EXPLORING MIND AND MEDITATION
Neuropsychiatry was the obvious area of medicine for someone interested in both mind and brain. So most of my professional life in medicine has been spent at the Maudsley Hospital, which, when I joined in 1967, was the premier postgraduate psychiatric training hospital in the UK. It had an excellent unit for treating patients with epilepsy, who have not only to accept a possible lifetime on medication but also have to adapt their lifestyle to cope with the disease. The hospital was at the cutting edge in understanding the mechanisms underpinning epilepsy and its medical and surgical treatment and my interests in psychiatry and the neurophysiology of the brain made this an area in which I was particularly interested.
From 1977 until my retirement 20 years later, I ran the epilepsy unit, and it quickly became apparent to me that the patient’s brain and mind were intimately linked and the idea that epileptic seizures always came out of the blue was demonstrably wrong. We carried out a number of studies which showed that about 50 of patients could stop their seizures or inhibit their spread voluntarily. Even more fascinating, I found that several of my patients could voluntarily induce an epileptic seizure at will. I remember the first patient who finally admitted that she could do this. Her face was scarred, the result of numerous epileptic falls. I knew that her epilepsy originated in the frontal lobes of the brain, close to the areas which controls her eyes and jaws. She had an over-protective mother and wanted to break free from her but was too dependent to do this.
Instead she developed a passive-aggressive attitude to her mother which helped neither of them.
One day, as I was sitting talking to her we began to touch on some of the deep emotional feelings which she had about her mother, I saw that she was moving her jaws up and down and flicking her eyes from side to side, both markers of the onset of a seizure. This was not, however, seizure activity: she was doing it deliberately.
A seizure started and immediately, while she was still conscious, she threw herself forward, cutting her head on the sharp corner of the desk and fell to the floor, jerking in a genuine generalised convulsion. Once she had recovered and we had mopped up the blood, I asked her if she could always bring on seizures by mimicking their onset. She looked surprised and finally admitted that she could and did this when upset with her mother.
From such observations it became clear to me that mind and brain are intimately related, and that my patients’ behaviour was strongly reflected in the electrophysiology of her brain. It was not surprising that some patients would discover strategies to increase or to inhibit their seizures voluntarily.
In his novel The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s describes the transcendental experiences which his main character, Prince Myshkin, has as a result of his epilepsy. The renowned French physician, Henri Gastaut, suggested that these experiences could occur in a common type of epilepsy arising in the temporal lobes. Unfortunately the early work persuaded many subsequent scientists who do not fully understand epilepsy that discharges of the temporal lobe may give rise to strong feelings of God, of Unity and of Transcendence. This led to the mistaken belief that there was a ‘God spot’ in the brain.
Subsequently it was found that positive transcendental auras in epilepsy are in fact extremely rare and usually only occur in patients who have a psychiatric illness as well as epilepsy. In fact in the 20 years that I spent dealing with epilepsy patients every day in a clinic that worked with the most complex of epilepsy cases, I can remember only one man who had an aura in which he experienced transcendent feelings. Generally all temporal lobe discharges are unpleasant and fortunately are usually forgotten, as one characteristic of these seizures is that it wipes the memory clean (Gastaut 1984; Geshwind & Picard 2016).
It was when I became interested in meditation that I had my first chance to try to understand, if not to bridge the gap between mind and brain which so intrigued me. In 1965 I took up a clinical research fellowship in the EEG Department of the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and, as a counter-balance to academic and family life, my wife Elizabeth and I thought that we would find an evening class in which to pursue an entirely different activity. She liked the idea of pottery, but one evening, waiting for a tube train, we saw a poster advertising evening classes in philosophy which I felt was exactly what we needed. We reached a compromise position – philosophy for a term, then pottery if that did not work out.
The course introduced me to the ideas of P.D. Ouspensky and to a system which, if practised regularly, it was claimed would enhance consciousness. The Ouspensky system involves the law of octaves, which states that physical processes develop like a musical scale, with two gaps where energy must be put in to keep the process going in the same direction. At the end of the octave a new process can begin. At the time we joined a new octave was beginning, and the energy driving this was meditation.
This was the mid-1960s, a time when meditation received a huge boost in popularity due largely to the Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but also (perhaps mostly) to the Beatles. The Beatles met the Maharishi when he visited London, and had been taught meditation by him. I had heard the Maharishi speak at a very well-attended meeting at the Albert Hall and been impressed by his clear description of the meditation method, a psychological technique for the understanding and expansion of mind.
