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SCIENCE JOURNAL
Wall Street Journal
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By SHARON BEGLEY
November 5, 2004

Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning

All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they were.

On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.

Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in burgundy-and-saffron robes, convinced that one round-faced young man in their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.

It was not, in other words, your typical science meeting.

But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for five days last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the little matters of reincarnation and the relationship of mind to brain, they set them aside in the interest of a shared goal. They had come together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss 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. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another.

Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That's where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.

"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily) their brains to science.

The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They 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.

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

In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves 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, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed 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.

"It feels like a total readiness to act, to help," recalled Mr. Ricard.

The study will be published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We can't rule out the possibility that there was a pre-existing difference in brain function between monks and novices," says Prof. Davidson, "but the fact that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by mental training."

That 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.


The Monk in the Lab

April 26, 2003 By TENZIN GYATSO

DHARAMSALA, India

These are times when destructive emotions like anger, fear and hatred are giving rise to devastating problems throughout the world. While the daily news offers grim reminders of the destructive power of such emotions, the question we must ask is this: What can we do, person by person, to overcome them?

Of course such disturbing emotions have always been part of the human condition. Some — those who tend to believe nothing will "cure" our impulses to hate or oppress one another — might say that this is simply the price of being human. But this view can create apathy in the face of destructive emotions, leading us to conclude that destructiveness is beyond our control.

I believe that there are practical ways for us as individuals to curb our dangerous impulses — impulses that collectively can lead to war and mass violence. As evidence I have not only my spiritual practice and the understanding of human existence based on Buddhist teachings, but now also the work of scientists.

For the last 15 years I have engaged in a series of conversations with Western scientists. We have exchanged views on topics ranging from quantum physics and cosmology to compassion and destructive emotions. I have found that while scientific findings offer a deeper understanding of such fields as cosmology, it seems that Buddhist explanations — particularly in the cognitive, biological and brain sciences — can sometimes give Western-trained scientists a new way to look at their own fields.

It may seem odd that a religious leader is so involved with science, but Buddhist teachings stress the importance of understanding reality, and so we should pay attention to what scientists have learned about our world through experimentation and measurement.

Similarly, Buddhists have a 2,500-year history of investigating the workings of the mind. Over the millenniums, many practitioners have carried out what we might call "experiments" in how to overcome our tendencies toward destructive emotions.

I have been encouraging scientists to examine advanced Tibetan spiritual practitioners, to see what benefits these practices might have for others, outside the religious context. The goal here is to increase our understanding of the world of the mind, of consciousness, and of our emotions.

It is for this reason that I visited the neuroscience laboratory of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. Using imaging devices that show what occurs in the brain during meditation, Dr. Davidson has been able to study the effects of Buddhist practices for cultivating compassion, equanimity or mindfulness. For centuries Buddhists have believed that pursuing such practices seems to make people calmer, happier and more loving. At the same time they are less and less prone to destructive emotions.

According to Dr. Davidson, there is now science to underscore this belief. Dr. Davidson tells me that the emergence of positive emotions may be due to this: Mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain's violent impulses and our actions.

Experiments have already been carried out that show some practitioners can achieve a state of inner peace, even when facing extremely disturbing circumstances. Dr. Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco told me that jarring noises (one as loud as a gunshot) failed to startle the Buddhist monk he was testing. Dr. Ekman said he had never seen anyone stay so calm in the presence of such a disturbance.

Another monk, the abbot of one of our monasteries in India, was tested by Dr. Davidson using electroencephalographs to measure brain waves. According to Dr. Davidson, the abbot had the highest amount of activity in the brain centers associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured by his laboratory.

Of course, the benefits of these practices are not just for monks who spend months at a time in meditation retreat. Dr. Davidson told me about his research with people working in highly stressful jobs. These people — non-Buddhists — were taught mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations, but lets them come and go, much like watching a river flow by. After eight weeks, Dr. Davidson found that in these people, the parts of their brains that help to form positive emotions became increasingly active.

The implications of all this are clear: the world today needs citizens and leaders who can work toward ensuring stability and engage in dialogue with the "enemy" — no matter what kind of aggression or assault they may have endured.

It's worth noting that these methods are not just useful, but inexpensive. You don't need a drug or an injection. You don't have to become a Buddhist, or adopt any particular religious faith. Everybody has the potential to lead a peaceful, meaningful life. We must explore as far as we can how that can be brought about.

I try to put these methods into effect in my own life. When I hear bad news, especially the tragic stories I often hear from my fellow Tibetans, naturally my own response is sadness. However, by placing it in context, I find I can cope reasonably well. And feelings of helpless anger, which simply poison the mind and embitter the heart, seldom arise, even following the worst news.

But reflection shows that in our lives much of our suffering is caused not by external causes but by such internal events as the arising of disturbing emotions. The best antidote to this disruption is enhancing our ability to handle these emotions.

If humanity is to survive, happiness and inner balance are crucial. Otherwise the lives of our children and their children are more likely to be unhappy, desperate and short. Material development certainly contributes to happiness — to some extent — and a comfortable way of life. But this is not sufficient. To achieve a deeper level of happiness we cannot neglect our inner development.

The calamity of 9/11 demonstrated that modern technology and human intelligence guided by hatred can lead to immense destruction. Such terrible acts are a violent symptom of an afflicted mental state. To respond wisely and effectively, we need to be guided by more healthy states of mind, not just to avoid feeding the flames of hatred, but to respond skillfully. We would do well to remember that the war against hatred and terror can be waged on this, the internal front, too.

Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama.

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/26/opinion/26LAMA.html?ex=1052549899&ei=1&en=a55b1fefbf87ee16


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