How You Can Train Your Mind To Do The Impossible

08/05/2013 08:13 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2013

We know that the human brain is a powerful organ, but many of us aren't aware of how much the mind is truly capable of -- and much more powerful it can become through deliberate training. By exercising the brain (yes, you can use repetition and habit as you do when you exercise the body), we can achieve what may have previously seemed nearly impossible.

A multitude of studies have linked meditation with both physical and mental health benefits, from reduced depression and anxiety to improved immune system functioning. And thanks to a line of research that looks at the brain power of of Buddhist monks -- who have devoted their lives to the practice of meditation, compassion and non-attachment -- we now know that the brain changes that result from years of mindfulness practices can be staggering.

"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimize in a way we didn't know previously was possible," NYU researcher Zoran Josipovic told the BBC in 2011. Josipovic, himself a Buddhist monk, has conducted research putting the brains of prominent Buddhist monks under fMRI machines to track the blood flow to their brains while they are meditating.

The monks who are part of Josipovic's research (and the research projects of several other neuroscientists) have accomplished extraordinary feats of mind and, in some cases, have managed to rewire the brain.

"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," neuroscientist and meditation researcher, Richard J. Davidson told the Washington Post. "Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance."

Here are some incredible findings from brain imaging studies on Buddhist monks that shed light on the astounding power of the human mind.

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You can change the brain's structure and functioning.Neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson's groundbreaking research on Tibetan Buddhist monks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that years of meditative practice can dramatically increase neuroplasticity -- the brain's ability to use new experiences or environments to create structural changes. For example, it can help reorganizing itself by creating new neural connections.

"The findings from studies in this unusual sample... suggest that, over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains," Davidson wrote in IEEE Signal Processing Magazine in 2008.

You can alter visual perception and attention.

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In 2005, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia and University of California at Berkeley traveled to India to study 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks, in order to gain insight into how mental states can affect conscious visual experiences -- and how we might be able to gain more control over the regular fluctuations in our conscious state.

Their data indicated that years of meditation training can profoundly affect a phenomenon known as "perceptual rivalry," which takes place when two different images are presented to each eye -- the brain fluctuates, in a matter of seconds, in the dominant image that is perceived. It is thought to be related to brain mechanisms that underly attention and awareness. When the monks practiced meditating on a single object or thought, significant increases in the duration of perceptual dominance occurred. One monk was able to maintain constant visual perception for 723 seconds -- compared to the average of 2.6 seconds in non-meditative control subjects.

The researchers concluded that the study highlights "the synergistic potential for further exchange between practitioners of meditation and neuroscience in the common goal of understanding consciousness."

You can expand your capacity for happiness.

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Brain scans revealed that because of meditation, 66-year-old French monk Matthieu Ricard, an aide to the Dalai Lama, has the largest capacity for happiness ever recorded. University of Wisconsin researchers, led by Davidson, hooked up 256 sensors to his head, and found that Ricard had an unusually large propensity for happiness and reduced tendency toward negativity, due to neuroplasticity.

“It’s a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are,” Ricard told the New York Daily News.

Davidson also found that when Ricard was meditating on compassion, his brain produced gamma waves "never reported before in the neuroscience literature."

You can increase your empathy.

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Research at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education made some incredible findings last year. Neuroeconomist Brian Knutson hooked up several monks' brains to MRI scanners to examine their risk and reward systems. Ordinarily, the brain's nucleus accumbens experiences a dopamine rush when you experience something pleasant -- like having sex, eating a slice of chocolate cake, or finding a $20 bill in your pocket. But Knutson's research, still in the early stages, is showing that in Tibetan Buddhist monks, this area of the brain may be able to light up for altruistic reasons.

"There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion," Knutson told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation."

Davidson's research on Ricard and other monks also found that meditation on compassion can produce powerful changes in the brain. When the monks were asked to meditate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion," their brains generated powerful gamma waves that may have indicated a compassionate state of mind, Wired reported in 2006. This suggests, then, that empathy may be able to be cultivated by "exercising" the brain through loving-kindness meditation.

You can achieve a state of oneness -- literally.

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Buddhist monks can achieve a harmony between themselves and the world around them by breaking the psychological wall of self/other, expressed as by particular changes in the neural networks of experienced meditation practitioners, the BBC reported.

While a normal brain switches between the extrinsic network (which is used when people are focused on tasks outside themselves) and the intrinsic network, which involves self-reflection and emotion -- the networks rarely act together. But Josipovic found something startling in the brains of some monks and experienced meditators: They're able to keep both networks active at the same time during meditation, allowing them to feel a sense of "nonduality," or oneness.

Thinking about taking up meditation? Head over to our GPS For The Soul page for more on mindful living guidance, meditation tips and techniques, and happiness.

This story appears in Issue 69 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Oct. 4 in the iTunes App store.

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