How mindfulness meditation works — and changes the brain’s architecture – Science News – ABC News

It’s touted to relieve pain, lower stress and anxiety, and bolster cognitive performance, but does the practice of mindfulness physically change the brain — and if so, how do we know?

key points

Key points:

First, it’s important to know that mindfulness programs can take many forms, from free mobile apps to highly structured, weeks-long guided sessions. So all these different habits are likely to produce different effects.

In neuroscience research circles, there are two major mindfulness regimens: mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

People undertaking the mindfulness-based stress reduction course receive eight weeks of intensive mindfulness training, which takes elements from practices such as meditation and yoga.

It’s been around since the 1970s and, as its name suggests, it was created to alleviate anxiety and stress.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, on the other hand, was primarily designed for those with depression. It weaves aspects of mindfulness — like meditation — together with a type of psychotherapy.

In the past decade, high-resolution brain imaging has let us look beneath the skull and find out what effects these mindfulness programs have on the way the brain works.

How mindfulness shapes the brain

It’s still a burgeoning field, but a few different studies have suggested mindfulness interventions increase the volume of brain regions that help regulate emotion and attention.

One area that seems to get chunkier is called the anterior cingulate cortex, according to Neil Bailey, a neuroscientist at Monash University.

“The function of this region seems to be related to choosing between competing brain processes,” he said.

“So if you’ve got a part of your brain that’s saying ‘eat the doughnut’ and another part of your brain that’s saying ‘no, do your homework’, the anterior cingulate cortex is the part that decides which to focus on.”

If the anterior cingulate cortex focuses attention, it’s the prefrontal cortex — responsible for complex cognition — that sustains that focus. It also seems to thicken up with a bit of mindfulness training.

The hippocampus and amygdala, which are primarily responsible for memory and emotional processing respectively, change as well — in the strength of their connections.

When the amygdala is activated, it can trigger the “fight or flight” response, the reflex that gets your heart pumping and your body ready to react to a threat.

It’s thought that some people with anxiety disorders have a hyper-responsive amygdala, eliciting fight or flight even when there’s no life-threatening danger.

After a bout of mindfulness training, the amygdala might still kick in, but messages feeding into it from the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus that give context to the situation — that it’s not a life or death scenario — may be stronger.

“What research has shown is that there’s less amygdala activity after a mindfulness intervention and that it’s related to the downregulation by the other brain areas,” Dr Bailey said.

Measurements aren’t perfect, but are improving

Dr Bailey uses a technique called an electroencephalogram, or EEG, to look at how mindfulness changes the brain’s function.

catalyst mindfulness teaser

It’s a cap of electrodes that can pick up electrical activity in the brain’s outer layers.

The system has been used for many years and is very reliable, but relatively indirect.

To get right inside the brain and find out if its shape and size are changing, the best technique we have is magnetic resonance imaging or MRI.

These scans are the closest we can get to cracking open a person’s skull and taking a ruler to their grey matter. It’s the technique used in the studies, mentioned above, examining the cortex after mindfulness training.

An MRI machine records virtual slices through the brain (or any other squishy part of the body).

It was developed in the 1970s, but in recent years, MRI resolution has improved vastly thanks to more powerful electromagnets.

Magnetic resonance imaging machines, like this one, rely on electromagnets to take ‘slices’ through the human body.

Supplied: Westmead Hospital

“The stronger the magnet, the better the image,” said Rebecca Koncz, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of Sydney who is also completing a PhD in brain imaging at the University of New South Wales.

MRI these days commonly operates with a 1.5- or 3-tesla magnet — around the strength of the electromagnets that hoist cars in scrapyards.

Newer, more expensive MRI models use a 7-tesla magnet or higher.

As well as more precise size-and-shape measurements, these superpowered magnets are proving useful for taking snapshots of the brain in action: a sort of whole-brain activity map called functional MRI.

This “fMRI” tracks oxygen in the brain’s blood supply, to see which parts are working harder. The idea here is that more activity needs more oxygen.

