There have been many claims about the efficacy of mindfulness and meditation. Naturally, these need to be treated with due scepticism. A definitive book on this subject was released in 2017: The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman (he of Emotional Intelligence fame) and Richard J. Davidson.
THERE’S THE story of the monk who came down from the mountain after years of contemplation. He gets into the market square and finds himself being bumped and jostled. Nobody seems to notice, or care, that he’s back, let alone that he’s achieved enlightenment. He notices that it’s he himself who is having this thought, and that with it came a tiny level of self-righteous indignation. Nope, he decides, he’s not enlightened after all. And so he went back up the mountain.
Stories like this carry within them the promise of meditation: that it can turn you into a person who has perfect awareness, equanimity, compassion and humility. Not to mention its inevitable byproduct: being able to focus your attention on one thing for hours. Conversely, being reactive, in other words, becoming indignant, irritable or angry, like our monk, is seen as a failure of the process.
Is it true that meditation—which is generally associated with mindfulness—can help you achieve those kinds of states? A definitive book on this subject was released in 2017: The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman (who cointed the term Emotional Intelligence, or EQ) and neuroscience researcher Richard J. Davidson. These two highly respected research scientists collated all the research that has been done on meditation—6,838 articles—and categorised it according to its level of academic rigour and summarised the results.
Highly positive altered traits versus positive states
One of the key features that the authors looked for was evidence for how mental training could lead to “highly positive altered traits” (eg. ongoing compassion, or equanimity), not just “altered states” (eg. feeling chilled out for a short while). In other words, will it do what out monk was hoping it will do for him, and for which he returned to the mountain?
Clearly, when one has meditated, one emerges feeling relaxed and probably able to be less reactive, at least for a short period of time. This is likely to end abruptly when you’re back in the traffic, for example—or, like our monk, back in the town square. The goal, Goleman and Davidson insisted, is to establish these healthy states as predominant, lasting traits that you can sustain in your general, everyday life. After all, they point out, isn’t that the primary claim of all those monks who, like ours, have given their lives to the practice?
They found compelling evidence in favour of this conclusion, in a number of areas.
Let’s take a look at their findings on the subject of attention, for example. In our age of distraction, this is clearly relevant. They made some interesting findings.
Findings from The Science of Meditation: Attention
Firstly, an EEG measure of advanced Zen monks showed that their attention had not tuned out of a task (listening to a series of monotonous sounds) after more than 20 beeps, whereas most people tuned out before 10. This suggested a link between long-term meditation and sustained attention, even when the task becomes familiar or boring. This could have practical implications for, eg.. radar operators, soldiers on guard duty, even cricket players who bat or field for long periods.
Another study showed that, after eight weeks of an MBSR (mindfulness) program, subjects showed a far better ability to focus on sensations—in this case a carefully calibrated tapping on the hand or foot—than they had done before starting the training, as well as better than those who were still waiting for the training.
Of even more relevance was a study that showed how short breathing meditations can improve attention that gets diminished by (especially digital) multitasking, and how sustaining these practices can have a lasting effect.
The above studies, among many others, challenge accepted scientific thought that attention is “mostly stimulus-driven, automatic, unconscious, and from the ‘bottom up’”—in other words, it challenges the notion that you can’t do anything to improve levels of attention.
The authors concluded that “mindfulness (at least in the MBSR form) strengthens the brain’s ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions”.
They do caution that “quickie, one-time interventions”—like a weekend meditation course—are unlikely to make a lasting difference. “Our hunch would be that [improving] a neural system like attention in a lasting way requires … continued daily practice [and] intensive booster sessions.” In other words, you need long-term sustained practice of meditation, not just short intensives.
They also made findings with regards to the impact of meditation on one’s ability to handle stress, tolerate pain, and regulate emotions. Below are some statements quoted directly from The Science of Meditation:
- The amygdala, a key node in the brain’s stress circuitry, shows dampened activity from a mere 30 or so hours of MBSR practice.
- Other mindfulness training shows a similar benefit, and there are hints in the research that 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, with reductions in amygdala activation as great as 50 percent.
- More daily practice seems associated with lessened distress activity.
- Experienced Zen practitioners can withstand higher levels of pain.
- A three-month meditation retreat brought indicators of better emotional regulation.
- Long-term practice was associated with greater functional connectivity between the prefrontal areas that manage emotion and the areas of the amygdala that react to stress, resulting in less reactivity.
- An improved ability to regulate attention accompanies some of the beneficial impact of meditation on stress reactivity.
- The quickness with which long-term meditators recover from stress underlines how trait effects emerge with continued practice.
The book is a great reference for all those sceptics out there. Although we know how it is with sceptics: if that’s your lens you’ll very likely be looking to pick apart the arguments. The challenge is to read with an open mind and then test your hypothesis by actually meditating—not just once or twice, but consistently. According to the authors, if it’s self-mastery you’re after, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.