FAIRFIELD, Iowa – Damian Lodge sat in front of a stocking-footed audience Friday at Maharishi University of Management. The countenance of a yogi beamed down from a picture over the mantel, and a camera broadcast his image over the Internet.
Lodge was wired for thought. On his head he wore a wired device resembling a blue swim cap. The electroencephalogram, or EEG, measured electrical activity in his brain. A rainbow of squiggly lines on a computer screen rose and fell as different parts of his brain became active or quieted.
Lodge blinked his eyes three times. The crowd gasped and tittered as the movement caused three bumps to appear in the pattern. Neuroscientist Fred Travis pointed out peaks and troughs of brain activity as Lodge meditated and then did simple mental tasks on a computer.
The university hopes to wire all of its 750 students and issue them “brain integration report cards” – purportedly a new way of determining how their college experience changes the brain.
While this is an unconventional idea, this is an unconventional school.
Researchers at Maharishi University hope to prove that the deep body relaxation technique of meditation can increase academic performance, improve judgment and decision-making skills.
Others are skeptical. But the idea may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Scientists elsewhere also have been studying how meditation affects the brain. A recent study of Tibetan monks showed they had more active brain waves during meditation.
Whether that leads to higher intelligence is unclear.
Scientists are only beginning to understand what differences in brain activity actually mean, says Dr. Mark Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University.
The value of the meditation studies lies in placing objective measurements on what has always been a subjective experience, Raichle said.
“The problem is knowing what you’re studying,” he said.
Benefits of TM
Fairfield looks much like any other small, Midwestern city with rows of tidy houses and a gazebo in the town square.
But at the northern edge of town is a place not usually encountered in the midst of corn and soybean fields. At the university and nearby Maharishi Vedic City, a community planned according to ancient mathematical principals, new symmetrical buildings with sculpted urns on the roofs stand facing east. Two gleaming golden domes house hundreds of meditators – men in one dome, women in the other – twice each day.
College life at Maharishi U. in southeastern Iowa is decidedly different, too. It includes eating organic vegetarian meals in the cafeteria, taking one course at a time in month-long blocks, hitting the hay at 10 p.m. and meditating twice a day.
– Is TM a religion?
TM, as most people here call transcendental meditation, allows practitioners to reach a fourth state of consciousness that can be detected with brain wave patterns and changes in metabolism, said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at Maharishi U. (The other three states are unconsciousness, wakefulness and sleep.)
Schneider listed alleged benefits of transcendental meditation: reduction in stress hormones, lower blood pressure, slowing or reversal of hardening of the arteries, lower rates of smoking and alcohol abuse, reduced death rate from heart disease, lower hospitalization rates for cancer and psychiatric diseases, and reduced rates of infectious diseases.
But the biggest benefit of this type of meditation is its effect on the brain, Travis said.
Last year, a group of scientists from the University of Wisconsin wired veteran Buddhist monks and novice meditators to an EEG machine. The monks, who had been practicing Tibetan meditation for 15 to 40 years, showed large increases in a type of brain wave called gamma waves. The novices couldn’t muster that sort of brain power, the scientists found.
But when Travis hooked new transcendental practitioners and people who had been meditating for a long time to his EEG machine, he said he saw no differences between the brain waves of novices and veterans during meditation. What he found is that both groups showed electrical signals called alpha waves in the front part of the brain – the executive centers – and the back of the brain – the more primitive part, he said. In other words, the whole brain had started to work as a unit.
Those changes persisted in longtime meditators, keeping their brains firing in unison even when they weren’t meditating, Travis found. That means that meditation helps brain cells forge more links, he said.
Dr. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania compared Buddhist monks with transcendentalists and found that both groups showed increased activity in the frontal lobes. But the monks also showed an increase of activity in a part of the brain called the thalamus, while TM practitioners reduced activity in that part of the brain.
Asking the questions
Figuring out how different styles of meditation affect the brain could lead to new treatments for certain disorders, Newberg suggested. He was linked by telephone Friday to a brain conference at Maharishi University.
Changes in brain activity patterns may have no practical effects on a person’s intelligence or creativity, he said.
But at least scientists have begun to ask questions that could one day give definitive answers.
The charge to study the value of meditation is being led by its practitioners. The Dalai Llama commissioned the Wisconsin study of his monks. Schneider and Travis are coordinating studies at many different hospitals and universities to determine whether transcendental meditation really affects the brain and body the way they think it does.
Meanwhile, Travis and others at Maharishi University are challenging schools to follow suit in offering brain-scan report cards.
That’s not likely. But Fairfield resident and TM practitioner Casey Blitz thinks it would be enlightening for parents to see the effects of college life elsewhere on the mental states of their students.
“I think it would be incredible for most parents to see what’s happening to brains on a college campus,” she said. “I think they are getting pickled.”