Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

New book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson describes four reasons why long-term meditation can lead to profound improvements in our minds, brains, and bodies

Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion is every­where these days. From the class­room to the board room, peo­ple are jump­ing on the mind­ful­ness band­wag­on, hop­ing to dis­cov­er for them­selves some of its promised ben­e­fits, like bet­ter focus, more har­mo­nious rela­tion­ships, and less stress.

I too have start­ed a mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion prac­tice and have found it to be help­ful in my every­day life. But, as a sci­ence writer, I still have to won­der: Is all of the hype around mind­ful­ness run­ning ahead of the sci­ence? What does the research real­ly say about mind­ful­ness? 

To answer these ques­tions, look no fur­ther than Altered Traits: Sci­ence Reveals How Med­i­ta­tion Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, a new book by jour­nal­ist Daniel Gole­man and promi­nent neu­ro­sci­en­tist Richard David­son. Putting their decades of research and knowl­edge togeth­er, David­son and Gole­man have writ­ten a high­ly read­able book that helps read­ers sep­a­rate the wheat from the chaff of mind­ful­ness sci­ence. In the process, they make a cogent argu­ment that med­i­ta­tion, in var­i­ous forms, has the pow­er to trans­form us not only in the moment, but in more pro­found, last­ing ways.

Many peo­ple have been intro­duced to mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion prac­tices through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR) pro­gram. MBSR has been researched exten­sive­ly and tied to many pos­i­tive out­comes for med­ical patients. But while MBSR has helped a lot of peo­ple, it’s not always clear which aspects of the training—mindful breath­ing ver­sus yoga ver­sus lov­ing-kind­ness meditation—are most help­ful for par­tic­u­lar issues fac­ing peo­ple. Nor is it always clear that the impacts of MBSR train­ing extend long beyond when the train­ing ends.

That’s where David­son and Gole­man come in. They aim to unveil not just the tem­po­rary effects of mind­ful­ness train­ing, but how prac­tic­ing var­i­ous forms of med­i­ta­tion over time affects our gen­er­al traits—more sta­ble aspects of our­selves. And they make the case that sim­pler forms of mind­ful­ness train­ing may have some ben­e­fits, but fall short when you are look­ing for last­ing change.

Accord­ing to the authors, there are four main ways that meditation—particularly when prac­ticed con­sis­tent­ly over time—can make a deep­er impact on us.

1. Meditation improves our resiliency to stress

Accord­ing to neu­ro­science research, mind­ful­ness prac­tices damp­en activ­i­ty in our amyg­dala and increase the con­nec­tions between the amyg­dala and pre­frontal cor­tex, both of which help us to be less reac­tive to stres­sors and to recov­er bet­ter from stress when we expe­ri­ence it. “These changes are trait-like: they appear not sim­ply dur­ing the explic­it instruc­tion to per­ceive the stress­ful stim­uli mind­ful­ly, but even in the ‘base­line’ state’” for longer-term med­i­ta­tors, which sup­ports the pos­si­bil­i­ty that mind­ful­ness changes our abil­i­ty to han­dle stress in a bet­ter, more per­ma­nent way.

2. Meditation increases our compassionate concern for others

While many of us may espouse com­pas­sion­ate atti­tudes, we can also suf­fer when we see oth­ers suf­fer­ing, which can cre­ate a state of paral­y­sis or with­draw­al. But stud­ies have shown that prac­tic­ing lov­ing-kind­ness for oth­ers increas­es our will­ing­ness to take action to relieve suf­fer­ing. It appears to do this by less­en­ing amyg­dala activ­i­ty in the pres­ence of suf­fer­ing, while also acti­vat­ing cir­cuits in the brain that are con­nect­ed to good feel­ings and love. “The cul­ti­va­tion of a lov­ing con­cern for oth­er people’s well-being has a sur­pris­ing and unique ben­e­fit: the brain cir­cuit­ry for hap­pi­ness emerges, along with com­pas­sion,” write the authors.