The meditation that I had already learnt and practised was a similar form of mantra meditation from the same lineage and tradition as that given to the Beatles by the Maharishi. Meditation had been instantly transformative for me. No sooner had I begun attending to the mantra and following it inwards than I felt an entirely new part of myself opening up. This carried with it the ability to attend and understand at a quite different level. It became such an essential part of my life that I have never failed to meditate each morning and can usually manage an evening meditation too. Its effects persuaded me to write an article for the Times in the early 1970s about the benefits of meditation and this sparked in others general interest in the practice.
Even today, nearly 50 years later, I occasionally meet people who tell me that they were inspired to take up the practice because they considered that this medical seal of approval had legitimised it. Around that time, too, I was contacted by a group called the Scientific and Medical Network which had been set up by George Blaker and colleagues, to give a safe haven for scientists who were not bonded only to the material.
Amongst them was Peter Leggett, Vice Chancellor of the University of Surrey who himself had had a very wide transcendent experience. As I was becoming known for my unconventional championship of meditation, I was invited to chair the Network, and together with the Director, David Lorimer, ran it for over 20 years.
Because of my fascination with the links between mind and brain, the powerful effects of meditation on me made me think that there must be some reflection of this in my brain activity. I managed to persuade a number of fellow meditators to come to my laboratory and to meditate while I measured their brain waves. I was working at that time with the London Atlas computer, one of the biggest in the UK, which occupied a whole house in Gordon Square – (its computing power was significantly less than the average lap-top today) – and I analysed brain wave activity in ways that had never been done before. I could look at the power spectrum of the electroencephalogram (EEG) and show that when meditators were very quiet and had reached a deep part of their mind, slower or deeper rhythms appeared in both temporal lobes of the brain. This seemed to be the key to the experiences that the meditators reported. If these rhythms did not appear, the meditators rated their inner activity as not being as deep as on the occasions when they did appear. When I presented a paper on my finding to the local EEG society, there was enormous interest in the idea that the effects experienced by meditators were not due to imagination but to changes in brain activity, reflected in the EEG.
Meditation and the Beatles
Research workers always worry about where the next grant is going to come from and at that time meditation research was not a topic likely to attract much funding or attention. It struck me that the obvious thing was to apply to Apple, the Beatles’ foundation. I contacted one of their PAs, told them about the work that I had been doing on meditation, and asked if it might be possible to examine a Beatle? Scientific analysis of a Beatle’s brain waves, I said, might lead to a further expansion in the popularity of meditation. Two weeks later I was telephoned by a Beatle representative who told me that George Harrison had agreed to become a guinea pig. I arranged for him to come to the Institute of Psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. On the appointed day, a telephone call from the porters’ lodge informed me that an odd gentleman in a large car said he had an appointment with me, but the porter did not believe this as the individual was dressed strangely.
I went down to the porters’ lodge and met George Harrison, who seemed to be dressed quite normally in the standard jeans-based uniform, though this was clearly not consistent with the porter’s idea of how someone arriving in a chauffeur-driven limo should be dressed. After chatting with George about the Maharishi, meditation and the Beatles, I took him to the lab and introduced him to my technician. We asked him to sit down in the recording chair and showed him the electrodes that we were going to stick on his head. He looked at them and said: “I don’t think I’ll be doing this sort of thing again”. Nevertheless he remained sitting docilely while we stuck them on with an airgun and collodion glue and told us how the Beatles had been introduced to LSD by having their drinks spiked while they were in California, which I found more shocking than he did as I knew how unpredictable the effects of LSD are.
I turned the recording machine on and watched the pens as they traced the patterns of George’s brain electrical activity onto the moving paper record. I asked him to close his eyes and his alpha rhythm became prominent, then to open them and it disappeared, the normal response. Next, as a control condition, I asked him to sit quite still with his eyes closed and to think about other things, but not to meditate. After ten minutes I asked him to start meditating and we left the lab and watched him through a glass panel.
