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Although Oser showed not a ripple of movement in any facial muscles while in the open state, his physiological measures, (including heart rate, sweating and blood pressure) showed the increase typical of the startle reflex. From Ekman's perspective, the strongest overall muting came during the intense focus of the one-pointedness meditation. During the one-pointedness meditation, instead of the inevitable jump, there was a decrease in Oser's heart rate, blood pressure and so on. On the other hand, his facial muscles did reflect a bit of the typical startle pattern; the movements "were very small, but they were present," Ekman observed. "And he did one unusual thing. In all others we've tested, the eyebrows go down. In Oser they go up."
In sum, Oser's one-pointed concentration seemed to close him off to external stimuli—even to the startling noise of a gunshot. Given that the larger someone's startle, the more intensely that person tends to experience upsetting emotions, Oser's performance had tantalizing implications, suggesting a remarkable level of emotional equanimity.
Finally, in the last experiment, Ekman and Robert Levenson showed Oser two medical training films that have been used for more than three decades in emotion research simply because they are so upsetting. In one a surgeon seems to amputate a limb with a scalpel and saw—actually preparing an arm stump to be fitted with a prosthesis—and there is lots of gore and blood. But the camera focuses only on the limb, so you never see the person getting the surgery. In the other, you see the pain of a severely burned patient, who stands as doctors strip skin off his body. The main emotion evoked in the scores of research subjects who have viewed both these films during experiments is highly reliable: disgust.
When Oser viewed the amputation film, the emotion he reported feeling most strongly was the usual disgust. He commented that the movie reminded him of Buddhist teachings about impermanence and the unsavory aspects of the human body that lie beneath an attractive exterior. But his reaction to the burn film was quite different. "Where he sees the whole person," Ekman reported, "Oser feels compassion." His thoughts were about human suffering and how to relieve it; his feelings were a sense of caring and concern, mixed with a not unpleasant strong sadness.
The physiology of Oser's disgust reaction during the amputation film was unremarkable, the standard changes indicating the physiological arousal seen during that emotion. But when he spontaneously felt compassion during the burn film, his physiological signs reflected relaxation even more strongly than they had when the signs had been measured during a resting state.
Ekman ended his report of the results by noting that each of the studies with Oser had "produced findings that in thirty-five years of research I have never seen before." In short, Oser's data are extraordinary.
From the perspective of neuroscience, the point of all this research has nothing to do with demonstrating that Oser or any other extraordinary person may be remarkable in him or herself, but rather to stretch the field's assumptions about human possibility.
A decade ago the dogma in neuroscience was that the brain contained all of its neurons at birth and it was unchanged by life's experiences. The only changes that occurred over the course of life were minor alterations in synaptic contacts—the connections among neurons—and cell death with aging. But the new watchword in brain science is neuroplasticity, the notion that the brain continually changes as a result of our experiences—whether through fresh connections between neurons or through the generation of utterly new neurons. Musical training, where a musician practices an instrument every day for years, offers an apt model for neuroplasticity. MRI studies find that in a violinist, for example, the areas of the brain that control finger movements in the hand that does the fingering grow in size. Those who start their training earlier in life and practice longer show bigger changes in the brain. Still, neuroscientists do not know with certainty what accounts for this change—whether the change is in the synaptic weights as added connections bulk out neurons, or whether an uptick in the number of neurons may also be playing a role.
A related issue revolves around the amount of practice that it might take in order for the brain to show such a change, particularly in something as subtle as meditation. There is an undeniable impact on the brain, mind and body from extensive practice. Studies of champion performers in a range of abilities—from chess masters and concert violinists to Olympic athletes—find pronounced changes in the pertinent muscle fibers and cognitive abilities that set those at the top of a skill apart from all others.
The more total hours of practice the champions have done, the stronger the changes. For instance, among violinists at the topmost level, all had practiced a lifetime total of about ten thousand hours by the time they entered a music academy. Those at the next rung had practiced an average of about seventy-five hundred hours. Presumably a similar effect from practice occurs in meditation, which can be seen, from the perspective of cognitive science, as the systematic effort to retrain attention and related mental and emotional skills.
