Science and medical journalist James Kingsland explores the science of meditation, mindfulness and enlightenment.
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 55.
Where did it all go wrong for Homo sapiens? Even under favourable conditions, huge numbers of our species are profoundly unhappy. We are in the grip of a “happiness paradox”. Surveys suggest that while living standards in developed countries have risen steadily since the 1950s, average levels of life satisfaction have barely changed. If anything, we are becoming more prone to anxiety and despair. According to the latest figures from the WHO, the number of people living with depression worldwide increased by almost a fifth between 2005 and 2015 to 322 million. Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.
In truth, this disconnect between material wealth and wellbeing is not new. Around 2,500 years ago, a prosperous young Indian man called Siddhārtha Gautama suffered what we might now term a “mental health crisis” which led to his becoming homeless and almost starving himself to death. As the cosseted son of a king, he had once lived in a palace with musicians and dancing girls at his beck and call. He dressed in the finest clothes and was married to a beautiful woman who had given him a healthy baby son. But deep down none of this satisfied him. Then one day he finally learned that lying in wait for all, rich and poor, were sickness, ageing and death. What was worse, the widely held belief in rebirth implied that this cycle of suffering would repeat again and again for all eternity.
Abandoning all home comforts for life in the forest, Siddhārtha embarked on a six-year quest to free himself from this grim cycle, meditating and undergoing arduous ascetic practices. Close to death, it was only after he relaxed these disciplines and accepted a meal of rice cooked in coconut milk from a kind stranger that he found the strength for his final effort, attaining perfect enlightenment while meditating under a fig tree.
I’m talking, of course, about Gautama Buddha, the man who gave the world the Four Noble Truths of suffering, its cause, its ending, and the Noble Eightfold Path: the programme of mindfulness, meditation and ethical living that leads to its ending. Seven years ago, when I first started learning about Buddhism, I found myself wondering as a science journalist what had changed in this man’s brain during his six years in the wilderness to precipitate such a startling transformation – from an ordinary human in the midst of a breakdown to a fully enlightened being, a charismatic leader teaching a revolutionary way to transcend the unhappy lot of our species.
Just suppose a time-travelling neuroscientist with a portable MRI brain scanner were to go back to India in the 5th century BC and monitor changes in grey matter density and connectivity during that period. What would he or she discover?
Over the past 40 years scientists have been conducting a similar experiment on contemporary humans. In 1979, an American doctor called Jon Kabat-Zinn working at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester developed a standardised psychotherapy called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), inspired by his own Zen Buddhist practice. It was initially designed to help patients cope with chronic pain but was later used as an eight-week, secular programme of mindfulness and meditation instruction aimed at easing all kinds of stress and anxiety. The early results were impressive and have been borne out in recent years through increasingly rigorous clinical trials.
In parallel with this work, neuroscientists have identified a subtle but distinct pattern of changes in the brains of MBSR participants. It seems remarkable that such a neural remodelling, while modest, can happen in adult brains over the course of just eight weeks, but the changes are yet more impressive after several years of practice, even hinting that meditation can hold back some of the degenerative changes associated with ageing. In 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston first identified this effect in the brains of people who had been meditating regularly for around 10 years. Their work suggested that a particular part of the frontal lobe – the orbitofrontal cortex or OFC – was just as thick in 40 to 50-year-old meditators as it was among people in their 20s, whereas there was a distinct thinning in middle-aged folk who didn’t meditate. Subsequent research has confirmed these results beyond all reasonable doubt.
The OFC is intimately involved in metacognition: the ability to monitor our thoughts. This makes sense, because meditation entails focusing on a mantra or a bodily sensation, such as the breath, and repeatedly returning one’s attention – without judgment – whenever we notice that the mind has strayed. This is the essence of mindfulness: an objective, present-focused awareness that the meditator attempts to bring to every waking experience.
Completing the picture, neuroscientists have found that in experienced meditators there is also a thickening of the insular cortex – responsible for internal bodily awareness – and a thinning of the posterior cingulate cortex. The latter is the principal hub of the default mode network, a constellation of areas associated with self-referential thought and mind-wandering. Since its discovery in 2001, research has indicated that the network was not only fundamental to the extraordinary success of our species, but also our vulnerability to mental illness. It evolved rapidly after our line diverged from that of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, and underlies our ability to plan ahead and intuit the thoughts and intentions of others: an essential skill as our ancestors banded together in increasingly large groups on the African savannah. There was a price to be paid, however, because overactivity in the network has been linked to a range of mental disorders, including depression.
According to the Buddha, the root cause of suffering is the way we cling to, or try to push away, our thoughts, feelings and sensations. Shortly after his enlightenment, in a provocative teaching he gave to a crowd of wild-haired fire worshippers on a hilltop near Gaya in northwest India, he compared this to throwing fuel on the fires of craving, anger and delusion. If we can only learn to refrain from doing this, the fires will die down and we will attain the profound peace of nibbāna.
Buddhists call our inclination to toss fuel onto the flames of our own suffering “clinging” or “attachment”. Psychiatrists call it “cognitive reactivity” – the tendency to worry and ruminate – and have long known it to be a risk factor for relapse in people prone to depression. Its signature in the brain is an overactive default mode network. In 1991, a Canadian called Zindel Segal, and two Britons, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, created a new kind of psychotherapy that would use mindfulness to reduce cognitive reactivity. Three decades on, a slew of clinical trials have shown that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, is just as effective as antidepressants for preventing relapse in people who have suffered several episodes of depression. Following their lead, psychiatrists have now developed many other mindfulness-based therapies to treat a wide range of mental afflictions, including addiction, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress, with promising early results.
My time-travelling neuroscientist paid one last visit to the 5th century BC, to a quiet grove near the remote town of Kusinara in northeast India where the 80-year-old Siddhārtha Gautama passed away, at peace, fully reconciled to the impermanence of all phenomena. Studies of Tibetan monks by Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz at the University of Wisconsin show that the brain activity of highly experienced meditators, both during meditation and in everyday consciousness, is characterised by unusually strong “gamma” waves, pulsing at around 25Hz. These electrical waves are associated with our most lucid forms of consciousness. There is also evidence – albeit indirect – that they are responsible for the blissful sensations commonly reported by people who have gone through a near death experience.
As Siddhārtha lay dying, he sank into the increasingly deep, formless stages of meditation in which one experiences emptiness and infinite space. I like to think that his wonderful brain expired in one last burst of ecstatic, high-frequency electrical oscillations.
Meet the author: JAMES KINGSLAND is a science and medical journalist with twenty-five years’ experience working for publications including New Scientist, Nature and most recently the Guardian, where he was a commissioning editor and contributor for its Notes & Theories blog. On his own blog, Plastic Brain, he writes about neuroscience and Buddhist psychology.