Scanning the Monk

Is the religion of tomorrow hidden in our brains?

LONDON’S BOXY black cabs, with their big interiors and fold-out jump seats, are marvels of comfort and convenience. The cabbies themselves are marvels of another sort. Unlike New York taxi drivers, who usually can learn enough about their city’s simple grid to get a license in days, London cabbies can spend years acquiring what they reverently call “the Knowledge.” A cabbie there once told me how he had bicycled through London’s intricate, medieval byways month after month, memorizing every corner and cobblestone in order to pass his trade’s stringent tests. “I’ve got this town’s whole bloody street map, down to the last lamppost, etched right here on my brain,” he said with a finger-tap to his forehead.

His claim may not be much exaggerated, according to a study by University College in London. Researchers there discovered that the longer the cabbies had their jobs, the larger was an area of the brain — the right rear hippocampus — known to be crucial to storing mental maps of the environment. They concluded that a “redistribution of gray matter” had occurred after prolonged mental habit. “If you do something, anything, even play Ping-Pong, for 20 years, eight hours a day, there’s going to be something in your brain that’s different from someone who didn’t do that,” notes Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn. “It’s just got to be.”

As evidence grows that what we habitually think and feel actually resculpts our neural tissue, scientists have begun to study others who seem able to literally change their minds — Buddhist monks who chant mantras and do visualization practices to develop what appears to be an indelible sense of compassion. With the day nearly arrived that a handful of angry people could blow up not just a restaurant but a city, we could use effective ways to defuse intolerance. Religion does not have completely clean hands in the matter. As we slowly emerge from millennia of holy know-it-alls trying to enforce competing copyrights on Ultimate Truth, a melding of Eastern and Western mind science might point the way toward the original spiritual goal of learning to get along.

If so, the key will be compassion, the x-factor that every faith (or its founders, at least) exalts as a supreme virtue. When the Dalai Lama says “My only religion is kindness,” when the Pope calls for a “civilization of love,” that can’t be just mealy-mouthed piety. Kindness and love are actual forces to be reckoned with, able to transform the most relentless enmity. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela once remarked that he befriended his jailers, those grim, khaki-clad overseers of his decades of hard labor in a limestone quarry, by “exploiting their good qualities.” Asked if he believed all people were kind at their core, he responded, “There is no doubt whatsoever, provided you are able to arouse their inherent goodness.”

How do we awaken the kindness that, along with aggression, is so clearly a part of our basic nature? Contemplatives of all traditions have long claimed that meditation can prime the pump of compassion. Now researchers are starting to wonder if some religious disciplines are not just articles of faith, but ancient methods of neural transformation.

IN RECENT EXPERIMENTS at the University of Wisconsin, researchers placed a European-born Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard in a functional magnetic resonance imager, a device that shows, in real time, the brain’s dynamic processes. Inserted into the machine’s beige tube with its loud, whirling magnets, Ricard entered into a meditation based on compassion “for all beings — friends and loved ones, strangers and enemies alike. It’s compassion with no agenda, that excludes no one. You generate this quality of loving and let it soak the mind.”

During this practice, Ricard’s brain showed greatly increased activity in the left middle frontal gyrus, an area tied to joy and enthusiasm. In other tests, Ricard proved to be remarkably adept at perceiving split-second changes in the facial muscles’ expression of emotion, an ability known to correlate with empathy. Most tellingly, when he was shown a film clip of severe burn victims having dead skin painfully stripped from their bodies — a clip used in psychology labs to trigger disgust — he reported instead a sense of “caring and concern, mixed with a not unpleasant strong, poignant sadness.”

Ricard insists he is a monk of no great ability. Tibetan Buddhists believe that for anyone who practices enough, compassion becomes second nature. At the Wisconsin lab, a tape of a woman’s bloodcurdling scream was unexpectedly sprung on another meditating monk. Most brains would have displayed signs of negative emotion, but his scan showed unexpected activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with positive emotion. A concern for others’ suffering had become automatic.

At a 2003 conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who oversaw the experiments there, described his follow-up studies. Davidson, who had spent time in Asia studying meditation when he was younger, flashed a PowerPoint slide of a bell curve rising like a red mountain out of a flat landscape. It was a graph, he explained, charting 150 people’s normal brain states. For the great majority, that state was a mix of left prefrontal cortex (positive emotion) and right prefrontal cortex (negative emotion) activity. But there was one tiny “data point” at the chart’s far edge, a solitary pilgrim walking away from the looming red peak of statistical normalcy. That point was Matthieu Ricard, scanned during his compassion meditation. His reading was entirely off the curve in the area of positive emotion — the most extreme result ever recorded.

Sharing the MIT stage with the Dalai Lama himself, Davidson quoted the Tibetan spiritual leader’s own contention that “the wiring in our brain is not static, not irrevocably fixed. Our brains are adaptable.” Applause, even cheers, burst from the audience — not the way a thousand neuroscientists might usually respond to intriguing lab results. It was more like they’d just heard a new declaration of human independence — and maybe they had.

