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Dharma & Epigenetics: Can Mindfulness Medically Ease Our Loneliness?

loneliness by hotblack

A recent scientific report suggests that 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-travelled (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.

red_coatBut 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 practice – 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 practice, 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 appropriate, 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 Chödrön 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 dukkha in a meaningful and skillful manner.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time 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.

Photos by hotblack.

Comments (21)

  • Mushim

    Wonderful article — thank you. To me, an important question would be to study the effects of what I take to be secularized vipassana (“mindfulness” or insight meditation) on older adults and loneliness, versus the effects of contemplative prayer (done in solitude) on older adults who are devout Christians of. (And, if possible, older adults who are Jews and Muslims with strong faith practices.) Prayer can be a powerful antidote to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Certain Buddhist practices (invoking buddhas and bodhisattvas, for instance) can be similar to prayer in that way. Is mindfulness meditation any more or less effective than contemplative prayer, or devotional Buddhist practice, would be my questions.

  • David P. Barash

    Excellent question! I wish I had an equally excellent answer! There are numerous studies that report various seeming neurobiological benefits of “prayerfulness,” most of them involving traditional Christian techniques. I don’t know of any, however, that seek to answer your question: whether comparing prayer generally to meditation, or evaluating the differing potential neural impact of various kinds of meditation or of prayer. Clearly, there is a lot of important and potentially useful research yet to be done!

  • bezi

    this Kalama sutra is the single statement from Siddhartha which most accurately captures why I consider myself Buddhist. It underscores the empirical aspect of the tradition I appreciate and employ in my own life. Today’s my birthday and like every other day I’m totally alone, though people are all around. I think “alienation” sums it up. Vipassana was the catalyst and things have just intensified over the last decade. Practice and isolation. And somehow I don’t experience terrible and/or prolonged bouts of loneliness. When subject and object become indistinguishable (as the wise ones predict in so many words), you’re really never alone. You experience the world as a whole; everything refracts fractally in everything else. Especially spirals…

    I stumbled onto a strange, intriguing experiment that seems to point to increased brain activity/function. I have to see if it’s repeatable. If so, it would definitely suggest an objective basis for claims about mindfulness and neuroplasticity…

  • Mushim

    Happy Continuation Day, Bezi!

  • bezi

    yup yup… good looking

  • bezi

    by the way: David, Transcendental Meditation (TM) seems to be very well researched, verified and repeated in various domains. Matter of fact:

    http://www.mum.edu/tm_research/bibliography.html

  • Mushim

    When my son was little, around 20 years ago, I told him I’d read that some Asian Buddhists thought that the ushnisha (cranial protuberance) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ushnisha ) found on some Buddha statues meant that the enlightened Buddha’s brain was so big that it needed extra space. I told him that some people believed that the Buddha had “an extra brain,” but some people thought that the ushnisha was a hairdo feature, or a “hairball.” (I’m trying to explain this to a 4 year old.)
    “Which is it?” the kid demanded to know. I said I didn’t know but that, since we were going to soon see Robert Aitken Roshi, one of the founders of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and an old friend to our family, that perhaps we could ask Roshi the question. Aitken Roshi was a scholar and a Zen master.
    Upon being asked the question, “Is the ushnisha an extra brain or a hairball?” Aitken Roshi closed his eyes and thought deeply.
    He then replied, “I believe that after enlightenment the brain reorganizes. It does not grow larger. Therefore, the answer would be: a hairball.”

  • Katie Loncke

    LOL, Mushim.

    excellent story. hairball FTW!

    Happy birthday, bezi! hope you experience much peace and joy in the next vault around the sun.

  • Mushim

    Although the hairball story is humorous, I was actually quite interested that Aitken Roshi said that “the brain reorganizes” as a result of spiritual awakening (enlightenment). Remember, this was around 20 years ago, before all the trendy “new neuroscience” was all the rage among meditators. From an experiential and anecdotal point of view, I can say that I’ve felt my brain reorganize (not due to enlightenment, however) as a result of long Zen meditation retreats. And part of this reorganization was, although it wasn’t experienced in word concepts, that it’s totally impossible for me to be alone, and therefore a feeling of loneliness is more accurately a delusion caused by a false perception of separation. This sounds pedantic, but the actual experience came about when I rinsed my teacup and my hands were wet, and a retreatant silently handed me a dish towel to dry my hands. That’s when I knew I could never be alone.

