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.