1. We aim to shift the conversation with a radical reinterpretation of what the actual benefits of meditation are—and are not—and what the true aim of practice has always been
2. We had a big idea: beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result. An altered trait—a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice —endures apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate
3. Meditation is a catch-all word for myriad varieties of contemplative practice, just as sports refers to a wide range of athletic activities. For both sports and meditation, the end results vary depending on what you actually do.
4. Some practical advice: for those about to start a meditation practice, or who have been grazing among several, keep in mind that as with gaining skill in a given sport, finding a meditation practice that appeals to you and sticking with it will have the greatest benefits. Just find one to try, decide on the amount of time each day you can realistically practice daily—even as short as a few minutes— try it for a month, and see how you feel after those thirty days.
5. Just as regular workouts give you better physical fitness, most any type of meditation will enhance mental fitness to some degree.
6. We offer a clear-eyed view based on hard science, sifting out results that are not nearly as compelling as the claims made for them.
7. With mindfulness, the meditator simply notes without reactivity whatever comes into mind, such as thoughts or sensory impressions like sounds—and lets them go. The operative word here is go. If we think much of anything about what just arose, or let it trigger any reactivity at all, we have lost our mindful stance—unless that reaction or thought in turn becomes the object of mindfulness.
8. Neuroplasticity, he explained, shows that repeated experience can change the brain, shaping it. We don’t have to choose between nature or nurture. They interact, each molding the other.
9. Try this. Look straight ahead and hold up a finger with your arm outstretched. Still looking straight ahead, slowly shift that finger until it is about two feet to the right of your nose. When you move your finger far to the right, but stay focused straight ahead, it lands in your peripheral vision, the outer edge of what your visual system takes in.
10.Most people lose sight of their finger as it moves to the far right or left of their nose. But one group does not: people who are deaf. While this unusual visual advantage in the deaf has long been known, the brain basis has only recently been shown. And the mechanism is, again, neuroplasticity.
11. The chunk of neural real estate that usually operates as the primary auditory cortex (known as Heschl’s gyrus) receives no sensory inputs in deaf people. The brains of deaf people, Neville discovered, had morphed so that what is ordinarily a part of the auditory system was now working with the visual circuitry.
12. Such findings illustrate how radically the brain can rewire itself in response to repeated experiences.
13. Altered traits map along a spectrum starting at the negative end, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a case in point. The amygdala acts as the neural radar for threat. Overwhelming trauma resets to a hair trigger the amygdala’s threshold for hijacking the rest of the brain to respond to what it perceives as an emergency.
14. Moving along the trait spectrum toward the positive range, there are the beneficial neural impacts of being a secure child, whose brain gets molded by empathic, concerned, and nurturing parenting. This childhood brain shaping builds in adulthood, for example, into being able to calm down well when upset.
15. Our interest in altered traits looks beyond the merely healthy spectrum to an.even more beneficial range, wholesome traits of being. These extremely positive altered traits, like equanimity and compassion, are a goal of mind training in contemplative traditions. We use the term altered trait as shorthand for this highly positive range.
16. Viktor Frankl has written about how a sense of meaning and purpose allowed him and select others to survive years in a Nazi concentration camp while thousands were dying around them. For Frankl, continuing his work as a psychotherapist with other prisoners in the camp lent purpose to his life; for another man there, it was having a child who was on the outside; yet another found purpose in the book he wanted to write.
17. Frankl’s sentiment resonates with a finding that after a three-month meditation retreat (about 540 hours total), those practitioners who had strengthened a sense of purpose in life during that time also showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells, even five months later. 24 This enzyme protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect how long a cell will live.
18. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, had novices practice daily for a few months three different types of meditation: focusing on breathing; generating loving-kindness; and monitoring thoughts without getting swept away by them.
19. Breath focus, they found, was calming—seeming to confirm a widespread assumption about meditation’s usefulness as a means to relax. But in contradiction to that stereotype, neither the loving-kindness practice nor monitoring thoughts made the body more relaxed, apparently because each demands mental effort:
20. The loving-kindness practice, where you wish yourself and others well, understandably created a positive mood, while the other two methods did not.
