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Mindfully debunking four meditation myths

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Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion can help us lead hap­pi­er, health­i­er lives … at least accord­ing to sci­ence. Yet many of us still balk at the idea of prac­tic­ing it our­selves. Per­haps we fear that med­i­ta­tion is too new agey, or it might slow us down or lead to com­pla­cen­cy. Some might fear mind­ful­ness could come at the expense of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, a moral com­pass, or even the vital­i­ty that gives us our edge.

But new research stud­ies bust some of the com­mon myths around mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. Rather than mak­ing us bliss­ful­ly tuned out or care­free, mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion may actu­al­ly make it eas­i­er for us to take a moral stand, be per­sis­tent in achiev­ing our goals, and be more ener­getic in our lives—even our sex lives!

Here are some of the myths of mind­ful­ness and the research that coun­ter­acts those myths.

Myth #1: Mindfulness meditation makes you turn inward and become more isolated

When I first heard about mind­ful­ness, this was a con­cern of mine. Will I turn into some kind of new-age per­son who is, frankly, self-absorbed and kind of out of it?

Appar­ent­ly not, say the results of sev­er­al research stud­ies. If any­thing, mind­ful­ness makes our social rela­tion­ships stronger—perhaps by help­ing us to bet­ter reg­u­late dif­fi­cult emo­tions like anger or resent­ment. And, though mind­ful­ness may be devel­oped via an inward prac­tice like med­i­ta­tion, it still helps us to con­nect with the suf­fer­ing of oth­ers and want to reach out to help them—something that def­i­nite­ly builds social cap­i­tal.

In one recent study, par­tic­i­pants were assigned to wit­ness a sce­nario in which one play­er was exclud­ed from a dig­i­tal ball game. Through some clever designs, the researchers were able to show that peo­ple who did a very brief mind­ful­ness prac­tice were more like­ly to express sym­pa­thy to the exclud­ed play­er and to throw the ball to them more often in a sub­se­quent game. In fact, neu­ro­science stud­ies show that you can active­ly prac­tice hav­ing more com­pas­sion for oth­ers through mind­ful­ness prac­tices, and it seems to affect your brain in ways that make you more attuned to their suf­fer­ing and more like­ly to help.

So, rather than turn­ing you inward, it seems as if mind­ful­ness could be a use­ful social glue and actu­al­ly strength­en rela­tion­ships. It may even have more impact if you med­i­tate togeth­er.

Myth #2: Mindfulness meditation wears down your “grit”

Hav­ing “grit”—being able to per­sist toward our goals, even when things get rough—is some­thing many of us strive for. It’s a qual­i­ty that’s val­ued at work, in school, and in life. But one could argue that mindfulness—with its focus on accept­ing “what is”—might keep us from car­ing about goals or push­ing our­selves to achieve.

How­ev­er, a recent study says oth­er­wise. Stu­dents who report­ed being more mind­ful over­all were found to be more “grit­ty” four months lat­er, while the reverse wasn’t true—meaning, being grit­ti­er didn’t pre­dict lat­er mind­ful­ness. Cer­tain aspects of mind­ful­ness seemed to be key to this con­nec­tion; being “non-judg­ing” (of your expe­ri­ences, thoughts, and emo­tions) was tied to greater per­se­ver­ance, and “act­ing with aware­ness” (the abil­i­ty to focus your atten­tion on your activ­i­ties rather than doing things mind­less­ly or auto­mat­i­cal­ly) was tied to main­tain­ing inter­est in goals over time.

Though this study involved a large­ly homo­ge­neous group of par­tic­i­pants, oth­er stud­ies have found a con­nec­tion between mind­ful­ness and grit in more diverse set­tings, includ­ing non-West­ern cultures—though the effects were some­what weak­er in col­lec­tivist cul­tures ver­sus indi­vid­u­al­is­tic ones. In addi­tion, stud­ies have found that more mind­ful peo­ple (or peo­ple who train in mind­ful­ness) per­sist more on a dif­fi­cult task, are more engaged at work, and are less impul­sive, which may be con­nect­ed to grit, too.

