ScienceMatters - Season 2, Episode 2: The Science Behind OOOMMMMM

February 26, 2019
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There’s more to meditation than just chanting mantras in your favorite yoga studio. Practitioners claim the benefits include better mental and physical health. Does the data back that up? School of Psychology Professor Paul Verhaeghen researches the science behind meditation.  


(Upbeat music)


Hello and welcome to ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m Renay San Miguel.

Sara Raymond, The Mindful Movement: I am grateful you have taken this time for yourself to listen to this guided meditation. Self-care is so important and not selfish at all.

Renay San Miguel: That’s Sara Raymond with The Mindful Movement, one of many providers of meditation videos promising bliss on YouTube.

Sara Raymond, The Mindful Movement: In fact, in our fast-paced world where we wear the title of busy as a badge of honor, it is even more imperative that you care for yourself so that you can be your best for yourself and your loved ones.

Renay San Miguel: Whether you call it mindfulness meditation, or just meditation, the practice has been around since the Buddha was talking about it 2,500 years ago. It’s enjoying a renaissance thanks to a renewed interest in using it to relieve stress, boost productivity, and make people happier in their daily, multi-tasking lives.

A December 2018 story in the New York Times profiled certain business leaders, including Salesforce founder Mark Benioff, who have embraced mindfulness meditation for themselves and their employees.

And while that may sound like a commercial for your favorite yoga studio, a professor in the School of Psychology says there is science to back up claims that meditation can be the best thing for you in a world of distractions.

In June 2017, Paul Verhaeghen published a book called Presence: How Mindfulness and Meditation Shape Your Brain, Mind, and Life. Verhaeghen details the renewed interest in meditation, along with traditional research done so far on how it affects office and school work, physical and mental health.

The Honest Guys: Whatever thoughts come and go in your mind at this point, simply observe them, as if from a distance.


The Honest Guys, a UK-based meditation video provider, show you low clouds skimming above a peaceful lakeside scene. Its hosts urge you to find a time where you won’t be disturbed, and to turn off all lights.

21st-century technologies may be the cause of our distractions, but as you can hear, meditation has adapted to them nicely.

People can now turn to many guided meditation videos as well as smartphone apps. Experts with very calm voices promise to rid stress from your daily life.

The Honest Guys: Now notice your breathing and especially the still point between breaths.

Renay San Miguel: Verhaeghen is an award-winning writer of fiction. He is also an academic, and he’s immersed himself in the science of meditation.

I met Verhaeghen in his office in Georgia Tech’s J.S. Coon Building, home of the School of Psychology. I started by asking the native of Belgium about the first time he tried meditation.

Paul Verhaeghen: Right out of high school, when I was 17, I went into a Jesuit convent, so I was a Catholic monk for two years. And one of the things we did there was a 30-day retreat, silent retreat. I think this was partially the kind of weeding out thing—it's like the calculus class, I guess, for first-year students. And I just loved it. So there was three or four hours a day when we were doing meditation. Even though this was a convent, we were in a very posh neighborhood in Brussels. So I was walking out in the forest there, walking along the beech trees was just gorgeous. I just really enjoyed it. It kind of felt like coming home.

Renay San Miguel: Did it ease your mind at a time when you needed your mind being eased?

Paul Verhaeghen: I'm not sure if it eased. I didn't really come to it with expectations or with a particular need as many people do. I know but I do feel that I like that aspect of it, the kind of calming of the mind. Sometimes, not always, but it feels the same way like when you take a warm bath—it's like Ahhh, here I go again. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's frustrating, and like where’s my mind going, but when you've done this for 20 years or so, you kind of learn to go to roll with those punches, too. I know that when I don't do it for a while, which happens more and more rarely because I know what happens when I don't do it while, I get more irritable. I get angry more easily. And it's actually why I picked it up again like 10 years ago or so again. My son was 2 or 3 at a time when he changed his mind, I think for the fifth time, what he wanted to drink. And so I was in the kitchen with a big bottle of orange juice that he didn't want anymore and I was so frustrated I just threw it on the floor. There was orange juice everywhere! We had to clean up the kitchen for like a couple days. The cookbooks still are glued together. That was the moment when I thought like I should probably a return to this.

Renay San Miguel:

Verhaeghen’s research into the origins of meditation includes the founder of one of the world’s largest religions – and the American scientist who introduced it to the United States. 

Paul Verhaeghen: The term goes back to the Buddha, so 2,500 years ago. And the Buddha has this thing he calls the Eightfold Path, like the path to enlightenment. Right or correct or good mindfulness is the seventh part of this. And the word he uses for this is sati which some people translate as remembrance. Other people translate this as alertness or awake-ness or something like that. It has to do with, I guess, being concentrated being focused and being aware of what's happening in the moment.

The person who started in the United States is John Kabat-Zinn in 1979, I think, is kind of when he started a clinic working with people who had chronic pain problems. And he, himself, was a meditator and a yoga instructor, and had noticed these benefits as in his own life and thought, “Well, why don't I try this clinically?”

Kabat-Zinn is a very fascinating figure.

