Yesterday, the Telegraph reported:
Researchers discovered that the ability of the brain to learn a task and remember it was greatly enhanced when a magnetic pulse was applied to the premotor cortex – the area of the brain just behind the forehead.
This is very interesting because magnetic fields and electrical flow are closely related.
Specifically, electric currents can create a magnetic field.
And the reverse appears to also be true: magnetic fields can apparently effect electrical flow.
The brain uses electrical currents to think, learn and process information. Therefore, it should theoretically be possible to use magnets to modify the flow in the brain’s electrical circuits.
Indeed, a quick search turns up the following claim in a U.S. patent application:
Focused ultrasound has been used to modify electrical currents in neuronal tissue. This has been done by a combined application of a magnetic field and an ultrasonic field to neuronal and other tissue in the body.
But there may be more to the story than magnets alone.
As National Geographic notes, concentrating on certain learning tasks can increase specific parts of our brain:
An MRI study published in 2000 by scientists at University College, London, showed that in London taxi drivers the rear portion of the hippocampus was enlarged compared with those of control subjects [since they concentrated for long periods on memorizing the street layouts of London], confounding the long-held notion that the adult human brain cannot grow…
In 1998 Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, showed that new cells can indeed grow in the adult human hippocampus. Gage believes that stem cells, capable of developing into functioning new neurons, may exist elsewhere in the brain.
As I have previously pointed out, meditation and prayer have also been shown to increase brain mass and connectivity in certain areas of the brain.
The Washington Post wrote in 2003:
The Dalai Lama ultimately dispatched eight of his most accomplished practitioners to Davidson’s lab to have them hooked up for electroencephalograph (EEG) testing and brain scanning. The Buddhist practitioners in the experiment had undergone training in the Tibetan Nyingmapa and Kagyupa traditions of meditation for an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 hours, over time periods of 15 to 40 years. As a control, 10 student volunteers with no previous meditation experience were also tested after one week of training.
The monks and volunteers were fitted with a net of 256 electrical sensors and asked to meditate for short periods. Thinking and other mental activity are known to produce slight, but detectable, bursts of electrical activity as large groupings of neurons send messages to each other, and that’s what the sensors picked up. Davidson was especially interested in measuring gamma waves, some of the highest-frequency and most important electrical brain impulses…
Davidson said that the results unambiguously showed that meditation activated the trained minds of the monks in significantly different ways from those of the volunteers. Most important, the electrodes picked up much greater activation of fast-moving and unusually powerful gamma waves in the monks, and found that the movement of the waves through the brain was far better organized and coordinated than in the students. The meditation novices showed only a slight increase in gamma wave activity while meditating, but some of the monks produced gamma wave activity more powerful than any previously reported in a healthy person, Davidson said.
The monks who had spent the most years meditating had the highest levels of gamma waves, he added. This “dose response” — where higher levels of a drug or activity have greater effect than lower levels — is what researchers look for to assess cause and effect…
Davidson concludes from the research that meditation not only changes the workings of the brain in the short term, but also quite possibly produces permanent changes. That finding, he said, is based on the fact that the monks had considerably more gamma wave activity than the control group even before they started meditating. A researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Jon Kabat-Zinn, came to a similar conclusion several years ago.
(here’s a scientific paper on this study published by the National Academy of Science.)
And an engineering paper shows that the pattern of electrical activity in the brain may also be affected by meditation.
Indeed, the above-quoted Washington Post article states:
In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the monks. The intense gamma waves found in the monks have also been associated with knitting together disparate brain circuits, and so are connected to higher mental activity and heightened awareness, as well.
Am I arguing for religious practice? No.
Initially, a higher output of electrical signals in certain parts of the brain may or may not improve learning. Studies need to be undertaken to determine which types of mental or breathing practices improve learning.
Science will one day be able to describe specific exercises which increase learning ability in the brain without any religious content. Indeed, such exercises may be more effective than traditional meditation for learning.
I am only pointing out that exercises conducted without any magnetic or other equipment will eventually be developed which can improve learning.
Moreover, even the kind of meditation which the Dalai Lama’s students practiced in the above-described study was simply “to meditate, specifically on unconditional compassion.” Compassion doesn’t denote Buddhism, any more than it denotes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Native Americanism or any other type of spirituality. Indeed, while religions talk a lot about compassion, most people who call themselves religious fail to actually practice compassion.
On other other hand, I am not anti-religion or anti-spirituality. And for many people, incorporating whatever belief they have might help them focus more on the exercises or tasks at hand.