Body scans and other types of meditation techniques bring us relaxation. But what’s the science behind this mind-body connection? Professor Amir Amedi is using the Joy Ventures grant he received to discover the science behind meditation’s powers of relaxation, knowing that these discoveries will open the door to more ways for people to live better.
Prof. Amir Amedi’s journey to his current research on the mind-body connection was a long and winding, but fascinating, road. Currently Founder & Director of the Baruch Ivcher Institute for Brain, Cognition and Technology at IDCHerzliya. In 2012 Amir found himself exhausted by 20 years of academic research into brain neuroplasticity. Leading to discovering a new brain area and a full blown theory of brain organization, critical periods and flexibility . To find relief, focus and relaxation, he began meditating daily using the body scan technique. “The body scan is like having a superpower!” says Amir. “I was able to achieve instant relaxation with what felt like a trick.” Seeing how the body is used as a “bridge” to come back to the here and now, got me wondering: what are the brain mechanisms responsible for this cooling effect the body scan has on the mind?
Discovering the impact of meditation on the brain
Prof. Amedi received the Joy Ventures 2019 academic grant and is using it to discover the areas in the brain that are activated by meditation and how that interaction happens. The research project, which he is leading together with Dr. Nava Levit-Binnun, examines the brains of people who have done over 3000 hours of meditation, using MRI technology.
“Our next step will be to take people who have never meditated, give them a 40-hour meditation course, and see how their brain changes, using MRI,” says Prof. Amedi. He expects the insights that will emerge from the research to translate into improved meditation methods and possibly new technologies that will help people achieve relaxation and emotional wellbeing in new ways.
Prof. Amedi’s journey to this current line of research took him through Harvard, Holland, Montreal and the research of the pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. Penfield operated on severe epileptics, using local anesthesia to insert electrodes into the brain, find the location of the epilepsy in the brain and attack it, successfully decreasing the amount and severity of seizures. Because the people Penfield operated on remained awake during the procedure, he was able to talk with them. During the operation they remarked on their feelings and senses, from hearing Mozart or feeling their leg move, to tasting chocolate.
Penfield concluded that there is a homunculus, “a little person” mirrored in the brain that represents each of the body’s areas. He also predicted that there is an additional homunculus in the back area of the brain but did not discover it in his research.
Using MRI technology to “mind read”
“Thanks to MRI technology and our research, today we can map the whole brain, even finding the centers of emotion,” explains Prof. Amedi. “We use decoding, essentially a type of mind reading. When someone is in the MRI machine, we can look at just the map of the brain and know that the person just moved his finger, for example.” (Prof. Amedi’s research was recently published in the National Academy of Sciences Journal).
“Amir’s work is truly groundbreaking,” says Dr. Hagit Alon, Chief Scientist at Joy Ventures. “This type of research, which has elements of basic science, yet also real potential for making emotional wellbeing more accessible to people in different ways in the future is exactly what we hope to advance with our academic grant program.”
“Hagit, Cilla and the Joy team are amazing,” says Prof. Amedi. “Their concept of creating a community around emotional wellbeing technologies, and of investing in basic science, is pioneering, and I believe has the potential to bring products that will truly improve people’s emotional wellbeing.”
Prof. Amedi’s journey of discovering the “Holy Grail” of the mind-body connection took him down some unexpected roads. “When I was at the Montreal Neurological Institute the Penfield family heard about my research. They were excited that we had discovered that other homunculus that Penfield had foreshadowed using novel computational Brain scans techniques . I actually got to visit with his granddaughter who keeps his legacy alive and tour his estate on the lake, and his gravesite. It was an inspiring moment in this fascinating journey of discovery of the mind-body connection – a topic Penfield was increasingly interested in during his last years.”