21. So, differing types of meditation produce unique results—a fact that should make it a routine move to identify the specific type being studied.
22. In sum, “meditation” is not a single activity but a wide range of practices, all acting in their own particular ways in the mind and brain.
23. As we will see, there sometimes is a dose-response relationship when it comes to the brain and behavioral benefits from meditation: the more you do it, the better the payoff.
24. Richie and his colleagues developed a Health Enhancement Program (HEP) as a comparison condition for studies of mindfulness-based stress reduction. HEP consists of music therapy with relaxation; nutritional education; and movement exercises like posture improvement, balance, core strengthening, stretching, and walking or jogging.
25. In the labs’ studies, the instructors who taught HEP believed it would help, just as much as did those who taught meditation. Such an “active control” can neutralize factors like enthusiasm, and so better identify the unique benefits of any intervention—in this case, meditation—to see what it adds over and above the Hawthorne edge.
26. Richie’s group randomly assigned volunteers to either HEP or mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and then before and after the training had them fill out questionnaires that in earlier research had reflected improvements from meditation. But in this study, both groups reported comparable improvement on these subjective measures of general distress, anxiety, and medical symptoms.
27. This led Richie’s group to conclude that much of the stress relief improvements beginners credit to meditation do not seem to be that unique. Moreover, on a questionnaire that was specifically developed to measure mindfulness, absolutely no difference was found in the level of improvement from MBSR or HEP.
28. This led Richie’s lab to conclude that for this variety of mindfulness, and likely for any other meditation, many of the reported benefits in the early stages of practice can be chalked up to expectation, social bonding in the group, instructor enthusiasm, or other “demand characteristics.” Rather than being from meditation per se, any reported benefits may simply be signs that people have positive hopes and expectations.
29. Such data are a warning to anyone looking for a meditation practice to be wary of exaggerated claims about its benefits.
30. As these stressful thoughts were presented, the patients used either of two different attentional stances: mindful awareness of their breath or distraction by doing mental arithmetic. Only mindfulness of their breath both lowered activity in the amygdala—mainly via a faster recovery—and strengthened it in the brain’s attentional networks, while the patients reported less stress reactivity. The same beneficial pattern emerged when the patients who had done MBSR were compared with some who had trained in aerobics.
31. About the same time as Alan’s findings that mindfulness calms the amygdala, other researchers had volunteers who had never meditated before practice mindfulness for just twenty minutes a day over one week, and then have an fMRI scan. During the scan they saw images ranging from gruesome burn victims to cute bunnies. They watched these images in their everyday state of mind, and then while practicing mindfulness.
32. During mindful attention their amygdala response was significantly lower (compared to nonmeditators) to all the images. This sign of being less disturbed, tellingly, was greatest in the amygdala on the brain’s right side (there are amygdalae in both right and left hemispheres), which often has a stronger response to whatever upsets us than the one on the left.
33. If you give the back of your hand a hard pinch, different brain systems mobilize, some for the pure sensation of pain and others for our dislike of that pain. The brain unifies them into a visceral, instant Ouch! But that unity falls apart when we practice mindfulness of the body, spending hours noticing our bodily sensations in great detail. As we sustain this focus, our awareness morphs.
34. What had been a painful pinch transforms, breaking down into its constituents: the intensity of the pinch and the painful sensation, and the emotional feeling tone—we don’t want the pain; we urgently want the pain to stop.
35. The more experienced among the Zen students not only were able to bear more pain than could controls, they also displayed little activity in executive, evaluative, and emotion areas during the pain—all regions that ordinarily flare into activity when we are under such intense stress.
36. In short, the Zen meditators seemed to respond to pain as though it was a more neutral sensation. In more technical language, their brains showed a “functional decoupling” of the higher and lower brain regions that register pain —while their sensory circuitry felt the pain, their thoughts and emotions did not react to it.
37. The ability to manage distress (which depends upon the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala) will be greater in long-term meditators compared to those who have only done the MBSR training.
38. Technically, “loving-kindness” refers to wishing that other people be happy; its near cousin “compassion” entails the wish that people be relieved of suffering.
39. In the format for loving-kindness that Sharon helped bring to the West, you silently repeat phrases like “May I be safe,” “May I be healthy,” and “May my life unfold with ease,” first wishing this for yourself, then for people you love, then for neutral people, and finally for all beings—even those whom you find difficult or who have harmed you. In one version or another, this has become the most well-studied format of compassion meditation.
40. How soon? Maybe in mere minutes—at least when it comes to mood. One study found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness practice boosts a person’s good feelings and sense of social connection, if only temporarily.
41. And the Davidson 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.
42. These various mind training methods drive the brain in different ways. During compassion practice, the amygdala is turned up in volume, while in focused attention on something like the breath, the amygdala is turned down. focused attention on something like the breath, the amygdala is turned down. Meditators are learning how to change their relationship to their emotions with different practices.
43. The neural changes from loving-kindness practice (the emerging signs of which are found even among beginners) align with those found in the brains of the super-Samaritan kidney donors.
44. Whatever specific form it takes, most every kind of meditation entails retraining attention.
45. Science now tells us the concept refers not just to one ability but to many. Among them:
- Selective attention, the capacity to focus on one element and ignore others.
- Vigilance, maintaining a constant level of attention as time goes on.
- Allocating attention so we notice small or rapid shifts in what we experience.
- Goal focus, or “cognitive control,” keeping a specific goal or task in mind despite distractions.
- Meta-awareness, being able to track the quality of one’s own awareness—for example, noticing when your mind wanders or you’ve made a mistake.
46. A strengthening of selective attention was found in vipassana meditators at the Insight Meditation Society who were tested before and after a three-month retreat. After three months the retreatants’ selective attention was markedly more accurate, showing more than a 20 percent gain.
47. A surprise: mindfulness also improved working memory—the holding in mind of information so it can transfer into long-term memory. Attention is crucial for working memory; if we aren’t paying attention, those digits won’t register in the first place. This training in mindfulness occurred while the students in the study were still in school.
48. The boost to their attention and working memory may help account for the even bigger surprise: mindfulness upped their scores by more than 30 percent on the GRE, the entrance exam for grad school.
49. About ten hours of mindfulness over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory—and led to substantial improved scores on the graduate school entrance exam. While meditation boosts many aspects of attention, these are short-term gains; more lasting benefits no doubt require ongoing practice.
50. The brain, it seems, stays just as busy when we are relaxed as when we are under some mental strain.
51. Raichle identified a swath of areas, mainly the mPFC (short for midline of the prefrontal cortex) and the PCC (postcingulate cortex), a node connecting to the limbic system. He dubbed this circuitry the brain’s “default mode network.”
52. While the brain engages in an active task, whether math or meditating, the default areas calm down as those essential for that task gear up, and ramp up again when that mental task finishes. This solved the problem of how the brain could maintain its activity level while “nothing” was going on
53. The default mode turns on while we chill out, not doing anything that requires focus and effort; it blossoms during the mind’s downtime. Conversely, as we focus on some challenge, like grappling with what’s happened to your Wi-Fi signal, the default mode quiets.
54. With nothing much else to capture our attention, our mind wanders, very often to what’s troubling us—a root cause of everyday angst. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
55. One of the great appeals of high-risk sports like rock climbing seems to be just that— the danger of the sport demands a full focus on where to put your hand or foot next. More mundane worries take backstage in the mind.
56. The same applies to “flow,” the state where people perform at their best. Paying full attention to what’s at hand, flow research tells us, rates high on the list of what puts us into—and sustains—a joyous state. The self, in its form as mind-wandering, becomes a distraction, suppressed for the time being.
57. A basic instruction in almost all forms of meditation urges us to notice when our mind has wandered and then return our focus to the chosen target, say, a mantra or our breathing. This moment has universal familiarity on contemplative paths.
58. This simple mental move has a neural correlate: activating the connection between the dorsolateral PFC and the default mode—a connection found to be stronger in long-term meditators than in beginners. The stronger this connection, the more likely regulatory circuits in the prefrontal cortex inhibit the default areas, quieting the monkey mind—the incessant self-focused chatter that so often fills our minds when nothing else is pressing.
