Summary of Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

Everyone has an opinion about meditation. As its popularity grew in the Western World, some people swear by it whilst others think of it as just another trend that will fade eventually. However, researchers were intrigued by the effects reported by meditation which was why numerous scientific studies into mediation emerged. From looking at personality differences, brain activity and even physical capabilities, they’ve covered it all. So, what does this mean for you?

Well, if you know just exactly how you can benefit from a bit of meditation, you can actually use this knowledge to your advantage. It’s not as hard as you think it may be.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Two types of meditation to try
  • The benefits of meditation
  • The pitfalls of multitasking
  • Does meditation make the brain stronger?
  • Practise makes perfect

Key lesson one: Two types of meditation to try

You may be surprised to learn that there are different types of meditation. Each one is steeped in its own ancient teachings and achieve different results. Two types are discussed in this summary. The first is a type of meditation that focuses on a single thing. This type of meditation originated in the fifth century in a text known as Visuddhimagga which translates to the Path to Purification. 

Focusing on a single thing makes this type of meditation the source of mindfulness. The easiest way to begin this type of meditation is by focusing on your breath, If you have ever tried meditation you know that it is not easy when you begin. Attempting to focus on one thing often ends in the mind jumping from thought to thought and never staying focused. Nevertheless, it is achievable to silence your mind enough that you focus solely on one thing with enough practice. 

The next type of meditation worth trying is one that stops you from reacting to your thoughts. This type of meditation originated from the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha. Unlike the type of meditation described earlier, this one prefers that you are aware of all your thoughts and not just one. The most important part of this type of meditation is that you do not react to your thoughts despite your awareness of them. This means that you allow your thoughts to pass through your mind without being consumed by them. 

These two types of meditation each have their own benefits and are thus favourites among those who practice meditation. Depending on what you wish to achieve, you can decide which one you want to try.

Key lesson two: The benefits of meditation

Meditation has numerous benefits which is why it is recommended to those who are highly stressed. It helps with reducing your reaction to triggers which you would usually find stressful. There is a psychological test called the Trier Social stress test that can calculate a person’s reaction to stressful situations. Researchers used this test as a means to study the influence meditation has on stress levels in teachers. After being exposed to the Trier test, the study revealed that those teachers that practised meditation could get the blood pressure back to normal quicker than those who did not meditate. In fact, the longer they were able to meditate, the quicker their recovery from stress. This effect was even still present five months after the study.

This study was repeated a few years later only this time, the researchers used experienced meditators. The meditators were allowed to spend an entire 8 hours meditating the day prior to the Trier test. When the results of the test were compared, the experienced meditators exhibited lower cortisol levels than the non-meditators. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released during stressful situations. In addition, the meditators actually didn’t feel that the test was stressful at all. 

Some studies have even shown that meditation can help those who suffer from depression. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or MBCT works by getting patients to focus on one thing and was proven to actually prevent depression. MBCT has proven to be quite effective when the reason behind a patient’s depression is childhood trauma. In addition, MBCT world just as well as traditional drugs that are prescribed to treat depression. One study from the University of Bologna in 2015 even found that patients felt better with MBCT and not with the medication provided. Meditation has also proven to be extremely useful to pregnant women with a history of depression. Most women are hesitant to take antidepressants during or immediately after pregnancy. However, the use of MBCT by pregnant women can significantly lower the risk of depression.

Experienced meditators have also exhibited high levels of compassion and empathy. This was clearly shown in a 2002 study involving a Tibetan monk, Mingyur Rinpoche. The monk was asked to meditate whilst being connected to an EEG machine. His brain waves showed unusually high levels of compassion during meditation. Furthermore, fMRI results showed an 800 per cent increase in the areas associated with empathy. This voluntary neural activity had never before been seen in science and showed the incredible effects of meditation. 

Key lesson three: The pitfalls of multitasking

Living in today’s world demands multitasking. We are often trying to handle work, family, social lives while being constantly flooded with distractions in the form of emails, calls and not to mention social media. This is why we are left feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally. 

The fact is, multitasking is somewhat of a myth. It was proven by a communication scientist in 2009 that the brain is actually unable to multitask. If we attempt to do multiple things, we lose concentration when we switch between tasks. This means that it takes longer to regain focus. It was also found that people who do multitask a lot are distracted more easily and have to use more areas of their brain to concentrate. 

Meditation can help with this occurrence by increasing one’s capacity to concentrate. This was proven in a study that compared two groups of students. The group that meditated exhibited an improvement in concentration. In addition, another study found that students who meditated longer actually showed an improvement of about 30 per cent on their entrance exams for grad school.

Therefore, if you believe you are an efficient multitasker, maybe now you can understand why you get distracted so easily and battle to concentrate. If you really want to improve the way you work, try meditating. 

Key lesson four: Does meditation make the brain stronger?

Well, the answer to this question is a bit complicated. Studies that have been conducted do indicate some brain strengthening as a result of meditation. The first such study was conducted in 2002 by Sara Lazar who found that meditation causes areas of the brain to thicken. The study did not, however, go into detail about what this would mean except for the fact that it suggests brain improvement. Since then, many other studies have built upon this initial information. 

In 2014, a neurologist from Stanford University took a closer look at 21 of these studies. Kieran C.R. Fox found that meditation had a positive effect on three areas of the brain. The insula, prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex. These three areas are respectively responsible for emotional and physical bodily processes, focused attention and self-regulation and impulse control.

So, although studies do indicate that meditation does strengthen certain areas in the brain, the complicated part comes from which type of meditation. The participants on these studies all practised meditation – but different types of meditation. These included Vipassana, Zen Buddhism and Kundalini Yoga. These types of meditation differ significantly, thus it is hard for researchers to pinpoint which actions are actually responsible for the improvement in our brains. Therefore, study in this area of meditation continues in the hopes of finding the exact practice to follow to strengthen your brain.

Key lesson five: Practise makes perfect

There are many different types of meditation all across the world. With the introduction of yoga and meditation in the Western world, many people have at some point tried it. And many people have reported very different effects. As discussed before, these different effects could be a result of the different types of yoga or even the time spent meditating. 

No matter how much time you spend meditating, even by trying it, you will notice some positive effects. With a mere 8 minutes of mindfulness every day, you can improve your concentration. These effects, however, are not long-lasting if you meditate for short periods of time. It has to be sustained over longer periods. If you are able to continue your practice of meditation, eventually reaching thousands of hours, you will be less reactive to stressful triggers and your body will release less cortisol. In addition, you will exhibit higher levels of compassion and empathy for others. 

In this day and age where our minds tend to jump from one thought to the next, the benefits of meditation cannot be denied. There is scientific evidence to prove just how beneficial. Thus, all it takes is a bit of practice to make meditation a healthy habit.

The key takeaway from Altered Traits is:

Meditation has been around for thousands of years and its introduction into the modern world was met with mixed reactions. Many people have difficulty with meditation as they struggle to maintain focus due to their busy lifestyles. However, the benefits of meditation cannot be denied. Researchers have now been able to provide definitive proof of the benefits of meditation. It improves, concentration, compassion, empathy and improves the way we deal with stress and depression. As further research continues into its actual effect on the brain, we can continue to practice meditation for our overall well-being.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Altered Traits:

Meditation is not easy when you begin. Many of us have very busy and stressful lifestyles that do not afford us the time to just stop and do nothing. However, meditation is not nothing. You are in fact doing something. Depending on the type of meditation you choose, the actual practice can be different but the most important thing you can do is make time. Even ten minutes a day can have a huge impact on your life. Just try, you might be surprised at the results. 

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