Matthieu Ricard isn’t your ordinary person. An ex-geneticist who earned his PhD at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1972, he renounced the academic life and spent more than three decades training his mind so that we can better understand how to cultivate happiness.
And the results from the latest study of Ricard’s brain are staggering.
Looking at the intrinsic brain activity while meditating on compassion, scientists at the University of Wisconsin have observed the highest levels of gamma waves ever recorded in the neuroscience literature from Ricard’s brain. The study also looked at brain activity of over 100 advanced meditators, many of whom had more than 50,000 rounds of meditation experience. But none were able to reach the level produced by Ricard.
Gamma waves play a vital role in cognitive functioning. Their propagation through the brain acts as a type of neuronal synchronizer, binding together distributed networks and focusing them towards an object of attention. Scientist have proposed that gamma waves are able to resolve the ‘binding problem’ of neuroscience – how sensory information processed in sensory-specific areas of the brain are unified into a single conscious experience. Their role in consciousness is so critical, that if gamma waves stop emitting from an area of the brain called the thalamus, conscious awareness is lost and the person slips into a deep coma.
For Ricard, this implies that he is able to focus and coordinate the endogenous signals of his brain towards a single concept, percept or conscious experience. Whether concentrating on compassion or happiness, it is hard to imagine that in such a state anything but the object of focus is able to enter Ricard’s awareness.
The study also found an extreme asymmetry between brain activity originating from his left prefrontal cortex compared to his right. This asymmetry has been shown to correlate with positive emotions, while it’s counterpart – stronger activity in the right prefrontal cortex – is related to negative emotions. Putting this finding together with the high levels of gamma waves, it suggests that Ricard is able to generate such a focused state of compassion that his brain responds by producing an extreme level of positive emotions.
Despite these results, Ricard says that he is not unique. He teaches that similar levels of compassion can be obtained by anyone willing to take the time and effort. Ricard attributes his incredible abilities to neuroplasticity due to meditation training and is working with scientists around the globe to show how the brain changes its structure and function in response to meditation.
While Ricard’s place as the world’s happiest man is fascinating, the bigger take away from the University of Wisconsin study is that long-term experience with meditation is not necessary to induce neuroplasticity. The scientists found that as little as twenty minutes a day for three weeks can start to reshape the patterns of the brain and increase levels of positive emotions.
The question is – what are you going to do with the next twenty minutes of your day?