Technology assisted enlightenment

Research that shows how the brains of Buddhist monks look while they are meditating is pretty amazing, because it proves that the lifelong practice of meditation has the ability to shape brain networks, neuroplasticity, and brain function. But how about the rest of us? Is there hope? In a study done at Yale, Professor Judson Brewer, showed that experienced meditators demonstrated changes in brain network activity, specifically decreases in areas associated with the default mode network (DMN) in the brain. The DMN is often associated with self-referential or ruminative thought (something you would expect to be lower in experienced meditators). He then showed that anyone could be trained to enhance the meditative experience using neurofeedback driven by brain structures in the DMN. This was a first tantalizing look at using feedback from the brain itself to help drive deeper meditation.

Continuing this line of investigation, and with a more active approach than neurofeedback, Dr. Jay Sanguinetti and Shinzen Young have shown that by using a neuromodulation approach employing transcranial-focused ultrasound, they can bias the brain toward a positive mood state and one better suited to meditation. They target the DMN, decreasing its activity to give novice meditators a fighting chance against the ubiquitous “monkey mind” often described in meditation traditions. Can we hack enlightenment? With this data in hand, it’s looking promising by the end of the decade.