All too many years ago, while I was still a psychology graduate student, I ran an experiment to assess how well meditation might work as an antidote to stress. My professors were skeptical, my measures were weak, and my subjects were mainly college sophomores. Not surprisingly, my results were inconclusive.
But today I feel vindicated.
To be sure, over the years there have been scores of studies that have looked at meditation, some suggesting its powers to alleviate the adverse effects of stress. But only last month did what I see as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky hypothesis, by revealing the brain mechanism that may account for meditation’s singular ability to soothe.
The data has emerged as one of many experimental fruits of an unlikely research collaboration: the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious and political leader in exile, and some of top psychologists and neuroscientists from the United States. The scientists met with the Dalai Lama for five days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to discuss how people might better control their destructive emotions.
One of my personal heroes in this rapprochement between modern science and ancient wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, in recent research using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis, has identified an index for the brain’s set point for moods.
The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed — the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the brain’s emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.