By Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent, Times Online
Buddhists who claim their religion holds the secret of happiness may have been proved right by science: brain scans of the devout have found exceptional activity in the lobes that promote serenity and joy.
American research has shown that the brain’s “happiness centre” is constantly alive with electrical signals in experienced Buddhists, offering an explanation for their calm and contented demeanour.
Neuroscientists think the preliminary findings could provide the first proof that religious training can change the way the brain responds to certain environmental triggers.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison study team scanned the brains of people who had been practising Buddhists for several years, looking particularly at areas important for emotion, mood and temperament. They found that the left side — the “happiness centre” — was consistently highly active in Buddhists.
“We can now hypothesise with some confidence that those apparently happy, calm Buddhist souls one regularly comes across in places such as Dharamsala (the Dalai Lama’s home) really are happy,” Professor Owen Flanagan of Duke University, North Carolina, writes in New Scientist.
The positive effects were seen all the time, not only during meditation, which suggests that the Buddhist way of life may affect the way their brains work. Other research has also suggested that Buddhists have lower than usual activity in the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety. These findings may eventually allow researchers to develop meditation techniques as treatments for depressive illnesses.
Steve James, founder of the London Buddhist Centre, said the findings offered evidence of what Buddhism can do to improve happiness, and Paul Seto, director of the Buddhist Society, said: “Lots of people are excited about this, but we’ve known it all along. Buddhism hasn’t been waiting for scientific proof. We know it works.”
“Happy indeed we live, friendly amidst the hostile. Amidst hostile men we dwell free from hatred.
~ Dhammapada 197”