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The Electric Monks

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Co-authored with P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP

People who visited the University of Wisconsin's Department of Psychology in 2004 may have encountered an interesting sight: eight Tibetan Buddhist monks with electrodes all over their heads. These eight practitioners were from the Shechen Monastery in Nepal and were asked to participate in a study that posed a question relevant to members of spiritual and scientific communities alike: Is there any physiological significance to devoting oneself to a lifetime to meditative practices?

There is an ongoing debate regarding the value of meditative practices in the scientific community. Many proponents of a spiritual path tout the benefits and virtues of living a life devoted to peace and the promise of eventual enlightenment; His Holiness the Dalai Lama may meditate for four or more hours per day. It is through this and other aspects of his lifestyle that he speaks on humanity's potential for happiness. However, institutional interest in the metaphysical components of this work could be described as agnostic at best.

But while folks like His Holiness are meditating, scientists are studying brain activity. One technique for doing so is known as electroencephalography (EEG). Through this process, electrodes connected to a device known as an electroencephalogram are placed on a subject's scalp and the activity of their neurons are documented through what are known as neural oscillations. Much like a light bulb that is alight demonstrates the electrical activity of a closed circuit, the repetitive activity of a neuron (the oscillation) demonstrates that activity is happening in the brain. And much like a radio takes in signals from different frequencies, the neurons oscillate at different frequencies as well. When a subject is in the deepest stages of sleep, their neurons oscillate at the lowest possible frequency -- a frequency known as delta waves. In contrast, when a person is awake but in a relaxed state with their eyes closed, their neurons are likely to operate at a frequency known as alpha waves. But gamma waves -- the highest-known frequency -- are so intense relative to other wave frequencies that the highest-known recorded oscillations relate to pathological conditions like epileptic seizures. Although we still don't fully understand the nature of gamma waves, many prominent scientists such as Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, believe that gamma waves synchronize large networks within our brain; this in turn gives us our conscious awareness. In response to these ideas, the leaders of the study in Wisconsin set out to find out what -- if any -- was the correlation between many years of devoted meditative practice and that of electroencephalographic activity.

The study observed the brain activities of two groups: eight Tibetan Buddhist monks who had practiced meditation anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 hours for between 15 and 40 years, and a group of people whose sole experience with meditation was one hour a day for the week leading up to the study. Then, the neural oscillations were documented for both groups while they were in the initial, pre-meditative state -- this served as the scientists' baseline. The participants were then instructed to meditate, and the group of newcomers to the practice experienced a modest increase in the electrical activity of their neurons when they entered this state. Some of the monks who meditated, however, experienced gamma-wave levels of electrical activity. Indeed, not counting those who were observed through pathological experiences like epileptic seizures, the level of gamma wave activity in some of the monks was the highest neural oscillation ever documented. The study also showed that monks had high gamma levels even when not meditating, suggesting that years of practice had induced neuroplasticity -- the ability of the brain to change its wiring after new experiences.

A lot has happened since 2004. Though the study at Wisconsin should be viewed as preliminary, it pioneered a series of related ones. In 2010, researchers found that blood flow to the brain was higher in long-term meditators, especially in regions related to attention and emotion. In 2011, a study using a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) showed that long-term meditators had more robust connections in widespread areas of the brain. In 2012, researchers using another type of MRI technology noted that experienced meditators had larger gray matter (the brain's mantle) in some regions associated with affective regulation of the mind.

The question, though, is what was the nature of the meditation technique used by the monks in the original 2004 study? Many meditation practices utilize an object on which to concentrate -- be it a candle, a symbol, a mantra, or even the breath. But based on the Tibetan Buddhist tenet that benevolence and compassion pervade the mind as a way of being, when instructed to meditate, the subjects in the study didn't concentrate on an object. Instead, they attempted to generate a state of compassion for all living beings. The EEG recorded record-high gamma wave activity because the practitioners entered a state of unconditional kindness.

In other words, their neural activity changed when they experienced love.

The methods by which scientists relate to and study the brain continue to evolve, and the patterns they are detecting are becoming significant in new and different ways. But the goals of those like the Dalai Lama, who devote themselves to spiritual growth, have remained consistent over time: They work to fulfill a higher purpose. Through practice, they seek peace, joy, and happiness. They seek it for themselves, and they seek it for all other beings unconditionally.

And thanks to eight monks from Nepal, we not only know that we're powerful enough to rewire our brains, but we're reminded that love is possible.

P. Murali Doraiswamy is a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, where he is also a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. He is the coauthor of The Alzheimer's Action Plan.

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