A recent study conducted with experienced scholars of Zen-Meditation reveals that mental focusing can induce learning mechanisms, similar to physical training. Researchers from the Ruhr University Bochum and the Ludwig Maximilians University Munchen uncovered this phenomenon during a scientifically monitored meditation retreat. The findings of the plasticity of the brain, which continue to pleasantly mystify me, were published in the Scientific Reports journal.

All the participants were Zen scholars; they had a great deal of experience practicing meditation. They were escort during a four day retreat in the spiritual center called “Benediktushof” in Germany. The retreat was held in complete silence including eight hours of meditation each day. Some applied a special finger meditation for two hours each day, in which the participants focused on their right index finger to notice spontaneous sensory perceptions in the finger. Those who practiced finger meditation demonstrated a significant improvement in the tactile acuity of the right index and middle finger. Those who did not engage in the finger meditation showed no change in tactile acuity.

To assess the sense of touch quantitatively, researchers measured the “two-point discrimination threshold” indicating how far apart two stimuli need to be in order to be considered two separate sensations. After the finger meditation, performance improved by 17% on average. Tactile acuity of the visually impaired is usually 15-25% above typical sighted individuals. These changes induced by meditation are comparable to those achieved from long term training. Visually impaired have such a great sense of touch because of their reduced visual input.

We have deduced that extensive training induces neuroplasticity, implying that the brain is able to adapt and restructure itself to improve perception and behavior. The group of neuroscientists from the Neural Plasticity Lab lead by Hubert Dinse has shown that these processes can be initiated without training but by exposure to passive stimulation, which was recently translated only through a stimulating glove, used as therapeutical intervention in stroke patients. Mental states improved without physical stimulation has been shown for the first time. “The results of our study challenge what we know about learning mechanisms in our brain. Our concept of neuroplasticity must be extended, because mental activity seems to induce learning effects similar to active stimulation and physical training, said Hubert Dinse.