Meditation and Neurobiology: Our Urgent Need for a "First Person" Science
Meditation and Neurobiology: Our Urgent Need for “First Person” Science
As I am going to argue for a place for first person accounts in the activity of science, it seems fitting that I begin this paper by addressing the development of my own interest in mediation. Seventeen years ago, when I was still a high school student, I began suffering from anxiety and persistent insomnia. Upon the recommendation of the uncommonly sensitive, open-minded and skilled therapist I was seeing, I began practicing meditative techniques in an attempt to quiet the mental “noise” that besieged me during the day and prevented me from enjoying a good night’s sleep. (While I had no trouble falling asleep, I would frequently wake in the middle of the night and begin thinking obsessively about matters of no real consequence.)
Meditation enabled me to gain some mastery over my own habits of thinking and patterns of emotional response. I remained an irregular meditator over the following ten years, but did not begin to pursue it as a daily discipline until I embarked on recovery from hard drugs at age 26. Then, meditation became something of a lifesaver: a mental sanctuary of deep relaxation, safety and quiet, as well as a source of self-knowledge. People who meditate have long extolled its beneficial effects on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. While I have not (yet) been fortunate enough to experience the profound states of transcendent awareness described by many practitioners of meditation, I can personally attest to its other healing capacities. And I am elated that Western science has begun to take meditation seriously. Given that this “technology” dates back to our oldest recorded religious tradition, Hinduism, it would seem that our scientists have a lot of catching up to do.
While there are a multiplicity of meditative techniques, most can be (very) roughly grouped into two styles of practice: mindfulness mediation, in which the meditator attempts to be fully present to the flow of her breath and notice her thoughts non-judgmentally and without becoming attached to them ; and focused meditation, in which the meditator attempts to turn the whole of her attention to a single form, idea, image, sound or emotional orientation (such as compassion).  Each technique requires the meditator to detach her conscious awareness from the sensory inputs feeding information to the brain and turn her attention “inward”. Many people who meditate as part of a spiritual discipline report feeling the dissolution of ego boundaries and a sense of ecstatic cosmic unity. The subjective nature of these and other meditative mental states presents a difficulty to neurobiologists seeking to understand them, but many seem eager to meet this challenge.
Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and self-described spiritual seeker, directs the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 1992, after learning of his research into the neurobiology of meditation, the Dalai Lama brought Richardson to his exile home of Dharamsala, India to interview Tibetan monks with a wealth of meditative experience . This invitation initiated a long, (and some say scientifically inappropriate) professional and personal relationship between them. In 2002, Richardson and his associate Dr. Antoine Lutz were given the opportunity to investigate the brain activity of meditating Tibetan monks in their own lab. What they found astonished them.
When Mattieu Ricard (a monk with more than 10,000 hours of meditative experience) was hooked up to an EEG and asked to meditate on “unconditional loving-kindness and compassion”, Lutz discovered powerful gamma wave activity, and that “…moreover, oscillations from various parts of the cortex were synchronized.” Because the gamma activity was so powerful, Richardson and Lutz initially thought there was a snafu in their procedure or equipment, and so they tested more monks and also added a group of college students as a control group. The monks’ gamma wave activity was thirty times stronger than the students’. Davidson also noticed that larger regions of the monks’ brain were active, especially in the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of positive feelings, Wired magazine reports. 
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania has also studied the brains of practiced meditators. These subjects were asked to concentrate on a single image, and then tug on a string to indicate when they began experiencing a sense of cosmic unity. At that moment a radioactive dye “tracer” was injected via IV in order to track the regions of the brain where blood flow and activity were most pronounced. A brain scan was taken. Comparing these images with images that had been taken when the subjects were in a non-meditative state, researchers found that the areas of the brain that regulate attention were extremely active during meditation. But far more compelling to Newberg was the discovery that the parietal lobe, the region responsible for distinguishing between the self and others, was far less active during meditation than when the subjects had just been sitting. Bob Holmes writes, “Broadly speaking, the left hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual’s sense of their own body image, while its right hemisphere equivalent handles its context- the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut those areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.” 
As I see it, good science begins with acknowledging our particular standpoints, and an ownership of and role for our subjective experience can only enrich it. As Eugene Gendlin of the International Focusing Institute and Don Hanlon Johnson of the California Institute for Integral Studies write in their Proposal for an International Group for a First Person Science, “We need to develop a publicly recognized science in which experiencing by persons (you and I) is not systematically dropped out.” I commend those meditators-scientists who have who have begun to interrogate traditional science’s valorization of detachment and “objectivity”.
 “How to Do Mindfulness Meditation”: http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2125
 “Neurophysiology of Meditation” : http://www.geocities.com/neovedanta/a28.html
 “Buddha on the Brain” : http://wired.com/wired/archive/14.02/dalai_pr.html
 “The Neurobiology of God” : http://www.alternative-doctor.com/soul_stuff/brain_god.htm
 “Science Explores Meditation’s Effect on the Brain” : http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4770779
 “Meditation Finding Converts Among Western Doctors” : http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/02/0201_060201_meditation_2.html
 Sorry…couldn’t find this paper online, but I’d be happy to share a hard copy with you…