Is College Bad For Your Brain?


    "If I only had a brain."

    Bet you don’t know what the most watched movie is in the history of film? I didn’t either, but was surprised to learn it was The Wizard of Oz. Do you remember Dorothy and Toto trying to make their way back home to Kansas? On their journey, they meet a Tin Man, a Lion and a Scarecrow. They all wanted to go to The Emerald City, because they heard that if they could meet with the wonderful Wizard of Oz, he would grant them each a wish. Dorothy, of course, wanted to go home and be happy again. The Tin Man wanted a heart so he could feel. The Lion wanted courage so he could become the fearless king of the jungle. And the Scarecrow wanted a brain so he could think. I read on the Internet that in the original story, his name was Socrates, which would make sense. For his wish, the Wizard gave him a piece of paper to certify that he was intelligent.

    But does higher education make us more intelligent; is it really good for our brain? In March 2005, as part of National Brain Awareness Week, Maharishi University of Management (M.U.M.) organized the First Annual National Brain Conference – "Does the College Experience Damage the Brain?" – sponsored by the University’s Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition (CBCC).

    The conference cited academic pressures, poor diet, binge drinking, sleep deprivation and substance abuse as facts of life at nearly all of America’s colleges and universities. Recent brain research has documented how the college experience takes a terrible toll on students’ brains. [For more information on the conference and a list of presenters, see

    Coincidentally, at the same time, Psychology Today (March/April 2005) published an excellent article, "The Perils Of Higher Education," explaining Why College Is Bad For Your Brain, as described on its cover. The author, Steven Kotler, found the same problems at most colleges and summed it up by saying, "The undergrad life is a blast, but it may lead you to forget everything you learn."

    At the conference, Alarik Arenander, Ph.D., brain researcher and director of the Brain Research Institute, explained how the college experience changes students’ brains. Students, he said, are in a new environment, having to make new friends. Their familiar support systems are no longer available, and they generally lack the coping skills to make a smooth transition. They’re faced with challenging academic and social pressures. Some students have to work at a part-time job. Some become involved in extra-curricular activities, such as sports, or other clubs. They now have the freedom to do whatever and whenever they want. As a result, most develop bad habits: poor diets, not enough sleep, substance abuse to deal with increased anxiety and depression, and in some cases, display violent behavior in the form of accidents, homicides and suicides, which unfortunately become a part of college life.

    "We know," Dr. Arenander said, "that the experience you give the brain structures its development. It determines what that brain is going to become, and in turn it’s going to determine how you think, and how you behave."

    The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the quality of brain function and physiological balance. Dr. Arenander emphasized its importance during student years. It structures their goals and plans for the future. It’s the executive control; it integrates their reason and their emotions. It decides everything – the major decisions and the little ones – i.e., what’s my major, am I in the right major, do I stay up all night and cram for the test tomorrow or not bother? Coupled with this newfound freedom is the responsibility to make all these decisions that will determine the student’s future. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed yet to accomplish this in a mature manner, which in turn creates more stress, creating a vicious circle, exacerbating the situation.

    "What we know is that stress leads to a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex, which in turn leads to risky behavior and determines how the mind and body functions," Dr. Arenander said as he showed pictures of very stressed brains, aggravated by heavy substance abuse and other stressors. In those brains, the prefrontal cortex goes "off-line." Blood flow is restricted to those tissues and show up as non-active areas, or functional lesions. These functional lesions are responsible for an inability to make right decisions and usually result in violent behavior. Meditation, Dr. Arenander said, was a way to reverse this situation.

    Meditation techniques and the brain
    One of the internationally renowned brain researchers to address the brain conference was Andrew Newberg, M.D., researcher and author of Why God Won’t Go Away. Dr. Newberg’s pioneering research largely focuses on the relationship between brain function and meditation. He is famous for measuring the brain waves of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Christian Nuns, and more recently, TM practitioners, in collaboration with M.U.M. neuroscientist Fred Travis, Ph.D. His presentation topic was: New Neuroimaging Research: Are All Meditation Techniques the Same?

    Dr. Newberg showed PET scans of meditating subjects over the Internet. The brain scans showed increased blood flow in the frontal lobe, indicating an increase of activity related to increased awareness in those areas of the brain due to their meditation practice. Not only were their frontal lobes active, indicating alertness, but also their limbic systems, that group of structures in the brain, which communicate through the thalamus and hypothalamus and regulate basic hormones. High levels of gamma waves were also recorded, possibly associated with levels of concentration.

