Soon to be published research is set to reveal details of what happens in the brain during meditation and will also provide new insights into the structure and function of the brain itself, in both health and illness.
Since 2008, neuroscientist Zoran Josipovic has been has been studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks at New York University, where he is a research scientist and adjunct professor. What makes his work so interesting and revealing is that he has been using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to look at real time changes in the brains of the monks while they are meditating.
The ancient Eastern practice of meditation has become increasingly popular in the West over the past half century as both individual practitioners and scientists have discovered its potential to promote, not only happiness and a sense of spiritual peace and "oneness", but also good physical and mental health. Josipovic's findings, by illuminating previously poorly understood ways in which the brain behaves, could help provide a better understanding of numerous mysterious chronic and degenerative conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), fibromyalgia (FMS), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), autism, and Alzheimer's disease.
The fMRI machine is being used byJosipovic to track changes in blood flow in the brains of the monks as they meditate. He is hoping to understand the changes in the brain that occur when a seasoned meditator enters a state of consciousness in which they experience themselves as being more than their physical bodies and feel a deep sense of unification with their environment.
In an interview with the BBC, Josipovic said that "Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible." He goes on to explain that during meditation, as a sense of oneness is attained, the neural networks in the brains of experienced practitioners change and reorganise themselves.
It is this flexibility of the brain, known as neural plasticity, that has neurologists excited. This quality not only helps in the understanding of how the brain works and how different states of consciousness can be achieved, but also has the potential to provide insight into the pathophysiology of many chronic and denegerative illnesses. What's more, it may be possible to utilise neural plasticity through meditation and other techniques, to not only promote happiness, but also health and even recovery from some chronic conditions.
Neuroendocrineimmune disorders, which include chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity, are conditions which are thought by many to be particularly responsive to techniques that exploit neural plasticity to encourage the brain's neural networks to reorganise themselves in a way that is more favourable to good health. Indeed a number of such techniques have been developed including Ashok Gupta's Amygdala Retraining Program and Annie Hopper's Dynamic Neural Retraining (DNR) System. Many sufferers of neuroendocrineimmune disorders have reported substantial improvements in their conditions through their use.
Josipovic is providing us with a greater understanding of the brain's neural networks and their ability to reshape themselves through his meditation research, which is itself part of a wider research effort hoping to increase understanding of what scientists have called the brain's default network.
Josipovic says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network. The extrinsic network is most active when a person is focused on an external task such as doing housework or playing sports, while the default network comes alive in times of introspection, when people focus on themselves and their emotions.
The fMRI investigations have shown that, much like the sympathetic and parasympathetic arms of the autonomic nervous system, the extrinsic and default networks of the brain typically counterbalance each other so that while one is active, the other is dormant. It seems however that the practice of meditation has the ability to switch both networks on at the same time and Josipovic believes it is this that gives rise to the meditator's experience of oneness with their environment.
With the insights into the brain's neural networks that this research is providing it will, it is hoped, provide avenues of research to explore that will lead to better understanding and treatment of chronic and degenerative diseases, as well of course, of helping us understand ourselves and the nature of happiness. One thing that seems certain is that meditation is technique that anyone can learn, which can prove hugely beneficial in terms of health and happiness.