Neuroscience and Meditation
September 13, 2003 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Neuroscience and meditation. "Researchers are making the case that Eastern-style meditation is good not just for your emotional well-being but also for your physical state." This is a fascinating article (NYTM, reg. req.) on the convergence of Buddhist meditation and neuroscience (here's a previous post on the subject.) Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama is in Boston, presiding over a conference between biobehavioral scientists and Buddhists.
posted by homunculus (9 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I am happy that you or someone changed the title from what the NY Times had used: Is Buddhism Good for Your Health? Buddhism is not the only group that uses meditation, and it helps to know that mediation is not used only by becoming a member or following buddhist beliefs.
posted by Postroad at 10:45 AM on September 13, 2003

I was thinking about the part where they were talking about practicing awareness without reaction and worried a bit about that. Doesn't a lot of awareness require reaction, and failure to take action can result in a missed personal opportunity at best and failure to meet a moral/ethical obligation at the worst?

It might be like practicing the piano -- you develop certain skills in pieces, by focusing on them individually, and then integrating them later. But then again, I was taught to sight read the left and right hands separately... and guess what, I can't do it together.
posted by weston at 11:22 AM on September 13, 2003

learn a secular meditation method for faster, better results.

Now that's the kind of go-get'em thinking that's gotten western society where it is today!
posted by namespan at 12:30 PM on September 13, 2003

i have a good friend that has embraced buddhism and the art (skill) of meditation and she seems to be very dedicated. years ago i dabbled in the buddhist prescribed technique, but it didn't work for me. personally, i think everyone has their own method of dealing with stress; to each his/her own i guess.

given the opportunity, you just can't resist thumbing your nose at religion can you skallas?


posted by poopy at 12:32 PM on September 13, 2003

[weston] Doesn't a lot of awareness require reaction, and failure to take action can result in a missed personal opportunity at best and failure to meet a moral/ethical obligation at the worst?

Most of what I've read about Buddhist meditation (of certain kinds, at least) leads me to believe that they're talking about avoiding automatic reactions to things, the idea being that we're better off if we choose our reactions to things in a mindful way. For example if you say something really mean to me, I might have an automatic emotional reaction that makes me want to return the aggression. But, if I can note that reaction of mine without getting swept away in it, I might see that you're attacking me because you're feeling hurt yourself, or because your scared, etc., and I might choose a more compassionate and productive response.

[skallas] Seems to me you can take occam's razor and cut out all the unnecessary religious mumbo-jumbo and learn a secular meditation method for faster, better results.

As an atheist I share this instinct, however I've torn when it comes to Buddhism and meditation. While I reject the cosmology, I do see a lot of value in some of its philosophy, and I wonder how the experience of meditation would change if it were divorced from the body of ideas that produced it. Of course one wouldn't have to divorce it entirely, I suppose (it seems some of the researchers in this article aren't doing so), but if you take for example a teaching that would have us treat kindness as a primary value when dealing with other people: That's something you're supposed to do with whatever improved awareness you get out of meditation. I suppose science could examine the effects of adopting that particular value and using meditation as a tool for realizing it in everyday life, and the dependent variable would be some measure of your happiness or well-being, but in that case I wonder whether occam's razor wouldn't be shaving off something important. I suppose science could tell people "you should practice love and kindness because this will improve your well-being", but something about that seems odd to me, perhaps only because I'm used to science pushing particular values tacitly rather than overtly.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think there's some philosophy behind this practice that seems integral to what it's about. I'd be surprised to find that alpha waves explain all of the variance we observe. Science is the proper way to find that out, though.

I write this tentatively, because while I have a good background in psychology, my knowledge about Buddhism is probably superficial.
posted by boredomjockey at 12:51 PM on September 13, 2003

Coincidentally, I am in the process of reading a book about this -- a record of a week-long seminar in Dharamsala, specifically on negative emotions. So far, I'm struck mostly by the difference in definition. The western psychologists define destructive emotions as harmful to oneself and others. The Buddhists don't focus on the harm that these emotions do. Rather, they see the problem as the way these afflicted mental states distort your perception of the way the world is. The harm is a by-product of the distortion. But I should let them speak for themselves.

Excessive detachment -- desire for example -- will not let us see a balance between the pleasant and unpleasant, constructive and destructive, qualities in something or someone, and causes us to see it for a while as being one hundred percent attractive -- and therefore makes us want it. Aversion will blind us to some positive qualities of the object, making us one hundred percent negative toward that object, wishing to repel, destroy or run away from it.

Such emotional states impair one's judgement, the ability to make a correct assessment of the nature of things. That is why we say it is obscuring: It obscures the way things are.
posted by anewc2 at 1:41 PM on September 13, 2003

Dunno. I found the secular method of meditation to be much, much more powerful and usable when I was meditating daily.

Just out of curiosity, you found it more powerful and usable than what?

I do see many possibilities for fruitful, purely scientific approaches to what we're calling mind/body interaction. With respect to Buddhism I suppose I was trying to say that in between a religious system and a scientific system there may be a secular philosophical system that consists of something more than manipulating your brain states while still not positing any supernatural constructs, and that this philosophy might contribute something to the effects of meditation above and beyond what's going on physically.

Specifically I'm thinking that Buddhism appears to encourage us to adopt or recognize particular values, which are necessarily subjective (maybe this is what you were getting at, too), and to make living according to those values our goal. If you finish meditating and go off into the world to try to realize those values, that's something more than simply having an improved awareness of things or a brain that's working differently. I'm thinking that interacting with others according to those values might produce an additional set of effects that are worth pursuing. That's not to say that these effects aren't explainable in secular terms; it's just that they're the product of meditation practice plus something else, and it's that something else that could get left out if we think about meditation strictly in terms of what it does to your brain, notwithstanding whatever benefit we get from that alone.
posted by boredomjockey at 1:53 AM on September 14, 2003

Meanwhile, back in Tibet: Beijing Sends In the Masses to Make Tibet More Chinese
posted by homunculus at 7:39 PM on September 14, 2003

Scientists Meditate on Happiness
posted by homunculus at 4:23 PM on September 16, 2003

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