Science and Meditation: New Developments in Buddhist Research

By Buddhistdoor International and The University of Hong Kong Théodore Sarasin
Buddhistdoor Global | 2013-07-11 |
Teacher and master Mingyur Rinpoche posing with nodes and circuits that measure his states of mind.Teacher and master Mingyur Rinpoche posing with nodes and circuits that measure his states of mind.
Graphic 1: Electroencephalography.Graphic 1: Electroencephalography.
Graphic 2: how the involuntary nervous system works.Graphic 2: how the involuntary nervous system works.
Graphic 3: The three levels of leadership.Graphic 3: The three levels of leadership.
Buddhism has many unique assets as a religious tradition. It has been received well in many Western countries. It places humankind at the center of its attention. It does not require belief in a god. It proposes rational thought and reflection to make decisions. Also, Buddhism includes meditation, a practical method of self-development. As Venerable Tenzin Palmo explains: “You can experience for yourself, it is not based on faith, it’s based on very pragmatic basis which if you are willing to really use these tools, you will see through yourself how very true this is.” Thus, meditation is not considered to be necessarily religious in Western countries.
Scientists have also been able to draw many common points between Buddhism teachings and science. This is not surprising given the fact that like science, Buddhism relies heavily on inquiry and experience.
In the Buddhist explanation of existence, two key concepts are emptiness and the law of dependent origination. Both explain that all phenomena are interdependent. Therefore, phenomena are empty of self-nature. In science, we know that atoms are almost completely empty. In Quantum Physics, there is something called the quantum field. It is an electromagnetic field in which all matter arises from. The particles that arise from this field are not separate but just a different form of the same system.

Albert Einstein claimed, “We may therefore regard matter as being constituted of the regions of space in which the field is extremely intense. There is no place in this new kind of physics both for the field and matter, for the field is the only reality.” A theory called quantum entanglement suggests that when two atoms interact with each other, no matter how far they are separated, they will still be interconnected.
Also, in Buddhism, reality is defined by the mind defining it. Therefore, Buddhism considers reality to be simply a projection of the mind. Recent scientific discoveries have shown something similar. Particles, when unobserved, were taking infinite potential of different positions. When observed, they were taking a well-defined position.
Scientific Observations on Meditation Practitioners
The scientific community has been studying for years how meditation affects our body and mind. Monks were also interested in knowing more about the scientific effects of what they practice so hard for. For about four decades, scientists have studied monks. Monks went to the United States to be examined and compared in both the normal state and meditative state. Nowadays, more than 600 studies have been conducted. Scientific researchers now mainly focus on how meditation affects the brain. Scientists observed many things on both the physiological and psychological levels of meditation.
On the physiological side, specialists have observed that meditation reduces oxygen consumption, rhythm of breathing, blood pressure and muscle tensions. It was also observed that some kinds of meditation produce heat.

There are two ways to observe the brain. The first one is called electroencephalography (EEG). It consists in placing electrodes all over one’s brain in order to observe electrical flow in the brain. The second method is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and is aimed at observing blood flow in the brain. Graphic 2 provides a summary of the two methods.
Electroencephalography (EEG)
A study conducted at Princeton University using electroencephalography revealed how electrical flow in the brain changes during meditation. We can clearly see this change by looking at graphic 1.
The type of electrical flow occurring while meditating is called the gamma. This observation recorded the highest gamma amplitude ever reported in a non-pathological context, meaning for someone without illness. More concretely, high gamma amplitude reflects a fast and precise connection between neurons. According to the scientists, it could reflect a change in the quality of moment-to-moment awareness.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI)
Another way to observe the brain is functional magnetic resonance imaging. Studies using this method revealed which parts of the brain were used and developed during meditation. It turns out that meditation affects the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for regulation of internal organs and glands. It is also used for memorizing and long-term planning. It is also called the “rest and digest” system.
The second part of the involuntary nervous system is called the sympathetic nervous system. Its function is to mobilize the body’s resources under danger. It is also known as the “fight or flight” system. In today’s modern society, we are not often confronted with survival situations. However, the sympathetic nervous system is still used a great deal, mainly because of social conflicts. The sympatheticnervous system makes judgment very quickly under stress. These judgments are done without analysis and often tend to see danger where there is none, resulting in useless stress. A good example of this inappropriate stress could be the stress that we have while doing a public presentation. This is both useless and harmful. To better understand how the involuntary nervous system works, we need to know how both parts function.
The scientific observations revealed that people who meditate tend to use less their sympathetic nervous system and more their parasympathetic nervous system. This explains the relaxing effect of meditation.
Latest scientific discoveries
In January 2011, the team of Sara Lazar, PhD of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program reached a new milestone. Previous studies have already showed that experienced meditators have a thicker cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. However, this research could not prove that the additional cerebral cortex was produced by meditation. This time, the team demonstrated that participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program changes the brain. The experiment proved that meditation increases grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. At the same time, they observed a decrease of grey-matter density in the amygdala, responsible for stress. This confirms what monks have always claimed: Meditation is a long-term cultivation of the mind. It doesn’t affect meditators’ state of mind only when meditating but all the time.

