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When western scientists study Buddhist monks in Ladakh, the results can yield interesting insights into the mental results of meditation (and perhaps Ladakhi peacefulness as well). O. L. Carter and five colleagues reported last week in the journal Current Biology their findings from a series of experiments with 76 monks in Ladakh. The point of their research was to see if they could determine how different types of meditation practiced by the monks influenced their consciousness and the ways they perceive the world.

The researchers decided to test a process known as “binocular rivalry,” which happens when a person sees confusing or differing information through the right and left eyes. One familiar example of this kind of “rivalry” occurs when people look at an image that can be interpreted in two different ways, such as a face that is either smiling or frowning. People normally perceive one image then the other, switching back and forth every few seconds. Apparently, the two images are often associated with one eye or the other.

According to the scientists, five of whom are from the University of Queensland, these kinds of rivalries make it relatively easy for investigators to understand the “neural mechanisms underlying consciousness and attention.” The researchers wanted to determine if meditation techniques practiced by Buddhist monks allowed them to control their mental processes and consciousness. Perhaps the meditation would restrain binocular rivalry, the process whereby peoples’ minds flick back and forth between contradictory visual images.

They used binocular goggles that would display for each volunteer images that should prompt visual rivalry. The scientists asked the subjects to use different meditative techniques before and during the experiments. (The Buddhist monks easily meditate with their eyes open.) The researchers found that when the monks used what is called the “compassion meditation” technique, they did not experience any significant changes in the rate of visual rivalry. In supplemental data to the published article, the authors define compassion meditation as “non-referential contemplation on the suffering of others, while radiating good will and compassion.”

In contrast, the startling discovery of the research was that the monks who used a “one-point meditation” technique before starting the experiment had a high rate of perceptual dominance. In other words, when they used that technique the normal switching processes of binocular rivalry slowed considerably. Interestingly, monks who viewed the images during their one-point meditations stabilized the images for even longer periods of time. The authors define one-point meditation as “the sustained focus [on] a single object or thought that leads to a stability and clarity of mind required for the eventual development of introspective understanding and insight.” In essence, the one-point meditation measurably slowed the brain’s normal switching processes.

The point of this research is that people who have trained themselves in meditation techniques can alter the normal fluctuations in the states of their consciousness. On a broader level, the results indicate that there may be a potential synergy between the neurosciences and meditation, and that both approaches further, in the words of the conclusion, “the common goal of understanding consciousness.”

A Web-based science reporting service, News in Science coming from Australia, interviewed one of the scientists in the group, Prof. Jack Pettigrew, from the University of Queensland. Pettigrew expanded on the results a bit more than the article had. He told the reporter that meditation allows the monks to switch from unhappy to happy images, and it allows them to focus on the positive, happy images longer than the unhappy ones. The research results show that the happy image, which stimulates the left side of the brain, was retained much longer by the monks when they practiced the one-point meditation technique.

One monk “was a superstar,” according to Pettigrew. He had been practicing meditation for over 20 years and was able to keep the happy image foremost in his mind for more than 10 minutes, compared to the average person who can keep it for about 2 minutes. Summarizing the results to the reporter, Pettigrew indicated that “there’s nothing that can be measured so beautifully as rivalry. It’s like a little clock that ticks away.”

For readers who are familiar with Buddhist meditation techniques, validation by scientists may seem superfluous, but the conjunction of scientific and religious approaches to consciousness is intrinsically interesting nonetheless. Perhaps the researchers such as Prof. Pettigrew are primarily interested in the science of neural processes, but for the rest of us, this research suggests intriguing insights on the peacefulness of Ladakhi monks.

Carter, O. L. et al. 2005. “Meditation Alters Perceptual Rivalry in Tibetan Buddhist Monks.” Current Biology 15 (11): R412-R413.