Clifford Saron, a neuroscientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the Mind Institute, leads the Shamatha Project, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive longitudinal studies of meditation ever conducted.
In this episode, Saron discusses the findings so far; what science can tell us about the tangible effects of meditation; and how mindfulness affects our physical, mental and emotional health.
Clifford Saron, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis. Cliff has had a long-standing interest in the effects of contemplative practice on physiology and behavior. In the early 1990s, he conducted field research investigating Tibetan Buddhist mind training under the auspices of the office of the Dalai Lama and has been associated with the Mind & Life Institute since 1990. A faculty member at Mind & Life Summer Research Institutes in the US and Europe and a former member of the Mind & Life Institute Steering Council, he received the inaugural Mind & Life Service Award in 2018. Cliff directs the Shamatha Project, a multidisciplinary longitudinal investigation of the effects of intensive meditation on physiological and psychological processes central to well-being. Currently, his research team is investigating how meditation experience may mitigate the effects of the pandemic on chronic stress and cellular aging, as well as examining consequences of compassion vs. mindfulness training on engagement with suffering. Cliff also studies sensory processing and integration in children with autism spectrum disorders to better understand how these children experience their everyday sensory environments.
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[00:00:01] Clifford Saron think there are many different ways we can use our time creatively to maintain our mental health span, like our physical health span. And for some people, contemplative practice may be such a path.
[00:00:26] Soterios Johnson People have practiced various forms of meditation for thousands of years, usually in a religious context. Archeologists have found evidence of it as far back as the year 5000 BCE, but only recently, in the last couple of decades, has meditation been the subject of scientific study. What can science tell us about the tangible effects of meditation? How can mindfulness affect our physical, mental and emotional health? This is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas. I'm Soterios Johnson. Clifford Saron is a neuroscientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the MIND Institute. He leads the Shamatha Project, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive longitudinal studies of meditation ever conducted. Welcome to The Backdrop, Cliff.
[00:01:10] Clifford Saron It's a pleasure to be here, Soterios.
[00:01:13] Soterios Johnson So let's start out very basic. What is meditation,.
[00:01:17] And in particular, Shamatha meditation.
[00:01:20] Clifford Saron So meditation is a class category that is as broad as, let's say, what is sports?
[00:01:28] Soterios Johnson Mm hmm.
[00:01:28] Clifford Saron So we can take two terms that come from both Tibetan Gomde, which means familiarization and bhavana, which in Sanskrit means to cultivate. So in some sense, the effort that one undertakes with a meditation practice is to cultivate a familiarity with one's mind. Full stop.
[00:01:59] Soterios Johnson And doing that by what? Focusing on breathing? Or how does one go about to do that?
[00:02:06] Clifford Saron So there are many different meditative techniques. One common technique is to focus your attention on the sensations of your breath, because your breath is always with you. And it provides a nice focal point of attention. Either the sensation of the air going in and out at the tip of the nostrils, you feel coolness on the in breath, slight warmth on the out breath, or the rising and falling of your abdomen as you sit quietly in stillness, just breathing, not changing your breath, but observing how the breath comes and goes and how often there's a tiny pause in between the exhalation and the inhalation. And in these few words, I've just given you a basic meditative technique. But the technique is not the point of the practice. The point of the practice is really to become aware of what's going on in your body, what's going on in your mind, what's happening around you. And coming into a more fuller sense of everything in which you are embedded in this life.
[00:03:35] Soterios Johnson And people meditate because they feel like it gives them many benefits. And so why -- why should people meditate? Why do you meditate?
[00:03:47] Clifford Saron So, I came to meditation not by choice so much because I was a very sick child who had asthma and spent a lot of my childhood sitting quietly watching my breath because it was hard to breathe. And so when it when I was relieved of those asthma attacks, I was so grateful just to be able to breathe that I, as an individual, naturally gravitated toward meditation technique where one watches one's breath. Now, I don't meditate that regularly at this point. I'm 48 years into familiarity with these techniques. And so when you have exposure to something for a very long period of time, it sort of seeps into nooks and crannies in your life. So, that's very different than starting out with a variety of tools to learn a technique to engage in a regular practice. There are a whole variety of apps now to meditate, but the problem with apps is you don't have the dialog with the teacher. So there are, at this point, given the resources of the pandemic and so much going online, there are many teachers who are regularly conducting online classes.
