Scientists from the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia in Canada have revealed new findings about the benefits of meditation after investigating its effect on the brains of Buddhist monks at Tengboche Monastery in northeastern Nepal’s Solukhumbu district. Neuroscientist Olav Krigolson, co-leader of the research team, said that the group had studied 27 monks, all of whom are well-versed in meditation, with the aim of exploring how meditation enhances brain function.
“Whenever you are trying to establish a scientific truth, you need large numbers,” said Krigolson. “So when this opportunity presented itself, we just said, ‘Oh, we have to do this.’” He noted that all the monks had expressed keen interest in the experiment as well as sharing a great sense of fun. “My own sense was that monks are quiet, serious guys, but it was quite the opposite—they were happy, upbeat and laughing all the time.” (Times Colonist)
The scientists used Muse headbands, which include electroencephalograph (EEG) technology, to measure and record the brain activity of the monks during meditation and while playing video games. EGG measures metrics such as heart rate, body temperature, respiratory rate, muscle tension, and brain waves. The monks were asked to play a simple video game before and after meditation, which involved counting the number of blue circles appearing on a screen filled mostly with green circles. When the monks played the game after meditating, EEG scan showed that their neurons were more responsive to visual stimuli than before meditation., allowing the monks to count more blue circles during the post-meditation game session than in the pre-meditation session.
“I think the critical thing there to learn is, you know, if you have a degree of practice were you can deliberately attempt to change your brain function that could be applied to any number of applications,” said Gordon Binstead of the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Health and Social Development. “It has opened up to a whole new way of essentially brain training.” (Global News)
The research demostrated that, compared with the mental state of rest, the monks’ brains were still very active during meditation, with increased brain signals associated with relaxation, concentration, and synchronization (a brain function during which various parts of the brain work together). Meditation therefore has a “carry over effect,” Krigolson said. “Better synchronization is good. It means your brain is functioning more smoothly.” (Times Colonist)
Krigolson pointed out that the research could be helpful in developing diagnostic tools to offer new insights into mental health and the medical effects of mental strain, such as fatigue. “Being able to identify good brain states versus bad brain states could be very useful,” he noted. “If your brain data doesn’t look very good, you need to slow down.” (Times Colonist)
There are still many missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that is the human mind, but Krigolson is confident that further research will help to create a more complete picture of how the brain functions.