Among many things, he's also a scientist. He's a biologist in training so he also understood from the beginning that he needed to make this something that's amenable to research. So he also started doing the first research into this. And so he calls “mindfulness” paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally. So the nonjudgment part there is really important.

When you train people or teach people in meditation, the first thing you do is ask them to pay attention to their breath, and just be with the breath for a couple of seconds—and everybody thinks they can do this, but nobody can because your mind starts wandering immediately; you secrete thoughts—that's what your mind does, obviously. And part of that meditation is just, when that happens, just go back to your breath and don't judge yourself for it, just go back over and over again. And if you do this long enough, you'll have thousands and thousands of repetition of this particular kind of training where you have a puppy that wants to break away and you bring it back.

Renay San Miguel: At what point did you want to learn more about meditation?

Paul Verhaeghen: I'm a psychologist; I'm an academic, so I also want to know kind of the grounds about this. So I’ve always been reading up while I was meditating. I wanted to see if I could use this in my teaching at Tech here. So I am part of a team that teaches meditation in our Introduction to Georgia Tech classes in the honors program, which has been absolutely fascinating and wonderful.

And that's to help students deal with the stress. Part of it is that it’s stress reduction, but we also call it mental acuity. Like we know that meditation helps with things like attention. There's even one study out there that suggests it has effects on GRE scores. I'm not sure if I believe just one study, but it's there.

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Renay San Miguel: How does mindfulness meditation help those who practice it?

Paul Verhaeghen: Mindfulness meditation seems to have effects on a wide variety of things: on attention, on stress, on the immune system, on well-being, and positive emotions on depression, on anxiety. And that's true for healthy adults, and it also is true for clinical populations—so trials that have been run, clinical trials, so controlled trials with people who are depressed or are having anxiety, phobias, et cetera, suggest that there are very good effects there. They're just as good as standard treatment.

And this is an interesting, I guess, side note to the mindfulness movement: When that study first came out and was published in JAMA, which is the big journal of the American Medical Association, finding out that the effects of depression and anxiety et cetera, or just the same standard treatment. People in the mindfulness movement were dejected over this. Whereas, to me it seems like if you can get the same effects with meditation as you can get with Zoloft or Xanax, that's pretty good. And I think, at the very least, you have an alternative for people who don't really enjoy the side effects of Zoloft or Xanax or don't respond to it well. So there's an alternative.

Renay San Miguel: But what kind of data lead researchers to that conclusion? Is it science-based? Anecdotal?

When I asked Verhaeghen that question, he mentions a CESD, or Center for Epidemiologic Studies -- Depression. It’s a standard questionnaire that helps health professionals diagnose clinical depression.

Paul Verhaeghen: most of the literature uses standardized instruments. So for depression you have, for instance, a CESD which is a standardized diagnostic instrument, and you used that before and after a training, you use that in a control group as well, and you see how much symptomatology disappears. In depression, we also often very look at relapse rates, which is really a big issue in depression. People who have been depressed once are more likely to get depressed again. And that's kind of the gold standard in depression research. So we find that it has effect there.

You can look at physiological parameters, so people have tried to look at cortisol and stress for instance. We can also look at brains, and people have looked at changes in brain structure and changes in brain functioning as well.

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Renay San Miguel What exactly are you talking about when you say “changing the brain structure”?

Paul Verhaeghen : The main effect seems to be that, when you look at brain structure in grey matter—so that's what we tend to think of as brain cells—that you have larger grey matter volume, so particular parts of your brain grow larger and those changes happen in parts of your brain that are part of what we call the salience network.

So I need to back up a little bit. You have different attention systems in your brain. One is paying attention to what's happening internally—it's the daydreamer in your head or the monkey mind, we call it the “default-mode network”. And then there's an attention network that we call the “executive network”. It's the thing that clamps down. If you're a college student you know this very well: You're sitting in a lecture, it gets really boring but you need to pay attention—that's the network you use for that.

And then you have the salience network is kind of like the hall monitor in your head. It's the you that's looking out at what you are doing; it's the observer in your mind.

And so when you meditate, you pay attention to, say, your breath, which is with many meditators do. You notice you go off the breath, you come back. Going off the breath is the mind wanderer in your brain; it’s the default-mode network. Noticing is the salience network. And then going back is the executive network. And we know from brain functioning studies, fMRI, that when you meditate, you get better and better at using the executive network to bring you back on task.

The lasting changes is mostly in the salience network. That suggests that people who meditate now learn how to learn to observe, to pay attention, to be alert to what's happening inside them.

Renay San Miguel: A few studies also point to other possible changes in brain structure, Verhaeghen says, particularly in its white matter tracts. Those are the brain’s information highways, if you will, that transfer data from one part of the brain to another. Aging can affect these pathways.

Paul Verhaeghen: The effect of meditation counteracts the effect of ageing so that your white matter tracks are about those of a 20- or 30-year-old when you're in your 60s if you've been meditating, which is, I think, kind of a cool, cool result.

Renay San Miguel: Refresh the brain; you go back in time in your brain.

