Sunday, November 6, 2011

This is your brain on meditation

Let's return to the question of the scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, making the scope of our enquiry slightly broader than pain this time around.  There seems to be a lot of research out there suggesting than regular meditation can improve your overall health, reduce anxiety and depression, and even make you smarter.  As far as I can tell, the claims seem to be true, though I wouldn't be surprised or dismayed if some of them turned out not to be.  But I want to make two points here: the first is that it has always seemed to me that the hardest way to get the benefits of meditation is to try to get the benefits of meditation; and the second is that health, cheerfulness and smarts are all very well, but there's a way in which meditators who focus on getting them are missing out on something much better and readier to hand. 

There are plenty of meta-scientific studies out there showing that research on most novel medical treatments follows a consistent pattern: at first, the new technique is acclaimed, as study after study demonstrates that it has incredible benefits, low costs, and few side-effects.  After a while, there's a reaction, as studies appear that imply that the vaunted effects represent little more than the action of placebo.  In a final stage, researchers settle into a consensus that the novel treatment, though not the panacea it had at first seemed, is also not the fraudulent practice some had accused it of being.  And something similar may well be in store for research on meditation, scientific research into which is still relatively young.

On the other hand, meditation itself is not a new practice but an ancient one, dating back at least 2500 years.  There's a sense in which anyone who has met an experienced and authentic meditator - a monk, say - knows that their practice has developed certain character traits, whether or not they want to develop those traits themselves.  And there's a sense in which what neuroscientists look at (brain waves, neurogenesis, activation of various areas of the brain) are phenomena of secondary importance when it comes to meditation.  We don't experience the ion channels in our neurons, can't tune into our brain waves, don't feel our amygdala lighting up the way it does on a scan.  But we do feel better about the world after sitting still for a little while, and that may be all the evidence some of us need.

Still, it's encouraging to see how the initially sceptical scientific community in the West has fallen slowly but surely head over heels for meditation.  There have been a number of crucial contributions.  One was the medical researcher Herbert Benson's work on the 'relaxation response' and its health benefits in Boston in the 1970s.   Another has been the cooperation encouraged by the spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso between neuroscientists and advanced meditators at the annual Mind and Life conference, inaugurated in 1987.  And another was the neurologist James Austin's 1998 book Zen and the Brain.  There are now centres dedicated to meditation research across the US, including one at Stanford.

And what have all these researchers found?  I can't hope even to survey the findings of the thousand or more studies on meditation that have been published since the 1970s.  But here a few especially suggestive findings.  Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee studied 201 African Americans in their fifties and sixties who had been diagnosed with heart disease, following these subjects' health over nine years.  Half the group was assigned to a course on diet and exercise, while the other half enrolled in a meditation class.  At the end of the study, the researchers found that the incidence of heart attack and stroke in the group of meditators was only about half the rate in the control group.

Similarly spectacular results were reported for the treatment of depression in a study carried out at UCLA.  The group of subjects is this case was a worryingly small one, of only 36 people, all of whom had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and all of whom were taught to meditate.  Reported symptoms of depression in the group as a whole had nearly halved after three months, and the benefits were retained for the rest of the year.  (The three-month duration of the activation period, reported in a few studies I've seen, chimes with my experience.  It was about three months after I'd started meditating for the first time than I began to feel I had a real handle on my facial pain).

Another smallish study from UCLA looked at the brains of 44 people, half of whom had practised meditation for several years.  MRI scans showed that the hippocampus - an area of the brain associated with memory - was significantly larger in the brains of the meditators than in the control group.  Admittedly, this may have been because people with large hippocampi are pre-disposed to meditate rather than because meditation increases the size of your hippocampus.  But researchers at Harvard and Yale have interpreted similar results as suggesting that meditation actually stimulates the production of more grey and white matter in regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex. 

This is just a glance at a few studies on three aspects of health that meditation has been claimed to improve.  But it looks like we have a simple technique that is free, has no side-effects, is available to everyone, and that reliably makes people healthier, happier, and cleverer.  I'm not in a position to be able to offer any sort of reliable meta-analysis of this research, but the balance of evidence seems clear.  But though I suppose that meditation might make you healthier and happier and smarter, I don't think people should meditate in order to achieve these goals.  I don't really think people should meditate in order to achieve other goals either.  The thing is, I don't think people should meditate to achieve any goals at all.  In fact, meditation for me is partly about realizing that there aren't any goals you need to achieve apart from appreciating the amazing show the daylight is putting on for free.

