Martijn Schirp • • 6 min read
The Science of Meditation
Over the past few hundred years the power of organized religion has steeply declined in the west. State & church and science & religion are separated and free inquiry is now more encouraged than ever. The loss of God as the absolute reference point has given room for humanity to take the ropes of responsibility and freedom into their own hands. However, while it has opened our minds, it has closed our hearts. A spiritual void has sucked the existential meaning from the lives of many. As Immanuel Kant already predicted in 1787, it is no wonder that atheism, materialism and superstition (the countless hybrids of science and spirituality) have firmly manifested themselves in our culture.
I believe this is a necessary phase that humanity must go through like a caterpillar must evolve via its cocoon. For the human race to mature we first have to become all too aware of the darkness that lies hidden in our nature. The darkness that will make us do anything in our power, even resorting to violence, to validate our believe systems. I believe that some of the first steps for this maturation lies in the wide acceptance of scientific research into non-dogmatic practices like meditation and yoga. In this acceptance lies the acknowledgement that we also need human faculties outside rational thought to make it through to the other side. Compassion, acceptance, love, trust and forgiveness are some of the most important traits we humans possess and should be fundamental building blocks for the change we are inevitably going to see.
This is exactly why we need to develop a contemplative science, one that closely observes and investigates the area of first person subjective experience. Luckily, modern science has taken meditation out of the esoteric hands of the guru, and shown beyond a doubt how effective it can be to the layman. Let’s take a look at some of these amazing findings.
The end of self-referencing
Norman A.S. Farb et al. studied both novice meditators and meditators that completed an eight week course called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). They found two distinct neural modes of self-reference: one that links experiences over time and one that centers on the present. These two modes of ‘self’ are what Daniel Kahneman calls the remembering self and the experiencing self. We can’t think clearly about the past and the future because we mix these two up. Our memories of the past are not how we experienced them but only how we remember them. We don’t think of the future as how we are going to experience it but as anticipated memories. We can’t help it, the self across time and the present self are innately integrated (imagine two selves, one dragging the other into experiences it might or might not like, call it the birth of cognitive dissonance).
However, the study found out that meditators who had completed the eight week course could dissociate these two modes of self-reference. What that indicates is that people who have trained themselves in meditation have less self-referencing thoughts (or they carry less weight) about the past or the future. They are more in the ‘now’ since all the remembering and planning occupies less of your attention. Long time practice can lead to feel that the body doesn’t belong to the self anymore, or that there is no self at all (a non-linguistic based awareness of the psychological present). This strongly correlates with the Buddhist concept of anãtman (non-self). Other preliminary studies (read more here and here and here and here) suggest that the Buddhist notion of enlightenment could be strongly correlated with the end of self-referencing (the duality of self and other ceases to exist).
Psychoimmunology is the study of how the mind affects the immune system. G. Richard Smith et al. studied an experienced meditator who was able to delay a hypersensitive skin reaction to the varicella zostervirus (a form of herpes). Another preliminary study on Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof showed the same feat, both indicating that they could influence their immune system with their minds. Another study showed that stress reduction meditation increased the immune response for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet another study found a large increase in antibodies in healthy individuals after having done the MBSR program.
One of the groundbreaking benefits from long-term meditation practice is the ability to avoid distraction, or in other words, to stay focused. This attentional stability is a fundamental aspect for the success of every type of human functioning. But voluntary attention can not be sustained for long. Perceptual sensitivity declines over time until the object of focus can’t be distinguished from other stimuli, this decline is called vigilance decrement. Katherine A. Maclean et al. tried to find out whether it was possible to train the ability to focus and what actually happens when you succeed at it. This type of meditation stems from the Buddhist practice called Shamatha. After practicing meditation, they found a strong increase in visual discrimination which in turn counters the effect of vigilance decrement. There is more perceptual sensitivity as long as different stimuli can easily be separated. A big explosion grabs your attention easier than a butterfly landing on a leaf. This separation normally takes a great deal of effort, but with enough training this resource demand will become gradually less, thus making it easier to sustain voluntary focus.
Wiveka Ramel et al. did a study on individuals with a life time of mood disorders. They found that rumination, one of the strongest correlations with depression, decreased significantly after having finished the eight week course on mindfulness-based stress reduction. Mindfulness meditation can be likened to a tool that gives people a better way to relate with difficult cognitions, emotions and sensations. Rumination, on the other hand, develops, maintains and makes it easier to relapse into depression. Of course, a decrease in rumination is to be expected, since it is a form of self-referential thought. Another study by J.D. Teasdale et al. showed that mindfulness decreased the risk of relapses in major depression. After training in mindfulness, individuals are better able to recognize different symptoms leading up to depression and thus are able to take preventative action. The study also recognized the sustained motivation needed to be effective at this; it is not an easy nor is it a quick fix. They found that mindfulness was more effective on people who have had more episodes of major depression in the past since they have a stronger motivation to prevent another relapse and were better able to recognize the different symptoms and signals leading up to a depression.
Matthieu Ricard et al. discovered that mental training can activate integrative functions of the brain, which in turn can induce short and long-term neural changes. Meditation that involves concentrating on an object (like Shamatha mentioned in the focus study) has a kind of top-down control and increases slow alpha and theta brain waves. Another type of meditation that has no object of focus but instead tries to cultivate a whole state of being (compassion becoming the sole content of experience) shows an increase in gamma waves. These increases indicate neural synchronization. The functional consequences are of this effect is currently not scientifically known, although Buddhists report an increase in the intensity of which the state of being (like compassion) permeates consciousness. Researchers say “it is probably a kind of mental processing that connects various experiences and emotional residues, puts them in perspective and lays them to rest.”
Accelerated Skin Clearing
Jon Kabat-Zinn et al. completed a pilot study and a first small-scale study to find out if meditation helps patients with psoriasis, an auto-immune skin disease, while undergoing phototherapy and photochemotherapy. The skin is an organ-system that easily responds to emotional well-being and some studies have shown that psychological intervention can even make warts disappear. In the study, patients listened to an audio-tape with mindfulness instructions during treatment while the control group had no instructions. The meditation group had a skin clearing rate four (!) times faster than the control group. The implications of this are huge, but follow-up studies have to be done first to see how far the effect of mindfulness can go.
A few other studies
Doug Oman et al. found that eight weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction led to a significant reduction of stress and an increase in forgiveness.
Lidia Zylowska et al. carried out a pilot study that indicated mindfulness training could be a feasible intervention for ADHD patients and could improve behavioral and neurocognitive impairments.
Britta K. Hölzel et al. found that thirty minutes of meditation a day leads to a higher density of gray brain matter, correlating with better memory functioning, increased empathy and less stress. One of the areas affected was the hippocampus, which is reduced in people suffering from depression, chronic stress, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
These studies show neurplasticity in action. It is possible to: change the structure of your brain, increase well-being, make the immune system stronger, change what kind of thoughts you have, deal with depression and ADHD, increase gray brain matter, reduce stress, get distracted less and integrate various parts of yourself. And that in eight weeks with no costs involved.
Reading List For More Understanding:
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind by B. Alan Wallace
Stilling the Mind: Shamatha Teachings from Dudjom Lingpa’s Vajra Essence by B. Alan Wallace
Why Meditate by Matthieu Ricard
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn