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The Neuroscience of Meditation, and the Virtues of Shutting Up

BY / AUGUST 5, 2015 6:18 AM EDT


It was 5:30 in the morning on my third day of silent meditation when I noticed something in me take a sharp turn left.

I was groggy, frustrated by my inability to sit still and hungry for the breakfast that was still an hour off. I got up from the spot on the floor of my bedroom where I’d been attempting to meditate and walked outside, to the new-growth woods behind the residential quarters at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne, Massachusetts. It was springtime, and the outdoors seemed spring-loaded with potential: The buds on the trees were sharp little things, and hundreds of fuzzy fiddleheads dotted the forest floor, curled snug.

I walked down a little looping path that stopped unsatisfyingly soon; “course boundary” signs curtailed my meandering to an area of the woods the size of a soccer field. Exercise, like so many things here, was not permitted


For the past three days, a brass bell had woken me up at 4 a.m., along with the 129 others who had committed to this 10-day silent saga. We meditated, with guidance, for roughly 10 hours a day, broken up by meals and “free time,” which was free only in the sense that we weren’t meditating. We weren’t allowed to read or write, speak to one another, make communicative gestures or even look at one another in the eye. So we all paced the small loop in the woods, staring at trees, careful not to acknowledge one another’s existence. No nodding, no smiling.

08_14_Meditation_02A woman meditates on a couch. Research into mindfulness meditation has exploded in recent years. Regular meditation, one study suggests, may ‘reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal aging.’ JASPER COLE/BLEND IMAGES/GALLERY STOCK

During free time after lunch, I walked outside to find a cluster of women standing in the courtyard stock-still, eyes closed, faces tilted toward the sun, looking posed for alien abduction. One woman wore a Nirvana band T-shirt, presumably unironically. I began to giggle aloud, a major transgression, but I couldn’t help it. It all seemed so ridiculous. What the hell was I doing here? There’s no way, I thought, that this silent sitting around, this utter lack of mental stimulation, could be benefitting my brain. I briefly entertained the idea that this was all one massive 2,500-years-running placebo effect. I went over my last few days in my mind. I looked back at the cluster of women. Is this what it felt like to be brainwashed? Was I mid-brainwashing? Would someone being brainwashed question whether she was being brainwashed? No, I finally told myself, I wasn’t being brainwashed; I was being silly. I turned away and stood outside in the sun for a while, in silence, and resigned myself to the idea of another week of this.

My Brain Is Soft Plastic

In the last few years, the human quest for self-optimization has collided with improving mobile technology to birth more than 100,000 health apps for smartphones. The mobile market research firm Research2Guidance estimates that mHealth apps, as they’re called, will be a $26 billion industry by 2017.

Every waking (and sleeping) hour of your corporeal existence can now be quantified. Your data can be as granular as you like, and you can take it a step or two further: You can track your eating habits with a fork that vibrates when you’re eating too quickly. Or put on a headband that will watch your brainwaves and play “loud, disruptive wind” noises if your mind wanders. Or strap on a device that will zap you when you aren’t sitting up straight.

In theory, having more real-time data about our bodies means we can better mold them according to our will. But in practice, it may not be working out that way. Dr. Des Spence, a general practitioner in Glasgow, Scotland, argued in theBritish Medical Journal last year that constant self-tracking turns healthy people into “neurotics.”

“The truth,” he said, “is that these apps and devices are untested and unscientific, and they will open the door of uncertainty. Make no mistake: Diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people.”

Other popular iPhone apps claim to make you smarter. Brain-training games hinge on the belief that completing working memory “training tasks” can effectively teach the brain to function better in the real world. But research in the last few years has shredded that claim. Zachary Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University, worked with a team that published a paper in 2013 showing no evidence whatsoever that brain games improved intelligence. “The only solid result is that working memory training makes people better at the working memory training task itself,” he says. And who cares about becoming an expert at practicing?

Take another step beyond consumer products and you’ll find the burgeoning field of DIY biohacking. Transcranial direct-current stimulation is at the center of the movement. It involves strapping electrodes to one’s head and running a low dose of electricity through the brain. The therapeutic potential appears enormous; early research into TDCS suggests it may prove useful for treating a range of mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder, quitting smoking and easing chronic pain, among a multitude of other potential applications. For the DIY crowd, a central appeal is neuroenhancement—the potential to prompt clear-headed focus and amp up cognitive functions such as reading or learning a new skill.

 But all these interventions are temporary and rely on devices and paid services. They are also relatively unproven. What if the ultimate neuroenhancing biohack is 2,500 years old, requires no equipment and costs nothing?

A few years ago, a computer scientist and a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona enrolled 45 human-resource managers in a trial: One-third of them took eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, one-third took eight weeks of body relaxation training and one-third had no training at all. All three groups were given “stressful multitasking” tests before and after the eight-week period; those in the mindful-meditation group were able to sustain their focus longer than both other groups and reported feeling less stressed during the test.

The brain changes functionally and structurally all the time, taking in lessons from and responding to the stimulus of daily life. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity. But what if you could determine the way your brain changes? For years, Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, a research hub that studies the effect of meditation on the brain , has referred to the neurological effects of meditation as “rewiring the brain.”


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