59. Those who engaged in their MBSR practices for thirty-five minutes or more at home daily, compared to those doing HEP, showed a greater decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, the proteins that trigger the red patch.
60. This, intriguingly, supports an early finding by Jon Kabat-Zinn and some skin specialists that MBSR can help speed healing from psoriasis, a condition worsened by inflammatory cytokines (but some thirty years on, this remains a study not yet replicated by dermatology researchers).
61. To get a better idea of how meditation practice might heal such inflammatory conditions, Richie’s lab repeated the stress study using highly experienced (around 9,000 lifetime hours of practice) vipassana meditators. Result: the meditators not only found the dreaded Trier test less stressful than did a matched cohort of novices (as we saw in chapter five), but they also had smaller patches of inflammation afterward. Most significant, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol were 13 percent lower than in the controls, a substantial difference that is likely clinically meaningful. Important: these seasoned practitioners were not meditating when these measures were taken—this was a trait effect.
62. Take, for example, a well-designed study of African American men, who are at particularly high risk for hypertension, cardiac and kidney disease. Just fourteen minutes of mindfulness practice in a group who already suffered from kidney disease lowered the metabolic patterns that, if sustained year after year, lead to these diseases.
63. After genetic scientists mapped the entire human genome, they realized it wasn’t enough to just know if we had a given gene or not. The real questions: Is that gene expressed? Is it manufacturing the protein for which it is designed? And how much? Where is the “volume control” on the gene set?
64. This meant there was another important step: finding what turns our genes on or off. If we’ve inherited a gene that gives us a susceptibility to a disease like diabetes, we may never develop the malady if, for example, we have a lifelong habit of getting regular exercise and not eating sugar.
65. Sugar turns on the genes for diabetes; exercise turns them off. Sugar and exercise are “epigenetic” influencers, among the many, many factors that control whether or not a gene expresses itself.
66. And Richie thought meditation just might have epigenetic impacts, “down-regulating” the genes responsible for the inflammatory response. As we’ve seen, meditation seems to do this—but the genetic mechanism for the effect was a complete mystery.
67. Undeterred by the skeptics, his lab went ahead, assaying changes in the expression of key genes before and after a day of meditation in a group of long-term vipassana practitioners (average of about 6,000 lifetime hours). They followed a fixed eight-hour schedule of practice sessions throughout the day, and listened to tapes of some inspiring talks and guided practices by Joseph Goldstein.
68. After the day of practice the meditators had a marked “down-regulation” of inflammatory genes—something that had never been seen before in response to inflammatory genes—something that had never been seen before in response to a purely mental practice. Such a drop, if sustained over a lifetime, might help combat diseases with onsets marked by chronic low-grade inflammation. As we’ve said, these include many of the world’s major health problems, ranging from cardiovascular disorders, arthritis, and diabetes to cancer.
69. Though these were pilot studies, an epigenetic boost was found in research with two other meditation methods. One is Herb Benson’s “relaxation response,” which has a person silently repeat a chosen word like peace as if it were a mantra. 16 The other is “yogic meditation,” where the meditator recites a Sanskrit mantra, at first aloud and then in a whisper, and finally silently, ending with a short deep-breathing relaxation technique
70. The sounder studies, we found, focus on lessening our psychological distress rather than on curing medical syndromes or looking for underlying biological mechanisms. So, when it comes to a better quality of life for those with chronic diseases, yes to meditation. Such palliative care gets ignored too often in medicine, but it matters enormously to patients.
71. All the yogis had elevated gamma oscillations, not just during the meditation practice periods for open presence and compassion but also during the very first measurement, before any meditation was performed. This electrifying pattern was in the EEG frequency known as “high-amplitude” gamma, the strongest, most intense form. These waves lasted the full minute of the baseline measurement before they started the meditation
72. Gamma, the very fastest brain wave, occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle “click” together.
73.To get a sense of this “click,” try this: What single word can turn each of these into a compound word: sauce, pine, crab?*
74. The instant your mind comes up with the answer, your brain signal momentarily produces that distinctive gamma flare.
75. In the yogis, gamma oscillations are a far more prominent feature of their brain activity than in other people. Our usual gamma waves are not nearly as strong as that seen by Richie’s team in yogis like Mingyur. The contrast between the yogis and controls in the intensity of gamma was immense: on average the yogis had twenty-five times greater amplitude gamma oscillations during baseline compared with the control group.
76. But there’s another surprise here: the yogis’ remarkable talent at entering a specific meditative state on cue, within a second or two, itself signals an altered trait. This mental feat stands in stark contrast to most of us meditators who, relative to the yogis, are more like beginners: when we meditate, it takes us a while to settle our minds, let go of distracting thoughts that overwhelm our focus, and get some momentum in our meditation.
77. In contemplative science, an “altered state” refers to changes that occur only during meditation. An altered trait indicates that the practice of meditation transformed the brain and biology so that meditation-induced changes are seen before beginning to meditate.
78. Among meditators with the greatest amount of lifetime practice hours—an average of 44,000 lifetime hours (the equivalent of twelve hours a day for ten years) the amygdala hardly responded to the emotional sounds. But for those with less practice, (though still a high number—19,000 hours) the amygdala also showed a robust response. There was a staggering 400 percent difference in the size of the amygdala response between these groups!
79. What’s more, this means traits continue to alter even at the highest level of practice. The dose-response relationship does not seem to end even up to 50,000 hours of practice.
80. The studies of beginners typically look at the impacts from under 100 total hours of practice—and as few as 7. The long-term group, mainly vipassana meditators, had a mean of 9,000 lifetime hours (the range ran from 1,000 to 10,000 hours and more). And the yogis studied in Richie’s lab, had all done at least one Tibetan-style three-year retreat, with lifetime hours up to Mingyur’s 62,000. Yogis, on average had three times more lifetime hours than did long-term meditators—9,000 hours versus 27,000
81. Compassion meditation shows stronger benefits from the get-go; as few as seven total hours over the course of two weeks leads to increased connectivity in circuits important for empathy and positive feelings, strong enough to show up outside the meditation state per se.
82. Beginners also find improvements in attention very early on, including less mind-wandering after just eight minutes of mindfulness practice—a short-lived benefit, to be sure. But even as little as two weeks of practice is sufficient to produce less mind-wandering and better focus and working memory, enough for a significant boost in scores on the GRE, the entrance exam for graduate school.
83. Loving-kindness and compassion practice over the long term(1000hrs -10,000hrs) enhance neural resonance with another person’s suffering, along with concern and a greater likelihood of actually helping. Attention, too, strengthens in many aspects with long-term practice: selective attention sharpens, the attentional blink diminishes, sustained attention becomes easier, and an alert readiness to respond increases
84. Shifts in very basic biological processes, such as a slower breath rate, occur only after several thousand hours of practice. Some of these impacts seem more strongly enhanced by intensive practice on retreat than by daily practice.
85. At this world-class level (roughly 12,000 to 62,000 lifetime hours of practice, including many years in deep retreat), truly remarkable effects emerge. Practice in part revolves around converting meditative states to traits—the Tibetan term for this translates as “getting familiar” with the meditative mind-set. Meditation states merge with daily activities, as altered states stabilize into altered traits and become enduring characteristic.
86. Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from the yogis’ response to physical pain during simple mindfulness-type practice: a sharp “inverted V,” with little brain activity during anticipation of the pain, an intense but very short peak during the pain, followed by very rapid recovery
87. Several labs—including Richie’s and Judson Brewer’s—have noticed that more advanced meditators can show a brain pattern while merely resting that resembles that of a meditative state like mindfulness or loving-kindness, while beginners do not. 2 That comparison of the expert meditator’s baseline with someone new to practice stands as a hallmark of the way altered traits show up in research, though it offers just a snapshot.
88. For now, as the Brewer group conjectured, meditation seems to transform the resting state—the brain’s default mode—to resemble the meditative state.
*Answer : apple