How Meditation changes your brain – and your Life.
BY DANIEL GOLEMAN AND RICHARD DAVIDSON
When neuroscientists tested expert meditators, they discovered something surprising: The effect of Buddhist meditation isn’t just momentary; it can alter deep-seated traits in our brain patterns and character. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson tell the story of this revolutionary breakthrough in our understanding of how meditation works.
One cool September morning in 2002 a Tibetan monk arrived at the Madison, Wisconsin airport. His journey had started 7,000 miles away at a monastery atop a hill on the fringe of Kathmandu, Nepal. The trip took 18 hours in the air over three days, and crossed ten time zones.
Richie Davidson had met the monk briefly at the 1995 Mind and Life meeting on destructive emotions in Dharamsala, but had forgotten what he looked like. Still, it was easy to pick him out from the crowd. He was the only shaven-headed man wearing gold-and-crimson robes in the Dane County Regional Airport. His name was Mingyur Rinpoche and he had traveled all this way to have his brain assayed while he meditated.
After a night’s rest, Richie brought Mingyur to the EEG room at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, where brain waves are measured with what looks like a surrealist art piece: a shower cap extruding a spaghetti of wires. This specially designed cap holds 256 thin wires in place, each leading to a sensor pasted to a precise location on the scalp. A tight connection between the sensor and the scalp makes all the difference between recording usable data about the brain’s electrical activity and having the electrode simply be an antenna for noise.
As Mingyur was told when a lab technician began pasting sensors to his scalp, ensuring a tight connection for each and placing them in their exact spot takes no more than fifteen minutes. But Mingyur, a shaven-headed monk, offered up a bald head, and it turns out such continually exposed skin is more thickened and calloused than one protected by hair. To make the crucial electrode-to-scalp connection tight enough to yield viable readings through thicker skin ended up taking much longer than usual.
Just as Mingyur began the meditation, there was a sudden, huge burst of electrical activity on the computer monitors displaying the signals from his brain.
Most people who come into the lab get impatient, if not irritated, by such delays. But Mingyur was not in the least perturbed, which calmed the nervous lab technician—and all those looking on—with the feeling anything that happened would be okay with him. That was the first inkling of Mingyur’s ease of being, a palpable sense of relaxed readiness for whatever life might bring. The lasting impression Mingyur conveyed was of endless patience, and a gentle quality of kindness.
After spending what seemed like an eternity ensuring that the sensors had good contact with the scalp, the experiment was finally ready to begin. A precise analysis of something as squishy as, say, compassion demands an exacting protocol, one that can detect that mental state’s specific pattern of brain activity amidst the cacophony of the electrical storm from everything else going on. The protocol had Mingyur alternate between one minute of meditation on compassion and thirty seconds of a neutral resting period. To ensure confidence that any effect detected was reliable rather than a random finding, he would have to do this four times in rapid succession.
From the start Richie had grave doubts about whether this could work. Those on the lab team who meditated, Richie among them, all knew it takes time just to settle the mind, often considerably longer than a few minutes. It was inconceivable, they thought, that even someone like Mingyur would be able to enter these states instantaneously, and not need much time to reach inner quiet.
Richie was fortunate that Buddhist scholar John Dunne—a rare combination of scientific interests, humanities expertise, and fluency in Tibetan—volunteered to translate. John delivered precisely timed instructions to Mingyur signaling him to start a compassion meditation, and then after sixty seconds another cue for thirty seconds of his mental resting state, and so on for three more cycles.
Just as Mingyur began the meditation, there was a sudden, huge burst of electrical activity on the computer monitors displaying the signals from his brain. Everyone assumed this meant he had moved; such movement artifacts are a common problem in research with EEG, which registers as wave patterns readings of electrical activity at the top of the brain. Any motion that tugs the sensor—a leg shifting, a tilt of the head—gets amplified in those readings into a huge spike that looks like a brain wave but has to be filtered out for a clean analysis……
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