Monday, June 11, 2012

On the neuroscience of meditation

As I collect research on the effects of meditation on the brain, I'm again struck by how weird it is that the neuroscience of it matters to most people. Consider this analogy:
You're hungry. Like, really hungry. And you don't know what to do about it. Then you meet some people who have tried something they call "eating food," and they report that hunger diminishes. And they get big and strong. These are all the things you care about and want for yourself! 
But they only do this in the dark, and they can only describe the mechanism in metaphor ("it's like putting a spoon... to your mouth... but with stuff in it"). You don't fully believe them, so you do some studies and find that, indeed, they're consistently interrupted less during their day by things like hunger pangs. But this could just be some sort of misunderstanding. In your world, photons are the only things that are real, and you haven't seen photonic evidence, dammit!
So you do another study: you shine bright lights on them, and study their shadows while they eat. Lo! You can sort of make out from the shadows that spoons with stuff are being put to mouths. Now that you have real evidence, you decide it's worth learning this mystical skill of "eating." And now you can explain to everyone else why and how eating works: these shadows over here move like this!
When people meditate, they report less stress and sadness, and more happiness and empathy. That sounds pretty good, so we collect evidence. The psychological studies check out: we get exactly the skills that we want from this practice! But that's not enough. When we see blood oxygenation levels fluctuate in the right places -- as suggested by putting brains in magnets and then bouncing radio waves off them -- and infer that this is because those neurons are firing and thus needing more oxygen (fMRI), then we finally believe it. Or when we see that brains "grow" -- even though brain growth is often a symptom of pathology.

If indeed there are lasting behavioral changes, and those are the things we want, it's a bit funny to wait to discover brain correlates before trying the techniques. Of course something changed in the brain. It would be quite surprising indeed if meditators had large behavioral changes and there were no physical correlates. Now that would be a real finding.

Note: I don't mean to make it sound like neuroscience has nothing to offer meditation research. But it is surprising to see just how much it matters to people, particularly when even experts (see last four paragraphs) don't attribute as much meaning to some of the findings as we do.

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