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Mindful : December 2017
The best-known study from Richie Davidson’s lab, as of this writing, has 2,813 citations and has also gone viral outside academia, reverberat- ing through the echo chamber of big and social media alike. Those bringing mindfulness to companies invariably mention it as “proof” that the method will help folks there. Yet, the study in question—based on the time Richie had Jon Kabat-Zinn teach MBSR to volunteers at a high- stress biotech startup—raises large questions in the eyes of scientists, including Richie himself. At the time, Richie had been pursuing data on the ratio of activity in the right versus left prefrontal cortex while people were at rest. More right-side activity than left correlated with negative moods like depression and anxiety; rela- tively more left-side activity was associated with buoyant moods like energ y and enthusiasm. That ratio appeared to predict a person’s day-to-day mood range. The biotech company study seemed to show a remarkable shift in brain function after the meditation training—from tilting toward the right to a leftward pitch, and reporting a switch into a more relaxed state. No such changes showed up in a comparison group that was wait- listed to receive meditation training. But here’s one major hitch. This research was never replicated and was designed only as a pilot. We don’t know, for instance, if an active control group receiving an actual alternative training regimen would result in similar ben- efits. While some other studies seemed to sup- port the finding on the brain ratio and its shift, Richie’s lab has not been able to show that this tilt toward left-side activation grows stronger the more you meditate. Richie hit a snag when he started bringing to his lab Olympic-level meditators: they did not show the expected whopping leftward tilt—despite being some of the most optimistic and happy people Richie has ever known. This undermined Richie’s confidence in the measure, which he has discontinued. One possible reason the measure failed to work as expected with the long-term meditators: a tilt toward the left may occur at the beginning of meditation practice and may reflect temporary pressures or basic temperament but does not seem associated with enduring qualities of well-being nor more complex changes in the brain found in those with high levels of medita- tion experience. Our current thinking holds that in later stages of meditation, other mechanisms kick in, so what changes is your relation to all emotions rather than the ratio of positive to neg- ative ones. Emotions seem to lose their power to pull us into their melodrama. In addition, teachers vary greatly in exper- tise, in how much meditation retreat time they have put in, and in their own qualities of being. The biotech company had the benefit of hav- ing Jon himself as their teacher, someone with unique gifts in imparting a view of reality that can shift students’ experience in ways that, possibly, might account for a shift in brain sym- metry. We don’t know what the impacts might have been if another, randomly selected, MBSR teacher had come there. ● When a study shows groundbreaking results, it attracts a lot of attention. But too often the follow-up to the study is not reported, even when it radically changes the picture. EVIDENCE Proven or Preliminary? Adapted and reprinted from Altered Traits by arrangement with Avery, a member of Peng uin Group (USA) LLC, A Peng uin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. December 2017 mindful 63