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Insights Journey into the heart of contemplative science
Journey into the heart of contemplative science

The Senses: A Pathway to Well-being Can foraging for sensation make us healthier and happier? By Norman Farb & Zindel Segal

A woman stops to appreciate a flowering plant in the woods, an act of sense foraging.
We invite readers to explore your own interpretation.

Artist: Sirin Thada

Contemplative training promises relief from suffering. This claim lies at the heart of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, and it also emerges from decades of clinical intervention research. Through practices like meditation, we aspire to be liberated from restrictive patterns of mind that keep us from living more consciously. The mind, after all, is the home of all our judgments, anxieties, cravings, and aversions. Yet historically, contemplative practices didn’t start with the mind. Instead, practitioners were prompted to start from the outside by attending to sensation. The same remains largely true today; rather than wrestle with harmful mental habits right from the start, many practices first suggest that we cultivate awareness of sensory information—sight, sound, or internal bodily sensation, for example—as it enters our mind.

The traditional approach of focusing on sensation is clearly communicated in the Anapanasati Sutra1 one of the most widely studied Buddhist texts on stabilizing the mind and achieving deep insight through mindfulness practice. It begins:

Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing out short.’

Yet given the variety of meditation practices and reflective techniques available, one can’t help but wonder: why is this the practice? Why place sensation squarely in the spotlight, rather than focusing on mental phenomena such as unhelpful thoughts or emotions that more obviously cause us difficulty?

Western psychology, for example, has generally emphasized working with thoughts and emotions, consigning sensation to the margins. From developing more efficient routines in the workplace to challenging troublesome thoughts with a therapist, contemporary wisdom suggests that we aim directly at mental habits rather than stopping to smell the roses. Yet these four lines from the Anapanasati Sutra point to sensation as the starting point for transformation.

Modern psychology and neuroscience are only now catching up to this notion. From a scientific lens, there may be good reasons for beginning with sensation when one embarks on a path of personal improvement and relief from suffering. There may even be advantages to focusing on the breath compared to the external senses, as the sutra recommends. Our research over the past two decades has helped us better understand how sensation relates to human flourishing.

The Surprising Role of Sensation

Our story begins not with the senses, but with the self. Self-knowledge, after all, seems to lie at the heart of pride and suffering alike. Parents want their children to have high self-esteem, and to experience love of self. Moreover, people who have negative beliefs about themselves and their place in the world often suffer from anxiety or depression. So perhaps one way to understand mindfulness is by how it changes our beliefs about the self.

The stage was set in the early 2000s, with scientific evidence emerging that our brains are wired for thinking about the self, or what cognitive scientists call “self-reference.” During this process,2 a set of brain areas known as the default mode network (DMN) become active. Prior to this finding, it was known that the DMN activated3 when the brain was at rest, while participants were ostensibly “doing nothing” between attention or memory tasks in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. But in light of this data, it seemed that “taking a break” was synonymous with thinking about oneself, at least from the perspective of brain activity.

The mental health significance of the DMN came close behind, as researchers like Diego Pizzagalli and Yvette Sheline began to document that these brain regions were more powerfully activated in people suffering from depression.4 Their work shed light on why people might get stuck in negative self-evaluation—the brain appears to be biased towards automatic routines and habits over reflective, effortful processing.

At the same time, mounting evidence was showing that contemplative practices were helpful for stemming the rising global tide of depression and anxiety. Work by pioneering neuroscientists like Richie Davidson and Sara Lazar revealed that meditation could profoundly quiet5 brain activity, while clinical psychologists like Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale found that meditation also reduced vulnerability6 to depression. Was it possible that meditation worked by reducing this default mode of self-focused thinking? After all, classic meditation texts hold out the promise of “non-self,” “no-self,” or loosening the grip of self-concepts.7

In 2005, we ran our first neuroimaging study of mindfulness meditation. We modeled self-related thinking8 by asking participants to judge whether certain words described them or not (e.g., honest, cowardly, loyal). This was meant as a lab-controlled version of the “am I good enough?” judgments commonly found in depression. Unsurprisingly, the DMN lit up when participants were asked to judge themselves in this way.

Then came the critical test. We asked participants to read the trait words without any self-evaluation. Rather, we asked them to sense any physical sensations, feelings, or thoughts they might have in response to these words. We hypothesized that sensing would suppress the conceptual, reasoned self, and the impact of self-judgment along with it.

Because the mind is strongly biased towards self-related thinking, we enlisted people who had signed up for an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, under the assumption that these participants had at least started to learn how to reduce self-reference through meditation. We compared their responses to folks who had signed up for MBSR but not yet received it.

