Saturday, May 14, 2005

Monks, Meditation and Monging Out

OK, he looks like a gormless knobhead. But he may know something we don't. Here's a more serious post...

Zen and the Art of Gamma Wave Production

It's something monks, yogis, artists, Christian mystics and chilled-out ravers have long suspected: that periods of meditation can alter the way the brain works, maybe even the way it is physically structured. Until recently scientists had largely dismissed the notion; the latest research is now showing that those saffron-robed lamas and tranced-out clubbers might have been onto something, all along.

The data is emerging from an ongoing study at the W.M. Keck Laboratory for
Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For the last few years Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist in this top American laboratory, has been conducting hands-on analyses of the cerebral and cognitive functions of Tibetan Buddhist monks.

The genesis of the study is curious in itself. In 1992 the Dalai Lama heard about Davidson's cutting-edge research into the brain science of human emotions. Consequently the Dalai Lama invited Davidson to his home in northern India, as he wanted the scientist to assess the brain functionings of his monks. The religious leader was convinced the study would show up unexpected results. Others were less optimistic.

Ten years later eight of the world's most advanced practitioners of Buddhist meditation finally left their remote mountain fastness, bound for the clinical environment of a US laboratory. These veteran monks had all devoted between ten and fifty thousand man-hours to the advanced Buddhist meditative techniques of Nyingmapa and Kagyupa. They aged from 30 to 80.

Once in Wisconsin, the monks were hooked up to Davidson's electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors, which check for brain waves. Davidson also used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans. As a control, 10 student volunteers were similarly tested, after a brief week-long introduction to the arts of inert contemplation. Both groups were asked to practise 'unconditional compassion' in their meditations. In Buddhist lore, this is arguably the highest and most demanding form of meditation, as it eschews any focus on particular desires, objects, or people, and instead fires a benevolent mental broadside at the world: 'an unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings'.

The results were startling. In his report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, 2004, Davidson claimed that the meditation seemed to activate the minds of the monks in notably different ways to the cerebration of the novices. Specifically, Davidson's sensors discovered that the experienced monks were producing 'fast moving' and 'unusually potent' gamma waves. 'Some of the monks were producing gamma waves more actively powerful than any previously reported in a healthy person'. The novices, meanwhile, achieved a slight increase in gamma-wave activity, but nothing to compare to the monks.

The significance of these high-frequency (40hz) gamma waves is that they are commonly associated with high states of consciousness and perception, for instance they are notable during intense study, or cello-playing, yet dwindle in sleep, and disappear under aneasthesia. Someone producing gamma waves is someone who is thinking hard, someone who is powerfully alert. Perhaps an unexpected finding in a subject sunk in contemplation.

The second important finding was that the more experienced the Buddhist monk, the higher and more significant their gamma-wave output. In other words, years of meditation seemed to be permanently altering the brain chemistry, maybe the brain structure, of the monks. Davidson has speculated that the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain may be physically refashioned by these prolonged periods of meditation. The left pre-frontal cortex is associated by some researchers with 'positive emotions': it's the happiness centre of the brain.

This idea, that the brain might alter over life, is not a new one. It has a name - neuroplasticity - and a small body of research. According to the Journal of the New York Academy of Sciences, neurologists have already discovered that concert pianists have different brains to non-musicians: the constant playing of arpeggios seems to reshape the parts of the brain that control the fingers. Other researchers, at University College London, have proved that taxi drivers with 'the knowledge' have significantly larger 'posterior hippocampi' compared to the rest of us: the hippocampi is a part of the brain closely associated with navigation.

But Davidson's findings are a step beyond even this. For the first time a study has shown that sheer thinking, without any physical interaction, is enough to change the brain's construction. As Davidson says of his monkish subjects: 'Their mental practise is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practise will enhance performance'. This is therefore a serious challenge to those who regard the brain as precisely analogous to a computer, as permanently fixed in its neural structure as the wires and chips of an Apple Mac.

It is possible that further research will challenge these findings. It is also possible that the findings will be replicated in other mental states apart from meditation. For the moment, it gives everyone a great new excuse. Next time your boss asks you why you are idly staring into space, tell him you are working on that positive gamma wave production.
 Posted by Hello

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