From: George Carless
>Cox>The dead don't know they're dead. It is a pity that there has not
>Cox>been really good verse translation in English of Lucretius. He had
>Cox>the word to say on death (a tragedy for the living, not the dead).
>Armstrong>Either these are articles of faith or a report from the
Carless>Or they are the most likely interpretation based upon what we
Carless>increasingly know, in scientific terms, of human consciousness...
What a kafkaesque thing. You mentioned CONSCIOUSNESS. Surely you were
inspired, if by telepathy, by a page B-one article in the Walled Street
Scans of Monks' Brains
Show Meditation Alters
November 5, 2004; Page B1
All of the Dalai Lama's guests peered intently at the brain scan projected
onto screens at either end of the room, but what different guests they
On one side sat five neuroscientists, united in their belief that physical
processes in the brain can explain all the wonders of the mind, without
appeal to anything spiritual or nonphysical.
Facing them sat dozens of Tibetan Buddhist monks in burgundy-and-saffron
robes, convinced that one round-faced young man in their midst is the
reincarnation of one of the Dalai Lama's late teachers, that another is
the reincarnation of a 12th-century monk, and that the entity we call
"mind" is not, as neuroscience says, just a manifestation of the brain.
It was not, in other words, your typical science meeting.
But although the Buddhists and scientists who met for five days last month
in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India, had different views on the
little matters of reincarnation and the relationship of mind to brain,
they set them aside in the interest of a shared goal. They had come
together in the shadows of the Himalayas to discuss one of the hottest
topics in brain science: neuroplasticity.
The term refers to the brain's recently discovered ability to change its
structure and function, in particular by expanding or strengthening
circuits that are used and by shrinking or weakening those that are rarely
engaged. In its short history, the science of neuroplasticity has mostly
documented brain changes that reflect physical experience and input from
the outside world. In pianists who play many arpeggios, for instance,
brain regions that control the index finger and middle finger become
fused, apparently because when one finger hits a key in one of these
fast-tempo movements, the other does so almost simultaneously, fooling the
brain into thinking the two fingers are one. As a result of the fused
brain regions, the pianist can no longer move those fingers independently
of one another.
Lately, however, scientists have begun to wonder whether the brain can
change in response to purely internal, mental signals. That's where the
Buddhists come in. Their centuries-old tradition of meditation offers a
real-life experiment in the power of those will-o'-the-wisps, thoughts, to
alter the physical matter of the brain.
"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that
has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism," says
neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The Dalai Lama agreed, and he encouraged monks to donate (temporarily)
their brains to science.
The result was the scans that Prof. Davidson projected in Dharamsala. They
compared brain activity in volunteers who were novice meditators to that
of Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation. The
task was to practice "compassion" meditation, generating a feeling of
loving kindness toward all beings.
"We tried to generate a mental state in which compassion permeates the
whole mind with no other thoughts," says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk
at Shechen Monastery in Katmandu, Nepal, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics.
In a striking difference between novices and monks, the latter showed a
dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves
during compassion meditation. Thought to be the signature of neuronal
activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves
underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice
meditators "showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks
showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported
before in the neuroscience literature," says Prof. Davidson, suggesting
that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of
Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the
scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion
meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the
monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex
(the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the
right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never
before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches
on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So
did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were
itching to go to the aid of those in distress.
"It feels like a total readiness to act, to help," recalled Mr. Ricard.
The study will be published next week in Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences. "We can't rule out the possibility that there was a
pre-existing difference in brain function between monks and novices," says
Prof. Davidson, "but the fact that monks with the most hours of meditation
showed the greatest brain changes gives us confidence that the changes are
actually produced by mental training."
That opens up the tantalizing possibility that the brain, like the rest of
the body, can be altered intentionally. Just as aerobics sculpt the
muscles, so mental training sculpts the gray matter in ways scientists are
only beginning to fathom.