Meditation in the Lab
"Even five years ago, it was much less accepted to study this stuff
Why should Humanists be interested in meditation? Isn't meditation "woo" like homeopathy and Reiki? Americans United for Separation of Church and State has objected to introducing Transcendental Meditation into the public school classroom and The Humanist has even highlighted the dangers of meditation. Isn't meditation something that should at best be ignored?
One answer is that scientists are increasingly interested in meditation. Laboratory research has examined meditation itself and brain changes that seem to occur in meditators. Researchers have looked at diverse forms of meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation, Buddhist meditative practices, and secular forms used in medical settings. As Humanists, we're interested in what works. If something about meditation is beneficial and can be extracted from a religious context into a secular form, that's something we might like to employ.
One area of investigation is whether meditation and its allied practice of mindfulness alleviate pain and suffering. The University of Montreal lab of Pierre Rainville, a leading expert on pain, is one place this research is being conducted. Joshua Grant is a graduate student in the lab who has co-authored a couple of papers with Rainville on pain sensitivity in Zen meditators. "Even five years ago, it was much less accepted, I would say, to study this stuff," Grant told me in a phone interview.
In one of Grant's studies, 13 experienced Zen meditators and 13 non-meditators matched for age and gender were exposed to painful heat. When the experienced meditators attended to the pain in a mindful manner—paying attention to the bare sensations in a neutral, nonjudgmental way—they reported significantly reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness compared to the non-meditator control subjects. The meditators also breathed more slowly, and the slower breathing correlated with pain reduction. Grant thinks some sort of internal opioid process is involved because opioids slow respiration as well as relieving pain.
In another study that involved neural imaging of meditators, Grant found that the brains of the meditators looked different than matched controls. In particular, the cerebral cortices of the meditators were significantly thicker in certain areas of the brain that process pain. Because people experience cortical thinning with age, cortical thickness is believed to be an indicator of a brain's facility in processing signals. Thickness in pain-related areas could indicate a greater ability to deal with pain in an adaptive manner. One limitation of the study is that it did not prove that meditation leads to cortical thickening; conceivably, people with thicker cortices might be disproportionately drawn to meditation. However, see below for a study that shows that meditation seems to cause neuroplastic changes to the brain.
A lot of the research on meditation is focused on studying the effectiveness of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, an eight-week program combining meditation and yoga that is widely used in hospitals. Created by Jon Kabat-Zinn 30 years ago, MBSR is the subject of an annual conference that is held at its home base at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I attended one day of the five-day conference that was given over to a research symposium. This was a large conference with hundreds of researchers and clinicians from all over the United States and Canada. In the spirit of integrating the practice of mindfulness with research, between speakers, there were mini-meditations lasting about five minutes. Speakers also included mindful pauses at several points during their slideshows.
B. Rael Cahn, an MD/PhD, at UC San Diego, who previously put together an excellent literature review of published studies on meditation, talked about a 2009 study which gets at what is meant by one of the common definitions of mindfulness—"nonjudgmental attention." Cahn exposed experienced Vipassana meditators to a stream of sounds, most of which where repetitive beeps, with the occasionally oddball boop or white noise distraction thrown in. Using EEG, he found that during meditation, there was enhanced brain activity about 100 milliseconds after the sounds, but less activity 300-600 milliseconds after the oddball sounds.
What this seems to indicate is that nonjudgmental attention has two elements. The activity after 100 ms corresponds to the bare act of attention to the sound. The activity about 1/2 second later corresponds to a second stage, when your brain starts to process what it hears. That's the judgment part. When you pay bare or nonjudgmental attention to a sound, you hear it, but let it go. The brain activity 1/2 second after the sound corresponds to being hooked or caught by it, and having it set of a train of thought.
I asked Cahn if this meant that mindfulness to sound was like letting it go "in one ear and out the other." He said, yes, with the proviso that you're not tuning it out. Rather, you're paying attention to it, letting it go, and paying attention to whatever happens in the next moment.
