Jim Holt in The New York Times:
Opportunities for observing the human mental circuitry in action have, until recent times, been almost nonexistent, mainly because of a lack of live volunteers willing to sacrifice their brains to science. Today scientists are able to get some idea of what’s going on in the mind by using brain scanners. In the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, however, Frank Tong, a cognitive neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, and Yukiyasu Kamitani, a researcher in Japan, announced that they had discovered a way of tweaking the brain-scanning technique to get a richer picture of the brain’s activity. Now it is possible to infer what tiny groups of neurons are up to, not just larger areas of the brain.
Last year, Tibetan Buddhist monks, with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama, submitted to functional magnetic resonance imaging as they practiced ”compassion meditation,” which is aimed at achieving a mental state of pure loving kindness toward all beings. The brain scans showed only a slight effect in novice meditators. But for monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditation, the differences in brain function were striking. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the locus of joy, overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the locus of anxiety. Activity was also heightened in the areas of the brain that direct planned motion, ”as if the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress,” Sharon Begley reported in The Wall Street Journal. All of which suggests, say the scientists who carried out the scans, that ”the resting state of the brain may be altered by long-term meditative practice.”