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Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body Paperback – September 4, 2018
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—Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and Mindfulness for Beginners
"This exquisite duet between a down-to-earth science writer and path-breaking neuroscientist is a tour-de-force, revealing how training the mind can transform the brain and our sense of self, inspiring us to create a greater sense of well-being, meaning, and connection in our world. Bravo!"
—Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author of the New York Times best sellers, Mindsight and Brainstorm
"This is a book that really can change your life. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson not only show the power of meditation, but also the smartest way to practice for the maximum possible benefit. Altered Traits is your roadmap to a more mindful, compassionate, fulfilling life — who doesn’t want that?"
—Arianna Huffington, author of the New York Times best seller The Sleep Revolution
"Here is a message that is both powerful and joyful. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson reveal groundbreaking science showing how mindfulness and compassion practices can help each of us individually and thus the entire planet. One of the most exciting books I have read!"
—Chade-Meng Tan, author of the New York Times best sellers, Joy on Demand and Search Inside Yourself
"In this engaging and well-researched book, Goleman and Davidson help us sort out the many claims now being made about the benefits of meditation. Drawing on their own long personal meditative experience and the ever increasing number of scientific studies, Altered Traits breaks new ground in illuminating the power of meditation to transform our lives."
—Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
"One of the world’s most eminent psychological scientists and most gifted science writers have written the definitive book on the science of meditation. Rigorously researched and deeply illuminating, Altered Traits is a must-read for anyone interested in the hidden potential of the human mind."
—Daniel Gilbert, PhD, author of the New York Times best seller Stumbling on Happiness
"A remarkable collaboration between two brilliant and courageous pioneers, Altered Traits shares the scientific basis and practical realities of the remarkable impact meditation has on altering the mind. As I have personally experienced, regular meditation practice brings compassion, calm, and clarity for all of us, from beginners to experienced practitioners."
—Bill George, Senior Fellow, Harvard Business School; former Chair & CEO, Medtronic; and author of Discover Your True North
“Altered Traits is an informative book that is sure to be controversial. Highly recommended.”
About the Author
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in psychology and has been at Wisconsin since 1984. Davidson has published more than 320 articles, as well as numerous chapters and reviews, and edited fourteen books. His research has received many awards.
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Davidson made headlines several years ago with the results of his study of the brains of Tibetan monks, which showed unequivocally that years of meditation had significantly altered their brains (for the better). Goleman is the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence.
Altered Traits is a collaborative overview of the history of research on meditation and an analysis of what claims in the mainstream press are legitimate as opposed to those that are overreaching or simply wrong. (The altered traits of the title are those that endure long term, as opposed to those that are transient, taking place during meditation sessions and vanishing shortly thereafter.) The book is written entirely in third person, which is sometimes a bit odd, when it's clearly talking about the experiences of one author vs. the other.
I have to admit that I found the first several chapters tedious--the autobiographical stuff about their trips to India and personal explorations of meditation was okay, but there was a lot of detail about early research studies--what worked and what didn't--that got old for me. A different reader might eat it up, however. The book really got interesting when it embarked on Davidson's studies of Tibetan monks, and that's when I didn't want to put it down.
This is not in any way a how-to book about meditation. (There are plenty of those, as well as CDs and videos and apps, so that's not its purpose.) What it is is a scientific analysis, albeit designed for a general audience, about which claims about meditation are legitimate, which need more, and better, research and which can be debunked altogether. I've already recommended the book to a friend who recently began meditating at the suggestion of his doctor, but as a science teacher has been skeptical about its benefits. He, I would say, would be the ideal audience for Altered Traits.
