RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: I think the best way to develop a scientific understanding of meditation is to apply the tools of rigorous neuroscience and psychological science. It's fundamentally not different than understanding how other kinds of therapeutic interventions work. There is a technology for such rigorous assessment of the mediating mechanisms through which various kinds of interventions might work. We just have not yet seen the widespread application of these rigorous procedures to the study of meditation. It's just beginning to happen now.
DANIEL REDWOOD: You've done research with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. What did you find?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: That was a study that was done with employees of a high-tech company here in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a study where we randomly assigned individuals to a meditation group or a wait-list control group. We were primarily interested in some of the biological effects of meditation. What we found is a change in brain activity over the course of eight weeks of training. The change was a shift in the pattern of prefrontal activation toward a pattern which we had previously identified as being more indicative of positive emotions.
DANIEL REDWOOD: So activation occurs in some parts of the brain with positive emotions and in other parts of the brain with negative emotions.
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: Yes, and what we saw was a shift toward the positive in the meditators. The second thing we did was to administer an influenza vaccine to the participants and we looked at antibody titers mounted in response to the vaccine. We specifically predicted that there should be an enhancement of the immune response to the vaccine if certain changes were brought about by meditation. In fact, we found that the meditation group showed significantly greater antibody response to the meditation intervention when compared to the control group.
DANIEL REDWOOD: And this would reflect a strengthening of the immune system.
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: That's correct.
DANIEL REDWOOD: Could you describe your work with Tibetan monks who are long-term meditators?
RICHARD DAVIDSON, PHD: This is a very unusual project that is still ongoing. It was launched with the active encouragement and facilitation by the Dalai Lama himself, and what we are doing is testing very long-term practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. These are practitioners who have devoted at least 10,000 hours to formal practice. The average number of lifetime practice hours for this is 35,000. So these are very experienced practitioners. These are, in many ways, the Olympic athletes of meditation. These are individuals who have spent at least one three-year period in retreat, where they were meditating for approximately eight hours a day for three continuous years.
In this project, what we are interested in is using these individuals as experts to help define what the farther reaches of mind training might be. So these individuals are really helping us to define these end points. We’re studying many different things with them. In our initial publication which came out in 2004, we examined patterns of brain electrical activity during certain meditation practices and found a very unusual pattern of very high amplitude, highly synchronized gamma activity. This is very high frequency activity in the electroencephalogram (EEG) which is typically found, in untrained subjects, for a much, much shorter period of time during periods of focused attention and perceptual integration.