3. Meditation augments our capacity to focus and pay attention

It’s not too sur­pris­ing that med­i­ta­tion would affect atten­tion, since many prac­tices focus on this very skill. And, in fact, researchers have found that med­i­ta­tion helps to com­bat habituation—the ten­den­cy to stop pay­ing atten­tion to new infor­ma­tion in our envi­ron­ment. Stud­ies have shown that improved atten­tion seems to last up to five years after mind­ful­ness train­ing, sug­gest­ing trait-like changes are pos­si­ble. This out­come of med­i­ta­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant, because it “under­girds a huge range of what makes us effec­tive in the world—everything from learn­ing, to real­iz­ing we’ve had a cre­ative insight, to see­ing a project through to its end.”

4. Meditation helps us to feel lighter and less self-focused

This is a more spe­cif­ic find­ing about how mind­ful­ness helps you to stop see­ing your­self as the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Accord­ing to stud­ies, activ­i­ty in the “default network”—the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activ­i­ty, rumi­nates on thoughts, feel­ings, and experiences—quiets down in long­time med­i­ta­tors, sug­gest­ing less rumi­na­tion about our­selves and our place in the world. Long-term med­i­ta­tors also seem to have a small­er nucle­us accumbens—a part of the brain asso­ci­at­ed with plea­sure, but also addic­tion. Accord­ing to the authors, “These regions very like­ly under­lie what tra­di­tion­al [Bud­dhist] texts see as the root caus­es of suf­fer­ing: attach­ment and aver­sion, where the mind becomes fix­at­ed on want­i­ng some­thing that seems reward­ing or get­ting rid of some­thing unpleas­ant.”

Med­i­ta­tion leads to some improve­ments in mark­ers of health. Many claims have been made about mind­ful­ness and health; but some­times these claims are hard to sub­stan­ti­ate or may be mixed up with oth­er effects. For exam­ple, when it comes to pain—where our psy­chol­o­gy plays a clear role in our expe­ri­ence of pain—it’s now clear that med­i­ta­tion can lessen pain with­out direct­ly address­ing its phys­i­o­log­i­cal source. How­ev­er, there is some good evi­dence that med­i­ta­tion affects phys­i­o­log­i­cal indices of health, too. For exam­ple, prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion lessons the inflam­ma­to­ry response in peo­ple exposed to psy­cho­log­i­cal stres­sors, par­tic­u­lar­ly for long-term med­i­ta­tors. Also, med­i­ta­tors seem to have increased activ­i­ty of telomerase—an enzyme impli­cat­ed in longer cell life and, there­fore, longevi­ty.

The authors out­line oth­er pos­si­ble ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion which have less robust find­ings. But, while the evi­dence for these can be fas­ci­nat­ing, David­son and Gole­man duti­ful­ly report the counter evi­dence as well, try­ing to employ “the strictest exper­i­men­tal stan­dards” to avoid mak­ing unfound­ed claims. They even ques­tion some of their own find­ings, such as Davidson’s research on changes in the brain for med­i­ta­tors, which they lat­er decid­ed didn’t have great exper­i­men­tal con­trols.

The dif­fer­ences found [between med­i­ta­tors and non-med­i­ta­tors] could be due to fac­tors like edu­ca­tion or exer­cise, each of which has its own buffer­ing effect on brains,” they write. “Then there’s self-selec­tion: Per­haps peo­ple with the brain changes report­ed in these stud­ies choose to stick with med­i­ta­tion while oth­ers do not.” In oth­er words, use cau­tion when cham­pi­oning results.

In gen­er­al, the authors lament the poor qual­i­ty of many stud­ies and the way these are used to jus­ti­fy mind­ful­ness appli­ca­tions in many are­nas. They wor­ry that too many stud­ies lack rig­or or that some well-done stud­ies are nev­er pub­lished because they don’t have pos­i­tive find­ings. These and many oth­er caveats about the research affirm that we are in the hands of experts who know their stuff. The result is a book that both enlight­ens those inter­est­ed in the top­ic and calms the skep­tics. For those who may be on the fence about med­i­ta­tion, I sug­gest read­ing the book and com­ing to your own con­clu­sions. Per­haps, it will do the same for you.

jill_suttie.thumbnail— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

To learn more:

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , ,

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

Follow us and Engage via…

twitter_logo_header
RSS Feed

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives