More on the SP's first study, although the project's Principle Investigator writes: "Hi all - good coverage in Time magazine today - though don't agree with all conclusions of article"
More on the SP's first study, although the project's Principle Investigator writes: "Hi all - good coverage in Time magazine today - though don't agree with all conclusions of article"
Cliff Saron, the Shamatha Project's Principle Investigator, writes: "here is a video now on abc news about our recent Psych Science paper (MacLean et al). Also the web has lots of articles from a recent press release - all over the world - search google news for 'meditation boosts attention span'
The cover article of this week's Economist is a remarkable, landscape-view of Western history, "Progress and its Perils: Why is the Modern View So Impoverished?"
To quote Alan Wallace: "As a species, we have progressed in two ways, and two ways alone: knowledge and power. Why has there not been commensurate progress in wisdom and compassion?" Modernity remains a child of the Enlightenment, and The Economist its pamphlet. This article feels a lot like a modernity that is wrestling with Wallace's question. Science, modernity's dominant religion, replete with its own rituals and articles of faith, turns out not to be inherently ethical -- or even wise. GDP, as it turns out, is not the same thing as well-being -- far from it. Capitalism is only as good as the character of the individuals who constitute its marketplace. Are we defined by fear and greed, or can we work towards a higher purpose than keeping up with the Joneses (or Chans or Guptas)?
When Michelle and I went into retreat in 2007 as part of The Shamatha Project, most people reacted as if we'd decided to grow antennae on our heads. We were surprised, coming out of retreat in 2009, at how attitudes had started to shift. Case in point: last summer, I went to the Mindfulness in Education conference at the Omega Institute - and was happy to see 300 people from around the country, all
The Economist just published a chart showing (on the left) annual CO2 equivalent emissions for different nations -- as part of its coverage of upcoming Copenhagen negotiations.
The U.S. looks pretty awful here, leading the world with 24 tonnes (we're #1! we're #1!) - and unfortunately these numbers are misleading. Sadly, I'm not helping the U.S.' case out on this one. These figures (based on U.N. calculations) significantly understate the U.S., and other wealthy nations' emissions on two counts.
The New York Times ran a long article a couple of days ago (it's still the #2 most emailed article) on the growing hope that there may be techniques to improve what neuroscientists have termed "executive function." This is exciting stuff, and sets the stage for the growing body of work (from The Shamatha Project and elsewhere) on how contemplative training improves executive function. From the article:
Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them.
There is a popular belief that executive-function skills are fixed early on, a function of genes and parenting, and that other than medication, there’s not much that teachers and professionals can do to affect children’s impulsive behavior. In fact, though, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true, that executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period.
This article focuses on a program called Tools of the Mind as a potential way to boost executive function, and doesn't mention meditation. What's exciting here is that The Shamatha Project scientists are focusing on how meditation alters (ok, I'll say it: dramatically improves) executive function, from a number of angles that are highly relevant to addressing key societal problems, including those highlighted above. When Joan Halifax, who caught a preview of the project's unpublished results, writes that they're "stunning," I suspect that the findings on executive function are part of what she's referring to. Results are currently being prepared for publication. Stay tuned (which, I suppose, is another way of saying "Keep that executive function switched on") ...
Tags: ADHD, Depression, education, Executive function, meditation, neuroscience, New York Times, The Shamatha Project, Tools of the Mind
I'm struck by how, time and again, the West's most lucid thinkers seem to climb two important rungs towards dharma -- and fall down. Take, for example, a couple of articles prominent in today's online Wall Street Journal (a major organ of capitalism, no less).
Check out this remarkable NYT Op-Ed ... from 1900! (Download NYT Op-Ed from 1900) It's conclusion:
It cannot be denied that there are certain points in the Buddhist view of life that are likely to influence, and to influence widely, with increasing intensity, the views of life, of philosophy, of ethics, as held now in the West.... The present results have been brought about by knowledge of Buddhism professed by a few isolated students.
Here's a link to the first foray by a major op-ed columnist into the convergence of science and Buddhism, from the New York Times. Plenty to quibble with here (which I won't b/c this is a rare & brief moment online), including Brooks' comment that cognitive neuroscience will "challenge faith in the Bible," but the fact that Brooks chose to write on this topic is pretty interesting.
The article's concluding paragraphs:
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other ... We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
Here's a link to the full article.
