Science and Meditation: Are Mystics just Having a Brain Wave? - Goodlife Zen

Science and Meditation: Are Mystics just Having a Brain Wave?

 

By Mary Jaksch

Is the brain hardwired for mystical experiences? These and other questions are the focus of a new breed of brain scientists. Before I describe some of their research results, here’s a question for you.

What do you think of the following experience?

I stood in my bathroom ready to go into the shower and realized I could no longer define the boundaries of my body, of where I begin and where I end. Then the chatter in my brain went silent. For a moment I was shocked to be in total silence… I felt enormous and expansive, and my spirit soared. I remember thinking: “There is no way that I can squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside my tiny body.”

Instead of a continuous flow of experience that could be divided into past, present, and future, every moment seemed to exist in perfect isolation…On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being”

Wonderful experience, right?
Maybe it’s even the start of an enlightenment experience?

Wrong.

It’s the start of a stroke!

The stroke happened to brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor (whom I mentioned in my article 7 Factors of Good Luck) She suffered a severe stroke in her thirties. In the course of four hours, she noticed her brain functions shut down one by one: motion, speech, memory, and self-awareness. Her stroke disabled the left hemisphere of her brain. It took her eight years to recover and she now predominantly uses the right side of her brain.

This is Jill describes the difference between both hemispheres :

The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor, while the left hemisphere functions like a serial processor. So they process information differently, they think about different things, they care about different things, and I would say that they have very different personalities.

Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. It’s all about the past and about the future. It’s designed to take that collage of the present moment, and pick out details after details, categorize them, associate them with all of what we have learned in the past, and project into our future possibilities. It thinks in languages. It’s the internal chatter that connects us to the external world. It’s the calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. And most important it’s the voice that tells me “I am”

Our right hemisphere is all about this very moment, right here right now. It thinks in pictures, Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory system and then it explodes into what this present moment feels like.
(From her recent TED talk)

I was struck by the way her language parallels the focus of meditation. As a Zen teacher, I’m forever encouraging my students to let go of internal chatter, of linear thoughts, and of ideas about the ‘self’. I urge them to embrace the present moment, just as it is.

After reading Dr. Bolte Taylor’s description, I began to wonder whether what we’re doing in Zen is to train people to use their right, instead of their left brain. But it’s not as simple as that, as I found out when I consulted Prof. Richard J. Davidson who has researched the brain’s response to meditation. I asked him whether Dr. Bolte Taylor’s experience challenges his own research that pinpoints the left prefrontal cortex as an area of neural activity strongly associated with deep meditation. He answered:

Much depends upon exactly where her stroke was… The fact is that the changes in the brain that occur in deep meditation likely involve profound shifts in large scale neuronal connectivity and whatever is occurring in the left prefrontal cortex is one small part of a larger pattern.

Dr. Bolte Taylor maintains that the brain research performed by Andrew Newberg and the late Eugene D’Aquili earlier this decade have helped her understand exactly what was going on in her brain. Using SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography), these two scientists identified the neuroanatomy underlying our ability to have a spiritual or mystical experience. Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns were involved in the experiments. They were asked to tug on a cotton twine when they reached either their meditative climax or felt united with God.

Here is what they found. At that moment there was

  • a decrease in the activity of the left hemisphere’s language centres resulting in a silencing of their brain chatter.
  • a decrease in the activity of the orientation association area. Bolte Taylor explains: “This is the region that helps us identify our personal physical boundaries. When this area is inhibited we lose sight of where we begin and end relative to the space around us.”

In terms of Buddhism, such insights are not new. Many ancient and contemporary descriptions of meditation experiences include the two aspects of quiet mind and boundless body. It’s interesting to see that such experiences are now accepted by mainstream science.

The research finding that I find particularly interesting is that the human brain seems to be hard-wired for mystical experiences.

What do you make of this?

Do you think such research is a positive thing because it confirms the value of meditation?
Or do you feel disturbed that peak human experiences could be reduced to blips on a brain scanner?

Let’s engage in a conversation about this in the comments.

PS: If you know someone who has suffered a stroke, alert them or their loved ones to Dr. Bolte’s book My Stroke of Insight. It’s a must-have resource for stroke sufferers and their carers!

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Some interesting links:

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About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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