The Inexplicable Monks: On Second Thought

The sociologist Anselm Strauss was a proponent of methods to generate “grounded theory,” that is, a progressive series of hypothesis that are tested, then refined according to what the data shows, and tested again, and so refined, in a perpetual cascade of theory-data loops, each of which presents new conclusions and raises new questions. In this model, the essence of the scientific method boils down to changing your mind for the right reasons, and asking the right questions.
And now it’s happened to me; I’ve changed my mind yet again. Here’s what I originally thought:

One of my most basic assumptions about the relationship between mental effort and brain function has begun to crumble. Here’s why.

My earliest research interests as a psychologist were in the ways mental training can shape biological systems.  My doctoral dissertation was a psychophysiological study of meditation as an intervention in stress reactivity; I found (as have many others since) that the practice of meditation seems to speed the rate of physiological recovery from a stressor.

My guiding assumptions included the standard premise that the mind-body relationship operates according to orderly, understandable principles.  One such might be called the “dose-response” rule, that the more time put into a given method of training, the greater the result in the targeted biological system.  This is a basic correlate of neuroplasticity, the mechanism through which repeated experience shapes the brain.

For example, a string of research has now established that more experienced meditators recover more quickly from stress-induced physiological arousal than do novices. Nothing remarkable there.  The dose-response rule would predict this is so. Thus brain imaging studies show that the spatial areas of London taxi drivers become enhanced during the first six months they spend driving around that city’s winding streets; likewise, the area for thumb movement in the motor cortex becomes more robust in violinists as they continue to practice over many months.

This relationship has been confirmed in many varieties of mental training. A seminal 2004 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that, compared to novices, highly adept meditators generated far more high-amplitude gamma wave activity  – which reflects finely focused attention – in areas of the prefrontal cortex while meditating.

The seasoned meditators in this study – all Tibetan lamas — had undergone cumulative levels of mental training akin to the amount of lifetime sports practice put in by Olympic athletes: 10,000 to 50,000 hours. Novices tended to increase gamma activity by around 10 to 15 percent in the key brain area, while most experts had increases on the order of 100 percent from baseline. What caught my eye in this data was not this difference between novices and experts (which might be explained in any number of ways, including a self-selection bias), but rather a discrepancy in the data among the group of Olympic-level meditators.

Although the experts’ average boost in gamma was around 100 percent, two lamas were “outliers”: their gamma levels leapt 700 to 800 percent. This might seem to go far beyond an orderly dose-response relationship — these jumps in high-amplitude gamma activity are the highest ever reported in the scientific literature apart from pathological conditions like seizures. Yet the lamas were voluntarily inducing this extraordinarily heightened brain activity for just a few minutes at a time – and by meditating on “pure compassion,” no less.

I have no explanation for this data, but plenty of questions. At the higher reaches of contemplative expertise, do principles apply (as the Dalai Lama has suggested in dialogues with neuroscientists) that we do not yet grasp? If so, what might these be? In truth, I have no idea. But these puzzling data points have pried open my mind a bit as I’ve had to question what had been a rock-solid assumption of my own.

…Or so I thought.  All the above was what I wrote for the annual Edge Question 2008: “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

A few weeks later I happened to be talking about this answer with Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the authors of the study with the remarkable meditators.  He pointed out to me that the findings for the two lamas were not statistical outliers, but fit the regression analysis as shown by a scatter plot tucked away among the article’s data tables. These two lamas were the champions among the Olympic-level meditators, having put in the highest number of lifetime retreat hours – about 44,000 and 55,000 hours – and also showing the greatest effect from all that mind training. That’s exactly what the dose-response model predicts.

So now I’ve changed my mind a second time. I not longer see these data points as inexplicable in terms of neuroplasticity. Now I see them as a first scientific report from the upper reaches of neural transformation.  So my change of mind has to do with what might be possible at those upper reaches of human consciousness.

I’m left with a new set of questions.  At the highest reaches of mind training, I wonder, do a novel range of possibilities for self-regulating biological functions emerge? What could be the actual experience of these intense amplifications of neural activity?  And since this remarkable brain activity occurred during the cultivation of compassion, what might the human benefits be of such training?

9 thoughts on “The Inexplicable Monks: On Second Thought

  1. Fascinating posts, thank you. Particularly interesting to see such dramatic results coming from meditation on compassion. Are you aware of any studies comparing meditation on compassion with other forms of meditation (e.g. concentration)?

  2. I am glad that the neuroscience community is conducting this type of research on the topic of higher levels of consciousness as achieved through meditation. It doesn’t surprise me that lifetime “olympic level” meditators would show these high levels of gamma activity. I am a new doctoral student in Human and Organizational Development and am about to conduct some research for a paper on the experience of deep meditators who reach these higher levels of consciousness.

