Monk Culture: How a Life of Meditation Leaves its Mark on the Brain

by Jusmita Saifullan

As a five-year resident of Thailand, I was privileged to experience the country’s many unique customs: the tuk-tuks, the papaya salad sold from food carts, the King's Anthem, the beautifully ornate temples. But as a Buddhist, it was Thailand’s monk culture that left me both inspired and in awe.

Buddhist monks live a simple and disciplined life, one that is often at odds with the rest of society where wealth and material items are equated to happiness. A major part of a Buddhist monk’s day is devoted to meditation, a practice that not only takes years to master but is said to bring supreme tranquility and calmness to one’s life.

Only recently has medical research provided an inside look at meditation’s effects on brain chemistry and structure. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was among the first to use brain-imaging technology to observe long-term meditative effects on the brain. Davidson recruited eight monks with extensive meditative experience and 10 volunteers with no prior experience in the practice.

The monks were asked to think about "unconditional long-kindness and compassion,” while the beginners were asked to think about a loved one. Participants wore a skullcap outfitted with electroencephalographic electrodes to allow scientists to monitor brain activity. Both monks and volunteers focused on compassion, a major ideological theme in meditation.

Davidson and his co-workers observed a general increase in brain activity among the inexperienced volunteers. However, the monks’ brains showed a consistent and focused increase in brain activity in areas of the brain associated with attention.

In addition, researchers found that heightened brain activity was temporary for inexperienced meditators while repeated stimulations of these regions over many years caused permanent remodeling of neural circuits. Once the neural pathway has been permanently wired and active, monks can feel the tranquility and peace of meditation without actually meditating.

Zoran Josipovic, a Neuroscientist at New York University, conducted a similar series of experiments and tracked effects of meditation on brain structure and mentality using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans. MRI results showed that meditation causes active changes in the brain’s neural networks while the individual is focusing on being 'one' with the world. According to Josipovic, this is due to the lowering of a "psychological wall between themselves and their environments."

The neural changes that occur during meditation are thought to help improve attention and “harmony” between oneself and the world by balancing the brain's two central networks – the extrinsic and intrinsic networks.  

The extrinsic network is activated during tasks that require one to analyze changes in the environment such as participating in a conversation. The intrinsic circuit is activated during activities that require individuals to reflect on their own feelings and thoughts.

For those who are not experienced in mediation, one network dominates over the other. It is through years of meditation that monks can activate, in equal intensity, both the extrinsic and intrinsic networks.  

For some, meditation is just an exercise. For others, it is a way of life. Either way, meditation has proven to benefit one’s brain, personality, and perception of the world. What can meditation do for you?