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Introduction to Meditation

“Happiness comes through taming the mind; without taming the mind, there is no way to be happy.” The Dalai Lama

Consider this. Let’s say scientists discover an extra-ordinary new drug offering a wide range of benefits. It reduces stress, alleviates fear, increases self esteem, improves memory and

intelligence, improves creativity, reduces anxiety and depression, and increases happiness. Moreover, it is natural, has no harmful side-effects and is free. Would you take this drug? Well, such a drug does exist. It is meditation. Okay, meditation takes a little more work (and time) than popping a pill, but you get the point. Scientific research on meditation started in a meaningful way only in the 1970s, but has grown exponentially since then. There are numerous studies that have repeatedly confirmed the wide ranging benefits of meditation – including all of the benefits mentioned abovei. And yet, very few people actually practice meditation on a regular basis. Maybe they think meditation is only for monks and fakirs, and “flaky new age types”, not regular folks with jobs. That is a pity because meditation is indeed a wonder drug and everyone – young and old, sick and healthy, retired and employed – can benefit from it. In this series of articles (of which this is the first), I am going to try to persuade you to take up meditation. I will explain why you should make meditation a part of your daily life, and how you can do it. Along the way, I will introduce you to the fascinating scientific research that has been done in this area.

M. In the late 1980s. Davidson has a PhD from Harvard University and is the Director of the W. Time magazine named Dr. i.iv In short.iii Yet another study found that people show positive changes in this ratio when they are asked to recall happy memories.ii Another study of two and a half year old kids found that those kids who upon entering an unfamiliar room clung anxiously to their mothers and spoke reluctantly to other kids. research has repeatedly confirmed that having more activity in the left prefrontal cortex than the right is an extremely desirable attribute. The ratio of the left to right prefrontal activity for a person’s brain turns out to be a pretty good predictor of a person’s mood and sense of well-being. optimism and vitality while persistent activity in the right prefrontal cortex was associated with sadness. or when they watch funny or happy film clips.The Cortical Lottery One scientist who has revolutionized research on meditation is Dr Richard Davidson.e. . also ten month old babies with higher right prefrontal activity are more likely to cry when separated from their mothers than babies with higher left prefrontal activity. were most likely to have prefrontal activity predominantly on the right side. there is more activity either in the left prefrontal cortex or in the right prefrontal cortex. Dr. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the part of the brain just behind the forehead. Scientists have known for some time that most people show an asymmetry in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. Davidson as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Davidson discovered that persistent activity in the left prefrontal cortex was associated with positive emotions such as joy. anxiety and worry. For example. ten month old babies show higher left prefrontal activity when approached by their mothers and higher right prefrontal activity when approached by strangers. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2006. Dr.

About five years ago. anxiety. a presentation before a large audience. at least a bit. Discussing the results of Dr. the ratio of left to right prefrontal activity for Lama Oser was literally off the charts. Davidson scanned the Lama’s brain with state of the art brain mapping devices. Dr. a European convert to Buddhism who had trained as a Tibetan monk. Abusive Bosses and the Amygdala Fear. There are numerous situations at work that trigger these emotions – a performance review with the boss. a crucial meeting with an angry client. Daniel Goleman says:v The implications of these findings for our emotional balance are profound: we each have a characteristic ratio of right to left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. Each of us has the capacity to shift our moods. . Dr. and had over thirty years of experience in meditation. and to change this ratio. are widespread in the workplace today and the source of almost all our emotional problems at work. the fear of losing your job. While Lama Oser engaged in meditation. That ratio represents what amounts to an emotional set point. Davidson performed tests on Lama Oser. He found that the ratio of left to right prefrontal activity for Lama Oser had the most positive value out of all the 175 individuals who had ever been tested at that point of time. and its more persistent cousin. Davidson’s tests on Lama Oser. the mean around which our daily moods swing. or simply the fear of looking stupid in front of your colleagues. and the impact meditation can have on our well-being. You may have experienced the fear of being yelled at by the boss. His objective was to check if the ratio of left to right prefrontal activity for an experienced meditator was any different from that of the average person. In other words.

