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Spiritual Implications of Brain Research


by Peter Holleran

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"There is no machine that can measure a person's realization."

- Tsoknyi Rinpoche



This will be a short summary of the results of brain-wave studies conducted on mediators over the past thirty years, and conclusions that may be drawn from them.

One of the first areas of study involved Transcendental Meditation (TM). While touting the many healthy benefits of meditation, it was shown that TM reduced certain brain wave frequencies and increased others in research subjects, which was assumed to imply stress reduction. There has been much written, both pro and con regarding these results and other effects of the technique and organization.

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According to TM, slowing alpha activity during meditation indicates deeper relaxation. This conclusion was challenged, however, by Arthur Janov and his associates at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles. Janov conducted his own studies after having some advanced Vedanta monks come to his clinic for therapy after suffering nervous breakdowns. Janov was of the opinion after seeing such types that meditation was definitely "anti-primal", or dissociative of the body and feelings.

His research showed that in neurotic meditators (i.e.,those who had not done primal therapy) the results were similar to those produced by the TM people, with reduced alpha and beta wave frequencies, but that the wave amplitude was increased, which to him implied that an element of deep repression still existed in the meditators.

In other words, the TM form of meditation they did only achieved symptom suppression (pseudo-calmness) and not deep release or healing of core repressed pain. The natural history of the nervous system remained intact, and there was no integration between the reptilian, limbic, and cortical levels of the brain, which when achieved Janov saw as the sign of mental health and freedom from neurosis.

After undergoing successful advanced primalling in which his subjects accessed early childhood pains and even birth traumas, in a systematic and integrated fashion, the study results afterwards showed reductions in both frequency and amplitude of the brain waves, as well as vital signs, for the primal subjects.


".. the interpretation of findings from certain kinds of meditation and biofeedback are incorrect. They contend that high amplitude waves indicate relaxation. We have found that high amplitude alpha is a sign of high repression which produces a self-deceptive state of relaxation (Specifically, high amplitude brain waves indicate repression when they are measured in the occipital-parietal region of the brain). The person is simply well-defended." (1)


"It follows then that during meditation the INCREASE in alpha power seen is an outward manifestation of a more defended system, not a more relaxed one. To be sure, one is apparently relaxed in an external behavioral way, but the outer appearance is purchased at the expense of a tighter brain defense, or more accurately, by a higher gate to Primal Pain, which is metabolically costly, not metabolically conserving.

Those patients (in Primal Therapy) who previously practiced transcendental meditation have come to recognize that meditating is a subtle but quite effective defense which makes feeling more difficult. Because they want to feel their early Pain they abandon meditating, just as others abandon other tranquilizing release forms, such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and acting out, as (Primal) therapy progresses." (2)


This was very significant, not only for ground-breaking brain research that was to follow, but to make clear that certain forms of meditation may produce an artificial calm, that is, a calm only seen in opposition to what would be considered "uncalm" states, which therefore was just a temporary result. One needed to meditate again and again, argued Janov, to reduce the tension that was always trying to break through to consciousness.

Despite critics even among the primal community who argued that Janov reduced all spiritual experiences to repressed and symbolized birth material, his point still is worth noting. A temporarily stilled mind in meditation is not the same as the great Stillness of the already existing "Unborn" state that is our true nature according to the highest teachings in many traditions.

This great stillness, or "emptiness", remains whether thoughts are present or not. It is not an "altered state", but may require a transformation to be stably realized. Thus, while largely a materialist, Janov's cautions about meditation are not without merit.


Other writers have pointed out that the brain wave results will vary depending on the type of meditation exercised. As opposed to concentration methods that aim for absorptive states, vipassana meditation does not typically strive for dissociation from the body, but rather the noticing of what is arising to consciousness, thereby getting a knowledge or insight into the mechanisms of the mind. Greg Bogart points out:

"These two kinds of meditation may have very different effects on the practitioner and thus may have very different clinical applications. A comparison of two EEG studies showed that yogis in meditation are oblivious to the external world, while Zen meditators become keenly attuned to the environment.

