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Buddhist monk's brain produces highest reported level of gamma waves (nydailynews.com)
100 points by vjanma on Oct 31, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 56 comments

If I'm not mistaken, this is a very thin veneer of science applied to a thick spread of dogma.

1. Test shows that smart subject is smart (capacity to learn, etc).

2. Subject of the test says meditation makes you happy.

3. The author then tries to make science say meditation makes you happy: 'It is not difficult to see why scientists declared Matthieu Ricard the happiest man they had ever tested.'

He was the happiest man tested, but they haven't tested very many people. "Matthieu Ricard... has been the subject of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, as a result of which he is frequently described as the happiest man in the world. It's a somewhat flattering title, he says, given the tiny percentage of the global population who have had their brain patterns monitored by the same state-of-the-art technology.... The fact remains that, out of hundreds of volunteers whose scores ranged from +0.3 (what you might call the Morrissey zone) to -0.3 (beatific) the Frenchman scored -0.45."


He's probably quite happy that he gets so much attention and has to do so little except sit around and smile.

Yes, he spent 26 years studying Buddhism so he could get media attention.

What's with this dismissive attitude?

It's not dismissive, it's skeptic, and rightfully so - there are many flaws in this article (as outlined above) that might not come from the scientists, but from dodgy reporting. Who describes that guy as "the happiest man"? Is it the scientists (doubtful) or is it journalists looking for a "sexy" headline?

You can actually use these electrical signatures to make meditation a trackable, quantifiable "exercise activity". Just like you log running miles with, say, RunKeeper. Really cool to see more people getting excited about it the science! Disclaimer: cofounder at a startup doing this.

Can you post a small sample of eeg data and a code snippet that shows the transformation of the raw telemetry into the power spectrum? That would be very interesting and would answer doubts.

Mind talking a little bit about the technology that you're using and how it's worked out for you? I've been running EEG studies for years, and those small headband-type readers are notorious for being so finnicky as to be almost useless, especially since they have no way of controlling for eye motion. I've never seen a decent setup for anything less than 5-10 grand, and even then they need Ag-AgCl electrodes with conductive gel, which it looks like you've managed to avoid.

Thanks Itaxpica. I come from an academic cognitive neuro background too and shared a lot of your concerns. We've shown empirically that you can use an active (non-gel) EEG system to do limited things. We are interested in mindfulness and meditation, which often involves sitting still and closing your eyes. These facts make it easier to use our detection algorithms successfully than it might in other realms. Check out neurosky, emotiv, interaxon and other folks to see products in the space--> still in its infancy, but we're practically seeing results for our narrow focus, which is meditation.

Yeah, I could see where removing movement from the equation could help significantly. Thanks for the response - I'll be keeping a curious eye on how you guys do. Should be pretty cool!

I'm really looking forward to track my meditation properly.

I looked into the available devices and so far no decent hardware for a decent price is available without hacking.

All the best to you guys to bring this to the mainstream. The neurosky apps and headset are not my cup of tea.

Does your app only work on a smart phone, or can it work on a macbook?

For now, it'll run on the mobile phone only. We're working to make it available on all devices, though. That won't happen for at least a year.

Will it be iOS 5 and up only? I have a very old iPhone sitting around. :) (iOS4)

Unfortunately the bluetooth protocol got a lot easier to integrate into our app in iOS 5, but we may release on other platforms in the future! Thanks for the +1 for iOS4.

Are you also selling hardware, and if so, which?

Sorry if others don't like this but can you elaborate either by pointing me at your startup, with more science or both? I'm going to go on a Google spree but I'm curious about your take.

This is completely foreign to me, it fails my bs test but to hear not just the words scientific, but quantifiable, piques my interest.

Their startup is http://brainbot.me

I'd love to hear a description about what you're trying to do there though.

