It was one of those things that in retrospect seemed like a no-brainer (pun intended): neuroscientists studying Tibetan monks discovered that thousands of hours of serious meditation can physically change how your brain works. Even though that was their hypothesis going into the study, they never suspected how dramatic the differences would be; according to a new article in the Wall Street Journal, the monks' brains showed huge increases in gamma wave activity "of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature." That's compared to only a slight increase in gamma waves -- essentially high-frequency brain activity -- in novice monks with a lot less meditation under their belts (or robes, rather). Even more interesting, the type of meditation they practice also had a profound effect on their brains. The Tibetan Buddhists they studied, including the Dalai Lama himself, practice "compassion meditation," designed to generate feelings of loving kindness toward all beings in the practitioner.
Using the brain scan called functional magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists pinpointed regions that were active during compassion meditation. In almost every case, the enhanced activity was greater in the monks' brains than the novices'. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions such as happiness) swamped activity in the right prefrontal (site of negative emotions and anxiety), something never before seen from purely mental activity. A sprawling circuit that switches on at the sight of suffering also showed greater activity in the monks. So did regions responsible for planned movement, as if the monks' brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.
Now, I don't meditate or do yoga or practice special breathing or bathe in organic yogurt, but I must say -- it's pretty cool to think that you can bring yourself to a higher state of consciousness by an act of will; by simply thinking.