After he finished his recent Grand Rounds talk here at the medical school, and before he opened the room to questions, physician Barry Kerzin, MD, asked the audience of doctors, residents, and a PBS film crew, to silence their cell phones, focus on their breath, and join him for five minutes of meditation.
It made sense because Kerzin, who provides medical care to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and is also a Buddhist monk, had just spent time explaining the central ideas of mindfulness meditation and highlighting the results from various scientific studies on brain changes and the benefits that mindfulness training can bring. Kerzin's familiarity with the work comes partly from his participation in two of these studies.
As Stanford's Abraham Verghese, MD, said when introducing Kerzin, many people in the audience may have had their work published in journals like Nature or PNAS, but "who has had [their] brain appear in one of these publications?"
Kerzin's brain was part of research that compared those of long-term meditators (people who had clocked more than 10,000 hours meditating) to novices' brains. MRI brain scans revealed increases in size and activity in Kerzin's and the other monks' prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved with planning and reasoning, as well as empathy and imagination. In one of the studies, Kerzin was hooked up to an EEG machine to demonstrate that when engaged in mindfulness meditation, his brain gave out bursts of high frequency signals called gamma waves, an unusual brain pattern thought to be linked to neural synchrony.
While these studies' findings pertained to experienced meditators, Kerzin also presented a study where beginners were given either meditation training or health education for six weeks. At the end, when given a stress test, people in the meditation group produced statistically less stress hormones.
Although the most striking differences weren't seen in beginning meditators, Kerzin also presented a study were volunteers where given either meditation training or health education for six weeks. At the end, when given a stress test, people in the meditation group produced statistically less stress hormones.
Last year I myself participated in a meditation study similar to the ones presented by Kerzin, although the final test in my case was an observation session of the participating parents' interactions with their toddlers, and measuring stress hormone levels in both. That study hasn't been published yet, but the subjective view of my husband is that I'm a lot calmer these days as a result of my continued meditation.
Given my experience, I wish I could say I rocked the group meditation at the talk, but I had a hard time concentrating. By focusing on my breathing I could mostly ignore the presentation and applause coming from the room next door. What was harder was blocking out my own thoughts, thoughts of the future - and specifically of writing this blog post. But overall, it was nice to take a moment and try to live in the present.
Kerzin's talk, called "The science behind meditation," is available here. Kerzin is also speaking on "Compassionate living" at a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education event this evening; video of that talk will be available on the CCARE website in coming weeks.
Kim Smuga-Otto is a student in UC Santa Cruz's science communication program and a writing intern in the medical school's Office of Communication and Public Affairs.
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Photo of Barry Kerzin (left) and Abraham Verghese by Margarita Gallardo