Monday, August 07, 2006

The Power of the Mind

So what happens when Tibetan monks and the Dalai Lama and psychologists get together to study the power of Buddism/meditation to overcome negative emotions? Pretty amazing stuff. I'm reading a book narrated by Daniel Goleman titled Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? I'm only through the first chapter and I'm enthralled. In this chapter, one of the Tibetan Lamas goes into the neuropsychology lab to undergo some tests jointly designed by the Lama and the neuroscientists. [I had no idea the Tibetan Lamas and monks were so interested in science...fascinating!] What did they find? First, they found that brain imaging results are very distinctive among various types of meditative activity of these highly trained contemplatives. They are able to voluntarily regulate their brain activity whereas the untrained subject are unable to focus exclusively on the task and have considerable amounts of "noise" to the signals that reflect their voluntary mental strategies.

Second, the book discusses the fact that researchers have located the area in the brain associated with emotions and have discovered that we have (all of us) a characteristic ratio of left-to-right activity in our middle frontal gyrus (in the prefrontal area of our brain). High levels of activity in the left side of this area are associated with happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy, and alertness. High levels of activity in the parallel area in the right hemisphere of our brain are associated with sadness, anxiety, and worry. We each have a ratio of left-to-right activity and this is a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. The ratio of activity amounts to an emotional set point. Individuals with extreme levels of right prefrontal activity are more likely to succumb to clinical depression or and anxiety disorder at some point in their life. So, what 's the good news, says Goleman? Each of us has the capacity to shift our moods, at least a little, and change the ratio. What's more fascinating is that the Tibetan Lamas are able to dramatically shift their ratios. When generating a state of compassion during meditation, one monk showed a remarkable leftward shift, one unlikely to occur by chance alone. The shift seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The conclusion? The very act of concern for others' well-being seems to create a greater state of well-being within oneself. This supports an observation made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary. Wow!

Other cool findings? Contemplatives are significantly more aware of micorexpressions. These are split second facial expressions of emotions which happen outside of the awareness of of both the person displaying the emotions and the observer. These are completely uncensored displays of emotion revealing a person's true state. In fact, contemplatives score higher than anyone ever tested, including Secret Service agents, a group previously distinguished as the most accurate.

Contemplatives are also remarkably able to suppress their startle reflex. This is a brain stem activity, which is the most primitive reptilian part of our brain. These kinds of brain stem reflexes are beyond our control and cannot be modified by any intentional act...unless you're a Tibetan Lama highly studied in the art of meditation. Other interesting research that I wasn't aware of--the intensity of the startle reflex 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 will experience negative emotions. [There's no relationship between startle and positive emotions, though]

Finally, these studies found that when interacting with someone who doesn't return aggression, or returns aggression with lovingkindness, aggressive people are unable to remain aggressive. Also, when viewing video of extreme human suffering, this Lama reported his thoughts focused on human suffering and how to relieve it. What's more interesting is that during the time when viewing the video, the Lamas physiology was more relaxed than when measured during a resting state. Again, wow!!!

Essentially, the upshot of the chapter was that we are capable of changing our emotions and the set-point of our regular emotional states. Also, the very act of being compassionate brings us into a more relaxed, happy state. I also learned that the Tibetan monks, unlike other religious traditions, are more concerned with helping people learn how their tradition might improve the human condition completely apart from any religious aspects of the tradition.

Can't wait to read more!!!

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