the stimulus. but you would still jump if a door is slammed shut behind you! There is one other thing we need to know about the amygdala and the cortex (the thinking part of the brain). For example. the stimulus goes from the thalamus to the auditory cortex where the sound is associated with memories and this combined stimulus then travels back to the amygdala.) In order to understand how our brain circuitry works. evolution has made sure that the amygdala acts independent of awareness. In fact. instead of being the slamming of a door. the world leading scientist on fear and anxiety has spent most of his professional life studying the amygdala. This pathway is also extremely fast – it takes a stimulus about 5 milliseconds to traverse this path. i. The amygdala has a central role to play in fear and anxiety and Dr Ledoux. our anxieties often control our thoughts. a small almond shaped bunch of neurons deep inside your brain. if the second pathway is cut off (such as by damaging the brain cells along that path). The first pathway is short – it goes directly from the thalamus to the amygdala. from where it then reaches the amygdala along two neural pathways. the response being quicker by a fraction of a second. When you hear a door slam shut behind you. but our thoughts can . the alarm that makes you jump travels along the first. The second pathway is longer (and slower) but contains more information.If you have ever experienced fear or anxiety. who runs the Centre for Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety at New York University. There are more neural pathways from the amygdala to the cortex than there are from the cortex to the amygdala.e. you would become deaf – literally – because you would no longer be able to hear any sounds. or the movement of a predator. From the ear. could mean the difference between life and death. This means that the amygdala can control the cortex but the cortex can’t control the amygdala. And there is no better person to help you make this acquaintance than Dr. the sound. let’s consider the example of a door slamming shut loudly behind you. (He even plays in a band called the Amygdaloids. Joseph Ledoux. had been the rattle of a rattlesnake. Therefore. goes to the thalamus (the brain’s receiving room for most sensory information). The sound enters your ear. pathway. and this is the part that I find absolutely amazing. shorter and quicker. If the sound. you should get acquainted with the amygdala.

vi The cortex knows that the gun shot is being fired in a lab.seldom allay our anxieties. Ekman and his team study the startle response in people. Ekman performed the test on Lama Oser to check his startle response. but by then it is too late. Dr. by over-riding the cortex’s assessment.Lama Oser was asked to try to suppress the startle response so that someone looking at him would not know if he had flinched. Dr. Paul Ekman at the University of California. once the amygdala has played its part. Earlier research had found that even police sharpshooters who fire guns everyday were unable to suppress the startle response. which controls the startle response. it has already pumped the body with cortisol and other hormones. Ekman used a very loud sound (close to the top of human tolerance – equivalent to a gunshot going off close to the ear) and videotaped Lama Oser’s facial expression in response to the sound. Dr Ekman has done this test with numerous individuals and none of them have been able to suppress the startle response. This has been demonstrated by pioneering work by Dr. This is of course not surprising in view of what we have just discussed about the amygdala. In other words. It is extremely hard to override what the amygdala "thinks" and "feels" simply by conscious rational thought. If the amygdala has decided that something is scary and has reacted to it. away from the body. Some people can do this better than others but of the hundreds of people who had ever been tested no one had ever come even remotely close to being able to suppress it. A split second later the cortex does a more detailed evaluation and realises that the stimulus is actually not scary. Dr. and the participant has to try and suppress any reaction on his face. Enter Lama Oser. San Francisco. But the amygdala triggers the startle response. For this test. so it poses no danger at all. who we have met earlier in Dr Richardson’s experiments with left to right prefrontal activity ratio. They tell the participant undergoing the test that a loud sound such a gun shot is about to go off next to them. it is very difficult for the cortex to overrule it. . You are already experiencing fear even though your cortex has evaluated that fear is not justified. He gave Lama Oser the standard instructions for this test .