Thus, different forms of meditation are associated with different patterns of brain activity and different forms of attention." (3,4)

Since then, a number of studies have been done on Buddhist monks, in which the Dalai Lama has been very much interested, which showed changes across the board in all brain wave readings in advanced participants.

The implications, in my opinion, were that here we had examples of relatively un-neurotic meditators who, not trying to escape reality, had the ability for deep concentration as well as a total practice that at least indirectly dealt with the unconscious in a grounding way.

An early study of Zen monks produced interesting findings as well:

"In 1963 a fascinating and unique report on Zen meditation was presented by Dr. Akira Kasamatsu and Dr. Tomio Hirai of the Department of Neuro-Psychiatry, Tokyo University. It contained the results of a ten-year study of the brain wave or electroencephalographic (EEG) tracings of Zen masters. (5,6)

The EEG tracings revealed that about ninety seconds after an accomplished Zen practitioner begins meditation, a rhythmic slowing in the brain wave pattern known as alpha waves occurs. This slowing occurs with eyes open and progresses with meditation, and after thirty minutes one finds rhythmic alpha waves of seven or eight per second. This effect persists for some minutes after meditation.

What is most significant is that this EEG pattern is notably different from those of sleep, normal waking consciousness, and hypnotic trance, and is unusual in persons who have not made considerable progress in meditation.

In other words, it suggests an unusual mental state; though from the subjective reports of the practitioners, it does not appear to be a unique or highly unusual conscious experience. It was also found that a Zen master's evaluation of the amount of progress another practitioner had made correlated directly with the latter's EEG changes.


Another finding of the same study concerned what is called alpha blocking and habituation. To understand these phenomena let us imagine that a person who is reading quietly is suddenly interrupted by a loud noise. For a few seconds his attention is diverted from the reading to the noise.

If the same sound is then repeated a few seconds later his attention will again be diverted, only not as strongly nor for as long a time. If the sound is then repeated at regular intervals, the person will continue reading and become oblivious to the sound.

A normal subject with closed eyes produces alpha waves on an EEG tracing. An auditory stimulation, such as a loud noise, normally obliterates alpha waves for seven seconds or more; this is termed alpha blocking.

In a Zen master the alpha blocking produced by the first noise lasts only two seconds. If the noise is repeated at 15 second intervals, we find that in the normal subject there is virtually no alpha blocking remaining by the fifth successive noise.

This diminution of alpha blocking is termed habituation and persists in normal subjects for as long as the noise continues at regular and frequent intervals. In the Zen master, however, no habituation is seen. His alpha blocking lasts two seconds with the first sound, two seconds with the fifth sound, and two seconds with the twentieth sound.

This implies that the Zen master has a greater awareness of his environment as the paradoxical result of meditative concentration. One master described such a state of mind as that of noticing every person he sees on the street but of not looking back with emotional lingering." (7)

Neuropsychologist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, who scans the brains of both Zen monks and yogis in his lab, found in a study of mere novices that:

"An eight-week course in compassion meditation, in which volunteers focus on the wish that all beings be free from suffering, shifted brain activity from the right prefrontal cortex to the left, a pattern associated with a greater sense of well-being." (8)

The deeksha courses promoted by Bhagavan "Kalki Avatar", at a cost of anywhere from $10 to $5000, claim to shift the brainwave activity from the front of the brain to the back. I am not sure why that would be spiritually significant, but it may be worth noting that to one such as Rudolph Steiner this might be seen as an atavistic practice - such as in the trepanning operations of the Egyptians which flattened the skull, thereby attempting to reverse (as he saw it) the evolutionary advance of consciousness seen in the Greeks from the rear-brain to the frontal cortex, and thereby clinging to the more ancient but yet relatively unconscious clairvoyance. Whether this is nonsense I do not know, but for more on this topic see The Secret Doctrine.]

But what exactly has this research proved or suggested? That there is life after death? One would, I think, have to say ,"no", at least not yet. Then what can we conclude? Simply this, that a very calm mind and body is achievable through concentration, that the mind can influence the body in a profound way, and that advanced meditators may achieve states that are qualitatively different from the ordinary waking, dream, and sleep states.

