In a pristine office with huge windows overlooking midtown Manhattan, just steps away from the hustle and bustle of Penn Station, the transcendental meditation teacher Bob Roth sits not in flowing garb, but the blazer/pants combination that wouldn't put him out of place on the streets of New York. Roth often invokes his choice of attire as the reason why he is able to convince skeptics that meditation isn’t “make believe woohoo.”
“Look, I’m not a do-gooder type,” the CEO of the David Lynch Foundation, which helps to teach mindfulness and meditation to prisons and low-income schools, told The Daily Beast. “How much do I have to believe in gravity to know it works? My memory was better, my sleep was better, and I was less uneased [after transcendental meditation]. It works.”
Across the nation, mindfulness and meditation are becoming increasingly part of daily routines and less associated with alternative culture. Everyone from corporate executives looking to wring out every last ounce of productivity in a day to the mom in the park with her kids is exalting meditation and its supposed mental and physical benefits.
But does it work?
We don’t quite know, because mindfulness and meditation haven't been studied for as long as diseases, for example, or other exercise techniques. The most difficult part of studying mindfulness (the practice of focusing on the present; meditation is the instrument by which that mindfulness can be achieved, perhaps by focusing on slow, methodical breaths or thinking of a single concept) is that it’s nearly impossible to measure how a person has gotten calmer, more focused, and more compassionate with breathing exercises. How do you measure feeling more in the moment?
The fuzziness of the science hasn't stopped mindfulness and meditation from becoming more mainstream. Last month, Roth released a book, Strength in Stillness: The Power of Transcendental Meditation, that includes glowing notes from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Russell Brand about how Roth (referred to as “Meditation Bob”) has offered them a simple way towards clarity and focus. (Disclaimer: Roth has trained The Daily Beast’s editor-in-chief, John Avlon in meditation techniques). Roth said he’s seen an uptick in clients because of what he termed “the epidemic of stress.” “You can’t get away from anything,” he noted. “You go to a medicine cabinet and reach for Xanax, Adderall, whatever. But there is no magic pill with no side effects that can make you feel less stress.”
What makes mindfulness especially appealing to some is the idea that it could be a magic pill, that with a combination of a few spare moments, deep breathing, and perhaps a mantra, one can achieve a sense of calm no pharmaceutical company can duplicate.
Which makes the skepticism of mindfulness so rampant, so vigorous—and so ripe for scientific query. Mindfulness, after all, can take various forms: Some have argued for mindfulness while washing dishes, noting every determined scrub to wash away grease and crumbs; others recommend waking up and sitting in bed and simply noticing how the body feels. That it doesn’t necessarily have a formalized method and seems to rely on a basic premise of feeling calmer, more rejuvenated, and sharper by simply breathing can certainly seem like an insane proposition.
But that very insane proposition has a growing legion of devotees who are pointing to the emerging young neuroscience as reasons why it works. Dan Harris, an anchor at ABC News, has literally written the book for skeptics who don't quite believe that this mindfulness stuff works. His most recent book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, follows the more lengthily titled 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story. He also hosts a popular podcast produced by ABC, 10% Happier, where he talks weekly to celebrities and normal people alike who practice mindfulness.
But Harris wasn't always a fan of mindfulness, and in fact, he wouldn't have even considered what he thought of as “complete hippie nonsense” had it not been for an on-air panic attack in 2004.
“I assumed I didn’t have the attention span,” he told The Daily Beast. After his panic attack, Harris was desperate to change and address not only his anxiety but also what he later admitted to be probably induced by drug use, including cocaine and ecstasy, habits he’d picked up to deal with depression after reporting tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine.
Harris turned to mindfulness and meditation after reading a book by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and wanting to control what he frequently referred to as “the zoo inside your head.” He dove in, researching and practicing, and found that the emerging science of mindfulness “comforted” him into easing into—then fully embracing—mindfulness. “Science is the lingua franca of our culture,” he said. “And it shows that our brains change from meditation. It's exercise for the brain.”
But is it?
The Emerging Neuroscience of Mindfulness
In short, the science of mindfulness is burgeoning, but promising. Studies have been small and focused on measuring brain activity through fMRI machines, but they’ve shown fundamental changes in brain architecture that prove slowing down can actually heighten our mind's awareness and response rates.
Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and founder of the university’s Center for Healthy Minds, has pioneered this research, and worked to make the neuroscience of mindfulness one that is taken seriously. Part of the reason why it’s taken so long for mindfulness to be studied seriously is simply that we've been waiting for technology to catch up. “Over the past ten or 12 years, there has been a vibrant interest in sectors of the neuroscience community in studying the impact of meditation, and we now have tools [to do so],” he told The Daily Beast. “We can look at brain structure and function and study people repeatedly over time to see how practicing mindfulness and meditation impact the brain and change behavior and experience.”
