Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
People who have achieved the title of Yogi have claimed that they have mental abilities that seem, frankly, impossible to achieve. What does science have to say about it? You may be surprised by the answer, and what the implications are for meditation-based therapies and neuroplasticity efforts.
With modern science, we can examine the brain’s influence on our “behavior and well-being” via datatory means, while Buddhism offers hints as to what directions to take via psychological analysis. They even complement each other. Take for example the idea of decreasing our suffering and increasing our well-being by a “strict code of behavior and thought.” This hints at neuroplasticity, or the restricting of brain structures based on new habits. Our experience changes our synapses which store memories. Via Buddhist practices we can change the mind and body via mindful techniques to help restructure those synapses (Kingsland 29).
This points to psychosomatic effects, or when the mind makes changes to bodily properties. That sounds crazy at first glance but anyone that has been in an anxiety-filled moment will report some serious bodily change like perspiration and elevated heart rates. Can we reverse this trend and train ourselves to react differently? Herbert Benson in the late 1960s took monkeys and examined the rise in blood pressure they underwent when meeting up with a doctor. He theorized the anxiety was the source and so trained the monkeys to decrease their blood pressure via a biofeedback method involving light. A green light was displayed, and food was given to the animal (hence pleasure), but red light led to nothing (and so pain). An association developed and so the monkeys had high blood pressure when red light was shown and lowered pressure when a green light was shown. But then Benson found monkeys could lower their blood pressure without any light stimulus. They knew the conditioning to get to food and so they learned to change their bodily reaction via mental processes. They were “controlling an aspect of their psychology that had been previously involuntary” (42-4).
This study got the attention of Maharishi Mahesh, a famous Yogi at the time and founder of the transcendentalist meditation movement. He claimed he too could replicate the lowering of blood pressure on command. And so he submitted to a scientific study where his blood pressure, breathing rate, internal temperature, blood chemistry, and brain waves were all recorded. He took 30 minutes to adjust, 20 minutes to wander in his mind, 20 minutes of meditation, and then 20 minutes of mind wandering again. All of this was done in the same bodily position, for consistency. When he was meditating, his breathing rate, blood oxygen content, and heartrate all dropped while his alpha brain waves increased. The blood pressure never changed however, though it was low to begin with. This is essentially a reverse fight-or-flight response. Instead of an automatic choice being made for us without conscious awareness driving our physical attributes, we use our knowledge to make the choice (45-6).
To illuminate this scenario more we need to talk about our fear center known as the amygdala. In stressful times, this region of the brain fires off and releases epinephrine and norepinephrine (aka adrenaline and noradrenaline), causing several bodily processes to increase in performance such as blood pressure and heart rate. Once the stressor is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system brings our hormone levels back to normal rest state. Benson theorized that people with mindful practices were able to control the parasympathetic nervous system reaction, inducing a “relaxation response.” In the case of the yogi, his specific movement aimed to “transcend thinking” and achieve “a state of restfully alert consciousness.” But was the response only unique to transcendentalists, or could other meditation movements accomplish it too? Benson found that in general yes, for they all encourage one to “break the chain of everyday thinking” (46-8).
The first Yogi to be investigated by modern science looking at the brain functions itself was going to be a big deal because of the elite nature of these meditators, so when Richard Davidson got a chance to study Mingyur Rinpoche in 2007 he was understandably ecstatic. With an EEG fed by 256 sensors, researchers had him meditate on compassion for 1 minutes, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat that 4 times in a row. Now, is such a back-and-forth even possible? You should need some transition time between states, but the Yogi reassured the staff that it was possible. The brain scans showed a huge spike in activity that is usually associated with physical movement, but the Yogi was still. Instead, those peaks occurred during each meditative state (Goleman 217-9)
Harvard University also got to examine Mingyur, but to look at this ability to visualize and to see if he possessed extrasensory perception. Both of these were deemed “irrelevant to Mingyur’s actual meditative expertise” which involves mentally letting go of things and so was no surprise when he failed both tests. This demonstrates the potential for researchers to not fully understand that which they seek for (220-1).
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In a 2010 study by Davidson, Mingyur (now at 62,000 hours of mediation) was subjected to an fMRI instead of an EEG (for the former gives better location data while the other give better time information) to find his empathy centers and see their size. And boy, was it different, nearly 700-800% larger than a normal person’s! He shortly thereafter went on a 4.5-year hermetic retreat and in 2016 Davidson did a follow up MRI, providing scientists with even further data as well as an ability to compare to prior baselines established in years past. Researchers found his brain age placed him in the top 1% of his age bracket, with a mind like that of a 33-year-old. Hints of neuroplasticity are present here. It is important to note that this was just one person and so while the results are very interesting a larger data set is most certainly required (222-8).
Since Mingyur’s participation, 21 other Yogis have also been examined with experience ranging from 12,000 to 62,000 hours and all having participated in at least 1 three year retreat during which 8 hours of meditation were done a day (therefore giving about 9,500 hours of mediation over the whole retreat). All underwent similar testing conditions that Mingyur did at the same lab Davidson runs and all gave similar results to Mingyur. To assist Davidson in the analysis of the fMRI and EEG readings, Antoine Lutz was brought in. You see, the original approach was to compare the differences between the baseline mental patterns of our groups and the active ones, but a surprise was in store when the Yogi baseline was not equivalent to the volunteer baseline. An increase in gamma oscillations (which are used as communications between pieces of brain) were seen across the Yogic board, and it seems to be a trait developed by them. These waves are unlike alpha (relaxing waves), beta (thinking/concentrating waves), and delta (deep sleep waves) in that gamma are the fastest and therefore should only last for a fraction of a second. Yogis can sustain them for up to a minute. This isn’t the only difference, however, for the amplitude of this wave is also 25 times greater than the volunteer baseline. Finally, those gamma waves are also happening when the Yogis are asleep. What this all means is unclear, but it certainly isn’t the only altered trait the Yogis have (229- 235).
How do Yogis respond to pain? Using the Medoc thermal simulation, comparisons were made between Yogis and non-meditators, matching age-to-age and gender-to-gender as to the max threshold one could sustain. They were told they would get a 10 second warm up sensation followed by 10 seconds of actual treatment. Many of the non-meditators felt as if the pre-treatment was just as painful as the actual event itself, a sensation known as “anticipatory anxiety.” This is a window into our basic evolutionary regulations. But for the Yogis, little change occurred in their pre-treatment from their baseline and once the actual simulation started the emotional centers of their brains barely changed. The Yogis also decreased their pain responses faster than non-practitioners. Pain seems to have a psychological basis after all! (239-240)
But it’s not the only such instance of mind truly dominating the body. Compassion-based mediating hints at a deep mind/body relationship. For the Yogis, they also had a clear connection between the brain activity and their heart rate (courtesy of the insula, a region of the brain that is the gateway to bodily activity) (245-6).
So, do you need to be so experienced to reap these benefits? I don’t think so, to at least get a preliminary benefit. I would say to mediate first and worry about results later. Many who mediate will tell you it is the act itself that brings the most benefits and that to look for secondary results misses the main point. I hope you get a chance to find out and let me know how it impacts you!
Goleman, Daniel and Richard J. Davidson. Altered Traits. Penguin Random House, New York. 2017. Print. 217-35, 239-40, 245-6.
Kingsland, James. Siddhartha’s Brain. Harper Collins, New York. 2016. Print. 29, 42-8.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Leonard Kelley