Friday, 10 December 2010

Meditate on THIS!

It must be nice to be a proper science blogger, having the skills and experience to analyse and assess scientific stories, features and articles, picking them apart where appropriate and presenting a well-rounded assessment of the merits and criticisms as applicable.

Science bloggers can educate, alert people to problems/issues, and further the cause of understanding with their writing. This is unlike what I do, which seems to consist mostly of being flippant and satirical about things that happen to me and/or attract my interest in an attempt to be 'funny' in a forlorn effort to distract from the yawning chasms that are my inadequacies as a scientist, comedian and member of society.

The only way I can possibly hope to contribute to the real world of science bloggers is if there is some sort of news story or something that is about my specific area of expertise, but is also ridiculously misleading and poorly put together.

Sometimes, you get lucky.

Look what was in the Telegraph recently. Apparently, meditation makes you smarter by growing your brain. Dear lord, where to begin...

I'd like to point out that I have nothing against meditation. It is no doubt relaxing, calming and has connections with yoga, a form of exercise practiced by my wife and mother-in-law with much enjoyment. It's unfortunate that meditation and yoga have become largely the property of the alt-med communities, as they are clearly good for you in practical terms. I have been told of an individual who is convinced that yoga can cure AIDS (and presumably other serious conditions). It's as if he believes that all illness is somehow the fault of inflexibility of the body and muscles, and that health can be altered by manipulation of posture and joints and that. Seriously, who would believe nonsense like that?

However, someone has now tried to put meditation and its benefits firmly within the realm of science.

The article begins thusly:

For thousands of years, Buddhists, hippies and spiritualists have claimed that the mental discipline promises a higher state of consciousness.

It has been taken so seriously that schools in America are considering including meditation as part of their curriculums, thanks to the championing by the film director David Lynch who has set up a foundation promoting the technique.

Now scientists have discovered that regular meditation appears to actually increase the size of the brain.

I won't argue the first few lines. What Hippies and Buddhists think is not my business, and I'm not in any position to question these claims. But obviously I understand how any theory/technique has to be taken seriously if David Lynch champions it, known as he is for his commitment to logic, rationality and reason. I've not seen Twin Peaks for years, but I'm pretty sure it was a detailed, well-researched documentary about the geological processes that produce some of the more interesting features of mountain ranges in the Americas.

Seriously though, what else could it be?

Anyway, the last sentence is incredibly loaded. No scientist worth his salt would claim to have discovered anything like this, especially not to the Telegraph. And, in the unlikely event that such an affect was proven to exist, why is this being lauded as a good thing? Our brains are too big for our heads as it is. It is possible for our brains to get bigger, but when this happens it often requires some pretty heavy-duty neurosurgery to make it stop before it kills us.

Admittedly, 'meditation causes severe headaches and death' would be a much more urgent headline, and would probably have been noticed by now if it were the case, by all the hippies, Buddhists, and spiritualists. And David Lynch would probably be arrested. At the very least, Rhys Morgan will have taken him to task.

So the article probably isn't really claiming this is the case. Surely, all will become clear as it progresses.

In the latest research scans revealed "significantly larger" amounts of grey matter in people who had been mediating long term.

The inverted commas tell you a lot about this statement. But what does a 'larger amount' of grey matter (significant or otherwise) actually mean? This statement, to a neuroscientist, is hopelessly vague. Overall, it could be said that, in the brain, grey matter does the processing of information, white matter carries the information around. Logically then, you could say that if you have more grey matter, you can process more information, and are therefore smarter.

Except it's not even close to being that simple. The amount of grey matter we possess is barely, if at all associated with how intelligent we are. People who have had half their neocortex removed at a young age in drastic but essential surgery develop to become grown people of perfectly normal intelligence, despite just over half as much grey matter as your typical idiot. There are also conditions where the brain grows abnormally and with much less overall mass than a 'normal' brain, but these conditions are usually only diagnosed after a scan, as the 'sufferers' show no noticeable ill effects from the condition, despite having drastically below average brain mass.

There is no real defining neurological factor that correlates precisely with intelligence, and this includes 'amount of grey matter'. This statement is of no use, and as potentially misleading as me saying 'I have a significantly higher body mass than a typical featherweight boxer' in a discussion about health and exercise. Used in this context, it's like I'm saying that this fact makes me fitter and healthier than professional athletes, whereas I could just be significantly fatter. I'm not though, this is just an example.

Actually, I most definitely am.

It continues...

High-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed their hippocampus – a key area of the brain associated with memory and learning – was bigger.

I'd love to comment on this sentence, if only I'd spent nearly 4 years studying the hippocampus and its functions.

Oh, yeah. I did.

