Friday, February 24, 2006

Meditation and Neuroplasticity

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has really revolutionalized the face of brain research. The ability to instantaneously map out changes in the brain allow scientists to ask questions that could not be adequately studied before.

Here's a great example:

Richard Davidson's* lab is one of the world's most advanced for looking inside a living brain. He's was awarded an $15-million grant to study what happens inside a meditating mind. (*Richard Davidson, Ph.D. , Director of University of Washington's Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior)

His prize subjects – and collaborators – are the Dalai Lama's lamas, the monks. "The monks, we believe, are the Olympic athletes of certain kinds of mental training. These are individuals who have spent years in practice."

"Rather than thinking about qualities like happiness as a trait," Davidson says, "we should think about them as a skill, not unlike a motor skill, like bicycle riding or skiing. These are skills that can be trained. I think it is just unambiguously the case that happiness is not a luxury for our culture but it is a necessity."

There's some evidence that our temperament is more or less set from birth. So and so is always a "downer" while someone else is always "happy." Even when wonderful or terrible things happen, most of us, eventually, return to that emotional set-point. But, Davidson believes, that set point can be moved. "Our work has been fundamentally focused on what the brain mechanisms are that underlie these emotional qualities and how these brain mechanisms might change as a consequence of certain kinds of training," Davidson says.

Happiness and enthusiasm, and joy – they show up as increased activity on the left side near the front of the cortex. Anxiety, sadness – on the right. Davidson has found this pattern in infants as young as 10 months, in toddlers, teens and adults. Davidson tested more than 150 ordinary people to see what parts of their brains were most active. Some were a little more active on the left. Some were a little more active on the right. A few were quite far to the right. They would probably be called depressed. Others were quite far to the left, the sort of people who feel "life is great." So there was a range. Then Davidson tested a monk. He was so far to the left he was right off the curve. That was one happy monk. "This was evidence that there was something really different about his brain compared with the brains of these other 150 people... evidence that these meditation practices may indeed be promoting beneficial changes in the brain."

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin working with Tibetan monks have been able to translate the mental experiences of meditation into the scientific language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, or coordination. And they have pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the place where brain activity associated with meditation is especially intense. These results take the concept of neuroplasticity a step further by showing that mental training through meditation (and presumably other disciplines) can itself change the inner workings and circuitry of the brain.

"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," said Richard Davidson. "Their mental practice has an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice enhances performance." It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.

Does this work in "regular" people?

In an eight-week UW study of non-Buddhists given meditation training, magnetic resonance imaging and other testing revealed changes, some lasting four months: 50 percent more electrical activity in the left frontal regions of the brain, associated with positive emotions and anxiety reduction, and an increase in antibodies of as much as 25 percent.

Fascinating...

References:
1) Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004).
Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101, 16369-16373.
2) http://psych.wisc.edu/faculty/bio/davidson.html
3) http://brainimaging.waisman.wisc.edu/

2 Comments:

Anonymous carol said...

Sign me up! As a lifelong "right-brainer" in her mid 40's, I am finding it increasingly hard to see the bright side. Concentration illudes in areas other than artistic endeavors. Which brings to mind the stereo-type of artists with their dominant right brains and periods of darkness. Now to shut the world away and learn how to meditate. wish me luck

7:01 AM  
Blogger TheBajaRider said...

Meditation rocks.
Through Neuroplasticity you can make yourself into who you want to be.

Just got to start and stick to it

The rewards are incredible

5:08 AM  

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