‘Oneness’ Feeling Experienced by Monks, Explained

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Buddhist monk in orange robe praying

Getty images/Norma Zuniga

We now have further insights into how monks’ brains are reorganized during meditation.

Zoran Josipovic,  a research scientist and adjunct university professor at New York University, has been placing Buddhists in a FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine, which tracks their blood flow as they meditate.

Josipovic, who moonlights as a monk himself, wanted to know more about the state of  “oneness” or “non-duality” that monks achieve by meditating.

(More on TIME.com: Buddhist monk sentenced for smuggling chewing tobacco.)

“One thing that meditation does for those who practice it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills,” Dr. Josipovic told the BBC. He added that it helped to live a happier and tranquil life.

His main focus was an understudied part of the brain that controls self-reflective thoughts, know as the default network, which is activated when people engage with their own emotions.

The extrinsic part of the brain is activated when people focus on external tasks, like playing tennis or pouring coffee.

(More on TIME.com: See pics of Buddhist monks at a burial site in Higashimatsushima)

Jospovic found that Buddhist monks, and other experienced meditators, can activate both neural networks at the same time while meditating, which he said explained people’s experience of harmony with with their surroundings.

The default network was discovered in 2001 when Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in the US state of Missouri, scanned brains of people who had no tasks to perform. She was stunned to find that a second, unnoticed network was activated when the participants became bored.

This study, which is soon to be published, will not only explain the neurological implications of the “oneness” experience, but it might also further our understanding of psychological disorders including depression, autism and Alzheimer’s.