Exploration of Meditation: Bridging Eastern Techniques with Western Technology

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Aditya Vora                                                                                                                                     Neurobiology and Behavior 2007

Paper 2                                                                                                                                                                       April 10, 2007 

                                                                             Exploration of Meditation:

                                                      Bridging Eastern Techniques with Western Technologies

 

            From a Buddhist viewpoint, some emotions are conducive to achieving genuine and continuing happiness while others are not. The Buddhists define this happiness with the word sukha. They preach that to achieve this consistent happiness, one must have mental balance. One must overcome and escape what they have called duhkha, or pain and suffering due to the misinterpretation of reality. Buddhists believe this can be accomplished by practice and training in attention, mindfulness, and emotional balance meditation exercises.

              These meditation routines utilized by Buddhists today are a result of millennia of experimentation and perfection of such techniques. For thousands of years, Buddhist monks have dedicated and devoted themselves to ways of life consisting of constant meditation. Such unwavering devotion over a great period of time suggests that there is merit to the idea that these practices are in the least, beneficial. In recent decades, a connection has formed between scientists in the west, and traditions of the east. Meditation has entered a world of brain scanning and EEG caps that have allowed scientists to discover the neural correlates and effects of meditation. This research has shown that meditation is most definitely associated with neural changes and correlates and that these techniques might prove extremely valuable if further integrated into non-eastern cultures.

            The Dalai Lama traveled to the lab of psychologist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. At the Dalai Lama’s encouragement, Richard Davidson measured electroencephalogram patterns and brain images from Buddhist monks who had over 10,000 hours of experience in meditation. EEG patterns of the monks significantly differed from inexperienced meditators used as controls. Davidson found at rest, monks exhibited a greater amount of gamma waves than the novice meditators. During meditation, the gamma wave activity of the students increased slightly while the gamma wave activity of the monks was dramatically amplified and unusually immense (5). Davidson had seen higher levels of gamma wave activity in monks than he had ever seen in any other person. Also, Davidson noted that the monks with more meditation experience produced higher levels of gamma wave activity. Gamma waves are associated with the connection and coordination of different brain circuits, heightened awareness, higher mental activity, and enhanced neural coordination (8). This study suggests that meditation can induce a greater level of neural coordination and connectedness.

            Davidson’s earlier research of neural correlates of emotion showed happiness and positive emotion to be correlated with the left prefrontal cortex. Using fMRI, monks in meditation showed greater activity in this area (wash post). Furthermore, research by Andrew Newberg, a professor and scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Buddhist monks, showed that during meditation, cerebral blood blow increased in the prefrontal cortex (7). Other research has added that the thickness of the prefrontal cortex is greater in those who have meditated longer (4) and that there is a possibility that meditation counteracts age-related cortical thinning. These studies have shown that meditation might cause dramatic positive changes in the cortical activity and cortical plasticity.

        Another route of research has studied the response of experienced meditators to painful stimuli. An fMRI of a yoga master while not in meditation showed activities in pain associated brain areas such as the thalamus, insula, and cingulate cortex to resemble activities of normal subjects when subjected to noxious laser stimulation. However, when meditating, activities in all three areas were lower, and in the thalamus, activity was lower than baseline. Meditation in this yoga master seemed to allow him to manipulate his brain activity and minimize his response to pain (3). 

