Meditation 101 Changes How We Act in the World and How Our Brains Function

by Carrie Heeter, 1/27/2014

Media effects scientists study immediate and long term effects of media exposure such as playing video games. Some of those effects are positive.  For example, playing World of Warcraft quests as a member of a guild over time improves leadership skills.  Playing first person shooter games before surgery improves doctors’ laparoscopic surgery skills. We call these effects “incidental” because the games were not designed to result in those outcomes.

Meditation effects scientists study incidental effects of meditation.  What they are finding is more dramatic and stranger than anything I have seen in three decades of media effects research.  Let’s look at three recent studies published in Psychological Science in 2013 that examined incidental effects of a mere two (or for one study, eight) weeks of beginning mindfulness meditation practice.

Study 1: Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering

Study 1: Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering

Weng et al. (2013) predicted that practicing a compassion meditation daily for two weeks would cause novice meditators to behave more altruistically. Indeed they found that study participants who listened to a guided compassion meditation for 30 minutes a day for 11 of 14 days exhibited 1.84 times more altruistic behavior in a multiplayer video game toward a player who was being treated unfairly than did participants who listened to training of the same duration about reappraising negative life experiences.  Furthermore, the researchers found neurological differences in how the compassion meditators and the negative life experience reappraisers responded to images of suffering.

The compassion meditation used in Weng’s study was adapted from the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation. I introduced this post as being about incidental effects of designed experiences.  Increased altruistic behavior in the world could be described as an intended rather than incidental effect of a meditation designed to strengthen inner qualities of friendliness and kindness.

The lovingkindness meditation is also a component of the 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.  So, since the goal of MBSR is stress reduction, altruistic behavior, friendliness and kindness might be considered incidental effects of MBSR.

Study 2: Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering

Study 2: Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering

A second research team predicted that the lovingkindness mediation would result in increased altruistic behavior, but that MBSR minus lovingkindness would not.  Condon et al. (2013) randomly assigned participants new to meditation to one of two 8 week classes which met for 60 minutes per week, plus 20 minute audio guided meditation on their own.  One meditation class focused on compassion (lovingkindness) meditation, while the other class taught generalized mindfulness meditation, excluding the compassion meditation.  These two groups were compared to a control group.

The researchers were surprised to find that meditation participants were more than five times more likely to help a sufferer who was in pain.  They were even more surprised to find no difference between the lovingkindness meditators and the beginning mindfulness meditators. Both were more than five times more likely than the control group to help the sufferer. For some reason, a large increase in altruistic behavior is an incidental effect of beginning mindfulness meditation.

Study 3: Mindfulness Training Improves GRE Performance

Study 3: Mindfulness Training Improves GRE Performance

The third study I’ll talk about here (Mrazek, 2013) looked at the effect of two weeks of beginners’ mindfulness meditation on GRE scores. (GRE refers to Graduate Record Examination, a standardized test required of applicants to most graduate degree programs.) Meditation participants were taught and practiced beginning mindfulness meditation for two weeks using a shortened version of the 8 week MBSR program (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction).  As I pointed out earlier, MBSR typically includes the lovingkindness meditation, and mostly likely was part of the training here.

The control group attended a two week nutrition class. The researchers found that the meditators scored an average of 16 percentile points higher on the GRE after just two weeks of beginner meditation training. So, two weeks of beginning mindfulness meditation dramatically improves GRE scores.  Improved GRE scores is an incidental effect of mindfulness meditation.

We might extrapolate from the first two studies that in addition to scoring higher on the GREs, participants in Mrazek’s study most likely behaved more than five times more altruistically in daily life.  We might extrapolate that the compassionate meditators in the first two studies did well on whatever exams they took.

This is very weird and cool. (Oops, I forgot that I’m supposed to write like an academic.)

Learning to direct our minds is associated with immediate changes in how we behave and perform in the world and how our brains function. These changes are evident among people who are new to meditation. The effects can be seen in just two weeks (and perhaps sooner, it wasn’t tested), from practicing meditation for short periods.

As a species and as individuals we have a great deal to learn about how to operate our minds.

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Condon, Paul, Gaëlle Desbordes, Willa B. Miller, and David DeSteno. “Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering.” Psychological Science, 24:10 (October 1, 2013): 2125–2127..

Mrazek, Michael, Michael Franklin, Dawa Tarchin Phillips, Benjamin Baird, and Jonathan Schooler. “Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering.” Psychological Science, 24:5 (May 2013): 776-781.

Weng, Helen Y., Andrew S. Fox, Alexander J. Shackman, Diane E. Stodola, Jessica Z. K. Caldwell, Matthew C. Olson, Gregory M. Rogers, and Richard J. Davidson. “Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering.” Psychological Science 24:7 (July 1, 2013): 1171–1180.