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The Remarkable Brain Waves of High Level Meditators

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2018

What’s going on in the brains of people who meditate? Anecdotal evidence suggests that meditation does something to people’s minds and bodies…quiets and calms them. In this video, Daniel Goleman reports on research done by his colleague Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Davidson brought a number of “Olympic level meditators” into his lab and hooked them up to a brain scanner. He found that the brains of these expert meditators have different brain wave patterns than the rest of us.

Perhaps the most remarkable findings in the Olympic level meditators has to do with what’s called a gamma wave. All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum. We get it when we bite into an apple or imagine biting into an apple, and for a brief period, a split-second, inputs from taste, sound, smell, vision, all of that come together in that imagined bite into the apple. But that lasts very short period in an ordinary EEG.

What was stunning was that the Olympic level meditators, these are people who have done up to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation, their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.

Goleman and Davidson have written more about how meditation affects the mind and body in their book, Altered Traits.

Sweeping away common misconceptions and neuromythology to open readers’ eyes to the ways data has been distorted to sell mind-training methods, the authors demonstrate that beyond the pleasant states mental exercises can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting personality traits that can result. But short daily doses will not get us to the highest level of lasting positive change — even if we continue for years — without specific additions. More than sheer hours, we need smart practice, including crucial ingredients such as targeted feedback from a master teacher and a more spacious, less attached view of the self, all of which are missing in widespread versions of mind training.

There’s that pesky deliberate practice popping up again.