The Remarkable Brains of Long-Term Meditators

Researchers suggest that people with an advanced meditation practice might operate at a different level of awareness — and it shows in their brainwaves.

As science begins to dig into the long-term impacts meditation has on the brain, researchers are turning to the minds “Olympic-level” meditators for answers—people who have done up to 62,000 hours of meditation in their lifetime. 

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman says the brainwaves of long-term meditators may look a lot different than the rest of ours.

Inside the mind of long-term meditators

In this video from BigThink, Goleman describes how neuroscientist Richard Davidson, his co-author on the book Altered Traits, measured the brainwaves of advanced meditators. Davidson found their brainwaves showed never-before-seen levels of gamma, one of the strongest types of brain waves,  theorized to appear when the different regions of the brain harmonize. 

“We get [gamma] when we bite into an apple or imagine biting into an apple,” explains Goleman, “and for a brief period, a split second, inputs from taste, sound, smell, vision, all of that comes together in that imaged bite into the apple.”

The typical person will have a gamma wave very briefly, for example when we’ve solved a problem we’ve been grappling with, and for a second all of our sensory inputs come together in harmony. The brainwaves of long-term meditators, however, show gamma all the time as a lasting trait, no matter what they are doing. “It’s their everyday state of mind,” says Goleman. “Science has never seen this before.”

“The people that we’ve talked to in this Olympic level group say it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come, we just don’t know. But we do know it’s quite remarkable.” 

Interestingly, when these long-term meditators are studied while they are meditating on compassion, their level of gamma jumps 700 to 800 percent in a few seconds.

This “awakeness” is special state of consciousness that you only see in the highest-level meditators.

“The people that we’ve talked to in this Olympic-level group say it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come—we just don’t know,” says Goleman, “but we do know it’s quite remarkable.”

In this feature article from Mindful magazine, Goleman and Davidson go deeper on findings from research with long-term practitioners.

More on the Science of Meditation 

scientist looking under a microscope, image of person meditating appears
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The Science of Meditation 

The benefits of meditation have been hard to show in concrete terms. Today, however, as the scientific world delves into the study of mindfulness, the capacity of the brain to transform under its influence inspires nothing short of wonder. Read More 

  • Hugh Delehanty
  • December 13, 2017