I’ve always been a huge Star Trek fan. When I was a teenager, my hero was Mister Spock—cool, analytical, even-tempered, and smarter than everyone around him. Being raised in his ancient society of the planet Vulcan made him a force to be reckoned with. He was kind and compassionate, but his mind was unswayed by human passions and fears, and he was always in control. When he was alone, he often sat, eyes closed, deep in meditation.
Vulcan is a fictional planet, but I later came to learn that there are real people on Earth kind of like Mister Spock, who possess many of his qualities and abilities because they have trained their brains in ancient Eastern mental arts.
Going to a “Zen Place”
A German philosophy professor named Eugen Herrigel discovered the power of a calm mind when he went to Tokyo in the 1920s. One day, he was having lunch with a Japanese colleague when an earthquake struck. Panic quickly broke out, and most of the diners (including Herrigel) jumped up and hurried out of the restaurant.
But the man Herrigel was having lunch with remained seated with his hands folded, his eyes nearly closed, completely undisturbed by the shaking going on around them. Fascinated by his companion’s trance-like calm, Herrigel sat down too and felt strangely safe. When the earthquake was over, the man continued the conversation exactly where it had broken off, saying nothing about what had just happened.
A few days later, Herrigel learned the source of his lunch partner’s amazing, infectious calm—he was a Zen Buddhist. His emotional steadiness came from practicing meditation.
Buddhist literature is full of stories of people achieving amazing feats of insight, courage, and even control over their own bodies after years of practicing simply sitting and focusing their minds. Such people often become rocks of support, giving strength to those around them, or even become calmly inspiring leaders themselves.
Meditation’s Effects on the Brain
Brain scientists have gotten really interested in the effects of meditation on the brain. A Harvard psychologist named Richard Davidson has done brain scans on dozens of Buddhist monks and found that their training has permanently altered their limbic systems, giving them heightened empathy—or the ability to understand and identify with another person’s feelings.
A recent study of “beginner” meditators by another Harvard researcher found that 8 weeks of training in techniques like mindfulness meditation and yoga increased gray matter in brain regions involved in memory, learning, emotion, breathing, and motor control.
[Caption: These high-resolution brain image scans show where gray matter increased in different parts of the brain for those who practiced mindfulness.. A: The posterior cingulate cortex and cerebellum; B: The left temporo-parietal junction; C The cerebellum and brainstem.]
The bottom line is, the brain is a powerful instrument, and you can make it do even more amazing things when you sharpen and enhance its powers. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a tough, disciplined, compassionate, and fearless brain like a Buddhist monk … or Mister Spock? P.S. After his remarkable experience with the Zen man in the earthquake, Eugen Herrigel promptly decided to learn Zen himself, and went on to study with a Zen master for 6 years. He then wrote a classic book about his experience, called Zen and the Art of Archery, as well as a short introduction to Zen philosophy and meditation (which I highly recommend, if you are interested) called The Method of Zen.
Eric Wargo writes about the brain and addiction for NIDA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology, and in his spare time, he writes and blogs about science, history, movies, and other cool topics. Read his previous SBB guest post, Mindset Over Matter.