    Going back to this article, I think it’s also worthwhile asking how ethnicity and family support structure intersects with ageing, loneliness, and mindfulness meditation. In traditional societies, elders are revered and included in as many multi-generational activities as possible. I would think that some elderly people who don’t have these kinds of culturally reinforced support structures might start to meditate, and would become aware that they feel lonely because, socially, they are more alone, or at least in a relatively unnatural kind of isolation compared to how human beings have evolved tribally.

  • Jeff

    A couple of comments on this study: it is encouraging for therapists who use mindfulness exercises to alleviate loneliness, but the results cannot be generalized to show that meditation helps depression, anxiety, or other spiritual ills. Note that out of an initial group of 517, only 40 individuals were selected for randomization after specifically excluding those with “psychiatric problems,” as well as persons on medication, unsuitable for MRI, left-handed, smokers, not interested (despite the $200 compensation), and numerous other reasons not mentioned. Twenty persons completed a standardized 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training program, consisting of 8 weekly 120-minute group sessions, a day-long retreat in the 6th or 7th week, and 30 minutes of daily home mindfulness practice. The other 20 were placed on a “Waiting List” and instructed not to participate in any new behavioral health programs. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were modest improvements in mindfulness skills and loneliness in the treatment group compared to the folks told to just wait. Still, it does give hope that mindfulness training can help those who are lonely – it’s certainly better than doing nothing. Unfortunately, when there is no large corporation waiting in the wings to cash in on a new drug or medical device, this type of research is likely to remain underfunded, small in size, and of limited therapeutic impact.

    Secondly, following up on Mushim’s and Bezi’s perceptive remarks (happy b-day, b-boy!), I’m gonna have to say that the roots of loneliness, fear, anger, and depression in seniors lie more in the social and economic soil than in “mindlessness.” Many older folks live in or near poverty, are beset with medical problems or special needs requiring care they cannot afford, and are often cut off from communities or extended families who have “lives of their own” and can’t provide more than occasional help or companionship. These honorable elders gave their youthful energy and mature experience to build a strong, proud country with the understanding that they would be cared for as they aged, but that promise has been broken. I would feel lonely and depressed too.

    So, by all means, let’s bring meditation, yoga, and the dharma to our suffering seniors, but let’s also fight for their social and political rights against a Congress threatening to cut Social Security and Medicare!

  • David P. Barash

    Thank you, Jeff! You are “right on” – both your sense of the limitations of the study, and with regard to the importance of not simply substituting meditation for the social and political engagement necessary for optimal healing, of society as well as individuals.

  • Jeff

    Thanks, David. After I submitted those comments I realized that a more interesting study might compare a group treated with MBSR with another that follows a “sham protocol” consisting of the same schedule of weekly group meetings, the day long retreat, and 30 minutes of daily home exercise, but not based on mindfulness training. I suspect that simply being present and sharing with others who have issues of loneliness could be quite therapeutic, though like any good Buddhist, I think meditation has something special to offer. Too bad it’s not a covered benefit on my health plan!

  • Mushim

    Jeff, although it’s a common misperception among some convert “Western” Buddhists, not all Buddhists meditate or think that meditation has something special to offer. One of my BBFs (Best Buddhist Friends) is a Pure Land priest who says about himself, “I don’t like to meditate.” And, he doesn’t need to meditate, since it’s not his practice. It may be that the majority of Buddhists worldwide do not meditate. It was a shock to my American Zen-trained idealism when I went into the Korean Buddhist monastery for eight months in 1987-88 and was told by the Koreans that although they are incredibly proud of their Korean Zen tradition, and all monastics probably learn to meditate a little, that they regarded intensive Zen meditation as being suitable for a minority of Buddhists because, they said, it could easily lead to mental illness and a kind of stagnation, or downward spiraling into depression or madness. In their point of view, a person needed to be basically very mentally and emotionally robust to do intensive Zen meditation, whereas chanting, prostrations, working together in community, and textual study were more suitable for the majority of people.