My first problem with meditating for health and happiness (or even wealth, as I'm sure some do) is that it makes the practice into another kind of striving.  Even sophisticated (or just plain honest) Christians like C.S. Lewis have always stressed that prayer isn't about getting what you want, but about putting your heart in the right place so that you want (or at least accept) what you get.  And as a matter of observation it seems that you only stop being nervous about a presentation when you stop making its success such a big deal; you only stop worrying about a date when you realize that your happiness isn't going to depend on its outcome (though your ego might); and that in general, and paradoxically, things only start falling into your lap once you've sat down and given up reaching for them.

My second problem with focusing excessively on the medical gains of meditation is that it misses the real windfall.  When they asked Gautama what he'd gained from enlightenment, he reportedly (I get this from Henry Miller) replied, 'Nothing - and that's exactly why it's enlightenment'.  Stopping worrying about your job, your health, even your family, must all ultimately be part of an understanding that there's nothing you can possibly lose (or fail to gain) that will take away this moment, with the lamplight and the stillness and sounds of the night.  And it may be that that realization will heal your heart and grow your brain.  I don't care.  I sit in the half-light, listen to the silence, look around at the restful objects teaching me how not to move, knowing there's no improvement I can make that will make this moment more true.


  1. So I think (though maybe I'm not quite sure what this means) that the argument here is that the empirical (health) benefits of meditation probably exist, but are tangential to, and not necessary for, the spiritual benefits.

    It's always easier to be magnanimous with the facts when they are on your side... So I just wondered, would this argument go down so easily if mediation turned out to be actually bad for you? Something implausible, like "meditation causes cancer of a swelled hippocampus". Would the empirical evidence still be irrelevant... Or would proponents on meditation be trying very hard to prove it was OK.

  2. I can't say what proponents of meditation would be up to, since they're a diverse bunch. But let's take an extreme case in which it is discovered that meditating for half an hour causes you to die immediately afterwards. Would it still be worth it? It depends on this sit. Orthodox Buddhists would no doubt say that if you achieve nirvana, it's worth it. I would say something similar: if you are fully aware only for that half-hour, it's better than going through decades of miserable drowsiness.

    The problem with doing things for your health is that after a certain point, justifications for activities have to be linked to an idea of the good for humans (or of the plural goods for humans, if you prefer). And it seems clear enough that living longer can't constitute the content of that good (or goods), though it may provide time for it (or them). I would say that the chief human good is consciousness, so that in fully realizing that good you would of course be justified in harming your health (if you had to).

  3. You may remember that I've always thought similarly about smoking. Smoking definitely harms you; but if people genuinely enjoy it and are aware of the costs, they should do it. (This is an ethical, not a political argument.) Life is important only if it has some meaning, and meaning is not granted by health or longevity.

    There's a story Thor Heyerdahl tells about his expedition to Easter Island when a boat trip goes horribly wrong and one of the islanders ends up drowning. It's also discovered that another of the islanders has in the meantime stolen one of the Norwegian's watches. The Chilean priest on the island is terribly upset, not about the death, but about the theft. When Thor Heyerdahl expresses surprise at this, the priest responds, 'We all have to die; we don't all have to steal'.

  4. This is probably overkill in terms of replies, but I suppose I'm trying to make two points about the neuroscientific approach to meditation. One is that it misses the real point of meditation, which is spiritual. The other is that it doesn't really add anything to traditional psychological descriptions of meditative progress, but often just provides another, more roundabout way of talking about the alterations that a lot of people recognize practice can effect.

    So whereas the traditional literature talks about the transformation of character, the scientific literature will point to changes in the amygdala. But talking about the amygdala is less comprehensible to most people than talking about behaviour. And in any case, the changes in the amygdala are only interesting because we have good reason to believe that they're linked to changes in emotional regulation. Those behavioural changes are clearly not reducible to changes in the amygdala; what we care about is people, not areas of the brain.

    So why talk about brain structure when we could be talking about emotional or behavioural or character development? Neuroscience just seems to add another language to the many older languages we can use to talk about mystical experience; but though it is making considerable contributions to our knowledge, it is less obvious that it is contributing anything valuable to our understanding.