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Can people change their brains and behaviour through meditation?

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1820-1840 water colour/Brooklyn Museum

Here’s an interesting look at how mindfulness meditation works:

If a friend or relative won $100 and then offered you a few dollars, would you accept this windfall? The logical answer would seem to be, sure, why not? “But human decision making does not always appear rational,” said Read Montague, professor of physics at Virginia Tech and director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

According to research conducted over the last three decades; only about one-fourth of us would say, “Sure. Thanks.” The rest would say, “But that’s not fair. You have lots. Why are you only giving me a few?” In fact, people will even turn down any reward rather than accept an ‘unfair’ share.

Unless they are Buddhist meditators, in which case – fair or not – more than half will take what is offered, according to new research by Ulrich Kirk, research assistant professor with the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech; Jonathan Downar, assistant professor with the Neuropsychiatry Clinic and the Centre for Addition and Mental Health at the University of Toronto; and Montague, published in the April 2011 issue of Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience.

Their research shows that Buddhist meditators use different areas of the brain than other people when confronted with unfair choices, enabling them to make decisions rationally rather than emotionally. The meditators had trained their brains to function differently and make better choices in certain situations.

Non-materialist neuroscience is not about woo-woo. It starts with the premise that you are not your brain, in sum, and that by focusing directed attention on a given feeling or behaviour, you can guide it in a more mature or more healthy direction.

The meditators had doubtless decided that getting upset with someone close to them over a few dollars was just not worthwhile, and were able to shape their behaviour to reflect that fact.

Note: One need not, of course, be a Buddhist, but Buddhists have led the way in developing this approach.

See also The Spiritual Brain.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

6 Replies to “Can people change their brains and behaviour through meditation?

  1. 1
    goodusername says:

    “Non-materialist neuroscience is not about woo-woo. It starts with the premise that you are not your brain, in sum, and that by focusing directed attention on a given feeling or behaviour, you can guide it in a more mature or more healthy direction.”

    –Are you saying that this is an example of “non-materialist neuroscience”? And if so, how does it differ from materialist neuroscience? Also, are you implying that “materialist neuroscience” believes that by “focusing directed attention on a given feeling or behaviour” that you CAN’T “guide it in a more mature or more healthy direction”? (I’ve never seen anyone, materialist or otherwise, suggest such a thing).

  2. 2
    UrbanMysticDee says:

    It’s true, we meditators are more rational than ordinary mortals. I have been meditating for five years and I would accept the crappy gift.

  3. 3
    ciphertext says:

    I suppose, for me anyway, it would depend upon the motives of the gift giving. Being someone is close to me and says “Hey ciphertext, I just got $100 USD. Here, take $5 USD and share in my winnings.” I would say “Gee thanks!”. I would realize that the gift of $5 USD, while monetarily not a huge amount, would in fact be $5 more than I had previously. Besides, it was a “gift”. Meaning the person wasn’t expecting anything in return.

    What I understood as the salient point of the article wasn’t that Buddhist meditators used different areas of their brain, or even that using different areas of our brain correlated to making rational/emotional decisions in this particular study. Rather, to me, I notice that the sample population this professor used over the past three decades contained some very ungrateful persons. Around 75% of that sample population it would seem. Seems they would rather turn down, rather than accept a gift that they deem “below their worth”.

    Reminds me of an axiom, For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

  4. 4
    Joseph says:

    According to research conducted over the last three decades; only about one-fourth of us would say, “Sure. Thanks.” The rest would say, “But that’s not fair. You have lots. Why are you only giving me a few?” In fact, people will even turn down any reward rather than accept an ‘unfair’ share.

    Seeing there isn’t/ wasn’t any “share” those people have serious issues.

    That means about 75% of humans have serious issues and should seek help.

  5. 5
    ciphertext says:

    Seeing there isn’t / wasn’t any “share”…

    Good point. Do you think there is a correlation with this effect and an “entitlement mentality”?

  6. 6
    Joseph says:

    In the word of Rocky Balboa- “Absolutely”

    It seems that all losers/ non-winners feel entitled to the winnings, yet when they win they are the last to share.

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