What science now tells us about meditation and the ways it can change us.
Altered Traits is a science-based investigation into the impact of meditation on the body and mind. It’s an easy-to-read book that uses validated facts to support or debunk the myriad claims linked to meditation. The substantive experiences of the authors with mindfulness practices makes it even more compelling. Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and science writer whose interest in this area goes back to when he was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970s. His co-author, Richard J. Davidson, is a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their book is worth a read for anyone dabbling with meditation or for skeptics who need more evidence.
Meditation, in its traditional form, was never meant to improve health, boost our productivity or change the world. It was merely a way to better understand ourselves and lead a life of self-awareness, generosity and compassion – traits that are in short supply in our harried, modern lives.
There is now a solid body of scientific evidence to support the positive influence of mindfulness meditation on the average person. It is a mechanism for observing and understanding the incessant chatter in our minds; chatter that causes us to be anxious about the future and to replay negative events from the past.
Done consistently and over the long term, meditation allows us to step back from this mental noise and enjoy the benefits of a calmer and less distracted mind. Several studies have proven its ability to change brain density and impact our neurological and emotional responses. In short, it has been shown to alter traits.
The book serves up some fascinating and surprising insights. One of these is the fact that the human brain constitutes just 2% of body mass but consumes 20% of energy (in terms of oxygen usage) even when we are doing nothing. We may be physically inactive but our minds are continuously running a movie in which we are the central character around which the entire plot revolves. We worry about what might happen to us, how we feel about someone, what others think about us, and so on. There are some positive emotions, mixed in with a slew of negative ones.
Counterintuitively, the brain actually quietens when you train its attention on a single object or activity. So, for example, when you concentrate on solving a difficult math problem, the brain actually does less work than when you’re idle.
By the same token, according to the authors, scientific evidence indicates that the modern day ideal of multitasking is a glorified myth. Our brains are not really designed to switch back and forth effortlessly between different activities. Everytime we switch and then come back to the original task, it takes time for the brain to ramp up to the original state of flow. This negatively impacts our processing ability as well as any results we may hope to achieve. The more tasks we attempt to tackle at the same time, the greater the neurological barriers our brains will have to overcome. We are less focused and less productive as a result.
The opposite of such a multitasking approach is one based on cognitive control which allows a person to zero in on a specific task while resisting noise and distractions. This is an approach that will serve anybody well, no matter what their calling in life. The good news, the authors say, is that cognitive control can be strengthened. A study conducted on college students found that even ten minutes of a mindfulness practice (such as focusing on their breath) enabled them to boost their performance on a battery of tests, compared to a group that engaged in multitasking type activities.
There are several other relevant takeaways for the reader of this book. Even if you, like most people, are not ready to go down a deep meditative path, there are proven benefits that accrue even at beginner levels. A mere two weeks of practice can yield improvements in attention and focus. Those who are able to sustain the habit long enough to graduate to the next level show reduced reactivity to stress, less mind wandering and a higher propensity for empathy. At the “Olympic” level, as the authors term it, the brains of long-term meditators are changed in a number of significant ways. Their traits are truly altered.
Now that the evidence is all out there, it is up to us as individuals to decide how we want to act on it. As the authors of this illuminating book put it: “Any steps we take in this direction are a positive offering to our lives and our world.”