Translating the meditation research

There isn’t nearly enough time in life for all the useful things you could do. I always have far more fantasy projects going than real ones. In moments of undirected creativity or sudden enthusiasm, I tinker with the fantasies. I take notes, draw sketches, rant about them to friends. Most stay fantasies;  after years of gestation, some burst into reality.

Naljorma gZa’tsal and I have a shared fantasy project: explaining current neuroscience research on meditation in a way that could be useful to meditators.

This research is wildly exciting because it confirms that meditation actually works the way it is supposed to. Maybe that doesn’t seem like such a big deal… For example, I’ve been meditating for decades, and it has certainly seemed to me that it works as advertised.

The problem is, it’s extremely easy to fool yourself about things like this. Many of my friends have spend decades practicing “alternative therapies,” and are totally confident—based on experience—that they work. I’m totally confident that they don’t work. There are so many ways to convince yourself something is working that doesn’t—unless you can actually measure it.

And even that is hugely difficult. I worked in pharmaceutical R&D for a few years. Those guys spend hundreds of millions of dollars just to find out whether a single drug candidate actually works. “Hundreds of millions of dollars” translates into “hundreds of extremely smart people working full time for several years.” You don’t spend those kinds of resources unless you think there’s a good chance of success; and you don’t base that estimate on “intuition” or “visionary experiences” or “ancient wisdom.” And then still it usually turns out the damn thing doesn’t work.

But the recent science on meditation is totally unambiguous. The effects are huge, unmistakable, repeatable, unassailable.

Meditation works!

Hot damn! We weren’t fooling ourselves!

Even better, different types of meditation do different dramatic things in the brain, and the parts of the brain each involves usually have known functions that correspond directly with the traditionally-claimed effects of that type of meditation.  So not only does meditation in general work, the different types of meditation do the things they were always claimed to.

New results along these lines are published frequently in scientific journals. But so far, there seems to be little attempt to translate them into terms that would make sense to people who are interested in meditation but who wouldn’t read scientific journals. This seems like it could be valuable.

It’s hard to motivate yourself to meditate. Knowing that it really works, and works really well (and it’s not just a bunch of flaky New Age space cadets saying so) could help some people get their butts on a cushion.

And, knowing how meditation works, in terms of the brain, may make it easier. We could hope that being able to observe it would help optimize it. Meditation is ridiculously difficult; maybe it could be much easier if we had better tech.

Naljorma gZa’tsal, like me, is a student in the Aro lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and has been meditating for decades.  She has a background in clinical neuroscience; I have some background in basic neuroscience. We both can read the journal literature and understand it. We’re both enthusiastic about the project.

And we both have our hands full with other things. So, thus far, this remains a fantasy. Neither of us has time even to read many of the articles, much less to translate them for meditators.

But, this project is closer to the surface than many of my other ones. gZa’tsal and I have talked about setting up a joint site for writing about this, and maybe sometime we’ll do that.

For now, I may occasionally post something here on my “casual blog.”  (And maybe she’ll guest-post here sometime too.)

If you come across interesting reports of research on meditation, either in journals or the popular press, maybe you could post pointers here as comments?  That could be useful to us—and perhaps to anyone else interested in this possibility.