Don’t Buy into the Backlash — the Science on Meditation Is Clear

A new study contests the benefits of meditation in the workplace. We show everything that's wrong with the research.

One flawed study can’t diminish the benefits of meditation in the workplace.

To everything there is a season. And to every cultural trend there is a backlash. And now the backlash has come for meditation. Once confined to the lifestyle or health pages, you’re now as likely to read about meditation in the businesssports or entertainment newsAnd just last week, there was news that the app Calm hit a valuation of $250 million, amid what TechCrunch called “an explosion of interest in Mindfulness apps.” So it was no real surprise when we saw the New York Times opinion piece last week entitled “Hey Boss, You Don’t Want Your Employees to Meditate.”


But the problem is that meditation isn’t just the latest fad to be fed into the cultural what’s-in-what’s-out machine. It’s a matter of public health. And the problem with this piece is -- well, actually, there are many!

The central claim by the authors, Kathleen D. Vohs, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and Andrew C. Hafenbrack, assistant professor at the Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, is that, based on their study, meditation diminishes motivation and thus “might seem counterproductive in a workplace setting.”

But getting to that conclusion, and justifying the backlash headline, required the authors to define virtually all the terms of the study, and in fact the study itself, as narrowly as possible. “A central technique of mindfulness meditation,” the authors assert, “is to accept things as they are.” In fact, what mindfulness does is empower you not to react emotionally, unthinkingly, or impulsively to things as they are. Acceptance does not mean resignation. What it means is summed up perfectly in the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” And as Mark Williams, psychology professor at Oxford, wrote, “mindfulness cultivates our ability to do things knowing that we’re doing them.”

Then the authors assert that motivation “implies some degree of discontentment with the present, which seems at odds with a psychological exercise that instills equanimity and a sense of calm.” But people are motivated all the time by more than discontentment -- by love, by gratitude, by patriotism, by dreams of new products or new planets. With both mindfulness and motivation defined so narrowly, it’s not much of a stretch for the authors to set up a study that finds, as they write, “tension” between the two.

One of the biggest problems with the far reaching conclusions is the scope of the study itself. To test the effects of meditation, the authors had participants listen to a single 8 or 15-minute mindfulness meditation recording online. We do not know if people were lying down or washing dishes as they were listening. Seriously? That’s not nearly enough time to justify such sweeping conclusions. The benefits of meditation are much more obvious after several weeks of practice. That’s why so many of the studies that have proven those benefits are based on programs of eight weeks or even longer.

And those studies have been clear, unambiguous and nearly universal in showing a host of benefits, all of which are valuable in the workplace. One of us (RJD) has conducted some of the first serious neuroscientific research on meditation and the first randomized controlled trial of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. In the recent book Davidson wrote with Daniel Goleman entitled Altered Traits, they explain that the point of meditation is the enduring, trait-like changes that come with extended practice. The kind of one-time practice studied by Hafenbrack and Vohs does not produce any enduring change and should not be confused with the changes from mindfulness meditation that scientists have been documenting for decades. In their new book, Goleman and Davidson have sifted through the ~6,000 scientific articles on meditation and summarized the very best science in this area and find that meditation can indeed improve task performance in many domains, including those requiring focused attention and some types of memory. Meditation also improves emotional regulation which has secondary benefits on many other tasks.

Studies have also found that meditation can improve focus, lower stress, improve emotional regulation, help us get back to a task at hand after being distracted, and enhance compassion and creativity -- all qualities incredibly important to the workplace. And in 2016, a review co-authored by Christopher Lyddy at Case Western Reserve and Darren Good at Pepperdine looked at 4,000 studies on mindfulness. What the authors found was that mindfulness improved performance levels across a broad range of categories. And they also addressed the question of motivation. “Mindfulness may support goal pursuit through improved attentional and motivational properties,” they write. “Although mindfulness involves non-striving, it should not be confused with passivity. Indeed, autonomous motivation—that is, the drive to pursue activities perceived as important, valued, or enjoyable—appears to be higher among mindful individuals.” Adds Lyddy, “When you are mindful, you can have a greater consciousness in the present. . .That’s vital for any executive or manager, who, at any given moment, may be barraged with various problems that call for decisions under stress.”

And that’s why so many companies are availing themselves of this powerful tool. At Aetna, a meditation program for employees offered by CEO Mark Bertolini, himself a practitioner, has been credited with improving productivity by 62 minutes per employee per week, which Aetna values at $3,000 per employee per year. It’s why Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio encourages the practice among his employees. “It’s the greatest gift I could give anyone,” he says, “it brings about equanimity, creativity and peace.” He also considers meditation to be the “single most important reason” for his own success in building the biggest hedge fund in the world. It’s why Salesforce founder Marc Benioff installed meditation rooms all over the company’s new offices. It’s why Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Investors, relies on the practice for his decision-making. “Being an investor requires the distillation of large volumes of information into a few relevant insights,” he says, “Meditation has helped me discard interesting but unnecessary information and focus on the few things that make a difference to long run investment performance.”

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Reprinted with permission of Thrive Global. Read the original article.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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