In his latest book, Richard Layard draws attention to a potential lack of altruism in contemporary mindfulness. The implications are profound.
Concerns linked to a lack of reliable evidence supporting the rapid growth of mindfulness are nothing new. Scientists have long complained about theoretical problems and the overstating of preliminary findings. But the key criticism has been that many mindfulness experiments are never replicated. This being a standard practice to establish causality in human behaviour. But new challenges about the relationship between happiness, altruism and brain training are emerging.
A new book has highlighted a potential problem attracting the attention of the meditation community. In Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics, Baron Richard Layard proposes that altruism mediates happiness. At the same time he acknowledges that mindfulness is accused of reducing altruism when compared to traditional Buddhist meditation. If Layard’s theories are substantiated, the beneficial effects of contemporary forms of mindfulness must be reviewed. In fact, all psychological therapies that reduce altruism will have to be re-evaluated.
Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics is being criticized for a lack of scientific objectivity. Many of the claims made in the book appear to be subjective. But the failure of mindfulness to replicate the implicit nondual aspects of Buddhist meditation has been of concern for over a decade. Meditation is a complex human behaviour, the mechanisms it engages are not yet fully understood by neuroscience or cognitive psychology. Any suggestion that some secular meditation methods can reduce happiness is particularly worrying.
We know relatively little about the long term effects of the practice of mindfulness, either in children or adults. But most experienced Buddhist meditators are aware that a meditation method alone doesn’t guarantee positive results. The ethical context of the meditation and the motivation of the practitioner are crucial to its success. Layard is an economist, not a scientist, so his views on scientific matters need to be treated with caution. But in his defence, he is really only repeating claims made by members of the scientific and academic community over many years.
Why do people meditate? You might be surprised by the answer.
Want to know why people meditate?
Having introduced hundreds of people to meditation over the last fifteen years, the question of why do people meditate has always fascinated me. When I used to teach traditional Buddhist meditation many people would declare an interest in Buddhism or spirituality, but there was generally another reason that encouraged them to come to a class. Many came because they wanted some support with a health problem, either mental or physical and they thought that Buddhist meditation could offer them something. People attended classes to accompany their friends or because they were suffering a sense of loss, or were looking for direction in their life. But only a small minority meditated because they wanted to become a Buddhist or for some kind of spiritual development.
So interested was I in this question that I undertook some research while at the university, running a project asking people about their reasons for starting meditation. Health and wellbeing proved to be the single most popular answer both for traditional practitioners and secular mindfulness students, accounting for 55% of respondents. Although it now appears widely accepted that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, and lead to increased levels of self reported happiness how this is achieved is still somewhat obscured. In particular if meditation has a lasting effect on behaviour then it must have a role in maintaining/changing brain structure and function.
“regular meditators with younger brains than non meditators”
This is the new frontier for contemporary meditation research, how does meditation change the brain and what are the likely effects of it? Evidence is suggestive that meditation can make a positive impact on your overall brain health and in one study regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non-meditators. The point is that meditation’s real potential is in changing brain structure, this is particularly relevant when talking about, the ageing brain, mild cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration. We are starting to see the first wave of meditation methods specifically designed to allow people to improve brain health generally. Given the pessimistic predictions surrounding dementia this seems like a trend set to continue.
Evidence indicates that brain structure and function can be maintained and augmented through particular forms of meditation.
Taking responsibility is the key to brain health
In recent decades psychology and neuroscience have made progress in explaining brain functions and dysfunctions. But we still know far too little about how the human brain ages. In studies linked to meditation and mindfulness the vast majority of research (I’d estimate in excess of 80%) has been undertaken with participants under the age of 25. There is some research interest in people of retirement age and with people suffering from particular health problems. But if you trawl the academic databases for investigations of the effects of meditation on people in the 30 to 65 age range you will find relatively few studies and even fewer reliable conclusions. The irony of this lack of research is that this is the age at which cognitive decline is supposed to happen (from the early 30’s onward). It’s also supposed that dementia typically starts its journey in middle age, perhaps decades before the full symptoms manifest.
