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Meditation's Effect on the Brain

By Lional Wijesiri
Courtesy : VESAK LIPI

Scientists are now taking advantage of new technologies to see exactly what goes on inside the brains of Buddhist monks and other indivi duals when they meditate intensively and regularly. The neuroscientists have discovered that regular meditation actually alters the way the brain is wired, and that these changes could be at the heart of claims that meditation can improve health and well-being.

In 1998 Dr. James Austin, a neurologist, wrote the book 'Toward an understanding of Meditation and Consciousness' Several mindful researches cite his book as a reason they became interested in the field. In it, Austin examines consciousness by intertwining his personal experiences with meditation with explanations backed up by hard science. When he describes how meditation can "sculpt" the brain, he means it literally and figuratively.
Before Austin, others had aimed to teach meditation to individuals without experience but who hoped to reap mental and physical health benefits.

For decades, researchers at the Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin, have sought to document how meditation enhances the qualities societies need in their human capital sharpened institution, steely concentration and plummeting stress levels. What's different today is groundbreaking research showing that, when people meditate, they alter the biochemistry of their brains. The evolution of powerful mind-monitoring technologies has also enabled scientist to scan the minds of meditators on a microscopic scale, revealing fascinating insights about the plasticity of the mind, and meditation's ability to sculpt it.

Some of those insights have emerged tn the lab of Richard Davidson, a Professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Throughout his career, Davidson has pondered why people react so differently to the same stressful situations, and for the past 20 years he has been conducting experiments to find out. Davidson has been placing electrodes on meditating Buddhist monks, as they lay on his lab floor watching different visual stimuli - flash on a screen. Davidson and his team then observe the monks as they meditate while ensconced in the clanking, coffin-like tubes of MRI machines.

What the researchers reveal are brains unlike any they have observed elsewhere. The monk's left prefrontal cortices - the area associated with positive emotion - are far more active than in non-mediators' brains.

In other words, he says, the monks' meditation practice, which changes their neural physiology, enables them to respond with equanimity to sources of stress. Meditation doesn't make meditators sluggish or apathetic; it simply allows them to detach from their emotional reactions so they can respond appropriately.

"In our country people are very involved in the physical-fitness craze, working out several times a week" says Davidson. "But we don't pay that kind of attention to our minds. Modern neuroscience is showing that our minds are as plastic as our bodies. Meditation can help you train your mind, in the same way exercise can train your body."
Davidson's research didn't stop with the monks. To find out whether meditation could have lasting, beneficial effects in the workplace, he performed a study at Madison Biotech Company employees. Four dozen employees met once a week for eight weeks to practice mindfulness meditation for three hours. The result, published last year showed that the employees' left pre-fontal cortices were enlarged, just like those of the monks (but not that much).

In a series of experiments conducted at Canada's Princess Margaret Hospital,cancer pain patients have found out that pro-found changes are possible with meditation. Take the case of Melissa Munroe, a first-class professional athlete, in Canada.

After being diagnosed with cancer about six years ago. Melissa Munroe suffered excruciating pain when tumors pressed against her nerves and organs. Making things worse was the trauma of her diagnosis. It was shocking, because Munroe had led such a healthy lifestyle.
Munroe said, "I've never drank alcohol in my whole life, never smoked cigarettes in my whole life and never taken drugs in my whole life. It was a shock to me when I was diagnosed with cancer."

At Hospital where she underwent chemotherapy, Munroe took a meditation program with a psychiatrist. Munroe soon learnt that pain is not just a physical sensation, but can be worse through anxiety. Daily meditation helped her isolate her pain and manage it, despite her initial reservations.
The meditation was so effective that Munroe was able to avoid any pain medication.

While Munroe initially tried meditation to manage her chronic pain on advice of a colleague, she soon learned that the program was having a profound impact on her general sense of well-being. She is now highly enthusiastic about the process as only a daily practitioner could.
Munroe sees meditation as a way to raise a person's quality of life by learning to focus on what's important, and ignore fleeting and meaningless desires. For patients like Munroe, who has learned to regain control of her life by gaining control of her pain, meditation is now a natural part of her daily existence. She encourages everyone to try it.

Courtesy Ceylon DAILY NEWS. 21-10-05 (Article abridged)



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