TM has always said much of this, too, but adds that the effects last after the meditation period is over. As mentioned above, Janov argued to the contrary, maintaining that the usual meditator needed to get his "fix" of calmness" on a regular basis to keep the demons of his subconscious and unconscious at bay and feel whole.

Thus, it appears that any carry over from the meditation period will depend on the general psycho-physical state of the individual, including his overall goals and fundamental understanding.

This had lead to an argument over the compatibility of meditation and psychotherapy, particular among Buddhists.

Jack Kornfield, in Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal, takes a syncretistic viewpoint, while Vipassana purist Patrick Kearney, in Still Crazy after all these Years: Why Meditation isn't Psychotherapy, argues against what he considers a "watered-down" form of Buddhist practice.

Other scientists such as Michael A. Persinger (Neuropsychological Basis of God Beliefs,1987) have written books based on the results of probing the right temporal lobe of the brain and producing what they termed the "God Experience", whether that resembles NDE's (Near Death Experiences, etc.) or other such phenomenon.

Some feel that there is no one area of the brain that can be localized as the source of these experiences, that a more complex network of connections is involved, but that they still originate in the brain.

This was the conclusion of a study on Carmelite nuns by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary (see their book, The Spiritual Brain), which found that the subjective experience of feeling in a state of union with God produced changes in brain activation in the "right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem", in other words, "brain regions involved in attention, bodily representation, visual imagery, emotion...and self-consciousness." Thus, there is no one "God spot".

The more atheistic among such type of researchers use this kind of data to argue against the existence of God ! Most, however, are simply content to dismiss any spiritual (or non-material) value for, or assign any spiritual nature to, such phenomenon. But is even this claim legitimate?

No, for at least two reasons.

One, just because an electrical probe can stimulate an area of the brain and produce such subjective experiences does not mean that when attention (the "outward expression of the soul", according to many spiritual traditions) recedes through the regions of the brain during the process of withdrawal at death giving the same experiences, that they are simply epi-phenomena produced by matter and not spiritually valid.

The experience happens within consciousness or awareness, whether there is a brain to modify those experiences or not. This issue borders on the perennially unsolvable mind-body problem.

No scientific experiment has ever or will ever bridge the gap between a nerve ending and consciousness.

The scientists have never experienced "matter" in itself, they only guess it exists outside of consciousness or their awareness of it.

This, of course, is the doctrine of Mentalism as taught by Paul Brunton and V.S. Iyer, and expressed in one form or another by men of insight for thousands of years.

A concise summary of point of view has been written by Chittaranjan Naik in his article Advaita and the Brain.

Furthermore, mystics, saints, and sages have long asserted that if anything, the heart is senior to the brain as far as consciousness is concerned. Interesting research has also shown many cases of the fascinating phenomenon of the Acquisition of Donor Traits by Heart Transplant Recipients (AntiMatters, Vol 1, No 1 (2007).

This is very interesting. The Frankenstein story would have one believe that, if it were possible, psychological data banks might be transferred from one person to another through brain transplantation, but the finding that such occurs in heart recipients suggests either some other form of "body memory" exists, or maybe even some remaining connection to what the occultists call the "seed atom" of the "causal body in the heart" that is transferred along with the physical heart to the new patient

Interestingly, one of the pioneers in this field, Neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, believed that man's brain alone could not account for all of the extraordinary activities of the human mind. He wrote:

"I conclude that there is no good evidence . . . that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does. . . . I believe that one should not pretend to draw a final scientific conclusion, in man's study of man, until the nature of the energy responsible for mind action is discovered, as in my own opinion, it will be." (9).

Two, mystic traditions in Sant Mat and Buddhism will agree that such experiences, stimulated or not, are only very preliminary ones had on the way out of the body.

Near-Death Experiencers who see a tunnel,visions of light, etc., never or very rarely actually pierce the veil and go beyond the actual limits of the brain.

Their experiences, while subjective and feeling like they are out of the body (and they certainly are abstracted and interior to normal outer awareness) are usually really not beyond the bodily dimension entirely, but pyschic or visionary phenomenon within the "sky of mind" in the braincore.

