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.” At 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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