Brain-Heart Interaction Underlying Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Meditation


HWhile there is accumulating evidence of improvements in human well-being as a result of meditation practice, little is known about whether the brain and periphery interact to induce these behavioral and mental changes. Scientists from China suggested that meditation changes neural connections and affects the state of internal organs (in particular, they found a distinct neural response to the heartbeat).

Introduction

Meditation is a practice of self-regulation of the mind and body, which is aimed at achieving well-being and understanding the true nature of phenomena. Numerous recent scientific studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of meditation, expressed in quantitative terms (it affects the mental activity, the nervous and cardiovascular systems).

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, meditation is usually performed through two practices: samatha (shamatha) and vipassana (vipashyana). Samatha seeks to calm the mind by maintaining focus on an object (such as a Buddha image or a mantra) for an extended period of time. Combined with the focus and stability provided by samatha practice, vipassana meditation can improve your understanding of your personality, the nature of the world, and even develop wisdom. To make the practice complete, it is necessary to combine samatha and vipassana. As is usually the case with practitioners who practice for a long period of time, experienced meditators can reproduce more stable mental states than their inexperienced counterparts. Studying the stable meditation practices of highly qualified Tibetan Buddhist monks, the authors of the article expressed the hope that their work will shed light on the neural mechanisms of meditation, as well as its possible long-term effects on the brain and body.

Research progress

The following volunteers were selected for the study: 60 Tibetan Buddhist monks (36 Gelug monks of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as 24 monks of the Tibetan Nyingma Buddhist tradition) and 25 male volunteers from the same area. All participants were healthy, did not experience neurological or mental disorders, did not have brain injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and did not suffer from drug / alcohol addiction. Tibetan Buddhist monks trained their minds with two meditation practices (samatha and vipassana) for at least 2 hours a day for 5–35 years (18.15 ± 8.25 years).

It is believed that by practicing samatha and vipassana sequentially, one can achieve complete enlightenment, or liberation, the deepest form of well-being. Participants who were not experienced practitioners from the monastic background were also recruited from nearby regions. Although these subjects in the control group also recite a mantra daily according to their religious beliefs, it should be noted that this practice cannot be equated with meditation performed by monks, and that Tibetans who do not practice regular meditation cannot achieve the corresponding state.

Trial

Participants were asked to remain in a relaxed and non-meditative state of rest with their eyes closed for 10 minutes. After the beep, the monk participants were instructed to begin a meditation similar to their daily practice and do it for 30 minutes. Gelug and Nyingma Tibetan monks generally do not use the breath as an object of meditation, but rather concentrate on various techniques to achieve a meditative state. Gelug monks prefer to chant a mantra, while Nyingma monks tend to easily keep their mind on an object such as a Buddha image. All monks reported that during the experiment they achieved a meditative state of mindfulness similar to their daily practice. During the experiment, EEG (electroencephalogram) and ECG (electrocardiogram) were recorded.

results

In this work, Chinese scientists examined the neural connections of the brain with the rest of the body and the large-scale spatio-temporal activity of the brain network that underlies meditation in a unique dataset. They concluded that prolonged meditation produced lasting effects, primarily by altering the cortical connection with cardiac signals.

To determine the immediate effects of meditation, the researchers analyzed the meditative state and the state of rest in monks. In experienced practitioners, it has been found that performing meditation “triggers” short-term changes in neural activity in response to the heartbeat. In addition, the researchers noticed that Buddhist monks had decreased theta activity in the frontal lobes of the brain (a continued decrease in theta activity is associated with a meditative state, as well as a state of heightened sensitivity in situations of uncertainty) at rest.

A slower theta rhythm in meditating Tibetan monks may indicate the ability to limit the processing of unnecessary information and reduce mental wandering. It was also shown that the gamma rhythm (the rhythm of the brain that is observed when solving problems that require maximum focused attention), in turn, is higher when abstract visual forms are actively maintained in short-term memory. The researchers hypothesized that the increased gamma activity during meditation reflects the processing of either the visual representation of the Buddha or the visual representation of the mantra.

In general, these results suggest that, firstly, meditation changes the “basic” brain activity, potentially affecting spontaneous self-regulation processes and heart function, primarily through the network of the passive mode of the brain (a neural network of interacting regions of the brain that is active in the state when a person is not busy performing any task related to the external world, but, on the contrary, is inactive, resting, daydreaming or immersed in himself); secondly, it can constantly train cortical plasticity and induce gradual positive changes in it, causing a reorganization of the entire neural network.

These results provide direct neural evidence for a hypothetical link between the brain’s ability to influence cardiac activity and transform itself through consistent meditation practice.

Source: academic.oup.com/cercor/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cercor/bhz095/5510041



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