Mindfulness has become a widely popular topic in the social sciences, psychology and neurosciences. Meditation refers to different techniques which have in common “a conscious attempt to focus attention in a non-analytical way and not to dwell on discursive, ruminating thought. The subject of this study is to confirm or refute the well-known benefits of meditation in terms of concentration and whether or not it increases the compassion.
We all know that many Silicon Valley companies offer meditation sessions to their employees to help them cope with the complex and stressful environment they must manage.
But maybe it’s not a good idea… Surprisingly, for Andrew C. Hafenbrack, professor of organizational behaviour at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics , mindfulness meditation would have the opposite negative effect of lowering employees’ motivation levels.
The team conducted a series of experiments with a classical structure, involving three groups, one of meditation practitioners, a second who had to let his thoughts wander and a third whose members had to read the news or write about their day. Then the subjects were given a task to perform such as filling out a memo, using a word processor, etc. Finally, they were given a questionnaire. According to the responses, “meditators” were the least motivated to perform this type of task….
As a result, it would seem that meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states that were apparently not conducive to tackling a work project.
Obviously, this study must be largely relativized given the number of scientific studies and books published by the great meditators — practicing for more than 10 years and this with perseverance, every day.
On this point I can only refer you to the author most involved in this matter, Ryan M. Niemec in his book “Mindfulness and Character Strengths” and the mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
It has been clearly demonstrated that in major practitioners, meditation has the virtue of reducing heart rate, stress and anxiety by detaching oneself from one’s emotions and ending one’s inner dialogue (critical and negative) by focusing on one’s diaphragmatic breathing (depending on the variant of meditation practiced).
In addition, this time of detachment devoted to mindfulness meditation increases the level of concentration when a task is resumed, as the brain has had a moment of cognitive relaxation with good oxygenation conducive to the resumption of intellectual or sporting activity. These proven benefits have enabled the integration of meditative practice in the workplace, in hospitals and very widely in schools (both in Finland, UK, Canada) from early childhood.
“The compassionate mind is the mind that transforms.”
― Paul Gilbert, Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others
Psychologists have wondered whether meditation could “contribute to the creation of a better world”, in other words, whether, as its followers claim, it develops feelings of empathy and respect for other humans.
To do this, a group of researchers conducted a meta-analysis on the subject. In other words, they have the literature on the subject and compared 20 experiences. They have of course studied the work on “mindfulness meditation”, but, in accordance with their subject, they have also taken an interest in a form of meditation that is also highly appreciated in the West, “Loving-kindness meditation”, which consists of focusing on positive feelings towards others.
Performing a meta-analysis is not simple, because not all experiments follow exactly the same protocol or focus on exactly the same question….Thus, one of the studies involved instructing meditators to focus on their breathing, while the control group was involved in a weekly discussion on the benefits of compassion.
To go further:
In another research, the active group practiced a form of relaxation, listening to an audio tape talking about breathing, while the control group simply waited in the next room…
To control the degree of compassion, some studies simply used questionnaires, while others sought to measure gain by empathy, for example, by observing whether subjects were more likely to give up their seats in a full waiting room.
Apparently, the results of the meta-analysis were rather positive. The figures seemed to indicate a real increase in the quality of social behaviour. This study shows us the difficulties of research not only on meditation, but in psychology itself.
We wondered about the famous “control groups”. When conducting medical research, it is easy to define a control group: its members are given a placebo, which makes it easy to compare with the effects of the molecule ingested by the members of the “active” group. But what is a placebo in psychology? Is there a placebo meditation?
In short, the control groups could be assigned a variety of very different activities. And depending on the activity of the control group, the results could be very different. Thus, if the latter simply waited in a room while their partners practiced “loving-kindness” for 8 weeks, the results were positive. But in the experience where the control group had to engage in discussions about compassion, there was no significant correlation…
Have psychologists then really established the benefit of meditation, or is this simply proof “that it is better to do something than nothing”?
In this way, another problem is that in the most rigorous medical research, we use what is called the “double blind”. Not only do the subjects not know what they are taking, but the experimenter also ignores it. It was questioned whether, in the experiments, the meditation instructor was one of the authors or even the main author of the study in question. And the study came up with the impressive figure of 48%. Of course, one can only suspect that the researcher’s enthusiasm may have been unintentionally communicated to the subjects. The case became even more annoying when it was only discovered in this case that compassion seemed to be increasing among participants. When the experimenter was different from the instructor (or when the instructor was a simple audio tape), there was no change.
In the meantime, what do these studies show us?
Certainly not that meditation is useless or ineffective. Rather than being a complex phenomenon that involves the whole personality of an individual, and not a pill with clear and defined effects. And also that it is necessary to stop studying beginners when this practice requires years of daily discipline!