I found some crazy positive studies on mindfulness and meditation when I was interviewing extreme athletes, neuroscientists, and psychologists for The Fear Project – a book about the science of overcoming fear, especially in the water.
A 2011 study published in Military Medicine journal, for example, showed that daily meditation reduced PTSD symptoms in soldiers by half. A study led by Harvard psychologist Britta Hölzel found that when non-meditators practiced mindfulness meditation just 30 minutes per day for 8 weeks, they increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory, while decreasing gray matter in the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs fear and other primal emotions.
As a guy who spent a whole year living in a Buddhist monastery, I was pretty stoked. All those hours on the cushion were changing my brain to be more flexible and less freaked out.
But a reduction of the amygdala also made me wonder if meditation might be making humans even more detached from our primal intelligence. If you look at animals—who can sense earthquakes before they happen—it seems that humans’ innate fear response has been getting worn down over the last 2 million years as our prefrontal cortex has ballooned. What if meditation was just making us more intellectual and less tuned into our instincts?
Thankfully, it’s just the opposite. My friend Philippe Goldin, a Stanford neuroscientist, told me meditation seems to give the benefits of reduced anxiety and better primal instincts. Practitioners of mindfulness meditation, even after just 8 weeks of 30 minutes per day, actually react to stimulus (say a dangerous looking animal) with stronger emotional spikes, and more intensity instead of less. Their adrenaline response is more robust at that moment. The key difference, Goldin said, is that the meditation practitioners then have an easier time returning to a baseline of calm when the threatening stimulus has passed. Golden said skilled meditators are just like skilled surfers. They have an easier time being relaxed between waves. But when a big wave comes, they react with more intensity, grabbing that boost of energy they need to catch it or duck dive at just the right moment. Then, when the wave passes, they return to a balanced state more quickly. “Meditation makes people more aware of what actually is,” he said. “Life becomes more vivid. Emotions like fear become both sharper and more discerning.”
Jaimal Yogis is the author of the best-seller, Saltwater Buddha, and the forthcoming memoir, All Our Waves Are Water: stumbling toward enlightenment and the perfect ride (July, Harper Wave). Beginning January 16th, he will teach a mindfulness class every Monday night in San Francisco. The first will also include a showing of the film Saltwater Buddha, based on Jaimal’s book. The classes are streamed live at www.facebook.com/jaimal.yogis