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What Really Happens When We Meditate

Practice
Painting of woman in yoga pose

Inner by Molly Cranch

An interview with Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson about their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body 

S&H: In the same way that basketball and swimming are two very different examples of activities that can be included in the category of sports, there are many different practices that fall under the umbrella term meditation. What types of meditation have been studied seriously and what types haven’t yet? Are there any common benefits to the various types of meditation?

Daniel Goleman: So far, mindfulness has been the most studied form of meditation, particularly among beginners. When it comes to long-term meditators—say, more than 1,000 hours’ practice—vipassana or insight meditation and Zen are tops for study. And then, in Altered Traits, we report on an extraordinary group of “Olympic level” Tibetan Buddhist yogis who came to Richard Davidson’s lab for brain studies. TM has also been a frequent target for research, and there have been a smattering of studies on methods like kundalini. But other than these methods, few examples of other varieties of meditation have undergone serious research. This actually leaves out the vast majority of approaches on the family tree of meditation—everything from Christian meditations, like the monks on Athos doing the Prayer of the Heart, to Sufis whirling, and Chinese Chan. 

Richard Davidson: Other types of meditation such as “analytical meditation,” a favorite of the Dalai Lama, have received essentially no scientific attention.

What benefits of meditation have been overhyped in the press?

DG: I can’t say for sure because I don’t really follow meditation hype. But my impression is that poor studies are cited as “proof” of meditation’s benefits, findings that apply to advanced meditators are sometimes touted as accruing to beginners, and, occasionally, some benefits are simply imagined. This may be most true in the business world, where many companies are bringing in teachers who are a bit loose in their use of research as evidence for the usefulness of the method. 

RD: Another area of hype is the application to the treatment of illness. The findings here are not strong, particularly when compared to other established conventional treatments. However, one key point is that different people may benefit from different types of meditation, as well as other interventions. This question of optimal matching between the form of practice and the type of person has not received much scientific attention.

You show that the more hours a person spends practicing meditation, the greater the benefits they reap. Are people who practice 10 minutes a day wasting their time?

DG: There are some surprising payoffs with only a few minutes’ practice, like eliminating the loss of concentration that multitasking usually brings. Short daily mindfulness practice in beginners also improves memory, to the point that a group of students who volunteered for a study got significantly better scores on their graduate school entrance exams. 

What are some of the real benefits of meditation that we haven’t heard much about?

DG: Lovingkindness meditation has surprises like reversing unconscious bias against other groups and making people more likely to put their compassion into action. At the beginning these are “state” effects, short-lived improvements that require further practice to maintain; as people put in more hours they take hold more strongly.

What are the altered traits that you find in “Olympic level” meditators?

DG: There are a host of surprises among longer-term meditators, like a boost in the immune system from a day of practice, which is not seen in beginners, and a rapid recovery from stress or pain. At the “Olympic level” we find there is no anticipatory anxiety when the stress of pain is certain to come, and no lingering aftereffects—unlike the stress reactions in ordinary folk. Perhaps the biggest “wow” so far is with gamma EEG waves, ordinarily seen for a half-second or so during a creative insight, for example. The most seasoned meditators—including Tibetan yogis—had gamma waves during their meditation and at other times, sometimes even during sleep.

How do you know that people who choose to meditate for years and years don’t already possess these traits?

DG: We don’t know. Although the few studies that have followed people just starting meditation and measured the impacts—compared to a good control group—showed a “dose-response” relationship, meaning the more you do, the better it gets. But it would take a massive, multiyear study to pick apart people’s natural traits from those acquired or strengthened due to meditation.

In Altered Traits, you frequently write about the “self.” The question of the self seems like more of a philosophical question than a scientific one. In what ways do views about the self affect the benefits of meditation practice?

DG: All the classical meditation traditions, in one way or another, stress nonattachment to the self as a goal of practice. Oddly, this dimension is largely ignored in scientific research, which tends to focus on health and other such benefits. I suppose the difference has to do with the contrast in views of the self from the spiritual and scientific perspectives. Scientists value the self; spiritual traditions have another perspective.

RD: There is a burgeoning neuroscientific literature on “the self.” These studies mostly focus on the self-related narrative that we carry in our heads. This is our running monologue about ourselves. When we take these self-focused thoughts too seriously, it can get us into trouble. We know something about the neural correlates of these self-related thoughts, and research shows that mindfulness and lovingkindness meditation can alter the brain networks that subserve these self-related thoughts. The implication here is that the thoughts do not disappear easily or quickly, but their propensity to derail us is lessened.


Sam Mowe is the editor at the Garrison Institute, a nonprofit in New York that supports those who practice contemplation to catalyze personal and social transformation. garrisoninstitute.org


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