A Proposal for a Longitudinal Study of the Cognitive-Behavioral, Neural, and Emotional Effects of Sustained, Intensive Meditative Attentional Training
Aims and Overview
To the Western mind the promise of ancient knowledge from Eastern philosophies has been an enduring lure. Perhaps the most captivating topic has been that of how meditation may affect mental and physical health. There is currently renewed and vigorous interest in these questions and modern tools from a host of disciplines are aimed at understanding whether meditation holds the keys for self improvement on all dimensions. In this proposal, we describe an ambitious project – the Shamatha Project – that brings together leading authorities in social and cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, and Buddhist meditative practices to conduct a longitudinal study of how a specific form of meditation affects human perception, cognition and emotion.
Over the past 30 years there have been numerous studies of the psychological and physiological effects of meditation training, but most of such studies have been based on fairly simple pre-post (rather than longitudinal) research designs; focused on state rather than trait (i.e., long-lasting) changes in mental abilities; focused on physiological changes, such as indicators of relaxation, rather than cognitive, sensorimotor, neurological, emotional, and ethical changes; and were conducted before the advent of contemporary social-cognitive and brain-imaging techniques, which allow researchers to track changes in the mind and brain associated with meditation training. In addition, the meditation techniques under study were often not firmly grounded in a deep understanding of ancient meditation traditions and not conducted over an adequate period of time by an experienced instructor. For these reasons, we still do not know a great deal about how professionally administered meditation training of a particular kind, followed over an extended period of time (as is common in the traditions from which the meditation techniques are drawn), affects attentional, sensorimotor, and emotion-regulation skills or ethical responses to human suffering.
We propose here a unique study designed to remedy many of the shortcomings of previous studies – a detailed longitudinal examination of the neural, cognitive, and socio-emotional effects of intensive training in a specific class of Buddhist meditation techniques called shamatha (meditative quiescence) meditation, aimed at enhancing the stability and vividness of attention. Our research team includes experts in the cognitive and neuroscientific study of attention, visualization, cognitive control, and sensorimotor processing; emotion and mental health; compassionate, prosocial behavior; longitudinal statistical analyses; and Buddhism. Several of the investigators are skilled in the use of modern, noninvasive neuro-imaging techniques; most have been engaged for years in conferences, seminars, and work groups related to establishing conceptual and methodological connections between Buddhism, psychological science, and neuroscience. The proposed meditation teacher, Dr. Alan Wallace, brings to this project decades of experience as a scholar, translator, and contemplative in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, including many years of collaboration on various projects pertaining to the scientific study of meditation. He is also the founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which is co-sponsoring this project. The proposed research project, the Shamatha Project, will be coordinated by the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, headed by Dr. George R. Mangun, an international leader in the cognitive neuroscience of attention, and involves the collaboration of the UCD Department of Psychology, chaired by Dr. Phillip Shaver, one of the world’s foremost social psychologists, and the UCD Imaging Research Center, directed by Dr. Cameron Carter, a renowned expert in cognitive neuroimaging in mental health. The meditation training itself will take place at a retreat facility organized by Alan Wallace in California. The study will take place over one year, as 30 full-time trainees devote themselves to 8-10 hours of meditative attentional training every day. Dr. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain will serve as research coordinator for the project.
According to the Buddhist tradition, which includes very detailed descriptions of training for and attaining shamatha, the achievement of meditative quiescence involves a state of sustained, voluntary attention, characterized by unusual stability and vividness and free of even subtle excitation and laxity (all terms and concepts that are carefully described in Buddhist literature). The achievement of shamatha is not unique to Buddhism, but over the past 2,500 years that tradition has developed techniques for refining attention that can be utilized by anyone, regardless of their philosophical beliefs or religious orientation. The techniques could therefore be used in a wide variety of educational, personal development, and clinical contexts.
