Richard Davidson's research created a stir among brain scientists when his results suggested that, in the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the monks had actually altered the structure and function of their brains.
Richard Davidson, 54, is at once a distinguished scientist and an avid spiritual seeker. He became fascinated with meditation in the '60s. As a graduate student at Harvard, he channeled that interest into the study of psychology and neuroscience. In his spare time, he hung out with Ram Dass, Timothy Leary's former LSD research partner turned mystic. Davidson traveled to India for a meditation retreat, then finished his doctorate in biological psychology and headed to the University of Wisconsin, where he now directs the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior.
The Dalai Lama learned of Davidson's work from other scientists and in 1992 invited him to Dharamsala, India, to interview monks with extensive meditation experience about their mental and emotional lives. Davidson recalls the "extraordinary power of compassion" he experienced in the Dalai Lama's presence.
A decade later, he got a chance to examine Tibetan Buddhists in his own lab. In June 2002, Davidson's associate Antoine Lutz positioned 128 electrodes on the head of Mattieu Ricard. A French-born monk from the Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Ricard had racked up more than of 10,000 hours of meditation.
Lutz asked Ricard to meditate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion." He immediately noticed powerful gamma activity - brain waves oscillating at roughly 40 cycles per second -indicating intensely focused thought. Gamma waves are usually weak and difficult to see. Those emanating from Ricard were easily visible, even in the raw EEG output. Moreover, oscillations from various parts of the cortex were synchronized - a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in patients under anesthesia.
The researchers had never seen anything like it. Worried that something might be wrong with their equipment or methods, they brought in more monks, as well as a control group of college students inexperienced in meditation. The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the students'. In addition, larger areas of the meditators' brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.
-How To Get Smarter, One Breath At A Time: Time Magazine
-Buddha On The Brin: Wired Magazine
-Scans of Monks Brains Show Meditation Alters Structure and Function: Wall Street Journal