“Who am I?” is a question that has preoccupied philosophers and mystics through the ages. Are we simply biological beings with a sophisticated neural network we call the brain that can process information and give us self-awareness, or are we mind, an elegant mental process that animates our physical brain? Neuroscience has taught us much about the biology of the brain, from its convoluted anatomy down to its fascinating molecular processes, but it has not unraveled where in the intricate labyrinth of the brain, the mind is hidden.
The human brain with its 86 billion interconnected neurons, or nerve cells, is truly the crowning-jewel of biological complexity and is a rich source of scientific investigation. One prevailing view is that the mind is the function of the brain. According to this concept, the mind is the emergent property of the brain and everything that we experience as the mind can be explained by the summation of electrical brain activities and the complex neural networks of the brain. At the opposite end of the spectrum of beliefs is the suggestion that the entire universe, including the human brain, is a projection of a greater Consciousness that our personal consciousness is a part of. This thought implies that the conscious process of the mind actually gives birth to the structural brain. If brain is the structure and mind is the function then we would expect that the structure would affect the function. This concept is amply demonstrated by the fact that our large, well-developed human brains result in significantly more high-level “mind” functions than that of an earth-worm, let’s say. The next question is whether the information can flow in the opposite direction between structure and function? Can the mind affect, or alter, the brain? The cumulative data of scientific experiments is pointing to the conclusion that ’yes’, the activity of the mind can change the brain. Just as the physical activity of the body can transform the structure of the body, by growing more muscles, so the activity of the mind can change the brain. The mind exercises that have the most profound effect on the brain are meditation practices.
Meditation is a method to enhance concentration skills and focused awareness. Although meditation is a secular practice, it has been an intrinsic part of different religions and wisdom traditions for centuries. The time-honored practice of meditation plays a key role in most of the world’s major religions, including Chinese, Indian and Western religions. Christians use contemplative prayer to behold the presence of God in their hearts, while in the Jewish faith the Kabbalah meditation is a favored spiritual ritual. However it is in Hinduism and Buddhism that meditation practices play the most central role and for Buddhists, mindfulness meditation represents the path toward enlightenment. The one common aim of these varied meditation practices is to break the habit of unproductive, or harmful, mental processes and take a leap beyond the habits of everyday thinking in order to connect with a higher power or higher consciousness. The way to achieve this often involves sustained attention and focus on the present moment. Repetition of words or actions , as well as performing or focusing on repetitive actions such as, following the breath are useful tools of meditative practices. A second important component of many meditations is to disregard unrelated thoughts and gently return the awareness to the specific chosen activity.
Today, in the United States, it is estimated that about 20% of the adult population engages is some form of meditative mind-body practice. The methods used by different meditation practices may be highly variable, but they all aim to improve our voluntary control over mental activities. Meditation techniques may be divided into three broad categories: 1.) Focused-attention meditation; 2.) Open-monitoring meditation; and 3.) Loving-kindness meditation. The focused-attention approach involves concentration on an object, the breath, or a mantra. Open-monitoring meditation fosters an interior awareness with attention being directed to the ever-changing experiences that flow across the consciousness. This type of meditation includes mindfulness meditation, a practice that has been described as “ the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment (Kabat-Zinn 2003). The third type of practice, loving-kindness meditation, directs the attention to loving statements, such as: ”may I and all other creatures be safe, happy, healthy and live in simplicity”. Some meditations use a combination of these three specific techniques to great effect.
The scientific methods that have been employed to examine the effect of meditation practices on brain structure and function include, MRI, PET scan, electroencephalogram (EEG), as well as various physiological, biochemical and genetic measurements. The benefits of meditation practices encompass improvements in physical health, mental health, higher executive functions and clinical pathologies. At a physiological level, the beneficial health outcomes of meditation practices are associated with stress-reduction. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson’s pioneering research has developed a simple meditation technique that he called the Relaxation Response. This meditation was modelled on Transcendental Meditation and it involved the silent repetition of a mantra. The practice of this technique was found to reduce blood cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and decrease blood pressure. By lessening the stress-inducing fight or flight response, the meditation boosted the immune system. The researchers also demonstrated that the practice had long-term health benefits at the genetic level, since the expression of genes associated with energy metabolism and respiration were maintained at a high level, whereas as genes related to inflammation and the stress response were reduced. One very exciting finding of the research conducted on patients who practiced the Relaxation Response was a change in the actual physical structure of their brains. In meditators, aging-related thinning of the brain’s cortex, was counteracted by their practice. The significant cortical thickening observed in those who consistently meditated was related to a reduction in the cognitive decline associated with aging.