[00:05:17] Soterios Johnson Right. And so you conducted the Shamatha Project. You still are conducting it. And you found that there that you were able to, you know, link meditation to certain benefits. So before we get to those things, can you talk about the project and what it is, how long you've been following people in the study, things like that?
[00:05:40] Clifford Saron Sure. So you had asked earlier what Shamata meditation was and Shamata is literally translated as "meditative quiescence." And this project was a collaboration between a Buddhist teacher and scholar and translator, Alan Wallace and myself and my students and many researchers from around the country, at UC Davis and beyond, that's been ongoing since we began thinking about it in 2003. And what Shamata meditation is primarily a focused attention set of meditations. The primary practice that we investigated was this kind of mindfulness of breathing. You focus on the sensations of the breath. When your mind wanders, you notice that your mind has wandered and you gently bring it back and you cultivate a sense of one pointed, relaxed, vivid concentration on the breath. Other techniques like that one were to simply sit and observe what arises in the mind, whether it's images or feelings in the body or memories. And a third technique that we studied was simply to become focused on your awareness itself. And that's a pretty subtle thing. But sometimes when you're really tired or have gone through something very intense, you can get a glimpse that there is a kind of awareness and a wake -- a wakefulness in your mind that is content-independent and has been with you your whole life. This is sort of the invariance of your experience, the knowledge you have, that you are awake and aware. So these techniques to learn them with a good teacher and then have ample time to practice -- the Shamatha Project actually involved nothing less than three months of full time residential meditation retreat, where a group of two groups of 30 individuals were randomly assigned to one of two retreats at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. And we built laboratories in the basement of a meditation lodge and constructed 15 computer based experiments and questionnaires and biological measures. And one group meditated for three months. Another group, we flew to the meditation center as a comparison group. And then they themselves, after this first three month retreat, did their own three month retreat. And the main focus of the design of this project was asking, so can you, if you do one pointed, focused attention meditation, and you cultivate alongside that a sense of focus, aspirations for self and others to be happy to be free from suffering, that you are promoting a sense of compassionate engagement toward yourself and others. You're working to celebrate the positive emotions of others, having empathetic joy and cultivating a sense of equanimity in the sense that everyone is equally deserving of happiness and freedom from suffering. So that was sort of the ethical firmament. And within that, people practiced these meditation techniques. They practiced meditation between six and 7 hours a day, seven days a week, in a beautiful retreat center in the Rocky Mountains with like-minded individuals, with a teacher who was very experienced and who they wanted to study from. And they were in this beautiful environment. So the many aspects of this training have impact beyond just the idea of meditating.
[00:10:46] Soterios Johnson Right. I mean, these people actually picked up and kind of put their lives on hold and did this for three months straight in a setting where they were all together and there were -- it's not something that that was just being done, kind of working it into their regular lives.
[00:11:01] Clifford Saron That's correct. And we have followed up additional studies more locally, not in Colorado, but at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Wood Acre in West Marin, where we've investigated the impacts of one month silent retreats. But again, it's a very intense intervention that has many consequences outside just time meditating.
[00:11:35] Soterios Johnson Right. So let's talk a little bit about some of the findings that came out of the project.
[00:11:40] Clifford Saron So we collected a huge amount of data and believe it or not, even though this project ran in 2007, we followed people for six months, a year and a half, and then seven years later. We are still analyzing data and publishing data from this project in 2022.
[00:12:10] Soterios Johnson Amazing. I would imagine that some of the people kept up with it and maybe others didn't. So are you able to compare the differences in that one factor?
[00:12:21] Clifford Saron Yes, actually, we we have some data on that. So the project was broken down into this sense of tasks related to the cultivation of attention and tasks related to a sense of compassion or empathy by seeing how people could engage with material that depicted human and animal suffering. And there were a variety of experiments in these domains. And one of the experiments in the domain of attention had to do with a very boring task. But one that is quite telling because it relates to people's overall improvements in psychological functioning and social emotional functioning. That task is simply to. Determine whether a briefly presented line is incrementally just visibly shorter than a line that is commonly presented. And we create this shorter line tailored to the perceptual capacity of each person that we test. So we take about 15 minutes and we make a short line longer and longer and longer until you can only tell it's not a long line about 75% of the time. We call that your visual perceptual threshold.
[00:13:56] Soterios Johnson Okay.
[00:13:57] Clifford Saron 90% of the time. We're going to give you the long line. But the target here is the short line.
[00:14:06] Soterios Johnson Mm hm.
