It is hard to ignore the fact that the sustained gamma activity evoked in these mice was highly reminiscent of the type of electrical activity recorded from the long-time meditators practicing the elusive phenomenon known as open monitoring meditation. That being said, despite the elegant experimental design utilized by the investigators, sustained gamma-activity is not identical to meditation. For these reasons and more, it is doubtful that anyone would accept this experiment as satisfying the Dalai Lama’s call to the neuroscience community to develop a technological replacement for the many hours spent immersed in contemplative thought. But given the growing body of evidence which suggests that even short-term meditation improves measures of attention, these new experiments provide an interesting twist to the growing field of cognitive enhancement.
How long will it be before a new version of this technology is available for human consumption? It is hard to imagine anyone but the most ardent transhumanist signing up to have genetically engineered viruses and optical probes inserted into their brains. But it is worth remembering that both deep brain stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation are rapidly moving from the laboratory to the clinic, and these represent relatively crude forms of brain stimulation. The field of optogenetics is advancing very quickly; one recent paper in Neuron demonstrated that neurons can be infected and optical fibers implanted safely in non-human primates. At the very least, it is safe to say that the prospect of using advanced technology to mimic at least some of the brain activity present during meditation states has moved from the realm of science fiction to that of scientific possibility.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His latest book is How We Decide.