It’s the type of evidence which revealed, for example, that mindfulness training can dampen the activity of the amygdala.

Still, even top-shelf MRI machines have their limitations.

They divvy up images into 3-D pixels called “voxels”. Depending on the thickness of the slice, one voxel is usually around 1 cubic millimetre.

A morsel of brain tissue that size can contain tens of thousands of cells, so slight density or volume changes might go unnoticed.

And the difficult, indirect analysis required to quantify brain activity from fMRI data has led to criticisms about whether the results are meaningful.

There’s plenty left to discover

The neuroscience of mindfulness has drawn on all of these techniques — but is still in its infancy.

There are plenty of questions left to be answered, such as: Does the quality of mindfulness practice matter? Is there a dose-dependent effect (i.e. more mindfulness, more change)? And are there long-term effects on the brain?

Some evidence shows that compared to the wider population, long-time meditators have more brain volume in, for instance, the prefrontal cortex.

But there are no longitudinal studies as yet that have followed novice mindfulness practitioners to see if they maintained their newly gained brain bulk.

Even though the benefits of mindfulness can sometimes be overstated, there is likely to be a good reason it’s been around for so long, Dr Koncz said.

“Mindfulness and meditation have been practised for thousands of years. Perhaps science is just taking a bit of time to catch up.”

For more on mindfulness, watch Catalyst tonight on ABC TV at 8.30pm AEDT or catch up on iview.

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27 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day changes brain structure

I confess that I’m struggling with my new meditation practice. I’ve diagnosed myself with a severe case of monkey-mind.

Monkey-mind = a buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.

But I’m persisting with my study, and in the blog today I’m sharing with you some research that shows the brain’s structure changes after only 8 weeks of meditation practice.

A group of Harvard neuroscientists were interested in mindfulness meditation because it had been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being that extended beyond the time the individual was actually meditating.

Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author, said,

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day”

To see if mindfulness training had any measurable effect on the brain, 17 people were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course.  The course promised to improve participants’ mindfulness and well-being, and reduce their levels of stress.

MRI scans of the people’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation course.  A control group who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned.

Meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.  After the people completed the mindfulness course they all reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness such as ‘acting with awareness’ and ‘non-judging’.

The brain images showed that, compared to the controls, the mindfulness groups had increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum.  Grey matter is the part of the brain made up of nerve cell bodies, whereas white matter contains the axons.

Mindfulness training was associated with structural changes in brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking.

Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says,

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Sarah Lazar also noted,

“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

So the simple take-home message from this piece of research: Practice your meditation, it’ll change your brain.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vinni/4024516897/

Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, & Sara W. Lazara (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density Psychiatry Res DOI:

27 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day changes brain structure – Your Brain Health

I confess that I’m struggling with my new meditation practice. I’ve diagnosed myself with a severe case of monkey-mind.

Monkey-mind = a buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”.

But I’m persisting with my study, and in the blog today I’m sharing with you some research that shows the brain’s structure changes after only 8 weeks of meditation practice.

A group of Harvard neuroscientists were interested in mindfulness meditation because it had been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being that extended beyond the time the individual was actually meditating.

Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author, said,

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day”

To see if mindfulness training had any measurable effect on the brain, 17 people were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course.  The course promised to improve participants’ mindfulness and well-being, and reduce their levels of stress.

MRI scans of the people’s brains were taken before and after they completed the meditation course.  A control group who didn’t do any mindfulness training also had their brains scanned.

Meditation group participants spent an average of 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.  After the people completed the mindfulness course they all reported significant improvement in measures of mindfulness such as ‘acting with awareness’ and ‘non-judging’.

The brain images showed that, compared to the controls, the mindfulness groups had increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum.  Grey matter is the part of the brain made up of nerve cell bodies, whereas white matter contains the axons.

Mindfulness training was associated with structural changes in brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking.