Over­all, these results sug­gest that mind­ful­ness doesn’t pre­vent us from pur­su­ing our goals, but may actu­al­ly help us with them…though more (and bet­ter) research is cer­tain­ly need­ed to prove that.

Myth #3: Mindfulness meditation makes you overly mellow

Med­i­ta­tion seems to involve a lot of sitting—perhaps the excep­tion being mind­ful walk­ing. So, I wor­ry that all that sit­ting around will just zap my ener­gy and make me feel slug­gish.

But research seems to sug­gest the oppo­site. In one study, researchers found that when par­tic­i­pants went through a six-week mind­ful­ness pro­gram, they report­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater vitality—as well as less per­son­al distress—than those who were in a con­trol group. Far from de-ener­giz­ing them, the mind­ful­ness prac­tices actu­al­ly kick­start­ed their ener­gy lev­els.

Many stud­ies have found that mind­ful­ness can improve sleep qual­i­ty, too—even in old­er adults who may tend toward insomnia—which cer­tain­ly would lead to greater live­li­ness the next day. And a more recent study sug­gests that peo­ple who are more mind­ful, whether sin­gle or part­nered, have greater sex­u­al satisfaction—a mark­er of vig­or for many peo­ple.

Myth #4: Mindfulness meditation makes you morally ambivalent

If mind­ful­ness is about accept­ing our present expe­ri­ence with­out judg­ment, we might think that prac­tic­ing it would make it dif­fi­cult to dis­cern right from wrong. If every­thing is good just as it is, why would we think any behav­ior is bad?

But, in fact, mind­ful­ness may actu­al­ly make us more dis­cern­ing about moral behav­ior.

In a recent study, busi­ness stu­dents were ran­dom­ly assigned to either an eight-week mind­ful­ness course or a course in self-man­age­ment (includ­ing emo­tion­al intel­li­gence, trust, and cre­ative think­ing). Then, they were test­ed on their moral rea­son­ing levels—or, how well they thought through moral dilem­mas. Researchers pre­sent­ed them with a moral­ly chal­leng­ing sce­nario, like being asked by a boss to ignore an ille­gal trans­ac­tion you uncov­ered between your firm and a favored client. Then, researchers asked them a series of ques­tions, includ­ing what they would do in that sit­u­a­tion and why. Their answers were record­ed, and their moral rea­son­ing was eval­u­at­ed by inde­pen­dent raters.

Addi­tion­al­ly, the stu­dents report­ed on how com­pas­sion­ate and ego­cen­tric they were before and after the course—saying how much they agreed with state­ments like “I often have ten­der feel­ings toward peo­ple (strangers) when they seem to be in need” or “Some­times you have to lie to get what you want.” After run­ning analy­ses, the researchers found that stu­dents receiv­ing mind­ful­ness train­ing became more com­pas­sion­ate and less ego­cen­tric, and they had high­er moral rea­son­ing skills than those receiv­ing self-man­age­ment lessons. This sug­gests that mind­ful­ness might improve moral reasoning—a pre­cur­sor to bet­ter behavior—by help­ing stu­dents to care more about oth­ers.

Oth­er stud­ies have found sim­i­lar results, though this line of research is rel­a­tive­ly new. Still, mind­ful­ness does seem to decrease ego­cen­trism and increase com­pas­sion, both of which seem like­ly to lead to more eth­i­cal behav­ior.

So, while you may wor­ry that suc­cumb­ing to the mind­ful med­i­ta­tion craze will some­how drain your ener­gy, turn you into an iso­lat­ed monk, com­pro­mise your moral­i­ty, or make you less pro­duc­tive, rest assured—it prob­a­bly won’t. Who knows? Like many before you, maybe you’ll move from being a skep­tic to a fan.

— 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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