How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Nirvana is a place on earth. Popularly thought of a Buddhist “heaven,” religious scholars discuss the concept not as an arrival at someplace other than the physical place we are, but as the extinction of suffering in the mind, achieved in large part through intensive meditation. If this state of enlightenment exists in the here and now—the scientific inquirer is justified in asking—shouldn’t it be something we can measure?

Maybe it is. Psychologist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson set out to do just that when they flew several “Olympic level meditators” from Nepal, India, and France to Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin. Once they put the meditators under Davidson's scanners, researchers found that “their brain waves are really different,” as Goleman says in the Big Think video above.

Perhaps the most remarkable findings in the Olympic level meditators has to do with what’s called a gamma wave. All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum….

What was stunning was that the Olympic level meditators, these are people who have done up to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation, their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.

The meditators themselves describe the state of mind in terms consistent with thousands of years of literature on the subject; “it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come.” Goleman and Davidson have elaborated their findings for the public in the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. For more on Davidson’s work on the subject, see his talk at Google, “Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”

The bar to enlightenment seems high. Goleman and Davidson’s “Olympic level” test subjects spent a minimum of 62,000 hours in meditation, which amounts to something like 20 years of eight-hour days, seven days a week (and maybe explains why the path to enlightenment is often spread out over several lifetimes in the tradition). But that doesn’t mean meditation in lesser doses does not have significant effects on the brain as well.

As Goleman explains in the video above, meditation induces a state of hyper-focus, or “flow,” that acts as a gym for your brain: lowering stress, raising the level of resilience under stress, and increasing focus “in the midst of distractions.” As some point, he says, these temporary “altered states” become permanent “altered traits." Along the way, as with any consistent, long-term workout program, meditators develop strength, stamina, and flexibility the longer they stick with the practice. Find resources to get you started in the Relateds below.

Related Content:

How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright

Free Guided Meditations From UCLA: Boost Your Awareness & Ease Your Stress

Meditation 101: A Short, Animated Beginner’s Guide

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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