Selected books by the authors above:
The Mindful Brain
Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
The Ethical Brain
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
And a related book, while we're at it, by Tal Ben-Shahar, a professor who teaches the most popular undergrad course at Harvard:
Mastering Your Own Mind
Distracted? Angry? Envious? There's growing evidence that attention, emotion regulation—even love—are skills that can be trained through the practice of meditation. Perhaps it's time for you to become a high-performance user of your own brain.
By: Katherine Ellison
link to article: here , text below
Back when my son was 8 years old, he called 911 after I took away his Game Boy. I wish I'd been studying Buddhism back then, because I probably could have handled it a lot better. I suspect I wouldn't have yelled at him while the dispatcher was still listening. And I bet I wouldn't have been quite so wracked by dread when the police were questioning us in separate rooms of the house—at least until I overheard the other officer ask, "She took away your what?"
Hello friends, some of you have expressed interest in learning more about what we’ve been up to with the Shamatha Project, so I thought I’d post something here for the brave to wade into. Getting ourselves set up for this year-long intensive, off phone and email, has taken a lot longer than we’d hoped, and we’ve committed to start full time tomorrow morning, so I’m going to try to knock this out quickly – forgive, if this isn’t the most coherent.
Also, I’m pulling liberally from many sources here, including Alan (our teacher) – and in the interest of time, I’m not going to footnote.
I’ll try to answer a few key questions:
People who meditate grow bigger brains than those who don't.
Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.
In one area of gray matter, the thickening turns out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. That's intriguing because those sections of the human cortex, or thinking cap, normally get thinner as we age.
"Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being," says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. "These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice."
Their visit popularized the notion that the spiritual East has something to teach the rational West.
Like millions of others who believed there must be more to life than the libertine exuberance of the '60s, the Beatles hoped that the Hindu teacher Mahesh Yogi—known as the Maharishi, or "great saint"—would help them "fill some kind of hole," as Paul McCartney put it years later. So in the spring of 1968, the Fab Four traveled to the Maharishi's ashram overlooking the Ganges River in northern India, where they meditated for hours each day in search of enlightenment, as Bob Spitz recounts in his exhaustive 2005 biography, "The Beatles." The high-profile visit still echoes 40 years later—in, of all places, science, for the trip popularized the notion that the spiritual East has something to teach the rational West. Soon the Maharishi was on Time magazine next to the line "Meditation: The Answer to All Your Problems?"
Giving Meditation a Spin
By Katherine Ellison
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; HE01
SAN FRANCISCO -- 2006 wasn't easy. I had thyroid surgery three months after having had brain surgery. Blessed at last with a clean bill of health, I fell off my bike and broke both arms. Meanwhile, my rambunctious sons chased off a series of would-be child-care providers.
Yet together with what are now several millions of other Americans, I've got a new tool to cope with the inevitable adversity of being human. Suffering led me to indulge a long-standing interest in Buddhism, with some surprising payoffs. I've meditated during MRIs, watched my breathing during talks with my rebellious preteen and sometimes even managed to pay full attention to my spouse.
An interesting article here on meditation in the school system. The 'balanced' tone of the article (adding voice to skeptics at the end) reminds me of articles on climate change a few years ago, before science overwhelmed the naysayers. Will the science that comes out of this project start to shift the tone of the dialogue around this topic ... ?
Sharon Begley, Science columnist from the Wall Street Journal, talks on NPR about neuroplasticity, and the convergence of neuroscience, psychology and Buddhist meditation.
In meditation, people sit quietly and concentrate on their breath. As air swooshes in and out of their nostrils, they attend to each sensation. As unbidden thoughts flutter to mind, they let them go. Breathe. Let go. Breathe. Let go.
According to a study published today in the online edition of the journal PloS Biology, three months of rigorous training in this kind of meditation leads to a profound shift in how the brain allocates attention.
It appears that the ability to release thoughts that pop into mind frees the brain to attend to more rapidly changing things and events in the world at large, said the study’s lead author, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Expert meditators, he said, are better than other people at detecting such fast-changing stimuli, like emotional facial expressions.
Dr. Ron Mangun, director of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study, called the finding exciting. “It provides neuroscience evidence for changes in the workings of the brain with mental training, in this case meditation,” he said. “We know we can learn and improve abilities of all sorts with practice, everything from driving to playing the piano. But demonstrating this in the context of meditation is interesting and novel.”
