Study of meditation and brain waves in Buddhist monks confounds Wisconsin researchers

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Mingyur’s Study

In September of 2002, a Tibetan monk by the name of Mingyur Rinpoche traveled from Kathmandu, Nepal to Madison, Wisconsin to let scientists study his brain while he meditated. The monk’s brainwaves were to be measured with a specially designed cap with 256 thin wire sensors applied to the scalp. Mingyur was asked to alternate between one minute of meditation on compassion followed by 30 seconds of rest, completing this task four times in succession.

Amazing Results

Lead researcher Richard Davidson and his colleagues knew that most people take time to achieve meditative states and can’t enter these states spontaneously.  However, as soon as Mingyur began to meditate, a huge burst of electrical activity was seen on the monitors. Upon examining the videos of the session, the scientists discovered something amazing. While bursts of electrical activity are not uncommon, they are a result of involuntary movement, but that was not the case for Mingyur. The burst lasted the entire period of the compassion meditation and continued throughout the three subsequent meditations. The lab team had just witnessed an unexpected and profound effect that would give great insight into how meditation works in the brain.

They went on to reexamine Mingyur’s brain with fMRI, which renders a 3D video of brain activity and allows scientists to see where brain changes actually occur. Like before, he was instructed to meditate on compassion followed by a rest period.  Once again, the team was amazed at the results. Mingyur’s brain circuitry for empathy rose 700-800 times higher than during the rest periods.

More Study Results

Mingyur’s results were not isolated. In total, 21 Buddhist monks were formally tested and underwent the same scientific protocol. Each had similar results to Mingyur’s—each able to enter and leave the meditative state at will, marked with a distinct neural signature; each with remarkable mental dexterity and ease at generating compassion and laser-like focus. Once the team had sifted through the raw data, they were astonished. All the yogis had elevated gamma oscillations not just during meditation but even during baseline measurements of their everyday neural activity. The study team had stumbled onto the key to what makes meditation so special—a neural signature showing permanent transformation in the brain as a result of meditative states.

Brainwave Types

In layman’s terms, there are five brainwave types that are classified by their frequency. Delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. (You can find more information about these brainwave states here.) Our brains vacillate between these brainwaves throughout the day and indicate states ranging from relaxation to high alertness.

Gamma is the brainwave frequency that is the fastest and occurs when different brain regions fire in harmony, such as in moments of insight. For most of us, gamma wave bursts last a fraction of a second, not the full minute the Yogis achieved. For the first time, scientists were seeing the enduring transformation that years of meditation etch on the brain.

Gamma waves give the brain the feeling that you’re in peak mental and physical condition or of being in the zone. It’s that “I can do anything I set my mind to” feeling. Gamma also is associated with peak concentration and high levels of cognitive functioning. Neuroscientists believe that gamma waves link information from all parts of the brain together, causing the brain to work most efficiently.

Everyone has gamma brainwave activity, but the amount of gamma can vary widely. Low gamma brainwaves have been linked to learning difficulties, poor memory, and impaired mental processing. People with high levels of gamma are exceptionally intelligent, compassionate, happy and have great memories. The benefits of producing gamma include improved memory and recall, increased sensory perception, increased focus, increased brain processing speed, happier mood, calmer, more peaceful, and better sleep. Yogis like Mingyur seem to experience an ongoing state of awareness in their daily lives, not just when they meditate. Davidson observed gamma oscillations that persisted for minutes in the yogis, even while they were sleeping.

If you want to understand how to increase gamma, the answer is simple—meditate. Neuroscientists believe people can train their brains to produce more of the gamma frequency and focusing on compassion and love is the way to do it. Elite athletes, for example, clearly love what they’re doing, which produces gamma waves and improves their performance.

Fortunately, producing more gamma can be as simple as putting on your BrainTap headset and letting the lights, tones, and frequencies guide you into a blissful, relaxed state. In fact, in a case study performed in 2016 with 50 first-time BrainTap users, we found that gamma frequencies increased by 20.20% with just a single session.

When your body is relaxed and your brain is optimized, our positive guided visualizations can help you focus on love, compassion, and self-improvement, allowing you to become the best version of you possible!

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