    I’m really enjoying what everyone has to say in this discussion. I’m glad that Jeff just pointed out that loneliness can be alleviated by support groups! In my point of view, what I think we may all be looking for is a win-win situation in which elderly people who may suffer from feelings of isolation and loneliness, have access to two things:

    1) Practices of inner awareness, such as mindfulness meditation and contemplative prayer, that precipitate strong feelings of connection and interconnectedness and that alleviate feelings of isolation and disconnection from sources of social and spiritual nurturance.

    2) In-person social events and activities in which everyone feels respected, seen, heard, valued, and cared for. Ideally, these would include multi-generational activities so that the elderly could have access to children, youth, young adults and older adults, instead of leading generationally segregated lives. Social interaction can help to decrease depression in elders, and it’s potentially a good way (and a traditional way) for younger people to learn “the wisdom of the elders” and hear cultural stories that might otherwise be lost.

  • bezi

    Huh! What a curious, provocative point about non meditating non-Westerners! I can kind of see the rough outlines of that in my sangha-related experiences. As for driving people to depression or madness… hm. Will have to hang out with that a bit longer. Without question, meditation has pushed ME in the complete opposite direction…. much happier and, if not more sane, definitely more pleasantly maladjusted to the status-quo. Besides, from what I can tell – lot of people are already there: despair and psychopathology of various sorts…

    Earlier I looked briefly at an article originally appearing in Psychology Today called “12 reasons why a-holes win and you don’t”. I usually don’t bother with articles like that because such a statement has no bearing whatsoever on what’s real for me (which is largely attributable to meditation, btw) and so the emotional barbs don’t attach. But since I find myself interrogating social dysfunction again after rereading comments here, I glanced it over. Yup – all the old tired chestnuts are there: assholes are confident. They don’t care about anything else but what they want. They step on people’s toes for what they want. You never have to guess what they want. LOL! Yeah whutevs. The one thing left off this list, the most CRITICAL point about why assholes win, is that America very specifically, and Western civilization generally, is conceived and operated in a way that confers upon assholes all of the worldly goods and reward, fame, props and trinkets of primitive accumulation. At the same time, it punishes and viciously derides anything conceived as a “hindrance” or “handicap”… a deficiency. These are thought of as “weak”, “inferior” – making someone NOT the object of compassion and aid but scorn, abuse and exploitation. *smdh* What this piece is in essence saying is that compassion ITSELF is an unacceptable handicap…

    I’m now listening to a KPFA program discussing the disproportionate incarceration of people with mental disabilities. You know… I mean I guess anything could be true. Who knows for 100% certain right? But to my thinking, all this shyte adds up perfectly, if tragically. Indigenous culture and religion are definitely factors, but the bottom line is that Western civilization specializes in the overproduction of industrial-grade alienation, ennui and anomie ~ and I’m sorry but we gotta keep it real about what “Western” implies regarding the architects of these systems. I’ll uh… just leave that suspended in the air. Capitalism is cold, mechanical, concerned with “dead-matter” and driven by a model of scarcity and “brutish” nature which may or may not be true… or particularly useful to structure an economic system and entire way of life around.

    I mean really. When a “reputed” magazine like Psychology Today produces material which itself smacks of a kind of psy-op… what are we really dealing with ova hea?

