Meditation and the Brain

New imaging technology documents brain activity of Buddhist monks
excerpt, by Curt Newton, February 2004, MIT Technology Review

It was brain science that brought the Dalai Lama to MIT in September 2003 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 attention, mental imagery, emotion and similar topics.

This conference -- organised by the Boulder-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 differing 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 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 on brain functions.

The field has already benefited from the study of Buddhist subjects. New imaging technologies allow researchers to document the brain activity of monks, and research centres are equipped to study meditation training and its neurological implications.

Science and Meditation

On a stage with sunflowers and white overstuffed chairs, the juxtaposition of tweed coats and saffron robes signaled this was no ordinary technical session. Instead, the panel addressed such questions as the nature of emotion, and 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.

Harvard University psychology professor Stephen Kosslyn, an authority on mental imagery, was both perplexed and enthralled by reports of trained Buddhist monks maintaining intricate mental images for hours with no loss of detail. "By my understanding of how the brain works, that should not be possible!" he said.

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, while Buddhists have devised rigorous methods to observe and control their inner worlds. To panellist Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research's Centre 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.

Scientists began studying meditation several decades ago. In his 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 meditation 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 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, 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 panellist 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 towards 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, co-sponsor of the conference, 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.

Since opening in 2000, the institute has assembled an inter-disciplinary research team with the latest in brain-scanning and associated technologies. Two researchers, Nancy Kanwisher and Christopher Moore, are interested in meditation training and its 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 also served as a conference panellist. In addition to object recognition and perceptual awareness, she studies visual attentiona 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 characterised in past scientific research. Might meditation help us boost our awareness? She's unsure but 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 attending the conference piqued his interest in the subject and left him wondering "whether the Buddhists' training lets them willfully control these dynamics".


Mindfulness retreat at Sri Ramayana temple, Singapore