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Mindful : December 2017
One of the most important discoveries is that repeated practice tends to make seasoned practitioners far less attached to the ongoing narratives we make up about ourselves. when they experienced intense pain. During one study, the long-term prac- titioners and a control group were given a ten-second blast of heat from a thermal stimulator, preceded by a 10-second warning. As soon as the warning started, the control group’s brains went wild, registering almost as much pain as when the burning sensation happened. The study sub- jects, in contrast, showed no reaction to the warning sign, but exhibited a far more intense response to the heat itself. And when the heat stopped, they recovered far more quickly than the control group. “This inverted-V pattern, with little reaction during anticipation of a painful event, followed by a surge of intensity at the actual moment, then swift recovery from it, can be highly adaptive,” write Goleman and David- son. “This lets us be fully responsive to a challenge as it happens, without letting our emotional reactions inter- fere before or afterward, when they are no longer useful.” One of the most surprising things about the long-term practitioners was their extremely high levels of gam- ma-wave oscillation not only during meditation, but while they were resting, as well. Bursts of gamma waves are usually rare occurrences, showing up for split seconds when the brain regions suddenly click together in harmony. But Davidson and his colleag ue, Antoine Lutz, found that high-amplitude gamma patterns were part of their everyday neural activity. Their baseline readings before they started meditating, for instance, were 25 times greater than those of the control group. For Goleman and Davidson, this discovery was, in their words, like stumbling upon “the holy grail.” It meant that these long-term practi- tioners were able to experience an ongoing state of open awareness in their daily lives. They described it as a kind of “spaciousness and vastness,” as if “all their senses were wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.” This finding was, as the authors put it, the first “neural echo of the enduring transformations that years of medita- tion practice etch on the brain. Here was the treasure, hidden in the data all along: a genuine altered trait.” Where Do We Go from Here? Davidson is used to encountering skep- ticism whenever he publishes results of a new study. “One kind of push- back I get is that I’m not an objective observer and our data can’t be trusted because I’ve admitted publicly that I am a meditator,” he says. “I love that comment. It’s like telling a cardiologist who studies the heart that he can’t do any exercise for the remainder of his professional life.” Some of the scientific papers he’s most proud of, he adds, are the ones that failed to show any differ- ence between meditators and con- trols. An example: Several years ago, Davidson’s lab was unable to replicate a study that made national headlines showing that meditation slows the shrinkage of the brain as we age. Another common form of criti- cism is that the research isn’t that good, and there’s a lot more hype in the findings than real evidence. In general, Davidson would ag ree with that assessment. When his research team was looking for studies on lov- ing-kindness to include in the book, for example, they found only 37 out of 231 that met the highest standards of experimental design. And David- son winnowed the list down to eight when he added another filter: the importance of the findings. One of the biggest problems with meditation research is the lack of consensus on what the term “mind- fulness” means. Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn articulated the most widely used definition: “The aware- ness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience.” But that definition doesn’t capture the com- plexity of the concept across other meditation disciplines. And scientists who aren’t familiar with the nuances of practice often use “mindfulness” and “meditation” interchangeably. “To me, the fact that there are dif- ferent definitions is not so much a problem as long as we’re clear about which definition we’re using and, more importantly, what specific mea- sures we’re employing to capture that metric,” says Davidson. “As long as we are clear about that and restrict the claims we’re making to that specific variation of mindfulness, we’ll be okay. When we use the term to mean mindfulness in general, that’s when the problems creep in.” Another problem is the lack of in-depth longitudinal studies, which track subjects’ progress over extended periods of time. One particular hole, according to Goleman and Davidson, is the paucity of research on the long- range impact of meditation on self-at- tachment. Those kinds of studies are expensive and time consuming. But, at some point, Goleman envisions that researchers will have the technolog- ical capability to monitor meditators in their daily lives, not just in the lab, and see how they respond to real-life events as they’re taking place. One area that needs more study is the effect of duration of practice. → December 2017 mindful 61 science