Meditation: what neurobiology knows about enlightenment and how to achieve it without drugs


Expert Pharmacologist
Jul 6, 2021
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The more people talk about meditation, the less is known about it. It has gone so far that it is seen as a way to relax and relieve stress. In this publication, we will try to find out what Buddha really meant and to what extent his claims are consistent with scientific evidence.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, psychiatrist and psychologist who has written the most comprehensive book to date on neuroscience research on meditative practices, — has provided us with commentary on some of the underlying premises of Buddhism from the perspective of brain science.

The Neurophysiological Nature of Buddhist Suffering
In Buddhism, it all begins with the realization that all life is suffering. This fact is called the First Noble Truth, the first of the four insights of Gautama, who decided to «hack» reality.

If we translate this truth into more comprehensible language, we see that the loud word «suffering» refers to the property of our brain to constantly respond to the stimuli of the world around us.


Although the word «suffering» is traditionally used here, the sense is more that of dissatisfaction or discomfort: a mixture of anxiety, lack of something, fear of losing what one has or of not achieving something. Buddha seems to have been right.

Richard Davidson: «Even if we satisfied all our desires, we still would not show any lasting increase in happiness or well-being. Scientific research confirms this-as do the contemplative traditions of the East».

Not only the brain changes its activity under the influence of external stimuli: the work of the whole body also depends on its work. For example, depending on the ratio of activity in the cerebral hemispheres, you will be more inclined to experience positive emotions (with more activity in the left prefrontal cortex) or negative emotions (with more activation in the right prefrontal cortex).

People prone to fixating on negative emotions often have not only a more active right side of the cortex, but also insufficient connections of the left prefrontal cortex with the amygdala responsible for bad experiences.

That is, the «cheerful» prefrontal cortex simply cannot control the activation of the amygdala. And it is the amygdala that is responsible for experiencing stress, releasing cortisol, adrenaline - in general, making us nervous, angry, sweaty, and wanting to punch a person in the face or run away and cry in the corner.

And the worse the «funny» cortex is connected to the amygdala, the longer after a stressful event it will remain active, making a boogeyman out of you.

Why do Buddhists say that everything is illusory?
Emotional processes in our bodies exist for a reason, not just for us to feel them. They are neither a divine gift nor a diabolical curse, but complex biochemical and neurological processes that govern our behavior.

The system of the brain responsible for emotions is older, deeper, and evolved at a time when human survival was in much more doubt than it is today. Therefore, this system reacts faster than the cortex (which is more «rational») and is more «fond» of basic survival-related stimuli.

The main task of emotional reactions is to orient us in the external world, indicating to us quickly and without long reflection what is good and what is bad for the body, survival and continuation of the species.

On a basic level, it's very simple: food, suitable partners, safety is joy; enemies, competition for goods is anger, and so on. That's why we keep turning our heads curiously, want to eat something, try something new, have sex, and so on.

The large hemisphere cortex, which forms more complex mental processes, also reacts actively to external stimuli. Selective attention that we deliberately direct to something is controlled by the prefrontal cortex.

In response to attention-grabbing events, it produces what is known as phase synchronization - a burst of activity synchronized with the moment of paying attention to an object. An image of the external world is created in our consciousness through a variety of activity waves in different brain areas.


Everything from images and sounds to subjective feelings of the atmosphere of a place and the perception of oneself in it does not exist for us by itself, it exists only in the process of perception of the senses, information processing by the brain and the work of neurotransmitters and hormones.

We can assume that this is what the Buddha means when he describes the world as an illusion. This statement seems nonsensical until we are insane, or at least asleep: after all, both the insane and the asleep are experiencing absolutely real sensations - and we understand that their worlds are illusory only because they are different from what most people see. But the principle by which the image of the world is assembled in the minds of the sleeper, the madman, and any other person is the same: it is the result of the complex workings of the body, including the brain.

Speaking of the illusory nature of the world from a neurophysiological point of view, it is not so much that the whole world is a lie, but rather that the nature of our perception is conditioned by the way we perceive it. That is, it is not only what we perceive, but also what we perceive and how we perceive it.

