Your Brain on Meditation

by by Nupur Shridhar

illustration by by Annika Finne

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have finally found scientific evidence for Buddhists’ peace of mind: meditation objectively improves neural plasticity and leads to the thickening of brain regions associated with empathy, awareness, and stress management. The team of scientists, led by Dr. Sara Lazar, conducted brain scans of sixteen subjects two weeks before and two weeks after they participated in an eight-week guided meditation retreat. Their results, published in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, show that, when compared to the control group of non-meditators, individuals who meditated for an average of 27 minutes a day experienced an increase in grey-matter density in both the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory, and in structures responsible for human self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.

There are three men in front of you: on the left, a good friend; in the middle, a stranger; on the right, an enemy: someone whose presence provokes undesirable emotions. Concentrate first on the friend, then on the stranger, and finally on the enemy. Examine your feelings towards each, then realize that the stranger can easily become your friend, or your enemy; realize that a friend can become an enemy when he wounds you; realize that an enemy becomes a friend when you show each other compassion. Look at your friend and feel the love and appreciation he gives you. Now look at your enemy: is he really that different? Doesn’t he, too, come from a mother? Doesn’t he, too, posses a human desire to affirm, and be affirmed? A body that feels as you feel? The greatest truth is that friend, stranger, and enemy are all one, just as you and I are one.

Furthermore, participants who reported feeling less stressed after the retreat showed a decrease in grey-matter density in the amygdala, the region of the brain that allows complex vertebrates to form and store memories, especially those associated with emotional events. Essentially, the amygdala is responsible for processing personal space and violations to the body—basically, it’s for fear conditioning. As it turns out, our brain cells are highly sensitive to emotional imprinting: suffer a dog bite as a child and the amygdala will remember the trauma, and trigger stress-related survival responses around dogs well into adulthood. The stronger the emotional event, the larger the biochemical footprint it leaves behind and the greater the chances of that emotion being triggered again. Unsurprisingly, individuals who sustain damage to their amygdala lose the ability to fear or to respect others’ boundaries.

When we are born, our minds are smooth, unpracticed, ready for the first emotions that fall like raindrops on top of a hill: which way will the water run? Joy flows one way, jealousy another, each rainfall cutting deeper and deeper into our neural circuits until our brains have fallen into familiar biochemical pathways. Meditation seeks to disrupt this mindless surging: what if we could better understand and channel our desires? What if we could be at peace in all climates? This is why some psychologists are considering prescribing MDMA to patients who are severely depressed or fearful: though the pleasure and confidence the drug induces are artificial and arguably unnatural, its biochemical flow breaks through neural dams, unclogging blocked pathways and re-teaching the brain how to feel happy. This is also why we are the stories we tell ourselves.

As Dr. Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami, pointed out in a press release from MGH, Lazar’s finding “opens doors to many possibilities for future research on MBSR’s (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Lazar’s website, which features links to yoga centers and quotes from several wise meditators (“The mind precedes all things, the mind dominates all things, the mind creates all things” – Buddha), indicatse that she believes in meditation’s ability to help everyone, even the psychologically “healthy.” Lazar’s results seem to imply that mind-over-matter is physical law, and that the human brain has the ability to learn and relearn itself, to shape itself into seeing and believing whatever it would like. For this reason, meditation is part medicine and part magic. Certainly, meditation itself can become addictive, and the power it affords individuals can be both exaggerated and abused. At the end of the day, though, regardless of whether the contemporary scientific community will accept the statistical significance of ancient Buddhist practices, thinking clearly through one’s thoughts will always be a valuable talent.

All human emotion is mediated by the increase or absence of a handful of neurotransmitters. For this reason, my mother believes it’s possible to become addicted to anything: the brain stops producing internally what there is an external source for; start taking steroids and your balls shrink. This is why World of Warcraft players experience withdrawal. This is why break-ups hurt: we become addicted to the idea of a person, embodied. My mother has a highly disciplined mind. She believes in herself. She doesn’t care when her colleagues poke at her teetotalism, or her cheap sweats, or her arranged marriage. Her happiness is only bound up in her food, her loved ones, and her job-well-done. For this reason, she will never die. Instead, when her body ceases to exist, when the molecules that make up her being un-make themselves, like light she will propagate: E = mc2.

NUPUR SHRIDHAR B’11 is opening her eyes.