Britta Hölzel, the lead author on the paper says,

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Sarah Lazar also noted,

“This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

So the simple take-home message from this piece of research: Practice your meditation, it’ll change your brain.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vinni/4024516897/

ResearchBlogging.org
Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, & Sara W. Lazara (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density Psychiatry Res DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

Guru Rinpoche answers Lady Tsogyal: Should we practice one or many yidams? Is the master or the Yidam more important? Why is it important to practice the yidam deity? – Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation

Guru Rinpoche’s teachings to the Lady Tsogyal are as clear and wonderful today as they were centuries ago. Reading the recorded words of the Lotus Born Padmasambhava is almost like sitting at the feet of the great Guru Buddha.

Guru Rinpoche, the Lotus Born, came to Tibet in the 8th Century to establish Dharma.

Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum

Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal were living examples of the Guru-Student relationship; and also the relationship between Guru and Yidam. One of the most concise, and stimulating exchanges is their session regarding Yidam, Guru and how to choose and practice yidams — including a discussion on many timely issues modern Buddhists still struggle with, such as: one yidam versus many, peaceful yidam versus wrathful, and why wrathful deities trample on noble beings (such as Brahma.)

Lady Yeshe Tsogyal was consort and student to the great Lotus Born Padmasmbhava. She recorded his teachings.

The Lotus Born, Padmasambhava — as teacher — and the Dakini Yeshe Tosgyal — here, as student — share timeless wisdoms that remain clear and “modern”, absent of the arcane. One reason Vajrayana is known as the “lightening path” (a literal translation of Vajra Yana) is this special teaching guru-student relationship that is participatory and practice-oriented.

By engaging in daily, concise, clear, meaningful — and guided — practice, our progress towards Enlightenment should be exponentially faster — when compared to a student who self-learns through quiet meditation alone.

The sessions between Master Padma, the Lotus Born, and Yeshe Tosgyal, here excerpted from Dakini Teachings [1], show this intimate and fruitful relationship at its best.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in a famous session between the teacher and his consort, speaking about the role of “guru” and “yidam.” All the questions, below, were asked by Lady Tsogyal:

Which is more important, the master or the yidam deity?

The master replied: Do not regard the master and the yidam as different, because it is the master who introduces the yidam deity to you. By always  generating the master at the crown of your head you will be blessed and your obstacles will be cleared away. If you regard the master and yidam as being different in quality or importance you are holding misconceptions.

Why is it important to practice the yidam deity?

The master replied: It is essential to practice a yidam deity because through that you will attain siddhis, your obstacles will be removed, you will obtain powers, receive blessings, and give rise to realization. Since all these qualities result from practicing the yidam deity, then without the yidam deity you will just be an ordinary person. By practicing the yidam deity you attain the siddhis, so the yidam deity is essential.

Guru Rinpoche.

When practicing a yidam deity, how should we meditate and practice in order to attain accomplishment?

The master replied: Since means and knowledge are to practice the spontaneously present body, speech, and mind through the method of yoga sadhana, they will be accomplished no matter how you carry out the sadhana aspects endowed with body, speech, and mind. They will be accomplished when the sadhana and recitation are practiced in a sufficient amount.

Yeshe Tsogyal.

How should we approach the sugata yidam deity?

The master replied: Realize that you and the yidam deity are not two and that there is no yidam deity apart from yourself. You approach the yidam deity when you realize that your nature is the state of nonarising dharmakaya.

Which yidam deity is better to practice, a peaceful or a wrathful one?

The master replied: Since means and knowledge are practicing the spontaneously present body, speech, and mind through the method of yoga sadhana, all the countless sugatas, peaceful and wrathful, chief figures and retinues, manifest in accordance with those to be tamed in whichever way is necessary — as peaceful and wrathful, chief figures and retinues.

But as they are all of one taste in the state of dharmakaya, each person can practice whichever yidam he feels inclined toward.

Guru Rinpoche, the Lotus Born enlightened Buddha, came to Tibet to bring the Dharma in the 8th century.

