Thursday, November 1, 2012

The World's Happiest Man?

Brainwaves are at best an indirect measure of consciousness, but that fact alone does not render them useless for assessing an individual's degree of realization. Back in 1999 neuroscientist James Austin reviewed the existing studies on advanced meditators and concluded in Zen and the Brain that the intensity of brainwaves in the gamma range seemed to correlate closely with the reported quality of spiritual experiences. Brainwaves are a measure of the overall firing rate of neurons as recorded by an electroencephalograph (EEG). Researchers classify these waves into six frequency categories. Delta has a frequency of up to 4 Hz, Theta from 4-8 Hz, Alpha and Mu from 8-13 Hz, Beta from 13-30 Hz, and Gamma 30 Hz and above. The latter, therefore, represent the highest frequency waves that EEG scans have found.

Researchers have now announced that during deep meditation the brain of Matthieu Ricard, a colleague of the Dalai Lama, appears to produce the highest level of gamma waves ever measured. This prompted popular media outlets to announce that Ricard had been identified as "the world's happiest man," which is perhaps a bit of a stretch given the subjectivity happiness. Based on the previous research, though, a solid case can be made that at the very least he is one of the most realized. The EEG may not be a genuine consciousness measure, but it certainly provides a great deal of insight into the states of consciousness reached during meditation and other similar practices.

The brain scans of Matthieu Ricard, a renowned Buddhist thinker, show that his gray matter emits a quantity of gamma waves "never reported before in the neuroscience literature" when he meditates on compassion, a scientist says. Gamma waves are associated with memory, learning, attention, and consciousness.

The tests also showed that his brain's left prefrontal cortex was extremely active, which increases his propensity for happiness and reduces negativity. "It shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are," says the 66-year-old Buddhist.

The volume of research showing the neurological benefits of meditation has been accumulating for years. James Randi and a handful of other hard-core skeptics may still be going around describing meditation as useless "navel-gazing" but at this point few real scientists take that perspective very seriously. This is doubly true of neuroscientists and other researchers who study the brain. Furthermore, there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that as far as spiritual practices go, the experiences of Eastern meditators and Western mystics appear to be quite similar if not identical. My personal experience as a practitioner of both magick and meditation seem to bear this out, but it would be quite beneficial to see more research specifically performed on Western esotericists as well as Buddhists.

I alluded to such research in my last post on quantum consciousness, but a friend of mine probably rightly pointed out that any academic researcher who tried to study ritual magicians would run into a lot of trouble being taken seriously, let alone securing funding. Buddhists seem to be considered "safe" for this sort of research, even though the Tibetan Vajrayana practiced by the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa school in fact has as much in common with magick as it does with Mahayana Buddhist schools like Zen. At the moment I'm gearing up to get a hold of and start working with the new Emotiv EPOC headset, which is a personal EEG device that is wireless and can therefore be worn during rituals. I figure if this is research no academic will touch, the only remaining solution is to do it myself.

Among the various Buddhist schools, Vajrayana bills itself as the fast path to enlightenment, and Ricard's EEG results suggest that this may literally be true in a neurological sense. What Westerners should keep in mind, though, is that our culture has its own "fast path" that shares a number of technologies with Tibetan Buddhist methods. We call it magick.

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Imago said...

One of my particular attractions to Vajrayana as a path is it's active use of visualization, color, ritual and so forth. It would be interesting to see more research done on meditators in this school.

Try to get one o' them EEG units soon! We could see how the results change up when using the LS machine, too.

Scott Stenwick said...

It's particularly interesting to look at Vajrayana from a magical perspective, because so many of its methods employ similar techniques to Western ceremonial magick. The godform assumption techniques, for example, are nearly identical.

I'm thinking it's going be around Christmas that I finally will get that EEG unit. I'm really looking forward to seeing how brainwaves shift at various points during a magical ritual.