The Science of Meditation

Meditation as a tool for personal development is recommended in a lot of models and theories. The related concept of “mindfulness” has grown in popularity as well; companies are convinced their employees can benefit from it, and health insurance companies are launching mindfulness apps. Meditation has become a big industry. But does it work?

The Science of Meditation

The annual number of scientific studies on meditation surpasses the 1,000 mark. Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson tried to separate the wheat from the chaff of these studies. They published their findings in the 2017 book “The Science of Meditation.”

As young and promising Harvard psychologists, neuroscientist Richard Davidson and scientific journalist Daniel Goleman received a stream of skepticism from colleagues when they set out to do serious research on meditation. In the 1970s, meditation did not play a role in psychology. At that time, it only focused on disorders, not the consciousness of healthy people.

Wheat from the chaff

Goleman and Davidson had to defend themselves from people who believed they were biased. They practiced meditation themselves, and the Dalai Lama was a good acquaintance. To confront accusations of bias, they gave skeptics access to their research group of 100 people, including neuroscientists, medics, and statisticians.

The study was connected to the University of Wisconsin, where Davidson is the director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. Goleman has worked for years as a science journalist for the New York Times and enjoyed world fame with the publication of his bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence,” in which he claims that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ.

In their research, the two reviewed thousands of research papers on meditation, exploring the question “what can we say with certainty about meditation, and what is still unknown?” They went through the research with a critical mind and came to an initial conclusion that a staggeringly low amount of research met their scientific norms. The 60 studies that did contained some remarkable findings.

Spirit of the age

Fitting to the spirit of the 1970s, Davidson and Goleman travelled to India during their time at Harvard. They met a range of swamis, yogis and lamas. Some turned out to be con artists; others impressed them deeply, providing a “heavenly and loving space” and the sense of “total harmony.” Their experiences at the Indian retreats convinced them that the human mind had the capability to “transform to a state of total well-being.”

Back in New York, the two were unable to hold on to their beautiful feelings from India. They concluded that, “When the euphoria is gone, you return to your usual dorky self.” But the yogis — the absolute world champions of meditation — taught them that a deeper change is possible. Their scientific question was: Can meditation lead to lasting change? Modern neural research needed to provide them with solid proof.

Search for compassion

In the early 1990s, this led to a fruitless — and hilarious — expedition to the Himalayas. To research the brains of yogis, Davidson and his team dragged heavy equipment over the mountainous slopes. They brought computer monitors, video equipment, and generators — and a letter of recommendation from the Dalai Lama, which they thought would open up the caves of the yogis.

But to their dismay, all of them declined — in a warm and friendly manner. The yogis did not see the point of science, and collectively laughed at the American researchers when a test subject came onstage with wires connected to her head. They did not laugh at the wires. They laughed at the Western thought that compassion can be found in the brain. Apparently, these Westerners did not understand that it resides in the heart.

The gap between Eastern contemplation and Western science was bridged a decade later by the French philosopher Mathieu Ricard, who gave up his scientific career as specialist in molecular genetics for the existence of a Buddhist monk in India. He was able to show the value of science to the masters of meditation. His guidance could help prevent the American scientists from stumbling into more cultural pitfalls.

Wide awareness

Eventually, a group of hermits were persuaded to leave their mountain retreats, and underwent neural scans in American laboratories while meditating. The results were sensational. The yogis appeared to have prolonged and intensified gamma waves — in an average person, these brain waves are shorter and activated when someone engages in an activity like riddle-solving.

Up until then, no brain institute had ever measured gamma waves of longer than some fractions of a second. These yogis were able to make gamma waves last for a full minute in several areas of the brain — even during sleep, the yogis showed increased gamma waves. This demonstrated proof of lasting changes in their brains.

What this prolonged and increased gamma waves really triggered is unclear. Goleman and Davidson stated that it indicated a “wide and panoramic consciousness.”

Another striking finding was that the yogis’ brains aged slower than the brains of average humans. A 41-year-old monk turned out to have the brain of a 33-year-old. Research also showed that the yogis experienced pain totally differently from average human beings, as well as a tighter physical connection between the brain and the heart.

Lasting change in the brain appeared to be possible — but this does require a staggering number of meditation hours.

The good news

The good news for all of us “ordinary mortals” is that even the most modest efforts pay dividends. Meditation provides a reduced sensitivity to stress, improved concentration, and a better working memory. In one study, meditating students performed better in school than their non-meditating classmates.

To keep enjoying benefits, daily meditation is necessary. When people are willing to put more time into their exercises, the benefits increase. Experienced meditators experience more advantages, such as a structurally reduced sensitivity to tension and a less rapidly wandering mind.

This article is an excerpt from my book. Interested in reading more?

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