Contemplative neuroscience: how meditation changes your brain

Today I ran across a link to CNN’s Belief Blog, about how meditation changes the brain, complete with images of brain scans.

The article cites Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and research on the limbic system and development of concentration and empathy, and also the left anterior region and positive emotions (available after only a few weeks of meditation). He’s the most well-known contemplative neuroscientist, being a friend of the Dalai Lama’s, who has given him access to Tibetan monks who are among the most highly experienced meditators in the world with over 10,000 hours. (At one hour per day, it would take 27 years to accumulate that much time meditating!)

It also cites (new info to me) Andrew Newburg’s study of the prefrontal cortex and attention, and the superior parietal lobe and lack of orientation to time and space. Could this explain the experience of oneness and presence in meditation? Makes sense to me.

The National Institutes of Health is funding more research in contemplative science, an encouraging sign.

Still, the nascent field faces challenges. Scientists have scanned just a few hundred brains on meditation to date, which makes for a pretty small research sample. And some scientists say researchers are over eager to use brain science to prove the that meditation “works.”

“This is a field that has been populated by true believers,” says Emory University scientist Charles Raison, who has studied meditation’s effect on the immune system. “Many of the people doing this research are trying to prove scientifically what they already know from experience, which is a major flaw.”

But Davidson says that other types of scientists also have deep personal interest in what they’re studying. And he argues that that’s a good thing.

“There’s a cadre of grad students and post docs who’ve found personal value in meditation and have been inspired to study it scientifically,” Davidson says. “These are people at the very best universities and they want to do this for a career.

“In ten years,” he says, “we’ll find that meditation research has become mainstream.”

I hope so.

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