[00:14:06] Clifford Saron And when we tell you, you see a target, we want you to not press a button. So the task is to push a button, push a button, push a button when you see long lines 90% of the time. And when you see this tiny bit shorter line, withhold your response. That is a response inhibition task that is perceptually demanding. And we asked people to do that without a break for 30 minutes. it's a hard task.
[00:14:44] Soterios Johnson Yeah, it sounds like it's a very hard task just to, you know, to stay that focused for that long. So what did you find?
[00:14:51] Clifford Saron What we found in the project is that people actually improve from the beginning of the retreat to the middle of the retreat. They have a significant increased ability to withhold their response. Now, how many times in life have you wished you could have withheld saying something hurtful?
[00:15:19] Soterios Johnson Right!
[00:15:20] Clifford Saron How many times as a parent does one? Wish one had just a little more self-control. So it turned out that how much individuals improved in this task pre the beginning of the retreat to the middle of the retreat, actually predicted a composite measure of a whole bunch of positive psychological attributes -- less neuroticism, more openness to experience, less depression, less anxiety, more mindfulness. This we published in the journal Emotion in 2011. First author is Baljinder Sahdra. And this was a complex statistical modeling that linked a low-level response inhibition task to this much more amorphous self-report composite measure.
[00:16:25] Soterios Johnson Mm hmm. And so what about for the folks seven years out? I mean, did this effect linger?
[00:16:30] Clifford Saron Yeah. What we found is that people who practiced meditation consistently seven years out had less of a decrement in this task. Well, the way we we did this is now you can actually do tasks via experimental platforms on the web. But when we did this, we shipped laptops to people and had them sort of turn their bedrooms into little laboratories. And we actually had done this before people were even assigned to which retreat they were in. So we would have a baseline measure because just telling somebody they're going to go on a retreat in a certain number of months has an impact on them. So we shipped people seven years later laptops to do the same tasks that they did in the laboratory at the retreat center. And those who meditated more across the years had less of a decrement. And I'm speaking particularly about the older folks in the project. So Tony Zanesco is the first author of this, and we published this in a journal that particularly is about training effects. And so it seemed that maintaining this meditation practice was protective for cognitive decline on this particular measure. So that's one one aspect of the follow up at seven years.
[00:18:08] Soterios Johnson So that's very promising to hear that something like cognitive decline could be affected by meditation. Although your study is a very specific study done very intensely, you know, a three month retreat for several hours a day. Not something that people can do regularly. But does that give you kind of hope that maybe something like cognitive decline could be helped by meditation done in a different way?
[00:18:38] Clifford Saron So a couple of things. We are not measuring comprehensively someone's cognitive decline.
[00:18:48] Soterios Johnson Mm hmm.
[00:18:48] Clifford Saron So when I'm using these terms, I'm only speaking with respect to the performance on this task, which we quantitatively could link folks who meditated less did not maintain the kinds of improvements we saw during the training period out in this long follow-up.
[00:19:16] Soterios Johnson Right. Okay.
[00:19:17] Clifford Saron That -- we didn't measure how they performed on a whole battery of other tasks where we might be able to speak about decrements that could be then put under the term cognitive decline.
[00:19:32] Soterios Johnson Right. Okay.
[00:19:33] Clifford Saron So I want to be very clear that the claims that come often about meditation may have a quality that is overenthusiastic. So I want to be very clear about that. To answer your question, I think there are many different ways we can use our time creatively to maintain our mental health span, like our physical health span. And for some people, contemplative practice may be such a path.
[00:20:12] Soterios Johnson You also found cellular changes or changes at the cellular level in the project. What were those?
