Mindfulness, Neuroplasticity And Altered Traits
Science’s Quest For Truth
There is no contradiction between science and spirituality because each gives us valuable insights into the other — His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, Dalai Lama XIV
On its quest for truth — a tangible and measurable truth — science is unceasingly investigating the role of meditation on optimal health and healing, exploring its impacts on human brain and behaviors, glimpsing and increasingly proving the inseparability of body and mind.
Over the last 20 years, researchers have been keenly sifting through the many variations of the meditative practice, examining the full spectrum of it.
They have been mapping the mind and the brain of willing volunteers, from Siddharthas to Buddhas, from novices to monks, from absolute beginners with little or no experience with meditation, to Olympic-level meditators with more than an impressive 12000 hours of practice under their belt.
What we know so far is that meditation does change your brain. For good.
As an ever-growing body of research suggests:
- Meditation alters the brain at a structural and functional level, affecting our behaviors in many and very distinctive ways. The process that makes this possible is known as neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to respond to life and change itself by forging new neural pathways and circuits while pruning away old ones, as needed.
- The physical and behavioral changes observed by researchers are there to stay. Given that you are consistent, they will eventually become traits. They will become second nature.
But how did they get there?
It all starts with a question that leads to another
Does this really work? And, if so, how? Is there any biological basis to the benefits that meditators claim? Could this be tracked?
What does meditators’ brain look like? How does it work? Does it work differently than non-meditators’?
Meet Sara Lazar, The Scientist Who Peers Into The Human Brain
One of the first researchers who felt compelled to look for answers and venture out into quite new and unfamiliar territories, was Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar.
What led her there? The Boston Marathon, over training and a back problem.
She was a grad student eager to run the Boston Marathon when an untimely back injury forced her to hang up her running shoes for a while, and think of other options to keep fit and help her body recover.
Encouraged by her physician, she started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy.
That was the day the course of her life was changed forever.
She was just a few weeks in when she started to notice some significant changes in her own behavior: increased calm, better ability to handle difficult situations and to see things from other people’s perspective, more compassion and understanding towards herself and others.
I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked — Sara Lazar
She was there just to stretch, as she says in this popular TED Talk, but what she got out of those yoga classes was something more: a brand new direction in life.
At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc — Sara Lazar
Since then, she has made breakthrough discoveries using neuroimaging — MRI and fMRI scan technology — to peer into the human brain and observe the impact of yoga and meditation on its complex structures and activity.
From Glimpsing Siddhartha’s Brain…
Does this really work?
Her post-doc research, conducted in 2005 at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, is still one of the most well-known studies in this field. It was also one of the first study to use brain scans to test the widely acclaimed benefits of meditation.
Could these benefits be traced to actual neural changes? Was there any detectable, biological basis to them?
Driven by these questions and searching for evidence, Sara Lazar and her team compared the highly detailed brain images of 20 experienced meditators recruited from the Boston area, with those of 20 non-meditators, local volunteers selected on a series of matching criteria, like age and gender, but with no experience in yoga or meditation.
What they saw there was that the meditators’ brain showed an increased amount of grey matter in some specific cortical areas, considered crucial for our effective functioning in the world:
- The Prefrontal Cortex, associated with working memory and executive decision making.
- The Insula, thought to be essential for the capacity of self-awareness and the ability to process emotions.
The results sparked a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism in the scientific community, bringing up more questions and leading to a second study and, of course, more research.
It was the beginning of an ongoing journey
In their second study, carried out in 2011, Sara Lazar and her team took people who had never meditated before, divided them into two groups and put one group through an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, where they were taught how to meditate and instructed to practice for about 30 minutes a day.
So what happen there? Was there any visible change in their brain?
Yes, there was.
We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups — Sarah Lazar
Meditation can literally change your brain.
And what’s more is that it doesn’t take long for physical changes to be produced in the brain and to be visible on scans. In fact measurable changes were detectable after just 8 weeks of regular daily practice — about a half hour per day —
In this in-depth article you may find out more about this particular study and the five different brain regions involved.