The proposed research project would involve assessment of both cognitive and socio-emotional variables at several points in time across the one-year study. The cognitive tests would assess sustained and selective attention, sensory discrimination, and mental efficiency, using both behavioral tasks and brain-imaging procedures. The socio-emotional tests would assess mood, emotion-regulation, compassion, and personality changes. There would be more assessments early in the year, when changes might be more rapid and dramatic. Assessments would be staggered, and more numerous for some participants than others, so that we can evaluate the effects of repeated testing, as distinct from actual change (a common problem in longitudinal studies). Behind the specific assessments lay two major questions:
- How plastic, or subject to training, are the cognitive and socio-emotional skills we assess behaviorally?
- What measurable brain changes underlie the behavioral (performance) changes?
We are also interested in the trainees’ subjective experiences and self-understanding over the course of the year, so we will ask them to keep daily journals (perhaps using computerized survey techniques) that can be coded in various ways later on and analyzed in conjunction with their more objectively assessed cognitive, behavioral, and socio-emotional development.
The Shamatha Project is expected to have a number of benefits for the study participants, other people who take advantage of what we learn from the study, and for an array of psychological and neuroscientific disciplines that study attention, emotion, emotion regulation, and personal development. Some of these anticipated benefits are outlined briefly in the following sections.
Anticipated Benefits for the Participants and for Human Beings Generally
The intensity and duration of the 12-month Shamatha Project can be compared to the training of athletes. Only a small number of individuals have the time and inclination to devote themselves to such training, which can appear at first glance to have little relevance for the diverse practical problems facing humanity today. But research on serious athletes has yielded many valuable insights concerning diet, exercise, and human motivation that are relevant to the general public. While the training of athletes is focused primarily on achieving physical excellence, the Shamatha Project is concerned with achieving optimal levels of “mental excellence," via improved attentional performance, defined specifically in terms of stability and vividness. "Stability" refers to the ability of the mind to focus unwaveringly on an object or sequence of objects as when performing a complex task. "Vividness" refers to the degree of brilliance, focus, and precision of attention. This kind of training is traditionally held to be of great benefit in terms of enhancing not just cognitive performance but also emotional health and well-being.
Our brain-imaging and behavioral findings should be useful for treating people with a variety of cognitive and emotional disorders, such as ADHD, excessive anger, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. All of these mental problems are closely related to the ability to control attention and regulate emotion. We expect that relatively soon after shamatha training begins, measurable changes will occur in these abilities, suggesting that certain aspects of the training could be relatively easily incorporated into daily life situations for persons outside a retreat setting.
It will be of great value to determine ways in which attention can be refined—through enhanced stability and vividness—that may be useful in the workplace, educational settings, and interpersonal relationships. For many human endeavors, it is vitally important to be able to direct one’s attention to a particular object, situation, or task, and this project will reveal ways in which people can cultivate this ability. It is also extremely important to be able to focus on one’s own and other’s needs, avoid being overtaken by destructive emotions, and carry prosocial actions through to completion. By obtaining reliable and valid data from a group of 30 shamatha trainees over a 12-month period, we will gain considerable insight into the nature of attention, attentional plasticity, and their relation to emotions and social behavior.
Benefits for Scientific Understanding
Few scientific studies of attentional and emotion-regulation processes are based on highly trained individuals. Almost no neuroimaging studies have been done on this topic. Thus, the proposed study will look closely at the plasticity of processes (e.g., maintaining attention, controlling emotional reactions to frustrations and disappointments) that cognitive and affective neuroscientists know are important but which have not been studied in connection with deep training.
A further benefit of the proposed project is training a group of individuals to become expert witnesses of their own mental states while developing skills for engaging in a variety of demanding mental tasks that go beyond the abilities of average subjects. Behavioral psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists commonly rely upon relatively untrained subjects—often student volunteers from introductory psychology courses—that they recruit to perform various tasks and then report on their firsthand experience. While these scientists bring great levels of theoretical and technological sophistication to their research, the subjects on whose participation and observations they rely are usually amateurs. This implies that scientific conclusions about a wide range of mental strategies and emotional processes have a partially non-scientific basis, namely the participation and reports of non-scientists who bring few if any professional skills to their participation in the research. The people who have successfully completed this training program can be called upon by psychology and neuroscience laboratories to collaborate in unprecedented research into a wide range of mental processes. With the introduction of sophisticated first-person participation in scientific research in mind/behavior and mind/brain correlations, whole new fields of research into the human mind may open up.
