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.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.