THE YOGIS: “Altered States”

At this world-class level (roughly 12,000 to 62,000 lifetime hours of practice, including many years in deep retreat), truly remarkable effects emerge.


Practice in part revolves around converting meditative states to traits—the Tibetan term for this translates as “getting familiar” with the meditative mind-set.



Meditation states merge with daily activities, as altered states stabilize into altered traits and become enduring characteristics.



Here Richie’s group saw signs of altered traits in the yogi’s brain function and even structure, along with strongly positive human qualities.



The jump in synchronized gamma oscillations initially observed during compassion meditation was also found, albeit to a lesser extent, in the baseline state.



In other words, for the yogis this state has become a trait.



State-by-trait interactions mean that what happens during meditation can be very different for the yogis, showing up starkly when compared with novices doing the same practice.



Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from the yogis’ response to physical pain during simple mindfulness-type practice: a sharp “inverted V,” with little brain activity during anticipation of the pain, an intense but very short peak during the pain, followed by very rapid recovery.



For most of us who meditate, concentration takes mental effort, but for the yogis with most lifetime hours, it becomes effortless.



Once their attention locks onto a target stimulus, their neural circuits for effortful attention go quiet while their attention stays perfectly focused.



When the yogis meditate on compassion there’s a strengthening of the coupling between heart and brain beyond what is ordinarily seen.



Finally, there is that tantalizing bit of data showing shrinking in the nucleus accumbens in long-term meditators, suggesting we might find further structural changes in the yogi’s brain that support a lessening of attachment, grasping, and self-focus.



Precisely what other such neural shifts there might be, and what they mean, await deciphering in future research.

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