By Jean Latz Griffin
You need to focus your attention, you decide. You have to find that zone where you can concentrate on a complicated task and tease out the best solution, get creativity flowing or immerse yourself in that historical science fiction fantasy Western you’re trying to write.
You’re not a newbie at this stuff. You’ve read the books and listened to the tapes. You know what you need is for the neurons in your prefrontal cortex to start oscillating in unison.
That prefrontal cortex is your brain’s planning center and right now you need those oscillations – gamma waves – to fire on and off at the same time and direct your attention to the matter at hand. Getting the gamma waves in synch will enable you to override your brain’s tendency to be distracted by the jerk on the phone in the cubicle next to you or your spouse practicing the bass in the spare room.
It appears that there are at least two ways to do that.
The first way is to meditate. It’s been around at least since the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and has been practiced by many cultures and traditions.
The second is to aim pulses of laser light at specific neurons in your brain. It’s still in at the laboratory stage, but could be come part of our lives soon. It works on monkeys.
Together, meditation and pulses of laser light make up one of many examples of how the worlds of physical science and seemingly transcendental experiences aren’t as far apart as some think.
Let’s look at lasers first.
Scientists from Stanford and MIT report in the April 26 online issue of Nature that they have successfully caused gamma waves to be produced in mice by hitting neurons with pulses of laser light.
According to a recent NYT article describing the research, these pulses of light might someday be able to be generated from a wireless device worn much like a hearing aid.
Since an inability to regulate gamma waves is one of the major problems in mental illness, this could help people with schizophrenia and attention deficit problems. MIT scientists reported in the current issue of Neuron that this technique has worked in monkeys.
Now meditation. People who practice meditation, from Tibetan monks to everyday people, report a increased calmness and focus. The more they meditate the more pronounced is the change.
Only recently, however, have Western scientists found physical evidence that this calmness and focus occurs because meditation changes the brain, and does so by increasing gamma wave activity. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin studied Tibetan monks and reported their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November of 2004.
“What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before,” UW neuroscientist Richard Davidson told the Washington Post in 2005. “Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance.”
Since then, not suprisingly, selling methods to increase gamma waves has become a growth industry. As with any such claims, be wary. You might do just as well to sit quietly and gaze at a candle.
But the take-away here is that what we consider science and what we consider religion/spirituality/mindfulness aren’t as far apart as they might seem. Meditation and pulses of laser light both appear to change our brains in the same way. This connection isn’t unique. For example, many see strong similarities between the “new physics” and the old mysticism regarding some key concepts about the universe.
We will be delving into this more over the coming weeks. And watch for a companion blog to be launched in early June that will examine writings about these connections that go back 2,600 years and come from all traditions. Working title: God Swimming in God.