Happy Brain


This winter I got back into meditation through taking part in a 10 day Vipassana meditation course at their Texas center. I had been to my first course (and served a couple after that) in 2013 and felt like it was time to get back into it. I was looking for something to help my mind become happier, to stabilize my mind, to train it. I had positive benefits from the first course I took, but with time the practice had drifted away.

In this article I’m going to share some interesting scientific findings that recently came across my path, but they simply serve to bolster that which is already lived experience for me, namely the lived experience of becoming happier, more peaceful, loving and not as easily riled. It’s cool when science confirms lived experience, eh?

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Wild Elephant Trainer

Goenka, the man who brought Vipassana meditation to the world after it had been hidden for many centuries, often talks about the mind like a wild elephant. Oftentimes when we first start meditating, we have the classic “monkey mind” – the mind that is always running off the trail and finding tangent after tangent to play with. Distractible is putting it mildly.

When one sets an intention to train the mind, as in training a wild elephant, we have to remember that this is what the mind does – how it naturally behaves in its wild loose state and to have unlimited patience and compassion during the process of bringing the mind back to a focus point, in this case the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nostrils.

What strikes me about this practice is that while the natural inclination of the mind is to get loose and run wild (there is some gratifying feeling in letting our minds wander), my mind actually feels clearer and more healthier the more I train it. I can literally feel it becoming stronger, calmer, sharper and increasingly more intelligent.

By now this is heavily corroborated by science,

“What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before,” said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university’s new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. “Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance.” It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.

Meditation Gives Brain a Charge

In his study, in which they hooked up monks with 10,000-50,000 hours of training (15-40 years of practice), they found never before seen gamma wave activity in a healthy person. The researchers concluded that “the movement of the waves through the brain was far better organized and coordinated than in the students” (who were training for 1 week and also took part in the study.)


The monks who had spent the most years meditating had the highest levels of gamma waves, he added. This “dose response” — where higher levels of a drug or activity have greater effect than lower levels — is what researchers look for to assess cause and effect. In previous studies, mental activities such as focus, memory, learning and consciousness were associated with the kind of enhanced neural coordination found in the monks. The intense gamma waves found in the monks have also been associated with knitting together disparate brain circuits, and so are connected to higher mental activity and heightened awareness, as well.

Davidson’s research is consistent with his earlier work that pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex as a brain region associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. Using functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) on the meditating monks, Davidson found that their brain activity — as measured by the EEG — was especially high in this area.

Meditation Gives Brain A Charge
From the study, The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging.
They found that “Meditation training can enhance various cognitive processes, such as emotional regulation, executive control and attention, particularly sustained attention. Therefore, thinner cortical thickness of brain regions in meditators, including the lateral and medial parietal areas, may be associated with their enhanced cognitive functions through meditation training, such as improved attention and self-perception.”

The Trained Mind

Discovering that the trained mind has different activity and makes more efficient connections than an untrained mind is groundbreaking in my book. We can train the happiness centers in our brain through meditation. How revelatory!

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. [source]

From my own experience, I’ve noticed increased overall wellness and contentment. Can this come from a healthier mind?

I have come to believe that it can and that our mind’s behavior patterns are very trainable. The way we think and the way we train ourselves to think change our perception of reality. We see things not as they are, but as we are – comes into play here.

Letting the Good In

This leads me to another article I came across today by Rick Hanson, PhD. I would highly recommend giving this PDF 5 minutes of your time.

from Taking in the Good

He writes,

  • Negative experience is registered immediately: helps survival.
  • Positive experiences generally have to be held in awareness for 5 – 10 – 20 seconds for them to register in emotional memory.
  • • Negative experiences trump positive ones: A single bad event with a dog is more memorable than a 1000 good times.

This tells us a lot about how our brain works – how it is wired for survival, yet letting our survival brain run things isn’t going to make for a happy brain. In the PDF I link above, he goes through some helpful techniques on training your brain to imprint with the positive experiences and talks about bringing them to mind more often in order to create a happy mental atmosphere, one in which we believe good things are going to happen to us. The law of attraction is at its peak when we start thinking like this.

Train your Brain for Happiness

So much of our seeking in life is in some way geared toward making ourselves happy and safe. In many ways, these simple and basic pursuits make the world run round and yet I would wager that it isn’t the mirror objects outside of us which can bring us happiness, but what is happening inside of us. That’s why this type of research and practice is so revolutionary because it shows us a way out.

We have the skills, we have the tools and they are free! Vipassana is FREE to anyone and each person who sits a 10 day course sits and eats and is lodged by the money people before them have given. If you are looking for a course to train your mind, I do recommend this one.

Though it is hard to train ourselves, the tools are abundantly available and they are as simple as sitting still, breathing and focusing. That’s a cause for celebration!

Have you experienced benefits from meditation practice or training your brain toward happiness? Please share in the comments!

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