When we analyzed the fMRI data to see if meditators were able to reduce the DMN’s relentless push towards self-evaluation, our hypothesis showed limited success. When people focused on sensing their experience instead of judging, we did see less activity in DMN brain areas that supported judgment, though we found this effect in both the untrained and trained groups alike. So, we couldn’t find much evidence that people trained in mindfulness were better at reducing self-judgment. But at the same time, meditation seemed to be having effects in other parts of the brain—the meditators had greater activity in brain areas that supported body sensation.

Finally, we were struck by the possibility that mindfulness meditation’s benefits don’t come from getting rid of the self. What the data suggested was an expansion of the self in the form of immediate sensory input. Self-criticism was not weakened by suppressing the impulse to judge, but by enriching the self-concept with novel, conflicting, disruptive, and ultimately creative experiences. Rather than turning off the parts of the brain that support judging, people trained in mindfulness had learned to turn on other brain regions dedicated to sensation.

Rather than turning off the parts of the brain that support judging, people trained in mindfulness had learned to turn on other brain regions dedicated to sensation.

Stress Inhibits Sensation

So, mindfulness might expand rather than restrict the scope of the self, but this left us with a new question: why would this make someone feel better? Doesn’t suffering result from an overwhelming amount of bad feelings? To unpack this question, we needed to better understand how emotional stress affected the representations of self and sensation.

We developed a sadness-induction9 task where participants watched a series of sad and neutral film clips while their brains were being scanned. As anticipated, the DMN became much more active in the brains of our sad movie watchers. But, once again, something curious and unexpected showed up in our analysis.

We had hypothesized that people who felt more depressed or anxious would also habitually over-activate sensory parts of the brain, a sign that people were being flooded with sensations commonly appraised as negative emotion. Instead, we saw the opposite. In most people, sensory brain regions were deactivated in response to sad feelings. They simply shut down. For a person reporting greater levels of suffering, the mental habit was to restrict sensation in the face of stress rather than be overwhelmed by it.

Critically, it was this sensory suppression that ultimately entrenched suffering: in our study, the self-focused DMN was consistently activated by sadness regardless of how emotionally well someone was feeling at the time. Sadness inhibited activity in the insula, an important brain area that receives visceral signals from the body—and the more it shut down, the worse people felt.

Why would disabling sensation make things worse? People who were good at blocking out the senses were successful in avoiding momentary bad feelings, carving away the visceral sensations that make up the emotion in the moment. In a way, this makes sense, and can be helpful in the short-term to avoid unpleasant experiences. However, this strategy comes at a price: in our study, the cost of suppressing sensation was feeling sadder for longer. By getting rid of the dynamic mixture of momentary sensations, only the certainty of one’s sadness remained, unruffled by other feelings.

Nearly a decade later, we replicated10 these findings in a much larger sample of people with a history of recurrent depression. We employed the same sad mood paradigm before and after preventative therapy, and then followed our participants for two years to see how they fared. Replicating the results of our first study, sadness shut down sensory processing. However, we now found that it also predicted future depression: a higher-than-average intensity of sensory shutdown made a person 25 times more likely to relapse than someone with weaker suppression tendencies. What’s more, the tendency to suppress was not reversed by eight weeks of therapy; it seemed to be a scar of past depression that was resistant to change.

Yet hope was not lost. We found a brain area where activation was reduced following therapy, a region linked to planning action rather than sensation. Prior to therapy, relying on this region by reacting to stress with thinking, planning, and fixing seemed to “slam the brakes” on sensory regions. Eight weeks of therapy wasn’t enough to stop shutting out sensation, but it did help people take their foot off the brakes.

These findings diverge from prevailing wisdom, which is based on evidence that depressed patients have too much activity in the front of the brain. In other words, it has generally been held that overthinking–in the form of rumination11–perpetuates depression. The front of the brain is certainly important, but our work suggests that vulnerability occurs because relying on the frontal brain to solve emotional problems has the unintended consequence of limiting new information coming from our senses. It is this unseen inhibition that may be the hidden culprit, locking our minds into states of suffering.

The Brain is a Prediction Machine

It seems that sensation is important and perhaps even overlooked in our reactions to stress. A logical next step would then be to explore why the brain prioritizes thought over sensation. Why don’t we naturally move back into a state of balance, updating our narratives about the world after the stress has passed? To understand the dilemma, it may be useful to review a neuroscience idea growing in popularity: the predictive model of the brain.

