Researchers find meditation gives brain a super charge
The practice of mental discipline, concentration can change how mind works, develop awareness.
By Marc Kaufman / Washington Post
Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.
Those transformed states have traditionally been understood in transcendent terms, as something outside the world of physical measurement and objective evaluation. But over the past few years, researchers at the University of Wisconsin working with Tibetan monks have been able to translate those mental experiences into the scientific language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, or coordination. And they have pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the place where brain activity associated with meditation is especially intense.
“What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before,” said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university’s new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior.
Scientists used to believe the opposite — that connections among brain nerve cells were fixed early in life and did not change in adulthood. But that assumption was disproved over the past decade.
Davidson says his newest results from the meditation study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November shows that mental training through meditation (and presumably other disciplines) can itself change the inner workings and circuitry of the brain.
The new findings are the result of a long, if unlikely, collaboration between Davidson and Tibet’s Dalai Lama, the world’s best-known practitioner of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama first invited Davidson to his home in Dharamsala, India, in 1992 after learning about Davidson’s innovative research into the neuroscience of emotions. The Tibetans have a centuries-old tradition of intensive meditation and, from the start, the Dalai Lama was interested in having Davidson scientifically explore the workings of his monks’ meditating minds
The Dalai Lama ultimately dispatched eight of his most accomplished practitioners to Davidson’s lab to have them hooked up for electroencephalograph (EEG) testing and brain scanning. The Buddhist practitioners in the experiment had undergone training in the Tibetan Nyingmapa and Kagyupa traditions of meditation for an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 hours, over time periods of 15 to 40 years. As a control, 10 student volunteers with no previous meditation experience were also tested after one week of training.
The monks and volunteers were fitted with a net of 256 electrical sensors and asked to meditate for short periods. Both groups were asked to meditate, specifically on unconditional compassion. Buddhist teaching describes that state, which is at the heart of the Dalai Lama’s teaching, as the “unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings.”
Davidson said that the results unambiguously showed that meditation activated the trained minds of the monks in significantly different ways from those of the volunteers. Most important, the electrodes picked up much greater activation of fast-moving and unusually powerful gamma waves in the monks, and found that the movement of the waves through the brain was far better organized and coordinated than in the students.