True passage through the interior structures such as the corpus collosum and then exit via "tenth door", the "brahmarendra", at the top of the head are infrequent and the beginning of much deeper experiences for the departed soul. These, it is assumed, would most often, and certainly during actual death, be beyond the reach of brainwave findings.

In the Sant Mat tradition, advanced meditators (granted, of which there may be few) may actually and fully leave the body and return, because, as it is maintained, the prana or life currents are not touched or manipulated, but only the attention or sensory currents, and also the so-called "silver cord" mentioned in the Bible is not broken.

Thus, one would expect in the case of an advanced initiate on this path that the brain waves would uniformly reduce to a fairly low level if the soul was truly out of the body, for that is what gives life to the pranas and body alike.

With certain types of kundalini yoga where the pranas are involved, and certainly some exotic forms of yoga where the heart may stop and the body even seem to go into suspended animation, brain-waves may almost cease.

Yet, again, what does that prove, to the sceptic and non-sceptic alike? Should it help a scientist and his flock believe in life after death, or the spritual nature of man? Not really. How can it?

Why should it?

To be truly convincing such an experiment must be made subjectively, within the depths of oneself, and not objectively, in the laboratory.

Some fringe elements of those hyping the chique right temporal lobe research hypothesize that the evolution of man required the development of this brain structure to produce such experiences to act as a consoling, pain-reducing belief system to counter the brutish normal existence of the human being: in other words, psychological defense mechanisms serving our survival instinct and need to deny death.

These researchers see no spiritual reality to such experiences at all. Janov also argued for such a materialistic and utilitarian view, saying that the cortex evolved largely to shunt off and symbolize pain intruding from the reptilian and limbic brains and make man's life tolerable.

These views are interesting and internally consistent, but psychologically, philosophically, and perhaps even scientifically not very satisfying. Other reasons offered by reductionistic critics of NDE's, for instance, have been sensory deprivation, drug side effects, endorphin release, genetically programmed neurological patterns that surface at the time of extreme biological crisis as the body's systems are shutting down, oxygen deprivation, and metabolic toxicity. (10)

Finally, what about the value of brainwave research in relationship to ultimate non-dual enlightenment itself, true self-awakening, as opposed to the attainment of various mystical and meditational states?

It would appear that the awakened being would not necessarily show anything out of the ordinary through such means.

As his awakening is constant throughout all states (waking, dreaming, sleeping, ordinary life or meditation), there would only be the normal permutations inherent in such passing states, but no particular brainwave pattern to distinguish his enlightenment itself - with one caveat.

This is, inasmuch as his being awake as Consciousness may lead the human vehicle or body-mind, based on its past history, to reharmonize itself to whatever degree is possible in this lifetime, we might not be surprised to see an improvement in various indicators showing less stress present in the system, and perhaps characteristic paterns as well.

It is reasonable to assume that the longer one resides in the awakened state, the more likelihood there would be of detectible psycho-physical changes by scientific measurement.

This would also be true if the condition of the jnani or awakened one is akin to 'being asleep while awake', as in turiya or sahaja, as described in scriptures. Ken Wilber offers some interesting preliminary evidence for this possibility.

Of course, it would certainly be fascinating - if it were possible - to see the test results of someone experiencing the sahasrara lit up by the ascending kundalini force, or a Tibetan adept who was experiencing smoke or vapor emitting from the top of his skull at the time of death (or others, such as the disciple of Ramana Maharshi, Ganapati Muni, who had such an experience, the yogic phenomenon known in the Taittirya Upanishad as vyapohya sirsha kapale, or the "breaking of the skull," even before his death).

Yes, it would be most interesting seeing the brain waves of someone like the Gwalyang Karmapa who near the time of his passing seemed in rapid succession to absorb disease after disease upon his own body as if he were purifying the karmas of the world. But otherwise, if we are to believe the emerging non-dualist teachers, at any rate, one would not ordinarily expect or need the awakened individual to 24/7 exhibit dramatically altered vital signs, frequency, amplitude or abnormal patterning of brain waves on various scans, etc., as the awakened state itself is not an altered state of any kind.

