Another Meditation Experiment

There is a long-standing debate in the neuroscience community: is neural structure hard-wired from youth, or is it changeable depending on the nature of one’s thoughts throughout life?

In a study that was done by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, the findings support the latter part of the debate.

Eight of the Dalai Lama’s most seasoned practitioners of Nyingmapa and Kagyupa meditation participated in this study where 256 EEG sensors were attached to each monks scalp to record electrical activity from a large number of different areas in the brain. The monks were asked to carry out compassionate meditation, which is best described as meditation that focuses on a readiness to help others and a desire for all living things to be free of suffering.

Within 15 seconds of starting to meditate the monk’s brains started to speed up, and not slow down as most of us would expect. Their brain waves rapidly shifted from beta waves to alpha waves, then back to beta and finally up to gamma waves. Gamma waves, the highest rate of brain-wave frequencies, are employed by our brains when they are working at their hardest: when we sift through our working memory, during deep levels of learning or concentration and focus, as well as during flashes of insight.

Davidson discovered that when the brain operates at these fast frequencies, all the different areas of the brain begin to operate in synchrony, and it is this type of synchronization that we need to achieve heightened awareness. The fact that the monks could achieve this state so rapidly suggested that over the years of intense meditation, their neural processing had been permanently changed. It was found that meditators who can withdraw their attention from outward stimuli and completely focus their attention inward are more likely to reach gamma-wave hyperspace.

The researchers also found that the monks who had been practicing meditation the longest recorded the highest levels of gamma activity. This heightened state of being also produced permanent emotional improvement through the activation of the left anterior portion of the brain that is most associated with joy. It seemed that the monks had conditioned their brains to tune into happiness most of the time!

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