Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson takes a scientific look at the practice of meditation. From the start, we are assured that the authors are not interested in giving us a sales pitch about meditation.
They acknowledge that many hucksters try to make money by promoting meditation in a dishonest way, promising benefits that have not been validated by any evidence, and find a way to personally benefit from people’s wishful thinking.
But that is not to say that meditation does not have proven benefits. The rest of the book is a careful exploration of precisely what those benefits are, and to who they belong.
A Background of Meditation Research
The number of publications about meditation from 1970 to 2000 are negligible, and then at around 2005, we witnessed a rapid increase to over 1000 in the span of less than 10 years.
Joseph Goldstein was instrumental in bringing meditation to the West.
Clinical psychology tries to fix a specific problem like high anxiety by focusing on that one thing, while Asian psychologies have a wider lens and offer ways to enhance our positive side.
Richie, one of the authors of the book, became interested in consciousness after reading the works of Aldous Huxley, R.D Laing, Martin Buber, and Ram Dass. But these interests were driven underground during his college years in New York University, where professors were staunch behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner). They thought that observable behavior was the only way of understanding the mind, while looking inside the mind was a taboo waste of time. They believed that mental life was irrelevant to understanding behavior.
When French poet and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna near the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote to Freud about the mystical state he experienced. Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy.
In the 1960’s, psychologists dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James observed, “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” The very existence of these states “means they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”
Buddha prescribed not only strong concentration for the attainment of a liberated mind, but a different kind of inner focus: the path of insight. Awareness stays open to anything that arises, rather than one thing to the exclusion of all else. It is total concentration. With mindfulness, the meditator notes what comes into the mind without reactivity, and lets go. If we think much of what just arose, we have lost our mindful stance – unless that reaction becomes the object of mindfulness.
The Visuddhimagga describes how a carefully sustained mindfulness – the “clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens” in our experience refines into nuanced insight practice that can lead to nirvana – the final epiphany.
Insight meditation causes a shift between ourselves and our thoughts. Usually, we are directed by our thoughts to react in various ways. But what we gain with strong mindfulness, is the ability to see each thought, whether pleasurable or painful, for what it truly is – a passing moment of mind, like any other. We don’t need to be chased through the day by our thoughts.
The Abhidhamma distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy states of mind. Desires, self-centeredness, sluggishness, agitation are unhealthy. Even-mindedness, composure, ongoing mindfulness, and realistic confidence are healthy. A subset of healthy traits apply to both mind and body: buoyancy, flexibility, adaptability, and pliancy.
Research showed that people who went on a meditation retreat and strengthened a sense of purpose in their lives showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells – even five months later. This enzyme protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect the lifespan of a cell. But this study only had 14 participants and has not been replicated.
Few studies in psychology are targets of replication. Publication is inbuilt: few scientists report studies when they have found no significant results. And yet that null finding is significant.
Physical and Psychological Stressors
Modern life, psychological stress, if it continues for a long time, can make you sick. Such stressors trigger the same biological reactions as when encountering predators in the past.
Vulnerability to stress-worsened diseases like diabetes or hypertension reflects the downside of the brain’s design. The upside reflects the power of the human cortex, which has built civilization. But the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, contains the brain’s executive center.
It gives us a unique advantage among animals and a paradoxical disadvantage: the ability to anticipate the future and worry about it, as well as the tendency to think about the past, and regret.
As Epictetus observed, it is not the things that happen to us that upset us but the view we take of them. The Dalai Lama reported that he met many people who had everything they wanted, yet were miserable.
In the 1970s, science saw attention as mostly stimulus-driven, automatic, unconscious, and from the “bottom up” – a function of the brain stem, a primitive structure sitting above the spinal cord, rather than from a “top down” cortical area. This view considers attention involuntary. Something happens around us, a phone rings, and our attention automatically gets pulled to the source of the sound. A sound continues to the point of monotony and then we habituate (tune it out).
But there was no scientific concept for the volitional control of attention even though the scientists doing those experiments were using volitional control themselves.
Decades before we began to drown in a sea of distractions, Herbert Simon observed, “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.”
There are two kinds of awareness. One is being aware of something, the other is being aware that you are aware of something, without judgement.
Meditation In a Lab
Seasoned meditators (9,000 lifetime hours of Vipassana practice) had a 13 percent lower cholesterol level than controls.
Even stressed novice meditators who were tested (unemployed job seekers) had reductions in kep pro-inflammatory cytokine.
Constant stress and worry takes a toll on our cells, aging them. So do constant distractions and a wandering mind – due to the toxic effects of rumination.
The gene that makes us susceptible to diabetes may never develop the disease if we have a lifelong habit of exercise and not eating sugar.
Compared with non-meditators, meditators had greater cortical thickness in areas important for sensing inside one’s own body and for attention (anterior insula and zones of the prefrontal cortex).
