"Given meditation’s booming popularity, we feel a need for a hard-nosed look. The neural and biological benefits best documented by sound science are not necessarily the ones we hear about in the press, on Facebook, or from email marketing blasts. And some of those trumpeted far and wide have little scientific merit."
Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and writer. He is best known for his work on Emotional Intelligence. Goleman is also a long-term meditator and student of meditative practices.
Richard J. Davidson is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and does extensive research in areas of meditation and mindfulness—including studies of the advanced practitioners’ (yogis) brains.
Goleman and Davidson (who you’ll know as Dan and Richie if you read the book,) have been friends and fellow practitioners for many years. Altered Traits, among other things, shares parts of their stories and how they found and embraced meditation and spiritual practice. They are both longtime friends of the Dalai Lama. This has given Davidson—among other things—access to Tibetan Buddhist practitioners who have agreed to participate in his studies.
The authors are committed to research that is rigorous. They culled through upwards of 6,000 studies of meditation to find approximately 60 that they felt were methodologically reliable. Many of the “truths” about meditation that I’d heard are found in the studies that the authors deemed unreliable and, therefore, not proven.
Part memoir, part exploration of social science methodology, and part reporting on studies on meditation, there’s a lot here. So, if you’re a meditator, want to meditate or love social science research, this is a fascinating read!
Traits Are More Powerful Than States
"We had a big idea: beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result… Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate."
As someone who meditates daily, I know that meditation helps me to feel better. After I meditate I feel more grounded, less stressed. When I remember, in the middle of my day, to take a few breaths, I can recreate that feeling. This is what the authors call “state.” The question that Davidson and Goleman are most interested in is whether meditators change in more profound ways—do they develop different traits? Am I more patient? kinder? more prepared to deal with adversity? Has my brain changed in measurable ways? Trait changes don’t dissipate in the hours after meditation—or in weeks after a retreat—and can be measured in our brain activity.
One contribution this book makes is the clarity with which it demonstrates some of the flaws in meditation research. The authors demonstrate that most studies don’t distinguish between the different varieties of meditation and the distinctions that are evident in groups of meditators (chief among them being total time spent meditating).
The other very common methodological problem is in the design of control group studies. When meditation is compared with other interventions delivered by enthusiastic teachers, are the results as impressive as when the control group’s experience is inferior to that of the meditators? Sometimes the answer is no. Davidson and Goleman do a good job of pointing out the flaws in much of their own earlier research and how they—and especially Davidson—have worked to address them. In doing so, we learn about neuroscience research and why, with new imaging techniques, we can know so much about the brain.
Ultimately the authors do find evidence of trait changes. They also find that duration or practice and consistency of practice are critical factors in realizing those state changes. And, different types of meditation practice will result in different kinds of changes.
"We hope the scientific case we make here shows the enormous potential for enduring well-being from caring for our minds and brains, and convinces you that a little daily mental exercise can go a long way toward the cultivation of that well-being."
When Richie’s lab applied rigorous standards, and eliminated the potential misinformation from a Hawthorne effect, the touted benefits of MBSR didn’t seem that different from a generic health intervention that was offered to the control group, by equally enthusiastic teachers. In general, profound, long-term change is not evident in these short-term interventions.
We learn a lot about Buddhist monks who have logged as many as 20-30,000 (and counting!) hours of meditation—the way the yogis’ brains operate in response to pain and distress—is radically unlike the way most of our brains respond. We also learn that modest amounts of meditation, over time, also make a difference—not only in state, but also in trait. The benefits of attending to our mind are clear—and are specifically in stronger focus, staying calmer under stress and better memory.
The intention of the writers, in sharing the yogi studies is to show the potential—not frustrate those of us who will never clock that number of hours. Davidson and Goleman are advocates of being creative about how we care for our brains and envision a time when care for our minds is as commonplace as care for our bodies.
So, consider: Are you exercising your mind? How could you get started? What can you do consistently?
Meditation (Quickly) Increases Compassion
"Davidson’s group had found that after eight or so hours of training in loving-kindness, volunteers showed strong echoes of those brain patterns found in more experienced meditators."
Much of what people think of as mindfulness meditation, the focus on the breath, is only one of many types of meditation. Another variety of practice is what’s known as loving-kindness practice. This is a practice that involves mentally sending wishes for happiness and wellness to others. (I can attest that it is a relatively easy practice—not hard to learn or execute.)
The short-terms results include people giving to charity at higher rates, for example, so it’s not just “feeling compassionate” but also acting as a result of that feeling. Additionally, the neural changes from loving-kindness practice (evident even in beginners) align to the unique brains of “super-Samaritan” kidney donors—people whose sense of compassion and willingness to act on that sense are off the charts.
If you are already meditating and not including a loving-kindness practice, this is one of the most powerful things that you could consider adding to your practice. If you’re not meditating, seek out those practices.
The authors wrote this book because they believe that the more we understand about meditation and its benefits—the more we will recognize that we have powerful tools to make our lives—and the planet—healthier. Their scientific rigor ensures that we can trust their findings—even when we might wish they found a faster and easier path to achieving those results. Their personal commitment to their own practice, which is reflected in their stories, is also a source of inspiration.