A man works hard, has a lot of stress and thinks, “If I could just get away from all this I would be happy.” So he takes a vacation to a tropical paradise and finds himself feeling about the same as he did at home. Different things are irritating, but he is still grumpier than he thinks he should be under the circumstances.
Another man, a Tibetan monk, is run out of his country after it is taken over by communists, sees his people killed, his culture destroyed, his religious treasures profaned and demolished; He has no money, no house, no car, no wife, and yet he seems to be smiling and happy all the time. What’s the deal?
Neuroscientists are finding evidence that people have different biologically determined set points for mood. It is as if we have mood thermostats that limit how high or how low our moods will go. Some of us would find this news depressing, but there is good news to go with it. Related research suggests that training and practice in mindfulness and meditation can alter our mood set points in a positive direction. The suggestion is that meditation and mindfulness may change the activity patterns in our brains.
According to a February 4, 2003 article in The New York Times by Daniel Goleman, when we are distressed, we will have more activity in circuits converging on the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with fear and anger, and in the right prefrontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. When we are happier, the left prefrontal cortex is more active and the amygdala and right prefrontal cortex are quieter. It may be that the left side suppresses activity on the right. Measuring subjects using a functional M.R.I., Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin observed that of 175 test subjects, the person with the highest left to right brain activity ratio was a Tibetan Lama, a person highly trained in meditation and mindfulness. Based on this and other studies of the effect of meditation and mindfulness training on mood, it is hypothesized that we can alter our emotional set points by practicing mediation and mindfulness.
Serious meditators will not find this suggestion surprising. Those of us who could use a little more motivation to get serious about our meditation practice can take heart that sitting still doing nothing may not be doing nothing after all. It may be fundamentally changing the way our brain behaves and laying the groundwork for a less anxious, more energized and happier life.
© 2003 Tom Barrett