You may be wondering why mindfulness seems to have become a buzzword in the past couple of years, with more companies offering mindfulness at work programs, radio shows discussing the benefits or even some of your friends getting into it. Or you may be a long-term meditator wondering why it seems to have taken until now for the West to get interested. What is special about this particular time in history that has caused a resurgence of a practice that has existed for thousands of years?
In a nutshell, it’s not a trend or a phase. I believe that meditation today is going through a boom similar to the jogging boom of the late 60s, and that like jogging, will only continue to grow in popularity and soon be perceived as an unremarkable or normal part of a healthy lifestyle. In this post I’ll briefly lay out how relatively recent advances in our understanding of the brain and research into the neurological effects of meditation are shifting the public perception of meditation. From a pseudo-religious, hippy, potentially cultish, fringe activity to a rationally advisable thing to do based on cutting-edge science.
When Ron Burgundy can’t remember how to pronounce jogging, it’s funny, but it’s also not that far-fetched. In the 70s when Anchorman is set, jogging was only just coming onto the scene and was still regarded by many as a strange thing to do. That’s hard to believe today when it has become the go-to physical exercise for many people but not that long ago you might have heard someone ask you, ‘What are you running from?’.
You can understand the jogging boom in the 70s and 80s when you look at two key drivers; an acute public health concern and the development of our understanding of the cardiovascular system. The term hypokinetic was coined in the 60s to describe the growing number of diseases being caused by sedentary lifestyles. At the same time, cardiologists started to understand the importance of physical exercise which had previously been seen as a strain on the body and to be avoided. These two factors; a public need and new science, created the perfect conditions for jogging to spread and today we see it as something that is pretty reasonable to do if you want to keep healthy.
Today’s explosion of meditation in public awareness has similar roots in a bed of new neuroscience and a growing desire for improved mental wellbeing. Whilst meditation remains a pretty ‘out there’ activity in many people’s minds, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine a future where it is considered a completely natural, if not encouraged, thing to do to maintain a healthy mind. The evidence is mounting and we are already starting to see trials of mindfulness in schools. So what exactly has changed recently to bring meditation to the fore?
The WHO reports that mental health in now among the leading causes for poor health and disability worldwide. One in six people were found to have mental disorders in 2016 and one in four people will experience mental disorders at some point in their lives. 1 This rise is attributed primarily to the global shift to urban living (since 2008 more people live in cities than in rural areas 2) and the associated increase in daily pressures and complexities as well as the impact of technology created distractions. Also note that these statistics report diagnosable disorders and therefore do not include otherwise healthy people who are reporting a poorer quality of life due to increased levels of stress and anxiety.
Now to be clear, I am not claiming that meditation is a panacea to the world’s mental health issues. In fact there is a lot of hype out there which I want to avoid, these issues are far more complex than “Keep calm and meditate”. I’ll be exploring the science of the effects of meditation for a number of mental health conditions, stress and anxiety in future posts. However, it is clear that there is a general public desire and need for tools that can support a healthy mind in the face of the challenges of modern life. This shift towards a general awareness and demand for mental wellbeing is highlighted in GlobalData’s 2017 consumer trends report that shows that “consumers’ perceptions of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle now encompass not only a feeling of physical fitness, but a broader sense of emotional wellbeing” 3. They point to the recent success of companies like Just Chill, MyMoodTracker, Sleep Cycle, etc. The bottom line is that people want to feel less stressed, happier and emotionally balanced, driving the search for cheap and effective solutions.
Science (sometimes) drives decisions
For most of the Western world, science has become the gold standard for guiding many of the decisions we make about our daily lives but until very recently, science hasn’t had much to say about meditation. Although many cultures have maintained for millennia that meditation is valuable, or even fundamentally important, it has been largely ignored since the benefits and experiences are by definition subjective (and are often difficult to separate from a religious context). Science, on the other hand, only deals with objective reality, or at least until very recently. The field of neuroscience (which didn’t exist in its current form before the 80s) is now providing new lenses through which to investigate the subjective experience of meditation with the objectivity of science. In particular, two key recent developments allow us to study meditation in ways previously impossible; the discovery of brain plasticity and advances in brain studying technology.
