Food for Thought: The Brain on Meditation

Science and eastern philosophy converge on the benefits of meditation.
Science and eastern philosophy converge on the benefits of meditation.

‘Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.’
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding

Eckart Tolle describes the concept of false sense of self in his book The Power of Now, which describes his process of reaching enlightenment by realizing that his thoughts were not him; rather his ‘identity’ was revealed once he could quiet his thoughts. He came to believe that he was not separate from the rest of the universe, but rather integrally tied into it, and it was this realization that imbued him with a feeling of bliss that could be considered at least the beginning stage of ‘realization’, ‘Nirvana’, or ‘enlightenment’ (whichever you want to identify with).

Whether you believe Tolle is a genuine spiritual master or a commercialized sell-out, there is no doubt that he has had a profound influence on the lives of many people seeking deeper meaning in their lives. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and regardless of his commercial success feel that much of his writing does provide an insightful perspective on spirituality in language that hits home with modern Western audiences.

In The Power of Now he writes, “the single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to dis-identify from your mind. Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger.” He describes this experience as acknowledging the present, rather than living in the past and future. “To the ego, the present moment hardly exists,” he explains. “Only past and future are considered important. This total reversal of the truth accounts for the fact that in the ego mode the mind is so dysfunctional. It is always concerned with keeping the past alive, because without it – who are you?”

Here goes the ego

For most of us, myself included, we define ourselves mainly by our past experiences and future aspirations. For some, the past is a whimsical journey of nostalgia, while for others it is a crutch upon which they painfully hobble. My own past is at times a source of reverence, other times of angst. While I wish I could relive certain early experiences in my life, I run disjointed memories through my head like a jolty movie reel and feel as if I am observing the history of a stranger. I may empathize, feel pangs of joy or regret as various images surface momentarily, but somehow I cannot sense a direct connection to that past self that is supposedly ‘me’. Similarly, we tend to project scenes onto the future, paint it with expectations, and lose ourselves in speculation. All the while, the present moment is lost. We miss so much of our lives by not simply living in the ‘now’, enjoying each precious moment.

Neurological research uses MRI scanning to document changes to the brain during and after meditation. Researchers find increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the parietal lobe of meditation practitioners.
Neurological research uses MRI scanning to document changes to the brain during and after meditation. Researchers find increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the parietal lobe of meditation practitioners.

I think this is why the idea of meditation is so captivating. While the attainment of instant spiritual enlightenment as extolled by Tolle may be a bit of a stretch for most of us, a more down-to-earth and tangible appreciation for meditation is not something to scoff at. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” If we cannot even take a few minutes each day to sit quietly and clear the clouds of thought constantly floating through our heads, how can we ever hope to have a fundamental understanding of ourselves, the clear blue sky that exists beyond the haze?

Author David Michie has highlighted many of the scientifically validated benefits of practicing meditation and mindfulness. An excerpt from the introduction of his latest book highlights our growing awareness of these:

“As Technological advancements enable neurologists to study the workings of the mind in greater detail, we are seeing a wonderful convergence take place. Ancient meditation-based wisdom and contemporary science are drawing together. We are coming to understand that our sensory awareness—such as sight—has as much to do with mental functioning and the way we interpret stimuli as it has with our sense receptors. We are gaining new insights showing how pleasure or pain is as much a result of our conditioning as our circumstances. Very recent studies confirm that we have it in our power to cultivate positive states of mind, and even change our neural pathways to enjoy happiness on a more ongoing basis. In short, contemporary research is affirming the ancient wisdom that we are the creators of our own reality. If we don’t like the way we feel, we have the power to change it.”

Your Brain on Meditation

Not surprisingly, the most prominent benefit of meditation is stress reduction. This, in turn, lowers blood pressure, boosts immunity, and thus reduces the likelihood of disease. Meditation has also been shown to heighten activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with happiness and relaxation. Even more encouraging, meditation has been shown to greatly increase the quality of life of terminally ill patients, and in many documented cases has even helped them fully recover.

Neurologists have also studied how meditation changes the brain, and have discovered that the brain’s limbic system (often called the brain’s emotional network) becomes more active with repeated meditation, resulting in increased empathy and compassion in the meditator. Dozens of research studies confirm observable changes (using MRI scans) to the brain from undergoing meditation, including significantly heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain responsible for attention, and reduced activity in the superior parietal lobe, the area of the brain that helps us orient in time and space. In other words, meditation increases the brain’s ability to focus while reducing its perception of our external surroundings.

