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July 28, 2005
Mind Your Brain - The Neuroscience of Meditation
By Casey Lynch, NeuroInsights
There is growing interest in the subject of "cognitive fitness". For example, software being developed by companies like Posit may delay Alzheimers disease and neurofeedback games like those offered by CyberLearning Technology and Imagine Neuro Solutions may improve attention and treat ADHD.
But what about emotional brain fitness? Its well known that meditation and exercise reduce anxiety, ease depression, and provide a general feeling of well being. Can principles about the brain be learned from these practices to help develop emotional fitness tools? Can biofeedback games like Wild Divine help beginner brains look more like enlightened brains without a lifetime of dedication?
Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin have been crossing the metaphysical divide by working in collaboration with the Dalai Lama, the state and spiritual leader of Tibet. Richard Davidsons group at the university's new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior used EEG to compare the brain activity of highly accomplished Buddhist practitioners to beginner volunteers while meditating on unconditional compassion.
They found that the long time practitioners showed high amplitude gamma waves (a state generally associated with attention, conscious perception, and learning) particularly in the left prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain associated in some studies with positive emotions, anti-depressant activity and inhibition of fear/anxiety).
Experienced practitioners also had increased gamma wave activity while not meditating, indicating that meditation may cause permanent changes to brain activity.
In another study, Davidson teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and well known proponent of mind/body medicine. Patients in the study reporting decreased anxiety and more positive affect after meditation also showed a shift in brain activity to the left prefrontal cortex.
It's possible that neurostimulation could reproduce the positive emotional effects of meditation for people with severe depression, for example.
For more about the science and clinical applications of meditation check out the Mind and Life Institutes November 2005 meeting in Washington: Investigating the Mind.
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