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Meditate on This

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
"What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one," he said. In time, "we'll be able to better understand the potential importance of this kind of mental training and increase the likelihood that it will be taken seriously."

Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds
By Marc Kaufman

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. "Their
mental practice is
having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or
tennis practice will
enhance performance." It demonstrates, he said, that
the brain is
capable of being trained and physically modified in
ways few people can
imagine.

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 with the help
of advances in brain imaging and other techniques, and
in its place,
scientists have embraced the concept of ongoing brain
development and
"neuroplasticity."

Davidson says his newest results from the meditation
study, published
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences in November,
take the concept of neuroplasticity a step further by
showing 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. Three years
ago, the Dalai Lama
spent two days visiting Davidson's lab.

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.
Thinking and other mental
activity are known to produce slight, but detectable,
bursts of
electrical activity as large groupings of neurons send
messages to each
other, and that's what the sensors picked up. Davidson
was especially
interested in measuring gamma waves, some of the
highest-frequency and most
important electrical brain impulses.

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." The researchers
chose that focus because
it does not require concentrating on particular
objects, memories or
images, and cultivates instead a transformed state of
being.

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. The
meditation novices showed only a slight increase in
gamma wave
activity while meditating, but some of the monks
produced gamma wave activity
more powerful than any previously reported in a
healthy person,
Davidson said.

The monks who had spent the most years meditating had
the highest
levels of gamma waves, he added. This "dose response"
-- where higher
levels of a drug or activity have greater effect than
lower levels -- is
what researchers look for to assess cause and
effect.

In previous studies, mental activities such as
focus, memory,
learning and consciousness were associated with the
kind of enhanced neural
coordination found in the monks. The intense gamma
waves found in the
monks have also been associated with knitting together
disparate brain
circuits, and so are connected to higher mental
activity and heightened
awareness, as well.

Davidson's research is consistent with his earlier
work that
pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex as a brain
region associated with
happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. Using
functional magnetic
resonance imagining (fMRI) on the meditating monks,
Davidson found that their
brain activity -- as measured by the EEG -- was
especially high in this
area.

Davidson concludes from the research that meditation
not only changes
the workings of the brain in the short term, but also
quite possibly
produces permanent changes. That finding, he said, is
based on the fact
that the monks had considerably more gamma wave
activity than the
control group even before they started meditating. A
researcher at the
University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, came to a
similar conclusion
several years ago.

Researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities
are now testing
some of the same monks on different aspects of their
meditation practice:
their ability to visualize images and control their
thinking. Davidson
is also planning further research.

2/08/2005 07:09:00 PM :: ::
1 Comments:
  • That's a great story. Waiting for more. » »

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:31 PM  
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