Benefits for Contemplative Understanding
Shamatha can be practiced regardless of one’s religious, philosophical, or scientific beliefs. These practices were first developed in ancient India, but over the centuries they have spread throughout Asia and become associated with a wide variety of ideologies. Thus, this training serves as a bridge among all contemplative traditions, enhancing the efficacy of other practices that are unique to these many traditions. Whether religious practitioners are primarily concerned with supplicatory prayer, discursive meditation, the contemplative use of mental imagery, or formless meditation, the attentional skills developed in shamatha practice are certain to be of great value.
Benefits for Global Cultural Enrichment
The specific shamatha techniques to be used in this study are drawn primarily from Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist contemplative traditions. The 20th century witnessed a Buddhist holocaust at the hands of communist regimes in many Asian countries, resulting in the destruction of many centers of contemplative inquiry. It is our hope that the successful completion of the Shamatha Project will contribute evidence concerning the practical and scientific value of the Buddhist contemplative heritage.
Participants (Trainees and Controls). The study requires the participation of men and women who are willing and able to commit themselves to a one-year intensive training and assessment project. While conducting shorter-term retreats over the past year, Alan Wallace has already identified more than 80 interested individuals, so we know it will be possible to recruit the 30 needed for the Shamatha Project. We will also recruit 30 control participants who are matched on age, gender, SES, etc. (We expect that the control participants, on average, will not show significant changes in attention or emotion regulation during the year-long study.) We can also recruit additional controls for particular experiments or assessments from the large college-student subject pool at UC Davis.
Over the proposed 12-month period, participants will reside in a contemplative research facility optimally suited for scientific and contemplative research. Alan Wallace will serve as their resident instructor, providing them with ongoing instruction and guidance in meditation training. They will also receive instruction on physical exercise that is conducive to such mental training. The 12-month training program will include:
- training in mindfulness of breathing to induce relaxation of the body and mind and begin to calm compulsive thinking and sensory distraction;
- training in observing mental events, as a more advanced technique for enhancing attentional stability and vividness, while cultivating greater emotional balance;
- training in observing the nature of consciousness as a means of perfecting the stability and vividness of attention, while illuminating the cognitive ground from which all mental phenomena arise.
Behavioral, questionnaire, and neuro-scientific evaluations will occur before the training begins (for both prospective trainees and controls), at regular intervals throughout training, and at the end of the training period (for both prospective trainees and controls). The evaluations will include measures of:
- attentional stability and vividness
- ability to allocate attention even when distracters are introduced
- mood (as assessed with the PANAS mood scales)
- ability to evoke emotional memories and then set them aside mentally when instructed to do so
- empathy and compassion
- personality traits related to mental health (e.g., attachment security, openness to experience, neuroticism or negative affectivity)
- stress hormones
- immune functioning
Some of the evaluations will be based on behavioral measures of cognitive functioning, such as accurate task performance and fast reaction times; others will involve EEG and fMRI measures of brain activity. Some of the evaluations of socio-emotional functioning will be based on self-report measures and performance on tasks; others will involve surface psychophysiology (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, . . .) and brain imaging. Stress hormones will be assessed through various means, e.g., cortisol measures. Immune functioning will also be assessed.
The study’s findings will be submitted for publication in major, international scientific journals such as Science, Nature, and major APA psychological journals. Articles in these journals and presentations at major professional societies will reverberate throughout the popular media, bringing the findings to a wide international audience. A study website will also make the study and training materials widely available.
The Shamatha Project has been conceived and organized by B. Alan Wallace, President of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. Psychological and neuroscientific evaluations will be made by researchers at the Center for Mind and Brain, the Department of Psychology, the Center for Neuroscience, the Department of Psychiatry, the Department of Neurology, the Research Imaging Center, and the Center for Genomics at the University of California, Davis, in addition to collaborators at the University of California Santa Barbara.
This project is currently in the advanced planning stage. A suitable contemplative training facility has been located, and the team of investigators has met numerous times over a period of one year to develop ideas for the design, measures, and statistical analyses. We currently are in a fund-raising stage. To help the Shamatha Project please see http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/content/ShamathaSponsor