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The Lama in the Lab

DANIEL GOLEMAN reports on the Dalai Lama and the dialog between science and Buddhism, especially on how neuroscientists are measuring the effects of meditation.

Lama Oser strikes most anyone who meets him as resplendent—not because of his maroon and gold Tibetan monk’s robes, but because of his radiant smile. Oser, a European-born convert to Buddhism, has trained as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas for more than three decades, including many years at the side of one of Tibet's greatest spiritual masters. But today Oser (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is about to take a revolutionary step in the history of the spiritual lineages he has become a part of. He will engage in meditation while having his brain scanned by state-of-the-art brain imaging devices.

To be sure, there have been sporadic attempts to study brain activity in meditators, and decades of tests with monks and yogis in Western labs, some revealing remarkable abilities to control respiration, brain waves or core body temperature. But this—the first experiment with someone at Oser's level of training, using such sophisticated measures—will take that research to an entirely new level. It can take scientists deeper than they have ever been into charting the specific links between highly disciplined mental strategies and their impact on brain function. And this research agenda has a pragmatic focus: to assess meditation as mind training, a practical answer to the perennial human conundrum of how we can better handle our destructive emotions.

This issue had been addressed over the course of a remarkable five-day dialogue held the year before between the Dalai Lama and a small group of scientists at his private quarters in Dharamsala, India. The research with Oser marked one culmination of several lines of scientific inquiry set in motion during the dialogue. There the Dalai Lama had been a prime mover in inspiring this research; he was an active collaborator in turning the lens of science on the practices of his own spiritual tradition.

It was at the invitation of Richard Davidson, one of the scientists who participated in the Dharamsala dialogues, that Oser had come to the E. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The laboratory was founded by Davidson, a leading pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, which studies the interplay of the brain and emotions. Davidson had wanted Oser—a particularly intriguing subject—to be studied intensively with state of-the-art brain measures.

Oser has spent several months at a stretch in intensive, solitary retreat. All told, those retreats add up to about two and a half years. But beyond that, during several years as the personal attendant to a Tibetan master, the reminders to practice even in the midst of his busy daily activities were almost constant. Now, here at the laboratory, the question was what difference any of that training had made.

The collaboration began before Oser even went near the MRI, with a meeting to design the research protocol. As the eight-person research team brief Oser, everyone in the room was acutely aware that they were in a bit of a race against time. The Dalai Lama himself would visit the lab the very next day, and they hoped by then to have harvested at least some preliminary results to share with him.

Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods of any contemplative tradition, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Oser was able to give precise descriptions of each.

One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness—a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention—may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, "Purity of heart is to want one thing only."

In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner's method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many non-spiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Oser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.

Oser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the "open state." The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Oser described it, "is open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present—not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don't chain into longer thoughts—they just fade away."

Perhaps as intriguing was Oser's explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves "bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle—decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you’re not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, 'I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.'”

Focusing on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody. That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers' kindness offering a model.

The final meditation technique, visualization, entailed constructing in the mind's eye an image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Oser described the process, "You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture.” As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.

Oser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. The scientists have seen clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion and fearlessness have not seemed that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Oser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.

Oser's testing started with the “functional MRI,” the current gold standard of research on the brain’s role in behavior. The standard MRI, in wide use in hospitals, offers a graphically detailed snapshot of the structure of the brain. But the fMRI offers all that in video—an ongoing record of how zones of the brain dynamically change their level of activity from moment to moment. The conventional MRI lays bare the brain’s structures, while fMRI reveals how those structures interact as they function.

The fMRI would give Davidson a crystal-clear set of images of Oser's brain, cross-cutting slices at one millimeter—slimmer than a fingernail. These images could then be analyzed in any dimension to track precisely what happens during a mental act, tracing paths of activity through the brain.

Oser, lying peacefully on a hospital gurney with his head constrained in the maw of the fMRI, looked like a human pencil inserted into a huge cubic beige sharpener. Instead of the lone monk in a mountaintop cave, it's the monk in the brain scanner.

Wearing earphones so he could talk to the control room, Oser sounded unperturbed as the technicians led him through a lengthy series of checks to ensure the MRI images were tracking. Finally, as Davidson was about to begin the protocol, he asked, "Oser, how are you doing?" "Just fine," Oser assured him via a small microphone inside the machine.

"Your brain looks beautiful," Davidson said. "Let's start with five repetitions of the open state." A computerized voice then took over, to ensure precise timing for the protocol. The prompt “on” was the signal for Oser to meditate, followed by silence for sixty seconds while Oser complied. Then "neutral," another sixty seconds of silence, and the cycle started once again with "on."

The same routine guided Oser through the other five meditative states, with pauses between as the technicians worked out various glitches. Finally, when the full round was complete, Davidson asked if Oser felt the need to repeat any, and the answer came: "I'd like to repeat the open state, compassion, devotion and one-pointedness"—the ones he felt were the most important to study.

So the whole process started again. As he was about to begin the run on the open state, Oser said he wanted to remain in the state longer. He was able to evoke the state but wanted more time to deepen it. Once the computers have been programmed for the protocol, though, the technology drives the procedure; the timing has been fixed. Still, the technicians went into a huddle, quickly figuring how to reprogram on the spot to increase the "on” period by fifty percent and shorten the neutral period accordingly. The rounds began again.

With all the time taken up by reprogramming and ironing out technical hitches, the whole run took more than three hours. Subjects rarely emerge from the MRI—particularly after having been in there for so long—with anything but an expression of weary relief. But Davidson was pleasantly astonished to see Oser come out from his grueling routine in the MRI beaming broadly and proclaiming, "It's like a mini-retreat!"

Without taking more than a brief break, Oser headed down the hall for the next set of tests, this time using an electroencephalogram, the brain wave measure better known as an EEG. Most EEG studies use only thirty-two sensors on the scalp to pick up electrical activity in the brain—and many use just six.

But Oser's brain would be monitored twice, using two different EEG caps, first one with 128 sensors, the next with a staggering 256. The first cap would capture valuable data while he again went through the same paces in the meditative states. The second, with 256 sensors, would be used synergistically with the earlier MRI data.

This time, instead of lying in the maw of the MRI, he sat on a comfortable chair and wore a Medusa-like helmet—something like a shower cap extruding a spaghetti of thin wires. The EEG sessions took another two hours.

It seemed from the preliminary analysis that Oser’s mental strategies were accompanied by strong, demonstrable shifts in the MRI signals. These signals suggested that large networks in the brain changed with each distinct mental state he generated. Ordinarily, such a clear shift in brain activity between states of mind is the exception, except for the grossest shifts in consciousness—from waking to sleep, for instance. But Oser's brain showed clear distinctions among each of the six meditations.


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