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Meditation and the Brain

New imaging technology makes it possible for scientists to document the brain activity of Buddhist monks.
February 1, 2004

The Dalai Lama is a revered spiritual figure and Tibet’s leader-in-exile. He’s also the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner and a friendly face on the dust jackets of popular inspirational books. But a wannabe engineer? Indeed, His Holiness has often quipped that engineering would have been his preferred path had he not become a monk.

But it was brain science, not engineering, that brought the Dalai Lama to MIT last September for the Investigating the Mind conference, which explored how scientific and Buddhist viewpoints on human consciousness can inform each other. In front of a sellout crowd of 1,200 in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, the Dalai Lama and Buddhist scholars traded insights and questions with neuroscientists and psychologists on such topics as attention, mental imagery, and emotion. Discussions of science are of deep personal interest to the Dalai Lama, who has held similar meetings in private with esteemed scholars for decades. But this conference-organized by the Boulder, CO-based Mind and Life Institute and cosponsored by MIT’s new McGovern Institute for Brain Research-was the first such meeting opened to the public.

Those involved hope the event will spark more rigorous, collaborative research between Buddhists and Western scientists, who have long held diametrically opposed views on how the brain functions. For example, Buddhists view mental attributes such as temperament as skills to be cultivated, while Western scientists generally believe that such traits are fixed in the brain at a young age. But modern neuroscience and the advent of new imaging technology have challenged scientists to think more broadly about how the brain functions. “This conference will explore how Buddhists and scientists can collaborate in research, to look at the advisability and wisdom of that research, and to plot strategies and methodologies,” said Adam Engle, chairman of the Mind and Life Institute, before the event. “The participation of the Dalai Lama along with so many leading scientists and Buddhist scholars will make this conference historic.” While the conference certainly pushed the envelope of neuroscience research, the field has already benefited from the study of Buddhist subjects. New imaging technologies are allowing researchers to document the brain activity of monks, and research centers are well equipped to study meditative training and its broader neurological implications.

Science and Meditation

On a stage filled with sunflowers and white overstuffed chairs, the juxtaposition of tweed coats and saffron robes signaled that this was no ordinary technical session. Instead, the panel addressed such questions as the nature of emotion-the individual’s tendency to be happy or angry. The panel compared standard Western and Buddhist models-emotional traits as in-born or subject to training-their underlying assumptions, and the prospects for controlled research on the topic.

Such comparisons led to occasional good-natured clashes. For instance, Harvard University psychology professor Stephen Kosslyn, an authority on mental imagery, was at once perplexed and enthralled by reports of trained Buddhist monks maintaining intricate mental images for hours with no loss of detail, exclaiming, “By my understanding of how the brain works, that should not be possible!” Nonetheless, the Dalai Lama’s persistent gentle humor helped weave philosophical and scientific perspectives together.

While the collaboration seems an unusual pairing at first, it suits the mandates of both Buddhist practice and scientific openness. The Dalai Lama notes that both traditions encourage challenging dogma based on observation and analysis, and a willingness to revise views based on empirical evidence. Western scientists have clearly excelled at both in the external physical realm. Meanwhile, Buddhists have devised rigorous methods to observe and control their inner worlds. And to conference panelist Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research’s Center for Genome Research at MIT, shared motivations like curiosity about the world and the desire to alleviate suffering suggest this will be a fruitful partnership.

But this desire to collaborate is not new. Scientists began studying meditation several decades ago. In his seminal 1970s research, Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson found that even a highly simplified form of meditation produced sustained physiological benefits such as reduced heart, metabolic, and breathing rates. His 1975 bestseller The Relaxation Response detailed the first scientific validation of meditative practice and fostered the growth of stress reduction clinics in workplaces, hospitals, and other settings. But until recently, there has been no reliable way to collect objective data on purported mental effects such as sharpened mental focus, freedom from negative judgments, and increased compassion.

Advances in functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) have opened the dynamics of the human brain to objective study. Recent fMRI studies on brain activity suggest that moods and dispositions are rooted in specific regions of the organ. For example, positive states of mind are marked by high activity in the left frontal area, while activity in the right frontal area coincides with negative states.

Just as physiologists study well-trained athletes to understand the body, neuroscientists are focusing on monks, who often meditate more than 10 hours per day, to understand the brain. These preliminary studies, while far from definitive, are challenging scientific views on the brain’s ultimate capabilities and point to intriguing directions for future research.

In the conference session on emotions, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, detailed some pilot research described in Daniel Goleman’s 2003 book Destructive Emotions. Davidson has used fMRI and electroencephalography (EEG) to image the brains of six monks, including conference panelist Matthieu Ricard, during and outside of meditation. When Davidson asked the monks to induce a state of compassion in themselves, they showed a much greater shift toward left frontal brain activity than subjects untrained in meditation.

Of course, the monk lifestyle isn’t for everyone. So a recently published study on the effects of short meditation sessions with novice practitioners is perhaps of greater relevance to the rest of us. As reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a small controlled study of “mindfulness meditation” training for employees of a small biotech firm. Four months after an eight-week meditation course, the researchers found that emotional and immune system benefits persisted-with just 15-minute meditation sessions only two or three times a week.

MIT’s Interest

The McGovern Institute, cosponsor of the conference, has no small mission: it seeks to ultimately understand the biological basis of all higher brain function in humans. This, it believes, will in turn foster better ways of communicating at all levels of society-both nationally and internationally. Since opening in 2000, the institute has assembled an interdisciplinary research team with the latest in brain-scanning and associated technologies. Two McGovern researchers, Nancy Kanwisher and Christopher Moore, are particularly interested in meditative training and its broader neurological implications. Both study the mechanics of perception, which some believe may underlie the attention and mental-imagery aspects of meditation. And both see Buddhists as “exceptional subjects” for study, as well as valuable partners with whom to frame new research questions.

Kanwisher, MIT’s representative on the organizing committee, also served as a conference panelist. In addition to object recognition and perceptual awareness, she studies visual attention-a set of mechanisms in the brain that selectively process what our eyes take in. “So far, almost nobody in the visual-attention field is asking how perceptual mechanisms may change with experience,” says Kanwisher. She points to the example of Buddhists who undergo extensive attention training; of particular interest is how this training may change the properties of attention characterized in past scientific research. Might meditation help us boost our awareness? She’s not sure. But she’s intrigued when the Buddhist practitioners say, Look, with training we can get better at visual attention.’”

Moore studies how brain dynamics allow our perception of touch to change in different situations. The brain is constantly filtering information from all our senses, catching what’s important and ignoring what isn’t. Moore has shown that one’s surroundings affect the brain’s touch-filtering mechanism; for instance, fingertip sensitivity may be boosted in subjects searching for lost keys in a dark room. Moore’s next step is to examine how goals and expectations might affect filtering. He says that attending the conference piqued his interest in the subject and left him wondering “whether the Buddhists’ training lets them willfully control these dynamics.”

The conference ended with plans for the next wave of meditation research, particularly larger controlled studies of novice practitioners. In the wake of an enthusiastic overflow crowd and widespread media attention, Phillip Sharp, director of the McGovern Institute, saw a clear indication that neuroscience is onto something big. As he remarked, “[We’re] beginning to address questions that society finds profoundly interesting,”

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of uncharted territory. For instance, while fMRI brain maps are a great leap forward, we still know “shockingly little about the connections among the parts of the human brain,” acknowledges Kanwisher. But she’s confident that the answers will keep coming, and collaborations with Buddhists are an invaluable contribution-particularly when validated by what conference panelist and Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro calls “the great god of data.”

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