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Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2007

NATURAL SELECTIONS

WORKING ON THE BRAIN

Meditations on meditation and enhancing the mind


At Enkakuji Temple in Kamakura, at dawn on a March morning several years ago, I came as close as I ever have to satori, the Zen term for spiritual enlightenment. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming any sort of deep insight, just that there, in that corner of Kanagawa Prefecture, I came to understand something of what meditative practice can do.

I was on a four-day course in Zen Buddhism. We slept on old futons in the drafty, creaking temple (Enkakuji was founded in 1282), and rose at 4 a.m. to do the morning session of meditation. The monks opened the shutters and the chill predawn air flowed in. As we sat cross-legged in the zazen posture, I wondered what I had to "do" to meditate.

The monks settled into zazen like ducks to water. I, on the other hand, sat there awkwardly for hours and my mind drifted.

I later found out that this is what you should do: let go, effectively.

After a while I realized that thoughts were flowing through my mind unbidden, in a stream that I could almost sit back and watch. It was a kind of waking unconsciousness. All the while, the sun had been rising, and the branches of the plum trees in the temple garden slowly resolved against the lightening sky. Soon I could make out the plum blossom in the morning light. It was a quintessential Japanese moment; I felt like I was in a Yukio Mishima novel.

This is my experience of meditation, and it was what I thought of last week when I heard David Lynch talking about transcendental meditation at the London Film Festival. The director of the comic-nightmare movie "Eraserhead" was asked what he gets from meditation. "Totality. Everything more than the most. Smaller than the smallest, larger than the largest. Enlightenment. Liberation."

Fair enough, I suppose — to a degree.

It was when Lynch started on about the "field of bliss consciousness" that could be found in all humans, and how it could also be found in quantum physics, that I started to lose him.

I don't know how useful meditation is for understanding quantum physics, but it certainly reduces stress.

A Chinese meditative technique called integrated body-mind training (IBMT) has recently been shown, in a controlled scientific test, to boost attention levels and reduce stress. Those test results showed that just five days of practicing IBMT for 20 minutes a day led to measurably lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than levels measured in a control group of people who just sat calmly and relaxed their muscles. Stress was measured after the volunteers were asked to perform difficult mental arithmetic. The IBMT group also scored better on tests of attention and mood.

One of the criticisms of this study was that it only measured the effects of meditation over the short term. A similar criticism has been leveled against "meditation machines" — devices that effectively offer a short-cut to satori.

Now, those memories of Enkakuji Temple are very special, but it's not exactly convenient to spend four days in Kamakura and be beaten by a monk with a stick when I want peace of mind. So I decided to try out a meditation machine. I opted for the MindSpa, which I got from meditations-uk.com.

This consists of a pair of blacked-out sunglasses embedded with light-emitting diodes on the inside. You hook the glasses up to a little machine, and also plug in a pair of headphones. The idea is that a combination of flashing lights and an electronic rhythm retune your brain waves into a less stressful state. The result, say the manufacturers, is better sleep, increased attention and memory — and lower stress levels.

I started gently, on the "alpha recharge" setting. This is a 10-minute session that flashes lights at between 10 and 13 hertz — supposedly the same as the alpha waves of the brain. Alpha waves, the instruction book tells me, are associated with a relaxed state and "effortless alertness."

At first, it felt weird. I wanted to close my eyes to escape the flashing lights — but my eyes were already closed! An odd feeling. So I breathed deeply and relaxed. After 10 minutes I did feel energized, but of course that could have been just a placebo effect because I was expecting to feel refreshed.

High mental capacity

Over the next few days I experimented with some more intense programs. Before I slept I tried the cognitive enhancement program, which is supposed to help with intense work requiring high mental capacity. I woke after a deep sleep, and as I walked to work I felt extremely calm and relaxed, but alert — almost serene.

The glasses can also be worn with a window sticker peeled off, and the eyes open. The idea is that instead of a coffee in the day when you start to flag, you work while wearing the glasses. I'm writing this now with them on, the lights flashing. You can't help but feel like Data out of "Star Trek." Here, at home, it's fine, but when I donned them at work I got some strange looks.

So do they work? Well, my experience is clearly not a scientific study, but I feel the MindSpa machine has improved my sleep patterns (which were, anyway, pretty good), and I do feel energized after a session. But sometimes during a session I catch myself; I notice that I've been almost watching the thoughts flow through my head like a stream — just like what happened at Enkakuji Temple.

How much it can really boost brain power, or help children with attention disorders, as they claim in the manual, I couldn't say. So — I will continue my sessions with the machine, and report back here later on how smart and Zen-like I've become.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life)"; price ¥1,500.


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