Consciousness

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The mind, the way it operates, and the nature of consciousness itself has been a topic for study in Asia for thousands of years.  In the West, we are only just beginning to examine our own consciousness.  Until fairly recently we have been more ready to speculate on, and to study that of other people, especially if they are not behaving normally, than to examine our own minds.

  • Prayer and Healing study publicized Apr. 1/06 re-examines the notion that praying for someone can help them heal.

Extract:

In June 2002, Davidson's associate Antoine Lutz positioned 128 electrodes on the head of Mattieu Ricard. A French-born monk from the Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Ricard had racked up more than of 10,000 hours of meditation.

Lutz asked Ricard to meditate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." He immediately noticed powerful gamma activity -- brain waves oscillating at roughly 40 cycles per second -- indicating intensely focused thought. Gamma waves are usually weak and difficult to see. Those emanating from Ricard were easily visible, even in the raw EEG output. Moreover, oscillations from various parts of the cortex were synchronized -- a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in patients under anesthesia.

The researchers had never seen anything like it. Worried that something might be wrong with their equipment or methods, they brought in more monks, as well as a control group of college students inexperienced in meditation.

The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the students'. In addition, larger areas of the meditators'  brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.

Davidson realized that the results had important implications for ongoing research into the ability to change brain function through training.  In the traditional view, the brain becomes frozen with the onset of adulthood, after which few new connections form. In the past 20 years, though, scientists have discovered that intensive training can make a difference.

For instance, the portion of the brain that corresponds to a string musician's fingering hand grows larger than the part that governs the bow hand -- even in musicians who start playing as adults. Davidson's work suggested this potential might extend to emotional centers.

But Davidson saw something more. The monks had responded to the request to meditate on compassion by generating remarkable brain waves. Perhaps these signals indicated that the meditators had attained an intensely compassionate state of mind.  If so, then maybe compassion could be exercised like a muscle; with the right training, people could bulk up their empathy.

And if meditation could enhance the brain's ability to produce "attention and affective processes" -- emotions, in the technical language of Davidson's study - it might also be used to modify maladaptive emotional responses like depression.

Davidson and his team published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2004. The research made The Wall Street Journal, and Davidson instantly became a celebrity scientist.

Not everyone was impressed. Yi Rao, a professor in the neurology department at Northwestern University, dismisses Davidson's study as rubbish.  "The science is substandard," he says. "  The motivations of both Davidson and the Dalai Lama are questionable."

You can read the entire 2-page article on the Wired News site.  [link provided above]

Neuroplasticity

Nov 22/04 Wall Street Journal "Wrap your mind around this" by S. Begley:

[image] Gathering looks at the brain's ability to change itself.

All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected onto screens at each end of the room, but what different guests they were.  

On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without appeal to anything spiritual or non-physical.  Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks, convinced that one round-faced young man in their midst is the reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the entity we call "mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.

It was not your typical science meeting. The Buddhists and scientists who met last month in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, came together to discuss one of the hottest topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.

The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely engaged.

In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity mostly has documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from the outside world. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance, brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently of one another.

Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder if the brain can change in response to purely internal mental signals. That's where the Buddhists come in.

Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a real-life experiment in the power of those will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to alter the physical matter of the brain.

“Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism,” said Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Dalai Lama agreed.

The result was the scans that Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators with that of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The task was to practice “compassion” meditation, generating a feeling of loving kindness toward all beings.

“We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the whole mind with no other thoughts,” said Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a doctorate in genetics.

In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness.

The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” said Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.

Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains.

Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains itched to go to the aid of those in distress.

“It feels like a total readiness to act, to help,” said Ricard, one of the monks.

The study will be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That opens the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are only beginning to fathom.

  • June 13/05, BBC NewsMeditation 'brain training' clues

    Meditating monks are giving clues about how the brain's basic responses can be overridden, researchers say. Australian scientists gave Buddhist monks vision tests, where each eye was concurrently shown a different image. 

    Most people's attention would automatically fluctuate -- but the monks were able to focus on just one image.  Writing in Current Biology, the scientists say their ability to override this basic mental response indicates how the brain can be trained.

    Meditation is a way of tapping into a process of manipulating brain activity

    Dr Toby Collins, Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind Researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of California, Berkley, studied 76 Tibetan Buddhist monks at mountain retreats in India.

    The monks had undergone between five and 54 years of meditative training.

    In the tests, they were given special goggles that meant they could see a different image with each eye.

    Normally, the brain would rapidly alternate between both - termed perceptual or visual rivalry.

    It had been thought that this was a basic and involuntary response.

    'Move on'

    However, the monks -- who carried out "one-point" meditation, where they focus attention on a single object or thought -- were able to focus on one image.

    Monks who had undergone the longest and most intense meditative training were able to focus their attention on just one of the images for up to 12 minutes.

    Olivia Carter, of the University of Queensland, said: "The monks showed they were able to block out external information. "This is an initial step in understanding how their brains work. "It would now be good to carry out further tests using imaging techniques to see exactly what the differences are in the brains of the monks."

    She said that could direct researchers to a broader understanding of how meditation influences what happens in the brain when someone is deciding whether to give something their attention, and what happens when they choose not to dwell on bad news, or to calm down.

    Ms Carter added: "Buddhist monks often report that if something negative happens they are able to digest it and move on.  "People who use meditation, including the Dalai Lama, have said that the ability to control and direct your thoughts can be very beneficial in terms of mental health."

    Dr Toby Collins, of the Oxford Centre for the Science of the Mind, told the BBC News website: "Meditation is a way of tapping into a process of manipulating brain activity."

    He said the idea that meditation trained the brain to attend to just one thing at a time fitted in with previous research.

    He added: "How that's done, we don't yet know. But studies using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) can show what's happening in the brain."

     

  • See also, Global Consciousness Project.

 

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