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Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds - January 03, 2005

Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.

Those transformed states have traditionally been understood in transcendent terms, as something outside the world of physical measurement and objective evaluation. But over the past few years, researchers at the University of Wisconsin working with Tibetan monks have been able to translate those mental experiences into the scientific language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, or coordination. And they have pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the place where brain activity associated with meditation is especially intense.

"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university's new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. "Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance." It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.

Scientists used to believe the opposite -- that connections among brain nerve cells were fixed early in life and did not change in adulthood. But that assumption was disproved over the past decade with the help of advances in brain imaging and other techniques, and in its place, scientists have embraced the concept of ongoing brain development and "neuroplasticity."

Davidson says his newest results from the meditation study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November, take the concept of neuroplasticity a step further by showing that mental training through meditation (and presumably other disciplines) can itself change the inner workings and circuitry of the brain.

The new findings are the result of a long, if unlikely, collaboration between Davidson and Tibet's Dalai Lama, the world's best-known practitioner of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama first invited Davidson to his home in Dharamsala, India, in 1992 after learning about Davidson's innovative research into the neuroscience of emotions. The Tibetans have a centuries-old tradition of intensive meditation and, from the start, the Dalai Lama was interested in having Davidson scientifically explore the workings of his monks' meditating minds. Three years ago, the Dalai Lama spent two days visiting Davidson's lab.

The Dalai Lama ultimately dispatched eight of his most accomplished practitioners to Davidson's lab to have them hooked up for electroencephalograph (EEG) testing and brain scanning. The Buddhist practitioners in the experiment had undergone training in the Tibetan Nyingmapa and Kagyupa traditions of meditation for an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 hours, over time periods of 15 to 40 years. As a control, 10 student volunteers with no previous meditation experience were also tested after one week of training.

The monks and volunteers were fitted with a net of 256 electrical sensors and asked to meditate for short periods. Thinking and other mental activity are known to produce slight, but detectable, bursts of electrical activity as large groupings of neurons send messages to each other, and that's what the sensors picked up. Davidson was especially interested in measuring gamma waves, some of the highest-frequency and most important electrical brain impulses.

Both groups were asked to meditate, specifically on unconditional compassion. Buddhist teaching describes that state, which is at the heart of the Dalai Lama's teaching, as the "unrestricted readiness and availability to help living beings." The researchers chose that focus because it does not require concentrating on particular objects, memories or images, and cultivates instead a transformed state of being.

Davidson said that the results unambiguously showed that meditation activated the trained minds of the monks in significantly different ways from those of the volunteers. Most important, the electrodes picked up much greater activation of fast-moving and unusually powerful gamma waves in the monks, and found that the movement of the waves through the brain was far better organized and coordinated than in the students. The meditation novices showed only a slight increase in gamma wave activity while meditating, but some of the monks produced gamma wave activity more powerful than any previously reported in a healthy person, Davidson said.

The monks who had spent the most years meditating had the highest levels of gamma waves, he added. This "dose response" -- where higher levels of a drug or activity have greater effect than lower levels -- is what researchers look for to assess cause and effect.

In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the monks. The intense gamma waves found in the monks have also been associated with knitting together disparate brain circuits, and so are connected to higher mental activity and heightened awareness, as well.

Davidson's research is consistent with his earlier work that pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex as a brain region associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. Using functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) on the meditating monks, Davidson found that their brain activity -- as measured by the EEG -- was especially high in this area.

Davidson concludes from the research that meditation not only changes the workings of the brain in the short term, but also quite possibly produces permanent changes. That finding, he said, is based on the fact that the monks had considerably more gamma wave activity than the control group even before they started meditating. A researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, came to a similar conclusion several years ago.

Researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities are now testing some of the same monks on different aspects of their meditation practice: their ability to visualize images and control their thinking. Davidson is also planning further research.

"What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one," he said. In time, "we'll be able to better understand the potential importance of this kind of mental training and increase the likelihood that it will be taken seriously."

Article Source
PsycPORT™: Psychology in the News

Daniel E.
The Buddhist practitioners in the experiment had undergone training in the Tibetan Nyingmapa and Kagyupa traditions of meditation for an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 hours, over time periods of 15 to 40 years.

To catch up with them, we would have to meditate 40 hours a week for at least 5 years :) Seriously though, it seems that playing a musical instrument or playing golf "in the zone" could be a suitable alternative to prolonged meditation, as the article suggests:

"Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance." It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.



I thought that too. I think what they mean, though, is that practicing meditation trains the brain to be more aware and calm, and results in the higher gama wave activity and more developed empathy and positive forms of thinking. This is equal to playing and practicing golf over a long period of time and the resulting golf playing skills that develop. I don't know what gamma waves are but I'd like to boost mine up a bit. :~}

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
"Gamma waves" is what your grandmother used to do when you were leaving to go back home.

Or, see Are neocortical gamma waves related to consciousness?
Vanderwolf, C.H.
Department of Psychology and Graduate Program in Neuroscience
University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

Previous research has shown that neocortical gamma waves (approximately 30-80 Hz) are continuously present during low voltage fast neocortical activity (LVFA) occurring during waking or active sleep. Gamma waves occur in a burst-suppression pattern in association with large amplitude slow waves during quiet sleep or anesthesia. The present experiments show that continuous gamma activity is also present in rats during LVFA occurring during surgical anesthesia (with ether, isoflurane or urethane) and that a burst-suppression pattern of gamma activity occurs during large amplitude slow waves occurring in the waking state either spontaneously in undrugged rats or as a result of treatment with parachlorophenylalanine and scopolamine. The amplitude of gamma activity occurring during anesthesia is variable but is often greater than it is in the normal waking state. It is concluded that the pattern of neocortical gamma wave activity is strongly related to the presence or absence of large amplitude slow waves but is quite independent of the state of behavioral arousal. Whether or not gamma wave activity is related to subjective awareness is a very difficult question which cannot be answered with certainty at the present time.

