28, albeit to a lower extent). Although ASC experiences can occur spontaneously, under circumstances unrelated to meditation (James 1985; Maslow 1964). many scholars see these steps as being gradual, one depending on the other (Goleman 1984; Hölzel and Ott 2006; Piron 2001; Vago and Silbersweig 2012). Perhaps QMT, by requiring divided attention, may exceptionally facilitate a process common to many meditative practices, namely the shift in the relationship between thoughts and feelings, which then may be observed as arising phenomena instead of occupying full attention (Wallace 1999).
Another interpretation may be related to embodiment (e.g., inducing gross levels of physical sensations). With embodiment, sensory and perceptual faculties are sharpened, thus allowing a greater sense of clarity or greater phenomenal intensity of experience (Gard et al. 2014). Similarly to Mindfulness meditation (Farb et al. 2012; Kerr et al. 2013). QMT may offer additional tools of embodiment and proprioception, and consequently related experiences for novice practitioners (such as C1). Since this is a preliminary examination, in order to minimize the effect of different meditation traditions, the study focused on one tradition. However, the main limitation of this study is the fact that the novices and the BM practitioners came from different countries, so we cannot rule out cultural differences. Future studies should also longitudinally follow the experience of QMT.
In conclusion, this study acknowledges the substantial potential for achieving increased attention, mindfulness, and ASC through movement meditations, both in meditation practitioners and non-practitioners, and sheds light on the relationship between contemplative movement-induced experiences and previous meditative experience.
This study was funded by grant CUP J87I10000960008 from the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, as part of the Italy-Israel R&D Cooperation Program.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
All procedures performed in the current study were approved and in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional ethical committee of Bar-Ilan University.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
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