A specific type of meditation, called mindfulness meditation, has particularly caught the interest of the scientific community. Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word ‘sati’ which means awareness or skillful attentiveness. The practice involves focusing the attention on the breath while freely monitoring thoughts and sensations that arise. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was first described by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979 and it has proven to be effective for the treatment of a number of different pathological conditions, including clinical drug-resistant epilepsy, depression, anxiety, substance-abuse disorders and chronic pain. In his clinical practice, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA has successfully been harnessing the power of the brain’s ability to get re-wired in response to meditation. He used mindfulness practices to treat patients with depression and obsessive compulsive disorders by dissolving the “brain-locks” of compulsive, self-defeating mental habits and shifting to a more positive and healthy pattern of thinking.
In a healthy population, mindfulness practices have resulted in being more focused in the present moment, becoming more open to novel experiences and gaining awareness of multiple perspectives in a non-judgmental manner (Langer and Moldoveanu, 2000; Stemberg, 2000). By training the mind to be more attentive and aware, mindfulness has the distinct benefit of regulating emotions. Dr. Richard Davidson, the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin has concluded that with dedicated practice mindfulness can promote happiness and compassion. The scientific research that his conclusion was based on involved the measurement of the electrical energy output of the brain as measured by EEG. This non-invasive technique uses external electrodes placed on the skull to record the summation of the electrical activities of all the brain cells working together and can be plotted as brain waves of different frequencies. High frequency beta brain waves represent the alert, active state of brain function. When we are relaxed and less engaged with problem solving, our brain waves ease into alpha rhythm. As we sink into even more relaxed, dissociated or meditative states, our brains show the slower theta waves. Finally, when we totally disengage from everyday reality in deep, dreamless sleep, we are said to be in the delta phase. In a recent review article, Lomas et al., have combined the data collected from 1715 research subjects tested between 1966 and 2015 to show that mindfulness meditation, when compared to eyes-closed resting, resulted in significantly elevated alpha and theta brain waves. The relaxed but alert states of alpha and theta brain waves are believed to be conducive to good mental health.
At the opposite end of brain wave frequencies, are the less well understood, high-frequency gamma brain waves that have been associated with deep meditative states punctuated by feelings of blissfulness, connectedness and oneness. Davidson and others have been focusing their recent research on these high frequency gamma brain waves. They reported that Buddhist monks and experienced Vipassana meditators had unusually high levels of gamma brain wave activity, representing the coordinated neural synchrony of the brain. This higher state of consciousness is characterized by better concentration, memory and learning abilities, as well as activation of areas of the brain associated with happiness. Taken together, all the scientific data suggests that regular practice of meditation has beneficial long-term effects on health. Furthermore, there is intriguing evidence that our brains have neural plasticity, meaning that our mental activities can alter the hard-wiring of the brain. Thus, science is in support of the concept that thought energies of the mind can directly affect the function and structure of the brain.
Scientific research has shown us the impressive power of the mind to improve health and wellbeing by changing the brain. However, knowing what the mind can do, did not bring us any closer to discovering how the human mind emerges and what consciousness is. We still do not know if the mind is strictly defined by our biology, or if it has a spiritual component that is beyond our current comprehension. We have yet to discover what the spark is that ignites a mangle of neural pathways to suddenly function as a self-aware, lucid, human mind. Perhaps only a mindful mind can truly ‘know’ what mind is.
“On normal days, I meditate for 1 hour in the morning. On extremely busy days, I meditate for 2 hours in the morning.” –The Dalai Lama
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