Daniel E.
In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the monks. The intense gamma waves found in the monks have also been associated with knitting together disparate brain circuits, and so are connected to higher mental activity and heightened awareness, as well.

BTW, meditation as training the mind reminds me of books like The Inner Game of Golf, which seem just as good as the classic book "Zen in the Art of Archery."

I am also reminded of Bart Simpson preparing for a miniature golf championship by meditating before the big game:

As haunting music plays, Bart and Lisa sit in the lotus position
alongside a lake.

Lisa: I want you to shut off the logical part of your mind.
Bart: Okay.
Lisa: Embrace nothingness.
Bart: You got it.
Lisa: Become like an uncarved stone.
Bart: Done.
Lisa: Bart, you're just pretending to know what I'm talking about!
Bart: True.
Lisa: Well, it's very frustrating!
Bart: I'll bet.


Lisa: Eighth hole.
Bart: Aim for the octopus, third tentacle.
Lisa: Twelfth hole.
Bart: Bank it off the pink tombstone.
Lisa: Nirvanha.
Bart: A state of bliss obtained through the extinction of the self.


Bart: This is pretty tense, isn't it, Todd.
Todd: Yeah, my knees are shaking, I got butterflies in my stomach...
But I guess this builds character.
Bart: Who wants to build character? Let's quit!
Todd: Okay.

Daniel E.
The last paragraphs of the original research article:

The high-amplitude gamma activity found in some of these practitioners are, to our knowledge, the highest reported in the literature in a nonpathological context (23). Assuming that the amplitude of the gamma oscillation is related to the size of the oscillating neural population and the degree of precision with which cells oscillate, these data suggest that massive distributed neural assemblies are synchronized with a high temporal precision in the fast frequencies during this state. The gradual increase of gamma activity during meditation is in agreement with the view that neural synchronization, as a network phenomenon, requires time to develop (24), proportional to the size of the synchronized neural assembly (25). But this increase could also reflect an increase in the temporal precision of the thalamo-cortical and corticocortical interactions rather than a change in the size of the assemblies (8). This gradual increase also corroborates the Buddhist subjects' verbal report of the chronometry of their practice. Typically, the transition from the neutral state to this meditative state is not immediate and requires 5-15 s, depending on the subject. The endogenous gamma-band synchrony found here could reflect a change in the quality of moment-to-moment awareness, as claimed by the Buddhist practitioners and as postulated by many models of consciousness (26, 27).

In addition to the meditation-induced effects, we found a difference in the normative EEG spectral profile between the two populations during the resting state before meditation. It is not unexpected that such differences would be detected during a resting baseline, because the goal of meditation practice is to transform the baseline state and to diminish the distinction between formal meditation practice and everyday life. Moreover, Gusnard and Raichle (28) have highlighted the importance of characteristic patterns of brain activity during the resting state and argue that such patterns affect the nature of task-induced changes. The differences in baseline activity reported here suggest that the resting state of the brain may be altered by long-term meditative practice and imply that such alterations may affect task-related changes. Our practitioners and control subjects differed in many respects, including age, culture of origin, and first language, and they likely differed in many more respects, including diet and sleep. We examined whether age was an important factor in producing the baseline differences we observed by comparing the three youngest practitioners with the controls and found that the mean age difference between groups is unlikely the sole factor responsible for this baseline difference. Moreover, hours of practice but not age significantly predicted relative gamma activity during the initial baseline period. Whether other demographic factors are important in producing these effects will necessarily require further research, particularly longitudinal research that follows individuals over time in response to mental training.

Our study is consistent with the idea that attention and affective processes, which gamma-band EEG synchronization may reflect, are flexible skills that can be trained (29). It remains for future studies to show that these EEG signatures are caused by long-term training itself and not by individual differences before the training, although the positive correlation that we found with hours of training and other randomized controlled trials suggest that these are training-related effects (2). The functional consequences of sustained gamma-activity during mental practice are not currently known but need to be studied in the future. The study of experts in mental training may offer a promising research strategy to investigate high-order cognitive and affective processes (30).

Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice

Daniel E.
In the original research article, the first reference listed is the book Zen and the Brain:
Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness
published by MIT press in 1999.

Below is an excerpt of an interview of the author of "Zen and the Brain":

Q. How does meditation affect the brain physiologically?

There's no short answer. To begin with a loose generalization, one might say that Zen meditation involves a kind of not thinking, clearly. And then proceeds to carry this clear awareness into everyday living. The simpler forms of meditation -- those which adopt a passive attitude -- do help generate a "relaxation response," a term Benson introduced to summarize the process.

The present book takes notice of several additional techniques that people use to further cultivate the art of concentrating while they are meditating. Some of these approaches evoke calibrated levels of added stress responses within the brain itself. Moving beyond these mechanisms, the book suggests that gradual transformations take place in the brain functions of persons who go on to engage in a very long-range process of mindful self-discipline and introspection.

All this involves a program of systematic training. It proceeds within a culturally acceptable, established meditative tradition, a setting which invites its aspirants to participate in repeated meditative retreats and to share its discomforts with other like-minded seekers in a supportive social framework.

However, for the professional researcher, it is no simple matter to study the resulting psychophysiological changes. In fact, Part II of the book is an analysis, critique and summary of the existing reports of breathing, of "brain waves" (EEG), evoked potentials, "ink blot" tests, PET scan results, etc. Beyond that, the book goes in to incorporate its working hypotheses with suggestions for future research.

And another quote:
"Meditation is really the central art in all other arts. “ --Jack Kornfield
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