[00:20:21] Clifford Saron So we we looked in collaboration with Liz Blackburn and Elisa Epel and their colleagues at UCSF. We looked at an enzyme that protects the shortening of the ends of your chromosomes called telomeres, called telomerase. And what we found is that at the end of the three month retreat, the retreat group had about 30% more of this enzyme than the control group. However, the amount of that enzyme was specifically related to psychological change that happened during the retreat. So for those individuals who had a sense of purpose in their life that increased, who were less neurotic, less irritable, and didn't tend to make mountains out of molehills, so to speak, as much. Those individuals showed more telomerase at the end of three months than the control group. But there were some individuals in our project, even with this 900 hour intervention, so to speak, their levels were the same as the control groupiIf they didn't show this psychological trait change. And that was published in Psychoneuroimmunology. Tonya Jacobs was the first author. But that doesn't tell you about their shortening of their telomeres. That was one of the loose ends scientifically we were not able to investigate that with all that was going on in the Shamatha Project. And so we ran a second study at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Quinn Conklin, a recent Ph.D. in Psychology at Davis in my laboratory, who's now a postdoc, was the first author of a study in Brain Behavior and Immunity. And we showed that within three weeks of full time, 8 to 10 hour a day meditation practice in silence at Spirit Rock, a retreat group showed significant lengthening of chromo -- of the telomeres in a particular subset of white blood cells. And compared to a community control group, not on retreat, but who practices the same style of meditation and has done retreats. We do not have follow-up data on that finding. And we found something very interesting. We found that people's personality at the onset of the retreat predicted their telomeric length change. It turned out that the folks who came in who were more neurotic, more irritable, ho were less agreeable,who for them, they were often disturbed by their interactions with people. Well, those are the individuals who showed the most biological change.
[00:23:47] Soterios Johnson Hmm. That's very interesting.
[00:23:49] Clifford Saron Yeah, it is. If you talk to a meditation teacher. They sort of say, well, of course, because you're going into an environment where daily life has kind of gone away. The most you have to do is get your body onto a cushion according to a schedule. Meals show up. You're not reading. You're not writing. You're not on Facebook. You're not on Twitter. You're not on email. You're not on the phone. And so when your interactions are limited, you're also not looking at people. In this format of retreat. It's a silent format where your communication with others is really minimal. It's just to enable to you to do chores together and to avoid running into each other. So you kind of see people through the corner of your eye so that you're not going to bump into them with a glass of hot tea. But otherwise, you're pretty much just with this body-mind taking care of itself.
[00:25:01] Soterios Johnson Right. It sounds like the longer telomeres are almost like a positive side effect from the psychological changes that the meditation prompts.
[00:25:14] Clifford Saron Well, it might be psychological changes that the withdrawal from the daily life of your existence prompts in addition to being in a community with teachers who help you pay attention to that which comes up in your mind. So they're not disambiguable in n the context in which we study.
[00:25:41] Soterios Johnson Right. Right. What's one other notable finding that's come out of the project?
[00:25:45] Clifford Saron So one of the things that in the Shamatha Project we did is we looked at movies that showed a good deal of powerful suffering and coded people's facial expression as they watched those movies. Every frame of the movie, if there was some facial action movement, this is called the Facial Action Coding System. We were creating a basically a objective measure of facial configurations that people would identify as of given emotions. And we found that across the training compared to the control group individuals on retreat showed less anger, contempt and disgust. And what we thought initially was more sadness, which was our hypothesis. But in reality, when we asked them by looking at a storyboard of those films, what they experienced, they reported that they experienced more sympathy. And that is in line with a central concern of ours, which is how to engage with the suffering of others without being overwhelmed, but being willing to engage with suffering. And we found a related finding to that in Brandon King. That paper was first authored by Erika Rosenberg, and second third authors were Tony Zanesco and Brandon King. And then Brandon, who recently graduated from the psych department and he's also a postdoc in the lab, found that responses to images of suffering produced after training a increase in the attentiveness or the alerting to that suffering by measures of cardiac deceleration. Their heart rate slowed. That's a orienting response. Our heart rate slows in a kind of instantiation of intake of information. And we found, what Brandon found is that that heart rate deceleration during the perception of suffering at the end of training predicted people's memory for one 6 second Image 7 years later. And so what we think is we think that this kind of training, which emphasizes this development of a broad capacity to investigate and be curious about and hold the full extent of your experience in life produces a shift in the way individuals engage with the world around them and engage in -- are able to maintain attention and think about pro-social actions to alleviate suffering, which is really the sort of motivational stance that many of these individuals have as an act of value in their life.
[00:29:27] Soterios Johnson Right. So it sounds like people were somehow empowered to be more empathetic than they were before the study for some reason.
[00:29:42] Clifford Saron Well, yes. Yes. And what we think is related to is that the practice of wishing yourself and others to be free from suffering and to to have the conditions that give rise to happiness and a sense of inner freedom. One is then able to look at another not so much as a threat, but as a fellow human being. And one becomes increasingly anchored, at least with respect to people. Toward an understanding of common humanity. This is of such deep relevance today and in these years of such suffering.
[00:30:37] Soterios Johnson Yes, absolutely. And so for people who maybe practice some form of meditation regularly or for people who maybe have been curious about it, how can you what you have found in te Shamatha Project apply to their daily lives, or can it not at this point?
