A subject of scientific studies in recent years, meditation is proving to be an effective antidote for stress and suffering in these times of abrupt change and uncertainty. The neuroscientist Antoine Lutz explains why in this interview.
How did you, as a brain specialist, become interested in meditation?
Antoine Lutz: The basic purpose of meditation practices is to cultivate three human capacities. The first is that of being conscious of all the changes that we encounter in our everyday lives, and of our responses, often instinctive, to those changes. The second is our ability to “let go”, in other words to achieve awareness of the illusory aspect of certain purely mental reactions, thoughts and emotions that can exacerbate our unease. Lastly, meditation helps us wield a third skill, which is to develop resilience, tolerance and benevolence in relation to the obstacles and challenges of life.
How can meditation be an especially useful practice at the present time?
A.L.: It is useful because the current crisis is bringing about many upheavals in everyday life, in our school habits, work practices and social activities, but also in the amount of physical exercise we get and the stress caused by uncertainty. Am I going to catch the disease? Is it going to strike a loved one? If that happens, will they pull through? Not to mention all the questioning linked to the economic and financial consequences… Our responses to these changes are so many stress factors: feeling guilty when we’re unable to help those close to us, anger about the restrictions, irritability with those around us, worry… Essentially, meditation fosters our capacity to remain psychologically open, grounded and sensitive in the face of suffering, helping us respond with more discernment and benevolence towards ourselves and others.
In concrete terms, how can meditation help manage situations of stress?
A.L.: Stress is a reaction to unfamiliar situations, and in that sense it is a normal and useful physiological state. But in cases of chronic stress, this response can be exaggerated or disproportionate, or last for too long. In psychological terms, what mechanisms do we develop to deal with pressure? Our usual reflexes are often to ignore or try to avoid suffering. Our behaviour is instinctive, which we sometimes regret later. Examples include irritability, aggressiveness or even physical or psychological violence, as well as worry, panic attacks or overly severe criticism of ourselves or others.
One of the faculties nurtured by the practice of meditation is the attainment of full awareness, in other words the potential to focus on the present moment, including the way in which we spontaneously react to a stressful situation. Various exercises help to achieve this: concentrating on one’s own breathing, emotions or thoughts, or on the perception of physical sensations in the body. This state of complete awareness then enables us to consider a given negative thought – like the possibility of a disaster – with more discernment, by trying to understand its connection with other thoughts. Gradually, we become less obsessed with the idea and can stop dwelling on and worrying about it. The same is true for emotions, which can easily overwhelm us, and even for ordinary everyday activities like walking, eating, etc.
What exactly is the medical view of meditation?
A.L.: Since about 20 years ago, meditation practices have been used in healthcare for stress management and to supplement more conventional therapeutic methods. Their clinical benefits are quite well established when dealing with affective disorders and chronic pain. But, in addition to its psychological effects, it has been observed that meditation can have an indirect influence on our physical health, since our mental state affects the body, and in particular the immune system. Non-religious versions of this practice are now used in hospitals and taught as part of medical training. This renewed interest in meditation for health purposes could be a response to the growing need for a more preventive, humanistic kind of medicine.
What is the contribution of the neurosciences?
A.L.: They help us elucidate and explore the functioning of the brain, including all the neurophysiological mechanisms – especially the so-called neuro-psycho-immunological interactions, meaning the effects of psychological events on the immune system.
Several longitudinal brain imaging studies have been able to measure the impact of meditation on the brain’s neuroplasticity, in other words its capacity to create, deconstruct or reorganise neural networks and the connections between neurons. This plasticity can be observed in the anatomy and functions of the brain in response to a meditation intervention. It is the case in particular in the insular cortex, an important region for interoception – i.e. the ability to correctly evaluate our physiological activity, like our heart rate – and in the prefrontal cortex, an area that is essential for complex cognitive processes. These changes are associated with performance variations in attention and emotion regulation tasks.
The neurosciences also offer the advantage of providing objective measurements in a field that is closely related to the inner self, emotions and suffering, all of which are highly subjective. The scientific understanding of meditation practices could help improve the individualisation of various techniques according to the patients’ needs.
Meditation requires serious, supervised and long-term training. Is it reasonable to try and learn it quickly to get through this extraordinary period?
A.L.: To experience its physical and mental benefits, meditation must be practised in a regular, sustained manner. It can take several weeks, or even years, before it brings about a lasting change in our living patterns. It’s also easier in a group, with an instructor. That said, when we are going through difficult times, the mind is more open to change. Could this crisis be an opportunity for us to explore our perception of our own experience, of others and of the world? And at the same time connect with what is essential in our lives? Under these unusual circumstances, meditation can provide inspiration and positive change even when performed over brief periods of time. To that end, an instructor who participates in our studies has agreed to propose short sessions for beginners. These were conceived as a gradual progression and must be followed in a specific order. They were adapted from a programme developed for the Silver Santé Study, an ongoing EU scientific project on the effects of meditation on ageing, coordinated by Gaëlle Chételat at the INSERM in Caen (northwestern France).