If we practice one yidam deity, will that be the same as practicing all the sugatas?

The master replied: The body, speech, and mind of all deities are manifested by the three kayas in accordance with the perception of those to be tamed. In fact, no matter how they appear, if you practice one you will be practising them all. If you accomplish one you will have accomplished them all.

Is there any fault in practicing one yidam deity and then practicing another?

The master replied: Although the sugatas manifest as various kinds of families and forms, out of skillful means to tame beings, they are in actuality inseparable, the state of equality.

If you were to practice all the Buddhas with this realization of their inseparability, your merit would be most eminent. But if you were to do so while regarding the yidam deities as having different qualities which should be either accepted or rejected, you would be immeasurably obscured.

It is inappropraite to regard the yidams as good or bad, and to accept or reject them. If you do not regard them like that, it will be excellent no matter how many you practice.

Lady Yeshe Tsogyal recorded the teachings of Master Padma.

Through performing the approach to one Tathagata, will we accomplish the mind of all sugatas?

The master replied: By practicing with a vast view and remaining in the innate nature, you will attain stability in a yidam deity. When you complete the recitation, you will accomplish the activities of all the victorious ones without exception by simply commencing them.

[1] Excerpt from Padmasambhava Guru Rinpoche. Dakini Teachings (p. 104). Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Kindle Edition.

How-To Guide on Mindfulness Meditation from a Stanford Neurosurgeon – Video

How-To Guide on Mindfulness Meditation from a Stanford Neurosurgeon

Professor of Neurosurgery, Stanford University

The simple practices of mindfulness meditation can help us accomplish major goals in life. Just concentrating on our pattern of breathing, for example, brings us into a more reflectional state that helps us quiet our inner, distracting dialogue. In this interview, Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty reflects on his own experience with meditation and explains how taming your mind and opening your heart can help you reclaim some of life’s most difficult experiences. Everyone’s life is beset by truly challenging obstacles. Instead of treating our own burdens as character flaws, or flaws in our circumstances, we can achieve new levels of empathy through meditation.

  • Transcript
    • Over a year ago

TRANSCRIPT

James Doty: I get asked this question of, “Geez, I haven’t meditated. How do I get started?” And it’s hard for many people because what many of us don’t appreciate is that — and I use the term in my book, a DJ, but it’s this internal dialogue and it is a dialogue that isn’t necessarily who you really are at all. It is a collection of events, experiences, commentaries from your environment that oftentimes you allow to define you. And not necessarily in a positive way. And as a result, you have an emotional response when you’re listening to these voices or this dialogue or the DJ, if you will. And the first thing that I recommend people do, and certainly as one of the bases or the legs of doing mindfulness or meditation, is to simply breathe in and out and be attuned to that. And as you get distracted if it’s really distracting, actually consciously think about the air going through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. And the very nature of that type of concentration distracts you from the dialogue. And once you’ve mastered that and you pay attention to the fact that oftentimes your muscles are very tense because again you’re carrying your emotions. And with intention, go through actually and say, “I’m relaxing the muscles in my feet, my legs, my chest, my abdomen,” and so forth.

And sort of go through this process with intention doing each one of these things and with that intention it also distractions you from listening to that voice. And once you’ve done that for a period of time, then you suddenly realize the very nature of that action, the consistency of that; you’re no longer having that same emotional response or you’re not starting to listen to that dialogue. And that starts releasing you. And then the next step as you learn these techniques, the wonderful thing is you can actually change the dialogue. And change it to one where it is a supportive dialogue. One of the greatest challenges of people in the West is they have this negative internal dialogue and it’s the nature, unfortunately, of our society. In Eastern cultures — actually it’s interesting — it doesn’t really exist. And so when you, if you will, stop the DJ and then change the dialogue to one that is nurturing, supportive of yourself, the most wonderful thing that happens is your physiology changes and then the manner in which you react or interact with other people becomes completely different. And having been through this myself and seen this and taught this, it’s really quite extraordinary — the possibilities. Because when you take the time to do that breathing; when you take the time, if you will, to tame the mind; when you take the time to open your heart and recognize that not only are you suffering, but that everyone in some way or other has their own burdens. All of those steps then allow you to be much more thoughtful, kind, and interested because then you recognize that the other person is just like you. And when you recognize that key aspect, then what you do to others, you’re doing to yourself. And if you treat yourself with kindness, compassion, love, it’s so much easier then to give that gift to other people. And it changes not only that other person; it changes the entire environment around you.

