zen pebbles and water lily Photo: iStock
As the Emory team analysed their own and other research on meditative brains, they realised their findings about grey matter complement those of Harvard scientist Sara Lazar, who made headlines a few years ago with her research on practitioners of insight meditation – a practice that resembles zazen.
She reported that the insight meditators had noticeably thicker tissue than non-meditators in their prefrontal cortex and insula, the brain areas associated with attention and sensory processing.
Once again, this posed a question about whether the practice of meditation was able to either stop the loss of brain cells, or even more startlingly, actually produce more brain cells. The research into this continues.
If this is the case, says Cekic, these findings, although preliminary, could signal a significant change in the way therapeutic health applications deal with pain and could have significant impact in treating illnesses. He believes that teaching people to focus their attention the way the Zen meditators do could benefit sufferers of a range of problems. These could include attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of anxiety.
Meanwhile, Grant is still hard at work inflicting pain to try to unlock the puzzle of Zen and pain perception. He is preparing another research paper that he says will point to further evidence of Zen’s effect on neuroplasticity in the brain.
For now, though, the mystery continues to tantalise. “We know so little about how all this works,” admits Grant. “It’s just like a big black box.” A box that has worked for meditators for thousands of years. Just ask one-armed Huìke.
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