Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning

An article by science writer Sharon Begley in the November 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal reports on a meeting between neuroscientists, who believe that physical processes in the brain can explain "all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical," and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist monks. The monks believe in reincarnation and that "the entity we call 'mind' is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain."

Differences were set aside, however, in the interest of exploring one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity. "The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world … Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals." Enter the Buddhist monks. Their meditation offers an opportunity to explore the power of thought to alter the physical matter of the brain.

According to neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, "Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," His Holiness the Dalai Lama agreed and encouraged monks to participate in Prof. Davidson's research. Davidson compared brain activity in "volunteers who were novice meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice 'compassion' meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings."

Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics, said, "We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts."

There was a striking difference between novices and monks, with the latter showing a dramatic increase in gamma waves during compassion meditation. Gamma waves are "thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits," and they "underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness." The novice meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson. This suggests that "mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness."

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers identified regions that were active during compassion meditation. "In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress."

This research "opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom."

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