          The previous research has highlighted differences in neural activity and plasticity in people who spent a large portion of their life devoted to meditation. This is not a realistic opportunity for most. Can this research be applied to novice meditators, who have a life filled with family, employment, and other responsibilities?  The previously mentioned researcher Richard Davidson along with several other scientists asked the same question. They conducted an experiment in which twenty five subjects completed an 8-week training program in mindfulness meditation. At the end of the program, subjects in the meditation group and control group were injected with the influenza vaccine. It was found that subjects in the meditation group showed greater patterns of activation associated with positive feelings compared to the control group. Furthermore, those in the meditation group produced significantly greater antibody titers to the vaccine compared to the control group. Another interesting finding was that there was a correlation between the magnitude of left side activation and amount of antibody titers produced. (1). This research was a pilot study that shows preliminary findings that short term meditation can have effects on brain function as well as immune function. In patients with psoriasis, research showed that when patients were exposed to mindfulness meditation audio tapes, their psoriasis cleared significantly more rapidly then the control subjects (2). To examine whether the effects of meditation are long lasting, a follow up study was conducted on patients with anxiety disorders who were treated with an 8-week mindful meditation program. After three years, the subjects maintained the significant reductions on anxiety and depression scores they originally achieved shortly after participating in the course (6). These studies show that meditation is still potentially effective in those who undergo short term meditation training and that meditation may better the function of the immune system.

           The reviewed research in this paper is the first wave of research that demystifies eastern traditional practices meditation with western technology to produce some truly amazing findings. This research suggests that constant meditation potentially influences off the charts, never observed before, EEG patterns and that the greater the experience one has with meditation, the greater one’s neural coordination and function is. Furthermore, meditation potentially causes blood flow, greater activation, and increased plasticity in areas of positive affect and happiness. Also, meditation appears to allow one to moderate the level of pain the body perceives by manipulating the brain activity in specific areas of the brain through meditation. To me, these examples are especially relevant to our class because it shows how our chosen behavior can influence the brain. The idea is brought up that not only brain equals behavior, but behavior can induce changes and shape the brain. By choosing what to think and focus on, we can potentially cause changes in neural activity and plasticity. However, although these findings are astonishing, we have to take these findings with a grain of salt. They were performed on a small group of highly experienced meditators, and when I last checked, highly experienced meditators were not exactly commonplace. The research I found most interesting was those that subjected laymen to short periods of mindfulness meditation training. Subjects in this category were still able to experience positive changes induced by meditation, not only in their brain functions and waves but also in their immune responses. These studies are more generalizable to the everyday person. Studies on experienced monks show that we can potentially influence the dynamics of our brains and in turn other behaviors by choosing to meditate and in a sense showing we are in control of our own destiny. Studies on laymen show that short term meditation can influence changes in brain activation and also the immune system. These findings merit further research into meditation. I predict once further research is completed, meditation will be established as beneficiary for the laymen, and this may induce more balanced mental states in individual persons.  My speculation is that these persons will most probably experience greater health and happiness and meditation will become more popular. It might turn into a movement influencing larger groups of people, may become a political issue and may influence national governments. In this situation, our governments may be able to focus less on problems against each other, but more on how to work together to live harmoniously. In sum, research on meditation has suggested that it is a powerful and beneficial tool in changing neural plasticity and activation, upon which after further research establishes these findings, it might become much more integrated into westernized culture.

   

                                                                                           References 

1.  Davidson, R.J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacer, J. et al. (2003). Alterations in brain function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 65, 564-570.

2. Kabat-Zinn, J. Wheeler, E., Light, T., et al. (1998). Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction interventionon rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing                phototherapy (UVB) and photochemotherapy (PUVA). Psychosom Med. 60, 625-632.

3. Kakigi, R., Nakata, H., Hiroe, N., et al. (2005). Intracerebral pain processing in a Yoga Master who claims not to feel pain during meditation. Eur J Pain. 9, 581-589.

4. Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 16, 1893-1897.

5. Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Rawlings, N.B., et al. (2004). Long-term mediateors self induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practices. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 101, 16369-16373.

6.  Miller, J.J., Fletcher, K., Kabat-Zinn, J. (1995). Three-year follow up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorder. GenHosp      Psychiatry. 17, 192-200.

7. Newberg, A., Pourdehnard, M., Alavi, A., et al. (2003). Cerebral blood flow during meditative prayer: preliminary findings and methodological issues.
 Percept Mot Skills, 97, 625-630.

8. Kaufman, M. (2005, Jan, 3) Meditation gives brain a charge, study finds. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43006-2005Jan2.html

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