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Mindful : December 2017
ichie Davidson has always been a maverick. While other neuroscien- tists focused their attention on the mechanics of how to think harder and better, he was intrigued by a different question: What is a truly relaxed and focused mind capable of? His own practice of medita- tion and his encounters with experienced meditators offered him personal, anecdotal evidence for the pro- found effects of mindfulness and other kinds of prac- tices, but could he demonstrate that in a laboratory setting? Davidson has devoted his career to that quest, which is chronicled in a new book written with Daniel Goleman, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. The neuroscience of meditation investigates the full range of practice, from beginners who’ve never medi- tated before to practitioners who’ve done extended training programs to adept Olympic-level meditators who’ve logged more than 12,000 lifetime hours of meditation. Mingyur Rinpoche, a 42-year-old meditation master and teacher, is the classic Olympic-level meditator, who also has an abiding interest in scientific investigation. By the time he arrived at Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin in 2002, Mingyur had already amassed more than 62,000 hours of meditation, including 10 full years on retreat—the perfect candi- date to demonstrate the long-term impact of repeated meditation prac- tice. But even the unruffled, methodi- cally exacting Davidson was surprised at what happened next. During the first session, a researcher instructed Ming yur, who had been hooked up to an EEG machine, to prac- tice meditation to generate compassion for 60 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, then repeat the cycle three more times. As soon as Mingyur started medi- tating, the team of researchers was stunned by the unprecedented surge of electrical activity that appeared on the computer screens. At first, they thought Mingyur must have moved his head slightly, a common problem with EEG machines, which are notoriously sensitive to body movements. But as the session continued, Mingyur remained motionless, and every time the signal to meditate came on, the computers came alive the same way. “The lab team knew at that moment they were witnessing something profound, something that had never before been observed in the labora- tory,” write Davidson and Goleman in their book. “None could predict what this would lead to, but everyone sensed this was a critical inflection point in neuroscience history.” For Goleman and Davidson, this moment was a long time coming. Both of them had become interested in meditation after spending time prac- ticing in India when they were grad- R