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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.
Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.
From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.