Recent research has shown that meditation is good for the brain. It appears to increase gray matter, improve the immune system, reduce stress and promote a sense of well-being. But Dr. Davidson said this was the first study to examine how meditation affects attention.
The study exploited a brain phenomenon called the attentional blink. Say pictures of a St. Bernard and a Scottish terrier are flashed before one’s eyes half a second apart, embedded in a series of 20 pictures of cats. In that sequence, most people fail to see the second dog. Their brains have “blinked.”
Scientists explain this blindness as a misallocation of attention. Things are happening too fast for the brain to detect the second stimulus. Consciousness is somehow suppressed.
But the blink is not an inevitable bottleneck, Dr. Davidson said. Most people can identify the second target some of the time. Thus it may be possible to exert some control, which need not be voluntary, over the allocation of attention.
In the study, 17 volunteers with no meditation experience spent three months at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., meditating 10 to 12 hours a day. A novice control group meditated for 20 minutes a day over the same period.
Both groups were then given attentional blink tests with two numbers embedded in a series of letters. As both groups looked for the numbers, their brain activity was recorded with electrodes placed on the scalp.
Everyone could detect the first number, Dr. Davidson said. But the brain recordings showed that the less experienced meditators tended to grasp the first number and hang onto it, so they missed the second number. Those with more experience invested less attention to the first number, as if letting it go. This led to an increased ability to grasp the second number.
The attentional blink was thought to be a fixed property of the nervous system, Dr. Davidson said. But this study shows that it can change with practice. Attention is a flexible, trainable skill.
Just ask Daniel Levison, a staff researcher in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin who meditated for three months as part of the study. “I’m a much better listener,” he said. “I don’t get lost in my own personal reaction to what people are saying.”
This piece, which appeared on the front page of the B section of the Wall Street Journal in conjunction with the publication of Sharon Begley's Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, describes The Shamatha Projects' predecessor studies.
How Thinking Can Change the Brain
Dalai Lama Helps Scientists
Show the Power of the Mind
To Sculpt Our Gray Matter
January 19, 2007; Page B1
Although science and religion are often in conflict, the Dalai Lama takes a different approach. Every year or so the head of Tibetan Buddhism invites a group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, in Northern India, to discuss their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it.
In 2004 the subject was neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experience. The following are vignettes adapted from "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," which describes this emerging area of science:
The Dalai Lama, who had watched a brain operation during a visit to an American medical school over a decade earlier, asked the surgeons a startling question: Can the mind shape brain matter?
Over the years, he said, neuroscientists had explained to him that mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex, for instance, we see; when neurochemicals course through the limbic system we feel.
But something had always bothered him about this explanation, the Dalai Lama said. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure.
One brain surgeon hardly paused. Physical states give rise to mental states, he asserted; "downward" causation from the mental to the physical is not possible. The Dalai Lama let the matter drop. This wasn't the first time a man of science had dismissed the possibility that the mind can change the brain. But "I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim," he later explained. "I am interested in the extent to which the mind itself, and specific subtle thoughts, may have an influence upon the brain."
Sharon Begley with the Dalai Lama at the neuroplasticity meeting in Dharamsala, India, in 2004
The Dalai Lama had put his finger on an emerging revolution in brain research. In the last decade of the 20th century, neuroscientists overthrew the dogma that the adult brain can't change. To the contrary, its structure and activity can morph in response to experience, an ability called neuroplasticity. The discovery has led to promising new treatments for children with dyslexia and for stroke patients, among others.
But the brain changes that were discovered in the first rounds of the neuroplasticity revolution reflected input from the outside world. For instance, certain synthesized speech can alter the auditory cortex of dyslexic kids in a way that lets their brains hear previously garbled syllables; intensely practiced movements can alter the motor cortex of stroke patients and allow them to move once paralyzed arms or legs.
The kind of change the Dalai Lama asked about was different. It would come from inside. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would rewire the brain. To the mandarins of neuroscience, the very idea seemed as likely as the wings of a butterfly leaving a dent on an armored tank.
* * *
Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg had not endeared herself to the pharmaceutical industry by discovering, in 2002, that inert pills -- placebos -- work the same way on the brains of depressed people as antidepressants do. Activity in the frontal cortex, the seat of higher thought, increased; activity in limbic regions, which specialize in emotions, fell. She figured that cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which patients learn to think about their thoughts differently, would act by the same mechanism.
