By the end of the twentieth-century, monks had become the favorite guinea pigs of the neuroscience laboratory. Scientists from Princeton, Harvard, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California–Davis wired up monks to state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and studying the effects of intensive, advanced meditation.
Monks offer scientists an opportunity to study whether years of focused attention stretch the brain beyond its usual limits. Does practice enable you to become a bigger and better transmitter of intention?
Like these scientists, I’m intrigued by ‘masters’ of intention: practitioners of ancient disciplines – Buddhism, Qigong, shamanism, traditional native healing – who had been trained to perform extraordinary acts through their thoughts.
I began studying scientific research about healing methods from a variety of traditions. In every instance, I discovered, the most important first step involved achieving a state of concentrated focus, or peak attention.
Virtually all native cultures carry out remote healing during an altered state of consciousness and achieve a state of concentrated focus through a variety of means. Although the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ayahuasca is common, many cultures use a strong repetitive rhythm or beat to create that state; the Native American Ojibway wanbeno, for instance, use drumming, rattling, chanting, naked dancing and handling of live coals.
As Native Americans discovered, even intense heat, as in a sweat lodge, can transport individuals to an altered state.
Brains on stilts
I was especially interested in the effect of this intense concentration on the activity of the brain. Does the brain slow down or speed up? The received wisdom is that during meditation the brain slows down.
The bulk of the research examining the electrical activity of the brain during meditation indicates that meditation leads to a predominance of either alpha rhythms (slow, high-amplitude brain waves with frequencies of 8–13 hertz, or cycles per second), which also occurs during light dreaming, or even the slower theta waves (4–7 hertz), which typify the state of consciousness during deep sleep.
During ordinary waking consciousness, the brain operates much faster, using beta waves (around 13–40 hertz). For decades, the prevailing view has been that the optimum state for manifesting intention is an ‘alpha’ state.
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, once put this view to the test. Davidson is an expert in ‘affective processing’ – the place where the brain processes emotion and the resulting communication between the brain and body.
His work had come to the attention of the Dalai Lama, who invited him to visit Dharamsala, India, in 1992; a science buff, his Holiness wished to understand more about the biological effects of intensive meditation.
Afterwards, eight of the Dalai Lama’s most seasoned practitioners of Nyingmapa and Kagyupa meditation were flown to Davidson’s lab in Wisconsin, where Davidson attached 256 EEG sensors to each monk’s scalp in order to record electrical activity from a large number of different areas in the brain.
The monks were then asked to carry out compassionate meditation.
After 15 seconds, according to the EEG readings, the monks’ brains did not slow down; they began speeding up. In fact, they were activated on a scale neither Davidson nor any other scientist had ever seen. The monitors showed sustained bursts of high gamma-band activity – rapid cycles of 25–70 hertz.
The monks had rapidly shifted from a high concentration of beta waves to a preponderance of alpha, back up to beta and finally up to gamma.
At a fever pitch
Gamma band, the highest rate of brain-wave frequencies, is employed by the brain when it is working its hardest: at a state of rapt attention, when sifting through working memory, during deep levels of learning, in the midst of great flashes of insight.
As Davidson discovered, when the brain operates at these extremely fast frequencies, the phases of brain waves (their times of peaking and troughing) all over the brain begin to operate in synchrony. This type of synchronization is considered crucial for achieving heightened awareness.
The gamma state is even believed to cause changes in the brain’s synapses – the junctions over which electrical impulses leap to send a message to a neuron, muscle or gland.
Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard refers to gamma brain states as ‘oceanic’, enabling you to move out of your small self to something larger, and recent experiments of his suggest that these gamma frequencies are infectious.
He embeds hidden gamma frequencies into music, which he plays to some volunteers during a meditation and then measures their brain frequencies. Repeatedly, the brains of his listeners begin to evidence a ‘resonance response’, a greater percentage of these same high frequencies.
Just listening to these hidden frequencies, even if you don’t know you are doing so, entrains your brain to imitate them
The larger self
‘If you change the brain waves,’ Beauregard told me, ‘you change a person’s sense of identity. The sense of self-shifts and the self-becomes larger.’
When experiencing this oceanic state, they move from the small self, which is solely interested in their own reactions to the exterior world, to a larger self. ‘In that expanded state, they can more easily let go of chronic emotional patterns and limiting beliefs,’ he says. ‘And it’s easier for them to feel universal love.’
And that’s exactly what I find in my Peace Intention Experiments and Power of Eight® groups: people move from the small self to connect with the entire world. Repeatedly my participants report intense altered states: ‘It’s as if my brain is wired to a bigger network,’ wrote one after participating in one of my Peace Experiments.
And they didn’t need ayahuasca or a sweat lodge.
The only thing they needed, the only thing that mattered, was intending in a group.