Buddhist monks` brains scanned to study meditation
New York: In an unusual research, over 20 prominent Tibetan Buddhist monks have undergone brain scanning by a neuroscientist here to unravel the ancient practice of meditation.
Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.
Since 2008, the researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a car-sized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
The scanner tracks blood flow within the monks` heads as they meditate inside its clunky walls, which echoes a musical rhythm when the machine is operating.
Josipovic, who also moonlights as a Buddhist monk, says he is hoping to find how some meditators achieve a state of "nonduality" or "oneness" with the world, a unifying consciousness between a person and their environment, BBC reports.
"One thing that meditation does for those who practise it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills," Josipovic says, adding that those harnessed skills can help lead to a more tranquil and happier way of being.
"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn`t know previously was possible."
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Josipovic says.
And this reorganisation in the brain may lead to what some meditators claim to be a deep harmony between themselves and their surroundings.
Josipovic`s research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain.
He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.
The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.
The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions. But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.
This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.
"What we`re trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention," Josipovic says.
Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation - that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.
Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.
Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators, both monks and nuns who primarily study the Tibetan Buddhist style of meditation, to better understand this mysterious network.
He says his research, which will soon be published, will for the moment continue to concentrate on explaining the neurological implications of oneness and tranquility.
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