A concept that can be found throughout psychology and neuroscience is ‘age related cognitive decline’; the general correlation between age and brain function/structure. It is a pretty uncontroversial idea, we all carry around the stereotype that as we get older we can expect to experience ‘senior moments’, a lowering in cognitive ability. I’m not going to dispute that this does appear to be the pattern. But my experience of meditation is that the rate of cognitive decline is flexible. I’ve seen the transformation in people’s ability to think, problem solve and remember. There is also some evidence from neuroscience to support the premise that decline in cognitive function can be influenced by a range of activities, meditation in particular. This is not to say that meditation may keep your brain forever young, rather that you have a degree of control over how your own brain ages.
Whilst certain forms of meditation do appear to be linked to improved cognitive function, the neuroscience is at a preliminary stage. It’s clear that different forms of meditation have different effects, and meditation isn’t the only thing we can we can do to influence the development of brain function and structure. It should always be considered that just as some activities appear to support brain rejuvenation, others have the opposite effect. Anyone over the age of 30 is likely to benefit from maintaining, and where possible increasing cognitive function, meditation however is a cornerstone of this process. Keeping your body in good shape takes some time, effort and commitment, this is also true of mind training
Biome and meditation, what you eat and drink may be exerting a strong influence on your meditation practice.
One of the biggest problems in researching the benefits of meditation is understanding the potential confounds. In essence, what factors other than the meditation method itself exert an influence on subsequent behavior. Lifestyle questionnaires normally reveal significant differences between long standing meditators and the wider population. Given the range and diversity of meditation methods available, generalisations are quite difficult . However I’d expect experienced meditators from the Buddhist schools to eat less meat and take fewer intoxicants than the wider population. There are also more subtle variations. For example, in some approaches, meditators may drink alcohol yet abstain from scallions (the food group that includes garlic and onions). Another group might have a tendency to eat meat but not consume any food after their lunchtime meal. So does this matter and if so why?
The emerging research of the human microbiota (microorganisms living in or on humans, primarily in the gut) is demonstrating an increasingly close connection between gut bacteria, health and wellbeing. This is a dynamic area of enquiry but studies have implicated gut bacteria in conditions as diverse as obesity, migraine and depression. Typically science demonstrates a correlation between gut bacteria and a particular condition. For example people that suffer from migraines tend to have different bacteria when compared to people not suffering from migraines.
The key message is that meditators should think about what they eat if they want to maximize the benefits of their meditation practice.
The early signs are that the human biome may be more influential than causal in health. Meaning that your gut flora makes it more or less likely that you will or won’t suffer from a particular condition. Our gut flora is established at birth but it is subject to changes throughout our lives. We introduce bacteria from a range of sources, primarily from what we eat and drink. So if, for example, it was discovered that bacteria associated with eating chicken was linked to depression (which it isn’t as far as I know). It would have implications for meditators working with depression.
All this won’t come as any great surprise to long standing practitioners, many of the people in my own meditation circle already think about what they eat quite carefully. The influence of the biome on human health shouldn’t really make any difference to meditators. Reliable meditation is likely to have an effect in every instance, although your practice might be strongly influenced by what you eat.
As the body of research into meditation grows, the evidence of the actual effect of meditating increases. Western science rarely provides clear evidence of causality, particularly when it comes to understanding complex human behavior such as meditation. However there are a significant number of studies that document a relationship between meditation and brain activity.
In 2012 a study was carried out into the effects of meditation (mindfulness and compassion methods) that had a direct effect on the response of a part of the brain called the amygdala to emotional stimuli. The headline findings from this study are that the changes to the amygdala response were measured while people were not meditating, meaning that the effects of an eight week meditation programme were experienced outside of meditation practise. Meditation had been able to exert an influence on people’s brains during a non-meditative state.
The Science of Meditation blog explores recent research in the contemplative sciences
Although it might appear that meditation holds a place in mainstream society, its precise role and the benefits it can bring are very much a subject of academic debate. Western science, particularly psychology, is struggling to establish a coherent definition of meditation which can be used to create a theoretical framework within which meditation might be fully understood. In plain speaking meditation is not always defined reliably, what its components are and how it works is subject to a degree of interpretation. One of the strengths of experimental psychology is replication, when the results of an experiment are repeated by different scientists at different times then the results tend to be viewed more favorably. Because of a lack of consistent definitions, satisfactory replication is big issue in meditation research.
This is not a criticism of meditation. I have seen and experienced the benefits of meditation over many years. But I would like to see significant reforms in the way meditation is researched. The Science of Meditation is a website that highlights and reviews some of the latest research into meditation. Recent blog entries include studies investigating the effectiveness of meditation in a clinical setting as well as workable definitions of the term mindfulness.