Davidson said the field has also become more complex and scientifically sound due to its dual nature: basic and translational research, relying on not only the technical neurological reports that inform what exactly is happening in the brain but also field insights and self-reported surveys from participants. That combination of hard science and personal reporting has overwhelmingly shown that mindfulness is beneficial intellectually and emotionally.
For example, in 2013, Davidson and a research team had 49 volunteers practice mindfulness over eight weeks. Before and after the training, the researchers induced psychological stress with a test and inflammation on the forearm with capsaicin cream, taking immune and endocrine measurements to see how their body reacted with and without mindfulness training. At the end of the eight weeks, Davidson and his team found that despite inducing equivalent levels of stress hormones, the group that underwent mindfulness training had a “significantly smaller post-stress inflammatory response.”
“These results suggest behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity may be of therapeutic benefit in chronic inflammatory conditions.” The idea of mind over matter might seem like wishful thinking but Davidson's research in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity showed that there was a substantive health benefit to being able to channel thoughts in a productive, aware manner.
Davidson's studies—he’s co-authored nearly 30 studies on the topic over his career, and counting—aren’t the only ones on mindfulness and how they seem to have some effect on how the brain works, perhaps priming it to work better. But there’s also a lot of research that can't seem to make a case either way for mindfulness. A 2014 meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine of 47 trials and more than 3,500 people came to frustratingly no conclusions about mindfulness on a variety of health indicator:
We found low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight. We found no evidence that meditation programs were better than any active treatment (ie, drugs, exercise, and other behavioral therapies).
Harris remains a skeptic about the science of mindfulness despite the fact that he practiced it regularly, and said he continued to read the most recent research as much as possible. “The science [of mindfulness] is in its early stages,” he said. “It’s been sometimes hyped in an unconstructive way, and there’s been an appropriate backlash against the hyping.”
Davidson agreed with this sentiment, saying that media reports of meditation often spoke highly of how it offers tantalizing health benefits like compassion and stress reduction—characteristics that researchers certainly want to study and are attempting to understand, but are far more difficult to measure than changes in brain chemistry. As Harris noted, “If you meditate, you’re less of an asshole. But it's hard to prove that with science.”
Harris doesn't have a scientific background, but both he and Davidson brought up the fact that while mindfulness has been marketed as a “natural” alternative to antidepressants, it’s important to work with a physician, psychiatrist, and/or therapist about depression and anxiety and what a person’s individual best course of action is. Davidson noted that meditation can certainly help mental health problems but shouldn’t be seen as an end-all cure. Harris also remarked from his own personal experience that it’s important to not vault mindfulness and meditation as a magical cure, especially in the beginning when it's difficult to do. “Meditation is not going to solve all your problems,” he warned.
One of the biggest problems of the study of mindfulness as a field is the fact that there isn’t a uniform way by which people can describe mindfulness and meditation. There are many practices—from transcendental to more rudimentary “focus and breathe” practices—of varying intensities, practiced by a wide demographic of people. “Just like sports is a word that refers to many practices, so too it is with meditation; different kinds of meditation changes the brain in different ways,” Davidson said.
The tiny community of scientists who are attempting to understand how mindfulness affects the brain have had to be creative in their study design to make their experiments rigorous, believable, and above all, replicable. Davidson described his study design as one that is similar to drug studies: “One group is meditating, the other is doing something to improve wellbeing but not meditating,” he said. “We ask whether meditating caused these changes in the brain and in health. We have to make sure they’re not simply correlates. Using rigorous randomized trials, we can definitely ascertain that meditation is causing these changes and is not ancillary.”
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge scientists are grappling with—being able to prove that practicing attention and self-reflection in a very specific way can change the brain in measurable ways. Proving this used to be impossible, but in an age where magnetic resonance machines are widely available to peer into the brain’s electrical activity and where medical measurement of indicators is better than ever before, there's reason to believe that we are incredibly close to proving how mindfulness can alter the architecture of the mind—or not.
Indeed, Davidson and others have found positive effects to the brain from mindfulness, though even Davidson admitted that the scientific study of meditation and mindfulness are in its infant stages. Another meta-analysis, this time in Brain and Cognition in October 2016, found that even eight weeks of mindfulness practice is as effective in bringing long-term structural changes in brain architecture: “Demonstrable functional and structural changes in the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, insula and hippocampus are similar to changes described in studies on traditional meditation practice,” the study authors conclude.
