Scientist finds nirvana in brain's bright spots

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am


Some seek enlightenment in temples and monasteries; others turn to ancient writings or find answers in religion. But American social scientist Dr Jeffery Martin has a different approach: probing the brain.

Martin is on a quest to find out how enlightened minds work and whether a certain 'button' in the brain can be pressed that would unlock inner peace.

'[It's] like a flip of a switch,' he says, likening inner transformation - which he calls 'non-symbolic consciousness' - to filling a void.

'Do you feel complete? There's a hole in them they're trying to fill. There's discontent, a list of goals, love [and so on],' he said. '[With enlightenment], that hole is filled. It's the end of seeking.'

The concept is known by many other names: satori for Japanese Buddhists, non-dual awareness for Eastern philosophers or even 'the peace of God, which passeth all understanding' for Christians.

But Martin, who holds numerous master's degrees and is now a graduate student of psychology at Harvard University, wants to move beyond religion and bring about enlightenment for the masses using scientific methods.

His work led him to establish the Massachusetts-based Centre for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, which he plans to launch in Hong Kong this year. He is in the city as a visiting professor of design at Polytechnic University. 'Design has everything to do with consciousness,' he said.

Martin wants to paint a physical picture of transcendence through brain scans. Over the past year, he has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how the brains of self-reported 'enlightened' people look different from others.

The study, initiated by the National University of Singapore, focuses on two regions of the brain - the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulated cortex - which are believed to be linked to referencing the self and default state emotions, respectively.

Similarly in 2008, pioneering scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working with fMRIs on Tibetan monks had shown for the first time that loving-kindness meditation lit up centres of the brain for empathy, illustrating that positive emotions could be learned. Many studies into meditation followed.

Instead of just studying the brain in a meditative state, Martin is studying how it looks under a constant and permanent state of enlightenment that you only have to learn once.

Specific data on Martin's brain-scan project, such as its scope, have not yet been released. He explained in an interview with online radio station Buddhist Geeks last year that the study is still in its preliminary phase and is part of an ambitious, large-scale investigation into non-symbolic consciousness. However, he has already got some interesting results.

Starting from a sample of 1,000 participants from all over the world, Martin chose a few hundred exhibiting 'persistent non-dual awareness' to interview 'between six to 12 hours'. He also tested their personality and psychological development, and measured physical aspects like breath and heart rate.

He concludes that enlightened individuals are generally no different from their peers - their vital signs and personalities give no clue about their 'oneness' - except that they tend to be less depressed or anxious. '[They had] extraordinary well-being, happiness just off the charts,' Martin said.

From his interviews, he has also written a paper about those who move in and out of enlightenment. Martin says 70 per cent of people achieve the state and stay there, while another 30 per cent 'sort of phase in'.

Many of the subjects - ranging from janitors to religious teachers and company presidents - reported simply feeling much quieter in their minds. Some felt like they had a sense of purpose or that the world was unfolding. A common thread to the accounts is that their inner world 'completely shifted'.

His latest findings build upon a prior study he conducted as a PhD student in transformative studies at the California Institute of Integrated Studies. He took popular personal growth ideas and tested them on various research groups over several months. He found that, regardless of a particular self-help idea's effectiveness, it was a hit and miss.

At a certain point, self-help techniques even stopped working for participants, much like hitting a wall.

Here, Martin is aware that he is wading into territory that science cannot yet see or measure. 'It's anti-materialist. It goes against the scientific grain,' he says.

Yet he remains undeterred. Martin hopes to someday find that switch in the brain that will trigger positive emotions, even during the most mundane activities. 'Imagine if you could play a video game and it makes you feel extraordinarily good. You have an amazing feeling of well-being - and it's permanent.'

This solution may seem much too simple, considering that thousands of years of mystical and religious teachings all describe the journey to enlightenment as something that takes more than a lifetime. But of course, Martin's guru is science.

'If I were stuck with a system that generally failed to produce results, I wouldn't stick with it,' he says. 'And technology is here for a reason.'