By Arundhati Bhanot January 2003 Advanced meditators show marked psychological and neurological changes, which could go a long way in understanding the science of enlightenment Nearly two decades ago, a London-based neurologist, Dr James Austin, experienced the scientific equivalent of an epiphany while waiting to board a train to a Zen Buddhist retreat. Staring absent-mindedly across the tracks towards the river Thames under a gloomy grey sky, he felt “a sense of enlightenment”. Later, he would explain that he had never experienced anything like this before. According to him, the sense of his individual self, of being separate from the physical world around him, evaporated. He said: “The sense of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ disappeared. Time was not present. I had a sense of eternity. I was graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.” As a scientist, Austin termed this episode as a “proof of the existence of the brain”; he was encouraged to explore the neurological basis of spiritual and mystical experience, culminating in the publication of his book, Zen and the Brain. In this study, Austin noted the changes that occur in the parietal-lobe circuits and temporal-lobe circuits in the brain, responsible for generating a sense of space, time and self-awareness. Austin’s is no longer a solitary voice in the wilderness. Since then there has been a growing interest among psychologists and neurologists in how the brain reflects and responds to supra-normal experiences beyond the everyday reality. This field of scientific research is called ‘neurotheology’, the study of the neurobiology of religion and spirituality, which identifies the areas of the brain that switch on or off during extraordinary encounters. Meditation is one such spiritual experience associated with heightened brain activity. Dr Adam Burke, a research psychologist and an assistant professor at San Francisco State University, has been studying brain wave patterns and states of mind during meditation for the past three years. During a recent visit to India to attend an international conference on science and meditation in Rishikesh, Burke said: “Meditation is the study of attention. Attention is a cognitive phenomenon. Meditation is the capacity of the brain to attend to something over a period of time.” Sherry Wade, a mental health counsellor in Florida, who also attended the conference, explained: “The fourth state of consciousness is the superconscious state. Meditation comes under this state, which is similar to deep sleep.” Thus, according to Wade, a person in a meditative state can dissociate from many distressing moments by observing the events like an outsider. Many psychologists have worked extensively to record psychological and physical experiences during meditation. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, talks about meditation as evoking the relaxation response, a natural reflex mechanism, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’ effect. He describes the neurochemical component of the relaxation response as: “A hypometabolic state of parasympathetic activation, a state of deep rest.” One of the most extensive studies has been done by Dr David Orme Johnson, chairman and director of the psychology department at Maharishi International University, Fairfield, Iowa. He has compiled 508 studies on Transcendental Meditation. He calls meditation the fourth state of consciousness—a less active waking state distinctly different from normal waking consciousness. Physiological and experimental studies have demonstrated that the conscious state of the brain has its basis in the activation of the reticular system of the brain stem through internal and external stimuli. These stimuli bring about various changes during sleep and wakeful states that can be studied by electroencephalography (EEG). Dr Andrew Newberg of the department of neurology and psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania Medical Centre, has studied the neurological events in advanced meditators through a single photon emission computed topography (SPECT). The study involved Newberg’s colleague, Dr Michael J. Baime, and seven other Buddhist meditators. Baime was made to settle on the floor. A string of twine lay beside him. He began to focus on quietening his conscious mind. On reaching the peak of his experience he tugged at the twine. Newberg felt the pull and quickly injected a adioactive tracer into Baime’s left arm. A study of the brain activity of Baime showed that the prefrontal cortex, the seat of attention, lit up. A bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe at the back of the brain went dark. This region called the ‘orientation association area’ processes information about space and time. Newberg writes in Why God Won’t Go Away?: “The right orientation area defaults to a feeling of infinite space.” That is when the meditators feel they have touched infinity. Burke, who has been conducting biofeedback, recording brain wave patterns among meditators, explains: “There are two hemispheres of the brain which normally do not interact with each other. There are four levels of brain activity—beta, alpha, theta and delta. Generally the majority of us are left hemisphere and beta-dominated. When you meditate, you go more into alpha and theta. The two hemispheres begin to communicate effectively. Alpha patterns are associated with calm and focused attention, theta with reverie and creativity. Recent studies on the neurochemistry of meditation show that meditation causes an increase in serotonin production. Serotonin influences mood and behaviour in many ways. Problems associated with low levels of serotonin include depression, obesity, insomnia and headaches. Recent research in neurotheology have suggested a logical explanation for the occurrence of supernatural phenomena, but for most practitioners it still remains an out-of-the-world experience. Burke underlines the essence while observing the brain wave patterns: “I was watching a mandala—a black-and-white skeletal frame. As we got deeper and deeper into theta, it began to draw colours and became animated. It looked beautiful. And as soon as I wanted to hold on to it, it disappeared. It was so profound.” But as more and more scientists flock to this new field of study, they give credence to the fact that spiritual contemplation is not wishful thinking but biologically-based events in the brain. Many psychologists have worked extensively to record psychological and physical experiences during meditation. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, talks about meditation as evoking the relaxation response, a natural reflex mechanism, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’ effect. He describes the neurochemical
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