The positive results of meditation have now entered the measurable world of science and objective evaluation. Sandhya Mulchandani studies the shift from hypothesis to scientific fact.
Long before there were laboratories and encephalograms (X-ray photographs of the brain), ancient scriptures talked about superhuman who could miraculously transform themselves by controlling their minds and bodies. Dismissed for centuries as delusions of the religious, it is science that is now offering evidence that there may be substance to this belief. Scientists and researchers have come up with irrevocable evidence that focusing the mind inward, meditating and moments of quiet contemplation are not new-age spiritual babble but a preferred state of being—one to be actively sought after, for in it lies the key to human wellness.
For the multitudes struggling with stresses rising from recession and consumerism, wellbeing has become the new elixir, the latest mantra. Believed to be a state in which an individual can realise his or her own potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and make a meaningful contribution to the community, wellbeing is a state of mind that has a significant impact on the body. Science has now begun to dissect the complex mechanisms by which the brain influences peripheral biology, and the conclusion that physical health is influenced by thoughts, feelings and behaviour is completely changing the way we view illness and treat diseases. This has become a rapidly growing field of neurological research where scientific techniques are being used to study the mind–body connection to enhance our natural healing capacities.
It now appears that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. Scientists once thought that the brain stopped developing after the first few years of life, that connections were formed between the nerve cells of the brain at an early age and then stayed there as we aged, making it rigid and incapable of change. Research now shows that the brain continues to reorganise itself throughout life and transfers cognitive abilities from one lobe to the other. This understanding that the brain has the capacity to develop, learn and change even in late adulthood has been one of the most significant recent findings, and is called neuroplasticity. This implies that our emotional and mental wellbeing can be cultivated through practice and discipline, much like learning to swim or to speak French. A new branch of research called contemplative neuroscience in particular focuses on changes in brain function and structure that come about as a result of contemplative practice—the forerunner of which is meditation.
We in India are nonchalant, even dismissive of the view that prayer, chanting, naam jap, yoga and meditation have always been recommended as techniques to turn the mind inward, away from the distractions of the world outside. But these techniques were believed to result in transformed states, especially during meditation, which, until now, has always been regarded as something transcendental, something outside the realm of physical measurement and objective evaluation. In philosophy, meditation is seen as an effort to strengthen the mind, heal its afflictions, quieten the ego and deepen a state of understanding. Drawn from the Latin root mederi which means to heal in the West, it is usually understood as a concentrated state of mind; while in the East, meditation does not mean thinking at all, but rather the thought process itself dissolving into consciousness. In Zen Buddhism, meditation is nothing more than inner silence.
Shorn of all its religious and spiritual connotations, meditation involves a broad spectrum of practices designed to shed anxieties, promote relaxation and a heightened sense of wellbeing, which include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), anapanasati, sahaja, kundalini, vipassana and zazen. Recent brain imaging studies have dramatically changed our understanding of what meditation actually means and its impact on the body. Scientists from Harvard Medical School, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stanford, UCLA and the State University of New York have translated these mental experiences into the scientific language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony.
Can people really strengthen the brain circuits associated with happiness and positive behaviour, just as we are able to strengthen muscles with exercise? What are the actual physical transformations that take place in the brain? Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, explains, “One of the enduring changes in the brain of those who routinely meditate is that it becomes thicker. In other words, they build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries, which an MRI shows are measurably thicker in two major regions of the brain. One is in the pre-frontal cortex involved in the control of attention. This change makes sense because that’s what you’re doing when you meditate or engage in a contemplative activity. The second brain area that gets bigger is a very important part called the insula. The insula tracks both the interior state of the body and the feelings of other people, which is fundamental to empathy, making them more self-aware and empathic. This is a good illustration of neuroplasticity which is the idea that as the mind changes, the brain changes, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it, neurons that fire together wire together.”
To document the effects of concentrated meditation, researchers have turned to Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas—this has not come about by accident. In 1992, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked to meet Richard J Davidson, a world-renowned neuroscientist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor. He posed a pivotal challenge to the neuroscientist, asking him to bring the same rigorous scientific methods he used to study negative qualities of mind such as depression, anxiety and fear, and apply them to investigate positive qualities of mind such as kindness and compassion.
Davidson accepted the challenge and founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, which conducts scientific research on how positive qualities might be cultivated on an individual and global scale. Over the past several years, the university has been working with several Buddhist monks who were hooked to electro-encephalographs (EEG) for testing and brain scanning. Fitted with 256 electrical sensors, these monks were asked to meditate specifically on unconditional compassion, which the researchers say they chose because it does not require concentrating on objects, memories or images, and cultivates instead a transformed state of being.
