David DeSteno: The Morality of Meditation

medi

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.”

Check Out this New App Called ‘Buycott’

buycott via Forbes

In her keynote speech at last year’s annual Netroots Nation gathering, Darcy Burner pitched a seemingly simple idea to the thousands of bloggers and web developers in the audience. The former Microsoft MSFT +0.24% programmer and congressional candidate proposed a smartphone app allowing shoppers to swipe barcodes to check whether conservative billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch were behind a product on the shelves.

Burner figured the average supermarket shopper had no idea that buying Brawny paper towels, Angel Soft toilet paper or Dixie cups meant contributing cash to Koch Industries through its subsidiary Georgia-Pacific. Similarly, purchasing a pair of yoga pants containing Lycra or a Stainmaster carpet meant indirectly handing the Kochs your money (Koch Industries bought Invista, one of the world’s largest fiber and textiles companies, in 2004 from DuPont).

At the time, Burner created a mock interface for her app, but that’s as far as she got. She was waiting to find the right team to build out the back end, which could be complicated given often murky corporate ownership structures.

She wasn’t aware that as she delivered her Netroots speech, a group of developers was hard at work on Buycott, an even more sophisticated version of the app she proposed.

“I remember reading Forbes’ story on the proposed app to help boycott Koch Industries and wishing that we were ready to launch our product,” said Buycott’s marketing director Maceo Martinez.

The app itself is the work of one Los Angeles-based 26-year-old freelance programmer, Ivan Pardo, who has devoted the last 16 months to Buycott. “It’s been completely bootstrapped up to this point,” he said. Martinez and another friend have pitched in to promote the app.

Once you’ve scanned an item, Buycott will show you its corporate family tree on your phone screen. Scan a box of Splenda sweetener, for instance, and you’ll see its parent, McNeil Nutritionals, is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson JNJ +0.48%.

Even more impressively, you can join user-created campaigns to boycott business practices that violate your principles rather than single companies. One of these campaigns, Demand GMO Labeling, will scan your box of cereal and tell you if it was made by one of the 36 corporations that donated more than $150,000 to oppose the mandatory labeling of genetically modified food.

Deciding to add that campaign to your Buycott app might make buying your breakfast nearly impossible, as that list includes not just headline grabbers like agricultural giant Monsanto but just about every big consumer company with a presence in the supermarket aisle: Coca-Cola, Nestle, Kraft, Heinz, Kellogg’s, Unilever and more.

Buycott is still working on adding new data to its back end and fine-tuning its information on corporate ownership structures. Most companies in the current database actually own more brands than Buycott has on record. The developers are asking shoppers to help improve their technology by inputting names of products they scan that the app doesn’t already recognize.

And if this all sounds worthy but depressing, be assured that your next trip to the supermarket needn’t be all doom and gloom. There are Buycott campaigns encouraging shoppers to support brands that have, say, openly backed LGBT rights. You can scan a bottle of Absolut vodka or a bag of Starbucks coffee beans and learn that both companies have come out for equal marriage.

“I don’t want to push any single point of view with the app,” said Pardo. “For me, it was critical to allow users to create campaigns because I don’t think its Buycott’s role to tell people what to buy. We simply want to provide a platform that empowers consumers to make well-informed purchasing decisions.”

Forbes reached out to Koch Industries and Monsanto for comment and will update this story with any responses.

Update: Tuesday’s traffic surge is causing some problems for Buycott. Pardo says he’s working to fix issues with the Android app in particular. “The workload is a bit overwhelming now,” he said. “For example, our Android app was just recently released and the surge of new users today has highlighted a serious bug on certain devices that needs to be fixed immediately. So all other development tasks I was working on get put on hold until I can get this bug fixed.”

Update 2: Pardo has had to temporarily remove the Android app from the store to fix glitches. He told Forbes on Wednesday: “Things are *slightly* more stable, but the app is now #10 in the App Store overall, which is pretty unbelievable. I simply didn’t set up the servers to be prepared to handle 10+ new users every second.  I was expecting a more manageable rise. I had to pull the Android app from the store because I haven’t had a second to address the issues with it and I’ll take any relief I can get right now. Will continue to try and get it in decent shape but I’ll eventually need some sleep!”

 

Sangria

Sangria

Red Sangria:

The ingredients

2 bottles red Spanish table wine
1 cup brandy
1/2 cup triple sec
1 cup orange juice
1 cup apple cranberry juice
1/2 cup simple syrup, or more to taste (equal parts sugar and water, heated until sugar dissolves, cooled)
Orange slices
Apple slices
Blackberries
Blueberries
Strawberries
The method:
  1. Mix all ingredients together and let stand in a tightly sealed container or pitcher for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator before serving.

8 Facts on Water

water 1. 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated.

2. In 37% of Americans, the thirst mechanism is so weak that it is often mistaken for hunger.

3. Even MILD dehydration will slow down one’s metabolism as much as 30%.

4. One glass of water will shut down midnight hunger pangs for almost 100% of the dieters studied in a University of Washington study.

5. Lack of water, the #1 trigger of daytime fatigue.

6. Preliminary research indicates that 8-10 glasses of water a day could significantly ease back and joint pain for up to 80% of sufferers.

7. A mere 2% drop in body water can trigger fuzzy short-term memory, trouble with basic math, and difficulty focusing on the computer screen or on a printed page.

8. Drinking 5 glasses of water daily decreases the risk of colon cancer by 45%, plus it can slash the risk of breast cancer by 79%, and one is 50% less likely to develop bladder cancer.