Now, what about the brain? And of course, the brain is important because if you can show that meditation leads to different activation in the brain, then you have proof that it’s not just thinking but it’s something else. Then you prove you’re actually in fact entering an altered state of consciousness and that’s crucially important. So there have been several brain imaging studies.
This is a study done by Simon Golocheikine from Washington University and what he showed is that when people meditate, there is an activity, a very slow wave activity coming from the limbic system, called theta activity. This activity is there when you are in deep focused attention and has been associated with creativity. And this activity was focused on our frontal and parietal areas which are areas of deep attention.
The next study was a study using MRI which is a better result study and which I was involved in and this was done by doctor Sergio Hernandez and that’s him. He used this MRI scanner, to input people in the scanner, they had to meditate for, I think, about 20 minutes. In the initial stages of meditation, the meditators activated the same region we’ve seen before, so, the right frontal lobe and the temporal lobe. This especially is a key area for a deep attention and also for inhibition, because when you start to meditate, you inhibit your thoughts. So, you activate this area of inhibition.
But what is interesting is it was in both sides of the hemispheres, but as they went deeper into meditation, the activation became progressively more reduced and then, as they go into a deep state of meditation, there’s hardly any activity left in the brain, they just have a little bit activity here on the right of the frontal lobe, which is this area of deep attention. So, in other words, in meditation, you achieve a state of deep attention, of concentrated relaxed activity which is deep concentration. What they also measured then, the effect of as people stop having thoughts, they feel joy, they feel bliss. And as they feel more and more bliss, again they get this theta activity which comes from the limbic system and it focuses over the left frontal lobe, which is a key area for positive emotions.
So, essentially, what the studies are showing, that in fact, when you meditate, you activate areas of attention and of positive emotions and this is of course the objective correlate of this Sanskrit denomination of meditation, which is Sat-Chit-Ananda, which means being pure attention and pure joy. And just to show you here, the limbic system, the limbic system consists of seven nuclei which is also interesting because we have seven chakras and this is the limbic system deep in the brain. So this is what you activate when you’re in meditation and it gives you joy and happiness.
Another very important thing doctor Simon Golocheikine found is that when people meditate, there is less mental clutter and the slide is a bit bad apologize for that but essentially this is showing chaotic complexity. In the brain, you have sort of complex chaotic firing but if you have less chaotic firing, it means you have less mental clutter. And this chaotic firing, as I said before, the mental clutter is increased in people with schizophrenia, depression, autism, ADHD. And these are normal people during rest and these are the meditators. So the meditators have significantly less mental clutter. And that is very important because it means they have better mental balance.
This is not Sahaja yoga meditation but some people found that people who practice Zen Buddhism have not just, what I showed you before was the activation of the brain, this is the structure of the brain. So, these are long-term effects on the structure of the brain. So, long-term Buddhist meditators have more thicker cortex in the same region we’ve seen before, which are activated, which are these attention areas, especially this area here, right frontal region. And furthermore, what͛s very important, they have, normally, the thickness of this cortex reduces progressively with age. So, these are the normals, but in the meditators, this process is delayed. So, this suggests that meditation’s anti-aging and actually leads to a delay of the normal aging process of those attention regions. And of course, if you think about it, meditation is attention training. You sit for half an hour and you actually concentrate and try to inhibit your thoughts.
What happens at the chemical level in the brain and I think this is becoming very exciting. We have in the brain, so-called “opioid receptors” and they’re called opioid receptors because opium binds to them, morphine binds to them and these opioids, you can also release from within. And beta-endorphins, they attach these opioid receptors and beta endorphins are released when you’re in love or when you do sports but they’re also released through meditation. This is very interesting because this could explain why actually people feel the joy and the happiness apart from the activation of the limbic system that I’ve shown before but it͛s also you release happy chemicals in the brain. What is interesting as well is those opioids of course, those beta-endorphins, they enhance the immune system and they have shown to slow down cancer cells. This could explain why some people can be cured with meditation from severe diseases like cancer. Because if you have a continuous release of beta-endorphins which strengthen your immune system, slow down cancer cells, then this can easily explain it. Therefore, this is not a miracle cure, but it actually can be explained.
Other studies have shown that meditation releases dopamine this is also released through cocaine or amphetamines. So, this is another drug which is important, another substance which is important for feeling pleasure. So, this explains why people who meditate actually get addicted to meditation. Because you get this constant high in your brain without paying all the side effects of drugs. And other meditations have shown that there is an increase in serotonin. This is a drug which is typically lower in depression, so this could explain why meditators are less likely to be depressed. Melatonin, which is important for sleep and also strengthens the immune system, so again, this could explain why people when they meditate, they find you can sleep far easier and again it can enhance the immune system. And GABA, which is important for cognitive functions like attention and there is a decrease in stress hormones.
The last study I want to talk about on the brain section is actually a study which was the very first to prove that meditators are more detached. I like the study a lot because it’s the only one that actually tried to prove this point and this was done again by doctor Simon Golocheikine from Washington University. What he did, he showed meditators and non-meditators a really horrible movie which is called Funny Games by Michael Haneke. If you’ve seen that movie, it’s, I have not been able to watch it but it’s supposed to shock you and to show the violence in our society. So, it’s a movie of twopsychopathic teenagers which go into a house and they kill everybody. They start by the dog, then the woman, then the kids and then the father. This movie is really quite terrible and they show this movie to these poor people and, as you can see, the blue are the controls, the red are the meditators and, at the subjective psychological level, so these are all negative emotions, so the controls had far more negative emotions. So, they felt more disgust, more anxiety, more sadness, more unhappiness after watching the movie. And the red ones are the meditators, so they had much less negative emotions than the non-meditators. Then he measured on the skin, when you’re stressed, you have more sweat on the skin, so you can measure the level of stress level in the body, and at the skin level, the meditators had significantly less skin response than the controls. So, at the body level, the meditators also were less affected by this negative movie. Lastly, he measured the brain and this is the gamma activity. Gamma activity is activated, is released when you have very intense emotions. So, during the rest, the meditators and the control didn’t differ but after the movie, the controls have this high gamma activity. That͛s really high gamma activity, so they were really stressed out at the brain level by the movie, while the meditators kept their cool as well at the brain level. So, in other words, the meditators kept their cool at the psychological level, they were less affected at the body level and less affected at the brain level. And this, I think an absolutely crucial, because this is sort of proof that meditation makes you more detached and more able to cope with stress and negative events.
And as I said before, this is important because it improves your emotional resilience. In conclusion, the state of mental silence is associated with relaxed brain activity of deep attention and positive emotions, it increases happy chemicals which stabilize your mood and your affect, and it makes people more detached at the psychological, at the brain and at the body level. Now, what about the effect on your health?