Oser, as it turned out, far exceeded the ten-thousand-hour level in meditation practice. Much of that practice came during the time he spent in intensive meditation retreats, along with the four years living in a hermitage during the early period of his training as a monk, as well as occasional long retreats over the subsequent years.
While Oser may be a virtuoso of meditation, even raw novices start to show some of the same shifts. This was clear from other data Davidson had gathered on similar brain changes in people just beginning to practice a variety of meditation called mindfulness. These studies had given Davidson convincing data that meditation can shift the brain as well as the body. While ÷ser's results suggested just how far that shift could go with years of sustained practice, even beginners displayed evidence of biological shifts in the same direction. So the next question for Davidson to tackle was this: Can specific types of meditation be used to change circuitry in the brain associated with different aspects of emotion?
Davidson may be one of the few neuroscientists anywhere who can dare to ask this, because his lab is using a new imaging technique—diffusion tensor imaging—to help answer this question. The method shows connections among different regions in the nervous system. Until now, diffusion tensor imaging has mostly been used to study patients with neurological diseases. Davidson’s lab is among a select group that use the technique for basic neuroscience research, and the only one to be using it for research on how methods that transform emotion may be changing the connectivity of the brain.
Perhaps most exciting, the images created by diffusion tensor imaging can actually track the subtle reshaping of the brain at the heart of neuroplasticity. With the method, scientists can now, for the first time ever, identify the changes in the human brain as repeated experiences remodel specific connections or add new neurons. This marks a brave new frontier for neuroscience: it was only in 1998 that neuroscientists discovered that new neurons are continually being generated in the adult brain.
For Davidson, one immediate application will be searching for new connections in the circuitry crucial for regulating distressing emotions. Davidson hopes to see if there actually are new connections associated with a person's increased ability to manage anxiety, fear or anger more effectively.
From the scientific perspective, what does any of this matter? Davidson sums it up by referring to The Art of Happiness, a book the Dalai Lama wrote with psychiatrist Howard Cutler, in which the Dalai Lama said that happiness is not a fixed characteristic, a biological set point that will never change. Instead, the brain is plastic, and our quota of happiness can be enhanced through mental training.
"It can be trained because the very structure of our brain can be modified," Davidson said. "And the results of modern neuroscience inspire us now to go on and look at other practiced subjects so that we can examine these changes with more detail. We now have the methods to show how the brain changes with these kinds of practices, and how our mental and physical health may improve as a consequence."
Oser, reflecting on the data gathered in Madison, put it this way: "Such results of training point to the possibility that one could continue much further in such a transformation process, and, as some great contemplatives have repeatedly claimed, eventually free one's mind from afflictive emotions.”
When I asked the Dalai Lama what he made of the data on Oser—such as being able to mute the startle reflex—he replied, "It's very good he managed to show some signs of yogic ability." Here he used the term yogic not in the garden-variety sense of a few hours a week practicing postures in a yoga studio but in its classic sense—referring to one who dedicates his or her life to the cultivation of spiritual qualities.
The Dalai Lama added, "But there is a saying, 'The true mark of being learned is humility and mental discipline; the true mark of a meditator is that he has disciplined his mind by freeing it from negative emotions.' We think along those lines—not in terms of performing some feats or miracles." In other words, the real measure of spiritual development lies in how well a person manages disturbing emotions such as anger and jealousy—not in attaining rarified states during meditation or exhibiting feats of physical self-control such as muting the startle reaction.
One payoff for this scientific agenda would be in inspiring people to better handle their destructive emotions through trying some of the same methods for training the mind. When I asked the Dalai Lama what greater benefit he hoped for from this line of research, he replied: "Through training the mind people can become more calm—especially those who suffer from too many ups and downs. That's the conclusion from these studies of Buddhist mind training. And that's my main end: I'm not thinking how to further Buddhism, but how the Buddhist tradition can make some contribution to the benefit of society. Of course, as Buddhists, we always pray for all sentient beings. But we're only human beings; the main thing you can do is train your own mind."
Daniel Goleman, twice a Pulitzer prize nominee, is the bestselling
author of Emotional Intelligence (Bantam) and Healing Emotions
From Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? by Daniel Goleman. © 2003 by Mind and Life Institute. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
As published in the March 2003 Shambhala Sun magazine.
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