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Strength Train the Brain with Meditation

A.Kyan's picture

           Last spring, I was practicing mindfulness (insight) meditation in Burma with the intent to discipline the mind and understand the relationship between the mind and body. Upon the end of my retreat and onset of the post-bacc program, I unexpectedly felt torn between these two disciplines: modern science and Buddhism. At the same time, I felt I could use medicine as a means to understand the mechanics of the brain and ultimately the mind. Encouragingly, brain research has begun to produce scientific evidence for something Buddhist meditation practitioners have been teaching for centuries: mental discipline can alter the functions, structure and even retard the aging process of the brain. Such an exploration is partnering modern science and Buddhism to understand the laws of nature and the workings of the mind (1). Through MRI imaging, researchers, such as Dr. Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, are finding insight meditation to increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex and anterior insula where attention, sensory processing, decision-making, and brain-body interactions occur (2). Dr. Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin, Madison is translating the mental states during transcendental meditation into high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony. He and his team have located the left prefrontal cortex (an area behind the left forehead) as the place where brain activity is most intense during meditation (3). Critics point out that these recent findings on brain activity are preliminary and inconclusive, and such types of research may breach the barrier between science and religion (4). As a practitioner, perhaps I am biased to believe that meditation vastly improves cognitive functioning of the brain. Nonetheless, it is exciting to see that researchers are, finally, finding concrete neurobiological evidence on how meditation structurally affects the brain.

           Reading the cautionary notes on these studies has caused me to reflect on whether I have become too biased to objectively study this matter. I am predisposed to believe and want to support my experimental data, and so do these lead researchers who are also meditation practitioners. Although I agree there should be a fine distinction between science and religion, Buddhism is not a religion. It is a school of thought or rather, philosophy. No part of Buddhism is taught based on blind-faith. Believers and non-believers are encouraged to question, test, and prove the canons to oneself first and foremost. (Buddhist teachings are designed to be methods in which humans can free themselves of suffering.) In fact, it would be ideal if everyone could personally test and prove a hypothesis before believing in its results. However, we are often unable to do so when it comes to science and/or medicine. We cannot prove a drug’s efficacy to ourselves when we lack the particular symptoms or illness. Or, if I had breast cancer and conducted a study on malignant tumors in breast tissues would that mean that I am biased towards finding a cure? If I wanted to conduct a study on eating habits, would I be biased because I eat, too? Instead of clouding judgment I believe personal experience is capable of providing further knowledge without compromising scientific objectivity. Similarly, I see my experience with meditation as further insight into the study of meditation on the brain.

           Studies done by leading researchers, Dr. Sara Lazar and Dr. Richard Davidson, compare brain structures and the activity of regular meditators to novice or non-practitioners. So far results are showing a clear distinction between the cortical thicknesses and brain-wave activities between the experimental and control groups. Although recent research has only observed small groups of participants for shorts period of time, these studies are currently pursuing longitudinal studies with larger participant groups. Over a 1,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published on the subject of meditation. Until recently, many of them were limited to observing the correlation between meditation and how it improves moods or alleviates disease symptoms. Now researchers are successfully moving beyond how meditation can influence the brain to knowing how that influence is accomplished.

           The core of practicing mindfulness (insight) meditation is to focus on the breath and whatever arising thought or sensation occurs in the mind and/or body. During these mental states, the brain is subjected to a type of strength-training where particular areas of the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain) are exercised and bulk up over time. Previous studies have shown accomplished musicians, athletes and linguists to also have thickening in relevant areas of the cortex. Dr. Lazar, a psychologist at the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, reports that the growth of the cortex is not a result of new neuron growth, but the result of wider blood vessels, an increase in supporting structures such as glia and astrocytes, and a greater number of branching and connections (2). The data suggests that meditation can promote cortical plasticity in areas critical for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being, as well as internal perception which is the automatic monitoring of heart rate or breathing (7).

