Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Neuro-Monks: Why some minds don't dilly-Dalai.

From American Scientist's weekly e-letter:
Neuroscientist Measures Increased Brain Activity in Meditating Monks

Intense meditation and mental focus can boost brain activity [Wapo] and even lead to heightened levels of awareness, according to research appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That won't come as news to Buddhists, who have long meditated in pursuit of that higher level, but it's a bit new for science, which only recently began to accept that a brain can continue to develop in adulthood, a trait known as neuroplasticity.

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has been working with a group of Tibetan monks in order to study the effects on the brain of these rigorous exercises. According to the Washington Post, the research is the result of a collaboration between Davidson and the Dalai Lama, who offered up eight of his surest practitioners of meditation for study. They had undergone from 10,000 to 50,000 hours of training, over 15 to 40 years, in the Tibetan Nyingmapa and Kagyupa forms of meditation. Student volunteers trained for a week and served as controls.

All were hooked up to electronic sensors that would measure electrical impulses the brain produces called gamma waves. They were then asked to meditate on unconditional compassion, the "unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings." The monks were putting out fast and powerful gamma waves, which seemed to move through the brain in a more coordinated manner than in the students.

"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," Davidson told the Post. "Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance."
A nice snippet (the article has some lengthy detail and backstory), direct from The Washington Post:
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....
Way cool. Wonder how they'd respond to Coca-Cola®?

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