Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany say they have an explanation for the states of consciousness that arise as a result of meditation. They indicate that gamma wave states, associated with expert-level meditation, assist in the reshaping of brain structures. Gamma wave activity is thought to be associated with “neuroplasticity” or the ability of the brain to form new connections and build on structures already present. Data show that expert meditators often exhibit increased cortical thickness and more gray matter in specific parts of their brains indicating physical changes from extended experience in meditation. These brain changes produce effects that are evident even when one isn’t meditating.
Brain researchers Jürgen Fell, Nikolai Axmacher, and Sven Haupt, at the University of Bonn in Germany report, in the journal Medical Hypotheses, that beginning meditators’ EEG readings show alpha wave states and that theta wave activity is also often increased. EGG readings for experts show high-frequency gamma waves, which distinguishes expert meditators from novices. In fact, gamma wave activity is higher even when the experts aren’t meditating. Advanced meditators apparently experience the world in a fundamentally different way from non-meditators and beginners and appear to experience novel states of consciousness.
Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin in cooperation with the Dalai Lama undertook a study of Buddhist monks in India who had between 10,000 and 50,000 hours of meditation practice. In this study the monks and inexperienced controls were asked to meditate with a focus on “unconditional compassion.” The results from this study of monks published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that the monks exhibited significantly more gamma band activity and some of the monks produced gamma wave activity more powerful than any previously recorded in a healthy person. The longer a monk had been meditating the stronger was the gamma activity recorded. The kind of gamma activity seen in these monks has been linked to the networking of separated brain circuits and to heightened awareness. Much of the activity was associated with the left prefrontal cortex a region previously associated with happiness, positive thoughts and positive emotions. Given that the monks exhibited greater gamma activity than controls even when not meditating suggests to Davidson that meditation probably produces permanent changes in the brain. He said, “What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one.”
In an article in Scientific American, Terry Sejnowski and Tobi Delbruck report that Robert Desimone at MIT has shown that attention to a specific stimulus increases the number of cortical neurons that fire in synchronized spikes in the gamma band (30 to 80 hertz), which appears to emphasize the importance of whatever is passing through conscious awareness. Further, Pascal Fries of the Ernst Strungmann Institute of Neuroscience in Frankfurt, Germany has found evidence that the gamma band is involved in signaling between widely separated cortical areas. Synchronized firing of spikes in the gamma band have also been found to strengthen the connection between synapses in the cortex. Research also indicates that gamma band activity seems to be deficient in certain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
Finally, William Bengston, an academic sociologist, conducts research on energy healing using both animal and human subjects. He describes one of the techniques that he has developed for training people to do energy healing. He thinks this technique may have its effect by increasing gamma band activity. His hypothesis is based on brain wave data collected on a gifted healer who introduced him to energy healing and described himself as using a technique that Bengston now calls “cycling.” Some years ago, the healer’s brain wave activity was recorded by the American Society for Psychical Research. They recorded activity that today would be classified as in the gamma band but at the time was attributed to equipment malfunction because gamma wave activity was not recognized. If he is correct, cycling may be a short-cut to significantly increasing gamma band activity. Bengston says that cycling requires a lot of practice to master. However, it doesn’t take the thousands of hours reported in the studies of the Buddhist monks described above.
Bengston’s technique is described in his book The Energy Cure and is essentially a visualization technique. He says the purpose of the technique is to completely occupy the ego and get it out of the way. He says one must use a minimum of twenty images and each image should be of something that the ego wants. He cautions against the use of ideals and says to focus on ego gratification or ego desires. World peace is not suitable but a new sports car is suitable. Each image should be envisioned as already attained not merely as a wish. Don’t imagine the sports car in the showroom window but imagine yourself blazing down the highway driving it. Once you’ve created and memorized your set of images, he instructs you to practice cycling through them as rapidly as possible until you can go so fast they are a mere blur. You should also reach a point where you can cycle them in mixed order rather than a fixed order. Especially, important he says is getting to where you can effectively cycle while in a state of emotional arousal. An experimental test of this hypothesis remains to be done.
The picture above is from a Klan rally held in a small town not far from where I live in north Georgia. I was at first reminded of the Klan rallies that took place during my youth. Regular rallies were held on the top of Stone Mountain in Georgia, east of Atlanta. I recall sitting in my car at a highway intersection waiting to exit onto the highway while a seemingly endless stream of Klan “kars” passed by in route to the mountain and the inevitable cross burning.
As I considered the current event, which was much smaller than those earlier events, an observation made by a psychologist, Charles Carver, came to mind. Carver’s observation was that if you want to understand a behavior, you must first understand the goal to which it is directed. This thought led to questions about the goal of the Klan and of the protesters present at the rally.
I don’t seriously believe that the Klan thought they were going to persuade anyone to adopt their position on any issue, so what did this small band of men belonging to a marginalized and socially impotent group hope to accomplish? Further, what was the goal of the protesters at the Klan rally? I very much doubt that the protesters thought they were going to persuade the Klansmen to throw off their robes and become advocates for freedom and liberty for all.
If this little “dance” on the Ellijay town square wasn’t about one group trying to change the mind of another group, what then was it about? I think that for the Klan, a true home grown terrorist organization that is now marginalized and socially unacceptable, the rally was primarily about validation. They sought and obtained public attention, which affirmed that they weren’t forgotten relics and could still command an audience by their public presence. The Klan reminds me of youths I’ve observed who know just the right buttons to push to aggravate some adult in their lives (teachers and parents seem to be favorite targets) and take considerable pleasure and satisfaction from having so manipulated an antagonist.
In addition to the self-affirmation obtained from public attention, the rally seemed to me to possibly serve a second purpose — communication. How does a small, isolated group recruit new members and give support to other scattered and isolated groups and individuals of a similar mind? One answer I think is through publicity. The news coverage generated by the event turned protestors and the media into the unwitting accomplice of the Klan in disseminating its message to its kin, “we’re here and we still matter.” In support of this analysis consider this from Scott Atran an anthropologist and expert on terrorism, “Media and publicity are the oxygen of terrorism. Without them it would die.”
Even in this day of digital communication, the context of a public event has significant messaging potential, as all of the “terrorist” groups in the world know so well. A public event, whether a rally or a car bomb, is both a cheap and effective way to obtain an outcome not otherwise possible for such a group. Thus, contributing to a publicity event conducted by the Klan, whether by showing up to protest or showing up to cover the “event” for the media, is to assist the Klan in meeting its goals. Empowering the Klan in stressful and contentious times is especially hazardous because it remains a spark with the potential to become a fire.
What led the protesters to become dance partners with the Klan? Clearly, there was a bit of self-affirmation going on here as well. What better way than a public dance of defiance with a defanged cobra to demonstrate one’s righteousness and moral superiority. The Klansmen in their white robes provided a stimulus to elicit the moral outrage of the most sensitive members of the community — the Klan’s dependable foils. The protestors came out because of the Klan but they demonstrated to affirm their own beliefs and to signify publicly to one another and the community that we are truly good and caring people. The rally also provided the protesters an occasion to identify kindred spirits in the community, form new associations and weave a new thread into one’s personal narrative.
In the end, the Klan cared only that the protesters showed up and the more the better for their purposes. The dance goes on.