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Biology 202, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
On Serendip

Meditation and the Brain


Erin Deterding

Meditation seems to be the newest craze for those seeking a more healthy and balanced lifestyle. Just a simple search of the internet and one can find countless centers across the nation, and even the world, that teach meditation and praise its beneficial results. With all the hype surrounding meditation, one might ask the following questions: what is meditation, where did it come from, and in what ways, if any, does meditation affect the brain?

The definitions for meditation are countless, however the present mainstream idea is that meditation is a process through which one realizes self-awareness (1). This is achieved by relaxation of not only the physical self, but the mind as well, leading to a state in which a person can reach new levels of awareness (2).
From a historical and religious perspective, meditation was first practiced by the Buddha, a man who left his powerful family in Nepal to seek enlightenment and understanding of human suffering (3). The Buddha finally reached enlightenment after six years of practicing meditation, and soon began teaching others the way of enlightenment, which evolved into the Buddhist religion (4).

Meditation has taken on a new role in modern society, however. It has since moved away from its religious context, and has been commercialized into mainstream living. It is even used in some forms of therapy, due to its philosophical nature (1). The possible benefit of using meditation in therapy is that it promotes a focus on the self; to solve problems by looking inside oneself, understanding emotions, and teaching patience (1). These benefits, however, are not well studied for their efficacy in the clinical therapeutic setting, however popular they might be (1).

In recent years, researchers have tried to tackle the scientific aspect of meditation to investigate whether meditation creates any physical changes in a person, in addition to spiritual affects. There have been many studies already completed to test whether, and in what ways, meditation affects the brain. These studies have yielded interesting results for the brain's role in meditation.

The most common finding among researchers is that meditation can change the way one's brainwaves behave. For example, many studies compare the brains of Buddhist monks, who are highly trained in meditative practices, to a control group that does not have any formal training in meditation (5,6). The participant's brains are monitored by electroencephalogram during the process of meditation. This enables researchers to observe the participant's brainwaves during the act of meditation (6). These studies demonstrate that those who are practiced in meditation not only have a higher resting baseline rate of gamma brain waves compared to those with no training, but also show more gamma wave activity during mediation (6). This gamma wave activity is referred to as neuronal synchrony, and has underlying importance in such brain functions as conscious perception, learning, working-memory, and attention (5,6).

From these findings, it has been suggested that meditation actually allows the brain to practice mental abilities, and it is this practice that actually changes the neuronal connections in the brain (5). Another finding from these studies suggests that most of the increased brain activity occurs in the left prefrontal cortex, which has been shown to play a role in affective regulation, such as emotion and happiness (5).

While it seems that meditation affects the brain in very specific ways, it also may play a role in the body's immunity towards disease. One studied found that after eight weeks of meditative training, participants had produced more flu antibodies than those participants who had not been given training in meditation (7).

The scientific findings provide a fascinating insight into the way in which the brain can be shaped and altered due to mental practice, but is there a danger in trying to understand meditation in scientific terms? After all, science cannot account for such philosophical notions as mind and soul.

It seems that from a historical perspective, the religious and philosophical aspect of meditation was the most important role of meditation itself; the need to understand the injustices of the world by looking inside oneself for enlightenment was the purpose of meditation. What happens when the underlying philosophical basis for meditation is taken away? Does meditation still have its fundamental positive properties?

Perhaps the increased brain activity is not a benefit of meditation itself, but a by-product. It is possible that the true positive effects of meditation are seen in the mind or soul, and cannot be scientifically tested. It is possible, too, that deconstructing the concept of meditation into something that can be scientifically tested is detrimental to the practice itself. While these questions may never be answered, they are important questions to ask to help understand the relationship between science and philosophy.

References

1)Meditation: Concepts, Efficacy, and Uses in Thearpy by Alberto Perez-De-Albeniz and Jeremy Holmes, Taken from International Journal of Psychotherapy, March 2000, v.5(1).

2)Meditation, Thiaoouba Prophecy website

3)An Introduction to Buddhism, Shippensburg University website.

4)History of Buddhism

5)Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds, The Washington Post Newspaper website.

6)Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America webiste

7)Brain Scans, Blood Tests Show Positive Effects of Meditation, Center for the Advancement of Health website.


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