David DeSteno: The Morality of Meditation

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Originally published by David DeSteno in The New York Times on July 5, 2013.

MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.

But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally intended effect — the reduction of suffering — empirically demonstrable?

To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.

Supporting this view, recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others.

So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More.”

Natural Remedies for Insomnia

I’ve penned an article or two about my sleeping woes; and realizing that nixing caffeine doesn’t work for everyone, I wanted to offer another solution. Even though cutting caffeine from my diet completely has helped my insomnia tremendously, there are still some nights that I have trouble catching even a wink of sleep. Our sleep cycle is a sensitive thing and can be disrupted by many things including stress, certain foods, illness, etc. and it’s imperative to baby it so we can get the recommended 7 – 8 hours per day. Most of us, if we’re lucky, are probably getting around 5 hours a night and then channeling the zombies on The Living Dead during the day.

We are well-aware that there are numerous amounts of over the counter sleep aids and just as many prescriptions that claim to “fix” insomnia, but are they safe?

The reality is, these medications only cover up your lingering insomnia and hold the risk of dependency and some pretty freaky side effects if taken too much over an extended period of time. The only way to “fix” your insomnia is by resetting your circadian rhythm. Luckily for those of us who don’t want to take those risks, there are supplements that are easily accessible that can help induce relaxation and sleep around bed time – and can even reset your circadian rhythm.

Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone that is already found in our bodies and is responsible for regulating our sleep cycle. It may be possible that your body isn’t releasing the hormone at bedtime or just not releasing enough of it to induce drowsiness. You can find it in two forms; a pill that is immediately released into your system to promote drowsiness, the other is an extended release pill that helps you stay asleep. If you’re someone who has trouble staying asleep, the extended release pill can enhance the amount and quality of your sleep. Doctors recommend taking 1 – 3mg an hour before bedtime.

Valerian Root: Given its usage to treat anxiety and depression because of its sedating qualities, researchers also believe that Valerian Root can effectively treat insomnia. Although the relaxation effects kick in immediately, it may take a week or two to induce drowsiness since it has more of an effect on your body the longer you take it. You can find Valerian Root in pill or tea-form at your local grocer or health food store. I like using the SleepyTime Extra Tea by Celestial Seasonings – it’s delicious and soothes you to sleep after 45 minutes to an hour.  Doctors recommend taking 300 – 900mg one to two hours before bedtime.

Kava: This peppery plant has long been praised for its treatment in anxiety and studies suggest it can effectively treat insomnia. It comes in the form of a pill, tea or extract – all are effective and can be found at any health store. I LOVE the Yogi brand of Kava Kava Tea, I drink it about 30 minutes before bed and it helps encourage a restful slumber. Although taking this supplement is relatively safe and has been used for thousands of years, researchers warn that it can become slightly addictive and cause liver damage if taken in excess over time. Doctors recommend taking 100 – 200mg an hour before bedtime – but as always, check with your doctor to make sure you’re taking the correct dosage for your body.

The Green Tea Debate

You know what they say, too much of a good thing is a bad thing – the same can be said if you’re a huge fan of green tea. Now before you go all crazy on me and start reciting all of the positive benefits that come with green tea, let me make it clear that the supplements are what you should be paying very close attention to. The tea? Not so much…

Recent studies have been released that suggest the intake of green tea supplements that exceeds the recommended daily dosage can do more harm than good. Green tea has been thought of as a cancer-fighting, heart disease ass-kicking, belly flab buster for quite some time due to extensive research on polyphenols. Polyphenols have even been shown to alleviate some pain for those suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. But, new research has shown that excessive intake of polyphenols can lead to high levels of toxicity in your liver and kidneys.

Like I said earlier in this article, supplement takers should be wary since green tea in pill-form can contain up to 50 times more polyphenols than a single cup of brewed green tea. Researchers suggest those who take these supplements do not exceed that daily recommendation or to just swap out the pills with the real stuff. Why? Green tea sippers can drink 10 cups of green tea a day without experiencing any of the negative side effects that the supplement users may experience.

They even conducted some experiments that showed how easily it is for a human to “overdose” on green tea supplements – it showed extreme levels of toxicity. They then rectified the situation by cutting green tea supplement pills out of their daily regimen, which made those symptoms vanish. However, they then asked the study candidates to start their green tea supplement regimen all over again only to see the same levels of toxicity return.

The moral of the story is, everything can be fine in moderation. If you happen to take green tea pills, just make sure you are being responsible with them – do not exceed the daily recommended dosage and always take with a full glass of water. As for my fellow green tea sippers, bottoms up!