Of course, and thank you for reaching out! My previous (pre-startup) job was to do neuroimaging of mindfulness on longterm practitioners in the lab of Sara Lazar. You can check out some of their publications to get going--> http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/

Our startup is bringing those findings from the lab onto our mobile phone (check out www.brainbot.me for some info, although admittedly not much yet!) Right now we're busy prototyping and working on our first release.

There's a book called Buddha's Brain that documents several studies of people meditating while being scanned by an fMRI machine. It's quite fascinating. Regular meditation alters connections in the brain, similar to how working out a muscle changes the muscle.

I was on the fence on whether claimed effects of meditation were real, and reading this book clinched it for me. It anchored the claims I'd read elsewhere in something I actually believe - fMRI scans of brain activity.

Rick Hanson's stuff is great. Here's a lecture he did at Google several years ago: http://www.youtube.com/user/BuddhasBrain

Why does the brainwave headset appear to include a pair of headphones?

I first misread the HN link's title as "gamma rays" and thought a radioactive monk sounded awesome! Then I read the actual article, I am disappoint...

I thought for a minute they had unlocked the reason all that meditation never truly helped Bruce Banner...

Very good grasshopper.


My gamma waves must be low because I too read it as "gamma rays"

I find it poetically ironic the way Western media/attention on Matthieu Ricard always focuses on him being "the happiest" - a completely inwardly-focused, selfish goal. The exact opposite of the type of worldview buddhism advocates

Being happy isn't a selfish goal, in fact buddhism looks at this as a non-selfish goal. Buddhism totally advocates for happiness[1], it is only your perception that happiness is selfish that is in error.

[1]http://thinkexist.com/quotation/i_believe_that_the_very_purp... "“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness." -Dali Lama

The quest of being happy is a selfish quest. Selfishness is a good thing to me.

Helping other (altruism) is also a good thing - since it serves your own selfishness (makes you more happy to see people happy - especially if you made them happy). The only limit is the damage it may cause them (ex: encouraging sloth)

The only bad thing is sacrifice - sacrificing the others or even worse, yourself, is very rarely a good thing - a good rule of thumb is thus to avoid sacrifices.

(words from a libertarian who finds many interesting things in buddhism)

From what I have read, and what I would also argue, buddhism makes the point that increasing your own happiness it is not a selfish thing because when you are happy those around you are more prone to also become happy. Like if you are happy and smile at someone and then it makes them happy.

So while maybe it could be argued becoming happy is selfish, actually being happy is not selfish. But then again becoming anything is selfish, I think the point is what happens after the point of becoming that thing. There is a lot of this logic in buddhism, which is why more importance is usually given to your volition for doing something than what it actually is your doing (think karma).

guylhem and blissofbeing both make very good points here. We can take into consideration the motivation behind the wish to be happy. It reminds me of a story I read while studying. I'm going to paraphrase here so please forgive any mistakes.

There was a man traveling down a road while it was raining. He came across a statue of Lord Buddha. He thought to himself, "The Buddha is getting all wet, that is not right. I shall cover his head so he doesn't get wet". He took off his shoe and put it over the Buddha's head.

Now, in those days (and even today in many parts of Asia) the act of putting something from your feet onto a Buddha's head is very disgraceful. In Thailand people don't even let their toes point at a statue of Buddha. Many people would think that man did something very wrong. However, his motivation was to protect Buddha and that single act was the eventual cause for himself to become a Buddha.

I am no expert and am just repeating what I have read elsewhere. Hopefully I did not mess the story up to bad and someone will still benefit.

Here's the story you're referring to: http://www.bodhitales.org/the-buddha-statue.php

What about when your selfishness is at a cost to others?

Is the cost direct or indirect?

If it is direct, it means you are sacrificing others. It is not a good thing as said above. You can find happiness and be selfish in various ways that will not directly harm others.

In Atlas Shrugged, refusal to remain a part of the system is just this (John Galt, the gulch) - trying to find one's happiness, without directly causing damage to others.

The whole society may be less happy due to the refusal of a few to sacrifice, but it is an indirect damage, an indirect cost. The alternative would be their sacrifice - a direct damage.

