Mind fitness: How meditation boosts your focus, resilience and brain

Consider stress junk food for your brain, while meditation is the gym that can repair and reshape you after years of a bad brain diet.

Meditation is like a gym for your brain. If you follow through and exercise (in this case, your brain) every single day... pretty soon you'll see results. Psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman posits that meditation truly leads you to an "altered state" similar to psychotropic drugs, albeit in a much more lasting and positive way that Goleman calls an "altered trait". Meditation is the opposite of stress in that with meditation we can unlearn stress; consider stress junk food for your brain and meditation as the gym that can repair and reshape you after years of a bad brain diet! Goleman's new book is Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.

Daniel Goleman: Altered states refers to a mode of consciousness or awareness that takes us out of our ordinary everyday sense of the world, sense of ourselves. 

We can enter altered states when we get intensely focused on something—deep concentration will bring you into an altered state, sometimes people like to talk how athletes get “into the zone” or they “get into flow”, those are everyday altered states, but they come from being intensely focused on some activity or in the moment itself. 

And of course altered states can come from drugs or from being in an unusual physiological state. A fever can bring on an altered state. And of course, the ‘60s and ‘70s saw a huge upsurge of people interested in exploring altered states through psychedelics. 

So altered states are temporary conditions, and 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—or whatever may have caused it: your temperature might have gone up, and put you into maybe not a pleasant altered state, but still an altered state. The temperature goes down, it’s gone. 

Altered traits on the other hand are lasting changes or transformations of being, and they come classically through having cultivated an altered state through meditation, which then has a consequence for how you are day-to-day—and that’s different than how you were before you tried the meditation. 

And what we find in our research, as we say in the book Altered Traits, is that the more you meditate, the more lifetime hours you put into it, the stronger the lasting traits become. 

When we surveyed more than 6000 peer reviewed articles published to date on meditation we used very strict rigorous methodological standards and we whittled them down to about 60, so maybe one percent of all those articles were really well done. And they document very strongly that altered traits are a lasting consequences of regular meditation and it’s not that it’s the altered states that’s the point. If you look at the classic traditions from which meditation comes to us in the West all of them talk about the quality of being, the person you’ve become. And we see it in the data in many ways. We see it in cognitive changes, we see in behavioral changes and most importantly we see it in neurological changes the neuroscience of meditation is really getting stronger and stronger. It’s pretty spectacular and it shows that brain function and perhaps even structure in the long-term meditators becomes different and becomes different in ways that are actually predicted in classic meditation texts. 

The good news is that there’s a dose response relationship in meditation. Apparently from what we can tell the longer you do it the more benefits you get. So for example, right from the beginning there are intentional benefits, there are stress benefits, you’re more resilient under stress, but we see this even more strikingly in people who have been longer-term meditators, people who have done meditation daily for say several years. There you see in terms of attention things that don’t show up with the beginner so much you see that, for example, they’re more present. There’s a strict test of this in cognitive science called the intentional blink. The intentional blink means you get lost in one thought and you don’t notice what’s happening the next moment. And this happens, of course, to all of us ordinarily, but longer-term meditators seem to have this less, it means they’re more present to the moment. Longer-term meditators are able to better focus in the midst of distractions. This is kind of common sense because meditation in essence is training in attention.

The basic move in meditation is you’re focusing on one thing or on a particular intentional stance, the mind wandering circuitry, which is well known in neuroscience, the mind wandering circuitry kicks in, people’s mind wanders on average 50 percent of the time research at Harvard tells us. So at some point when you’re trying to do your meditation your mind will wander. We’re wired that way. The key is do you notice that it wonders? Once you notice your mind has wandered off and you bring it back your strengthening the circuitry for focus for attention. And just like going to the gym and working out for years and years doing reps you get bigger muscles and more strength and fitness, the same thing happens in the mind. The mind is a mental gym and meditation is a basic work out. So if you’re a long-term meditator you get more benefits than people who are just starting out. It’s just common sense. And we see it in the scientific findings. So longer-term meditators are better able to focus on that one thing and not be distracted even when there’s a hubbub around them; they’re are better able to concentrate; they’re better able to be present to what’s happening. So the attentional benefits just get stronger and stronger and even more important they become traits. We see them not when a person is meditating but months after or just in their everyday life when they come into a lab without meditating we see that the attentional benefits still last.

The same thing is true of stress. In long-term meditators the benefits for handling stress get stronger and stronger as time goes on. Of course we see some signs of this in people right from the get go, beginners in meditation, but the longer you’ve been a meditator the more, for example, you’re able to snap back from an upset. And 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. And the shorter that is the more resilient you are. And 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. So the stress benefits get stronger and stronger and become traits in long-term meditators.