Peeping into the brains of these monks has definitely been enlightening; studies from this unusual sample suggest that continuous meditation does actually alter the structure and function of the brain. According to Davidson, the results unambiguously showed that 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 organised and coordinated than in the novices who were tested.
Similar work by Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, uses a five-tonne (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to track blood flow within the monks’ heads while they meditate. “Meditation research has been very promising as it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn’t know previously was possible,” he says. Dr Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute in Boston, has found that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body. Just as stimulating an area of the hypothalamus causes a stress response, so does activating other areas of the brain result in its reduction. He calls this opposite state the “relaxation response”—a balancing mechanism to counter stress. He has also shown that meditation can change the inner workings and circuitry of the brain; it helps to cool down the body, enabling the adrenal glands to produce less cortisol and more prolactin which, over time, helps in reducing the rate at which the brain ages; and boosts immunity as well.
Other studies have linked meditation to lower frequency alpha and theta waves, indicating that in a meditative state a person is more relaxed but maintains a sharp awareness. There is also a heightened activity in the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex (vital to a wide variety of autonomic functions such as regulating blood pressure, heart rate as well as rational cognitive functions like decision-making, empathy, impulse control and emotion), the prefrontal cortex as well as the hippocampus, suggesting a heightened ability to control attention and awareness.
Meditation slows the deterioration of the brain as part of the natural aging process and increases grey matter in specific regions. It leads to a measurable drop in skin temperature, blood pressure, respiration, heart rate and blood oxygen saturation levels. In other studies, it has been observed that just eight weeks of mindful meditation produces significant left anterior brain activity that is associated with positive emotional states.
While the laboratory has proved the positive effects of meditation, the true test is finding examples of people who have been able to palpably demonstrate change in their life outside of the laboratory—in the “real” world. Declared the “happiest man on earth”, Matthieu Ricard left a promising research career in cellular genetics in France to become a Buddhist monk and is today the Dalai Lama’s constant companion. Deeply committed to research in brain plasticity and cognitive neuropsychology, he believes the brain can be trained to becomemore resilient, attentive, compassionate and altruistic. If you have inner strength, inner peace and attention, you will have the resources to deal with whatever comes your way. “You’re not insensitive or indifferent, but you’re also not vulnerable to the upheavals that cause emotional stress because you buffer that. So, that’s the result of meditation; you can call that emotional balance,” he explains.
But how can one bring the mind—often referred to as “monkey mind” since it is constantly jumping from one thought to another—under control? Can the constant flow of thoughts, especially destructive ones, be curtailed? According to Ricard, “Wellbeing is a permanent state of serenity and fulfilment, often confused with pleasure which is only fleeting…Mind training is based on the fact that emotions are fleeting and that two opposing ideas cannot coexist at the same time. You cannot simultaneously feel pleasure and pain, be angry and ecstatic, sad and happy. Mind transformation is meditation; it doesn’t happen overnight but it is possible to find new ways of looking at things by training the mind.”
The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating. These monks haven’t merely been subjected to testing in the laboratories, several have tried it on themselves. When Tibetan Lama Phakyab Rinpoche immigrated to the United States in 2003, he was a 37-year-old refugee with diabetes and Pott’s Disease. His afflictions were so bad that his foot and leg had developed gangrene and he was advised amputation. He decided to reach out to his mentor, the Dalai Lama, for advice. He was told to heal himself through Tsa Lung meditation. After relentlessly meditating for a year, he was able to walk again. Not only was the gangrene in his leg gone, but the diabetes and tuberculosis disappeared as well. Doctors now have been studying the Rinpoche’s brain and the changes that occurred by meditation. “This is a cognitive-behavioral practice that modern East-West science suggests may be more effective that any existing strictly Western medical intervention,” says Dr William C Bushell, an MIT-affiliated researcher in medical anthropology and director of East-West Research for Tibet House in New York.
Similar stories of self-healing—remissions of cancer, tuberculosis patches disappearing or diabetes regressing—abound, which continue to reside strictly in the realm of faith, not science, for most. Now, science has come up with empirical proof of the changes that faith brings about in the brain. These studies firmly prove that unleashing these innate potentialities will help treat a plethora of illnesses, including anxiety, moderate depression, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, excessive anger, insomnia and even infertility. Benson’s team also uses simple types of meditation to calm those who have been traumatised by the deaths of others, or by diagnoses of cancer or other painful, life-threatening illnesses, resulting in greater happiness and increased social harmony.
Admittedly, it is religion that first sat up and took notice of the human question of wellbeing. Much time and thought has been spent in understanding its genesis and ways to achieve it. The study of human resilience has now become a branch of science, emerging from the evidence gathered at the intersection of psychology, biology and neuroscience. It seems wellbeing is not a utopian state, but within one’s grasp–in the mind.