The Grapevine

Want To Sharpen Your Sense Of Touch? Try 6 Hours Of Meditation

Meditation
Zen scholars can boost their sense of touch with just a weekend of meditation, German researchers find. Moyan Brenn ,CC BY 2.0

Meditation might not only help you relax, it could boost your sense of touch, according to a new study in Scientific Reports.

Recruiting the help of 20 Zen scholars, the study authors found that a certain type of meditation technique, performed over the course of three days, was able to increase a person’s perception to stimuli about as well as long-term training or physical stimulation.

In likely one of the quietest experiments ever to take place, the researchers followed the scholars to a four-day long Zen retreat held in Germany, where they would meditate for eight hours straight each day in complete silence. Half of the scholars, however, would specifically engage in “focused attention meditation” for two of those hours for three days, being told by the researchers to become “completely aware of the spontaneously arising sensory perception in their right index finger.” The other half simply meditated as usual, using a technique known as open monitoring meditation.

Before their meditation started, as well as on the third and fourth day of the retreat, the scholars were subjected to a series of tests aimed at measuring their tactile performance. While they were blinded, the scholars’ right index finger (along with a nearby finger and corresponding finger on the left hand) was touched by a device with two pointed ends set apart by an adjustable distance. The shorter the distance between the points when the scholar could reliably (over 50 percent of the time) tell that they were being poked by two different points, the better their perception of touch. Another blinded experiment measured their ability to accurately perceive the location of an object touching them.

Lo and behold, those who had focused on their right hand fingers the entire weekend performed better on the two-point discrimination test both on the third day and the fourth, when the scholars were instructed to revert back to their ordinary meditation technique. In one participant’s case, he was able to accurately report two points touching him when they were 1.68 millimeters apart on the first day, and at 1.27 millimeters by the third day.

“Our data show that focused attention meditation on a particular body part — in this case the right index finger — significantly enhanced tactile acuity but not localization performance. In addition, open monitoring meditation resulted in no changes at all,” wrote the authors. “These data indicate that merely being aware without external stimulation or training can drive highly specific changes in tactile perception.”

The level of improvement they noticed was fairly equivalent to that of long-term training or stimulation, as can be seen with visually impaired individuals who become reliant on their sense of touch. It was in some respects even better, since it’s been previously observed that such training can improve touch perception but worsen our ability to accurately locate where we’re being touched.

“Taken together, our findings indicate that the framework of neuroplastic processes induced by external training and stimulation needs to be extended to incorporate the observation that intrinsic brain activity created by mental states without external events can alter perception and behavior in similar ways,” the authors concluded.

While the authors’ findings are undoubtedly fascinating, it should be noted that their study subjects are particularly unique. The average length of meditation experience shared by the scholars was a whopping 11 years, and they spent an average of four hours a week meditating.

Still, you could do a lot worse for a parlor trick.

Source: Philipp S, Kalisch T, Wachtler T, et al. Enhanced tactile acuity through mental states. Scientific Reports. 2015.

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