“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day Ten: Can Meditation Alter the Circuitry of Your (Dog's) Brain?

When Zoe was a puppy, there were two ways to pacify her when she was all revved up.

One was to give her something to chew.

The other was to get her close to the river.  When she was gazing out at moving water, she seemed to go into a trance.


This was especially true when we found a vacation place on Topsail Island, North Carolina, that took dogs.  She was content to spend hours on the deck just staring at the waves.

Now, when I go to my writing & yoga & meditation studio in the early morning, she comes with me and heads to the balcony.  She would be content to stay there for hours, barely moving, just watching the river as it flows on past our house.  I would bet if a neuroscientist popped in to measure her brain activity, they'd see a whole lot of gamma waves.

Photo by Tara Freeman, December 7, 2011

Researchers studying the plasticity of the brain have discovered that meditation changes the brain's structure.  In a 2004 study, the Dalai Lama and senior monks and novices agreed to have their brains scanned by neuroscientists.  The researchers wanted to see if the brains of those who have spent significant hours of their life meditating have anything in common.  Quoted in an article about the encounter in The Wall Street Journal, neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison says,"Of all the concepts in modern neuroscience, it is neuroplasticity that has the greatest potential for meaningful interaction with Buddhism,"

The monks in Dharamsala (where I went this summer) who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation and volunteers who were new to Buddhism were asked to practice "compassion" meditation where they attempt to generate feelings of loving kindness towards all other beings.

The article continues that "the latter showed a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves during compassion meditation.  Thought to be the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits, gamma waves underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators 'showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,' says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness."

Of course in this experiment, the researchers could not rule out the possibility that the senior monks already had different brains before they began, and hence their attraction to a life in which compassion towards all sentient beings is part of the job description.

And although the water certainly makes Zoe calm, I am not sure if her meditations on the studio deck have increased her compassion for all other living beings.  When the great blue heron swoops down to do its own morning meditation (standing still and staring out for long periods of time, often seemingly balanced on one leg, as in the yoga tree pose) or another dog dares to romp on the path across the river that Zoe thinks is part of her domain, the meditative state dissolves, territoriality resumes, and intense barking ensues.



1 comment:

  1. The dog of my childhood, a mutt who was part labrador retriever, used to love to go sailing with us. He'd stand with his head out the front hatch, just looking at the waves and smelling the scents that came with the wind, for hours.