By DANIEL GOLEMAN, New York Times, February 4, 2003
All too many years ago, while I was still a psychology
graduate student, I ran an experiment to assess how well meditation might
work as an antidote to stress. My professors were skeptical, my measures
were weak, and my subjects were mainly college sophomores. Not surprisingly,
my results were inconclusive.
But today I feel vindicated.
To be sure, over the years there have been scores of
studies that have looked at meditation, some suggesting its powers to
alleviate the adverse effects of stress. But only last month did what I see
as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky hypothesis, by revealing the
brain mechanism that may account for meditation's singular ability to
The data has emerged as one of many experimental
fruits of an unlikely research collaboration: the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan
religious and political leader in exile, and some of top psychologists and
neuroscientists from the United States. The scientists met with the Dalai
Lama for five days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to discuss how
people might better control their destructive emotions.
One of my personal heroes in this rapprochement
between modern science and ancient wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson, director
of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin.
Dr. Davidson, in recent research using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG
analysis, has identified an index for the brain's set point for moods.
The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people
are emotionally distressed - anxious, angry, depressed - the most active
sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the
brain's emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region
important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.
By contrast, when people are in positive moods -
upbeat, enthusiastic and energized - those sites are quiet, with the
heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.
Indeed, Dr. Davidson has discovered what he believes
is a quick way to index a person's typical mood range, by reading the
baseline levels of activity in these right and left prefrontal areas. That
ratio predicts daily moods with surprising accuracy. The more the ratio
tilts to the right, the more unhappy or distressed a person tends to be,
while the more activity to the left, the more happy and enthusiastic.
By taking readings on hundreds of people, Dr.
Davidson has established a bell curve distribution, with most people in the
middle, having a mix of good and bad moods. Those relatively few people who
are farthest to the right are most likely to have a clinical depression or
anxiety disorder over the course of their lives. For those lucky few
farthest to the left, troubling moods are rare and recovery from them is
This may explain other kinds of data suggesting a
biologically determined set point for our emotional range. One finding, for
instance, shows that both for people lucky enough to win a lottery and those
unlucky souls who become paraplegic from an accident, by a year or so after
the events their daily moods are about the same as before the momentous
occurrences, indicating that the emotional set point changes little, if at
By chance, Dr. Davidson had the opportunity to test
the left-right ratio on a senior Tibetan lama, who turned out to have the
most extreme value to the left of the 175 people measured to that point.
Dr. Davidson reported that remarkable finding during
the meeting between the Dalai Lama and the scientists in India. But the
finding, while intriguing, raised more questions than it answered.
Was it just a quirk, or a trait common among those
who become monks? Or was there something about the training of lamas - the
Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a priest or spiritual teacher - that might
nudge a set point into the range for perpetual happiness? And if so, the
Dalai Lama wondered, can it be taken out of the religious context to be
shared for the benefit of all?
A tentative answer to that last question has come
from a study that Dr. Davidson did in collaboration with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn,
founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University
of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
That clinic teaches mindfulness to patients with
chronic diseases of all kinds, to help them better handle their symptoms. In
an article accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal
Psychosomatic Medicine, Drs. Davidson and Kabat-Zinn report the effects of
training in mindfulness meditation, a method extracted from its Buddhist
origins and now widely taught to patients in hospitals and clinics
throughout the United States and many other countries.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught mindfulness to workers in a
high-pressure biotech business for roughly three hours a week over two
months. A comparison group of volunteers from the company received the
training later, though they, like the participants, were tested before and
after training by Dr. Davidson and his colleagues.
The results bode well for beginners, who will never
put in the training time routine for lamas. Before the mindfulness training,
the workers were on average tipped toward the right in the ratio for the
emotional set point. At the same time, they complained of feeling highly
stressed. After the training, however, on average their emotions ratio
shifted leftward, toward the positive zone. Simultaneously, their moods
improved; they reported feeling engaged again in their work, more energized
and less anxious.
In short, the results suggest that the emotion set
point can shift, given the proper training. In mindfulness, people learn to
monitor their moods and thoughts and drop those that might spin them toward
distress. Dr. Davidson hypothesizes that it may strengthen an array of
neurons in the left prefrontal cortex that inhibits the messages from the
amygdala that drive disturbing emotions.
Another benefit for the workers, Dr. Davidson
reported, was that mindfulness seemed to improve the robustness of their
immune systems, as gauged by the amount of flu antibodies in their blood
after receiving a flu shot.
According to Dr. Davidson, other studies suggest
that if people in two experimental groups are exposed to the flu virus,
those who have learned the mindfulness technique will experience less severe
symptoms. The greater the leftward shift in the emotional set point, the
larger the increase in the immune measure.
The mindfulness training focuses on learning to
monitor the continuing sensations and thoughts more closely, both in sitting
meditation and in activities like yoga exercises.
Now, with the Dalai Lama's blessing, a trickle of
highly trained lamas have come to be studied. All of them have spent at
least three years in solitary meditative retreat. That amount of practice
puts them in a range found among masters of other domains, like Olympic
divers and concert violinists.
What difference such intense mind training may make
for human abilities has been suggested by preliminary findings from other
laboratories. Some of the more tantalizing data come from the work of
another scientist, Dr. Paul Ekman, director of the Human Interaction
Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, which studies
the facial expression of emotions.
Dr. Ekman also participated in the five days of
dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Dr. Ekman has developed a measure of how well
a person can read another's moods as telegraphed in rapid, slight changes in
As Dr. Ekman describes in "Emotions Revealed," to be
published by Times Books in April, these microexpressions - ultrarapid
facial actions, some lasting as little as one-twentieth of a second - lay
bare our most naked feelings.
We are not aware we are making them; they cross our
faces spontaneously and involuntarily, and so reveal for those who can read
them our emotion of the moment, utterly uncensored.
Perhaps luckily, there is a catch: almost no one can
read these moments.
Though Dr. Ekman's book explains how people can
learn to detect these expressions in just hours with proper training, his
testing shows that most people - including judges, the police and
psychotherapists - are ordinarily no better at reading microexpressions than
someone making random guesses.
Yet when Dr. Ekman brought into the laboratory two
Tibetan practitioners, one scored perfectly on reading three of six emotions
tested for, and the other scored perfectly on four. And an American teacher
of Buddhist meditation got a perfect score on all six, considered quite
rare. Normally, a random guess will produce one correct answer in six.
Such findings, along with urgings from the Dalai
Lama, inspired Dr. Ekman to design a program called "Cultivating Emotional
Balance," which combines methods extracted from Buddhism, like mindfulness,
with synergistic training from modern psychology, like reading
microexpressions, and seeks to help people better manage their emotions and
relationships. A pilot of the project began last month with elementary
school teachers in the San Francisco Bay area, under the direction of Dr.
Margaret Kemeny, a professor of behavioral medicine at the University of
California at San Francisco. She hopes to replicate Dr. Davidson's immune
system findings on mindfulness, as well as adding other measures of
emotional and social skill, in a controlled trial with 120 nurses and
Finally, the scientific momentum of these initial
forays has intrigued other investigators. Under the auspices of the Mind and
Life Institute, which organizes the series of continuing meetings between
the Dalai Lama and scientists, there will be a round at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology on Sept. 13 and 14. This time the Dalai Lama will
meet with an expanded group of researchers to discuss further research
Though open to the public, half the seats will be
reserved for graduate students and academic researchers. (More information
As for me, I am taking all this to heart. An
on-again, off-again meditator since my college days, I have become decidedly
on again. Next month, my wife and I are heading to a warm spot for two or
three weeks of meditation retreat. I may never catch up with that sublime
lama, but I will enjoy trying.