In 1992, neuroscientist Richard Davidson traveled with a team of scientists into the Himalayan mountains, lugging hundreds of pounds of computers, EEG electrodes, and other modern lab equipment. Their mission: to study the uncanny ability of Tibetan yogis to control their minds.
The research group was optimistic. Despite the travel difficulties, they had the Dalai Lama himself – a strong supporter of the modern scientific method – on their side: he had written a letter personally urging the yogis to cooperate with the researchers.
Unfortunately, this made little difference to the yogis. While all were friendly and generous with their time, none would allow the scientists to connect their equipment to their minds.
The relationship between science and mysticism has always been problematic, so it’s little wonder that the research trip ended so badly. The question is, how do you bridge that divide?
Enter Matthieu Ricard: decades previous, a post-doc student in molecular genetics under the tutelage of a future-winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, Ricard had abandoned his promising scientific career to become a monk. And, just as with his scientific instruction, as a monk Ricard had studied under a master, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – one of the last century’s most universally revered Tibetan yogis.
This connection put Ricard at the centre of a large network of some of the most accomplished Tibetan meditation masters, and with his assistance Richard Davidson was not only able to convince a group of yogis to be studied, but also to do so back in his lab at the University of Wisconsin.
In all, Davidson has so far been able to study 21 yogis, each of whom has spent somewhere between 12,000 and 62,000 hours in meditation during their lives. The results have been nothing short of jaw-dropping.
These masters of the mind were consciously able to enter and leave various levels of awareness within split seconds, shifts that were measurable by science due to the huge changes in brain activity.
One of the most noticeable differences they found between yogis and ‘normal’ people was the level of gamma waves:
Gamma, the very fastest brain wave, occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle “click” together… You also elicit a short-lived gamma wave when, for instance, you imagine biting into a ripe, juicy peach and your brain draws together memories stored in different regions of the occipital, temporal, somatosensory, insular, and olfactory cortices to suddenly mesh the sight, smells, taste, feel, and sound into a single experience.
For that quick moment the gamma waves from each of these cortical regions oscillate in perfect synchrony. Ordinarily gamma waves from, say, a creative insight, last no longer than a fifth of a second… Anyone’s EEG will show distinctive gamma waves for short moments from time to time. .
In the yogis, however, gamma oscillations were far stronger and way more persistent: on average the yogis had twenty-five times greater amplitude gamma oscillations during baseline compared with the control group, and no brain lab had ever before seen gamma oscillations persisting for minutes, rather than the usual fractions of a second.
Their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.