The theory,12 popularized by scientist Karl Friston, goes something like this: our brains need to predict the world accurately enough to keep us alive. We walk around assuming we perceive the true world around us, but really we only have access to our own internal model of the world, our expectations. We use this model to interpret what is happening around us and predict what will come next, based on past experiences. Most of the time, we use sensory information mainly to confirm predictions, or if the sensations don’t match our predictions, we are surprised by what we find. That means that we are only really aware of what we are trying to predict. Yet what we focus on predicting is not universal but largely idiosyncratic. Each of us has our own set of priorities, and our brains filter through countless possibilities to focus on how to achieve them—whether it be comfort, safety, companionship, or excitement.

Because most of the time we are operating on our own prediction agendas, we largely live in our own universes. We are occupied with our own problems, our own habits of mind. Yet the world is still out there, binding us all together! And our senses tell us whether our predictions are right or wrong. The brain’s overriding objective is to reduce prediction error, or the gap between expectation (our prior knowledge of the world) and reality (the sensory information coming in about the present moment).

Because most of the time we are operating on our own prediction agendas, we largely live in our own universes.

The central axiom of this theory is that discrepancies between predictions and sensations lead to action. If you wake up and everything seems blurrier than usual (prediction error: the world does not usually look like this), you might rub your eyes, or you might just remember to put on your glasses. If the blurriness persists, you’d very likely go see an eye doctor. If you enter your house and notice a strange smell (prediction error: this is not how my house usually smells), you might suspect a gas leak and seek help.

Typically, we are used to meeting surprise (the prediction error) with some action that “fixes” the situation. We interpret the feeling of surprise to mean that something is wrong in the world and that we need to take action to fix it. This is the classic Western approach: when we’re able to act to reduce the error between prediction and sensation, we experience agency, the feeling that our actions make a difference. When successful, acting to resolve surprise provides a sense of order; yet when action fails, we suffer.

Taking action—working to change the world—is great when we touch something hot and must remove our hand from the stove, or when we start getting cranky because our blood sugar has crashed and we wisely eat a snack. Yet when it fails, that’s when we can feel stuck and hopeless. Further action often just intensifies these feelings.

What gets overlooked is that unexpected or surprising signals from our bodies (called interoceptive signals) do not always mean that something needs to be corrected. Instead, they can be a source of new knowledge about our bodies and relationship to the world. Vision researchers who initially proposed the predictive model of the brain recognized that not all surprise is met with action—after all, infants must forage within their sensory landscape for meaning to make sense of the world. Exploring our senses to discover something unexpected or ignored provides an alternative to always having to fix the world to justify our expectations. It gives us another gear to shift our minds into, one that doesn’t commit us to fixing anything when we realize that circumstances aren’t what we thought.

Viewing sensation in this way is foundational to contemplative traditions, where acknowledging the reality of our senses offers an opportunity to change ourselves rather than the world. Instead of trying to get rid of a sensory source of surprise, we might explore—or forage—canvassing our senses to better understand how the sensation violated some expectation, and see what led us to be surprised in the first place. We can work with our own expectations rather than hurry to “fix” the situation when it doesn’t meet them.

The Radical Act of Sense Foraging

Sensation can be an act of making space for things to happen, without needing to have a strong conceptual model about it. We propose the term “sense foraging” as the practice of intentionally engaging with sensation, welcoming its ability to update our models of the world. Sense foraging can be considered a specific type of mindfulness, sharing an emphasis on “allowing” and “letting be” with many contemplative practices. Here we mean specifically paying attention to sensation rather than thought or emotion. So, if the Anapanasati Sutra gives more comprehensive instructions for mindfulness practice, sense foraging is chapter 1—the thin edge of the wedge. By recognizing that sensing is not thinking, we preserve space for sensation in a mind overrun by concepts and mental habits.

By recognizing that sensing is not thinking, we preserve space for sensation in a mind overrun by concepts and mental habits.

Happily, setting the intention to sense forage may be sufficient for it to occur. All it takes is one salient moment that disrupts the DMN and frees up resources for sensation. Sense foraging can be practiced anywhere, anytime, because as long as you’re conscious, there’s always something in your sensory world that you can attend to. You could notice the warmth of the sun on your skin, the prickliness of your sweater, the feeling of your feet on the ground, or the smell of coffee from your mug. It’s less about finding some special stimulus and more about seeing the sensory world as always available.

