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Meditation meets brain research

Interview with Prof. Dr. med. Dr. h. c. mult. Wolf Singer, Max-Planck-Institute for Brain Research and member of the ICNF

Wolf Singer, one of the best-known brain researchers in Germany, heads the Department of Neurophysiology at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt. In 2004 he was one of the founding members of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies (FIAS). Singer became known well beyond his field with his conviction that people only have a limited free will. Singer is friends with the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who lives in a monastery in Nepal and simultaneously enjoys considerable recognition as a French scientist. Together Singer and Ricard have written a book on “Brain Research and Meditation”.

In an interview with our ICNF Newsletter editor Nicola A. Mögel, Wolf Singer explains how the east-west dialogue came about.

Editor: How does a brain researcher come upon meditation? Do you have personal experience or professional interest in meditation?

Singer: About 15 years ago I discovered neuronal synchronization phenomena in the brain. [1] This was something quite new. Completely independently from myself, US scientists started to record brain electrical activity (based on EEG) during meditation with proficient meditators such as Buddhist monks. One of the monks was Matthieu Ricard. The American researchers observed synchronization phenomena that looked exactly like those discovered by my colleagues and I. From this background, Matthieu Ricard and I first met up at a conference in Paris held in honor of the brain researcher Francisco Varela from Chile. Based on our knowledge, I tried to interpret what the US researchers had measured.

There was also a second encounter. My two daughters planned to make a joint film about resonance in India and its neighboring countries. One of my daughters is involved in brain research and the other is a music scientist. Part of the film was to be a discussion between a western scientist and an eastern spiritualist. My daughter also got to know Matthieu Ricard who was living in Nepal in a monastery. My daughter invited me to have a discussion with Matthieu. Out of this meeting grew a friendship.

In the meantime (2006) I was also seeking some time out, in completely stress-free surroundings. I found a place in the Schwarzwald with a very strict Zen meditation group, although I first discovered it after my arrival. So quite unprepared, I landed up in a completely closed off, still environment without eye contact between the participants. I was simply advised to copy what the others were doing. Then for ten days long I sat for eight hours before a white wall, and a teacher, who joined me for a few minutes each day, explained primarily what I should not do. What I experienced there moved me deeply and fascinated me.

At the next meeting with Matthieu Ricard I suggested we have a discussion about what can be explained neurophysiologically about Buddhist meditation and where the boundary lies with naturalistic interpretations.

Editor: How do you talk with the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard?

Singer: What is interesting about Ricard is that he himself is a scientist. He was a molecular biologist in the lab of the French Nobel Prize winner François Jacob at the top-ranking Pasteur Institute in Paris. This is where he worked on his PhD for several years. During a holiday in Burma he met a Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama and became inspired by Buddhism. Over time he converted to becoming a monk. Ricard knows how to speak like a scientist and at the same time has the meditation experience of a Buddhist monk. With only spiritual experience one cannot really communicate like a scientist. Spiritualists describe their subjective experiences, which due to their special choice of words is difficult to represent scientifically.

With Ricard I spoke in French. However, when we are recording material for our next book we speak in English. So we already have the manuscript for our next book in English.

I talked about many things with Ricard on my visit to Nepal. We are currently working on 16-hours of recorded discussions, which we want to turn into a large book. The book that appeared from Suhrkamp Publishers in May 2008 “Hirnforschung und Meditation. Ein Dialog“ is only the first part of this. Here, for example, Ricard describes meditation as the state of highest wakefulness and I explain the physiological brain processes of this state. EEG measurements confirm the fact that meditating monks are fully awake and concentrated.

Editor: What themes occupy you and Matthieu Ricard?

Singer: Besides brain research and meditation there are several other interesting aspects of Buddhism for brain researchers. This most certainly includes the question about the constitution of “I”, that is the “I” concept in Buddhism. The Buddhist concept of autonomy and free will is quite different from our culture. Discussions about the limits of free will that arise with us would not apply to them. Buddhists feel integrated into a huge network of determinism, that is the dependence of the will on inner and external causes, which cannot be separated. Thus brain theories that are intuitively included by Buddhists are very similar to what our science has revealed. This is why my Buddhist discussion partner is not impressed by the elucidation. For Buddhist Ricard, ontological dualism is not so clearly formulated as what still prevails in the east. This is why the body-spirit problem, which poses the philosophical question as to how the mental state (spirit) relates to the physical state (the body), is not nearly as defined as is the case with us.

Editor: Does meditation alter the brain?

Singer: Meditation trains the ability to focus attention. This is shown by measurements testing the attentional blink. In these experiments pictures are shown so rapidly after another that not all the pictures can be registered. Young people miss fewer pictures, older people generally miss more, i.e. the attentional blink interval increases with age. As shown several times this does not apply to people who meditate a lot. Older people show the same results as the younger candidates.

In addition, there is evidence of morphological changes. The cerebral cortex increases in volume in certain areas. Similar changes are observed with jugglers. When they are training regularly, the part of the cerebral cortex required to carry out the complex juggling maneuvers increases in volume. Thus it seems that practicing intensive meditation induces structural changes in the brain. Actually, this is true for all who practice hard and applies to a skier, pianist or violinist. The take home message is: meditation leads to changes in the brain, it is not autosuggestion.

Editor: Thank you very much Prof. Singer for your time and I wish you much enjoyment and success for your new book with Matthieu Ricard.

About the book:

Wolf Singer, Matthieu Ricard: Hirnforschung und Meditation. Ein Dialog. Paperback, 133 Pages. Publisher: Suhrkamp. Reihe: Edition Unseld. May 2008. New impression: 12 November 2008.

ISBN-10: 3518260049
ISBN-13: 978-3518260043

Preis: 10.00 Euro.

[1] Investigations into the structural and functional organization of the human brain proved that highly parallel processing of information takes place in the sensory and motoric systems. A multitude of fragmented aspects of the sensory world are simultaneously analyzed in various regions of the cerebral cortex; individual sub-results are sent on to executive structures without ever resulting in bringing together the fragmented results in a singular center. As a mechanism for coordinating the highly parallel and distributed information processing, professor Singer and colleagues proposed synchronization oscillatory activity to connect the distributed neuronal responses. (Year Book 2008, MPI for Brain Research.).


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