High in the hills of Tibet, Buddhist monks have existed for over 2,500 years following a strict regiment that guided their minds away from destructive emotions and toward compassion and peace. These monks have meditated from 20-30,000 hours, and are the best source for exploring a brain at peace. Where else would neuroscientists turn to find out if meditation can literally change the plasticity in the brain?
Dr. Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been studying the brains of Tibetan monks for the past few years while they were in both their meditative states and their conscious states. They hope that the monks’ trained and focused minds can be scientifically measured, through a relatively new technique called “contemplative neuroscience.”
What is contemplative neuroscience, and how is it relevant to brain activity? It is mainly the study of how practices like meditation affect the brain and nervous system. It can, however, have a different and equally valid definition — it is the philosophical view of neuroscience and the mind. This is a revolutionary idea, but there is much to suggest there is a correlation between the mind and the body. It can change the way scientists view the plasticity and synapse within our brains, and how our brains take on changes that affect our behavior and general well being.
Previous research had found that people who had a propensity for negative emotions showed activity in the prefrontal cortex area of their brains, while those with more positive attitudes had more activity in the left prefrontal cortex.
When the experiment was run on a senior Tibetan lama, skilled in meditation, they found the baseline activity was much further to the left than they had previously encountered. If you were to judge from this study, he was possibly the happiest man alive!
The researchers conducted tests on a group of high-tech volunteers working at a Wisconsin company. One group then received eight weeks of meditation training, while the control group did not. Both groups received flu shots.
At the conclusion of the study, those who had meditated showed a marked shift in brain activity toward the “happier” left side of the frontal cortex. They also had a healthier response to their immune system from the flu shot, which suggested that the health of the body was also affected by the meditation training.
In a study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging (Jan. 30, 2012) researchers have reported that “those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.”
“You don’t have to become a Buddhist,” says the Dalai Lama himself, who is closely following the work of Western cognitive scientists like Davidson. “Everybody has the potential to lead a peaceful, meaningful life.”
About the author:
Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at BrainAthlete.com.
New York Times — How Meditation May Change the Brain: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/how-meditation-may-change-the-brain/
Psychiatry Research – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density: http://www.psyn-journal.com/article/S0925-4927%2810%2900288-X/abstract
Dana Foundation Blog — Meditative Monks Offer Insight To Brain Researchers: http://danapress.typepad.com/weblog/2011/01/meditative-monks-offer-insight-to-brain-researchers.html
Examiner — Contemplative Neuroscience and the Philosophy of Mind: http://www.examiner.com/science-spirituality-in-denver/contemplative-neuroscience-and-the-philosophy-of-mind