When Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate for many years, they gradually change the molecular structure of their brains. MRI scans show they experience more activity in the left pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with happiness, and less activity in the right-hand side, which handles negative thoughts.
And Mathieu Ricard, the 62-year-old French interpreter for Tibet’s Dalai Lama, has happiness levels that are literally off the scale of the measuring instruments. That’s the conclusion of American neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who has spent over fifteen years testing these theories.
The idea that we gradually reshape our brains is not new – taxi drivers change the parts of their brains that deal with spatial awareness, and concert musicians the parts that deal with musical pitch – but Davidson was among the first to apply the tests scientifically to an area that seemed much more abstract and subjective.
Richard Davidson’s Tests
Davidson and his team began by travelling to India to study the brain activity of monks who practiced three different types of meditation:
- Focused attention, where the monks specifically train themselves to focus on a single object for long periods of time
- Cultivating compassion, where they envision negative events that cause anger or irritability, and then transform by applying compassion
- Open presence, where they are acutely and purely aware of whatever thought, emotion or sensation is present, without reacting to it.
They soon discovered that monks who had completed more than ten thousand hours of meditation had high levels of brain activity associated with positive emotions. Then some Asian monks traveled to Davidson’s lab in the University of Wisconsin in America, where their reactions were compared to those of volunteers who had only some limited training in meditation.
The MRI scans measured brain activity that is associated with happiness, on a scale of +0.3 at the negative end to -0.3 on the positive end. One monk, Mathieu Ricard, scored literally off the scale at -0.45. He may well be the happiest man in the world. So who is Mathieu Ricard and how did he reach this state?
Mathieu Ricard’s Life
Ricard was born in France in 1946. His father, Jean-François Revel, was a philosopher and mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, was a painter. Ricard studied classical music, ornithology and photography and in 1972 completed a Ph.D. in cellular genetics at the Institut Pasteur under Nobel Laureate François Jacob. He then moved to the Himalayas to study Tibetan Buddhism. He has lived since then as a Buddhist monk at the Shechen Monastery in Nepal, also acting as French interpreter for Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Ricard has written many books, including
- The Monk and the Philosopher, a best-seller that consisted of dialogues with his father Jean-François Revel
- The Quantum and the Lotus, a conversation with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan
- Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, written with Daniel Goleman
- Motionless Journey, a photographic record of a year-long retreat in the foothills of the Himalayas.
He gives the proceeds from his books to humanitarian projects in Tibet, Nepal, India, and Bhutan. Since 2000, he has been an active member of the Mind and Life Institute as well as participating in the scientific research on brain plasticity headed by Davidson.
Ricard’s Views on Happiness
In the video below, you can listen to Ricard discussing happiness at TED (an annual four-day conference on Technology, Entertainment and Design, that takes place in Monteray in California).
- Results of the study: Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice, PNAS, November 16, 2004, vol. 101 no. 46 16369-16373
- Mathieu Ricard Website
- Richard Davidson Homepage
- The Happiest Man in the World? Anthony Barnes, The Independent, 21 January 2007
- Is Buddhism Good for Your Health? Stephen Hall, New York Times, 14 Sep 2003