How can Buddhist monks float?

The narrow tube of a noisy magnetic resonance imaging scanner is arguably one of the strangest places Mathieu Ricard has ever tried to put his mind in a state of "unconditional compassion".

How good that he can fall back on over 30 years of experience in this form of meditation. Ricard is actually a monk at the Shechen monastery in Kathmandu. And he became a test subject in Richard Davidson's brain research laboratory at the behest of the Dalai Lama himself.

The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism sent a total of eight monks from his closest circle to the University of Wisconsin in Madison - all of them meditation professionals with at least 10,000 hours of practice. You should help the neuropsychologist Davidson find out what the brain is doing at the moment of spiritual contemplation.

No surprise to the Dalai Lama

Ulrich Ott is also concerned with this question. "To clarify the neurophysiology of enlightenment is a fascinating idea," says the psychologist from the University of Giessen and one of the few German meditation experts. "More and more people are interested in meditation, but research has long neglected the area."

That seems to be changing now. In the USA in particular, scientists are currently trying to watch the brain meditate with highly sensitive electroencephalographs and state-of-the-art imaging methods such as magnetic resonance imaging.

The Dalai Lama is unlikely to be surprised by their first findings, as they confirm a thesis that practicing Buddhists have been advocating for 2,500 years: meditation and mental discipline lead to fundamental changes in the brain.

"Happiness is a skill"

A few years ago, an Indian abbot with more than 10,000 hours of mediation experience in Richard Davidson's laboratory caused a big surprise. The activity in his left frontal lobe was much higher than that of the 150 non-Buddhists that the researcher tested for comparison. As the scientist knew from other experiments, such a pattern of excitation stands for a good basic mood, a "positive affective style", as he calls it.

Optimistic types have a more active left frontal cortex than less fortunate natures. Apparently, this area of ​​the brain keeps bad feelings in check - and ensures the serene balance and calm that characterize so many Buddhists. "Happiness is a skill that can be learned like a sport or playing a musical instrument," was Davidson's conclusion. "Those who practice get better and better."

Unconditional willingness to help

The researcher repeated the experiment with Mathieu Ricard and the seven other monks sent by the Dalai Lama - with the same result. Her left frontal lobe was extremely active.

But then Davidson took a closer look at his "Olympians of Mental Work" under the encephalographic magnifying glass while practicing "unconditional compassion" - a form of meditation in which love and compassion permeate the entire mind. The goal is the unconditional willingness to help others.

Meanwhile, Davidson registered the brain waves with 256 sensors distributed over the entire skull. A group of meditation novices served for comparison.

Top cognitive performance

A look at the measured values ​​revealed glaring differences. In the monks' brains, the so-called gamma activity increased sharply during meditation, while it hardly increased in the inexperienced subjects. Plus, those fast, high-frequency brain waves were better organized and coordinated.

And the waves flitted over the entire organ of thought. "As a rule, gamma waves are limited in time and space," explains Ulrich Ott. "They just pop up somewhere in the brain for a moment." Brain research cannot say with absolute certainty when.

In the end, the frequency of the brain waves represents certain mental states. Low-frequency delta waves characterize deep sleep. Alpha waves with about ten Hertz indicate a relaxed waking state. Gamma waves with frequencies of over 30 Hertz seem to accompany high cognitive performance, for example moments of extreme concentration.

Highest concentration

As relaxed as a Buddhist monk may seem, his brain is by no means switched off during meditation. On the contrary: At the moment of immersion, the greatest attention is given. "The gamma activity could represent the extreme alertness that many meditators describe," says Ott. "The values ​​of the monk Mathieu Ricard were beyond good and bad."

The psychobiologist from Giessen is even more fascinated by the fact that the excitement ran in such a coordinated manner across the lamas' entire thinking organ. Because there is a second hypothesis about gamma waves that could solve one of the greatest puzzles in brain research - namely the question of how consciousness arises.

Suppose we are sitting in front of a cup of coffee. What we consciously perceive is the overall impression, but the brain processes the individual aspects in different areas. One region recognizes the color brown, another identifies the aroma, and a third the shape of the cup.

Identification code

The area that connects all the pieces of the puzzle into a whole has not yet been found. It is therefore assumed that the nerve cells involved communicate using a type of identification code: the gamma frequency. If the signals for "brown", "aroma" and "cup" oscillate in unison at 40 Hertz, the coffee appears before the inner eye.

According to this theory - and experiments seem to confirm them - gamma waves are a superordinate control frequency that synchronizes and brings together the brain areas. This creates perceptions, but also states of consciousness.

Those extremely coordinated gamma oscillations that Davidson registered with the monks would never occur under normal circumstances, says Ulrich Ott. His explanation: "When all nerve cells vibrate synchronously, everything becomes one, one differentiates neither subject nor object. That is exactly the central message of the spiritual experience."

Deep change of being

Such an effect apparently leaves its neural traces beyond the moment of inner contemplation. Because even before the meditation, the gamma activity in the monks' brains was significantly stronger than in the other test subjects, especially over the left frontal cortex, which is so central to the emotional balance.

Another proof that the consciousness and thus the entire personality can be specifically influenced through meditation, says Davidson, i.e. through purely mental work. "The interconnections in our brain are not fixed. So nobody has to end up as who they are today."

Matthieu Ricard had no doubts about this even before his visit to Madison: "Meditation does not mean sitting under a mango tree and having a good time." It is anything but relaxation. "It's about deep changes in your being. In the long run, you become a different person," he says. Even brain researchers who are only slightly inclined to the spiritual must slowly agree with him.