           During those four months in Burma, I noticed my ability to focus improved as my meditation practice continued. The first few weeks were excruciatingly difficult on my psyche and physical comfort. I found it unnatural to sit for long hours- without movement- and to focus on one object at a time. All those years of learning how to multi-task became a handicap. Gradually, watching the mind jump from one thought to another became exhausting. I realized how wasteful the mind is when allowed to run amuck! As the weeks turned into months, my ability to concentrate improved drastically. In the beginning, sitting in meditation for five minutes seemed like eternity. After a few weeks, sitting for an hour or more seemed more like moments. I also noticed that feelings of anger, irritation, envy, and greed arose less frequently, and my mind felt sharp, alert, fresh, and at ease. From reading Dr. Lazar’s findings, I am curious as to how significantly my brain changed from that intensive retreat. The outward benefits have been clear, seeing the internal changes would be intriguing. Before embarking on my next retreat, I hope to become a study participant to compare the “before and after” shape of my brain. My father who has been practicing insight meditation for over 45 years is still mentally sharp. I realize much of his acute mental capacity is due to his meditation practice. According to these studies, the relevant areas of my father’s cortex are most likely thicker than mine. Frankly, that is easy to believe. At the age of 73 my father is still a better and quicker learner than I am.

           Even though Dr. Lazar is not conclusive in the relationship between cortical thickening and cognitive ability, past studies have shown cortical thickening to be correlated with improved performance in certain cognitive tasks. The cerebral cortex consisting of four lobes (occipital, parietal, frontal, and temporal), are involved in higher-order cognitive functioning such as memory, attention, perceptual awareness and language. Furthermore, additional studies find relaxation (a manifestation of meditation) to facilitate learning processes involved with cortical plasticity (5). The team of researchers led by Dr. Lazar has only observed the effects of mindfulness meditation, which is one type of meditation among many. She and her colleagues suspect that other styles of meditation may have similar effects on the cortex.

           Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior has studied the brain-wave activity of monks practicing another type of meditation-transcendental meditation. He applies the concept of neuroplasticity to how mental training, such as meditation, can change the inner workings of the brain’s circuitry. They studied the brains of the Dalai Lama’s most accomplished meditation masters compared to non-practitioners with electroencephalograph (EEG) testing and brain scanning. His team of scientists found the brain to be capable of being trained and physically modified. The study focused on tracking the neural synchrony of neurons oscillating at different frequencies, fire in phase (3). The study found that long-term Buddhist practitioners activated their minds in different ways from inexperienced, student volunteers. The electrodes detected much greater activation of fast-moving and powerful gamma rays that were better organized and coordinated in the monks than in the students (6). The longest practicing monks had the highest level of gamma waves (3). These intense gamma waves have been associated with connecting disparate brain circuits, which underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The data also suggest that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness and temporal integrative mechanisms that may induce short-term and long-term neural changes (6).

           Advances in functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) have opened the dynamics of the human brain to objective study and quenches the debate on whether science is being biased by personal experience. Just as physiologists study elite athletes to observe the body, neuroscientists are focusing on meditators to understand the brain. Western scientists have been the leaders in studying the external nature of humans, while Buddhist philosophers have been the forerunners in designing rigorous methods to observe and control our internal nature. Well-funded labs at Princeton, Harvard, University of California at San Francisco, and MIT are conducting fascinating research into answering how meditation tangibly changes the brain. I have always believed if there could be a biological understanding of higher (human) brain function, then meditation would be more appealing and widespread. While fMRI brain maps are a great advancement, this is only the beginning. More questions need to be answered. Thus far, only advantages to the practice of meditation have been reported, but could there be any negative side effects to intensive practice? Can over-training the brain be detrimental? Physiologically, what causes the increase in thickness? At what rate does the brain matter increase? Does meditation produce new neural connections between brain cells? How does increased brain thickness influence the brain function in other parts of the brain and behavior? Can such mental training help regenerate areas of the brain that have been damaged? Knowing the nature of humans, if there is future success in deeply understanding how meditation can influence the brain, it would most likely be packaged into and administered into an easy pill, and the purpose of meditation would then be forgotten. However, I believe the road to further discovery is a worthwhile journey. It allows us to develop alternative ways to potentially treat mental difficulties and ultimately improve our well-being both externally and internally.

Web Resources

1.; Science Explores Meditation's Effect on the Brain; NPR: National Public Radio
2.; Meditation Builds up the Brain; New Scientist, World’s No.1 Science and News Technology Resource
3.; Study Finds Meditation Gives Brain a Charge; Washington Post
4.; Wired 14.02: Buddha on the Brain; Wired
5.; Growing the Brain through Meditation; Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience
6.; Long-term Meditators Self-Induce High-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice; Proceedings of the National Academy of Science
7.; Meditation and the Brain; MIT
8.; Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation; Psychosomatic Medicine