When sense foraging works, it creates a sense of presence, the feeling that the difference between your model for experience and your sensed experience has dissolved. If you get to a moment in which there is no longer any noticeable difference between expectation and sensation, a curious thing happens. The boundary between the observer and what is being observed begins to blur. Such an experience is not, generally speaking, emotionally neutral. Often, there is a feeling of the self expanding or even dissolving—it is awesome in the traditional sense of the word. Freed from a set of cognitive habits, we can witness the complexity and richness of the world with a sense of wonder.

A New (Old) Model of the Mind

Imagine you’re in line to check out at the grocery store on a busy Friday afternoon. Having placed your items on the conveyor belt, you fumble for your credit card, only to realize you don’t have it. In this moment, your stomach begins to churn, your plans for dinner are blown, and all the while the cashier is staring at you, wanting to know “Cash or credit?” The people behind you in line have begun to fidget, then share conspiratorial glances. And then what happens? Maybe you have a panic attack. Or you castigate yourself for being an idiot. Or you try to find a scapegoat for the missing card (“my kids distracted me as I was going out the door”).

In this scenario, acting to change the situation is simply not an option. Barring some miraculous act of charity, there’s no way you’re going to be able to pay for the groceries, so racking your brain for a simple fix is not going to help. But sensing and accepting what is actually happening can help enormously. Think of the relief that would come if you could simply say to yourself, “Oh, I forgot my card. How embarrassing. I guess I’ll have to go home and get it.” But you can’t. You want to be the person who has their card, and can resolve the situation without losing face.

The magic moment is not miraculously finding your card. The moment comes when you notice the world as it is occurring. The reality that you can sense right now is that you are here in the store, and you are unable to pay. At that moment, you can stop wishing for the impossible and accept that the card is not going to appear. Suddenly, your world is transformed. You can get back into action, go home and, with your stress level at a three instead of a ten, find the card or, if need be, take action to cancel it and order a replacement. All it takes is an update to a mental model that says screwing up is never acceptable, at least not for you. Life isn’t perfect and sometimes all there is to do is lean into that imperfection—no further action is required to force life to go as planned.

We should note that this is not the same as becoming complacent or abandoning action altogether; it’s clear that not everything should simply be accepted, especially when wrongs or injustice have occurred. But being able to let go of the script of our lives allows us to paradoxically see new options we had not anticipated, precisely because we are now fully engaged in the new situation, the one revealed on the other side of surprise. Once we let go of defending our entrenched, familiar stories for how life is supposed to play out, we can begin to discern what’s needed in this particular moment.

Broader Implications: Finding Meaning in Sensation

Western culture, by and large, fails to see sense foraging as a useful approach to navigating everyday life. We see our attitudes and feelings as real objects, like tables and chairs, so once we categorize ourselves (even subconsciously) as feeling sad, wronged, or worried, we’re motivated to act on the situation so that we no longer need to feel that way. We rarely consider the value of changing the assumptions that give rise to these attitudes and feelings.

The bias in Western culture is to think that questioning our assumptions, giving more weight to new information than our own expectations, is somehow a form of resignation or weakness. Yet the art of sense foraging, of negotiating with our representation of the world, lies at the heart of contemplative practices from other traditions. If I carefully examine my senses, what are the alternatives to my most automatic interpretation? In people with a history of depression, those who learn to practice this art of looking again, of foraging for new meaning in sensation, report being healthier and happier, regardless of whether their access point is meditation or cognitive therapy.13 The sweet spot, given the requirements of the work-a-day world, is to balance action with sensory integration. For many of us, building up our sense foraging habits is what’s needed to create balance in a mind constantly fleeing from sensation into expectation and habit.

For many of us, building up our sense foraging habits is what’s needed to create balance in a mind constantly fleeing from sensation into expectation and habit.

Expanding on these ideas, it is interesting to note that earlier this year, the Canadian Paediatric Society issued an advisory14 that we could improve childhood development by encouraging more “risky play”—thrilling and exciting forms of free play that involve uncertainty of outcome. Perhaps parents are keeping their children a little too safe from embracing the sensory chaos of the playground. Similarly, the use of horticulture to soothe an agitated mind goes back millennia, and the rise of horticultural therapy15 resonates with the Gen Z injunction to “go out and touch grass” when a person is spending too much time online.

A world in which we devote some time each day to sense foraging may be closer than we think. The necessary equipment is built-in to our bodies; what we need are ways to support the motivation and intention to engage. The opportunity to step into the sensory world never expires. With greater awareness of its benefits and access points, sense foraging can easily be added to schools, workplaces, and wellness curricula. Like the physical fitness movement of the 1980s, the yoga movement of the 1990s, and the mindfulness movement of the 2000s, a new culture change is needed that values exploring where our senses may take us.


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