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Lions Roar : January 2018
motion that tugs the sensor—a leg shifting, a tilt of the head— gets amplified in those readings into a huge spike that looks like a brain wave but has to be filtered out for a clean analysis. Oddly, this burst seemed to last the entire period of the com- passion meditation and so far as anyone could see Mingyur had not moved an iota. What’s more, the giant spikes diminished but did not disappear as he went into the mental rest period, again with no visible shift in his body. The four experimenters in the control room team watched, transfixed, while the next meditation period was announced. As John Dunne translated the next instruction to meditate into Tibetan, the team studied the monitors in silence, glancing back and forth from the brain wave monitor to the video trained on Mingyur. Instantly the same dramatic burst of electrical signal occurred. Again Mingyur was perfectly still, with no visible change in his body’s position from the rest to the meditation period. Yet the monitor still displayed that same brain wave surge. As this pattern repeated each time he was instructed to generate compassion, the team looked at one another in aston- ished silence, nearly jumping off their seats in excitement. The lab team knew at that moment they were witnessing something profound, something that had never before been observed in the laboratory. None could predict what this would lead to, but everyone sensed this was a critical inflection point in neuroscience history. The news of that session created a scientific stir. As of this writing, the journal article reporting these findings has been cited more than 1,100 times in the world’s scientific literature. Science has paid attention. The next stunner came when Mingyur went through another batch of tests, this with fMRI, which renders what amounts to a 3D video of brain activity. The fMRI gives science a lens that complements the EEG, which tracks the brain’s electrical activ- ity. The EEG readings are more precise in time, the fMRI more accurate in neural locations. An EEG does not reveal what’s happening deeper in the brain, let alone show where in the brain the changes occur— that spatial precision comes from the fMRI, which maps the regions where brain activity occurs in minute detail. On the other hand, fMRI, though spatially exacting, tracks the timing of changes over one or two seconds, far slower than EEG. While his brain was probed by the fMRI, Mingyur followed the cue to engage compassion. Once again the minds of Richie and the others watching in the control room felt as though they had stopped. The reason: Mingyur’s brain’s circuitry for empathy (which typically fires a bit during this mental exercise) rose to an activity level 700 to 800 times greater than it had been during the rest period just before. Such an extreme increase befuddles science; the intensity with which those states were activated in Mingyur’s brain exceeds any we have seen in studies of “normal” people. The closest resemblance is for epileptic seizures, but those episodes last brief seconds, not a full minute. And besides, brains are seized by seizures, in contrast to Mingyur’s display of inten- tional control of his brain activity. While Mingyur’s visit to Madison had yielded jaw-dropping results, he was not alone. His remarkable neural performance was part of a larger story, a one-of-a-kind brain research program that has harvested data from these world-class meditation experts. Over the years in Richie’s lab, 21 Buddhist yogis have come to be formally tested. They were at the height of this inner art, having racked up lifetime meditation hours ranging from 12,000 to Mingyur’s 62,000. Each of these yogis completed at least one three-year retreat, during which they meditated in formal practice a minimum of eight hours per day for three continuous years—actually, for three years, three months, and three days. That equates, in a conservative estimate, to about 9,500 hours per retreat. All have undergone the same scientific protocol, those four one-minute cycles of three kinds of meditation—which has yielded a mountain of metrics. The lab’s team spent months and months analyzing the dramatic changes they saw during those short minutes in these highly seasoned practitioners. Like Mingyur, they entered the specified meditative states at will, each one marked by a distinctive neural signature. As with Mingyur these adepts have shown remarkable mental dexterity, with striking ease instantly mobilizing these states: generating feelings of compassion; the spacious equanimity of complete openness to whatever occurs; or a laser-tight, unbreakable focus. They entered and left these difficult-to-achieve levels of awareness within split seconds. These shifts in awareness were accompanied by equally pronounced shifts in measurable brain When Davidson and a colleague looked at the numbers, they exchanged just one word: “Amazing!” They had stumbled on the holy grail: a neural signature showing an enduring transformation. PHOTOCOURTESYOFCENTERFORHEALTHYMINDS,UNIVERSITYOFWISCONSIN–MADISON LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 55