Pathbreaking Findings from the Science of Meditation
As the very last event of the IPPA Conference, Dr. Richard Davidson and Dr. Barbara Fredrickson invited a panel of five scientists to give very brief reports on their own work related to meditation and decision-making: Bethany Kok, Helen Weng, Clifford Saron, Erika Rosenberg, and J. David Creswell.
Bethany Kok: The Impact of Loving Kindness Meditation
Bethany Kok discussed work in the PEPLab (Positive Emotions and Psychophisiology Lab) at UNC-Chapel Hill on guided emotional imagery, using Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) to build well-being through positive emotions. She explored the hypothesis that LKM increases positive emotion, which leads to greater mindfulness, purpose, relationships, and self acceptance, which lead to higher life satisfaction. She also explored the question, “Do positive emotions alter body as well as mind?”
Using a wait-list control group, the study included 65 community dwelling adults (not just college sophomores!) who performed LKM 73 minutes a week on average. Vagal tone measured through heart-rate variability was an important physiological measure. Vagal tone represents the body’s ability to downregulate from arousal, in other words become calmer. High vagal tone is associated with empathy, positive emotions, and high quality social connections.
People in the meditation condition felt more love than people in the control group, and they showed no signs of habituation. While LKM did increase vagal tone, people with initially high vagal tone had accelerated growth in feelings of love compared to people with lower initial vagal tone measurements.
See the article by Wayne Jencke, Maximizing the Benefits of Positive Emotion, for more information about Bethany Kok’s work.
Helen Weng: Can Compassion Be Trained?
Helen Weng described a study with 41 subjects all practicing for 30 minutes a day for two weeks either compassion training or reappraisal training, both delivered over the internet. The control group was thus actively learning something, reducing the placebo effect.
The compassion training consisted of contemplating suffering and then cultivating a wish for freedom from suffering, starting with a loved one, then for oneself, then for a recognized stranger, then for a difficult person, and finally for all beings. The person might say, “May you be free from suffering. May you experience joy and peace.”
Researchers explored the impact using both fMRI and economic behavioral measures. The compassion training group gave more money in a redistribution game and showed greater activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the most evolutionarily developed part of the brain) and less activation of the amygdala, which registers the distress response.
Clifford Saron: The Shamantha Project
Sixty participants participated in a wait-list control design, with the wait-list group performing the same retreat at a later date. Participants received training in two complementary meditation practices: the first based on focused attention, mindful breathing, and observation, the second based on qualities of the heart, including loving kindness and compassion meditations. For three months, participants practiced 5 to 10 hours a day on attentional meditation and 30 to 90 minutes per day on qualities of the heart meditation.
According to the summary of the study, “Initial results show that intensive contemplative training sharpens and sustains attention, enhances well-being, and leads to less judgmental, more empathic emotional responding to the suffering of others. Additionally, the training was linked with pro-social emotional behavior and important physiological markers of health.”
Dr. Saron also discussed the impact of meditation on health and overall well-being. One biomarker studied, telomerase, is an enzyme that protects genetic material. Blood samples indicated that telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants than the controls, as described in a paper by Jacobs and colleagues.
Erika Rosenberg: What’s Positive about Negative Emotion?
Dr. Erika Rosenberg, also at the University of California at Davis, has studied ways that emotional responses to suffering can be changed. She described compassion as a connection with another, a benevolent motivation to ease suffering, that occurs without being trapped in the experience of another’s suffering.
Compassion training changes the way people respond to the suffering of others: They tend to have less rejection and less tendency to move away, but more sadness.
But sadness, being moved by another person’s suffering, can motivate prosocial behavior. She has studied people watching films of suffering, and the relationship between amount of meditative practice, dynamic changes in facial express, and overall physiology.
J. David Creswell: Clues for Decision Making
Dr. J. David Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University studies how the mind and brain influence our physical health and performance, including basic questions about stress and coping and how these factors can be modulated through stress reduction interventions.
But in this talk, he discussed clues for decision-making based on work by Ap Dijksterhuis, pondering the questions, “Is unconscious thought occurring? If so, how does the brain unconsciously think?”
Creswell listed 4 stages of decision making: Encoding, Processing, Consolidation, and Retrieval. He suggested that brain areas activated during conscious Encoding remain active unconsciously during subsequent Processing and Consolidation stages. He was able to replicate Dijksterhuis’ findings and show that there was neural activation in the visual cortex and prefrontal cortex during Encoding and that neural reactivation in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex predicted subsequent decision scores.
Final Remarks by Dr. Richard Davidson
Dr. Davidson closed with the remark, “Delicious!” He noted that 4 out of 5 talked about the effects of training on the way the mind works. Cultivation of positive qualities takes practice, and it helps when people are immersed in an environment in which positive qualities are exemplified. He was happy to see rigorous work with active (rather than passive) control groups, especially after the 2007 report on the clinical efficacy of meditation pointed out the methodological weaknesses of studies, most of which didn’t have active control groups.
Dr. Davidson finished with an observation that not everyone responds to training in the same way. Given that, he raised a challenge to the field, to learn how to match individual differences in affective qualities to the right kind of contemplative practices.
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth article inspired by the 2nd World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association. Here are all six articles:
Brown, K., Ryan, R., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for its Salutary Effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211-237.
Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). Think different: The merits of unconscious thought in preference development and decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 586−598.
Dijksterhuis, A., & Nordgren, L. F. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 95−109.
Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M. W., Nordgren, L. F., & van Baaren, R. B. (2006). On making the right choice: The deliberation-without-attention effect. Science, 311, 1005−1007.
Ekman, P. & Rosenberg, E. L. (Eds.) (2005). What the Face Reveals: Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) (Series in Affective Science), 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press. Paperback edition coming soon.
Jacobs, T. L. et al (in press). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology(2010), doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.09.010
Kok, B.E. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85(3), 342-346.
Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., Ferrer, E., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., Aichele, S.R., King, B.G., Bridwell, D.A., Lavy, S., Mangun, G.R., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2011). Enhanced Response Inhibition During Intensive Meditation Training Predicts Improvements in Self-Reported Adaptive Socioemotional Functioning. Emotion, 11(2), 299-312.
All pictures were taken by Kaori Uno during the conference and are used with permission.