Brain training, Buddhist Monks and the art of meditation

Brain training, Buddhist Monks and the art of meditation

stonesMatthieu Ricard is a French biochemist turned Buddhist monk. He is the happiest man in the world and he is none too happy about that. He volunteered to take part in a study at the University of Wisconsin (and here). They studied the brainwaves of several hundred people who meditated regularly. Wired up to over 250 electrodes across his head he underwent an EEG whilst practicing compassion meditation. His results were off the wall. The level of gamma rays, those that are linked to attention, learning, consciousness and memory were, according to the project leader “of a level never reported before in the neuroscience literature.”

Furthermore, the level of activity in his left pre-frontal cortex compared to his right gave him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and an abnormally small tendency towards negativity.

So why is Ricard not delighted with these results? Because, as he points out, there is nothing special about him. He hasn’t been blessed with a naturally cheerful disposition, the Pollyanna monk. There is nothing going on in his brain that couldn’t just as easily go on in mine or yours. He has learned these skills. He has trained his mind to behave differently to yours or mine.

We are not born with a desire to be miserable. Most of us do not wake up in the morning with the intention of spending the day being as unhappy as possible. Yet, we do. We “get up on the wrong side of the bed” or as the French and Spanish quaintly put it “got up on the left foot”. I checked. I always put my left foot down first when I get up.  I suspect that has more to do with on which side of the bed I sleep but  point is made that as human beings we try to find excuses for behaviour that we could actually have changed.

Once it starts badly the day goes downhill, one thing annoys us the next thing annoys us even more and the vicious circle spins faster and faster. By the end of the day we, and probably everyone around us is in a foul mood and we blame our bad temper on them. Sound familiar?

Anybody who has ever learned to drive will remember when suddenly, without even noticing, there was no need to think about clutch down, accelerator up, change gear, clutch up, accelerator down. It just happened. That wonderful elastic collection of neurons and synapses in your head got the hang of the process and removed it from the file called “active thinking” and shelved it in “automatic responses”.

There are plenty of exercises available on the internet that claim to train your brain.  I have no doubt that they are all valuable to a greater or lesser extent.  Any muscle that is exercised will remain fit and healthy longer than one that is left to become soft, flaccid with lack of use.  However, most of us assume that the only useful training that we can give our brain is that which keeps it active in general, that which we hope, might stave off the possibility of one of many forms of dementia.  We are obsessed with only one aspect of brain training.  Yet the brain has a multiplicity of functions, why ignore the others?

Did you know that the hippocampus in the brain of a London taxi driver is massively bigger than the hippocampus of a London bus driver? They both drive around the same streets of London for a living. Why the difference? The hippocampus is the part of the brain concerned with navigation. Whilst taxi drivers have to learn The Knowledge and navigate their way around different parts of London in different ways every day with no more warning that the time it takes to give an address, bus drivers drive the same route day in and day out. Learning new skills and developing existing ones really does affect the physiology of your brain – regardless of how old you are.

You can teach an old dog new tricks.

You don’t have to join a Buddhist monastery to retrain your brain to reduce its propensity to negativity and increase your ability to be compassionate.  If you wish to achieve the levels of Matthieu Ricard you will have to put in a considerable amount of time.  However, being able to speak enough of a foreign language to be able to communicate more than just what you would like to eat and ask for directions to your hotel is often enough to enable socialisation and perhaps even companionship; it is not necessary to be an accredited translator with decades of experience exploring the finer nuances of idiomatic use of the language. Likewise, unless you wish to dedicate your life to prayer and meditation it is not necessary to train your brain as much as Professor Ricard, but you do need to train it a little more than you probably are right now.  Your brain is a remarkably elastic organ, but without exercise in all its strengths it will stagnate.

Links to the original research are hyperlinked within the text.