    To bring it back around: I’ve always enjoyed kicking it with elders when I could, including when I was very young. Back then (and essentially currently, lol) I never felt in step with my peer group insofar as my perceptions so I sought out older and wiser people to conversate with. A part of me really gets the wires crossed on this one – these are the folks with the MOST game to put us up on! They’re not boring… they’re brilliant and precious. Even when I couldn’t (or can’t) always follow the train of thought, the free-associative effect of some conversations I’ve had were thought provoking in their own unexpected ways. There’s ALWAYS something to learn. But of course the elderly are not at all commonly perceived as the great wisdom-keepers they are for the abovementioned reasons pertaining to who is “useful”, “effective”, “productive” within the Western societal framework. If my life was structured differently in this moment – especially where I am myself creeping up on my olives-and-tomatoes-growing phase (ha ha… whutup Jeff, most def had a “boom-bap” bday), I could see myself getting deeply involved in some kind of platform or movement to re-integrate elderly people into fulfilling, active and mutually enjoyable community/social life.

  • Mushim

    Hey, Bezi, always good to see you on the discussion thread. Jeff and Bezi, this article, which I now regard as a classic, it’s so honest and good, is by Susan Moon, the former editor of Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Turning Wheel when it was a quarterly hard copy magazine. She writes about being in a clinical depression and how Zen meditation made it worse so she stopped meditating until she got better: http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1753

    Sitting meditation in silence usually requires some ability, at least, to be able to let go of afflictive thoughts, images, and emotions. In the case of people who are very depressed or anxious, they can suffer from ruminative thoughts, which are repetitive, looping thoughts that become quite “loud” and persistent in the mind. When this happens, meditation can just become a horrible battle with uncontrollably repeating thoughts that don’t go away and that don’t change into something else — thoughts such as, “I’m a failure,” or “No one loves me.” In that case, a walk in the sunlight, yoga, swimming, chanting, playing with a child, might be the “practice” the person needs, because meditation will drive them further into despair.

    I’ve heard elderly people say that they feel invisible sometimes when they go out in public, in the U.S. Or that younger people get impatient with the elderly being slow or forgetful. I appreciate what you say, Bezi, about interacting with older folks and envisioning a way to include them in community life. AARP has launched a major platform called “Life Reimagined,” based on a book with that title. See http://lifereimagined.aarp.org/how-it-works .

  • bezi

    hey Mushim. Wow, that was a good read. And it sounds like Zoloft trumped zazen in her healing process. Huh. Well THAT’s provocative.

    Facing expulsion from this apartment and needing to go to the county court – the same one Huey Newton was locked up (and probably more) in – I definitely discovered a new reservoir of ire over the socioeconomic/political situation we find ourselves in as sentient beings. I’ve been a maelstrom of emotions since this began; going to the court today just amplified it all. And like Susan, I’ve recently been interrogating the Dharma under a harsher light. Does this really work? Why bother? I thought I was supposed to be impervious to these kinds of feelings ~

    Hah! But therein lies the WORK. That’s exactly what we’re supposed to do… interrogate, but hopefully with compassion. This article you linked to is a great example of how it’s all both relative (she made my “depression” seem milder, and I could also think of people who’ve killed themselves over their depression), and yet absolute in that the sheer act of existing brings these things (dukkha) on. Thanks! Nice reminder of what it’s all about.

  • Mushim

    Bezi, I am very sorry to hear you are being evicted from your apartment, if I am understanding you correctly. That sounds horribly stressful and disruptive in your life. Anything involving going to court can be a huge energy drain and, as you say, can inspire ire!

    I think it is good to ask the question, “Does the Dharma work?” I ask that all the time. The answer, for me, has always been yes but I am open to it being no at some point. If that happens, I’ll follow another way. Like my spiritual friend, Ven. Suhita Dharma, who recently died, I take a very practical approach to the Dharma. I don’t expect it to pay my rent or do my taxes or cook my dinner for me or alleviate my depression. I do appreciate that it puts all of those everyday activities into perspective and helps me clarify WHY I work so hard to pay my rent, cook my dinner, work with my own afflictive mindbody states, and so on. My purpose in life is not to accumulate possessions; all of my efforts are directed toward fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vows I received in 1983 in Toronto. And I do enjoy having some fun along the Path!

  • bezi

    thanks Mushim. I’m hanging in there…

    on another note: California right now is very dry. I think we should be praying for rain (we need waataah)

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