Before the discovery of brain plasticity in the 80s, we believed that the wiring of our brains didn’t change after we reached adulthood, except for a slow deterioration as we get older. We understood actions and behaviours to be a consequence of this wiring and that there wasn’t much we could do to change this. This is why, in the 60s, when meditation teachings first made their way to the West, brain science was uninterested. There was no mechanism that we knew of by which meditating could actually making lasting changes to our brain. The feeling was, ‘OK, maybe there are some altered states you can reach but it won’t actually change you.’
This began to change when we discovered the plasticity of the brain and realised that the brain is actually changing all the time, being re-wired with every thought, perception and action. We figured out that when we do something, the neural networks involved in that action are strengthened. Like paths in a forest, the more we do something the more that path is strengthened and the easier the action becomes. A good example of how this works is a study which examined the brains of accomplished violinists. They found that the motor cortex, the area engaged when performing complicated finger movements, was much larger than in non-musicians. This demonstrates that practicing something changes the physical wiring and structure of the brain. (For more on this and a page-turning introduction to the brain in general check out Brain by David Eagleman.)
Suddenly, our understanding of the brain leaves open the possibility that something interesting, worth investigating, might be happening to our brains when meditating. The research didn’t take off immediately, partly because of the perceived clash between science and spirituality, but also because we didn’t have the technology to investigate it properly. Which brings us to…
Brain science technology
The second key development is big leaps forward in technology such as EEG, fMRI and MRI which allow us to study the brain. These technologies are used to measure electrical activity, blood flow and structural changes respectively and in future posts I will be looking at the details of what each of these technologies can tell us about the meditating brain. The important point here is that these methods give a direct window into what is happening inside the brain, which was not available before. In the early days of meditation, research experimenters were limited to subjective reporting or less direct indicators of internal states such as heart rate, sweat response, etc. This meant that the results simply weren’t that insightful and in fact very few of the studies from before 2010 are considered rigorous enough to represent true evidence of meditation’s effects.
(Goldman & Davidson, 2017) 4
Since 2010, the number of studies on meditation has exploded and the academic community is beginning to make sense of all the results and form an early picture of what we think is going on in the brain. Check out my post on what meditation does to the brain and body for an overview of this or even better, check out Altered Traits by Harvard neuroscientists Daniel Goldman and Richard Davidson. Altered Traits is probably the best book out there about the neuroscience of meditation, it’s a surprisingly fun read and they lay out everything science knows about meditation so far (as of 2017).
Where will this lead?
So why does this matter? I think the boom in people’s awareness of meditation is incredibly exciting. As we begin to understand the benefits and more people make it a part of their lives, the knock-on effect in society is potentially very powerful. So many of the challenges we face today have roots in behaviours arising from fear-based thinking, a lack of compassion and poor emotional intelligence. I see this boom as the dissemination of a tool that has been proven to address these issues and that can be used to create a healthier collective outlook, better relationships and a generally more mindful society. We are beginning to see trials of mediation techniques in schools 5 and imagining a future world where children are brought up with the tools to understand and control their own minds from day one inspires serious optimism!
Also, as we learn more about the mechanisms in the brain that are being changed during meditation we may see a wave of new techniques and technologies which leverage this new understanding and make it easier for us to benefit from meditation with more efficient approaches. We can already see this with the slew of meditation apps released in the last two years as well as wearable biofeedback tools like the Muse headband. Who knows what the world would look like if enlightenment was democratised and easily accessible? Terms like ‘enlightenment engineering’ and ‘consciousness hacking’ have been bouncing around for a few years now, I’m really looking forward to seeing where our new understanding takes us.
Thank you so much for reading this far, if you have any questions, comments or topics you would like me to explore, please let me know below.
TLDR: The fact that we need it more than ever, combined with the fact that we are beginning to understand and quantify the benefits scientifically, means that we will see meditation become increasingly mainstream in the coming years. It is exciting to speculate about what this could mean for the future.