Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Monkey mind is not what you think

Monkeys are frequent characters -- or metaphors -- in traditional Buddhist stories. There were a lot of monkeys around when the stories were being told. But even today, monkeys make good examples -- "monkey mind" barely needs explaining. (It's the idea that the mind skips around like a monkey swinging effortlessly through trees.) For westerners of a certain age, Curious George, the storybook monkey who gets into hazardous situations and hilarious capers, is a fine personification -- monkification? -- of what our minds can be do.

But a new study contradicts that. Our assumption that monkeys behave like our untrained mind is called into question (as all assumptions should be).

Monkeys can meditate. For marshmallows.

Actually, calling it "meditation" may be a bit of a stretch -- from a meditator's point of view. (Or maybe the meditator feels a need to defend zer skills at meditation and evolved status...)

According to a study in New Science magazine, monkeys "have been trained to put themselves into a Zen-like trance – but out of desire for marshmallows rather than enlightenment."

Why are scientists trying to teach monkeys to meditate? "The result suggests that simians could help to objectively test neurofeedback and other brain-training treatments for epilepsy or ADHD: they would be free of the placebo effects that humans might experience."

Neurofeedback, it says, involves teaching people to regulate their brainwaves and so control their state of mind by measuring the electrical activity of the brain and showing them that information. It shows promise for reducing symptoms associated with epilepsy, ADHD, and anxiety disorders, but in humans researchers have been unable to rule out the possibility that an enhanced awareness of the disease or a placebo effect is responsible, rather than the neurofeedback itself.

Animals don't have that problem, says Ingrid Philippens of the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. Here's where the training comes in. Philippens and her colleague Raymond Vanwersch attached electrodes to the brains of marmoset monkeys to pick up electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from the brain. Rather than showing the monkeys the EEG signal, as might be done in humans, Philippens and Vanwersch gave them a marshmallow reward every time they tuned their brain activity to a certain frequency range – in this case, 12 to 16 hertz.

To quote the article:

In humans, this frequency is associated with a relaxed but focused state of mind. "It's like meditation," says Philippens. "When you see the monkeys doing it, they look very restful but they have focus, like they are staring at something," she adds.

Two of the four monkeys tested learned to put themselves into this state within two training sessions; the others took four sessions to get the hang of it.

The monkeys may not realise that they are changing their brain activity, but it does show that they can consciously change their mood or state of mind, says Philippens. "This is an initial step for a much-needed scientific basis to neurofeedback."

Journal reference: NeuroReport, DOI: 10.1097/wnr.0b013e3283360ba8

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