Fairly soon, I saw the tell-tale signature of bitemporal theta, showing me that the Beatles’ lead guitarist was meditating. A new wave form soon arose, known as the k-complex, suggesting that he was very tired and slowly slipping into sleep. This was tricky. Should we wake George and ask him to try again or let him have a rest? On reviewing the recording, I decided that we had gathered enough of a meditating record to give an authoritative opinion, and should let him sleep. George was much refreshed when we took the electrodes off , due, he said, to the effects of the meditation. He kindly signed the recording and we guided him back to his driver and the Rolls-Royce.
In the lab, the technician and I discussed the changes in the recording and concluded that during the period of meditation the expected definite brain wave changes had indeed been produced. My secretary also pointed out that George Harrison’s EEG record could act as my pension fund, if I kept it. Unfortunately when I eventually retired 30 years later, it had vanished. Someone else had evidently recognised the value of the 50 or so metres of George Harrison’s signed brain wave records.
In 1972 Keith Wallace, Professor of Physiology in the new Maharishi International University, and Herbert Benson, a well-known Harvard psychologist, published an article about transcendental meditation (TM) in the Scientific American (Benson et al 1972). The graph of their findings showed, plain as a pikestaff , that the level of oxygen consumed by the body fell dramatically during meditation. This was a fascinating finding. Could meditation really drop oxygen consumption to this extent? There were papers in the literature suggesting that yogis who were buried in pits could survive with very little oxygen for long periods. Might meditation be a new way of controlling the body’s oxygen needs? This was an intriguing possibility and after discussing it with my research team, we decided it must be because oxygen consumption by the muscles was turned off and consequently heat generated by muscle activity would be decreased. I immediately rang a friend in Edinburgh who had the biggest calorimeter – a machine for measuring heat output – in the country. It was big enough to contain a cow, so putting a meditator in it would be child’s play. However, said my Edinburgh friend, before he went ahead and booked a time for me, could he see the Scientific American article? I sent him all the data and his response was, “Interesting. But why don’t you do your own experiment before you come up here and use the calorimeter?” There followed a set of experiments to try to replicate the Wallace and Benson effects. We made a large plastic hood which would cover the meditator down to the waist, into which we could blow air through a baffle so that it was distributed throughout. We would suck samples of air out and analyse their carbon dioxide levels. If the muscles were indeed burning less oxygen, then the carbon dioxide level in the expired air would decrease. We asked a local TM group to supply us with a sample of experienced meditators.
Our first subject was a 20-year-old undergraduate who had been meditating for about two years. He was fired up with enthusiasm at the idea of getting scientific proof to validate the positive effects which meditation was having in his life. We asked him if he liked the occasional beer? No. Did he smoke? No. Any head injuries? No. Was he totally well? Yes, he answered, as though I should have realised that no one who was a regular meditator could fail to be in perfect health.
We put him in the plastic helmet and watched. During the first control period we told him to relax, but not to meditate. He said that he was perfectly relaxed already.
But if you are in strange laboratory surroundings, with people you have never met who are about to put you through a scientific examination about which you know little, you are almost certainly going to be a little tense.
And, indeed, the test results showed that he was. There was a gradual decrease in carbon dioxide levels which was due to his gradual relaxation. Being a normal young man, he would often shift his position on the chair or move an arm or leg, and these movements were always accompanied by a burst of CO2 output.
Next we asked him to meditate. During the meditation period, he sat absolutely still and as he had much less muscle activity his carbon dioxide level fell still further. At the end of the meditation session we asked him to sit still for a further 15 minutes as a control period, to see whether after meditation the metabolic rate increased again. Watching him, it was apparent that he was making many more small movements, shifting about in his chair because he had been sitting still for so long. Not surprisingly, the carbon dioxide level rose again. We had a perfect replication of the Wallace and Benson effect, but it could be explained as simply related to muscle activity or lack of it.
We argued that focused attention on any relaxing procedure, such as listening to music, might produce the same effect. We were correct. There was very little difference in the changes in carbon dioxide levels between meditation and listening to Mozart. Sadly, I had to ring my friend in Edinburgh and say that I did not think we would be justified in using his cow calorimeter after all.
Around this time a young American doctor wrote to me to say that she was interested in meditation and would like to do a study with me. Sue had been to Harvard, had recently qualified, and was extremely bright. She was interested in the physiological effects of meditation, and we arranged that she should come over to work with me for six months. We set up a complex experiment, measuring oxygen consumption and looking at the electrical activity of the brain. The Maharishi had said that the gate into what he called “the fourth state of consciousness” lay in the interval between waking and sleeping. The oxygen consumption results were very similar to those of the carbon dioxide experiments, except that on this occasion we took subjects in the morning just after they had woken when their metabolism would be at its lowest. This experiment confirmed that they could not drop their oxygen consumption any further than this basal level.
