Scans of Monks' Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure, Functioning
SCIENCE JOURNAL By SHARON BEGLEY - WJS.com - November 5, 2004
All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected
onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they
On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their
belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of
the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.
Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in
burgundy-and-saffron robes, convinced that one round-faced young man in
their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers,
that another is the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the
entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a
manifestation of the brain.
It was not, in other words, your typical science
But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for
five days last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the little matters of reincarnation
and the relationship of mind to brain, they set them aside in the interest
of a shared goal. They had come together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss
one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.
The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to
change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or
strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those
that are rarely engaged. In its short history, the science of
neuroplasticity has mostly documented brain changes that reflect physical
experience and input from the outside world. In pianists who play many
arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and
middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key
in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost
simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As
a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those
fingers independently of one another.
Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder
whether the brain can change in response to purely internal, mental
signals. That's where the Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition
of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those
will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.
"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is
neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction
with Buddhism," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate
(temporarily) their brains to science.
The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected
in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice
meditators to that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours
in meditation. The task was to practice "compassion" meditation,
generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.
"We tried to generate a mental state in which
compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts," says
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.
In a striking difference between novices and monks, the
latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called
gamma waves during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of
neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves
underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice
meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks
showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported
before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting
that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of
Using the brain scan called functional magnetic
resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active
during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity
was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left
prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped
activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety),
something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling
circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater
activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as
if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.
"It feels like a total readiness to act, to
help," recalled Mr. Ricard.
The study will be published (Available Below) in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We can't rule out
the possibility that there was a pre-existing difference in brain function
between monks and novices," says Prof. Davidson, "but the fact
that monks with the most hours of meditation showed the greatest brain
changes gives us confidence that the changes are actually produced by
That opens up the tantalizing possibility that the
brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as
aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in
ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
Long-Term Meditators Self-Induce
high-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice
Antoine Lutz, Lawrence L. Greischar, Nancy B. Rawlings,
Matthieu Ricard, and Richard J. Davidson