I was reminded of a recent incident when my wife didn't realize I was meditating, and turned on the Red Sox game at a rather loud volume. At first, I was irritated that the game was on, and thought of getting up from my chair to shut the door. Instead, I tried listening to the announcer, to the tone of his voice, and to the words, but without processing them—letting them go in one ear and out the other. It worked. I found that much of the time I was able to listen without reacting, though at least one time the mention of a player (Dustin Pedroia) brought up associations and a further train of thoughts that distracted me from the meditation. After I observed myself becoming distracted, I was able to go back to what the announcer was saying in the present. I learned one can meditate even in the presence of potentially distracting language and not to get hooked by the language. I was still hearing it (100 ms after the sound hit my ear) but not processing it 1/2 second later.
Britta Hölzel, who is part of Sara Lazar's Meditation Research Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, discussed her study showing gray matter increases in the brains of people who take an eight-week MBSR class. The increases were in the hippocampus and right insula, which had previously been shown to be larger in meditators than non-meditators. However, those results didn't show causality. Her study showed that the same people had increases after the eight-week class. Gray matter is composed of brain cell bodies and related matter. Theories of neural plasticity hold that the more you use particular brain cells, the stronger their connections grow with the rest of the brain. Studies have shown that increased gray matter density in a brain area is correlated with increased performance by that region. The insula is a part of the brain that monitors the inside, or viscera, of the body. The hippocampus is best known for its role in forming memories. While Hölzel didn't reference Joshua Grant's study, her findings buttress the conclusion that meditation is responsible for changes in the brain of Zen meditators that make them less sensitive to pain.
Philippe Goldin, a Stanford psychologist, discussed a study that compared Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy, aerobics, and doing nothing as treatments for social anxiety disorder (when people are shy to an extreme). He said that MBSR actually came in second. It was not as effective as therapy, but better than aerobics or doing nothing. Despite the second-best finish, he said that there were still two factors recommending it as an option. First, a course of MBSR costs considerably less than a course of cognitive behavioral therapy (which itself is a lot cheaper than many other types of therapy). The CBT treatment was 16 sessions of individual treatment over 4-5 months at a cost of about $2,000. MBSR is an 8-week course done as a group activity and costs a few hundred dollars. The second factor is that many people shun psychotherapy because of the unfortunate stigma wrongly associated with it. These people are often willing to take a "stress-reduction class."
There was a bit of debate about MBSR as a treatment for insomnia. Subjective reports seem to indicate that MBSR is good for treating insomnia. However, Willoughby Britton of Brown University tested how meditation affects sleep, using the techniques of a sleep lap that assess depth of sleep. To her surprise, she found that meditation led to less deep sleep and more arousal. Thus, she thinks meditation may be oversold as something that promotes sleep. From the audience, Cynthia Gross disagreed with her. Gross said that subjective reports by clients regarding how well they slept were more important than "objective" data, since well-being is by definition subjective and from the client's point of view. There was discussion of the hypothesis that meditation may substitute for sleep. Britton said that the meditators in her study reported that they were not napping during meditation, so it was not as simple as that. Rather, it may be that meditation performs some of the same body repair functions as sleep, so that meditators need less deep sleep. Participants agreed that, immediately before going to sleep, the body-scan technique of paying attention and relaxing successive muscle groups was better at promoting sleep than breath meditation, which can increase alertness.
I was glad to hear critical assessment of MBSR. Clearly, most or all of the people at the conference think that meditation has value. Still, they are rigorously investigating what it actually does rather than promoting it as a panacea. The above is only a small slice of the research now being done on meditation. A search of the National Institutes of Health's PubMed database finds 236 articles published in the last five years that use the word "meditation" in the title.
It seems pretty clear that meditation is useful in dealing with issues like stress and pain. As Humanists, we'd rather have the option to experience these benefits outside of a religious setting. The Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program provides one such setting. To be enrolled in MBSR on an ongoing basis, however, would be prohibitively expensive. There are few low-cost options not associated with religious groups. One can meditate privately, but participating in a group is helpful for learning new techniques and also provides positive reinforcement for maintaining the practice. The Humanist Contemplative Group in the Boston area is one that we hope can serve as a model for the practice of secular meditation.