“The brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine”- Richard Davidson, neuroscientist
The truth is we live in a culture obsessed with self-improvement, a fact demonstrated by the immense of popularity of such things as self-help books, plastic surgery, and even, drugs, such as neuroenhancers. What if there was way to obtain heightened focus and possibly forestall aging? Would you try it? Researchers believe regular meditation can achieve these improvements by changing the structure of the brain.
Scientists have been studying meditation for decades; in the 1970’s Herbert Benson of Harvard University studied the short-term effects of meditation on the nervous system. He found meditation produces a “relaxation response,” marked by lowered heart rate and perspiration. (1) However, modern researchers are more focused on how meditation can change the brain.
The idea that the brain can change is relativity new to neuroscience, but represents a major change in how we think about the brain. Until about twenty years ago scientists did not believe it was possible to change the structure of the brain after puberty. With the development of MRI scans, scientists began to recognize neuroplasticity, an idea that the structure of the brain is constantly changing as a result of experience. Researchers first found evidence of neuroplasticity when studying the athletes, concert musicians, and taxi drivers, in other words, people with highly trained skills. Neuroscientists found musicians have a finer sense of pitch and taxi drivers have more advanced spatial memories with, importantly, coordinated changes in brain structure. (2)
Likewise, researchers have found that intensive meditation produces changes in behavior and brain structure. Olivia Carter, of the University of Queensland, studied the behavioral effects of meditation by administering vision tests, where each eye was concurrently shown a different image. (3) She administered this test to a group of Buddhist monks and a group who did not practice meditation. Carter found that, of the group that did not practice meditation, most people’s attention would automatically fluctuate between the two images. The monks were able to override this basic mental response and focus on just one image. Monks with the longest and most intensive training were able to focus on one image for up to 12 minutes. Given that vision is controlled by the brain, this research suggests that the circuitry of the brain can be changed as a result of intensive meditation. In terms of the box model, the cables have reorganized to produce an unexpected response.
Carter believes this heightened ability to focus translates into ability to control and direct thought. (3) In her experiment monks were able to block out external stimulus, in this case the second image. She believes this ability carries on to everyday life, allowing monks to block out irrelevant external stimuli. Sara Lazar of Harvard University, who also studies meditation, explains this concept in terms of an important deadline. People tend to worry and focus on the what-ifs, but mediators focus on the present moment, essentially blocking out pressure of the deadline. (1)
Lazar came to the same conclusion as Carter by means of her own experiment where she directly measured changes in brain structure. She also found evidence of heightened focus; her research group found meditators have increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory inputs. (1) Although Lazar and Carter found similar results, it is not positive that these two findings are connected. However, when Carter’s research and Lazar’s research are thought of in combination, it seems like meditation might create new neurons in this area of the brain. In terms of the box model, the new neurons, or cables, could connect new boxes, allowing the monks to focus on one image, while simultaneously increasing brain mass.
Reading over Lazar and Carter’s work, presented in two separate papers, it is surprising that both connected their research to thought control. Given their respective experiments, this does not seem like an expected connection to make. However, the idea that meditation can change thought process is a clearly expressed tenement of Buddhist philosophy. It is possible the Lazar and Carter were influenced by knowledge of Buddhist doctrine when conducting research. Essentially, they were looking for something they thought might be true. Lazar and Carter, as well scientists in many other areas face the puzzling dilemma, whether consciously or unconsciously, of how to untangle explanations of phenomena provided by science from explanations provided by culture. Clearly, Buddhists monks have created their own story to explain the effects of meditation. For centuries they have maintained that meditation leads to Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration according to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhist doctrine. In light of Buddhist history, it seems like monks realized their heightened focus after intensive meditation and created their own story to explain this change.
Lazar believes her work also has ramifications in aging, as studies of area of the brain in question show mass usually decreases with age. (1)This shrinking mass is likely responsible for the effects such as loss of focus and possibly memory loss. So it seems possible that meditation could help forestall or even reserve the effects of aging by increasing the mass of this area of the brain.
Regardless, Lazar and Carter’s more established research on meditation, as well as the concept of neuroplasticity, can shed light on the way we think about neuroenhancers. A recent article in The New Yorker, “Brain Gain,” defines neuroenhancers as medication used for cognitive enhancement. (4) Most neuroenhancer users are students and professionals who use medication like Adderall and Ritalin for the ability to focus for long periods of time. Users are essentially seeking the improved focus Buddhist monks seem to achieve though meditation. Understanding this connection can give some perspective to the morality of cognitive enhancing drugs. Some would argue the use of neuroenhancers creates an unfair advantage, but at the same time intensive meditators are achieving a similar advantage. Yet, it is unlikely that anyone would consider the cognitive enhancement of monks immoral or unfair.
All of our life experiences, including meditation, have the potential the act as neuroenhancers and improve mental function. When thinking about the equation brain=behavior, the first thought is that brain determines behavior, but it is important to remember that the opposite is also true, that behavior can also determine the structure of the brain to some degree, through neuroplasticity.
(1) “Meditation Found to Increase Brain Size,” Harvard University Gazette,http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2006/01/23-meditation.html, accessed May 8th, 2009.
(2) “Is Buddhism Good for Your Health?” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/14/magazine/is-buddhism-good-for-your-health.html, accessed May 8th, 2009.
(3) “Meditation ‘Brain Training’ Clues,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4613759.stm, accessed May 8th, 2009.
(4) “Brain Gain,” The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/04/27/090427fa_fact_talbot, accessed May 8th, 2009.