At the University of Toronto, Dr. Mayberg, Zindel Segal and their colleagues first used brain imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed adults. Some of these volunteers then received paroxetine (the generic name of the antidepressant Paxil), while others underwent 15 to 20 sessions of cognitive-behavior therapy, learning not to catastrophize. That is, they were taught to break their habit of interpreting every little setback as a calamity, as when they conclude from a lousy date that no one will ever love them.
All the patients' depression lifted, regardless of whether their brains were infused with a powerful drug or with a different way of thinking. Yet the only "drugs" that the cognitive-therapy group received were their own thoughts.
The scientists scanned their patients' brains again, expecting that the changes would be the same no matter which treatment they received, as Dr. Mayberg had found in her placebo study. But no. "We were totally dead wrong," she says. Cognitive-behavior therapy muted overactivity in the frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, analysis and higher thought. The antidepressant raised activity there. Cognitive-behavior therapy raised activity in the limbic system, the brain's emotion center. The drug lowered activity there.
With cognitive therapy, says Dr. Mayberg, the brain is rewired "to adopt different thinking circuits."
* * *
Such discoveries of how the mind can change the brain have a spooky quality that makes you want to cue the "Twilight Zone" theme, but they rest on a solid foundation of animal studies. Attention, for instance, seems like one of those ephemeral things that comes and goes in the mind but has no real physical presence. Yet attention can alter the layout of the brain as powerfully as a sculptor's knife can alter a slab of stone.
That was shown dramatically in an experiment with monkeys in 1993. Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, rigged up a device that tapped monkeys' fingers 100 minutes a day every day. As this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys heard sounds through headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught: Ignore the sounds and pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, because when you tell us it changes we'll reward you with a sip of juice. Other monkeys were taught: Pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes you'll get juice.
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, undergoing an EEG during a study of compassion meditation
After six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys' brains. Usually, when a spot on the skin receives unusual amounts of stimulation, the amount of cortex that processes touch expands. That was what the scientists found in the monkeys that paid attention to the taps: The somatosensory region that processes information from the fingers doubled or tripled. But when the monkeys paid attention to the sounds, there was no such expansion. Instead, the region of their auditory cortex that processes the frequency they heard increased.
Through attention, UCSF's Michael Merzenich and a colleague wrote, "We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves."
The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention.
* * *
Since the 1990s, the Dalai Lama had been lending monks and lamas to neuroscientists for studies of how meditation alters activity in the brain. The idea was not to document brain changes during meditation but to see whether such mental training produces enduring changes in the brain.
All the Buddhist "adepts" -- experienced meditators -- who lent their brains to science had practiced meditation for at least 10,000 hours. One by one, they made their way to the basement lab of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He and his colleagues wired them up like latter-day Medusas, a tangle of wires snaking from their scalps to the electroencephalograph that would record their brain waves.
Eight Buddhist adepts and 10 volunteers who had had a crash course in meditation engaged in the form of meditation called nonreferential compassion. In this state, the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving kindness toward all living beings.
As the volunteers began meditating, one kind of brain wave grew exceptionally strong: gamma waves. These, scientists believe, are a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung circuits -- consciousness, in a sense. Gamma waves appear when the brain brings together different features of an object, such as look, feel, sound and other attributes that lead the brain to its aha moment of, yup, that's an armadillo.
Some of the novices "showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal," Prof. Davidson explained to the Dalai Lama. But at the moment the monks switched on compassion meditation, the gamma signal began rising and kept rising. On its own, that is hardly astounding: Everything the mind does has a physical correlate, so the gamma waves (much more intense than in the novice meditators) might just have been the mark of compassion meditation.
Except for one thing. In between meditations, the gamma signal in the monks never died down. Even when they were not meditating, their brains were different from the novices' brains, marked by waves associated with perception, problem solving and consciousness. Moreover, the more hours of meditation training a monk had had, the stronger and more enduring the gamma signal.
It was something Prof. Davidson had been seeking since he trekked into the hills above Dharamsala to study lamas and monks: evidence that mental training can create an enduring brain trait.
Prof. Davidson then used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks' and novices' brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one's emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.
More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.
In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.
"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," Prof. Davidson says. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."
• Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
URL for this article:
Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left
THE NEW YORK TIMES
February 4, 2003
By DANIEL GOLEMAN
All too many years ago, while I was still a psychology
graduate student, I ran an experiment to assess how well
meditation might work as an antidote to stress. My
professors were skeptical, my measures were weak, and my
subjects were mainly college sophomores. Not surprisingly,
my results were inconclusive.
But today I feel vindicated.
To be sure, over the years
there have been scores of studies that have looked at
meditation, some suggesting its powers to alleviate the
adverse effects of stress. But only last month did what I
see as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky hypothesis,
by revealing the brain mechanism that may account for
meditation's singular ability to soothe.
The data has emerged as one of many experimental fruits of
an unlikely research collaboration: the Dalai Lama, the
Tibetan religious and political leader in exile, and some
of top psychologists and neuroscientists from the United
States. The scientists met with the Dalai Lama for five
days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to discuss how
people might better control their destructive emotions.
One of my personal heroes in this rapprochement between
modern science and ancient wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson,
director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at
the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, in recent
research using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis,
has identified an index for the brain's set point for
The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are
emotionally distressed - anxious, angry, depressed - the
most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on
the amygdala, part of the brain's emotional centers, and
the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for
the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.
By contrast, when people are in positive moods - upbeat,
enthusiastic and energized - those sites are quiet, with
the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.
Indeed, Dr. Davidson has discovered what he believes is a
quick way to index a person's typical mood range, by
reading the baseline levels of activity in these right and
left prefrontal areas. That ratio predicts daily moods with
surprising accuracy. The more the ratio tilts to the right,
the more unhappy or distressed a person tends to be, while
the more activity to the left, the more happy and
By taking readings on hundreds of people, Dr. Davidson has
established a bell curve distribution, with most people in
the middle, having a mix of good and bad moods. Those
relatively few people who are farthest to the right are
most likely to have a clinical depression or anxiety
disorder over the course of their lives. For those lucky
few farthest to the left, troubling moods are rare and
recovery from them is rapid.
This may explain other kinds of data suggesting a
biologically determined set point for our emotional range.
One finding, for instance, shows that both for people lucky
enough to win a lottery and those unlucky souls who become
paraplegic from an accident, by a year or so after the
events their daily moods are about the same as before the
momentous occurrences, indicating that the emotional set
point changes little, if at all.
By chance, Dr. Davidson had the opportunity to test the
left-right ratio on a senior Tibetan lama, who turned out
to have the most extreme value to the left of the 175
people measured to that point.
Dr. Davidson reported that remarkable finding during the
meeting between the Dalai Lama and the scientists in India.
But the finding, while intriguing, raised more questions
than it answered.
Was it just a quirk, or a trait common among those who
become monks? Or was there something about the training of
lamas - the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a priest or
spiritual teacher - that might nudge a set point into the
range for perpetual happiness? And if so, the Dalai Lama
wondered, can it be taken out of the religious context to
be shared for the benefit of all?
A tentative answer to that last question has come from a
study that Dr. Davidson did in collaboration with Dr. Jon
Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress
Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical
School in Worcester.
That clinic teaches mindfulness to patients with chronic
diseases of all kinds, to help them better handle their
symptoms. In an article accepted for publication in the
peer-reviewed journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Drs. Davidson
and Kabat-Zinn report the effects of training in
mindfulness meditation, a method extracted from its
Buddhist origins and now widely taught to patients in
hospitals and clinics throughout the United States and many
Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught mindfulness to workers in a
high-pressure biotech business for roughly three hours a
week over two months. A comparison group of volunteers from
the company received the training later, though they, like
the participants, were tested before and after training by
Dr. Davidson and his colleagues.
The results bode well for beginners, who will never put in
the training time routine for lamas. Before the mindfulness
training, the workers were on average tipped toward the
right in the ratio for the emotional set point. At the same
time, they complained of feeling highly stressed. After the
training, however, on average their emotions ratio shifted
leftward, toward the positive zone. Simultaneously, their
moods improved; they reported feeling engaged again in
their work, more energized and less anxious.
In short, the results suggest that the emotion set point
can shift, given the proper training. In mindfulness,
people learn to monitor their moods and thoughts and drop
those that might spin them toward distress. Dr. Davidson
hypothesizes that it may strengthen an array of neurons in
the left prefrontal cortex that inhibits the messages from
the amygdala that drive disturbing emotions.