There have been many experiments that have revealed that certain people have bigger hippocampuses than others. The hippocampus is indeed strongly implicated in memory and learning. It is also a key area for spatial perception and navigation. A very simplified generalisation would be to say that the hippocampus receives information from the myriad sensory inputs and combines it into specific useful configurations for use to remember and exploit when needed, e.g. the spatial layout of a room or area, or the combination of spatiotemporal factors that make up an episode (otherwise known as 'what' happened, 'where' and 'when', commonly known as episodic memory).

OK, maybe that wasn't so simplified. But suffice to say, the hippocampus is indeed associated with memory and learning. And it does appear that the hippocampus, like a lot of neurological regions, has muscle-like properties; i.e. the more it's used, the bigger it gets. Eleanor Maguire and colleagues discovered that London taxi drivers, those who have 'the knowledge', have significantly larger hippocampuses than your normal person (remember that the hippocampus is also implicated in navigation and spatial awareness)

This may be an unfair stereotype, but when I think of the terms 'meditation', spiritualism' and 'inner peace', the first thing that comes to mind is rarely 'London Taxi Drivers'. This seems to be another excellent example of a mainstream media article confusing correlation with causation, which is a common mistake. It could be that those who practice meditation are well travelled, actively pursue different cultures and practices, spend a great deal of time on concentration and self-analysis, all of which would potentially increase your information intake and ergo increase the size of your hippocampus. A tendency to meditate, like hippocampus size, could easily be another symptom of their lifestyle, rather than a cause.

On the other hand, people 'blessed' with a larger and/or more efficient hippocampus due to some genetic or other environmental factor could find their enhanced ability to encode and retain information quite stressful and distracting, and may eventually turn to meditation as a means to relax for once. Maybe the hippocampus size is the CAUSE of meditation, not an effect?

I bet if you performed a similar assessment, you'd find that a significant percentage of people involved in car crashes had suffered fractured or broken bones at some point in their lives. Therefore, breaking bones causes an impairment in driving ability (presumably this increases substantially with how close in time the breakage and attempt at driving are).

Obviously, that last sentence is not the most obvious conclusion to jump to.

Other parts linked to emotion were also larger than in people who did not practise the ancient technique. The finding was made by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who published the results in the journal NeuroImage.

Yes, I expect the parts 'that linked to emotion' were indeed larger. If the hippocampus is larger, I'd be worried if they weren't, seeing as the hippocampus is heavily involved with memory processing, so processes pretty much everything we experience, and nearly everything we experience has an emotional aspect. This is encoded via the amygdala, a neural region closely linked to the hippocampus and also pretty much essential for effective memory processing (I assume this is what they're referring to when they say 'other parts linked to emotion' if you were wondering). To put is as harshly as possible, let me enter incredibly sarcastic mode:

Wow! They found that both the hippocampus AND the amygdala were larger? That's AMAZING! Almost as amazing as that time I found out that very tall people have longer leg bones AND longer leg muscles! I mean, who'd have even expected it?!?!

There, that's enough of that. I think you get the point.

I like how they also felt it necessary to point out both the city and the state the University was in, I imagine that makes all the difference. Not sure how reputable a journal Neuroimage is, but going by this article alone, I'm guessing 'not particularly'. I'm willing to be proven wrong, though.

The authors said that previous research had "confirmed the beneficial aspects of meditation. In addition to having better focus and control over their emotions, many people who meditate regularly have reduced levels of stress and bolstered immune systems".

Confirmed? Really? Beware any scientist who drops the C-bomb so casually, there's usually a sharp learning curve approaching. And as for the rest of the statement, it's incredible isn't it! People who consciously choose to spend hours every day practicing a relaxation technique which involves sitting still and shutting out external stimuli, which is strongly linked to yoga and a variety of practices dedicated to improving health, these people have less stress and better immune systems? You don't say.

What does 'bolstered' even mean, anyway? I'm pretty sure it's not a standard scientific term. In fact, I'm pretty sure it usually involves cushions.

But less was known about possible links between meditation and brain structure which is thought to affect intelligence.

The team studied the brains of 44 people – half of whom had practised various forms of meditation for between five and 46 years.

More than half said that "deep concentration" was an essential part of their routine, and most meditated for between ten and 90 minutes a day.

The MRI scans showed "significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators".


Of course less was known about possible links. Until this article, I didn't think there were any. And I'm a neuroscientist.

44 people.

Half of these were controls (it's suggested, at any rate), so that's 22 people in the meditating group.

"[Mediating] Between five and 46 years".

Bloody Hell! Talk about your variation between subjects, the error bars for this group must have been off the chart (and that's the most literal use of that cliché you'll see for a while, I'll wager). People who've been meditating for 46 years? Even if they started as a 10 year old, that still means they're close to 60 years old. That's a lot of life to remember, and this may lead to an enlarged hippocampus. "Living for a long time increases your brain size" isn't so much of a story though, I guess. (Also, I don't know why in the original statement one number is spelled out and the other isn't, but then I'm not a journalist working for the Telegraph).

