Extras » The Straight Dope

Everything Zen? I don't think so

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I'm curious if science has made any inquiries into enlightenment via meditation, including Zen Buddhism and similar methods. If you strip out all of the mythological and moral aspects of it, Zen is little more than a way of training yourself to not think—to stop the internal verbal monologue. As I understand it, enlightenment means you have completely and permanently rid yourself of this monologue, bringing about major changes. Since thinking is a biological/electrical process, isn't this sort of thing measurable? Has there been any scientific investigation of this? —Adam Price

Oh, there's been plenty. Longtime readers will recall the studies years ago by the Transcendental Meditation people, which among other things purported to show that a critical mass of meditation had reduced the violence in Lebanon. I have a special mantra I use when I come across claims like that: riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

There's no wide agreement on what meditation is. Meditation as practiced by Christian monks, to cite the most obvious division, bears minimal resemblance to what their Buddhist brethren do. Even within the Eastern tradition, which is where one tends to see the extinction-of-individual-consciousness thing you're talking about, we find a variety of techniques.

Some would argue these boil down to a basic two: concentrative meditation, also known as focused attention, where one concentrates on an object (a mantra, one's own breathing); and "mindfulness," where "the mind passively observes the spontaneous experience," as one writer puts it. How does one accomplish the latter? At the risk of being thought cretinous, I'd say it sounds the same as concentrative meditation, except you don't say "om."

As for what Zen is "little more than" — that's a typically reductive Western way of looking at things, grasshopper. Nonetheless, we do have a host of meditation practitioners making testable claims—for example, the TM crowd declares their technique improves cognitive function and increases intelligence. It's to such folk we now turn.

• Two studies of more than 100 meditation novices who were taught mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes a day found noticeable changes in brain connectivity and white matter function in just two weeks, and significant improvements after four weeks.

• A study of Zen meditation practitioners with an average of 23 years of experience found their brain connectivity was significantly greater than that of controls.

So, does meditation produce measurable physiological effects? I concede it's possible, although I don't see anything suggesting meditators have somehow "permanently rid themselves of the monologue," as you put it. But let's take up a more important question: does meditation do you any actual good?

You can find mounds of research asserting that it does. A few items plucked from the stack:

• Women who'd practiced TM for an average of 23 years were found to be a much lower risk for heart problems than controls.

• A study of stress-reduction techniques for black men and women, a population disproportionately prone to cardiovascular disease, found that after eight years of TM training practitioners were only two-thirds as likely as a control group to have died or suffered a nonfatal heart attack or stroke.

I admire determination. However, an element of wishful thinking is surely involved here. Investigators funded by the NIH's alternative-medicine group who analyzed 813 studies of five different meditation techniques offered this summary: "Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterized by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation practices in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence."

Translation: the research sucks and doesn't prove squat.

CS

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