We had to conclude that the Wallace and Benson effect was an artefact of both timing and non-specific changes in activity. However, we did strike gold with the analysis of the electrical activity of the brain. This showed that the Maharishi was correct in saying that meditators held themselves between sleeping and waking. This was something that the controls, subjects who were not meditating but listening to music, could not do. They either remained awake or went to sleep. But none were able to hold themselves in that level of consciousness that the Maharishi suggested was crucial for the act of meditation.
After the Maharishi introduced meditation to the West, eastern practices for altering and developing the mind became more popular, and many more people experienced altered mental states and were suitable subjects for scientific study. It was argued that as brain rhythms were known to correlate with the mental states of sleep, dreaming and waking, and that drugs could also produce changes in these rhythms, it was possible that very wide mental states could be induced by physiological means. No sitting around in draughty Zen temples for years on end, just a quick fix, for example by new technologies for changing brain function. Electromagnetic fields applied to the front of the head, for example, can alter mood, while if applied to the parietal region they can produce an alteration in body image. It has also been claimed that if these are applied to the temporal area of the brain some elements of transcendence occurred. Another promising tool is the application of weak electrical direct currents across different areas of the head (brain), which can affect mood and produce other changes in mental state.
More recent is the discovery that light of a particular frequency can pass through the scalp and skull to stimulate the underlying brain and produce different mental states (the implications of this as a treatment of Alzheimer’s are being investigated).
Now, more than 40 years later, the benefits of meditation are well recognised and generally accepted.
Meditating regularly induces relaxation, and this reduces the blood level of the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to anxiety and depression. The first time I came across Zen mindfulness meditation (the training of the mind to remain always in the present), was in the early 1980s when I was giving a paper on meditation in the USA. Attending the same conference was Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society and now Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
He had recently published a study on mindfulness as a treatment for anxiety, but he also included followup data which showed that those who had practised mindfulness meditation remained free of anxiety, whereas those who had only taken drugs relapsed relatively quickly. This was such an important finding that it was taken up by the insurance companies, who started to fund mindfulness programmes as the technique was not only cheaper than drugs but produced better outcomes.
In the UK, mindfulness meditation has now been declared by NICE (the National Institute for Clinical Excellence) as a first-line treatment for mild and moderate depression rather than the use of drugs.
Recent papers have been published by scientists who have an interest in the more esoteric philosophies of awakening. Neuro-imaging experiments on meditation show large changes in brain structure and function.
There is an area in the medial frontal region which shows an increase in size in meditators. Another area in the posterior cingulate gyrus, which is part of the default system or the ‘chattering system’ of the relaxed brain, is connected, amongst other things, with the personal sense of identity and, importantly, also alters its activity during mindfulness meditation. Staying in the present with a silent but alert and focused mind is seen as the optimal state for mental health and task efficiency (Marchand, 2012). Some recent data shows that meditation can have an effect on our chromosomal structure. As cells divide, the tips of the chromosomes (telomeres) become degraded. This is the process of aging. A recent study has shown that in meditators this degradation is reversed (Alda 2016, Schutte 20214). Or to put it another way, mediation keeps us youthful. Many of us will have experienced times when our attention is high and we are functioning very effectively. It could be running a race, or yachting through a rough and difficult sea, when time seems to stand still. This is known by psychologists as ‘being in the flow,’ and it is this state which has been equated with the high state of mindfulness induced by meditation.
Meditation is now accepted in the West as a life changing practice whose benefits have been scientifically validated. The Maharishi died in February 2008 but by introducing meditation to the West (and possibly with the help of the Beatles) he single-handedly changed our attitudes and gave us a technique which will help to keep us healthy throughout our lives.
Zen in Japan
In 2000 a colleague who was Director of a neuroscience research unit in Japan invited me to spend a few months each year in his unit, studying magnetoencephalography.
This was a relatively new method of studying the brain, using very hi-tech equipment which is cooled by liquid helium so that it is extremely sensitive to the magnetic field above the surface of the scalp, which is about a hundred million times weaker than the earth’s magnetic field. The equipment is housed in a magnetically screened room which isolates it from the magnetic fields that are all around us, generated by computers and other electronic equipment.