«The Dhammapada» — a collection of Buddha's sayings from the early Buddhist period, begins with this line: «All that we are is the fruit of our thoughts». We are increasingly convinced that this is not an allegory, but an apt observation about the way our brains work.

Richard Davidson: «I think this profound intuitive insight of Buddhism has at least an indirect relationship to modern neuroscience. It is not the environment that matters in our experience, but rather the perception of that environment. A body of research shows that subjective stress levels more reliably predict a variety of bodily stress responses than do measurements of «objective» stress. From this perspective, thoughts and mental activity determine our reality. It can be said that the data of modern neuroscience are consistent with the Buddhist concept of emptiness and that objects are devoid of their actual existence».


Why are desires the cause of suffering?
In everyone's life we can observe a dramatic conflict between the way our brains work and our conscious attitudes. Usually in such situations we say to ourselves: «I really want to, but I can’t» or «I don't know why I did it again».
  • Want to make informed decisions, but when the time comes - impulsively commit rash actions?
  • Want to focus on writing a book, but can't bring yourself to write a line?
  • Know you're safe, but can't suppress your anxiety?
There could be hundreds of examples - all of them about how our brains work optimally for our distant ancestor's survival, but not perfectly for today's environment with its complex social demands that often contradict our natural desires. Not to mention ethical tasks incomprehensible to our bodies.

The main problem with this conflict is that it is extremely difficult for us to resist the urges that are shaped by the workings of our bodies.


All basic actions can be broken down into two major types: drive for something (which brings pleasant experiences) and drive away from something (which brings unpleasant experiences). Many of our actions are driven by one of these two basic drives of all living beings, and we are not even aware of the lion's share of them.

Not surprisingly, sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of a situation in which (sane) we wouldn't want to be, or even living a life quite different from the one we saw for ourselves. But usually this realization passes quickly in a whirlwind of new sensations and reactions from our body.

Richard Davidson: «On a neurophysiological level, our brain activity is constantly modulated by feelings of attachment and aversion. We want what we can't have and avoid what might hurt us. These are basic principles of how the brain works. It takes training to develop the ability to change our relationship with attachment and rejection. It can change the brain».

If we were to give this realization some time, we would, following Prince Gautama, grasp the second fundamental truth of Buddhism: that the cause of suffering from the First Noble Truth is irresistible drive. It is these drives that underlie most of the things we do.

Our lives consist of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain on all levels, from the most basic needs like food, shelter and the desire to stop any physical pain to such complex desires as acceptance by society, a committed partner and the avoidance of the grief of separation or the pain of loneliness.


What is the practice?
It is now well known that the brain is plastic. It gives feedback (when a new «experience» arises) by changing its structure and the way it works. Any new experience, new effort, learning a new skill or changing habitual patterns of behavior all physically affect what our brain is.

Suppose it is now clear to us that all this time we have been experiencing the constant discomfort of our out-of-control mind rather than living a rich spiritual life, and now we want to sort out our problem and make the brain work for us. The first thing that might come to mind is pharmacology: we already know how to treat «mental illness» with psychotherapists and other techniques that do not involve medication. And at this point, it is probably possible to optimize brain function with drugs?

Pharmacology may be the future, but today things don't look so good. Most psychiatrists, when prescribing drugs, do not even examine the brain, as doctors of other specialties examine the organs within their competence.


Some psychiatrists in developed countries send people for brain research. We still choose antidepressants by trial and error, unable to tell exactly what is wrong with the brain we are treating. Sometimes the medications can be prescribed incorrectly and do no good, and sometimes they can even cause damage. And this is when the psychiatrist is treating a person who is obviously unwell, and his symptoms may point directly to the area of the brain in which the malfunction has occurred.

The biggest problem with medication is its temporary nature: it works as long as the active ingredient in the medication works. And then the effect ends. It's the same with drug experiments. The only effect that may not simply evaporate after recreational use of a drug is a disruption in brain function.

