Monks at the Tengboche Monastery meditate while brain activity is recorded with the MUSE EEG system.

Scientists go to Nepal to unlock mysteries of the brain

When Olav Krigolson was hiking the famous El Camino de Santiago trail in Spain, he was suddenly struck with an idea.

When Olav Krigolson was hiking the famous El Camino de Santiago trail in Spain with a colleague a few years ago, he was suddenly struck with an idea — wouldn’t it be cool to peer inside the brain of people doing the hike?

Working as a neuroscientist for the University of Victoria, Krigolson and Gordon Binsted, dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Development at University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus (UBCO), had been doing some studies on altitude sickness and the brain.

From that research, the idea on the trail eventually morphed into something bigger — what happens to the brain when Tibetan Buddhist monks are meditating in their own monasteries compared to the meditative state of hikers on the El Camino de Santiago trail?

After a few phone calls, Krigolson and a team of researchers flew to Nepal in May and began the trek to Everest Base Camp to study the effects of altitude on bodily functions. Along the way, they stopped for a few days at the Manche and Tengboche monasteries in Manche Bizarre, where 25 monks were willing to let them study their brain.

“They were very positive about it. We showed them the devices, which are about the size of a headband. All of them had a good sense of humour,” said Krigolson. “There’s a lot of research on meditation, but very little of it has been done on monks because there’s not that many around….to get the sample size, we had to go to them.”

Using an electroencephalography (EEG) system and four laptops facing the monks, Krigolson and Binsted tested 15 of them during a three hour stretch the first day, then 10 younger monks later that night. Another two monks were tested at Tengboche Monastery two days later.

During the study, the monks would sit quietly for seven minutes, allowing the team to record their brain activity. Then they were handed a simple video game to play.

In line with previous work, the preliminary findings show that during meditation there are increases in brain activity associated with relaxation, focus and synchronicity in the brain as opposed to rest. When handed the video game, however, their response to visual stimuli was more was enhanced after focused attention meditation — something that was a new finding for the researchers.

“What these preliminary findings tell us, is that there is a potential that intentional brain training techniques such as meditation can have long-lasting effects on brain function,” said Binsted. “Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how this and future research can be used in everything from strategies for teachers to the development of mindfulness apps on smartphones.”

Krigolson describes the overall research experience in Nepal as amazing since much of his work is done in a lab in the basement of the university so he can access various pieces of equipment.

The scientists research using the portable EEG system in the Himalayas has been a good test of the equipment in the field, noted Krigolson, who’s now using the headset to research the effects of fatigue in the medical world.

“You can literally put this on someone before they’re about to fly a plane or go on a shift at a hospital and if it beeps the wrong way, it says your brain is not in a position to be doing this,” said Krigolson.

“We hardly know anything about the brain. We know very little about how people learn and make decisions. All this research is designed to create a picture someday about how the brain works…and there are currently a lot of missing pieces to the story.”