Meet the Tibetan monk whose brain was studied by scientists

You’ve probably heard that there are some Tibetan monks who have been studied by scientists, who have learned which brain centers are activated during meditation. Well, here’s an article that goes into depth about the types of meditation studied .

It tells the story of one monk (western-born, with 30 years of experience as a Tibetan Buddhist monk) who was studied by scientists extensively using fMRI and EEG and testing his ability to read fleeting facial emotions and to stifle his own startle reflex.

Read the whole article (by Daniel Goleman!) for a fascinating story.

I liked that the article described the types of meditation that were studied. It made me want to be more specific in my own meditation. I usually practice what’s called “the open state”.

Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods of any contemplative tradition, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Öser was able to give precise descriptions of each.

One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention—may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, “Purity of heart is to want one thing only.”

In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner’s method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many non-spiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Öser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on, and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.

Öser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the “open state.” The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Öser described it, “is open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present—not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don’t chain into longer thoughts—they just fade away.”

Perhaps as intriguing was Öser’s explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves “bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you’re not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, ‘I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.’”

Focusing on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody. That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers’ kindness offering a model.

The final meditation technique, visualization, entailed constructing in the mind’s eye an image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Öser described the process, “You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture.” As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.

Öser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. The scientists have seen clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion and fearlessness have not seemed that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Öser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.

Click the link above to find out what the scientists learned from this monk’s brain.

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