Less stress, clearer thoughts with mindfulness meditation – Harvard Gazette

Second of two parts

On a cold winter evening, six women and two men sat in silence in an office near Harvard Square, practicing mindfulness meditation.

Sitting upright, eyes closed, palms resting on their laps, feet flat on the floor, they listened as course instructor Suzanne Westbrook guided them to focus on the present by paying attention to their bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, and especially their breath.

“Our mind wanders all the time, either reviewing the past or planning for the future,” said Westbrook, who before retiring last June was an internal-medicine doctor caring for Harvard students. “Mindfulness teaches you the skill of paying attention to the present by noticing when your mind wanders off. Come back to your breath. It’s a place where we can rest and settle our minds.”

The class she taught was part of an eight-week program aimed at reducing stress.

Studies say that eight in 10 Americans experience stress in their daily lives and have a hard time relaxing their bodies and calming their minds, which puts them at high risk of heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses. Of the myriad offerings aimed at fighting stress, from exercise to yoga to meditation, mindfulness meditation has become the hottest commodity in the wellness universe.

Modeled after the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program created in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help counter stress, chronic pain, and other ailments, mindfulness courses these days can be found in venues ranging from schools to prisons to sports teams. Even the U.S. Army recently adopted it to “improve military resilience.”

Harvard offers several mindfulness and meditation classes, including a spring break retreat held in March for students through the Center for Wellness and Health Promotion. The Office of Work/Life offers programs to managers and staff, as well as weekly drop-in meditation sessions on campus, online guided meditation resources, and even a meditation phone line, 4-CALM (at 617.384.2256).

“We were tasked to find ways for the community to cope with stress. And at the same time, so much research was coming out on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation,” said Jeanne Mahon, director of the wellness center. “We keep offering mindfulness and meditation because of the feedback. People appreciate to have the chance for self-reflection and learn about new ways to be in relationships with themselves.”

More than 750 students have participated in mindfulness and meditation programs since 2012, said Mahon.

Part of mindfulness’ appeal lies in the fact that it’s secular. Buddhist monks have used mindfulness exercises as forms of meditation for more than 2,600 years, seeing them as one of the paths to enlightenment. But in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, mindfulness is stripped of religious undertones.

“In and out of the classroom, these student-athletes are immersed in a highly competitive culture,” said Denham. “This is stressful. This kind of training can develop a more-skillful mind and a sense of focus and well-being that can help them better maintain control and awareness of their thoughts, emotions, and presence in the moment.”

The growing interest in the field is reflected in Harvard’s course catalog. This spring, Lazar is teaching “Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation,” Ezer Vierba leads an expository freshmen writing course on “Buddhism, Mindfulness, and the Practical Mind,” and Metta McGarvey teaches “Mindfulness for Educators” at the Graduate School of Education.

Due to high demand, McGarvey, who holds a doctorate in human development and psychology, teaches a three-day workshop for educators. It offers tools to enhance their work and their focus through breathing practices and self-compassion exercises.

Mindfulness meditation made easy

Settle in
Now breathe
Stay focused
Take 10

A daily practice will provide the most benefits. It can be 10 minutes per day, however, 20 minutes twice a day is often recommended for maximum benefit.

“A lot of them are working in really tough environments, with all kinds of pressures,” said McGarvey. “The rates of burnout in some of the more challenging environments are very high.”

