New Brain Studies and Meditation

Jun 2003

A study at the University of Wisconsin headed by the neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson has generated a lot of buzz in Buddhist circles. Dr. Davidson and his team studied the brains of meditators, both novices and long-time practitioners. The full study will be published in "Psychosomatic Medicine" but early press reports indicate that significant new findings were made correlating meditation with specific and long-lasting changes in brain activity.

This was not the first time that meditation has been shown to have a significant neurological effect. Evidence has been accumulating for some time now. Part of the excitement around this particular study (a Google search yielded 32,000 hits) may be the celebrity factor. Dr. Davidson collaborated with the well-known meditation teacher and advocate Jon Kabat Zinn and even had the co-operation of the Dalai Lama and his monks. But more to the point, the study seems to have broken new ground in detailing some of the long-lasting effects caused by meditation practise.

In brief, it appears that meditation shifts the brain activity from the right frontal cortex to the left and that this appears to be associated with reduced stress and increased happiness. That side of it is not news to the Buddhist tradition or to anyone who meditates. Nevertheless the objective verification can only be a good thing, encouraging more people to take up this life-enhancing practise. The Dalai Lama, in his commentary on the Wisconsin study, stressed the social benefits of greater peacefulness and equanimity for a troubled world.

Caution should be expressed, however, in pushing the scientific evidence too far. One web-site with an ax to ground has already proclaimed "The End of Traditional Buddhism." ( Like the End of History, it may be a tad premature. The gist of the author's argument is that the various neurological studies demonstrate that mystical experiences are just the results of brain-states and that the same effects could be had with drugs or other intervention.

This line of thought is based on a seductive logical fallacy. Correlation is not causation. It is not surprising that brain-states are associated with specific subjective experiences, both mundane and mystical. But to use this as a basis for extrapolating a reductive materialism is unwarranted. The modern philosopher Ken Wilber calls this kind of thinking "the flatland." To simplify, a flat-land description of the colour "red" would include the wavelength of the light, a description of what happens in the eye and a description of which neurons fire. The "flatlander" would call this description complete and yet it has said absolutely nothing about the subjective experience of seeing a rose. Would it at all help a blind person to understand what we mean by "red?"

The use of the term "flatland" comes from a playful nineteenth century novel about beings in a two-dimensional world. Unable to imagine the third dimension they dismissed it as an irrational fiction. This points to a deeper problem with the materialist-reductionism approach to meditational experience. It leaves out the higher dimension. Meditation, as taught and understood in the Buddhist tradition, does provide benefits of mental health and happiness. But it goes beyond that and in the end is based on the goal of transcendence. (Nirvana)

To a traditional Buddhist, this transcendence lies outside the realm of cause-and-effect. It may be the case that a person experiencing this state will manifest particular brain-states, it would be very surprising if she did not. However, that in no way demonstrates that these brain-states are the cause of the experience. If they were, the state would not be genuine transcendence, as it would still be dependent on material form. This is why Buddhists maintain that the highest experiences will never be replicated with artificial means like drugs.

Punnadhammo Bhikkhu