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Meditation as Medicine for Loneliness

A recent study finds that meditation can be neuro-therapeutic

A recent scientific report suggests that Buddhist-style meditation has a discernible (and beneficial) effect on brain function, especially among elderly people suffering from various consequences of loneliness and depression. Before describing and commenting on this finding, I would like to note that one of the most appealing aspects of Buddhism (at least for me) is its compatibility with science. According to the Dalai Lama,

“Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that this fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must then accept the result of the scientific research.”

The comfortable fit between Buddhism and empirical science has been facilitated by several teachings, of which perhaps the most important is the “Kalama Sutra.” In it, the Buddha advises his audience (people known as the Kalamas) how to deal with the bewildering diversity of conflicting claims on the part of various Brahmins and itinerant monks:

“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.”

These words of the Kalama Sutra are not only quite straight-forward, they also fit nicely into the Western scientific tradition: The Royal Society of London, whose full name was the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, and which was the world’s first – and for a long time, the foremost – scientific society, has as its credo, Nullius in verba – “On the words of no one.”

My own interest in the science-Buddhism interface has focused not on the already well-traveled (and, I fear somewhat fanciful) avenues that purportedly link Buddhism to quantum physics, or even on currently popular elaborations of how meditation impacts the human brain, but rather, what I see as something deeper and more ultimately consequential, namely the notable convergences between Buddhism and biology more generally, especially in the realms of ecology, evolution, genetics, and development.

For his part, the Dalai Lama has long had a genuine scientific interest in mind-brain correlations, such that he was the invited plenary speaker at the huge Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in November, 2005. He eventually spoke on “The Neuroscience of Meditation,” but before doing so, his very invitation caused an uproar. There was a protest petition, which garnered about 1,000 signatures, mostly from scientists worried about religion invading science, and thereby degrading it. In any event, his lecture touched on something that has also received a great deal of attention, probably much more than it deserves: namely, the question of whether meditation actually causes bona fide changes in brain function among those who engage in it. Evidently, it does.

The recent study that generated the piece you are now reading thus fits into a rapidly developing tradition linking neurobiology and meditation. Indeed, the scientific world – and not just that of lay-persons – was abuzz some time ago when a group at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, led by professor of psychology Richard J. Davidson, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (probably the most prestigious scientific publication in the US), that Tibetan Buddhists who had practiced serious meditation for many years had brain-wave patterns that differed consistently from those of a non-meditating control group.

But why should anyone have been surprised? The meditators had engaged in years of prolonged and, indeed, arduous mental training, which involved from 10,000 to 50,000 hours of serious meditation. Compared to “healthy student volunteers,” they exhibited “high-amplitude gamma synchrony.” Wouldn’t it be even more surprising if such experiences didn’t generate some sort of discernible effect in their brains?

If you examine the brain functioning of people who have been watching seven hours of television per day, I daresay you would find changes in their cerebral functioning, too. Ditto for anyone reading this post, or yearning to scratch an itch. The point is not to “disrespect” any of the growing pile meditation-neurobiology research results, but to note the degree to which even educated, scientifically sophisticated individuals remain incredulous at the revelation that mind and brain are connected. Somehow, the very fact that meditation generates reportable brain changes continues to be widely seen as making this ancient Buddhist practice more legitimate. In my simple and not-so-humble opinion, such legitimation is simply not needed.

Although it is interesting.

Most intriguing, in the case of the research that prompted the written meditation you are now reading – and which was titled “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training Reduces Loneliness and Pro-inflammatory Gene Expression in Older Adults: A small randomized controlled trial” – is the fact that meditation appears not only to exert an effect on the brains of meditators (as already noted, no surprise there!), but that the impact seems to be medically beneficial (once again, no surprise here, either, at least for those of us who already know, via our own subjective experience, that meditation feels good). It is certainly notable, however, that meditation is actually therapeutic in these cases, if only because such practise – even when conducted in the presence of others – is necessarily solitary, or at least, inward-looking. Hence, it would not have been surprising if meditation, at least when conducted by individuals who had lacked prior experience in the practise, had actually experienced a short-term increase in dukkha.

Evidently, part of this beneficent impact occurs via the impact of meditation on “gene expression,” which simply means that the particular experience of meditating impacts whether certain genes become activated, and/or to what extent. This, too, is to be expected, since the current state of biological knowledge suggests that gene activation is one of the most common mechanisms whereby experiences induce biochemical consequences.

I don’t mean to minimize or in any way demean this finding in question, and certainly not the value of meditating! Although I am not a neurobiologist, my reading of the research findings strongly suggests that the results are genuine: the experimental design was apropriate, as were the statistics employed, although a larger sample size will be needed to confirm that they are “robust,” before concluding that meditation should be added to the medical armamentarium of those seeking to ameliorate some of the more painful effects of aging and loneliness. Without going into the biochemical details, it seems that meditation inhibits the release of “pro-inflammatory” molecules, and that such inhibition increases the subjective well-being of sufferers. To quote the study’s authors, “This work provides an initial indication that [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] may be a novel treatment approach for reducing loneliness and related pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults.”

In her essay, “Six kinds of loneliness,” Pema Chodron wrote that

“we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or some-one to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle [of meditation], we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”

If the research finding herein discussed holds up, care-givers will have gained an additional technique – inexpensive, non-threatening, lacking in negative side-effects – to help restrain those “fearful patterns” of heartache, thereby reducing the world’s pain and suffering (dukkha, in Buddhist-speak) in a meaningful and skillful manner.

This post originally appeared in Turning Wheel, the on-line magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship; re-posted by permission.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist, and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.