Essentially this is the story of Compassion, Monks and an FMRI Scanner.
The heart is seen as primary in relation to emotional regulation in Chinese Medicine. One of the obstacles faced by western science is understanding why this might be. I have written posts before on ‘Towards a spirit of Peace’ (1) which references a text on ‘Shen disorder’, and so I will not go into the more poetic and integrated body mind model from Chinese medicine here. Instead I will write about the work that is putting the ‘heart mind’ into a context that can be referenced and understood by western science and medicine.
Richard J Davidson is professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as well as Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center. (2)
I recently saw him talk about his work in ‘Transform your mind, Change your Brain – Google talk’ on youtube.(3)
In it he states “Epigenetics – referrers to the fact that genes are regulated by the environments in which they reside”
“The idea that our genetic structure provide an unalterable blueprint that effects our behaviour in an unalterable way is an antiquated, wrong- headed, Newtonian conception of genetics, it’s not the way things work.”
He emphasises that “the brain is the organ, which is built to change in response to experience more than any other organ in our body.”
Essentially what he is talking about is how behavioural and mental changes can produce more specific neurological changes than biological intervention, for example medication.
One of the books that changed my perspective on the brain was ‘The Plastic Mind – by Sharon Begley’(4).
This book talked about the results of studies involving the Dalai Lama and monks who were being studied under an MRI scanner by Richard J Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. During the scans they were meditating on compassion. The results showed what many Buddhist meditation practitioners already knew, Mediation changes your mind, crucially it showed that it was making neurological changes to the brain and proved neuroplasticity in meditation.
Richard J Davidson works at the cutting edge of Neuroplasticity. He also is also an expert in Affective Neuroscience (study of emotions).
During his talk he describes how when he and his team went to a monastery to explain to the monks what the process for recording data was, his team attached electrodes to the head of Fransisco Varela (5) who would perform the meditation. The response from the monks was that they started laughing. At first he thought it was because the electrodes looked silly on the head of Fransisco, but it emerged that it was because the electrodes were not placed around the heart. He said it took some years to get back to this.
During compassion meditation the Insula is one of the most active areas of the brain.
The Insula (anterior insula) houses a viscera topic map of the body (19min into google talk), visceral organs are mapped in the insula. This part of the brain has descending pathways to these organs and can modulate activity in those organs (there are also pathways to other parts of the brain). The Insula can modulate activity in the visceral organs. Meditation can also affect the amygdala and the TPJ or Temporal Parietal Junction which is associated with empathy.
Research like this into meditation is useful, for example, in understanding regulation of the vagus nerve because ‘many sensory signals conveyed by the vagus nerve terminate here’ – in the insula(6). In relation to the heart this will have big implications because of the relationship between the vagus nerve and heart.(7)
One of the problems with the idea of neuroplasticity is that it isn’t a mainstream idea yet.
Research like this begins to shed light onto the heart mind body brain relationship and forms a bridge in understanding the important relationship between meditation, emotional regulation and the heart and other organs of the body.
This research has far reaching implications not just for medicine but for education as well.(8)
3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tRdDqXgsJ0 google talks