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Meditation and the Brain

David Benner

When discussing the relationship of brain and behavior, the materialist view of human experience runs into conflict with the historically dominant religious accounts. Recent studies, however, suggests that there may be a "middle view" between the two world-views. Religions, especially Buddhism, stress the role of meditation in one's spiritual growth. Meditation has tangible psychological and physiological benefits, though, which can be explained strictly in neurobiological terms. Understanding of how meditation affects the brain, and, by extension, human behavior, also gives insight into consciousness, the role of feedback loops, and the nature of the I-function.

The goal of Buddhist meditation is to detach oneself from desires and objects which are the cause of suffering. Other forms of meditation, while differing in terms of their metaphysical grounding (1), effectively separate the individual from the transitory nature of the world. In prayer, the effort is largely mental, but Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Zen meditation also involve the body. Body positioning is important to the meditation, and in Zen, the object is to have as little tension as possible in the body. "The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How you position your body has a lot to do with what happens with your mind and your breath . . . Although [Zen meditation] looks very disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body" (2). The correlation of physical states with mental states in meditation reinforces the correspondence between neural functions and behavior.

Zen practice also has a revealing theory about the nature of the self, namely that it "has no core essence" (3). Attachment to the idea of the self as a permanent thing is a cause of suffering. Instead of seeing a "soul" or a "mind" as the seat of personal identity, in Buddhism, the self is to be found in processes. Meditation, then, has the therapeutic effect of disengaging the practitioner from self-consciousness, freeing the mind. The view of the world without the construct of a permanent essence enables one to "experience reality as it really is" (3). It is important to note that Buddhism does not distinguish mental processes from other senses. Just as seeing takes a visual object, the mind takes a mental object (1). Just as the eye is free to take in different visual objects, the mind is free, as well. While meditation aims to develop "single-pointedness of mind," it is ultimately to free it from external objects. The focus is on the process of breathing, in Zen, and, eventually, one can reach a state where one is not considering anything (2). Zen considers the "blank-mind" stage to be a higher form of consciousness because it is free from attachments.

Indeed, one of the goals of meditation is the "mindful state," which is awareness of objects, mind-states, and physical states but not attachment to them. Buddhism puts a great emphasis on empirical understanding of the world (3), through meditation and through observation, and the "mindful state" is one which recognizes distractions and attachments, and acknowledges them, in order to achieve awareness of one's true nature. While a person in meditation does not dwell on possible objects of consciousness, he/she is yet mindful of them - a different sort of awareness without attachment.

In addition to claiming spiritual benefits, meditation has tangible physiological effects. Studies of Transcendental Meditation reveal that during meditation, there is "an increase in the areas of the [cerebral] cortex taking part in perception of specific information and an increase in the functional relationship between the two hemispheres" (4). These observations support the cognitive claims of the "mindful state" in Zen by showing an increase in functional awareness. Additionally, TM practice results in increased EEG coherence, blood flow to the brain, muscle relaxation, and a decrease in stress hormones " (4). Similarly, in Zen practice, some masters can lower the respiration rate from 12-15 breaths per minute to a mere 3 (2). Long term TM practice results in greater EEG coherence; increased efficiency of information transfer in the brain; lower baseline levels of heart and respiration rates; increased stability of the autonomic nervous system; faster recovery from stress; faster reactions; and faster reflex responses (4). These data suggest that relaxation techniques can alter set-points and negative feedback loops which the I-function cannot alter. "Mindfulness" involves the awareness and control of physical operations that we cannot have through a structure that purports to separate "us" from some of our functions. Over-reliance on the "I-function" constitutes an attachment to certain types of behavior which we then privilege over others, falsely supposing the "I" to have a permanence over and above brain functions.

The psychological effects of meditation reinforce how mind and body affect each other, as well as support the theory that we have set-points and feedback loops in moods and mental states. For example, some drug addiction centers have used meditation techniques to help counter the strong attachment for drugs and alcohol and to empower the struggling addict to recognize the source and nature of the craving and to counter it with "right mindfulness" (5). While controversial, Zen meditation has been used in conjunction with psychoanalysis (6). In one case study, a woman with manic depression and schizophrenia was told to watch the second hand of a clock, and to name any distractions that may arise. She came to understand that her distractions were related to the past. With "mindfulness," "she learned to identify herself with the objective watcher of her disturbing thoughts instead of the depressed thinker" (7).

While this realization does not signify a cure to mental illness, the recognition of the problem and the detachment of the woman from the effects of her condition represent important steps. It is also likely that the physiological effects of meditation could also have positive effects on her neurochemistry, perhaps decreasing the need for psychosomatic drugs.

A number of scientists have begun to study the medicinal effects of meditation, specifically in reducing stress-related ailments. According to Dr. Herbert Benson, 60-90% of doctor's office visits are caused by stress " (8). Dr. Benson notes that the neurochemical effects of meditation directly oppose the "fight-or-flight" mechanism, due to the effects meditation has on the autonomic nervous system. As a result, the effect of meditation or, in this study, prayer, on the brain is called the "relaxation response." The amygdala, part of the limbic system, controls this response. This part of the brain is also associated with religious faith since when it or the hippocampus is stimulated in surgery, patients raised in Western cultures can experience visions of angels and devils. The amygdala gives rise to both the relaxation brought about by Zen meditation and the general sense of serenity associated with spirituality. For this reason, many scientists are starting to believe that belief in religion in virtually all human societies can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation rather than an anthropological truth or the result of divine revealed truth (9). If this claim is true, meditation makes productive use of whatever pathways are associated with religious experience, giving a right view of experience as we are genetically disposed to see it.

Additionally, the Zen Buddhist and neurobiologist James Austin suggests that the decrease in respiration reduces neuronal firing in the medulla, most likely through corollary discharges from the central pattern generator for the diaphragm to the brain. The inhibition of the medulla causes alteration of higher-level functioning because when it is inhibited, it cannot inhibit higher functioning. Austin also claims that mental "transition periods" increase, shifting "rhythm of entry into activated states," in addition to fashioning different roles for other neurotransmitters (10). The alterations in bodily rhythms are consistent with the observed effects on neuronal responses in TM. Additionally, the effect on neurotransmitters explains how set-points for mood can change, if recent research suggesting roles for dopamine and serotonin in mood is accurate. Meditation could also do some of the work of the psychotropic drugs that either block or facilitate the uptake of certain neurotransmitters.

Both Freudianism and Neurobiology have, in large measure, looked at religion and spirituality as things to be replaced with either psychoanalysis or eliminative materialism. However, recent studies of meditation and prayer demonstrate that they are compatible with modern science and 20th Century psychology. Additionally, the areas of the brain affected by the altered consciousness-states in meditation give insight into "where" consciousness is located, even though a definition for what consciousness is remains elusive. Finally, many of the precepts of Buddhism, especially the transitory nature of our selves, support the ideas that the brain, as well as our understanding, is a "work in progress," and that the "I-function," is simply a function, not a defining notion of self. :

WWW Sources

1)"Essentials of Buddhism." ,

2)"Zen Meditation."

3)"Buddhist Meditation and Personal Construct Psychology" by Phouttasone Thirakoul.

4)"Physiological Functioning."

5)"Addiction and Zen."

6)"Psychotherapy, Meditation, & Spirituality."

7)"Grief and the Mindfulness Approach."

8)" Wallis, Claudia. "Faith & Healing." Time. June 24, 1998. Vol. 147, no.26."

9)"God on the Brain," by Jeremy Creedon.

10) "Zen and the Brain (Review)," by Kimford O. Meadov."

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