Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence
for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation
have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and
meditative practice can change the workings of the brain
and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.
Those transformed states have traditionally been understood
in transcendent terms, as something outside the world
of physical measurement and objective evaluation. But
over the past few years, researchers at the University
of Wisconsin working with Tibetan monks have been able
to translate those mental experiences into the scientific
language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony,
or coordination. And they have pinpointed the left prefrontal
cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the
place where brain activity associated with meditation
is especially intense.
"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed
brain activation on a scale we have never seen before,"
said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university's
new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional
Brain Imaging and Behavior. "Their mental practice is
having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or
tennis practice will enhance performance." It demonstrates,
he said, that the brain is capable of being trained
and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.
Scientists used to believe the opposite -- that connections
among brain nerve cells were fixed early in life and
did not change in adulthood. But that assumption was
disproved over the past decade with the help of advances
in brain imaging and other techniques, and in its place,
scientists have embraced the concept of ongoing brain
development and "neuroplasticity."
Davidson says his newest results from the meditation
study, published in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences in November, take the concept of
neuroplasticity a step further by showing that mental
training through meditation (and presumably other disciplines)
can itself change the inner workings and circuitry of
The new findings are the result of a long, if unlikely,
collaboration between Davidson and Tibet's Dalai Lama,
the world's best-known practitioner of Buddhism. The
Dalai Lama first invited Davidson to his home in Dharamsala,
India, in 1992 after learning about Davidson's innovative
research into the neuroscience of emotions. The Tibetans
have a centuries-old tradition of intensive meditation
and, from the start, the Dalai Lama was interested in
having Davidson scientifically explore the workings
of his monks' meditating minds. Three years ago, the
Dalai Lama spent two days visiting Davidson's lab.
The Dalai Lama ultimately dispatched eight of his most
accomplished practitioners to Davidson's lab to have
them hooked up for electroencephalograph (EEG) testing
and brain scanning. The Buddhist practitioners in the
experiment had undergone training in the Tibetan Nyingmapa
and Kagyupa traditions of meditation for an estimated
10,000 to 50,000 hours, over time periods of 15 to 40
years. As a control, 10 student volunteers with no previous
meditation experience were also tested after one week
The monks and volunteers were fitted with a net of 256
electrical sensors and asked to meditate for short periods.
Thinking and other mental activity are known to produce
slight, but detectable, bursts of electrical activity
as large groupings of neurons send messages to each
other, and that's what the sensors picked up. Davidson
was especially interested in measuring gamma waves,
some of the highest-frequency and most important electrical
Both groups were asked to meditate, specifically on
unconditional compassion. Buddhist teaching describes
that state, which is at the heart of the Dalai Lama's
teaching, as the "unrestricted readiness and availability
to help living beings." The researchers chose that focus
because it does not require concentrating on particular
objects, memories or images, and cultivates instead
a transformed state of being.
Davidson said that the results unambiguously showed
that meditation activated the trained minds of the monks
in significantly different ways from those of the volunteers.
Most important, 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 organized and
coordinated than in the students. The meditation novices
showed only a slight increase in gamma wave activity
while meditating, but some of the monks produced gamma
wave activity more powerful than any previously reported
in a healthy person, Davidson said.
The monks who had spent the most years meditating had
the highest levels of gamma waves, he added. This "dose
response" -- where higher levels of a drug or activity
have greater effect than lower levels -- is what researchers
look for to assess cause and effect.
In previous studies, mental activities such as focus,
memory, learning and consciousness were associated with
the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the
monks. The intense gamma waves found in the monks have
also been associated with knitting together disparate
brain circuits, and so are connected to higher mental
activity and heightened awareness, as well.
Davidson's research is consistent with his earlier work
that pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex as a brain
region associated with happiness and positive thoughts
and emotions. Using functional magnetic resonance imagining
(fMRI) on the meditating monks, Davidson found that
their brain activity -- as measured by the EEG -- was
especially high in this area.
Davidson concludes from the research that meditation
not only changes the workings of the brain in the short
term, but also quite possibly produces permanent changes.
That finding, he said, is based on the fact that the
monks had considerably more gamma wave activity than
the control group even before they started meditating.
A researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Jon
Kabat-Zinn, came to a similar conclusion several years
Researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities are
now testing some of the same monks on different aspects
of their meditation practice: their ability to visualize
images and control their thinking. Davidson is also
planning further research.
"What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is
physically different from the untrained one," he said.
In time, "we'll be able to better understand the potential
importance of this kind of mental training and increase
the likelihood that it will be taken seriously."