Indeed, Davidson’s work has noticed similar structural changes in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas. The prefrontal cortex processes complex social behavior and decisionmaking and is instrumental in developing our personality and reactions to situations we’re faced with. The hippocampus is a co-worker in this regard, lying on each side of the brain and acting as the crux of emotion, memory, and neurological activity. Together, the two may be affected by mindfulness’s focus and attention, a universal similarity across practices that scientists have only recently been able to track.
“One of the opportunities we have today is to track plasticity in both the brain and the body with unprecedented precision,” Davidson said. “These can change very dynamically even after just a couple hours of training; you can see structural changes occurring.”
“It’s wild, we didn’t think it could happen that quickly.”
Davidson said that future work will have to hone in on tracking exactly when and how these changes occur, and whether the genome, which constitutes our DNA and is instrumental in determining the plasticity of the brain, can be regulated—huge, because if mindfulness and meditation can turn on or off genetic expression, it can fundamentally change not only our health but our aging and immune processes at a micro level without the need for invasive technology or medication.
That science, however blurry, seems to suggest that at the very least, mindfulness needs to be investigated more to come up with both a clearer idea of exactly what's going on in the caverns of the brain when we stop, breathe, and focus.
The fact that science supports this has moved the mindfulness movement from the sphere of insanity to potential life hack. And with the boost of science, it's become much more accepted.
Meditation Goes Mainstream
Davidson, the prominent neuroscientist who has studied mindfulness, has been meditating and actively practicing mindfulness for 40 years, and said that the practice has been key to not only helping him work but also inform his research. “Yes, I find tremendous benefit,” he said. “I lead a very active and busy life. I have 100 people working and living in a competitive environment. It helps me enormously.”
Davidson’s busy schedule is a striking theme found among proponents of meditation and mindfulness: Almost every single person who spoke about their experience in mindfulness pointed to it being a reaction to and helpful aid in their busy schedules. And everyone blamed technology and social media as one of the driving reasons why they looked to mindfulness as not an escape, but a way to deal with modern life.
Kelly Carlin (the daughter of comedian George) is a meditation teacher that said that certainly grief of losing her mother more than 20 years ago made her turn to mindfulness as a way to try to make sense of the world. She went to a Vietnamese zen master and almost immediately saw the benefits. “When you do a behavior in your life, there are consequences,” she said. “You’re more calmer, you’re more centered, you're better able to handle stress.”
Carlin said that in the past, she'd had panic disorders, anxiety, and depression, but her practice has helped ease those conditions. And her personal experience backs up the brain restructuring that Davidson found in his research: She reported feeling “less reactive, with more time and space to be less judgmental about the thing that's happening and choosing your response then.”
The very thing that broke the camel's back and made Carlin think about teaching meditation and mindfulness in the first place was feeling “on” all the time. “The first thing that mindfulness teaches is to stop and pause,” she said, regardless of discipline. “That is the exact opposite of what we do at work and our lives. Mindfulness rewires your brain, it does not need to be in full chatter mode or brewing over the past.
“It’s a profound act of rebellion,” she added. “It’s not raging against the machine; it’s pausing against the machine.”
Harris, for his part, has a far simpler means by which he knows meditation and mindfulness is working for him, and while the emerging science of it certainly helped buy him into the practice, it's not the structural changes in his brain that he's staying on for. “Are you less of an asshole?” he said. “All you have to do is ask your spouse or other people. We might start meditating because we think our prefrontal cortex will change, but we keep meditating because we’re less of an asshole to ourselves and others. Our inner weather is balmier, and that’s not scientific, but that’s okay.”
What Harris put so simply—“Are you less of an asshole?”—is perhaps the underlying, unspoken benchmark for why more people are becoming fans of mindfulness and meditation, and what makes it increasingly appealing to people who aren’t necessarily “alternative.” Roth said his clientele includes Hollywood celebrities, but also includes “normal” people—teachers, parents, business people. He pointed to his blazer and jeans more than once and said, “I’m not what you’d imagine a meditation teacher to be!” What made Roth, Harris, Carlin, and millions of others more interested in mindfulness hasn't been made measurable yet, but they’re okay with it.
Davidson, for his part, thinks the adoption of mindfulness as part of a daily routine is going to go from roll-your-eyes-at-the-health-nut to accepted, unquestioned behavior, the way a person won’t budge heads for changing into shorts and going out for a jog. He said that history was a good indicator of this. “The percentage of the population that engaged in physical exercise was much smaller than it is today [decades ago],” he pointed out before making a prediction: “People exercise because scientific research shows benefits. We will see a day when mental exercise will be commonly practiced as today, as personal mental hygiene.”
That day could be very soon.