Matthieu Riccard is a Buddhist Monk who has been declared the 'happiest man in the world'. Neurologists have discovered that his brain produces a level of gamma waves never before measured, possibly explaining his extreme levels of compassion and happiness.
Matthieu Riccard is a Buddhist Monk who has been declared the ‘happiest man in the world’. Neurologists have discovered that his brain produces a level of gamma waves never before measured, possibly explaining his extreme levels of compassion and happiness.

One of the most extreme examples is that of Matthieu Riccard, a Buddhist monk who has been labeled the ‘world’s happiest man’. Neurologists have scanned Riccard’s brain while he meditates and found extremely heightened activity in his left prefrontal cortex. Even more fascinating, they have discovered a level of gamma waves produced by his brain that has never been measured before. Gamma waves are what scientists associated with consciousness. The conclusion is that his brain is operating in such a way as to produce incredibly high doses of ‘compassion’ and ‘happiness’, or in essence operating at a higher consciousness.. Riccard is a unique case, but researchers have found good evidence that the brain begins to shift in this positive direction after only a few weeks of meditation—so there is hope for the rest of us!

The Ian Gawler foundation in Australia has helped many people with cancer or similar ‘terminal’ illnesses overcome their disease despite the sentence of doom placed on them by conventional medicine practitioners. Clearly, our minds are powerful entities, if we learn to harness them as such. In a later post I will highlight some of the biological studies which explain our mental abilities, as researchers learn more about the way electro-magnetic wave energy transfers signals throughout the body much more efficiently than chemical signals.

Some of the most interesting meditation research has centered on the ‘Maharishi effect’, which is defined as the influence of coherence and positivity in the social and natural environment generated by the practice of transcendental mediation (TM). Several studies have shown that when at least 1% of the population in a given region is practicing such meditation, crime rates are noticeably reduced in that area.

This trend has been documented several times—recently in Washington D.C., 4,000 practitioners of TM visited the city to again test the effect. During the same period that they remained in the city, crime rates fell by 21%. Similarly, programs in which criminals have been prescribed ‘enlightened sentences’ (basically, forced meditation during their prison time) have documented a 30-40% reduction in repeat offenses by participating prisoners. Think of the possibilities these studies suggest! Even a small (albeit significant) increase in the number of people who learn to cultivate inner peace can actually have a measurable positive impact on society as a whole.

The Maharishi Effect, in which thousands of meditators gather in an attempt to spread peaceful, positive energy. The effect has shown in several cases to significantly reduce crime rates and incidences of violence in the vicinity of the gathering.
The Maharishi Effect, in which thousands of meditators gather in an attempt to spread peaceful, positive energy. The effect has shown in several cases to significantly reduce crime rates and incidences of violence in the vicinity of the gathering.

I do not believe that conventional (a.k.a. ‘modern’) medicine is worthless, and neither do the aforementioned authors. However, I think that for a long time our modern society has taken for granted that the answer to our problems lies in technological and medical advancements. In doing so we have ignored or forgotten many of the most fundamental aspects of healthy, meaningful, holistic living.

As Michie comments, “If meditation were available in capsule form, it would be the biggest selling drug of all time.”

Indeed, modern society’s obsession with drugs, whether prescribed or self-medicated, underscores how desperate most of us are to find a quick fix for health, or to escape the reality of our situation all together. This trend extends to fad diets and fad supplements, which are not only unproven or potentially harmful to our health, but destructive to the environment which we depend on as well (e.g. fish oil, whose popularity threatens to wipe out several fish species thus disrupting a large portion of the marine ecosystem, and is often tainted with heavy metals).

Yet the idea that a balanced, wholesome (not to mention ethical) diet and cultivation of a clear, peaceful mind might actually be more effective in achieving health than a daily dose of vitamins, supplements, heart meds, depression meds, etc etc. is dismissed as “new-agey” or “hippy-ish”. In reality I think it’s because a lot of people have just grown too complacent due to our dependence on technological advancement. Eating and thinking mindfully requires an effort every day, over the span of an entire lifetime. It’s a worth-while but long term change in lifestyle that a lot of us aren’t willing to invest in. But why?

We will dive more into that in the next blog edition….

If only meditation were in capsule form...everyone would be popping it!
If only meditation were in capsule form…everyone would be popping it!

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