Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Does a Happy Brain Look Like?

“My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring, roaring, diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What's this passion for?”
Virginia Woolf

Can you actually see happiness? Are there real pictures of people’s brains . . . on joy? Amazingly, yes. Through the miracle of modern science, we can actually see joy on the brain.

(Read on for where you can view actual scans of both unhappy and happy brains!)

One of the most fascinating outcomes of clinical studies on happiness, joy, and well-being is that scientists are now able to observe brains in a state of relaxed joy. A couple of the most interesting studies involved Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns, both during their time of meditation and prayer, and also when they went about their normal, daily routines. Since the nuns used mental words to form a prayer (a technique called “centering” or “contemplative prayer”), a part of their brain (the part that forms verbal thought) lit up that didn’t light up in the monks, who try to empty their minds of all conscious thought.

However, both groups showed familiar brain imaging patterns: the area of the brain that was most lit up was an area at the front, mostly on the left side—the region associated with clarity and happiness. Areas that were subdued were in the lower back part of the brain—an area that is involved in fear memory, often called the “reptilian brain,” which activates an automatic flight-or-fight response. It is also an area that helps us orient ourselves in space, showing that while in prayer or deep meditation, we are able to let go of our need to control and simply relax and go with the flow.

What was most interesting was that both groups of daily supplicants experienced a deep sense of well-being, peace, and joy during meditation and—most interestingly—this feeling of serenity followed them throughout the routines of their days, and even through their lives. You’ve heard the expression that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well, it may also turn out to be true that a few minutes of positive, prayerful meditation a day will help keep the blues at bay.
This time of quieting the mind of its typical worries, and basically “letting go and letting God,” allowed the study participants to handle negative circumstances with grace; to slow down automatic reactions of anger or frustration by using their thinking brain (or the prefrontal cortex) to talk their fearful brain centers (namely, the basal ganglia and amygdala) down from the ledges.

Other studies on the healing effects of prayer, both to the person praying them and to someone who is being prayed for (even if they are unaware of the fact), are fascinating and encouraging. In short, doctors, scientists, and researchers have been so impressed by how prayer changes brain and body chemistry for the better that many hospitals are incorporating and encouraging prayer for their patients as an adjunct to traditional healing therapies.

Want to see something fascinating? Zip around the photo image gallery of brains in a variety of states on the website below, from The Amen Clinics. Check out the brains "before gratitude" and "after gratitude"... the underside, active view of a happy brain looks a bit like a smiley face.

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