Paul Verhaeghen: A third effect that you can see in the brain is when you put people in a scanner, you very often ask them to just not do anything for a while, and you record the structure of the brain, but you can also record what they're doing at a time—that's called “resting state”.

People, of course, aren't really resting, right? You’re in the scanner, you go like, “How long is this going to take?” and like “What am I going to have for dinner?” and “Is this going to be hard? And why is this so loud?” So you're kind of—your mind wanders a little bit.

When people who don't meditate are in the scanner, you typically find these three networks lighting up, but they kind of go one after the other; they're not very well correlated. When you are mind wandering, you're not paying attention to the sounds you hear and vice versa.

But in meditators you have larger correlations between those networks, so it seems like your attention becomes more and more integrated which also means that now you can pay attention to your mind wandering which is actually a lot of what happens, at least for me, in meditation: You feel your mind wander and then you kind of take a little bit of distance from it, you separate yourself a little bit from that; you observe it, and then you come back to it. So that seems to be happening as well.

So those are changes in attention. And then there's a few other changes in areas of the brain that deal with stress, the subiculum particularly, so that seems to be larger as well, suggesting that this might be why people are better at emotion regulation when they meditate. And then there's parts of the brain that seem to suggest that you have better body awareness.

Renay San Miguel: How can mindful meditation be applied to those organizations and disciplines that might benefit from those effects?

Paul Verhaeghen: One of my favorite studies is one where they had people do a very boring task. So they had to listen to beeps that were coming one after the other at irregular intervals, and they just had to keep track of how many beeps there were. And so all undergraduates complained about this because this was boring; you don't want to do 15 minutes of counting beeps. But people who had been doing meditation training did the task, and nobody complained about boredom. So one of the nice side effects of meditation is that you might be less bored in your life because there's always something to see or something that's interesting.

So that's the attention part.

Renay San Miguel: Verhaeghen says meditation also seems to help with regulating emotions. That has applications for helping people overcome post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD.

Paul Verhaeghen: There are, for instance, mindfulness programs done in the military. The goal is really to do this: to decrease the instances of PTSD by actually helping people deal, in the field, as bad things are happening to them to kind of have this distance from them.  

And you see those effects too in, say, depression or anxiety. In depression, this effect is called rumination: You go through the same thoughts over and over again counterproductively, typically something in your past you should have done differently. If you're anxious they’re typically towards the future, you worry about something that might happen, and you do this over and over again even though it doesn't necessarily help.

One of the side effects of meditation there is that it decreases worry, and it decreases rumination, and that seems to help or that is part of what helps with a decrease in symptoms. So kind of helping with emotion regulation part of it is, I think, equally important.

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Renay San Miguel: Can mindful meditation survive in a multitasking world?

Paul Verhaeghen: When I teach mindfulness meditation to undergraduate students here, it's a wonderful thing to do. One of the things we do is an hour-long retreat at one point. So it's an hour where there's no cell phones. We do different meditation practices. I give a little talk in the middle. And then afterwards, many students say, “This is the longest I've been silent in like forever, and haven't looked at the screen.”

And so sometimes I think that's one of the things I'm doing is—I have a 10-year-old and I always tell him the war stories, you know, “When I was a kid, we had to trek across 10 feet of shag carpet to actually change the channel of the TV” and things like that. [Laughter]

But he has everything at his disposal: If he wants to watch a particular video, he can watch it right now, and he gets very frustrated if he can't. It's that maybe what we're teaching this generation of students is what we did as our generation of students. I'm in my early 50s which is that you can concentrate on a single thing.

This multitasking is really hard. And, in fact, so much that many psychologists think you actually cannot do this unless a task is perfectly alphabetized. Driving a car is a very good example: You can drive and talk to the person next to you at the same time, but when stuff gets dicey on the road, the person next to you has to shut up, right? So you have to pay all your attention to the driving. So even that, which is an automatic behavior that's overlearned in many people, especially when once you're past the age of 30, is something that you can't really do. And so much of what we consider to be multitasking is really you do one thing, you switch to another, you do one thing, you switch to another.

For the students you sit in a lecture. You respond to a text, and you go back to the lecture; you go to your Facebook page, you go back to the lecture; you look something up that the professor is saying on Wikipedia. So you do one thing after another. And the problem there is that each switch incurs a cost. So it's harder to go back.

Attention has this kind of stickiness to it: When you do one thing, you want to do this one thing. When you have to move it to something else, it becomes more complicated. And so meditation can maybe help with removing some of that stickiness. But, yeah, this I think also is still very much an open question.

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Renay San Miguel: Verhaeghen says that it doesn’t take a lot of time to enjoy the benefits of meditation. He tells students about six to eight minutes a day is a good start.

My thanks to Paul Verhaeghen, professor in the School of Psychology. His book, Presence, is available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, and at Oxford Press.

Siyan Zhou, a former research associate in the School of Psychology, composed our theme music.

We’d also like to thank Sara Raymond with the Mindful Movement, and the Honest Guys, for the use of their meditation videos.

If you liked this episode of ScienceMatters, please consider subscribing. You can find us on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.

This is ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m RSM. Thanks for listening.

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