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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.

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