One important method of enlightenment the Buddha referred to as the «middle way» — a moderate life in which joy and pleasure are in balance with ascesis and restraint. This basic condition is reflected in psychiatry.


With any medication to correct a mental or psychiatric disorder, you will be prescribed a special regimen: get enough sleep, go to bed at the same time, avoid psychoactive substances and be extremely careful with legal stimulants like alcohol, coffee and cigarettes, eat well in moderation and not starve, walk outdoors, communicate with meaningful people - this is the way of moderation.

When you control the intensity of external stimuli, you indirectly control your brain activity. Compare your emotional state on a weekend (when you are actively moving two parties in a row, using psychoactive substances, and staying awake) to a weekend in which you slept in, exercised moderately, ate baked broccoli, and met with your creative colleagues to plan your projects for the coming year together.

An indispensable practice for attaining freedom is meditation. There is a rich literature on how to meditate, and this topic cannot be covered in this review article.


Techniques and schools of meditation may vary, but the ultimate goal of the practice is to help us realize that all phenomena of our mind (emotions, thoughts, images, sensations) arise in the subjective space of the psyche under the influence of processes external to it (whether external to the world or body processes).

Meditation changes the brain
So far, meditation has been poorly studied, although the scientific community has recently shown great interest in it. Until recently, the main problem with research was that scientists themselves were completely ignorant of the types, techniques and tasks of meditation, did not take into account the professionalism of the practitioners and how many years of their lives they had spent on it: five or forty-five. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson compiled all the research on meditation in their book — «Altered Traits», exposing many as «flawed» and recounting rare convincing experiments, including their own brain studies of experienced monks.

The most interesting studies show that during meditation by an experienced practitioner (for example, Mingyur Rinpoche meditated for 62,000 hours during his life), high activity flashes on EEG graphs; functional MRI demonstrates an increase in activity of some brain areas up to 800%; and high-resolution MRI scans show the brain of a 40-year-old monk corresponding in gray matter volume to 33 years old.


What is surprising, however, is not that brain activity changes during the meditation process - but that experienced meditators show dramatically different brain gamma wave activity from control groups of non-meditators and outside the meditative state.

There are four basic types of EEG waves. Slow delta waves occur mostly during deep sleep. Theta waves, slightly faster, occur when we are falling asleep. Alpha waves occur when we're virtually unthinking and relaxed. Beta waves, faster waves, reflect active thinking or concentration.

Gamma waves are the fastest of all and occur when different areas of the brain are activated simultaneously. It occurs in moments of insight, when different elements come together to form a single picture.

A gamma flash happens when you solve a rebus, a riddle, or suddenly come up with a table of periodic elements. The same flash of gamma activity occurs in Marcel Proust when he tastes a cookie that reminds him of his childhood, and from every corner of his associative memory, memories of the smell of home, the color of his lover's hair, and the feeling of wind on his cheeks that so thrilled him in those years come flooding back to him.


Amplitude of gamma waves in the brain of yogis turned out to be 25 times higher even in the calm state compared to ordinary people. This does not explain much, but it shows neurophysiological correspondence to the state described by practitioners: open awareness of all phenomena of the external and internal world simultaneously, without attachment and rejection, relaxed and alert at the same time.

It was found that this brain state could be observed even during practitioners' sleep, although, in general, the presence of gamma oscillations during deep sleep from the perspective of the ordinary brain is an extreme rarity or casuistry.

In addition, experienced meditators demonstrated an unprecedented ability to «switch» their brain activity at the command of the experimenters and showed a difference in activity and connections in the «default system» responsible for our fixation on thinking about ourselves.

The fact that the effects of meditation persist through rest, daily activity and even sleep is evidence that it can truly transform the human brain - this is what the Davidson team researchers called «altered traits»: after accumulating a certain number of hours of practice, its effects stay with us forever, changing our brain, personality and lifestyle.

One can only imagine what it would be like to live in a constant state of insight and connectedness of all the elements of the world to each other, without talking through a bunch of unnecessary worries about oneself.

Or you could try meditating.


Don't buy from me
Sep 15, 2023
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Love these long articles man! They are great reads
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