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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 08:38 GMT
Meditation mapped in monks
Monks, BBC
During meditation, people often feel a sense of no space
Scientists investigating the effect of the meditative state on Buddhist monk's brains have found that portions of the organ previously active become quiet, whilst pacified areas become stimulated.

"Perhaps that [spiritual] sense of reality is more accurate than our scientific everyday sense of reality"

Dr Newberg
Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, US, told BBC World Service's Discovery programme: "I think we are poised at a wonderful time in our history to be able to explore religion and spirituality in a way which was never thought possible."

Using a brain imaging technique, Newberg and his team studied a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they meditated for approximately one hour.

When they reached a transcendental high, they were asked to pull a kite string to their right, releasing an injection of a radioactive tracer. By injecting a tiny amount of radioactive marker into the bloodstream of a deep meditator, the scientists soon saw how the dye moved to active parts of the brain.

Sense of space

Later, once the subjects had finished meditating, the regions were imaged and the meditation state compared with the normal waking state.

The scans provided remarkable clues about what goes on in the brain during meditation.

"There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area that is activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task," Dr Newberg explained.

In addition, a notable decrease in activity in the back part of the brain, or parietal lobe, recognised as the area responsible for orientation, reinforced the general suggestion that meditation leads to a lack of spatial awareness.

Dr Newberg explained: "During meditation, people have a loss of the sense of self and frequently experience a sense of no space and time and that was exactly what we saw."

Prayer power

The complex interaction between different areas of the brain also resembles the pattern of activity that occurs during other so-called spiritual or mystical experiences.

Brain imaging, BBC
Brain imaging provides painless study
Dr Newberg's earlier studies have involved the brain activity of Franciscan nuns during a type of prayer known as "centring".

As the prayer has a verbal element other parts of the brain are used but Dr Newberg also found that they, "activated the attention area of the brain, and diminished activity in the orientation area."

This is not the first time that scientists have investigated spirituality. In 1998, the healing benefits of prayer were alluded to when a group of scientists in the US studied how patients with heart conditions experienced fewer complications following periods of "intercessory prayer".

Inner world

And at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston last month, scientists from Stanford University detailed their research into the positive affects that hypnotherapy can have in helping people cope with long-term illnesses.

Scientific study of both the physical world and the inner world of human experiences are, according to Dr Newberg, equally beneficial.

"When someone has a mystical experience, they perceive that sense of reality to be far greater and far clearer than our usual everyday sense of reality," he said.

He added: "Since the sense of spiritual reality is more powerful and clear, perhaps that sense of reality is more accurate than our scientific everyday sense of reality."

Dr Andrew Newberg
"We invited a number of Tibetan Buddhist meditators to come into a laboratory"
See also:

05 Jun 00 | Health
Prayer 'works as a cure'
10 Jul 01 | Health
Prisoners benefit from meditation
17 Aug 01 | Wales
Meditating against pain
17 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
Hypnosis for the people
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