More study is needed (obviously), but the New York Times, in its Health section, has a startling article on meditation’s apparent ability to literally change how the brain wires itself up, and that after only 8 weeks of very modest (30 minutes a day) meditation practice:
[S]cientists say that meditators . . . may be benefiting from changes in their brains. The researchers report that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The findings will appear in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.
In the 1940s, psychologist Donald Hebb made a quip that appears to be getting a lot of contemporary traction:
Neurons that fire together wire together.
I’ve now seen this statement referred to in more than one book devoted to reflecting on the implications of the new neuroscience (it was quoted in the first chapter of Buddha’s Brain, and it was also alluded to in Steven Johnson’s 2005 book, Mind Wide Open). It seems to me that this idea should be taken seriously by those who want to obtain at least some semblance of control over the trajectory of their mental health and emotional states.
And what kind of meditation was being practiced by the study participants? The New York Times reports that it was Buddhist vipassana. This is a form of meditation in which you bring calm attention to whatever is going on around you or in you. In other words, you’re in the present moment and “notice what you notice” (the clouds overhead, a thought that drifts through your mind, your inhalations and exhalations, a burning stick of incense, the discomfort in your bottom while sitting, etc).
Or, to put it another way, you say ah so when you notice the uncomfortable asshole:
Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and the study’s lead author, said the participants practiced mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation that was introduced in the United States in the late 1970s. It traces its roots to . . . Buddhist techniques . . . “The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” she said. “But it’s about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.” Generally the meditators are seated upright on a chair or the floor and in silence, although sometimes there might be a guide leading a session, Dr. Hölzel said.
I’ll close this post with what might seem to be a bizarre observation (and maybe it is bizarre). I’ve been reading physicist Brian Greene’s extraordinary book on parallel universes and it occurs to me that, on a many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the results of this meditation study make sense: if your brain is, indeed, malleable and you try to get into a habit of spending thirty minutes a day doing any specific activity firing neurons together in a particular pattern, the quantum probability increases that you will actually find yourself, 30 days later, in a world where your brain did in fact come into that pattern. (The many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is all about the probability of finding outcomes one way and not another, and of actually realizing all of them.) The moment you set out on a goal, perhaps you start loading the quantum dice toward actually finding your conscious self, a few weeks later, in one of those many quantum worlds where you’re doing meditation or running or losing weight—and looking fabulous.
Okay, it’s a bit of a New Agey thought, but it’s just a suggestion. Thomas Aquinas meets Schroedinger’s Cat: your habits today become your most likely conscious habitation tomorrow.