In March 2012, research in UCLA found similar evidence. Using FMRI, they examined the mind of 50 meditators and compared them with 50 non- meditators. The meditators had been meditating 20 years on average using various meditation methods. The result was that there is a pronounced correlation between the number of meditation years and the amount of gyrification in some parts of the cortex (external layer of the brain). Eileen Luders conducted the research. She explains: “the insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective and cognitive integration. Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.”
Mindfulness Meditation Programs
Meditation makes people less vulnerable to external factors that cause stress. Stress harms people in many ways. It cripples self-confidence and self-assurance. It makes people nervous and less confident in social relationships. It prevents concentration. Stress makes people unhappy because it prevents them from enjoying the present moment. It also has a physical impact. Emotional distress consumes a lot of energy and disrupts sleep. It can cause muscle pain and rheumatism. In the long term, stress can even provoke cancer. For all these reasons, many different mindfulness meditation programs have been created during the past 80 years. There are now many mindfulness programs that are used to treat or prevent psychological and psychiatric diseases. We will go through some of the mindfulness meditation programs by chronological order. As we can see, many of them are available in the United States.
The Morita Therapy
The first therapy to be developed was called the Morita therapy. Dr. Shoma Morita developed it in Japan in the 1930s. Dr. Morita explained, trying to control the emotional self willfully by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or to push back the water of the Kamo River upstream. Certainly, they end up aggravating their agony and feeling unbearable pain because of their failure in manipulating the emotions.
Dr. Morita explained that life situations in Western modern world produce “anxiety-based disorders” that he called “The shinkeishitsu phenomenon”.
He proposed a treatment in four distinct phases. The first phase is a rest and isolation phase, which consists in staying alone without any distractions during one week. The aim is to re-familiarize ourselves with the inner peace that has been compromised by external factors such as working stress, media, psychological and physical pain. The second phase consists in journal writing of our thoughts, which helps us to distinguish ourselves from them. The third step consists of hard physical work. It is aim to learn how to treat yourself especially if you have physical injury. The last phase is the one that prepares participants to integrate what they have learned, in their normal life.
Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental meditation was created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the US in the 1960s. It is the most popular method of meditation in the United States. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi received support from many celebrities such as the Beatles, the Doors, Beach Boys, Donovan, Mia Farrow, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. Its practitioners are thought to be about 6 million people. The method consists in repeating a sound (a mantra) in order to reach a state of deep relaxation. The method has even been introduced into some schools in the United States.
The TM Company has been further than most other mindfulness program by building a profit-making business out of the concept. It claims that TM enhances school results, helps veterans to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and diminishes substance abuse.
However, there are many controversies about this type of meditation. Some people claim that it is a sect. A research conducted by the National Institute of Health has concluded that the research about transcendental meditation lacks methodology. It is mainly due to the fact that research about transcendental meditation has been conducted by people linked to the TM Company.
The Relaxation Response
The relaxation response is a program developed by Herbert Benson at the Harvard Medical School. He believes that the relaxation response is something that is not new. Human beings have always tried to reach the relaxation response through meditation, Tai chi or even singing. These are different ways to stop thinking of daily problems.
Throughout our lives, we suffer stressful situations that we cannot avoid. However, what we can avoid is the response of our body to these situations. To do that we have to close our eyes, relax our muscles, and to focus on our breathing. No matter what culture and race we belong to, this practice can be adapted to all languages. It can also take different forms. For example, if you are Christian, you can pray a certain way, a Buddhist another and so on. Dr. Benson has been able to demonstrate that a modification in genes occurred in practitioners of relaxation response.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program established by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It is aimed to treat patients who have major depressive disorders. It helps patients to learn how to pay attention in each moment but without judgment. Kabat-Zinn said about the non-Buddhist universality of MBSR: “Although at this time, mindfulness meditation is most commonly taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, its essence is universal... Yet it is no accident that mindfulness comes out of Buddhism, which has as its overriding concerns the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions.”
Already more than 15,000 people have participated in the program that he created. It consists of a two and a half hour weekly class in which participants learn how to be mindful. The benefits of this kind of this practice include a better body immune system. The general phenomenon is a shift from the right prefrontal cortex, associated with anxiety, depression and aversion to the left prefrontal cortex, associated with happiness. We also observed a better healing of a disease called psoriasis with patients using Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
Other Applications
Given the growing recognition of meditation’s benefits, meditation has been used by many businesses and law organizations.
Meditation in Business
Meditation has generated a growing interest in the business world. Employees are more efficient when they practice meditation. People who meditate are better organized. Thus, some companies pay a meditation teacher for their employees and allow staff to meditate during working time in the office once a day. For high-responsibility jobs, meditation can enhance the decision-making process. It could also make leaders more confident and nurture their relationships with others and their ability to endure pressure. Thus, mindfulness was even introduced as a graduate business course at the Claremont Graduate University. Some large companies such as Procter & Gamble use mindfulness meditation to train their employees. In 2011, Scouller developed a new leadership theory that included mindfulness meditation. The theory is called the three levels of leadership model (see graphic 3). It presents mindfulness meditation as a method to achieve psychological self-mastery at the personal level.
Meditation in Law Enforcement
Meditation has helped prisoners to be less violent and assisted them in rehabilitation. Meditation also helped prisoners to regain self-esteem. People are now looking into meditation’s ability to help resolve legal conflicts. Harvard Law School did a workshop on “Mindfulness in the Law & Alternative Dispute Resolution.”
As we have seen from so many examples, there is an increasing interest in the Western world about meditation. As meditation has proved to be efficient in reducing stress and in healing some mental diseases, many meditation programs have become especially popular in developed but unhappy countries. However, there is still huge potential for new discoveries. In the future, meditation could replace many of today’s medical drugs, surgery and other therapies used to alleviate mental and physical suffering. This could allow people to save money on medical costs. Besides its clinical application, meditation has an important potential in the field of business and law.
It is interesting to see that such an ancient activity has regained the attention of high society today. It answers problems that decades of scientific research did not manage to answer. Meditation can be an important tool for personal development. Rather than moralizing or cajoling, meditation provides a more practical and kinder method to transform people into better human beings. 
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