With the Mind & Life Institute kicking off its international symposia in Denver today, I thought it might be interesting to look back on some of the work this group and others who study contemplative traditions have found. A member of one of my yahoo groups recently posted an article from the Wall Street Journal (How Thinking Can Change the Brain, Jan. 2007) which helped remind me of some of the discoveries in the last few decades dealing with the emerging field of neuroscience called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the godsend that allows the brain to change its structure and function in response to experience including thinking. Nowadays we take this as a given. But once upon a time, not very long ago, the Dalai Lama asked a bunch of scientists if the mind might be able to affect the brain (the actual material entity). A brain surgeon told His Holiness that was impossible. Such downward causation from the mental to the physical was not possible. Don’t you just love science! So wrong- but this would take a series of experiments to knock the surgeon on his butt. You can find those and read about them, but my real interest is in the monks and what they can tell us. So let’s fast forward.
Since the 1990s Tibetan monks have been studied to see if their contemplative practice or mental training produces lasting changes in the brain. The monks were wired to record brain wave activity while entering a state of contemplation focusing on compassion and loving kindness. Gamma signals began rising and kept rising. Even between sessions, the monks’ gamma waves remained high. The more hours of meditation training achieved, the stronger and more lasting the gamma signal. It supplied Prof. Davidson at UCSF with the evidence he’d been seeking. Mental training can produce enduring brain traits. So the conclusion for me, is that we should try to keep an open mind about things and not jump to conclusions about what we think the world is or how we think it should behave. We know far less than we think we do, and arrogance and close mindedness will not be allies in the quest for truth (or Truth, if you like).