Meditative monks offer insight to brain researchers

Despite a foot of snow, New Yorkers filled an auditorium at the Kaufmann Theater of the American Museum of Natural History this past Thursday to hear speakers for the program “Tibetan Meditation, Brain, and the Arts.” The panel’s goal was to discuss how an obscure Himalayan religion’s approach to the nature of the mind and the brain could be explored by Western scientists. 

Bennett M. Shapiro, M.D., chairman and senior partner of PureTech Ventures, described Tibetan monks as Ph.D.’s three and four times over, since the monks had meditated for 20–30,000 hours. Researchers hope that the monks’ trained and focused minds can be scientifically measured, in a relatively new discipline he called “contemplative neuroscience.”  

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison described studies he was conducting with Tibetan monk meditators, whom he considers prototypes. Davidson also included novice meditators in his studies. As he was measuring their brains, Davidson asked all the meditators to cultivate compassion, concentrate on the suffering of others. The result in the expert meditators was gamma oscillations never seen for such a long period of time. The novices only displayed a few seconds of this activity. Imaging showed that, for the experts, blood flow increased in the anterior insula, described by Davidson as the empathic section of their brains. In the novices, no such increase was evident.

Finally, both experts and novices were told that they would be cued and, ten seconds later, zapped with heat pain. As soon as the novices were cued, their bodily responses reacted with measureable, increasing levels of anxiety. The experts’ bodily response levels barely rose; when the pain occurred, both groups responded to it at comparable levels.

The other two panelists were Kehn Rinpoche Geshe Kachen Lobzan Tsetan, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastary in South India, and Joseph Loizzo, M.D., Ph.D., founder and director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science. Kehn Rinpoche described three types of Tibetan meditation: Analytical Meditation (debate), Stabilization Meditation (contemplation) and Visualization (the arts). Dr. Loizzo described his practice as contemplative psychotherapy—how consciousness can take a gradual path to a peaceful neurosystem.

As a daily meditator who started18 years ago with the technique “The Relaxation Response,” I know from experience that meditation can keep you grounded and help with everyday stress. But with only 6,500 hours under my belt, I’m not an expert yet. These long-time “professional” meditators have so familiarized themselves with their consciousness, they can give expert reports from the mind. Such expertise could provide insight into unrealized human potential.      

–Rosemary Shields

3 responses

  1. All these researchs are very interesting and i’d think could give benefits to very much people, however i think not all people are ready to meditate, and they could hurt theirself if they do meditation in a wrong way bacause of their illness or disorder. What dou you think?

  2. Some people cannot even close their eyes while doing psychotherapy but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be treated. Meditation might not be for everyone, but there are many different ways to do it and I’m sure there’s one for each person, especially if they really need to put their mind, body and emotions together.

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