Lion's Roar

The Lama in the Lab: Neuroscience and Meditation

Photo by Jesse Orrico.

Photo by Jesse Orrico.

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.

The EEG analysis bore particularly rich fruit in the comparison between Oser at rest and while meditating on compassion. Most striking was a dramatic increase in key electrical activity known as gamma in the left middle frontal gyrus, a zone of the brain Davidson’s previous research had pinpointed as a locus for positive emotions. In research with close to two hundred people, Davidson’s lab had found that when people have high levels of such brain activity in that specific site of the left prefrontal cortex, they simultaneously report feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness.

On the other hand, Davidson’s research has also found that high levels ofractivity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain—in the right prefrontal area—correlate with reports of distressing emotions. People with a higher level of activity in the right prefrontal site and a lower level in the left are more prone to feelings such as sadness, anxiety and worry. Indeed, an extreme right- ward tilt in the ratio of the activity in these prefrontal areas predicts a high likelihood that a person will succumb to clinical depression or an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. People in the grip of depression who also report intense anxiety have the highest levels of activation in those right prefrontal areas.

The implications of these findings for our emotional balance are profound: we each have a characteristic ratio of right-to-left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. That ratio represents what amounts to an emotional set point, the mean around which our daily moods swing.

Each of us has the capacity to shift our moods, at least a bit, and thus change this ratio. The further to the left that ratio tilts, the better our frame of mind tends to be, and experiences that lift our mood cause such a leftward tilt, at least temporarily. For instance, most people show small positive changes in this ratio when they are asked to recall pleasant memories of events from their past, or when they watch amusing or heartwarming film clips.

Usually such changes from the baseline set point are modest. But when Oser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function, one that was extraordinarily unlikely to occur by chance alone.

In short, Oser’s brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others’ well-being, it seems, creates a greater state of well-being within oneself. The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.

The data from Oser was remarkable in another way, as these were also most likely the first data ever gathered on brain activity during the systematic generation of compassion—an emotional state for the most part utterly ignored by modern psychological research. Research in psychology over the decades has focused far more on what goes wrong with us—depression, anxiety and the like—than on what goes right with us. The positive side of experience and human goodness have been largely ignored in research; indeed, there is virtually no research anywhere in the annals of psychology on compassion per se.

While Davidson’s data on compassion were surprising in themselves, still more remarkable results were about to be reported by Paul Ekman, one of the world’s most eminent experts on the science of emotion, who heads the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco. Ekman was among the handful of scientists who had attended the Dharamsala meeting, and he had studied Oser a few months earlier in his own laboratory. The net result was four studies, three of which are described here.

The first test used a measure that represents a culmination of Ekman’s life’s work as the world’s leading expert on the facial expression of emotions. The test consists of a videotape in which a series of faces show a variety of expressions very briefly. The challenge is to identify whether you’ve just seen the facial signs, for instance, of contempt or anger or fear. Each expression stays on the screen for just one-fifth of a second in one version, and for one thirtieth of a second in another—so fast that you would miss it if you blinked. Each time the person must select which of seven emotions he or she has just seen.

The ability to recognize fleeting expressions signals an unusual capacity for accurate empathy. Such expressions of emotion—called micro-expressions—happen outside the awareness of both the person who displays them and the person observing. Because they occur unwittingly, these ultra-rapid displays of emotion are completely uncensored, and so reveal—if only for a short moment—how the person truly feels.

From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious—reliable and efficient. “So I had expected that many years of meditative experience”—which requires both openness and conscientiousness—“might make them do better on this ability,” Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Oser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.

Then Ekman announced his results: both Oser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super-quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. “They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges—even Secret Service agents,” the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.

“It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel,” Ekman notes. Oser had super-acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator— a Westerner who, like Oser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition—was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Oser, anger.

One of the most primitive responses in the human repertoire, the startle reflex, involves a cascade of very quick muscle spasms in response to a loud, surprising sound or sudden, jarring sight. For everyone, the same five facial muscles instantaneously contract during a startle, particularly around the eyes. The startle reflex starts about two-tenths of a second after hearing the sound and ends around a half second after the sound. From beginning to end, it takes approximately a third of a second. The time course is always the same; that’s the way we’re wired.

Like all reflexes, the startle reflects activity of the brain stem, the most primitive, reptilian part of the brain. Like other brain stem responses—and unlike those of the autonomic nervous system, such as the rate at which the heart beats—the startle reflex lies beyond the range of voluntary regulation. So far as brain science understands, the mechanisms that control the startle reflex cannot be modified by any intentional act.

Ekman became interested in testing the startle reflex because its intensity predicts the magnitude of the negative emotions a person feels—particularly fear, anger, sadness and disgust. The bigger a person’s startle, the more strongly that individual tends to experience negative emotions—though there’s no relationship between the startle and positive feelings such as joy.

For a test of the magnitude of Oser’s startle reflex, Ekman took him across San Francisco Bay to the psychophysiological laboratory of his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of California at Berkeley. There they wired Oser to capture his heart rate and sweat response and videotaped his facial expressions—all to record his physiological reactions to a startling sound. To eliminate any differences due to the noise level of the sound, they chose the top of the threshold for human tolerance to huge sound, like a pistol being fired or a large firecracker going off near one’s ear.

They gave Oser the standard instruction, telling him that they would count down from ten to one, at which point he would hear a loud noise. They asked that he try to suppress the inevitable flinch, so that someone looking at him would not know he felt it. Some people can do better than others, but no one can come remotely close to completely suppressing it. A classic study in the 1940’s showed that it’s impossible to prevent the startle reflex, despite the most intense, purposeful efforts to suppress the muscle spasms. No one Ekman and Robert Levenson had ever tested could do it. Earlier researchers found that even police marksmen, who fire guns routinely, are unable to keep themselves from startling.

But Oser did. Ekman explains, “When Oser tries to suppress the startle, it almost disappears. We’ve never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers.” Oser practiced two types of meditation while having the startle tested: one-pointed concentration and the open state. As Oser experienced it, the biggest effect was from the open state: “When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar.” Ekman reported that although Oser’s physiology showed some slight changes, not a muscle of his face moved, which Oser related to his mind not being shaken by the bang. Indeed, as Oser later elaborated, “If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky.”

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 Oser’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, 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.” ♦


From Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? Narrated 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.