the highly positive tilt in his left to right prefrontal ratio being the result of a genetic accident. But in the corporate world today. Lama Oser clearly had gained mastery over his own brain and his emotions. "When Oser tries to suppress the startle. As the experiments conducted by Dr. And yet. However. Ekman explains. it almost disappears. or did the results simply reflect that he had progressed far along a continuum that we could all aspire to? If Lama Oser’s results are unique. We've never found anyone who can do that. Lama Oser. by making us continually afraid or anxious. not an active one. Fear and anxiety are learned emotions. But here is the important question. Ekman and Dr. Davidson show. and the workplace provides plenty of And once we have learnt to be afraid. an overactive opportunities to learn these emotions.But Lama Oser could. seemed to be override what the brain is wired to do. if Lama Oser’s results reflect progress along a continuum. After all not many of us will be able to train full time as a Tibetan monk and devote thirty years to the practice of meditation. an experienced meditator. Was Lama Oser an exceptional case. It would mean that although we may not be able to practice meditation . then you and I can take heart. Nor have any other researchers. Dr. severely undermines the quality of our life. an active amygdala is a liability. through concerted meditation practice. When our ancestors were roaming around in jungles an active amygdala was a huge asset – it could mean the difference between life and death. Lama Oser had a calm amygdala and a positive ratio of left to right prefrontal activity. even when there is no justifiable reason for it. then they are interesting but not of any practical use for you and me. The startle response is supposed to be outside our voluntary control.” This is an amazing result. amygdala. What serves us best now is a calm amygdala.

Davidson and his team found that in the final set of tests. The meditation group underwent a two to three hour class each week for eight weeks plus a one day meditation retreat where they meditated for eight hours. Most of us. Employees were divided into two groups. Dr. Davidson and his colleagues performed a study with employees of a biotechnology the same extent as Lama Oser. specifically the left to right ratio of prefrontal activity. whether we work in biotech or banking. can completely relate to their situation. To determine this. one underwent a meditation training program and the other (which was the control group) was put on a wait list. and finally. of course. This was. immediately after the completion of the meditation training programme. four months after the completion of the meditation programme. expected and in line with the results of numerous other studies on meditation done previously. four months after the meditation programme ended. . Dr. The first finding was that the meditation group reported that their positive emotions went up and negative emotions such as anxiety went down. could be altered by a relatively short training programme in meditation. the meditation group indeed showed a significant improvement in the left to right prefrontal activity. Richardson’s main interest was in checking if the brain function.vii Due to the competitive nature of the biotech market. employees at this company reported having to work routinely under severe deadlines which created stress. The brain function of both the meditation group and the control group were tested before the commencement of the meditation training programme. Dr. we can do some practice and still favourably alter our left to right prefrontal activity ratio.

can lead to profound happiness. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation”. The Lama in the Lab. et al. New Scientist vol 178 issue 2396 . viii Owen Flanagan. Grafman (Eds. psychologists at the Univesity of Padua in Italy reported the case of a 32 year old man. Shambhala Sun. and its practitioners are deeply in touch with their glowing left prefrontal cortex and their becalmed amygdala. J. New York. Shambala Sun. ii R. It is determined by our genes. That is something to think about. Davidson. Jon Kabat-Zinn. whose startle response was muted – as a result of his amygdala being damaged. 1996. iv Daniel Goleman. The Lama in the Lab. Davidson and A.). On the other hand.1989. Laterality and emotion: An electrophysiological approach. Owen Flanagan. In 1996. Handbook of Positive Psychology. The colour of happiness. we can increase our happiness by meditating. but no antidepressant makes a person happy. Boller & J. R. R. Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. says:viii Antidepressants are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions. iii R J Davidson and M Rickman. Angrilli and others. Tomarken. which were developed 2500 years before Prozac. v Daniel Goleman. In C. Amsterdam: Elsevier. March 2003. Handbook of neuropsychology (pp. J. Brain. 1999. Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. Meditation and Positive Psychology. In L A Schmidt and Schulkin (editors) “Extreme Fears and Shyness: Origins and Outcomes. Lopez (Editors). page 44 vii . In F. A. J. vi i Richard J. Psychosomatic Medicine. Oxford University Press. “Behavioural Inhibition and the Emotional Circuitry of the Brain: Stability and Plasticity During the Early Childhood Years.We are born with either an active left prefrontal cortex or an active right prefrontal cortex. 419-441). New York. Shauna Shapiro. Oxford University Press. (pp 632-645). Schwartz and Craig Santerre (2002). “Startle reflex and emotion modulation impairment after a right amygdala lesion”. Snyder and S. March 2003.24 May 2003. Vol 119(6) pp 1991-2000. But no matter how we have fared in the cortical lottery. Gary E.