There seems to be good evidence that regular sessions of mindful attention have a calming effect on the amygdala, the brain’s emotion processor, and reduce impulsive reactions to stressful or negative thoughts and experiences. Mindfulness, they say, can help mute our emotional response to physical pain, and lessen anxiety and mind-wandering (not the kind that feeds creativity but its unfocused opposite). The benefits are apparent, even for beginners, and they increase with practice.
Compassion meditation, which aims to boost empathy, has an even more immediate effect: just 7 hours over the course of two weeks has been shown to boost altruistic behaviour. It is probably no coincidence that this makes us happier, too.
Science writer Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson Coleman are most interested in capacity of meditation to cultivate enduring selflessness, equanimity, compassion and the ability to free the mind of negative emotions.
Much of the evidence for these traits comes from Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he has scanned the brains of dozens of highly experienced Tibetan monks. These yogis, who have meditated for thousands – in some cases, tens of thousands – of hours, describe themselves as living in a heightened state of present-moment awareness, “as if their senses were wide open to the full rich panorama of experience”.
Davidson claims he has found a neural correlate to this mind-warp: a massive increase in the intensity of gamma waves in the brain, a signal associated with conscious perception. Are these monks living on a different plane of consciousness from the rest of us?
One of their most interesting passages in a recent book describes what this self-lightening looks like on a neural level, how meditation practice quietens the brain’s default mode network, the constant background chatter that accompanies mind-wandering and self-absorption.
If a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, as various psychological surveys argue, then a focused mind must be worth struggling for. For Goleman and Davidson, the struggle is not so much about individual relief but about reducing “greed, selfishness, us/them thinking and impending eco-calamities, and promoting more kindness, clarity, and calm”. (An edited account by Michael Bond in NewScientist, September 16, 2017)
My take: The objective is very Epicurean. I personally call meditation”My Peace”, and only wish I had the leisure and the time – and the peace – to do more of it. My wife asks this of me and she is absolutely right.
P.S Jane asked about this subject and whether the mind is blank; if not , what do you think about when meditating. Personally I have a virtual garden, actually it is a beautiful garden in Ravello, Italy. It has a stupendous view from high cliffs over the sea. It has statuary among the trees and flowering shrubs and is totally peaceful. I go for virtual strolls , enjoying the sun, the light and the tasteful beauty.