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How does meditation work?
Two meditation pioneers, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, answer that question in their new book, Altered Traits.
Meditation. Perhaps you've been told you need to start. Maybe you've tried, found it dumb, and moved on. Or you have no idea where to begin. You download an app, then another, switching from voice to ambient music to binaural beats in hopes of finding something that works, which all raises the question: How does meditation work?
Seeing meditation as one thing is the first problem. That's the consensus of two experts and longtime friends, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. These men are responsible for first scanning the brains of Buddhist monks, a psychologist/journalist and neuroscientist famous for making “emotional intelligence" and “affective neuroscience" mainstream. How you're meditating — what your point of focus is while practicing — affects different neural circuitry, which changes what you get out of your sessions.
That's one of the driving ideas behind their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. While meditation is popularly presented as a panacea for the world's ailments, Goleman and Davidson have written a highly approachable work based on solid clinical evidence. Being researchers and longtime meditators themselves — both started in the seventies and have kept up a daily practice — they wanted to parse the science from the hype.
They explored six thousand studies conducted over the last few decades, deciding to use sixty for their book. Their interest is not in the “highs along the way," but “who you become" from a dedicated practice, which hints at the title. An altered trait is different from an altered state, as Goleman told Big Think:
Altered states are temporary conditions. When whatever it was that brought on the special state of awareness leaves, then the state fades. So if you get into a flow state rock climbing, when you come down from the mountain it's gone. Altered traits, on the other hand, are lasting changes or transformations of being. They come classically through having cultivated an altered state through meditation, which then has a consequence for how you are day-to-day that's different than how you were before you tried the meditation.
Unsurprisingly, the more you practice, the more altered traits appear. For Olympic-level meditators, who have practiced for more than 62,000 hours, life resembles a constant state of meditation rather than a sudden shift in brain chemistry. They're able to switch attentional focus at incredible speeds, dropping into whatever style of meditation is requested within seconds, returning to conversation equally quickly.
But what are these states? One chapter is dedicated to metta, a Pali word that translates to “loving kindness." Goleman says this practice often accompanies mindfulness, with an internal focus on someone you love or care deeply about. This could even be yourself — certain therapeutic applications are designed to quiet negative self-referential chatter. Short phrases about kindness are repeated in your head. Goleman continues,
It turns out that the repetition of those phrases is psychoactive; it actually changes the brain and how you feel right from the get go. We find, for example, that people who do this meditation who've just started doing it actually are kinder, they're more likely to help someone in need, they're more generous, and they're happier. It turns out that the brain areas that help us or that make us want to help someone that we care about also connect with the circuitry for feeling good.
Meditation is often marketed as anxiety relief. While classically the goal is to dissolve the ego, stress reduction is quite popular. Fortunately the science holds up here as well. As with other styles, the more you put in, the more benefit you receive, even though, as Goleman says, even one session has proven to help people deal with stress. The effects just won't last as long if the practice isn't continued.
This is really the sign of resilience. Resilience is measured scientifically by how long it takes you to get back to what we call your baseline that pleasant mood you're in before that thing flipped you out. The shorter that is the more resilient you are. We see this as a lasting trait in long-term meditators: they are able to bounce back from stress. Also we see that their amygdala, that trigger point for the stress reaction, is less reactive; they're calmer in the face of stress.
One of their most incredible findings concerns longtime meditators and their relationship with pain. These monks recognize what many of us think of as painful as sensations; they're able to immediately quiet the neurological stimulation and return to baseline. This is, in part, because when we think something should be painful, or are expecting something painful to occur, we start feeling pain before it begins:
Ordinarily if you bring someone into the lab and you tell them we're going to give you a burn in ten seconds—it won't cause blisters on your skin but you're going to feel it — it's going to hurt. The moment you tell them that the emotional circuitry for feeling pain goes ballistic, as though they're feeling the pain already. Then you get them the touch the hot test tube and it stays ballistic, and they don't recover emotionally.
Not so the case for longtime meditators:
The Olympic level meditators had quite a different response. You tell them you're going to feel this pain in ten seconds; their emotional centers don't do anything. They're completely equanimous. The pain comes and you see it register physiologically but there's no emotional reaction afterwards. In other words they're unflappable. Even though they experience the pain physiologically they don't have the emotional reaction.
Altered Traits is a treasure of proven benefits and styles of meditation to explore, meticulously detailing what the various practices known as mediation do and don't do. Just as jumping from task to task while awake is cognitively taxing, they don't suggest jumping from style to style. Spending months to years practicing one form of meditation appears more beneficial than trying many at once. But if you think meditation can help you, you're probably right — you need only to recognize which style you need. Then, you sit.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.