Next week we will have our Cappuccino Club meeting on the topic of meditation and health. While the topic is current for us, it seems a good time to reflect on what is good science, and what is anecdotal evidence.
First, take a look at this short clip:
There is an excellent book called The Invisible Gorilla which I’d recommend for anyone interested in how the mind works, especially how attention (manasikara in Buddhism) works, and – as the book’s tagline says – “how our intuitions deceive us.”
This is one of a current crop of well written books covering in depth topics in a style the layman can understand. You won’t find it too technical, and it is packed with very interesting and relevant examples of the book’s core concepts.
The title of the book comes from a very famous experiment in 2004 where subjects were asked to look at a short video and then report anything unusual. The video was of two teams playing simple basketball, and the subjects were asked to count how many time one team passed/received the ball.
The interesting point of the experiment was that over 50% of the people who watched the video did not notice a woman in a Gorilla suit come in front of the camera, and beat her chest for 9 seconds. In many different ways this experiemnt has been replicated since its first wave of popularity (or hilarity) after winning an Ig-nobel award.
Here it is repeated for a group in the UK (just one of many Youtubes on the topic)
The experiment is very relevant to Buddhism, which treats consciousness as focussing on one thing at a time. In fact ‘consciousness’ in Buddhism is the word vinyana (vi~n~naana) which means: vi (special or specific) and naana (knowing). Vinyana is literally carving out one thing from your field of experience to focuss on – known in psychology as a Gestalt perception. The ramifications of this spread in many directions, and there is a lot of study on it both in and out of Buddhism; so we won’t get into too much detail here.
Selective attention, illustrated in the Gorilla experiment, is only one of the ways the mind deludes us however. The book discusses many more. One of these is how anecdotal evidence overrides our good judgement. For example, if you are looking to buy a car and happen to be in a friend’s Toyota and it breaks down, you will likely perceive Toyota’s as unreliable. Even though all makes of car break down once in a while. To get a good view of the matter you’d have to look up breakdown statistics for motor cars you are looking to buy. Then your view will be slightly more informed – but only slightly. What about the drivers? Do certain demographics of drivers break down more often? Certain age groups, occupations, or other factors? This is one of the reasons we are so susceptible to errors of judgement – it takes too long to find out all the information. Evolution has taught us to make decisions quickly based on rules of thumb.
In the book the Invisible Gorilla authors raise the example of MMR inoculations (Measles, Mumps and Rubella). These are usually give to children of 12-18 months. It also happens that children found to be autistic develop symptoms around this age. Is there a link between the two? Because we try to draw patterns from the world around us, to enable us to accurately predict our surroundings, it is tempting to find a connection. So much so that there have been some very vocal, and damaging, campaigns to dissuade parents from giving their children MMR injections under the mistaken notion that there is a connection with autism. Consequently there has been a rise of the associated MMR diseases.
This is ‘anecdotal evidence’. That is, you see an example of something and presume it to be a pattern. You get a cold and take some cold medicine, and the cold goes. So you think the medicine works. Actually you are better just drinking hot water (or is that just MY perception). But the temptation to draw connections is too powerful. An anecdotal image is more powerful in our mind than the facts and figures. That is why politicians who want to appear like they ‘care’ will go find an old lady or a young baby to pat, rather than telling us what their actual policy will be. Our minds are biased towards illustrative examples.
Which brings us to meditation – is it really good for the health of the body? Quite possibly. However, many of the meditators I know are real hypochondriacs. Especially the monks. It could be you can get too sensitive, and start to worry more. It could be the dark cousin of the placebo effect – the nocebo effect, wherein you develop symptoms of sickness you have seen around you. Airlines stewards will tell you that if one person is seen being sick on an aeroplane, there will be several more following suit once they get the idea.
Then perhaps yoga or Qi Kong would be better for the body, being more grounded in the body awareness than regular vipassana? Or should we follow the science and look at measurable effects of meditation, such as stress hormone levels – as these do provide a genuine measurable difference between those who meditate and those who do not.
Whatever you view, we can learn from the Invisible Gorilla that our perceptions can easily deceive us. Science, for all its mistakes and wrong turns, is the best methodology we have for testing if something really does have a measurable effect on health. But unlike the non-participation in the MMR program, at least the meditation can’t have a downside. You will feel better, and more awake, no matter what the effect on health.
On Saturday 8th June we will be meeting at Ariyasom to discuss these and your other opinions on meditation and body health, with special guest Khun Morakot, who teaches Qi Kong – especially for cancer patients. She also has volunteered for a long time in the Bangkok cancer wards. In her own life she had breast cancer twice, and has used meditation as a therapy together with conventional medicine.