    When Dr. Newberg took the PET scans of TM practitioners, he noticed, surprisingly, a unique difference. Their frontal lobes were also active, indicating alertness, but their limbic system was less active, more quiet or restful. This helped to explain the integrated experience of "restful alertness," often described in the research and by TM practitioners as distinctly different from other practices, which require effort to concentrate or contemplate. Dr. Newberg concluded, "Going back to our basic idea, I do think that different meditation practices affect the brain in different ways."

    Failure of modern education
    When the brain is over-stimulated, and out of balance due to poor diet, late nights, and substance abuse, it shuts down. Endocrine highs and lows due to stress constantly trigger the fight or flight response, which disengages the frontal lobe, the CEO of the brain, and activate the thalamus and limbic system, leading to highly emotional immediate reactions to life. For younger students whose brains are still not fully developed, "that’s like driving with one foot on the gas petal and the other on the brake," said CBCC director Fred Travis, Ph.D. Clear thinking and moral reasoning go out the door. Information goes in and out, is not understood and not retained.

    Another contributing factor to this dilemma in education today is the fragmentation and isolation of knowledge. Students have to take five different subjects at the same time. They learn many diverse facts with no integration and understanding of underlying principles. They stay up all night cramming for exams and writing papers. With graduate education, one begins to focus narrowly in one area. The more you learn about a subject, the more you realize how much more there is that you don’t know. In a sense, this type of education increases ignorance – you learn more and more about less and less. At the Ph.D. level, you’re finally a master of nothing. Have you learned how to live your life in such as way as to bring you self-understanding and happiness? No. In both cases, the total brain’s natural ability to experience total knowledge is not engaged.

    A recent study conducted at several universities revealed that happiness breeds success. People who were happy reported that they produced more success in their lives. Those who worked hard and made a lot of money were not necessarily happier. They became, in fact, more stressed, less happy.

    Higher education for higher consciousness
    What is needed in education is the ability to enliven the total potential of the brain and to study one discipline at a time, comparing the deep underlying principles of each discipline to the basis of knowledge – the Unified Field, which is nothing other than our own Self, the field of pure consciousness, a fourth major state of human awareness, distinctly different from the commonly known three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming and sleeping. This fourth state of consciousness, or "restful alertness," and its physiological correlates, was the topic of a Ph.D. thesis by Dr. Robert Keith Wallace, published in Science magazine in 1970.

    Dr. Wallace showed that further EEG studies on the brain during TM practice revealed a global spreading of alpha wave activity both in synchrony and phase – coherence between and among the brain’s hemispheres. This may seem to be a method for tuning up the whole brain’s performance, linked to an increase in creativity, faster reaction time, field independence, and higher self-esteem – all those things good about the brain seemed to develop as a result of this one experience.

    Because experience changes the brain, repeating the same experience twice a day, every day, naturally allows the brain to maintain this style of functioning over time, even outside of meditation practice. Dr. Travis, with the CBCC, investigated the EEG readings of TM practitioners and how they differed from other meditation practices. He found that the EEG patterns seen during Transcendental Meditation practice begin to be seen during daily life. The "restfully alert" state experienced during TM becomes the foundation for all our thinking, planning and action.

    Dr. Travis has developed a systematic way of measuring this holistic development. The Brain Integration Report Card (BIRC) was formulated at the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition to measure a student’s growth in consciousness. As distinct from their regular academic report card, the BIRC gives students the opportunity to see how much their brain, their mind, has developed during their four-year education at the university.

    Because TM is effortless, both the new and long-term practitioners display similar EEG patterns associated with coherence – alpha frequencies across brain, front to back, left to right. The brain adapts to what it experiences.

    "The brain is a river, not a rock. Experience changes the brain," Dr. Travis told the audience. Over time, TM increases conductivity, brain coherence and the integration of restful alertness. This activity shows up in the similar EEG signatures. However, with long-term practitioners, it begins to spill over into their activity outside of meditation. They maintain this total brain coherence even while focusing on a computer tasks, for example. This is a sign of the growth of higher consciousness – the stabilization of inner silence integrated with outer dynamic activity.

