British Columbia

B.C.-led study of Tibetan monks suggests meditation can improve long-term brain activity

A joint research venture between UVic and UBC Okanagan that studied the effects of meditation on Tibetan monks reveals the practice can have lasting improvements on brain function.

Researchers from UVic and UBC Okanagan trekked to Tibet to study the effects of meditation on monks

Monks at the Tengboche Monastery in Tibet meditate while their brain activity is recorded with the EEG system. (Kait Mikes )

British Columbian scientists who recently trekked into Tibet to study the impact of meditation on monks have returned with research that suggests the practice can increase long-term brain function.

University of Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson, along with Gordon Binsted, dean of the faculty of health and social development at UBC Okanagan, led the study that monitored the brain activity of 27 monks while they meditated in their monasteries.

Each monk was outfitted with a headband-sized electroencephalography (EEG) system. The devices recorded alpha, beta and gamma brain activity.

Binsted said preliminary findings showed increased alpha activity, which he said is associated with relaxation. Monitoring the monks also indicated that the brain's focus, synchronicity and responses to visual stimuli also improved while meditating.

"The critical new finding is that, actually, it's not just an effect while you're meditating," Binsted told CBC Radio West host Audrey McKinnon, "It's an effect that actually lasts longer."

Krigolson and Binsted's observations of the monks indicated that when people meditate, parts of their brain turn on and this can have lasting and positive results.

"[The monks] spent their lives dedicated to meditation, which is actually a really interesting way of changing brain function," said Binsted. "Meditation changes how the brain works."

Binsted suggested that individuals outside of the monastery could also benefit by training their brains using meditation, although he acknowledged they may not have the same long-term results as the life-long practising monks. 

But he said what the study's findings do show is promise that, over time, the brain can be trained to have lasting benefits that extend beyond the immediate moment of meditation.

With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West

To hear the full story click on the audio labelled: B.C. scientists study of Tibetan monks shows meditation can improve brain activity.