IMHO no man is entitled to happiness at the direct expanse of others.

So for instance, fracking, or unethical medical testing, or massive layoffs, or hostile takeovers, or private paramilitaries and physical coercion.

So many example - I don't know if there is a generic answer!

But let's take them one by one.

Physical coercion is always wrong - it has a direct cost on others.

Layoffs are fine - no one has a right to work. Hostile takeover - ownership right are respected so that's ok. Fracking is an edge case - a negative externality if people already lived in a place and expected no such new industry would show up - so in that case, at a direct cost - and it becomes a bad thing.

If however similar or identical industries were already in place, yet people decided to move in, it's freedom - and it's fine.

Medical testing - I guess that would depend on what you mean by unethical. I'm sorry I can't answer for that one, expect by default a "direct cost" if you mean people entered medical testing while not being told the whole truth if laws requiring the whole truth to be disclosed exist, or in their absence if they were lied to. That's because it's just like cheating in a contract.

I hope this helps.

+1'ing you anyway since it's an interesting questioning about limit cases (and flipping the bird to the downvoters)

Its unfortunate that the article does not do much to explain what "happiness" in this context means. These monks are meditating on compassion and the wish to benefit all sentient beings. The gamma waves are a byproduct of this type of meditation. The scientists are making the link between gamma rays and happiness, not the monks.

I do not see an indication that "happiness" was the goal. Happiness is a subjective measure one uses to gauge one's effectiveness in obtaining one's goals. We don't know what he is trying to obtain when having his gamma waves measured, but we can be certain that he believes he is obtaining those goals.

Hmm, some recent thoughts of his on selfishness.. http://www.matthieuricard.org/en/index.php/blog/253_ayn_rand...

That's all fine and dandy, but what about his Midi-chlorians levels? Shouldn't they focus on what's important?

Happy do the midi-chlorians make?

Good article, but it leads you to believe that meditation is the key to his happiness.

I'm not here to discount the potential benefits of meditation but I think it's important to keep in mind how much effort the monks put into living an altruistic life.

Meditation may help bring to the surface subconscious thoughts and feelings, but the responsibility of taking action and improving negative circumstances that are realized through meditation is the real chance for improvement. Meditation without action I would argue is meaningless.

I guess my point is, there is so much much that plays a role in the overall happiness other than meditation. I read "The Art of Happiness" recently where an American psychologist interviews the Dalai Lama and juxtaposes western and eastern schools of thought on the pursuit of happiness. I highly recommend it if you haven't checked it out before.

Meditation that causes an action to not otherwise occur should be counted as action, or certainly not meaningless.

What I found particularly notable was that they specified meditating on compassion.

I read an article a decade or so ago that challenged people to think "bless you" at everyone they encountered. Just walking down the street, at work, whatever.

Visualizing all those people sneezing did make me feel happier.

If we some how view a "3D Spectrogram of Gamma waves" of people across the globe, then it will have peaks (like Himalayas) in and around Tibet. Everywhere else, there will be Troughs/Valleys.

peaks at bhutan too. they have a Happiness Index too

"All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone." - Blaise Pascal

I really would have liked to read more than those few lines about said gamma waves.

They should test the Dalai Lama too, and unmask the truth.

They should test starving African war orphans to see if meditation helps with their happiness too, or if it's only rich entitled assholes who really really don't know what the fuck unhappiness is if the best they can come up with is being "disillusioned" by a bunch of bourgeoisie painters.

Oops sorry, my cynicism slipped out a bit there. Let me just tuck that back in!

I have traveled in some very, very poor places. I have met people that live without four walls and a roof. Literally, these people only have three walls! The interesting thing is while their lives are full of hardship and suffering, many of them are also very happy and joyous. It seems to me they are much happier then many very privileged people. It is all relative.

Because these guys: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_monasticism#Monastic_l... are "rich entitled assholes", right? Nice.

They're not testing those guys though.

about rich entitled assholes I would like to make a special mention to celebrities that like to play cool.

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