Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Science agrees with Buddha (again)

Meditation sharpens our attention so that we notice details we might otherwise have missed, according to a new study, one among a number of recent studies that reveal that, yes, Buddhists have been right all along.

The article, published in LiveScience, says:

In recent years, scientists have found meditation affects brain functions. For instance, research into Tibetan monks trained in focusing their attention on a single object or thought revealed they could concentrate on one image significantly longer than normal when shown two different images at each eye. Another study of people who on average meditated 40 minutes daily found that areas of their brains linked with attention and sensory processing became thicker.

"One of the fundamental mysteries that is now becoming better understood as we go along but which is still a breakthrough area of research is neuroplasticity, the idea that we can literally change our brains through mental training," Davidson told LiveScience. "Certain kinds of mental characteristics such as attention or certain emotions such as happiness can best be regarded as skills that can be trained."

Indeed, meditation has recently been a hot topic, and research suggests it does more than just increase our mental acuity.

Science writer Sharon Begley recently published a book (The Mind and the Brain) about brain plasticity in which meditation was featured prominently. (You can also read an excerpt from her book in a recent article of hers in Time.) In it, she discusses how Davidson's research challenges the long-held hypothesis that a person's happiness set-point is unmovable. Davidson (with the help of the Dalai Lama) recruited Buddhist Monks--who had spent more than 10,000 hours meditating--for tests in which they meditated under fMRI scans. The scans showed "dramatic changes in the parts of the brain associated with happiness" as compared to the scans from a group of students who had recently undergone a crash course in meditation.

Who knows what else science will reveal about meditation--I am reviewing a book for the upcoming issue of Scientific American Mind that suggests science will soon have a lot more to say about meditation's power to heal and improve our lives.

But many people have proof enough already, I suppose.