Friday, April 21, 2006

Meditation and Brain Activity

On Tuesday I had lunch with someone who had called the congregation, wanting to talk about theology. It turned out he actually wanted to talk about meditation of a specific sort.

This person has a brain dysfunction that makes it easy for him to stop thinking logical thoughts and let his brain "idle". This not only allows him to stop actively wanting things (a common element of many types of meditation) but also to have mental peace and a feeling of joy.

Now, it is true for most people that the brain works less (by 10% to 20%) during rest than during active thinking. When we start thinking, our brain "focuses" and uses more energy, but some regions of the brain that are active during rest quiet down a bit. (This does not happen as much for people with alzheimer's or certain types of ADD, which hampers their problem-solving.)

But this fellow believed the opposite. He claimed that our brains are quite inactive when we do logical thinking, but when they are idle every neuron is firing 100%. Furthermore, he believed that this state of keeping the brain from logical thought, whether we were observing what was around us or really resting, was heaven on earth. Why? Because it was as heavenly as anything he had imagined, and it seemed to fit Yeshua's saying about "entering heaven like a child."

Furthermore, he was fond of select passages from the Gospel of Thomas and Shochet's first volume on Kabbalah, and claimed these were the "true teachings of Yeshua", which were also taught by Abraham. Anything in scripture or these two books which was evidence of the contrary was refused as being either misunderstood or some false teaching later added by editors.

Now, it does seem true that meditation can help improve our ability to "focus" our brain. And I am happy for this man, that he can rest his brain and have peace and joy.

Moreover, the conversation we shared has prompted me to think some worthwhile thoughts about Messianic Judaism and mysticism. The sermon I am composing for this coming Shabbat will be along these lines.

But I also am pondering what to say when I meet with him again (for lunch and to return his two books), at which time I should probably try to explain to him that his understanding of brain physiology and Yeshua's teachings are so incorrect.

UPDATE: The second meeting went quite well.

It turns out I had misunderstood his claim about brain activity. His actual belief is both simpler and involving more steps. He claims his "quieting the mind" increases his endorphin levels (quite possible, even taking placebo drugs can increase endorphin levels). This in turn maximizes how many neurons are firing in his brain (online I find articles discussing how endorphins can both aid or suppress neuron activity; I can't evaluate this part of his claim but its also not a necessary step). This produces a joyful state which reinforces his not actively thinking (quite reasonable, if he is having an endorphin high). So basically, he believes he has learned to create an endorphin high at will by stopping his rational thoughts. Assuming he can really do so, it would explain why he finds this practice pleasurable, addictive, and of an intensity easily confused with a genuine religious experience.

He's looking for people to train in this habit. Maybe five years from now Eugene, Oregon will be known for people who don't need television to "vege out". I suppose there must be many people willing to exchange their productivity for hedonistic meditation.

Or perhaps a student in the University of Oregon's neuroscience department wants somebody to use as the subject of an interesting senior thesis?