As Ramana once remarked, "the jnani is invisible even to God." Nor would he need to have a super-conducting, crystalized pineal gland or any other spectacular transformation of body or mind, unless perhaps it was his karma, in addition to being awake, to be a maha-siddha or great yogi of a particular sort!

Furthermore, there would be no need to lament, as J. Krishnamurti did, that he had failed to fully transform his brain cells, or to assert, as "U.G." did, that even though there is fundamentally no psyche or "me", that enlightenment is a physiological rather than a psychological event (see The Two Krishnamurtis).

This would leave the brainwave research, except for its psycho-therapeutic implications, and general contribution to human knowledge, as an intriguing and amusing pastime, with no necessary profundity regarding matters of the most spiritual importance......except, perhaps, as one more skillful means for the bodhisattva to help lead all beings towards the path of enlightenment.

Which is probably a large part of why His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the embodiment of Avalokitesvara, is interested in such research.

"Having never left the house you are asking for the way home.

Get rid of wrong ideas, that is all.

Collecting right ideas also will take you nowhere.

Don't rely on your mind for liberation.

It is the mind that brought you into bondage.

Go beyond it altogether.

The first steps in self-acceptance are not at all pleasant,

for what one sees is not a happy sight.

One needs all the courage to go further.

What helps is silence.

Look at yourself in total silence, do not describe yourself.

Once you are quiet, things will begin to happen

spontaneously and quite naturally,

without any interference on your part."

~ Nisargadatta Maharaj


Addendum

There are many other forms of research being done than such types of brainwave studies. Attempts to produce evidence to support theories such as "zero-point", "morphogenic fields" and "holographic" views of the mind and universe can also be found.

These may even be of more importance in convincing people of the non-physical dimensions of consciousness. One such study was done by Dr. Jacob Grinberg-Zylberbaum and published in Physics Essays.

Subjects were placed in Faraday cages and asked to meditate on the "feeling of oneness with each other". The metal enclosures were to ensure blockage of electromagnetic signals passing between them.

Then one of the meditators was exposed to a series of flickering lights.

The result of the experiment was that the EEG recordings of BOTH meditators at the time of the light flashes were the same, repeatedly, in 25% of the attempts, a highly significant statistical result, in that there were no such results in control groups of non-meditators. (11)

Another interesting study offers scientific evidence in support of the view of advaita that there is no such thing as free will. This finding is quite amazing.

Notes:

1. Arthur Janov, Prisoners of Pain (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980), p. 149

2. Arthur Janov and E. Michael Holden Primal Man, The New Consciousness (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975), p. 516-517

3. Anand, B.K., Chhina, G.S., & Singh, B. Some Aspects of EEG Studies in Yogis. Electroencephalography & Clinical Neurophysiology, 13:452 56, 1961.

4. Kasamatsu, A. & Hirai, T. An Electroencephalographic Study on the Zen Meditation (Zazen). Psychologia, 12:205-25, 1969.


(Notes 3 & 4 found in: Meditation And Psychotherapy, A Review of the Literature)

5. The Science of Zazen (a 16 mm. sound motion picture and accompanying pamphlet, both in English), by A. Kasamatsu and T. Hirai. Tokyo University. April, 1963.

6. Folia Psychiatrica et Neurologica Japonica, Vol. 20, No. 4. "An Electroencephalographic Study of the Zen Meditation (Zazen)", by Akira Kasamatsu and Tomio Hirai. December, 1966, pp. 315-36.

7. Buddhist Meditation and Depth Psychology by Douglas M. Burns.

8. Sharon Begley, "What the Beatles Gave Science," from Newsweek, Nov. 19, 2007, p. 59

9. (Penfield, Wilder. (1975). The Mystery of the Mind. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 114)

10. Eliot Jay Rosen, Experiencing the Soul (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 1998), p. 241

11. Ibid, p. 224-225


These notes are offered here for interest only and whilst they may be absolutely accurate we recommend you rely on your own judgment for your progression on this wonderful wonderful journey.

Love and Many Blessings

Carol & Rod.

 

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