THE MIT MEETING was the first formal exchange between cutting-edge Western brain science and traditional Eastern mind science. It was as if two long-separated cerebral hemispheres were finally beginning to reconnect. Davidson noted that psychology has spent nearly its entire history studying negative emotions, assuming that fear, sex, and aggression are the baseline human functions. Meditators, on the other hand, have been learning how to elicit positive emotions for ages. Tibetan society has, in effect, invested 1,200 years in a top-priority inner space program. For eras, the world blustered through the steam age, spit electricity’s cold fire into the night, visited the moon, and unleashed the railing demons of the atom. Meanwhile, Tibetan followers of the Buddha sat calmly by the flickering light of yak-butter lamps, doing essential R&D on consciousness itself, souping up the spiritual software.

The results, now documented in the lab, reveal, in the words of Harvard psychology professor Jerome Kagan, that we are not “programmed neurons over which we have no control” but “collaborators in the generation of our thoughts and emotions.” This means, he adds, that “joy and serenity are not slavishly tied to our physiology,” but can be induced by conscious intention.

The monks insist that their state of mind isn’t dependent on any superhuman leaps into higher consciousness. It’s more pragmatic than that: They have, comments one scientist, “mastered a metacognitive skill of noticing a reaction and being able to channel it.” To acquire a mastery that actually alters the brain — to become a chess expert or a good violinist or, presumably, a journeyman bodhisattva — takes an estimated 10,000 hours of practice. But there’s still plenty of room for us amateurs. Every little bit of metacognition helps.

I’ve met Matthieu Ricard. He does not emanate sun rays. But he is a man of wizardly intellect — as a graduate student at Paris’ Pasteur Institute he made original discoveries in genetics. He grew up in a wealthy, cultured French family, with an artist mother and a philosopher father who is one of France’s most celebrated public intellectuals, author of the best-seller Without Marx or Jesus. As a young man he traveled to India, met a teacher in Tibet’s “wandering yogi” tradition, and spent his summers studying in India until he completed his biology doctorate. Later, he left France, took monastic vows, and continued his discipleship, doing long retreats and becoming a translator for the Dalai Lama.

When I asked him if he thinks some people are predisposed, perhaps even genetically so, to be kinder, Ricard cited a recent experiment. Baby rats that had been bred for 15 generations to be “superanxious” were placed with mothers bred to be “overcaring.” If these babies spent just 10 days with the overcaring mothers, he said, their superanxious genes did not get expressed, allowing them to grow up normal. “Just think what potential we humans must have! Even if 50 percent of our character is genetic, the other 50 percent is plastic,” he said. “Learning can radically change you.”

I pressed him on this: Isn’t it just harder for some people to learn to be kind, while others seem to have a positive talent? “Yeah, yeah, oui, of course,” he answered, “none of us is born with full knowledge. We have to learn.”

Some researchers have questioned whether those who meditate on compassion actually end up acting more compassionately. A recent UCLA study indicates that some monks at least would choose to stay meditating rather than, say, put their practice aside for a week to help a sick friend.

Confronted with these findings, Ricard said he still supported committed meditation practice. He recalled a time his mother announced she wanted to go to Bombay to serve the poor. “One year of retreat,” he told her, “is giving much greater service to all sentient beings.” He compared it to taking the time to build a hospital, which in the end will be more powerful than helping people one by one on the street. “It makes sense to train to be a better person and to get rid of self-importance — then you’re able to be genuinely helpful to everyone with no strings attached.”

IN FACT, THOUGHTFUL PEOPLE everywhere have begun taking stock of their religion’s relative strengths and weaknesses. Buddhist teachers have shown new interest in the strong helping traditions of the Abrahamic faiths. Meanwhile, in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques around the world, there’s been a quiet revival of interest in contemplative training. The techniques for awakening compassion are the same across all cultures: Loosen the bonds of discursive thought. Extend the circle of caring. Open yourself to the suffering of others and wish them the happiness you’d want for yourself. Be a tender-minded steward of Creation. Ultimately, compassion is simply seeing the connections between everyone and everything.

On my better days, I feel I’m witnessing, across the planet, some popular uprising of the heart — the subversive spread of a neural net of kindness. It no longer seems far-fetched to imagine a kind of compassion insurgency bursting forth, seemingly out of nowhere, like the soft revolutions of ironclad Eastern Europe. Yes, our task is made more difficult by the institutionalization of intolerance and harm. But we are, collectively, wiser than our leaders, kinder than our institutions, more open-minded than our dogmas. Beneath the daily headlines with their recurring note of doom, the true state of affairs is almost laughably obvious. We live in a world poised on the brink of self-discovery, knowing the only god we can now afford is a god of love, and if we are to go anywhere, we must all go there together.

Marc Ian Barasch is a former editor at Psychology Today, Natural Health, and New Age Journal, and an Emmy award-nominated documentary filmmaker. His previous book, Healing Dreams, was hailed by The Washington Post as “lucid, courageous, trailblazing.” Adapted from Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A Search for the Soul of Kindness by Marc Ian Barasch ( Permission granted by Rodale.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.