    My questions on this topic were spurred by reading Satprem’s book, “Aurobindo – The Adventures of Consciousness,” in which he discusses different levels of consciousness. It was Aurobindo’s goal to reach a “supramental” level in which humans can consciously evolve our species – in other words, actually influence our physical structure. He theorized that in the process of moving more people to higher levels of consciousness, we could move the world in general to a more evolved existence (maybe even eliminate war and famine…). I wonder if there’s a “tipping point” what would it be?

    It seems that your monks have arrived at a level of consciousness close to this supramental level. However, if it takes a certain number of people to reach this level in order to change the evolution of our species, and if it takes Olympian effort to get there, would it ever happen? I’m wondering if we could raise the general level of consciousness to one or two levels above the current levels, would we impact our species? How many people would need to meditate and how many hours per day (I only meditate 30 minutes per day….)

    BTW, I found your blog because there’s an ongoing dialog on my blog about EI. I referenced your work and your research institute, but you may want to post and give further explanation. One of my European readers questions whether EI can be measured in a similar way to IQ. The post is titled “Spirituality in Business” at http://www.phdconfidential.wordpress.com

  3. I would like to tell you about a website we have started to spread compassion. It is called the Hidden Angel Network (ha.net) and is a site where people can give thanks to others for acts of kindness.

    Thought you would be interested, let me know if you would like to participate in any way 🙂

    – Mary
    http://ha.net

  4. I am a training consultant intending to introduce a discussion on Emotional Intelligence in one of our courses on project management. I noted a reference to “the dose-response rule”, and would like to cite Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings (1973, 1990, ISBN 0-375-70405-1) on his treatment of patients using the drug L-DOPA. He and his staff tried to find the optimum dosage but found some strange results. My explanation (as for the monks) is that human beings are not mechanistic and whilst we may sometimes treat people that way we are now and then brought down to earth and have to face reality. We face this even more in training. The person who does a five-day course should but does not necessarily know more or perform better than the person who does a 2-day course. And the person who has managed ten projects may not manage them any better than the person who has managed two.

  5. I met David Morehouse at an Omega workshop several years ago and was very intrigued and excited by his work with remote viewing. My take in a nutshell is that he is offering a program whereby individuals learn to work with the universe as a holographic entity where all information,action, energy that ever was or will be is available for perusal (sounds familiar). His goal is to train enough remote viewers to attain a critical mass of consciousness that will trigger a paradigm shift in the rest of humanity, thus elevating all human consciousness. His work is worth some serious consideration in the context of operational analysis of meditation, its form and its function. Its amazing how many roads there are, and that in the end they all do lead to Rome (so to speak).

  6. Although I find Richard Davidson’s work on compassion meditation fascinating, I am concerned that he reduces compassion to a stimulated repsonse mechanism. Compassion (and Love) are incredibly complex emotions , with individual differences in how they are induced and expressed. Are we sure that increased gamma activity only reflects compassion, or does it reflect visualisation of compassion. It would be interesting to compare the two Tibetan monks with most hours of meditation experience with a larger sample of monks to be a true experiment (ie, monks from the same monastery and same age group with the same number of hours experience). If the dose-response model is correct, we would expect them all to have equally high gamma rays.

    In my experience, compassion isn’t a reflection of how many hours a person can afford to spend meditating ( a rare luxury in most parts of the world today) and I personally know of monastics who may have spent a lifetime engaging in such practices but still struggle with certain emotions once faced with the harsh realities of the world. Surely, a scientific exploration of compassion should look at ‘compassion in the ghetto’, so to speak. Those amazing people, like Margaret Mizen, the mother of the murdered child, Jimmy Mizen, here in England, (mother of nine children and no doubt with little time to meditate) whose compassion in action highlights an important dimension to the study of complex human emotions. Yes, compassion can be stimulated and taught to a degree, as Davidson’s study implies, but there is far more to be investigated although this is an exciting start. As saying goes: “Not everyone who ran after the gazelle caught it, but he who caught it ran after it”.

  7. I am not sure what conclusions to draw from gamma wave enhancement as a result of meditation. It may lead to greater insight or it may lead to delusions of greater insight for all I know. When a scientist or mathematician or philosopher has spent 40,000 hours fully engaged in solving thorny problems, is there similar gamma wave enhancement?
    To suppose that a group of such meditators could change all humanity seems to be a leap of faith quite unjustified by any evidence. Incidentally, the monks, being Buddhist, do not believe in a God so they would be unlikely to agree that their experience shows that we are ‘wired’ for God.

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