The Science of the Mind
Matthieu Ricard is a member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization that advances the collaboration between modern science and Buddhism. He is a participant, both as a subject and as a collaborator, in research programs on the effects of meditation and mind training on the brain. He shares some thoughts on the topic:
Is it possible for us to develop the mind to function more constructively; can we change obsession into contentment, agitation into peace, hatred into compassion? Twenty years ago, among neuroscientists there was a quasi-dogma that stated that all the brain’s neurons were present at birth and that their number will not be modified by the experiences of life. Today, however, neuroscientists think in terms of “neuroplasticity,” meaning that the brain is continuously evolving as a function of our experiences and can produce new neurons throughout our whole life. In particular, specific training, such as learning to play an instrument or a sport, can profoundly change the brain. This implies that attention, compassion, and even happiness can also be cultivated and depend, for a large part, on a skill that can be acquired.
Acquiring a new skill always involves training. We cannot expect to learn to play tennis or to play the piano well without first practicing for a long time. If we dedicate a certain amount of time each day to cultivating compassion or any other positive quality, we are likely to attain results, just like when we train the body. In Buddhism, ‘to meditate’ means ‘to become familiar with’ or ‘to cultivate.’ Meditation consists of familiarizing ourselves with a new way of being, of managing our thoughts and the way we perceive the world. Through the recent advances in neuroscience it is now possible to evaluate these methods and to verify their impact on the brain and body.
The new research indicates that the brain activity of subjects meditating on compassion is particularly elevated in the left prefrontal lobe, a region of the brain associated with positive emotions. So compassion, the concern for the wellbeing of others, is related to other positive emotions, such as joy and enthusiasm. Moreover, the parts of the brain involved in planning movement and in feeling maternal love are also strongly stimulated by this meditation. This does not come as a surprise to contemplatives since, in their experience, compassion brings about an attitude of complete receptiveness that can easily transform into action.
We are on the threshold of fascinating discoveries that should prove it is possible to transform the mind in a more significant way than psychologists had previously imagined. In this way, meditation will gain the recognition and respect in the West that it has had in the East for thousands of years.