A study at UCLA finds meditation slows the usual shrinkage of our brain as we age. At age fifty, meditators’ brains are younger by 7.5 years compared to brains of non meditators of the same age. For every year beyond fifty, the brains of meditators were younger than their peers’ by one month and twenty two days. Researchers concluded that meditation can help slow down brain atrophy. But the problem is that in those studies, many different types of meditation were sampled, so it is not clear which type of meditation results in the different benefits.
An article in the one of the JAMA journals (official publication of the American Medical Associated, showed that mindfulness (but not mantra based meditation like T.M, which had insufficient research) could lessen anxiety and depression, as well as pain. The degree of improvement was about as much as for medications, but without the troubling side effects.
But the meta-analysis found that when it came to other health indicators (eating habits, sleep, substance use, or weight problems), no benefits were found. And no benefits were found either for other psychological troubles like ugly moods, addictions, and poor attention.
A seasoned meditator, and a Tibeten monk arrived to Wisconsin, for a series of scientific experiments, that would measure his brain activity while he meditated. His name was Mingyur Rinpoche.
The protocol he was given, had him meditate on compassion for one minute, followed by a 30 seconds of neutral resting period. To make sure that any findings were not due to chance, he would have to do this four times in a row.
Just as Mingyur behan the meditation, there was a sudden huge burst of electrical activity on the computer monitors displaying signals from the bain. The researches thought this meant he had moved (a common problem with EEG research). Oddly, this burst lasted the entire period of compassion meditation. And as far as anyone could tell, Mingyur had not moved an inch.
The four experimented watched, transfixed, while Mingyur moved on to repeat the exercise. Instantly, the same dramatic burst of electrical signal occurred. He was perfectly stil. As this pattern repeated each time he was instructed to generate compassion, the team looked at each other in astonished silence – almost jumping off their seats in excitement. They were witnessing a profound and historic event.
The news of that session created a scientific stir – these findings have been cited more than 1,100 times in the world’s scientific literature.
The next surprise event happened when Mingyur underwent another batch of tests, but this time with fMRI (which creates 3-D video of brain activity). The EEG readings are more precise in time. The fMRI readings are more accurate in neural locations.
The closest resemblance to brain activity that followed Mingyur’s meditation on compassion, was in epileptic seizures – but those last brief seconds, not a full minute. And seizures are involuntary, in contrast to Mingyur’s intentional control of brain activity.
The Tibetan monk was a meditation prodigy with 62,000 hours of lifetime practice up to that point. Compared to controls, Mingyur’s brain is clearly ageing more slowly. The chronological age of his brain was 41, while his brain fit more closely the norm for whose chronological age was 33. This remarkable fact demonstrates the further reaches of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change structure).
In contemplative science, “altered state” refers to changes that occur only during meditation. An “altered trait” indicates that the practice of meditation has transformed the brain and biology so that the changes can be seen before the beginning of a meditation session.
For novice meditators, there was no difference between their brains at rest, and when they were trying to meditate on cue. This contrasts with the findings obtained from experienced yogis, such Mingyur (and 21 others).
Interestingly, hearing sounds of people in distress caused less activity in an area in the brain responsible for self-centered thought among yogis, when compared to others.
Many of the amazing results seen with expert meditators were not seen in novice meditators, but there were some important benefits. Even for people who had meditated for as little as 8 minutes a day, for two weeks, improvements in focus, less mind wandering, and better working memory were noted – enough to produce improvements in GRE scores. But these effects are unlikely to persist without continued practice.
After meditating for many years, the early effects deepen and new ones emerge. For example, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol – a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress – lessens.
Words of Caution
It is not mere practice that takes a meditator from “novice” to “expert.” Going on retreats and getting personal advice from seasoned meditators are important to make incremental improvements. The quality of the practice, not just the quantity counts.
Meditation is not a substitute for real world compassion or action.
The Dalai Lama remarked that in some cases, practitioners have the impression that they are holy people – which is true when everything is fine, when the sun is shining and the belly is full. But when confronted with a real challenge or crisis, they become just like everyone else.
A group of religious scholars, experimental psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers gathered under the auspices of the Mind and Life institute to explore the corner of the mind that begins with everyday desire. Sometimes the pathway runs though craving to addiction (whether drugs, porn, or shopping).
The religious scholars pinpointed the problem at the moment of grasping – the impulse that makes us lean in toward pleasure. In this state, there is a feeling of uneasiness that drives the clinging and seductive intuition that the object of our desire will relieve our disease.
This contrasts with the state of utter ease when nongrasping. Mindfulness helps us observe what is happening within the mind itself rather than get carried away by it.
Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Judson Brewer has helped people addicted to cigarettes kick the habit with mindfulness exercises in his lab.
Richie and Dan, the authors of the book, were inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which showed that science shifts abruptly from time to time as new ideas and innovative paradigms force shifts in thinking. They wanted a new paradigm in psychology.
By now, the evidence has confirmed their hunches. Sustained mind training alters the brain both in structure and function.
Find a meditation practice that appeals to you. Practice every day, for one month, even as short as a few minutes. See how you feel after 30 days.