Ayesha Hood, a police officer from Baltimore who is interested in running a day care center, attended McGarvey’s workshop last fall, and found it helpful. “As a police officer, I live in high stress, and as a public servant, I tend to neglect myself,” she said. “I want to calm myself and be conscious about it.”

Christine O’Shaughnessy, a former investment bank executive who lead workshops at Harvard, said, “All day we’re bombarded with social media, colleagues, work, children, etc. We don’t have time to spend it in quiet reflection. But if you practice it at least once a day, you’ll have a better day.”

To skeptics who still view mindfulness as hippie-dippy poppycock, O’Shaughnessy has four words: “Give it a try.” When she first signed up for a mindfulness workshop in 1999, she said she was skeptical too. But once she realized she was becoming calmer and less stressed, she converted. She eventually quit her job and became a mindfulness instructor. (She recently launched a free meditation app.)

“Doing mindfulness is like a fitness routine for your brain,” she said. “It keeps your brain healthy.”

How is the Mind Different from the Brain? Science May Support the Duality of Separate Mind and Brain. Why it matters to Buddhists – Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation

“We don’t know what consciousness is, or what it does,” said Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. in his lecture The Mind is Not the Brain “There’s no known, obvious reason, why we should be conscious at all, or exactly how the mind works.” His conclusion, based on significant research, was:  “…The mind is field-like. That it’s not constrained to the inside of the head.”

(See embedded video for this full lecture.)

There is growing scientific acceptance for Mr. Sheldrake’s thesis, some of which he outlines in his lecture. In fact, consciousness studies is one of the most exciting frontier areas of science today.

A growing group of scientists in consciousness studies theorize the mind as an energy-like field surrounding and separate from the body.

Mind is a separate entity not “reduced to brain cell processes”

Nobel Prize winning neuroscience Professor Eccles supports the theory that the mind is a separate entity and cannot be “reduced down to the brain cell processes,” according to the Horizon Research Foundation.

An article on the Foundation’s site, asserts “we will never be able to account for the formation of consciousness through the electrical and chemical processes of the brain.” For skeptics, it’s important to realize that all articles on the Research Foundation’s website are reviewed or prepared by scientists directly involved in research.

Photo of Professor John Eccles, Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist. Image courtesy of John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University. Wikimedia Commons.

Professors Karl Popper and John Eccles demonstrated that research indicates a conscious event happens before the relevant brain event, in The Self and Its Brain.

These eminent scientists theorized not just mental and conscious events as separate from the brain, but a self-conscious mind distinct from both.

After Death, Consciousness Continues?

In a well-researched article, Steps Towards Solving the Mystery of Consciousness, the concept of consciousness surviving apparent brain death is highlighted.

“Consciousness appears to be present in 10-20 percent of those who are in cardiac arrest.” The author explained, “brain cells need to communicate using electrical pulses… How is it then that we have a clinical scenario in which there is severe brain dysfunction, the worst possible type, with an absence of electrical activity in the brain, but somehow thought processes, with reasoning, memory formation and consciousness continue and are even heightened?”

Well documented near-death studies, together with research conducted on patients who undergo cardiac arrest, lead to a growing acceptance that the mind continues after the brain function ends.

Buddhist perspective: duality of mind and brain

From a Buddhist perspective, the duality of mind separate from brain has been accepted since the beginning, and, in some ways, seems a critical support for fundamental Buddhist beliefs in rebirth and karma.

“There are many explanations of what the mind is and of the different categories of mind,” said His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a speech in England in 2008. “For example, there’s a difference made in Buddhism between primary minds and mental factors.” His Holiness explains the two types: “One is brought forth by sensory perception as its immediately preceding condition and the other lacks sensory perception as its immediately preceding condition.”

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Until recently, these beliefs have been treated as “faith” fundamentals, supported by authority of the Buddha, and eloquently championed in Dharma debate. Increasingly, there is more and more support amongst scientists specializing in consciousness studies. Promising research may allow us to also anchor our concept of mind, in convincing proofs.

