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Lions Roar : January 2018
activity. Such a feat of collective mental gymnastics has never been seen by science before. Preparing the raw data on the yogis for sifting by sophis- ticated statistical programs has demanded painstaking work. Just teasing out the differences between the yogis’ resting state and their brain activity during meditation was a gargantuan computing task. So it took Richie and his colleague Antoine Lutz of the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center quite a while to stumble upon a pattern hiding in that data flood, empirical evidence that got lost amid the excitement about the yogis’ prowess in altering their brain activity during meditative states. In fact, the missed pattern surfaced only as an afterthought dur- ing a less hectic moment, months later when the analytic team sifted through the data again. All along the statistical team had focused on temporary state effects by computing the difference between a yogi’s baseline brain activity and that produced during the one-minute medi- tation periods. Richie was reviewing the numbers with Antoine and wanted a routine check to ensure that the initial baseline EEG readings—those taken at rest, before the experiment began—were the same in a group of control volunteers who tried the identical meditations the yogis were doing. He asked to see just this baseline data by itself. When Richie and Antoine sat down to review what the com- puters had just crunched, they looked at the numbers and then looked at one another. They knew exactly what they were seeing and exchanged just one word: “Amazing!” All the yogis had elevated gamma oscillations, not just during the meditation practice periods for open presence and compas- sion but also during the very first measurement, before any meditation was performed. This elec- trifying data was in the EEG frequency known as “high-amplitude” gamma, the strongest, most intense form. These waves lasted the full minute of the baseline measurement, before they started the meditation. This was the very EEG wave that Mingyur had displayed in that surprising surge during both open presence and compassion. And now Richie’s team saw that same unusual brain pattern in all the yogis as a standard feature of their everyday neural activity. In other words, Richie and Antoine had stumbled upon the holy grail: a neural signature showing an enduring transformation. There are four main types of EEG waves, classed by their frequency (technically, meas- ured in Hertz). Delta, the slowest wave, oscil- lates between one and four cycles per second, and occurs mainly during deep sleep; theta, the next slowest, can signify drowsiness; alpha occurs when we are doing little thinking and indicates relaxa- tion; and beta, the fastest, accompanies thinking, alertness, or concentration. Gamma, the very fastest brain wave, occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle “click” together. To get a sense of this “click,” try this: What single word can turn each of these into a compound word: sauce, pine, crab? The instant your mind comes up with the answer, your brain signal momentarily produces that distinctive gamma flare. You also elicit a short-lived gamma wave when, for instance, you imagine biting into a ripe, juicy peach and your brain draws together mem- ories stored in different regions of the occipital, temporal, somato- sensory, insular, and olfactory cortices to suddenly mesh the sight, smells, taste, feel, and sound of that bite into a single experience. For that quick moment the gamma waves from each of these cortical regions oscillate in perfect synchrony. Ordinarily gamma waves from, say, a creative insight, last no longer than a fifth of a second—not the full minute seen in the yogis. Anyone’s EEG will show distinctive gamma waves for short moments from time to time. Ordinarily, during a waking state we exhibit a mixture of different brain waves that wax and wane at different frequencies. These brain oscillations reflect complex mental activity, like information processing, and their various frequencies correspond to broadly different functions. The loca- tion of these oscillations varies among brain regions; we can dis- play alpha in one cortical location and gamma in another. In the yogis, gamma oscillations are a far more prominent feature of their brain activity than in other people. Our usual Data recorded during an electroencephalography (EEG) test of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard while he was meditating. Experts tested have logged between 12,000 and 62,000 hours of meditation. PHOTOBYJEFFMILLER,UNIVERSITYOFWISCONSIN–MADISON LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 56