Blast from the Past

I spent much of January hunting through the Scientific American digital archives, looking for readings to assign in place of a textbook for my Spring course on learning. The archives stretched further in time than I had realized, with a 1949 biography of Pavlov (of salivating dog fame) and a 1951 article  by Skinner (of training pigeons to play ping pong and guide missiles fame) making their way into my course. The real surprise, though, was an article I stumbled upon while searching for “operant conditioning“, of all things: an article called “The Physiology of Meditation“….from 1972.

Meditation was already an ancient art in the 1970s, of course, but the scientific study of meditation must have been in its infancy. My understanding of that time was that studying meditation would be seen as out-there as ESP, with only senior, tenured researchers having the security to take the risk of treating it with any expectation of scientific credibility. I did not think it would already have made its way into Scientific American. (Now, of course, it’s surprising when a scientific magazine or journal doesn’t have some sort of reference to “contemplative science”).

Which means I was naturally curious: just what did a respectable scientific magazine have to say about meditation research in the 70s?

Some things have not changed at all; the opening paragraph on the article at times reads as if it was written today:

“How capable is the human organism of adjusting to psychologically disturbing changes in the environment? Our technological age is probably testing this capacity more severely than it was ever tested in the past. The impact of the rapid changes – unprecedented in scale, complexity and novelty – that technology is bringing about in our world seems to be having a deleterious effect on the mental and physical health of modem man.

There’s a slightly stilted scientific bent to some phrasing, and something called “nervous stomach” in place of today’s “anxiety disorder”, but the basic perspective motivating meditation research was apparently the same four decades ago as it is now.

The way researchers went about investigating the benefits of meditation, though, has changed drastically…an invitation for volunteer meditators to practice gratitude meditation, perhaps, because the instruments of the past do not sound comfortable. The state of the neuroscientific art in the early 1970s was EEG (those swimming caps full of electrodes); PET and fMRI to get a glimpse inside the skull were distant dreams. This made getting objective, non-touchy-feely data on meditation was downright invasive.

The first page of the Scientific American article shows just how committed the volunteers must have been: it is a full-page photograph of a meditator hooked up to a large apparatus, with the catheter used to draw blood every 10 minutes in prominent display. The text of the article paints an even more uncomfortable picture, revealing that hidden in that picture are “devices for continuous measurement of blood pressure, heart rate, rectal temperature, skin resistance and electroencephalographic events”. I think we can safely say that if volunteering for a meditation study still required that kind of invasive measurement, we would not have the proliferation of meditation studies we see today.

The volunteers themselves were mostly men, with an average of two years of practice in “transcendental meditation”. Their willingness to meditate as a medical procedure revealed some of the first compelling claims about the benefits of meditation, namely:

  • Meditation stimulates better blood flow without changing blood pressure, revealed by a dramatic decrease in blood levels of lactic acid (which happens any time we rest, but at a much slower rate); excess lactic acid is apparently linked to anxiety, and may trigger panic attacks.
  • Meditation also increases skin resistance – almost quadruples it, in fact – the opposite effect of strong emotions and anxiety, which cause skin resistance to drop (because anxiety makes us subtly sweatier, and water is a conductor).
  • Meditation changes the pattern of activity in the brain, increasing alpha waves, particularly in the frontal regions of the brain.

Sadly, there is no mention of any finding related to body temperature, so at least one probe appears to have been inserted in vain.

I owe my discovery of this article to the concluding paragraphs, where the authors make the case that this pattern of changes is distinct we see from hypnosis, or sleep, or from any type of conditioned response. In other words, meditation must be its own unique mental state. This idea has gone from avant garde to mainstream, and the research has moved from justifying it to deciding how we can take advantage of it. I wonder if that is a long way to come in 40 years, or not yet far enough.



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