Another benefit for the workers, Dr. Davidson reported, was
that mindfulness seemed to improve the robustness of their
immune systems, as gauged by the amount of flu antibodies
in their blood after receiving a flu shot.
According to Dr. Davidson, other studies suggest that if
people in two experimental groups are exposed to the flu
virus, those who have learned the mindfulness technique
will experience less severe symptoms. The greater the
leftward shift in the emotional set point, the larger the
increase in the immune measure.
The mindfulness training focuses on learning to monitor the
continuing sensations and thoughts more closely, both in
sitting meditation and in activities like yoga exercises.
Now, with the Dalai Lama's blessing, a trickle of highly
trained lamas have come to be studied. All of them have
spent at least three years in solitary meditative retreat.
That amount of practice puts them in a range found among
masters of other domains, like Olympic divers and concert
What difference such intense mind training may make for
human abilities has been suggested by preliminary findings
from other laboratories. Some of the more tantalizing data
come from the work of another scientist, Dr. Paul Ekman,
director of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the
University of California at San Francisco, which studies
the facial expression of emotions. Dr. Ekman also
participated in the five days of dialogue with the Dalai
Dr. Ekman has developed a measure of how well a person can
read another's moods as telegraphed in rapid, slight
changes in facial muscles.
As Dr. Ekman describes in "Emotions Revealed," to be
published by Times Books in April, these microexpressions -
ultrarapid facial actions, some lasting as little as
one-twentieth of a second - lay bare our most naked
feelings. We are not aware we are making them; they cross
our faces spontaneously and involuntarily, and so reveal
for those who can read them our emotion of the moment,
Perhaps luckily, there is a catch: almost no one can read
these moments. Though Dr. Ekman's book explains how people
can learn to detect these expressions in just hours with
proper training, his testing shows that most people -
including judges, the police and psychotherapists - are
ordinarily no better at reading microexpressions than
someone making random guesses.
Yet when Dr. Ekman brought into the laboratory two Tibetan
practitioners, one scored perfectly on reading three of six
emotions tested for, and the other scored perfectly on
four. And an American teacher of Buddhist meditation got a
perfect score on all six, considered quite rare. Normally,
a random guess will produce one correct answer in six.
Such findings, along with urgings from the Dalai Lama,
inspired Dr. Ekman to design a program called "Cultivating
Emotional Balance," which combines methods extracted from
Buddhism, like mindfulness, with synergistic training from
modern psychology, like reading microexpressions, and seeks
to help people better manage their emotions and
A pilot of the project began last month with elementary
school teachers in the San Francisco Bay area, under the
direction of Dr. Margaret Kemeny, a professor of behavioral
medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.
She hopes to replicate Dr. Davidson's immune system
findings on mindfulness, as well as adding other measures
of emotional and social skill, in a controlled trial with
120 nurses and teachers.
Finally, the scientific momentum of these initial forays
has intrigued other investigators. Under the auspices of
the Mind and Life Institute, which organizes the series of
continuing meetings between the Dalai Lama and scientists,
there will be a round at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology on Sept. 13 and 14. This time the Dalai Lama
will meet with an expanded group of researchers to discuss
further research possibilities.
For more than a year, researchers at UC Davis have been trying to find the best way to frame a provocative question: How good can human beings get - how focused, how calm, how kind?
In seeking the answer, they plan to use an audacious tool. Think of it as a little like brain science meets reality television.
They will gather 30 people for a yearlong meditation retreat and then watch what happens.
"Is attention plastic? We have a hunch that it's trainable, but there is very limited research on training of attention," said Clifford Saron, an assistant research scientist at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain.
Saron is coordinating the project, which at this early stage is already a simmering esoteric brew.
There is the encouraging note from the Dalai Lama's personal secretary. There is a French filmmaker who wants to chronicle the effort for her "Monks in the Lab" documentary. There is seed money from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which got it through a donation from actor Richard Gere.
And there is interest from other researchers, who have seen the project mentioned in the journal Science or heard about its scope through the grapevine.
"We have people clapping us on the back,' " said G. Ron Mangun, head of the Center for Mind and Brain. "It's like when you say, 'Well, I want to go to the moon,' and they say, 'Well yeah, it's gotta be done. ... Good luck, pal.' "
Dr. Bennett Shapiro, who follows meditation research as a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration of scientists and Buddhists, calls the upcoming study "pioneering work."
