“Eat, Pray, Love” and the brain

“A team of neurologists … had wired up a volunteer Tibetan monk for experimental brain-scanning. They wanted to see what happens to a transcendent mind, scientifically speaking, during the moments of enlightenment. In the mind of a normal thinking person, an electrical storm of thoughts and impulses whirls constantly, registering on a brain scan as yellow and red flashes. The more angry or impassioned the subject becomes, the hotter and deeper those red flashes burn. But mystics across time and cultures have all described a stilling of the brain during meditation, and say that the ultimate union with God is a blue light which they can feel radiating from the center of their skulls. In Yogic tradition this is called “the blue pearl,” and it is the goal of every seeker to find it. Sure enough, this Tibetan monk, monitored during meditation, was able to quiet his mind so completely that no red or yellow flashes could be seen. In fact, all the neurological energy of this gentleman pooled and collected at last into the center of his brain – you could see it happening right there on the monitor – into a small, cool, blue pearl of light.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I  began listening to audio books in my car a little while ago.  I’ve been doing a lot of driving back and forth between Boston and Vermont, and I thought I wanted to listen to something educational or meaningful instead of listening to the radio.  I heard the above passage on a recent drive.  Gilbert was talking about meditation and the quieting of the mind. I rarely am thinking of nothing, although I am also rarely thinking of anything productive.  I often find that when I am not completing any particular task – on which my mind must concentrate – that my thinking wanders to past regretful, joyous, or confusing events in my life.  When I am going for a long bike ride I am by no means in a meditative state, although I am constantly mulling over my life, parts of my day, upcoming events, etc.  Usually, I am thinking about events, but am unfocused in a way that I am not productively mulling or ruminating (as Tom Ashbrook describes as a habit of creative thinkers).  However, Ashbrook states that those who blog are often practicing those creative habits of producing, generating, and thinking in divergent ways.  So, I will be blogging my journal, and perhaps other random thoughts, as a way of expanding my creative practice.

Anyway, back to the monks.  I find it incredibly interesting that monks are able to quiet their brains to the extent that brain activity is really only located in the most basic part of the brain, and in such a way that turns off all other functions.  In a way, that is almost counter to humanity, since humans are programmed to be constantly aware and aroused as a tool to aid in survival.  It seems almost counterproductive to quiet one’s mind to that extent, but at the same time it is uniquely human to be able to consciously do so in order to attain some sort of heightened and non-human (perhaps ultra-human) state.

In listening to Gilbert explain this phenomenon I also wondered about creativity and multi-tasking.  The readings, audio, and viewings to this point have asserted that creativity is not about artistic ability, but is more about the ability to simultaneously, rather than sequentially, process and generate.  Creativity has to do somewhat with the brain’s ability to multitask, especially in the right hemisphere. So, if these monks are concentrating on meditating so much so that they are shutting off a great deal of brain function in both the right and left hemispheres, are they no longer thinking in either a critical or creative way?  How do proponents of practicing convergent and divergent creative thinking feel about meditation?  Is it necessary to meditate to build self-control over one’s mind? Or, can people gain conscious control over their minds and thought processes by practicing critical and creative problem-solving methods like Treffingers’?

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2 Responses to “Eat, Pray, Love” and the brain

  1. Roshi says:

    Is there anywhere to visit this video or other videos of the brain activity during prayer/meditation?

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