Meditation Alters Brain Structure and Function
By Rahasya Poe
So, what do The Wall Street Journal, National Academy of Sciences, the Science Journal, The Journal of Neuroscience, and the Dalai Lama have in common? The answer is an interest in how meditation affects the structure and evolution of our brains.
In the name of science, five scientists set aside their feelings about “what constitutes mind” to meet at the Dalai Lama’s home in Dharamsala, India, late last year. ( The Wall Street Journal published reporter Sharon Begley’s account of the event in November; much of what follows is adapted from her story. The study itself was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ) The science they were working on is “neuroplasticity,” which is rapidly changing some long-held beliefs about how our brains function and exactly what are mind and consciousness.
Neuroplasticity is primarily concerned with the brain’s recently discovered ability to change its structure and function by strengthening circuits that are used frequently and weakening circuits that are used rarely. For instance, pianists who play many arpeggios will end up with their index and middle fingers fused in the associated brain regions, making it nearly impossible for them to move those fingers independently of one another.
Where the Buddhist monks come in is when the scientists started wondering if purely internal mental signals could also alter the physical matter of the brain. The internal signals the scientists were interested in are those created during meditation. Speaking from experience, I was able to see the effect of 20 years of meditation and what it did for my wife, Dhara, who once took very intense “alpha” training at the Biocybernaut Institute in Mountain View, CA, where Dr. James Hardt had this to say:
“Dhara has very high levels of EEG alpha activity. In studies with Zen meditators, Kasamatsu and Hirai found that the level of alpha activity in meditation correlated positively with the ratings of spiritual development that were given by the Zen masters of the Zen monks in the study. Pictures taken of Dhara when she was in her alpha training show that she got really high on the process and compared it to very deep meditation. Dhara didn’t just have ‘high alpha,’ she experienced the ‘alpha high’!”
In the neuroplasticity test, the scientists scanned novice meditators and monks who had practiced more than 10,000 hours of meditation; while being scanned, the monks were encouraged to practice “compassion meditation,” generating a feeling of love and kindness toward all beings. “We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts,” said Matthieu Ricard, who has a Ph.D. in genetics and who is a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal.
As those who meditate can imagine, there was a striking difference between the novices and the monks, the latter showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Gamma waves are thought to be the sign of neuronal activity knitting together brain circuits that underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” said Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which suggests that mental training (meditation) can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.
During compassion meditation, functional brain scan resonance imaging was able to pinpoint areas of the brain that were more active. The left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) was much more active than the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety). Areas of the brain that switch on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks than in the novices. It was also very interesting that, at the sight of suffering, the regions responsible for planned movement became active in the monks, as if their brains desired to go to the aid of those in distress.
There’s a very subtle implication to all of this for those of you who are still with me. If the structure and function of our brains are formed by how and what we think, this could explain why it is that we find ourselves in a quandary when attempting to explain something to someone who is polarized to one way of thinking or believing. It could be that that person simply cannot “neurologically” understand anything that is not within his or her circuitry. This brings us to a conclusion that seems to keep popping up a lot these days–not only is it wiser to respect diversity, but our very conscious evolution may depend on it.
When I picked up a January issue of Time, a historically conservative magazine, and read the headline, “The Science of Happiness,” I thought to myself, “With everything that’s going on in the world today, how nice it is that mainstream science is finally catching up by exploring the new frontier, consciousness.”
As always, there are links on the Lotus Guide website for those of you who are interested in the technical data and research evidence.
http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma8/monkstudy.html This link is straight from the Science Journal. http://www.bookofjoe.com/2005/01/behindthemedspe_2.html