Richard G. Petty, MD

Meditation and the Brain

In the last few years, there have been a number of studies of the brain in people who are practicing different forms of meditation. Andy Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania has looked at cerebral blood flow of meditators, and there has been a long-standing collaboration between Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin and the Dalai Lama, who has provided the University with a steady flow of experienced meditators for an array of different types of electrical measurements of their brains. One of the most consistent findings in experienced meditators is that some of these electrical rhythms become synchronized. This was first reported over 20 years ago, but some of those early experiments had some technical problems associated with them. But the new findings seem to be very robust. Meditators also produce an unusual type of high frequency electrical activity known as gamma waves, that oscillate at 40 cycles per second.
This work has some important implications:

1. There are many types of meditation: many are a form of intense concentration, others are a witnessing or watching of thoughts, yet others are a form of profound devotion. So it is no surprise that different forms will produce different effects in the brain.

2. The fact that the brain can be trained to produce certain types of electrical activity is in line with multiple lines of evidence demonstrating that the brain is not the static structure that we used to think it to be: it can learn and develop. We already knew that with motor functions and some cognitive abilities, but now we can extend those findings into the emotions: feelings of love and empathy can be developed, expanded and deepened. The old metaphor that the brain can be exercised like a muscle may not be a metaphor after all, but a biological fact.

3. The fact that there are neurological correlates of meditation or of any emotional or psychological state does not mean that we can reduce the experience to the firing of some neurons or the synchronization of regions of the brain. Some of this research has been misinterpreted to mean that meditative states or mystical insights are no more than the calming of neural activity. It is vital that we also acknowledge the subjective experiences and reports of individuals and recognize that they are as valid descriptors as changes in the brain.

4. Meditation has been shown to have a great many physiological and psychological effects, from lowering blood pressure, to improving the performance of sleep-deprived individuals, reducing age-related cortical thinning and ultimately leading to demonstrable psychological and spiritual development. So the neurological and psychological findings provide a partial explanation for those observations.

The fact that some researchers are cooperating with the Dalai Lama has not sat well with some critics, but I think that it is important for us to remember that we are living in a time when it is essential for us to synthesize different approaches and to find common ground. So I applaud these studies and will continue to report them.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


One Response to “Meditation and the Brain”
  1. Patrick K. Porter, Ph.D. says:

    Has any of the research found any difference between hypnosis and meditation as it relates to brainwaves. And do people in a state of hypnosis demonstrate these high gamma waves?

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