The use of magnetic rather than electrical fields is a great step forward in brain wave analysis as the brain, skull and scalp are transparent to magnetic waves whereas they smear electrical waves. This means that deep sources of brain activity can be identified much more accurately with magnetoencephalography (MEG) than with electroencephalography (EEG).
While I was working in Japan, we carried out a number of studies, the most important being that we were able to measure non-invasively the deepest and most fundamental nuclei in the brain-stem which control eye movements and many of the fundamental life-support systems, such as respiration and heart-beat.
This meant that we could time the relationship between the activity in the superficial frontal eye movement cortex of the brain and the deep brain structures in the brain-stem where the actual eye movement motor is situated.
This level of detail had never been seen before in humans although micro-electrode work in primates, with implanted electrodes, had shown deep brain activity and had thus suggested the way that these structures might work under similar conditions in humans. I remember the evening that I realised we could see both deep brain and frontal activity together for the first time in humans. Walking back home that evening to our tiny on-campus Japanese apartment whose mod-cons nevertheless included a loo with a heated seat and a bath which announced when it was full and turned itself off, I looked at the sun setting over Mt Fuji in the distance and realised how lucky I was, at the tail end of a working life, to find myself in this magical place, collaborating with such talented colleagues at the cutting edge of neurophysiological research.
Besides wanting to be involved in the research project, I also thought that a few months in Japan might give me an opportunity to investigate the Zen path.
Sitting in silence in a Zen group might help me clear my internal nonsense. I had been given the name of a Jesuit priest who took Zen classes at Sofia University in Tokyo and phoned to ask him if I could join his group.
He was very welcoming and before the first session instructed me in Zen sitting – the full lotus position if I could manage it – I could not - or the half lotus - I could not do this either. We finally settled for a simple cross legged position, left over right, hands folded just below the stomach, left hand over right, eyes down and half-hooded, sitting facing the wall.
What do I do with my mind? I asked Just watch it, I was advised.
So for two evenings a week, in two 40 minute sessions, I would sit cross-legged, in this large, panelled room, looking at the wall in silence. We sat on Zen cushions, but floppy cushions were also available as additional knee-padding for wimpy foreigners – no Japanese would deign to use them. My meditation practice of 30 minutes every morning had prepared me for silent sitting, but there is a world of difference between sitting in silence observing the mind and sitting in silence following a mantra with one’s mind.
My teacher taught me to sit with a straight back and would walk around the room adjusting everyone’s position. If (as sometimes happened) my head fell forward, the crack of his cane on my shoulder would jolt me wide awake. After the class, walking to the station, there was a new clarity to my perception; colours were more intense, street sounds more clamorous.
If you attend a Zen group for any length of time, you will be invited to go to a Sesshin, a Zen retreat with long periods of sitting. In one such Sesshin, I sat looking at the wall when, suddenly, there opened in front of me a huge marble palace with a wonderful staircase which swept down to other levels of marbleclad rooms, inviting me to see what lay beyond them. I thought this had probably arisen because I was between waking and sleeping, a stage when the mind creates pictures. I shifted a little so that my level of alertness rose slightly, and the palace disappeared. I settled back to my silent watching, and there it was again, as alluring as ever. But then the bell rang and the session ended. I’d have liked to explore it further, but realised that, as any good student knows, you simply note these interesting experiences, but do not engage with them.
Zen is clearly a very important path to a change in consciousness. The process of silent watching is all that is required, but it is difficult to achieve. I was very fortunate to meet Jim Austin, a neurologist who himself had followed the Zen path on his vacations from practising neurology in America. He followed his teacher’s instructions and at one Sesshin he achieved Kensho, a level of consciousness which marks an individual. The mind is transformed and one can experience an expansion in one’s everyday consciousness. Jim has written the largest and most comprehensive series of books on the effects of Zen on the neurology of the brain, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the relationship between brain function and Zen.
If you want to follow the Zen path and enter the Zen temple you have to remember that the path is a pathless path and the gate a gateless gate. Or to put it another way, the fact that you maintain or are attached to a goal, the goal of Kensho, means that you will never attain it. As Wang Po, a famous Zen philosopher, said: “He who chooses can never attain the way.” The giving up of all attachments seems to be crucial for the progression along any of the paths to a breakthrough in consciousness.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published October 2019
Size: 5 x 8 inches