In a laboratory tucked away off a noisy New York City street, a soft-spoken neuroscientist has been placing Tibetan Buddhist monks into a car-sized brain scanner to better understand the ancient practice of meditation
Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganize themselves during the exercise since 2008.
The researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a five-ton (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to specifically look at the default network in the brain, which controls self-reflective thoughts. Josipovic says that meditation cultivates attentional skills and allows the neural networks to lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments
Shifting attention. Dr Josipovic's research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain. He says the brain appears to be organized into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.
Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators during the study. The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee. The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.
But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down. This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.
"What we're trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention," Dr Josipovic says.
Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation – that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously. BBC News, New York, Matt Danzico (edited for brevity).