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The Neuroscience of Zen Medicine

Zen masters are famous for being able to clear their minds and enter a state of sort of zoned-in wakefulness. Experienced Zen practitioners can be fully aware without thinking of anything in particular.

Recently, scientists have shown that people practiced in meditation are also able to quickly return to this state after being interrupted by some cognitive task, and that they can do so faster than people not skilled in meditation.

Researchers at Emory University used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look at the brains of twenty-four subjects, half of whom were experienced meditators and half of whom had never meditated before. During meditation, while their brains were being scanned, the subjects were asked to perform a word-recognition task.

The scans showed that while performing the task, the brain regions associated with language lit up in all of the subjects. But after completing the task and returning to meditation, the experienced meditators were more quickly able to quiet down the brain's language center and return to a meditative state.

The finding is important for a few reasons. First, because it more clearly explains the neuroscience behind meditation. And it also suggests that meditation could be useful for people suffering from attention deficit disorder, anxiety, and major depression. Learning to regulate the brain's spontaneous chatter could help people with these disorders achieve a more peaceful state.

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