People who meditate regularly feel an enviable sense of calm. Neuroscientists have shown that by altering brain-wave patterns, the discipline purges negative thoughts. Experienced meditators are calmer in their response to daily stress and perform better at tasks that require focused attention. A handful of researchers think the same brain changes could even confer physical benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and preventing disease.

Scientists, as well as practiced meditators such as the Dalai Lama, also want to know how much meditation is needed to achieve these gains. What if 20 minutes, twice a day, were enough? A person could add that to his or her daily routine of 30 minutes on the treadmill and achieve physical and mental harmony.

The number of clinical investigations into meditation is increasing, in part because the Dalai Lama himself has encouraged such analyses. Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of WisconsinMadison who practices meditation, was one of the first to record the brain activity of Tibetan monks during their altered state. Davidson's team has since conducted several creative experiments to test the possible neural benefits. Davidson is studying how electrical brain activity corresponds to emotional and behavioral reactions to the environment. He has shown that meditation triggers the high-frequency waves associated with attention and perception to a far greater degree in experienced practitioners than in novices.

Another meditator, Margaret E. Kemeny, a health psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, is investigating ways to help healthy adults deal with negative emotions. She is following teachers she has trained to meditate, as well as a control group of untrained teachers, over a five-month period to see whether regular meditation for a few minutes each day alters the mind and body in positive ways. Her answer will be based on measurements of brain chemicals that regulate stress, as well as heart rate, blood pressure and mood ratings.

Clifford Saron of the University of California, Davis, has proposed a wild and intriguing research project. He wants to find 30 people who would put their lives on hold for one year, live on a beach on the Pacific coast and spend their days meditating hour after hour, only to be probed every so often by a slew of scientific devices, from brain scanners to blood analyzers. Saron hopes to determine whether meditation creates permanent biological changes, such as a wealth of new or altered brain cells that give people a sense of tranquillity. What is more, if he can identify a brain region that brings about inner peace, then pharmaceutical companies potentially could design drugs to create the same effect. To test whether the project is even feasible, Saron is first designing a three-month pilot study. At a recent meeting, a number of scientists indicated they might be willing to put aside a few months and volunteer, but no one was signing on for a year.

The person who prompted Saron's initiative is Colorado businessman Adam Engle. While trekking in Nepal in the 1970s, Engle was taken by the warmth and compassion of the Buddhist lamas he met. A decade later he learned of the Dalai Lama's penchant for science and eventually co-founded the Mind & Life Institute, based in Colorado, with the late neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner Francisco J. Varela. The institute's purpose, Engle says, is "to see if we can bridge the gap" between science and spirituality.

In 2000 the institute sponsored a meeting in India where neuroscientists met with the Dalai Lama and discussed ways to study Buddhist meditation practices. One attendee was Paul Ekman, a noted expert in facial expressions and emotion. In a subsequent study, Ekman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, found that lamas assessed the emotion shown in faces much faster and more accurately than did "thousands of people I have tested over the years, including lawyers, policemen and judges." He thinks meditation offers a way to strengthen brain circuits that regulate attention and emotion and believes the practice could help many people who suffer from mental diseases characterized by abnormal emotional reactions.

The opportunities for advancement are expanding. In 2003 more than 1,000 scientists gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hear the Dalai Lama describe this new area of research. In November 2005, days before the Society for Neuroscience meeting where the Dalai Lama was to speak [see "Meditations on the Brain," by R. Douglas Fields, on page 42], the Dalai Lama and scientists met at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., to share results and discuss ways to study how meditation might alter disease states of the mind and body. Georgetown University Medical Center, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Mind & Life Institute sponsored the meeting. Universities are taking this line of inquiry seriously, and a number of researchers are also finding federal money for these studies.

As the Dalai Lama blessed his audience of neuroscientists at the November event, he offered his hope that their efforts will pave the way to a healthier, happier world.