A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and
move toward higher levels. —Albert Einstein, U.S.A., 1946
In "The Tao of Physics," physicist Fritjof Capra draws parallels between Eastern religion and the mathematical worldview of modern physics. In "Buddhist Biology," psychology professor David P. Barash explores the remarkable overlap of many Buddhist and scientific concepts. The dynamic conversation between Buddhism and science – evolutionary biology, phyics, ecology, and more – is fascinating and instructive, with potentially profound implications for humankind's way of understanding and being in the world. A summary of a few neuroscientific findings follows:
Mindfulness and Neuroscience
Research points to an ability of the brain to change – to alter its structure and optimize its function. Neurobiological changes associated with meditation can be observed using a number of techniques: electroencephalography (EEG) measures the electrical activity localized over broad areas of the brain, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measures changes in cerebral blood flow in brain structures during a specific task.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is the moment-by-moment awareness of sensation, emotion, perception, and thought. The objective of mindfulness practice is to become aware of stimuli, and rather than trying to modify, judge, or react to thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations, to simply observe them, let them come and go. Meditation is training that involves familiarization with one’s own mental life.
Mindfulness meditation is a specific type of meditation during which one focuses on one specific thing, like breathing, continually bringing one’s attention back to that focal point when it wanders. This process is associated with a perceptual shift, in which one’s thoughts and feelings are recognized as events occurring in a broader field of awareness. A skill learned through self-regulation of attention is how to recognize and disengage from patterns of negative thought, and to achieve a sense of peace and relaxation. Practitioners have long claimed that meditation provides lasting cognitive, psychological, and therapeutic benefits. Tibetan Buddhist tradition holds that it leads to the realization of the true nature of the self.
What Happens in the Brain During Meditation
Meditation enables practitioners to move from higher frequency to lower frequency brainwaves, resulting in the activation of different areas of the brain. Brainwave speed is measured in Hertz and divided into bandwidths, deliniating slow, moderate, and fast waves. A study compared brain activity of long-term Buddhist meditators, monks, with between 10,000–50,000 hours of meditation experience, to that of volunteers with no previous experience.* Results showed a striking difference between experienced and novice meditators. The experienced meditators showed a dramatic increase in gamma waves, the highest frequency brainwaves, thought to underlie higher mental activity. Gamma waves are associated with active learning and consolidation of information. The novices showed a slight increase in gamma activity.
The findings also also showed more synchrony (simultaneous firing of neurons) of gamma activity in experienced meditators, compared to the novices. This may suggest that large-scale coordination of neural activity increases during meditation practice. Differences between experienced and novice meditators in brain activity during a resting state were also observed, suggesting that the “normal” resting state of the brain is influenced by long-term meditation. The data suggests that mental training involves temporal integrative mechanisms which induce short-term and long-term neural changes, and that brain activity can be altered intentionally.
* Reference: Lutz A., Greischar L.L., Rawlings N.B., Ricard M., Davidson R.J.: "Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice."
Benefits of Meditation Practice
Studies examining the beneficial impact of meditation have focused on memory, stress/anxiety, depression, aging, and a variety of clinical conditions and diseases. Here we summarize a few studies:
One of the first studies of mindfulness meditation on stress reduction was conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research team in 1992, which investigated 22 people with anxiety disorders. Mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction was found to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and panic in participants. The revolutionary Kabat-Zinn “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program” was developed, based on this and other studies, and is now used in hospitals, clinics, and by HMOs.
In 2010, a group of neuroscientists enrolled 26 individuals who reported high levels of stress in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course consisting of daily home practices, including sitting meditation, to test the effects of meditation on stress and to observe changes in the brain regions associated with stress and anxiety related behavior. Following the course, participants reported dramatically reduced levels of perceived stress, and exhibited a decrease in gray matter density in the right amygdala. The study, by Hölzel B.K., Carmody J., Evans K.C., Hoge E.A., Dusek J.A., Morgan L., Pitman R.K., Lazar S.W., was titled “Stress Reduction Correlates with Structural Changes in the Amygdala.”
In a 2011 study, "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density," researchers B. Hölzel, J. Carmody, C.M. Vangel, C. Congleton, S.M. Yerramsetti, T. Gard, and S.W. Lazar enrolled 16 people in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course to test its effects on the brain. MRI scans of each person’s brain were taken before and after they completed the meditation training. Participants who completed the mindfulness training reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness, such as “acting with awareness” and “non-judging,” and MRI scans showed that following the mindfulness excercises gray brain matter concentration increased in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum, brain regions involved in learning and memory, regulation of emotion, sense of self, and perspective taking.
|Buddhism sometimes appears like a
religion, but it is not truly a religion.
Sometimes it appears like a science,
but it is not a science, because we are
concerned with ultimate reality. We
like to ask questions, but we also want
to transform, to heal. There is within
Buddhism a tremendous source of
wisdom and experience handed down
by the Buddha and many generations
of practitioners. We can learn a lot
from their experiences so that we can
in our turn heal and transform ourselves,
and help heal and transform the world.
THICH NHAT HANH
Recent discoveries in neuroscience
have demonstrated the innate
plasticity of the brain, both in terms
of synaptic connections and birth of
new neurons, as a result of exposure
to external stimuli, such as voluntary
physical exercise and an enriched
environment. The Buddhist contemplative
tradition may help to expand this field
of scientific inquiry by proposing types
of mental training that may also
pertain to neuroplasticity. If it turns
out, as the Buddhist tradition implies,
that mental practice can effect observable
synaptic and neural changes in the brain,
this could have far-reaching implications.
The repercussions of such research
will not be confined simply to expanding
our knowledge of the human mind;
but, perhaps more importantly, they
could have great significance for our
understanding of education and mental
health. Similarly, if, as the Buddhist
tradition claims, the deliberate cultivation
of compassion can lead to a radical
shift in the individual's outlook, leading
to greater empathy toward others, this
could have far-reaching implications
for society at large.
THE DALAI LAMA
All religions, arts and sciences are
branches of the same tree. All these
aspirations are directed toward ennobling
man's life, lifting it from the sphere
of mere physical existence and leading
the individual towards freedom.
Science and religion are two windows that
people look through, trying to understand
the big universe outside, why we are here.