Dr. Alexander Berzin, in his lecture The Conventional Nature of Mind, described it this way: “You can describe experiencing from the point of view of physically what’s happening – there’s the brain and the chemicals and electric stuff – or you can just describe it in terms of subjective experience of it. So we’re talking about the subjective experience of it when we talk about mind.” He went on to explain that the Four Noble Truths are experienced by the mind.

Where is Mind?

Dr. Sheldrake, in his lecture The Mind is Not the Brain, first touches on the important discussion of “just where is the mind?” He describes mind as field-like, similar to the gravitational field of the world, “which stretches out far beyond the earth.”

Mind, thought by many theorists to be separate from the brain, is often described as a field, similar to a gravity field.

Mind as fields around the systems they organize

In ancient Buddhist belief, the heart is the seat of the mind. Today, we think of the brain. Either way, science is shedding light on the real nature of mind — that these fields are within and around the systems they organize, according to Dr. Sheldrake. He uses examples such as magnets and gravity which expand beyond the source — for example, by metaphor, the Earth as the brain, and the gravitational field of the earth as the mind. “And I think the same is true of our minds.”

“If the mind is just the brain, which is the normal assumption within academic and medical worlds,” he continued, “then mental activity is nothing but brain activity,” a notion he then elaborately deconstructs as erroneous.


He uses an elaborate example of the mechanism of vision, or seeing, describing first the physiological and neurological mechanism, then the two clear options that explain how we actually “see”. Either the images are projected inside our skull or brain in a form of “virtual reality” or they are exactly where appear, because the mind is able to project or see beyond the brain exactly where it is.

Doctor Sheldrake, a leading scientist researching mind.

Can you influence something just by looking at it?

He illustrates this by asking the question, “Can you influence something just by looking at it?” He cites studies that indicate that over 90% of people can “feel” when people are looking at them, even when they have their back turned to that person. In scientific studies, there’s overwhelming evidence this is a genuine phenomenon. He illustrates with training examples from the security industry, where it is standard training to security personnel to never look directly a suspect’s back. 

The Dalai Lama expounded on the nature of mind in a 2014 speech in Cambridge: “In general, the mind can be defined as an entity that has the nature of mere experience, that is, “clarity and knowing.” It is the knowing nature, or agency, that is called mind, and this is non-material.”

“Buddhist literature, both sutra and tantra, contains extensive discussions on mind and its nature. Tantra, in particular, discusses the various levels of subtlety of mind and consciousness… with references to the various subtleties of the levels of consciousness and their relationship to such physiological states as the vital energy centers within the body, the energy channels, the energies that flow within these and so on.”

Mind Field Theory

The concept of energy channels (often called chakras) and energy body—as described by his Holiness—has been well accepted for centuries in most parts of Asia. In Buddhist visualization, mind and energy are naturally visualized as separate from body in some practices. This aligns with newly emerging science in the field of consciousness studies.

Aligning with this ancient thought, Dr. Sheldrake—a pioneer in consciousness field theory—explains the mind as a field, similar to a gravity field. He supports this with extensive blind research studies, and illustrates with examples such as bird flocks and fish schools, who seem to almost telepathically communicate. He also delves into Quantum particle theories in support of his theory.

Symbolizing the cycle of life, the bud, blossom of a Lotus, and wilted blossom, then the new bud of new life—mind is thought of as transcending physical existence.

Why is this important?

The brain, in relative dualistic terms, is a physical, impermanent implement. The mind is not impermanent. This is plausibly theorized by research from Professors Popper and Eccles who describe “a Self-Conscious Mind” independent of the brain, that functions even after cardiac arrest.

Self conscious mind, surviving cardiac arrest, is reassuring to those of us who believe that mind survives death. Although rebirth is supported by various other research and near-death studies, the notion of conscious mind surviving physical death adds a new dimension to death meditation and daily practice.

Video Highlight: “Ask a Monk” Are the Mind and Brain Different