The Omnibus Cure

By disengaging attention, meditation may be the best way to liberate the captured mind.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published May 2, 2016 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

 winding path
Photo by Istockphoto

"I was really shocked," says John Gartner, a psychologist based in New York and Baltimore. He had expected to see positive results from meditation both in the literature and in his clinical work. "But I was taken aback that meditation was as effective as medication or psychotherapy for every disorder we treat." It's now such a mainstay in his practice—he specializes in treating people with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder—that no one exits a first session without 10 minutes of instruction in meditation and downloading on their cell phone a free app for guided meditation.

"I work with people who are impulse-ridden," Gartner explains. Training them to focus on their breath doesn't stop their thoughts; it interposes distance and delay so they can pay less attention to them. "They can let the thoughts pass without being compelled by them." For his patients that translates to less damage to their lives, less drama, and  fewer crises in interpersonal relationships.

The technique, Gartner reports, is wholly effective with all patients who comply, which is most of them, if only to put a stop to his insistence. "It helps everybody, because it addresses a problem that everybody has," says Gartner. "We all have an omniscient narrator in our head who is harsh and negative commenting on our life. Having a voice constantly urging us to do better undoubtedly has some survival value—but it can make us miserable." Meditation reduces the power the voice has over us. 

"Even those who suffer the most are not broken," says David A. Kessler. "Everyone is biologically susceptible to capture, just at different thresholds."

Studies show that meditation gives schizophrenics the ability to pay less attention to and give less credence to the voices in their heads. For those with anxiety or depression, meditation stops the cycle of obsessive rumination and self-recrimination—the infinite loop David Foster Wallace was trapped in. Those with addictions gain a means of releasing themselves from their compulsions, even if they thought such a choice was not available to them before.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is an assistant professor of psychology, Kirk Brown has been exploring just what meditation does to the brain and how. Using EEG, he can see the processes of attention and emotion unfolding millisecond by millisecond. Almost automatically, early in the course of turning attention to a stimulus, he finds, the brain appraises it, rendering a judgment and setting off an emotional response. "Mindfulness intervenes early in the appraisal process—200 milliseconds in—and effortlessly changes the way we attend to the stimulus, which changes everything else."

Compared to meditation, which specifically targets the attention system, psychopharmacology is a "blunt instrument," says Gartner. The serotonin system, for example, is a kind of shock absorber, he points out. Giving drugs that boost serotonin to mitigate repetitive negative thoughts of depression also reduces other sensations and experiences—most notably sexual sensations. "Meditation should be our first resort," he says, "not our last resort."

Read more in our feature "Captives of the Mind".