I do think this book does a service in pointing out that much of the research done on meditation has major flaws, and there needs to be better studies done. They also point out that there are many different kinds of meditations that have very different effects, and that they need to be studied separately. This is very important and helpful. But I am dismayed at the bias towards a state that certain types of meditation help you achieve. The bias is that this is the best state to be in and the desirable goal for everyone. I disagree. The state that they describe is not what I am aiming for. And despite my public name (Ananda means 'bliss' in Sanskrit), I don't think that constant bliss or joy is the best goal. After all my years of meditation, I find that a calm peacefulness is best for me, and a better indication of emotional regulation than a state of bliss or joy. The authors of this book seem to think that the Gamma wave state/trait that their long-time meditators have is the ultimate goal. If so, I would say that we are going to have to use neurofeedback to get there, because meditation takes too long. Don't get me wrong. I encourage certain types of meditation and meditate regularly myself, but it takes more than meditation, for most of us, to really achieve the results that we are looking for in a more realistic time frame. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is looking promising for having a positive effect on brain structures, too. And I highly recommend looking into Attachment Theory and working towards secure attachment, which is where emotional regulation comes from, in my opinion. Basically, it is difficult to calm an overreactive amygdala through meditation alone, although I do believe it is a necessary and helpful part of the process.
I recently read "Brain Rules" by Jon Medina, and I was looking for the research explanations and notations in this book to be on the level of Medina's book. This book falls really short in this area. Also, I recommend "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris for a different approach to learning to be less reactive. It is similar to MBSR, but I like it better and it was life-changing for me.
Overall, I am glad that they are stating that achieving nice 'states' of mind during meditation is good, but the ultimate goal is to have this state become a trait, so that we are less reactive overall (again, this is called 'emotional regulation' in attachment theory). I also like that they point out the flaws in much of the research on meditation so far, and that future research needs to be of higher quality (and they specifically state the criteria for high quality research). And most importantly they state that the different types of meditation need to be studied separately. But the disappointments that I mentioned above are the reason for the lower rating that I gave the book.
Davidson and Goleman do a very good job of explaining the history of meditation research, the findings, the strengths and weaknesses of many of the studies, current trends, and -- in answer to the question I wanted to ask -- what they, as scientists, really think the research has given us, so far, by way of reliable findings. The field is still young and science takes a long time to come to consensus, so the "solid" results are few and far between, but there are trends, and they are intriguing. This book gives me a good set of summaries I can offer my students.
I must say that, towards the end, the book got a bit repetitive; it could have been a good 50 pages shorter, easily. Looks as if they were trying hard to hit the 300 page mark. But that does not detract from the substance of the book, and, for me, that's the analysis of and summations of the current research findings.
The science is thin and the link between meditation and permanent change very difficult to find in the narrative.
I am very disappointed.
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The paragraph which prompted me to write this somewhat scathing review was one where they cited, again uncritically, a study showing long term meditators had lower respiratory rates than non-meditators... and that the number translated to “more than 2000 extra breaths a day for the nonmeditators- and more than 800,000 breaths over the course of a year. These extra breaths are physiologically taxing, and can extract a health toll as time goes on.” What?! Really?! Not surprisingly there is no citation offered for this statement... what credulous nonsense!
I will read on, but with a heavy heart. There is a need for a digestible critical review of the cumulative science surrounding mental practices, and its relevance or otherwise for health and well-being, but I am afraid this is not it.
The book dispels the myth that you just need to meditate and eventually magic will happen and everything will be super, but it still dangles phrases that inspire e.g.
page 159 ......... a delight in sheer being
page 172 ..........it gets easier to handle life's upsets
page 286 ..........content in ourselves as we are.
Reminds of Stephen Batchelor's --re-enchanting the world.
The book leads up to and explores the implication on page 148---We live in a world our minds build rather than actually perceiving the endless detail of what is happening. It discusses consciousness as an integrator.
The discussion of the mind wandering Default Mode Network links it with the generation of the self (in its many guises) and clarifies the experience of 'flow'.
The three main strands of meditation i.e concentration, insight and loving kindness seem to recruit different aspects of brain activity and possible long term modification.
One omission is the description of the size of the statistical relations discussed in most cases. Such information would help the cost benefit to be evaluated.
The main message, unfortunately, is that long term change can occur, but the amount of training necessary is beyond the majority of people. However from a personal point of view, having some amateur meditation experience enables an understanding of the insight strand. Books like this help the understanding of the mechanics of mental activity and reveals the various misapprehensions (e.g. the flexible, transient dynamic nature of the self, the integration of the pain sensation with the impulse to fix it because I'm hurting) and modify or at least question the resulting intention of behaviour accordingly. That's got to be good.
Daniel Goleman Richard J Davidson have every reason to be proud of their life's work making significant contributions to the subject and helping others to understand it.