    Transcendental Meditation develops whole brain functioning. Consciousness-BasedSM education develops the total brain, the container of knowledge, as well as the known facts of knowledge. This experience of "restful alertness" activates the frontal areas and keeps the whole brain awake. It also repairs the effects of frenzied dullness brought about by today’s stressful college lifestyle. TM is an invaluable tool for learning and living in today’s hectic world.

    At the end of his presentation, Dr. Travis projected a picture of the Scarecrow having his wish fulfilled, receiving a document from the Wizard of Oz. Dr. Travis had typed these words across the picture, "Don’t be content with just a piece of paper from your college education." When he later presented this at the University of Michigan, the first stop on the David Lynch Tour (see below), before he had a chance to read out the text, the audience of more than 1,600 people were on their feet applauding!

    After hearing this same presentation at the University of California-Berkeley, the executive director of the Accrediting Committee for Senior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges invited Dr. Travis to address its Annual Meeting this April in Irvine, Calif. He thought the 500 educators would enjoy hearing how the brain functions and learns, and how meditation practices expand capacity. He specifically asked Dr. Travis to speak on "Does the College Experience Damage the Brain?"

    The David Lynch Foundation
    One major new source of support for students wishing to participate in the TM program is the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. Hollywood film director David Lynch has been practicing TM for 32 years. It has transformed his life and allowed him to express his creativity in a variety of ways. Besides directing and producing his own films, he paints, plays guitar, makes furniture, writes and produces music, is a cartoonist and even reports the weather on his own website []. The Guardian, Britain’s major newspaper, recently polled the world’s best 40 directors. They chose David Lynch as the "most important filmmaker in the current era."

    For a fascinating interview on Lynch’s creative process, experiences with TM, and his Foundation, listen to the episode of Wisconsin’s Public Radio’s "To the Best of our Knowledge," which aired on December 4, 2005. The theme of this show was on creativity and they interviewed four different people on some aspect of it. About 40 minutes into the show, you’ll find producer David Gordon’s interview with Lynch.

    As a trustee of Maharishi University of Management, Lynch spoke at a Peace Conference organized by the students towards the end of the 2004 school year. He met with students and was greatly impressed with their clarity, intelligence and enthusiasm. David knows that students today in most schools and colleges are under a tremendous amount of stress. In the U.S. alone, 10 million children take anti-depressants. Anguish, fear and pressure compromise their capacity to learn, which leads to depression. Meditation is the only program able to develop the creative potential, increase health, relieve stress and improve their success in school. As a result, he set up a foundation to raise the funds to make TM available to any student or school that wanted assistance.

    Lynch wants to raise $7 billion to endow universities of World Peace. His foundation has already sponsored students at six schools and universities to learn TM. Three hundred students at American University in Washington, D.C., will be learning TM as part of a credit course. A one-year scientific study will also measure their EEG, physical and mental changes and academic outputs.

    Last fall, Lynch went on tour with renowned quantum physicist John Hagelin, Ph.D. [featured in the film What The Bleep Do We Know!?] and Dr. Travis. They spoke to standing-room-only crowds on "Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain" at major American universities on both East and West coasts. Watch one of their presentations online.

    All the major U.S. newspapers covered the tour and the New York Times Sunday Magazine supplement, December 11, 2005, in their 5th Annual Year in Ideas, selected David Lynch’s idea to build Universities of World Peace as one of the most "newsworthy ideas of the past 12 months." Read the article, "Accredited Bliss".

    Besides working on his new film, INLAND EMPIRE, David is also preparing a book for publication called, Catching The Big Fish: Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain. In it, David discusses how he compares catching creative ideas deep within his mind to going fishing. When he "fall(s) in love with an idea," he pursues it, and as it develops and draws other ideas to itself, he materializes them into a film. Throughout the process, he always refers back to the original inspiration. He also describes how most of us are only using a golf-size consciousness with which we experience the world. When we expand our consciousness through TM, our comprehension and appreciation of the world expands as well. "Fear goes. Bliss grows."

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    Ken Chawkin
    Ken Chawkin, M.A., has been a TM Instructor, Ayurvedic Health Technician, Reading and Writing Facilitator, published poet and writer. Both his son and daughter have graduated from MSAE and his son from M.U.M. Ken is a publicist for Maharishi University, enrolled in the part-time MA in Vedic Studies.


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