It's uncommon to sequester 30 people for a year and probe them so intensively, said Shapiro, a retired physician.
At least another 30 people will be monitored equally closely as a control group, although they won't be taken away from their daily lives.
Researchers will look for differences between the groups as meditators are trained in a technique of refining their attention that has its roots in India and is known in Tibet as Shamatha.
The claims for Shamatha - that its practitioners can increase the stability and vividness of their attention as a way to improve their emotional balance - makes it especially fascinating for some neuroscientists.
Attention is vital to who we are and how we cope with the world.
The act of paying attention to something, picking it out of the stream of sensations that bombards our brains, is critical to remembering it, said Ewa Wojcuilik, a UC Davis assistant professor who specializes in visual attention.
But paying attention can be tough. Give people something simple and boring to do, and their distractibility zooms. Ask them to be alert to small, sporadic changes in a stream of data, and they manage for 10 or 20 minutes, then fumble badly.
But is this truly the best we can do, or can some specially trained individuals go further, breaking through mental barriers the way Olympic athletes surge past physical ones?
"Within the science of attention, we have formed certain ideas about what our limits are," Wojcuilik said. "If the cognitive apparatus can be pushed beyond what we expect ... we are on to a new beginning."
She is among more than a dozen researchers who have met regularly to design the Shamatha project, a collaboration of a half-dozen arms of UC Davis and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.
While the group's primary focus is on attention, it also will explore whether meditators become calmer, kinder and more compassionate, as tradition holds.
Phil Shaver, who chairs the UC Davis psychology department and specializes in the study of emotions, will look at how quickly meditators get their equilibrium back after viewing upsetting movie scenes, whether disturbing words disrupt their focus and whether their health seems to indicate lower stress.
With the team still nearly two years away from its target start date of Sept. 22, 2006 - the autumnal equinox - many details remain to be resolved, but some general outlines are emerging.
B. Alan Wallace, who has trained as a Buddhist monk and has a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford, will take 30 people to some quiet corner of California.
There, they will rise at 6 a.m. for cycles of group and private meditation that continue until 10 p.m., punctuated by silent meals and a couple of two-hour breaks of unstructured time.
Their goal will be to cultivate a stable, vivid attention, because "this is going to bring you to a much, much higher platform of mental balance, mental well-being," Wallace said.
Wallace, who heads the Santa Barbara institute, has recruited participants from shorter retreats he leads in Europe, Mexico and the United States.
They will be people with a contemplative bent, eager to pay $1,000 a month to be sequestered for a year, away from homes and jobs, family and friends, to explore the reaches of their own consciousness.
As often as every two weeks, live-in research assistants will take some study participants to an on-site lab to probe their minds and hearts, their health and behaviors.
Their performance will be tracked on standard attention tasks and on some created specifically for the project.
Sometimes, they'll be plugged into EEG caps that monitor electrical impulses in their brains, listening to the simultaneous firing of millions of nerve cells. Their blood or saliva will be checked for stress hormones and their immune systems subjected to allergens to see how robustly they respond.
And in a twist that brings a whiff of being voted off the island, they may be asked to report on each other, assessing who is the most compassionate or how fellow participants' behaviors change over time.
With so many measures, over so many months, "you're going to have a very, very rich data set," said Emilio Ferrer, an assistant professor whose specialties include quantitative psychology.
First, though, the research team has more groundwork ahead, in refining the experimental design, conducting pilot studies and nailing down funding. The team is hoping to raise $1.5 million to $2 million from foundations, the National Institutes of Health and donors.
While the thrust of the project is pure science, simply to learn what a highly trained brain may be capable of, it someday could have implications for attention deficit disorders or other ills - if the project finds that training can make a difference.
It is a big if.
"Most research comes to naught. That's the rule. Getting definitive results is the exception," said Paul Ekman, an expert on emotional expression and deception.
"This is really an extremely exciting adventure that UC Davis is taking," he said. "This collaboration between top-rank neuroscientists, psychologists concerned with behavior and a Buddhist scholar and practitioner is in many ways quite unique.
"We don't know if it's going to be productive, but if you knew it was going to be productive, then it wouldn't be exciting."
Jocelyn Sy, left, and Dorothee Heipertz apply a co