Do Meditators Become Brain Dead?

The Washington Post had a story a few days back Is meditation a religion? One of the commenters wrote this.

sadagpawd @7/17/2011 8:49:48 AM PDT

I was with a Zen meditation center for a few years and they “required” once a month weekend meditation sessions for 14 hours per day and then two times a year meditation sessions for 10 days straight. (Meditation periods were broken up into 1/2 hour sittings, then walking meditation with work practice meditation thrown in.) The thought was that more meditation is better. However, over time I began to see that — just like exercise or eating too many carrots that will turn your skin orange — so too meditation may have deleterious effects and might not be as effective as thought. Scientific research these days asks questions such as “Why is meditation healthy?” but never wonders if there may be negative affects. It’s currently a cultural bias. Interestingly, some scientific journals have found changes in the brain due to meditation, but have been reluctant to draw conclusions. One study found that chronic meditators have more gray matter in the brain. (Which may mean nothing — it may also mean that they have less white matter — the necessary parts of the brain that connect neurons together.) Another study found that when meditating, the dorso-lateral-pre-frontal-cortex part of the brain changes, which is the place where we hold our sense of time. The other time that our dorso-lateral-pre-frontal-cortex changes and our sense of time alters is when we are using large doses of alcohol or drugs. From what I have seen of long-term meditators, because they’ve stimulated the right part of their brains to such a large extent without developing the left as well, their motivation is low, they aren’t capable of holding jobs, their thinking processes are lower — all the things that are similar to long-term drug users. So, in terms of healthy meditation practices, these things might also be something to consider.

A bunch of conjecture and long neurologically related words. Citations please.

And speculative false conclusions such as:

“it may also mean that they have less white matter — the necessary parts of the brain that connect neurons together” Does the study in question actually conclude that? Has that been measured?

“Another study found that when meditating, the dorso-lateral-pre-frontal-cortex part of the brain changes, which is the place where we hold our sense of time. The other time that our dorso-lateral-pre-frontal-cortex changes and our sense of time alters is when we are using large doses of alcohol or drugs.”  This is a false correlation. How is that brain area changed in each of these circumstances? It’s like saying “My route to work and the time it takes me to get there has changed.” In case one it’s because a new bridge was built. In case two it’s because an old bridge collapsed.  Are they equivalent? I don’t think so.

“From what I have seen of long-term meditators, because they’ve stimulated the right part of their brains to such a large extent without developing the left as well, their motivation is low, they aren’t capable of holding jobs, their thinking processes are lower — all the things that are similar to long-term drug users.”  There is no source cited for the “right brain” speculation other than random observation.  The right brain is typically associated with creativity. The left brain typically with logic and language. These are not cut and dried divisions however since the corpus callosum, which joins the brain hemispheres plays a major role. Seems to me, anecdotally and by a random observation of my book shelves, that long time Zen meditators throughout history are some of the most prolific poets around. So perhaps the dude should take a look at Lateralization of brain function to get a better grip.

Please ask your politicians not to cut funding for science education.

6 comments on “Do Meditators Become Brain Dead?

  1. I agree with all your criticisms. On the other hand, anecdotally, “[long-term meditators’] motivation is low, they aren’t capable of holding jobs, their thinking processes are lower” might have some truth to it. Hard to know without numbers; without looking at the base rate for lameness; without checking to see if they weren’t even lamer before they started meditating. Still, the stereotype has enough plausibility that I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand the possibility of a causal connection.

  2. “the base rate for lameness”

    Wondering how to quantify that.

    My thoughts on criteria:

    1. Mobility [number of times one gets off the couch per week]
    2. Battery usage [number of batteries used per month for game controllers, remotes]
    3. Caloric consumption [number of bags of Cheetos eaten and cans of pop drunk per day]
    4. Proximity to the bathroom [arranging furniture to diminish distance on a per foot basis]
    5. Personal hygiene [rated by number of people who will remain in the room for more than 5 minutes]
    6. Length of toenails

    #1, #4 and #5 are rated in inverse proportions.

  3. Merely because this commentors observations are not academically sourced or cited does not automatically make them invalid. I too would like more information on the research so that I might review it and draw my own conclusions, but your dismissive tone based on lack of footnotes seems to speak to your biases. (Or the American – assuming the person is American – education system’s poor teaching standards regarding referencing one’s online comments.) Nor does a lack of proper evidentiary support invalidate her/his personal experiences/observations. Doesn’t mean they are broadly applicable or correct, however. He raises questions, questions which I believe are worth some investigation. Of course, this conclusion is based merely on my own personal experience with why people come to meditation and/or Buddhism and what they ‘use’ it for. I am undoubtedly biased. :-)

    • If people are going to throw around words like “dorso-lateral-pre-frontal-cortex” and add stuff like “Scientific research these days asks questions such as… ” then the intellectual posturing is not mine alone to bear. If someone makes these kinds of intellectualist/academic style statements then questioning them on that basis is not out of line.

    • And as to biases, sure I’ve got quite a few-intellectual, political, religious, social, economic. So does everyone else. I keep mine pretty much out in the open. I don’t like hidden agendas.

  4. Really, David, you think that stereotype may have some general validity based on your observations? I’ve been around long-term meditators for nearly two decades, in different parts of the country, and haven’t noticed these trends at all. Very low unemployment, in fact. (Not always happy in their employment, but employed.) Contractors, academics, nurses, doctors, teachers, and people with admin kind of jobs. A couple of entrepreneurs. A couple of monastics (whom I count as employed — they work a full day in exchange for room and board). I can think of three individuals who are long-term meditators and “cannot hold a job.” All three of them are on disability for different conditions. In fact, this stereotype does not correspond to my own observations over two decades at all.

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