So, yes, the way you use your mind changes your brain.
But are these changes permanent?
…To Glimpsing Buddha’s Brain
Recently science has begun to focus more and dig deeper into the impacts that meditation has on the brain of seasoned and long-term or Olympic-level meditators.
At this point, the question scientists were trying to answer was whether long-term practice could bring about permanent changes in the brain.
Whether those heightened states you may get to experience at times during some sittings, together with the ability of approaching life with presence, openness and non-judgmentally, could actually stay and eventually become traits.
But are these changes permanent?
Wanting to know more, neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson and his team of researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in Wisconsin, tested and mapped the brain of 21 Buddhist yogis, highly seasoned practitioners who had logged in from at least 12,000 to 62,000 hours of practice.
The first to have his brain assayed and undergo the scientific protocol, that consisted in meditating on compassion for 60 seconds, resting for 30 seconds, and repeating the cycle three more times, was now world renowned Tibetan Buddhist Master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, also known as the happiest man in the world.
Meet Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Happiest Man Alive
More than 62,000 hours of practice, including 10 full years on retreat made Mingyur Rinpoche, who was 42 years of age at that time (2002), the ideal candidate to demonstrate the impact of long-term, consistent meditation practice.
Data were gathered and recorded through a combination of EEG electroencephalography tests, which track the brain’s electrical activity, and fMRI scans, which allow scientists to look into the brain and map the regions where activity is happening as it is happening.
The two techniques complement each other giving researchers a bigger and more detailed picture of what is going on at a physiological and electrochemical level in the mind of an aspiring Buddha.
So, what did they see there?
Raising and falling. Rhythmically spreading in sustained patterns across the brain. Oscillating in perfect synchrony. Bursts persisting for minutes rather than splits seconds, reflecting a quite unique state of consciousness and awareness.
Gamma waves are the most recently discovered range, the fastest and strongest type of brain wave with a frequency between 30 and 100 Hz — or cycles per second. They are usually associated with heightened states of consciousness and flashes of insight.
And they are quite a peculiar trait commonly found in long-term meditators.
Their brain appears to be functioning in a gamma wave state most of the time if not all.
Here you may read further about gamma waves and long-term meditators.
When The Extraordinary Becomes Ordinary
As soon as Mingyur began meditating on compassion, the monitors displayed a sudden and huge, never-seen-before burst of gamma waves that lasted the entire minute of the meditation, oscillating across the brain in very rhythmic, coherent and synchronized patterns.
Although it diminished when Mingyur shifted into resting mode, it didn’t disappear completely, remaining clearly visible and measurable.
So, what does this mean?
Such unique and rare-to-see, coherent wave pattern — the gamma state — was Mingyur’s brain normal state of functioning.
On and off meditation.
Such extraordinary neural activity, corresponding to an equally extraordinary level of consciousness, was his ordinary state of being. It had become second nature to him.
That is, Mingyur and the 21 long-term yogis who then took part in the research, were able to experience an ongoing state of open awareness in their everyday lives.
As they described it:
It was a jaw-dropping moment.
What researchers witnessed that day was something totally unexpected that had dramatic implications for the scientific community.
It set a milestone.
It was a genuine altered trait, an undeniable example of neuroplasticty.
As you continue practicing, the things you saw happening during the state itself become part of your way of being. They become traits — Daniel Goleman
It was a mind-blowing finding and it felt, in Goleman and Davidson’s words, like stumbling upon the holy grail.
You Had The Power All Along, My Dear
Your mind is a powerful tool. Use it wisely.
The way you use your mind changes your brain. For good.
Slowly and steady you can forge new neural pathways that will result into new behavioral patterns.
You can literally think your way into a new you.
When you change the way you think, the way you act changes. Different actions will lead you to different outcomes, to new directions and life paths.
It is within you. It is up to you.
Start again. Start now. Start from where you are.
There is no other time.
There is no other place.