It's possible that all the subjects were within a very narrow age range and just started meditating at different times, but I'm not holding my breath on that one.

"'deep concentration'".

Which is...? Not really something I'd trust myself to measure unless it could be quantified in some way. Perhaps I'm just pedantic.

"most meditated for between ten and 90 minutes a day"

'Most'? Between '10 and 90' (only one spelled out again)? Well, as long as it's between 10 and 90, that's fine. I mean, 10mg and 90mg of morphine have pretty much identical effects, so it doesn't really matter how much a subject gets if you're studying the effects of the stuff, as long as they get some. "Consistency is overrated by science" is a thought I have very regularly (ironically).

The MRI scans showed "significantly larger cerebral measurements in meditators".

I imagine if you'd put me in an MRI scanner right now I'd also show increased cerebral measurements as I desperately try to figure out what the phrase 'increased cerebral measurements' means in this context. I had to go to hospital once after an accident. I no doubt showed 'increased physiological measurements' at the time, due to my injuries. Exactly what anyone would have done with that information is anyone's guess, as it's so generalised as to be meaningless.

The lead researcher Eileen Luders said the changes in the brain could explain why people who meditate "have a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions".

Do people who meditate have 'a singular ability to cultivate positive emotions', then? Exactly how would you measure or even quantify such a thing? We're not talking about mass or speed here, these aren't things that can be worked out with an equation or set of scales. I'd really like to see some evidence for this beyond the anecdotal/observational. A lot of people who practice meditation would logically be in a position where they are educated enough to discover it and learn it as a practice, have enough free time to indulge in it for prolonged periods, and find that it works for them so continue. What I believe we have here is a sampling bias and a lot of wishful thinking.

"The differences in brain anatomy might give us a clue as to why meditators have these exceptional abilities," she added.

Not arguing that, if these exceptional abilities can be said to be real. But this in no way automatically means that meditation is behind all this. These people all meditate. Do they all wear black underwear too? Maybe they all had a dog when they were younger? It's easy to make associations when you pick and choose your data.

Previous studies have shown how the brain can change its structure over time.

[...Slow ....Hand ...Clap]

The researchers found significantly larger brain measurements in meditators compared with others, including larger volumes of the right hippocampus and increased grey matter in the right frontal cortex.

Because these areas of the brain are closely linked to emotion, Ms Luders said, "these might be the neuronal underpinnings that give meditators' the outstanding ability to regulate their emotions and allow for well-adjusted responses to whatever life throws their way".

This seems to be the article reiterating the same points in a different way in order to make it look more substantial than it really is. I won't do the same here, I think you've got the gist now. I don't know how many 'brain measurements' they took (seriously, what? This article is starting to cause fluctuations in my 'health numbers') but I've gone over the issue with grey matter and all that already.

I like how they've dropped the whole 'makes your brain bigger' angle by the end though, as that was misleading even by the standards of this article. As it happens, the biggest brain on record was about 3.5 kilos, and belonged to a mentally-retarded* epileptic. So claiming that meditation makes your brain bigger could be interpreted as 'meditation makes you retarded*', it's just as tenuous a link as a lot of the arguments put forward here.

There we go, my first piece that combines my passions for Neuroscience, cynicism, skepticism, nitpicking and sarcasm. I think I need a cigarette...

* = This is the term used when I read about it, I mean it purely in the scientific sense.

Email = humourology (at)

Twitter = @garwboy



Mark O'Leary said...

Hi Dr. D,

Really enjoyed this post. As a skeptic AND a Zen meditator, I have to endure an amazing amount of woo and nonsense from my fellow "Zennies." It's a field of interest that attracts a lot of wide-eyed enthusiasts for all manner of rubbish. Just last night I was listening to one earnest soul waxing rhapsodic about raw foods. Another acquaintance is a big fan of herbal remedies to "boost the immune system" and (allegedly) prevent colds and flu. Oy.

I will make no special claims for meditation. I recognize that my experience is no substitute for properly acquired empirical data, and in any case, MY experience has not been remarkable. For example, I cannot levitate, nor see through walls, and after reading your blog I am happy to report no noticeable increase in brain size. But please don't imagine that everyone who meditates is a whack-a-loon. Articles like the one you so ably dismantle here are kind of low-hanging fruit. Some of us are scientific materialists.

Who also meditate.


xenides said...

Old journalistic rule-of-thumb. If the number is one to ten, spell it out, otherwise use the digits. At least my wife told me that decades ago when she was a journalist.

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