Let's Think About It

Meditation is practiced around the world for a variety of reasons such, as to attain religious enlightenment, or perhaps stress reduction, or just for relaxation. A pre-publication report of Zoran Josipovic’s studies of the brain activity of meditating Buddhist monks using fMRI pictures is now available (1). Twenty monks took part, well actually twenty-one as Josipovic is a part-time Buddhist monk, and they were all well practiced in mediation techniques. An essential requirement as the equipment is both claustrophobic and noisy. A state of panic is easier to achieve than a state of nonduality or oneness with the world.

The equipment tracks blood flow, and highlights the localized regional activity, indicating the activated neural network. Our extrinsic network is the one that we use when we are interacting with our environment, such as pecking away at our keyboards attempting to process words that may have resulted from the activity of our intrinsic network while we were self-absorbed and worrying about our emotional state. Apparently, we manage to juggle the activity on these two networks fairly effectively. Most of the time anyway, we are able switch back and forth from one to the other. The skilled amongst us can compose an emotional journalistic piece about, say a royal wedding, and type it out in gobbets of high prose.

Interestingly, the Buddhist monks, when meditating, can keep both networks activated simultaneously so they no longer switch back and forth. At this point they have attained a feeling of oneness with the world.

Our intrinsic network is important to us. It’s where we hide when we’re bored and find that we have been daydreaming at an interminable meeting or some such other daily joy. It tells us who we are.

Daydreaming is an active activity – we are wide-awake after all. However, wide-awake is not as clearly defined as we might think. Tononi at al from U Wisconsin-Madison, has studied rats with electrode arrays implanted in their brains as well as taking EEGs (2). They showed that some neurons switched off for a rest and then back on. The more sleep deprived the rats were, the larger the off-fraction. Also the more inefficient the rats were at performing their given task.

It would be interesting to know if sleep deprivation effects the extrinsic network more than the intrinsic network, or if it affects both networks to the same extent. If it’s the former, would that make it easier to reach a state of oneness when meditating?

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