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Visualizing a bigger personal space

CMU students researching effects of meditation on personal space perceptions

Contact: Dan Digmann


​Undergraduate students at Central Michigan University are investigating whether meditation can help people change their perceived personal space.

The research has the potential to help people overcome conditions such as claustrophobia and social anxieties as well as improve athletic performance. Nathan Houle, a sophomore psychology major and religion minor from Midland, Michigan, and Jessica LaLone, a senior psychology and Spanish major from Auburn Hills, are co-leading the research project.

"A lot of the meditation I've worked with manipulates the sense of the body in space," Houle said. "With the meditation, we focus our attention on people's visualization, and there isn't a lot of research being done in this area."

The student research team is working under the direction of experimental psychology faculty members Emily Bloesch and Chris Davoli. Students conduct their research using a pool of participants who are tested on their relation to objects in front of them and then are retested on the same objects following several meditation sessions.

"Whenever I meditate I know my perception shifts in many ways, so learning specifics about this interested me," LaLone said. "This research is beneficial for many reasons; however, the reason that excites me the most is that we could discover if meditation helps us expand both the mental and physical space around us."

Project development began in October, and pilot testing started in February. Members of the research team hope to test at least 60 students this semester, said researcher Valencia Smith, a senior psychology major and family studies minor from Detroit.

"It's going to take some time to pull the information together and analyze it, but we are very encouraged by what we're seeing initially," she said.

Sense of place influences state of being

As faculty members and researchers, Bloesch and Davoli concentrate on the recently developed concept of "embodied cognition," which theorizes that people's cognition goes beyond the brain and is shaped by people's positioning in space.

The brain is responsible for motor skills and reacting to outside influences, but how people understand and respond to situations is directly connected to the physical capacity of their bodies, Bloesch said. For example, people judge hills to be steeper when they're wearing a heavy backpack because it would take more effort to climb to the top.

"The brain isn't out there on its own — it's set in the body, which is the only way we can navigate the environment," she said. "What we do with our body changes the way we see the world."

Davoli and Bloesch had presented to the students the broad idea of studying meditation and body space, based on recent findings showing the relationship between meditation and other forms of cognition. The idea for researching the impact meditation has on people's visualization of the space around them was entirely developed by the students, Davoli said.

A couple of the students came to them with the idea to compare the effect of different types of meditation on body space and introduced them to the meditation app and website headspace.com that helps to provide meditative insights for the research.

"This is a project that the students built from the ground up," he said. "The students connected with Headspace administrators, and through our relationship with the organization, we get experimental control and ecological validity for the research."


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