As a scholar of religion and science, it’s so disappointing, if not infuriating, to read an article like Dan Hurley’s piece in the New York Times, “Breathing In and Spacing Out.” Hurley’s argument is that despite all the studies lauding the benefits of mindfulness, meditation isn’t always a good thing. That’s an interesting case to make, but in the examples he treats meditation as if it’s an SAT prep course. Is maintaining attention all that meditation is about?
If you substitute tomatoes for mindfulness the piece would read like one of the endless debates on the health effects of food: “Tomatoes are good for you… no, no, no they’re actually bad for you.” But I’m not convinced that Hurley and the research he references are even talking about tomatoes – ahem, mindfulness – at all. That may seem like a minor problem, but in an increasingly plural society this feigning of cultural appreciation is not only irresponsible, it’s harmful.
My point is that when Hurley, and the research he cites, strips mindfulness of its traditional religious ecosystem, he’s no longer talking about mindfulness meditation, he’s talking about maintaining attention. This confusion of terms is particularly dangerous because it speaks with the authority of science. It’s easy to do this with something like meditation, because it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of Western people. But imagine if this was done with prayer or a religious practice that’s close to you. If I tried to strip, say, Christian prayer down to its essential elements and came away with something totally secular, would I still be talking about prayer? Would you believe me if I went on to tell you about how “prayer” is related to this or that benefit?
In the article Hurley’s first example is about a study showing that meditation helped Marines with their attention and working memory. He also cites research about meditation helping with stress and improving performance on standardized tests. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure meditation helps with these things, but as I’ve written about before, it’s troubling and revealing that there’s no mention of compassion in the article. Which leaves me wondering what mindfulness meditation is about if it’s not at least partially about compassion. In most research it seems to simply be about focus, which makes it clear how, within this research, meditation is completely unmoored from its cultural tradition.
Perhaps Hurley’d argue that this is necessary to study meditation scientifically, but that’s bonkers. You can remove an animal from its native ecosystem and study it in a lab, but the laboratory environment is so different that it becomes a huge challenge to study the animal’s natural behaviors. Just think about the difficulty of getting animals to breed in captivity. Now consider removing an idea or religious practice from its native ecosystem. At what point does it become something entirely different?
This is an issue because when mindfulness meditation is brought into a lab setting it may become little more than a practice of maintaining attention. If that’s the case, then what Hurley is really saying is that when people practice maintaining their attention they become better at maintaining their attention.
This distortion of mindfulness meditation could also lead to confounding in the studies he cites about the downsides of mindfulness. For example, he references one study claiming “the higher adults scored on a measurement of mindfulness, the worse they performed on tests of implicit learning.” First off, what sort of scale does one use to measure mindfulness? What score does a Buddhist monk have to score to be ordained? (Sorry, that’s me being snarky.)
While this study seems to be about meditation, it’s strikingly similar to Artificial Grammar Learning experiments from fifty years ago. In these experiments, people are shown different strings of letters. For example, you’d see VXVS and then TPTXVS. The experimenter would show you a series of these, asking you to try and memorize them. After going through them all you’d be told that the task wasn’t actually to remember the letters- sneaky science! Instead, the strings of letters were created by using specific rules. These rules represent a made-up grammar – thus the name. The real task is to say whether a new string of letters follows the rules or not. It turns out that somewhere along the line, when you thought you were simply remembering the strings of letters, you were also implicitly learning these rules: people typically score way better than they should if they were just randomly guessing. In other words, your brain is amazing at unconsciously recognizing and applying rules of patterns!
This gets even more interesting in some experiments (references) which show that people who are told upfront to look for the rules do worse than people who are simply trying to memorize the letters. So if you’re deliberately trying to figure out the rules, you probably won’t learn them, but if you aren’t trying to learn them, you probably will. These experiments are used in cognitive science to support dual-process theory, which I wrote about here.
Returning to meditation, Hurley is referencing studies which seem to be finding similar results. People who score high on mindfulness are worse at finding the rules – in this case the patterns – than those who aren’t as “mindful.” But it’s not clear that the mindfulness they’re studying is any different from maintaining a deliberate focus. This is even more suspicious when you consider that within dual-process theory, deliberate focus is a key characteristic of the system that inhibits implicit learning. In other words it seems pretty likely that these studies aren’t about meditation as much as they’re about dual-process theory, and how effortful attention can inhibit intuition.
We live in a time of immense cultural exchange, which is pretty exciting. But it leaves many questions open about how ideas and practices change, and what they change into, as they shift from one context to another. In the midst of all this exchange it’s worth paying close attention to these changes and what is left behind. In this case, Hurley left compassion behind, which is a really troubling omission if we’re going to talk about mindfulness meditation.