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Buddhist Meditation and Brain Changes
Mindfulness and meditation are central Buddhist practices, tools for recognizing the transience of our thoughts and emotions, so that we may experience a deeper level of awareness. Buddhist teachings discuss these tools within the context of mind, an abstract aspect of awareness that is not generally recognized by neuroscientists, who deal in the physical matter of the brain. However, in the past decade research by neuroscientists has begun to show that Buddhist practices, meditation in particular, may permanently change our brain. In other words, this research shows that when we engage in practices at the level of mind we have the potential to transform ourselves physically at the level of our brain.
One of the most interesting of these experiments involves the effect of compassion meditation on the brains of both experienced meditators and novices. In this experiment, Tibetan Buddhist monks who had been meditating for years, and college undergrads who had never meditated before, were hooked up to electrodes designed to monitor their brain activity. Both groups were then asked to engage in cycles of compassion meditation followed by a resting, non-meditating state.
As expected based on past research, both groups showed an increase in the production of gamma waves while engaged in compassion meditation. Gamma waves are linked to intuition, empathy, creativity, and 'aha' moments such as when we solve a problem or experience an insight. However, the monk's gamma wave activity was exceptional in two ways: 1) They showed the highest level of gamma wave activity ever recorded, and, 2) Their gamma wave activity was extremely high even when they were in a non-meditating state.
The fact that the monk's brain wave production was so different from the novices even when they were not meditating indicated to the researchers that their actual brains had been changed by their long-term meditation practice. The monk's brains were actually hardwired for an increased level of compassion at all times.
Another interesting study related to brain changes was conducted on experienced Vipassana meditators. In Vipassana meditation, an individual observes the ongoing stream of his or her internal mental activity with non-judgment and non-attachment. This kind of self-awareness and self-observation is associated with a certain brain region. In an experiment, scientists compared the concentration of gray matter in this brain region in experienced Vipassana meditators with that of non-meditators. The meditators' gray matter showed a significantly higher concentration, indicating that their brains had become permanently more adept at mindful awareness and introspection, even when they were not meditating.
Both these studies' findings might seem obvious to anyone who has engaged in Buddhist practice for any length of time. But they are part of a huge shift in neuroscience currently going on, based on the idea of neuroplasticity – the idea that our brains change in response to the stimuli we encounter and thoughts that we engage in. While scientists have long recognized that neuroplasticity in babies' brains allows them to learn at an amazing pace, until recently they did not realize how malleable adults' brains are.
The upshot for all of us – Buddhist and non-Buddhist – is that we can actually change deeply ingrained mental and emotional patterns through regular practice. Whether we seek to become more compassionate, more self-aware, less fearful, or more joyful, we can do so by consciously practicing shifting into those states on a regular basis. We can do this as part of a meditation practice, or simply throughout our day. Like with exercise or any other skill, we will improve over time, as we strengthen the associated areas of our brain.
For books that discuss some of these recent studies as well as related themes, try the following:
Content copyright © 2015 by Lisa Erickson. All rights reserved.
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