issue 21 autumn 03
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Joy Detectives

A sparkling endorsement from the world of science: meditation makes you happy. Dharma Life unravels the story behind the hype.

For years westerners have assumed that Buddhists must be a miserable lot: their teachings dwell so much on suffering. But recent scientific research suggests what Buddhists have believed all along. Buddhism - or at least Buddhist meditation - leads to happiness.

Media headlines in May 2003 trumpeted new research into the effects of meditation on brain activity, behaviour and even resistance to disease. The findings are still provisional, but as the philosopher Owen Flanagan commented in New Scientist magazine: 'The most reasonable hypothesis is that there's something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.'

The background is a growing dialogue between Buddhist teachers and leading figures in fields such as neuroscience. The most important meetings, organised by the Colorado-based Mind and Life Institute, have brought western scientists together with the Dalai Lama. Destructive Emotions, a new book by Daniel Goleman, offers a graphic account of the last of these meetings (see review page 61).

The dialogue showed that Buddhists' 2,500-year-long exploration of consciousness offers much to scientists who are examining the relationship between the mind and the brain, and seeking treatments for conditions such as depression. Historically, western psychology has focused on mental disorders, but some researchers are now looking at positive emotions and experiences. Buddhist meditation expands the scope of what these can entail, and accomplished meditators offer possible living examples of these states. However, according to Goleman, the dialogue also raised many questions: can meditation change brain circuits associated with emotions? Do different meditation practices produce distinct brain effects? Does the development of certain brain areas through meditation help to prevent illness? Which areas of the brain are developed in experienced meditators? How long does it take before meditation produces significant brain changes?

Some participants in the Dharamsala meeting followed up the talk with research. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Wisconsin used new scanning techniques to examine the brain activity of experienced meditators. Their first subject was a western monk in a Tibetan tradition, referred to as Oser (not his real name). He was attached first to a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner, and then - using electrodes attached to the scalp - to an EEG, which measured Oser's brain activity while he went through a series of meditation practices. In these he developed concentration, then compassion, devotion, fearlessness and the open state of dzogchen, as well as practising visualisation.

The fMRI showed changes in Oser's brain activity as he switched meditations. The EEG showed that during the meditation on compassion his brain activity shifted dramatically to the left. The underlying theory is that, in people who are stressed or depressed, the right frontal cortex of the brain is overactive and the left frontal cortex underactive. Such people sometimes show heightened activation of the amygdala, a key centre for processing fear. But habitually calm and happy people show greater activity in the left frontal cortex, produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, recover faster from negative events and have higher levels of certain immune cells.

Following these initial tests a string of experienced Buddhist practitioners were tested at the Wisconsin lab. The abbot of a leading Tibetan monastery registered the highest activity in the brain centres associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured.

To assess whether similar results could be achieved by new meditators and those outside a religious context, Davidson joined forces with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is well-known for teaching mindfulness meditation to those with chronic or terminal illnesses. Their team recruited stressed-out volunteers from a local biotechnology firm. The volunteers were all tested with EEGs at the outset, and then separated into two groups - 25 into the meditation group and 16 into the 'control' group.

The meditators took an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation developed by Kabat-Zinn, then both meditators and 'control' volunteers were tested again. They were also given a 'flu shot and had blood tests to check for antibody response. Four months later they all had EEG tests again. The meditators' brains showed a pronounced shift in activity toward the left frontal lobe, while the non-meditators' brains did not. The meditators also had more robust responses to 'flu jabs.

The fMRI scans, which offer a detailed image of the brain, even suggest that the configurations of meditators' brains can differ from those of non-meditators. Scientists already knew that areas of the brain controlling any particular activity develop the more an individual participates in it. In the case of mindfulness meditation, preliminary findings indicate that it strengthens the neurological circuits around the amygdala, suggesting that meditators create a buffer against the instinctively generated messages of fear and panic. In a separate study, Paul Ekman of San Francisco's Human Interaction Laboratory, assessed meditators' ability to detect another's moods by measuring their response to involuntary changes in facial muscles. These spontaneous shifts - which can be as fleeting as one 20th of a second - are tell-tale indicators of our true feelings, and without training most people have little ability to detect them.

Yet when Dr Ekman tested two Tibetan practitioners, one scored perfectly on reading three of six emotions, and the other scored perfectly on four. An American teacher of Buddhist meditation got a perfect score on all six. Overall these experienced Buddhists performed better than any other group - even the previous best performers: secret service agents. This suggests increased perceptiveness and sensitivity to other people's thoughts and emotions.

Another test performed by Ekman measured the 'startle reflex' - involuntary muscle spasms in response to a loud noise or a jarring sight. No-one can control these responses but, when Oser was exposed to an extremely loud noise while in an open-state meditation, his startle response virtually disappeared.

Ekman was amazed: 'This is a spectacular accomplishment. We have no idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress that startle reflex.' The monk himself commented, 'If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky'.

Before ordinary Buddhists grow self-congratulatory, we might ask how our brain waves would measure up to the lamas'? None the less these results offer a new way of envisaging the effects of meditation. For Owen Flanagan, 'Buddhist ... practitioners are deeply in touch with their glowing left prefrontal cortex and their becalmed amygdala.' Scientific findings also suggest secular applications for meditation, for example as part of medical treatment.

These research programmes are still in their infancy, and further results will give a fuller picture of the effects of meditation on the brain. But even when there is more data, could this research 'prove' the Buddha's teaching? That would be going too far. Writing in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama comments, 'I have great respect for science. But scientists, on their own, cannot prove Nirvana. Science shows there are practices that can make a difference between a happy life and a miserable life. A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation.'

For more information see: www.mindandlife.org

Responses to research that meditation makes people happier ...

'It's great news because a stamp of approval makes Buddhism more accessible.'
Ani Lhamo, Samye Ling Tibetan monastery, Scotland

'That's a relief: it's worth the effort after all!'
Jnanasiddhi, Western Buddhist Order, Birmingham, UK

'If my partner didn't meditate I imagine he'd be quite difficult to live with.'
Anna Ramos, yoga teacher and mother, Lisbon, Portugal

'Buddhism gets me out of my head into my heart - if it didn't make us happier we wouldn't bother.'
Sabrina Rowan Hamilton, artist, Soka Gakkai International, London, UK

'Sure, it's true meditation makes you happier, whether or not science thinks so.'
Myphon Hunt, San Francisco Zen Center, USA

'Some Buddhists are very friendly,others seem pretty gloomy to me.'
Derek Johnson, grocer, Kent, UK

'It's obvious that Buddhists work hard at creating their own happiness, which then rubs off on others.'
Sue Dewhurst, grandmother, Dorset, UK

'There's no guarantee Buddhism will make you happy, but it'll give meaning to your life.'
Santavajri, Karuna Trust, UK and India

'Of the Buddhists I know, they certainly seem pretty happy.'
George Goldstein, magic trick supplier, London, UK

'To understand what makes you happy is to understand suffering.'
Phil Henry, Network of Engaged Buddhists, Nottingham, UK

'This research shows that religion is increasingly important in our so-called secular world.'
Bhupinder Singh, Sikh, Interfaith Network, UK