Brain Zen

So this semester I’m taking a class on zen and zen arts in Asia, which is super interesting as it is. What is even more interesting is how much the concepts of zen overlap with the main goals of neuroscience. It may seem like a leap, but bear with me. Today in class we had a short meditation tutorial where we were actually taught how to meditate. In the middle of attempting to sit still and empty my mind, our zen teacher starts talking about how Buddha was the first neuroscientist, how randomly relevant right? As you can imagine, my ears immediately perked up and my thinking mind started bursting in, which completely messed up my mediation. The whole point of meditation, or zazen as it’s called, is to explore our ever-changing mental experience, what it is to be human. Our humanity, our uniqueness, is exactly what neuroscientists like Sebastian Seung are trying to find the origin of.

Thinking about zen and Sebastian Seung led me to another thought: how does the practice of meditation change my brain? Taking it even further, how does becoming “enlightened” change someone’s brain? Or does it at all? Then, of course, I start thinking of how we would investigate such a question. I start envisioning comparing the neuroanatomy of “normal” unenlightened brains with the brains of past zen patriarchs like Bodhidharma or perhaps even Shakyamuni himself. What would we learn from such a study? I’m guessing that the connectome of someone who supposedly understands the fundamental truths of the universe would look much different from mine, but it would be interesting to see how and why they are different. Maybe I just need to meditate more and I’ll understand?


Article on how zen is influencing neuropsychology

5 thoughts on “Brain Zen

  1. I am so glad that you brought up this point because I took Music of Meditation with Steven Nuss last semester and as a psych major I was often trying to determine the interplay between music, meditation and the mind. That class was more focused on the use of music, and more specifically chanting as a tool in the Zen Buddhist, Roman Catholic monastic, and Hindu
 traditions. This was a very contemplative class and Professor Nuss was always asking why those three traditions developed independently of eachother yet all utilize music and chant. That always made me wonder what music and chat do to the mind. These chanting practices were part of the meditative traditions so I think that connects to your post! Needless to say, I LOVED Music of Meditation and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an interesting course to take. It was a very unique and though-provoking class…and it only met once a week!


  2. That is really interesting. Taking a step back, I wonder what a brain looks like when an individual is meditating. I would assume that there would be far fewer area’s of activation and fewer action potentials in general. I also wonder how this would compare to the brain of someone who is asleep.


  3. I’ve seen quite a few posters and articles about that, Ellie. And, interestingly and very relevant: the Dalai Lama spoke at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2005. It was pretty cool. (wow I can’t believe that was over 7 years ago)


  4. The NY Times wellness blog wrote about this last year and linked to an interesting abstract about increased grey matter concentration in several brain regions after participants who hadn’t ever meditated spent 8 weeks practicing meditation. I’d love to isolate what it is about meditation/mindfulness that has the positive effects that so many studies claim: is it the breathing, focus on the present, connectedness to the body, or an element research hasn’t yet considered?


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