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See Inside April 2005

Zen Gamma



Researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have found that during meditation, Zen Buddhist monks show an extraordinary synchronization of brain waves known as gamma synchrony—a pattern increasingly associated with robust brain function and the synthesis of activity that we call the mind.

Brain waves are produced by the extremely low voltages involved in transmitting messages among neurons. Most conscious activity produces beta waves at 13 to 30 hertz, or cycles per second. More intense gamma waves (30 to 60 or even 90 Hz) generally mark complex operations such as memory storage and sharp concentration.

The Wisconsin study took electroencephalograms (EEGs) of 10 longtime Buddhist practitioners and of a control group of eight college students who had been lightly trained in meditation. While meditating, the monks produced gamma waves that were extremely high in amplitude and had long-range gamma synchrony—the waves from disparate brain regions were in near lockstep, like numerous jump ropes turning precisely together. The synchrony was sustained for remarkably long periods, too. The students’ gamma waves were nowhere near as strong or tuned.

Such results connote more than spiritual harmony; they reflect the coordination of otherwise scattered groups of neurons. Gamma synchrony increases as a person concentrates or prepares to move. And lack of synchrony indicates discordant mental activity such as schizophrenia. Finally, a growing body of theory proposes that gamma synchrony helps to bind the brain's many sensory and cognitive operations into the miracle of consciousness.

That hypothesis certainly agrees with the monks’ gamma readings, seemingly confirming that Zen meditation produces not relaxation but an intense though serene attention. Trained musicians also show superior gamma synchrony while listening to music—another form of calm but intense focus.

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