Far from his monastery in Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan monk "His Holiness" the Dalai Lama delivered a speech just last year in Washington D.C. entitled "The Neuroscience of Meditation" at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting (1). One may naturally ask, what do the Dalai Lama and his ancient practice of meditation have to do with the current, developing field of neuroscience?
The answer: quite a lot.
However unlikely a pairing, the Dalai Lama has recently drawn attention to how meditation and spirituality positively affect the brain, in terms of both short- and long-term results. The Dalai Lama's involvement with this project all started with the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscience researcher Richard Davidson, who, since the early nineties, has contributed much to the understanding of the interrelation between meditation and brain activity, as well as the potential consequences and applications of such developments. Primarily concerned with the brain's ability to change over time, otherwise known as neuroplasticity, Davidson has broken new ground in the field of mind-body medicine through his research (2).
The Dalai Lama himself has provided Davidson with Tibetan Buddhist monks to serve as test subjects in Davidson's studies. When asked to meditate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion", the brain of the monk in question produced marked gamma activity, which is typically too weak to notice (1). In the following research that ensued, monks generated gamma waves up to 30 times stronger than ordinary college students (1). In the vein of Davidson's interest in neuroplasticity, it seems possible to train one's mind to think meditatively over an extended period of time. And perhaps through the strong effects of positive meditative thought, one could counter—within oneself and within one's mind—certain emotional and psychological disorders.
Furthermore, University of Pennsylvania radiology professor Andrew Newberg, author of the book Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, has conducted similar research on the subject of meditation and the brain activity of Tibetan monks (3). Newberg's investigation consisted of the monks meditating for about an hour, then when their meditation peaked at a transcendental high, each monk was to pull a string, releasing an injection of radioactive tracer into their bloodstream. Through the injection of this tracer, Newberg and his team of researchers were able to detect how the marker moved to certain active parts of the brain. According to the subsequent findings, gleaned from scans of each monk's brain during meditation, an increase in activity was found around the frontal region of the brain, in which attention on specific tasks are processed; on the other hand, a decrease in activity was found around the area at the back of the brain, where one's processing of orientation and spatial awareness occur (4).
Regarding the results of his study, Newberg found that "During meditation, people have a loss of the sense of self and frequently experience a sense of no space and time and that was exactly what we saw." He concluded, "When someone has a mystical experience, they perceive that sense of reality to be far greater and far clearer than our everyday sense of reality. Since the sense of spiritual reality is more powerful and clear, perhaps that sense of reality is more accurate than our scientific everyday sense of reality" (3).
The very notion that, even after the brain fully develops and one reaches adulthood, the brain continues to evolve or, as the case may have it, regress (i.e. Alzheimer's disease) is a remarkable one. The average person is constantly forming new connections, associations, and links within the brain. The Tibetan monk is doing the same, just with increased efficacy and power. Moreover, the possibility that one has the fundamental ability to possess greater agency over one's own brain capacity through mediation and deep contemplation is striking.
This begs the question: what other sorts of activities or actions significantly and directly affect the brain and that which the brain produces? Now that we know meditation affects more than mere body and bodily health, could this kind of reflection also have even more to do with the brain than the scientific literature suggests? If so, will we ever be capable of knowing this and how? Davidson, Newberg, and the Dalai Lama, among others, have certainly left the door open with regard to these questions. After all, perhaps science cannot explain everything of the spiritual.