[00:31:00] Clifford Saron So that's a really powerful and important question, and it's one that we're actively investigating. Quinn Conklin is running a study called Contemplative Coping with COVID. We call it the CCC study. And we've actually been asking the question, how are people who with some contact with meditation, whether it's a few months using an app or many decades of serious practice and multiple retreats, we're asking, how have people during this difficult and continuingly challenging time that we've been living in these last few years, how have people used their contemplative practice to help them cope with the stresses of the pandemic, of the conditions in society, the revealed inequities and the currently, you know, the the current events? We've just finished about a year and a half of data collection on this, and we're seeing whether or not people's meditation practice actually helps protect the shortening of their telomeres. They shipped us blood from all over the country. They collected themselves from a little lancet piercings of their fingertips, and how that relates to their meditation experience and psychological stress and other characteristics. So we believe that you don't have to do a month long retreat to get benefits, to pay attention to the nature of your mind. You can actually discover something in 30 seconds. You don't need to think that you need to sign up for the marathon in order to begin a program of sort of modest exercise. And likewise, this effort to become curious about the nature of your experience is one that is accessibl -- just in the moment. I just paused.
[00:33:23] Soterios Johnson Mm hmm. So, Cliff, do you think everyone should meditate? Is it for everyone?
[00:33:26] Clifford Saron So I think that's a really great question. The short answer is no. I don't think everyone needs to meditate or should meditate. I do think that becoming in this life of ours curious about your experience, interested in close observation of the way things you may do have consequences on others and on yourself, how, when you say certain things that you might have a tinge of, oh, that that didn't come out quite right. And that you don't just immediately try to correct it, but you sort of sit with the process by which you're reflecting on your experience. I think, yes, people should become increasingly curious about their mind, about their body, about the world around them. And often, in order to implement that curiosity, formal periods of stopping. Just to sort of hear the echo of behavior, hear the echo of consequence of a moment. It's sort of like if you eat really rich food, you know that you don't always feel as good after you finish eating. The same can go for a whole, whole variety of behaviors or things that are part of your diet of sensation and thinking. So in that sense, whatever fosters that effort, I'm for. But does that mean you need to listen to a particular set of meditation instructions? Carve out a particular period of time? And, you think that that's going to resolve what might be issues in your life you really need to pay close attention to and make changes about or undertake professional help therapeutic relations there? The answer would be no. So I think that it's a nuanced answer and it's a really nuanced question that doesn't come out so nuanced.
[00:36:02] Soterios Johnson But it sounds like basically one size definitely does not fit all.
[00:36:05] Clifford Saron One size doesn't fit all. And there, depending upon what's active for one, whether it's a trauma or whether it's a particular current circumstance or condition, you may need a lot of supports of a variety of kinds in order to undertake this investigation, because often we have evolved behavioral patterns that keep anxiety or depression at bay. And when you stop, unless you have the right level of support and psychological tools, it could be overwhelming what comes up for you.
[00:36:52] Soterios Johnson And that's a risk that you can kind of mitigate by having that support, by having that human person who can help guide you through it.
[00:37:00] Clifford Saron Yeah, that's why engaging with a teacher and not just the convenience of an app is so important. Because in community and in sharing your experience, you can get the perspectives of others and individuals with with great depth of experience. You know, but I think that if you want to -- you know, my friend and teacher Sylvia Boorstein has a beautiful way of phrasing this whole effort, and that is really to become one's own loving parent, sort of carrying that compassionate sense and care for yourself around with you and cultivating that however you can. That's something that I think we could all use.
[00:37:55] Soterios Johnson I would imagine that when people find out what you do for a living and what you study, I'm sure you've probably been approached by people asking you "What should I do? I mean, if I want to start meditating, you know, how can I get started in it?" What is your response to that?
[00:38:15] Clifford Saron Well, my response is what has been their practice that has given them a sense of liberatory flourishing in their life to date? And what are the communities that they have taken refuge in? And so I don't think there's one answer. In terms of the typical practices that we've been studying, they are generally derivative in in that are present in things like mindfulness-based interventions like mindfulness-based stress reduction. They're also present in many apps. Headspace is an app that has a lot of teaching about this. I haven't investigated, you know, the scripts in Calm. A friend of mine has recently just written 120 meditations that are accessible on the Apple platform. There's a app from the Healthy Minds Institute at University of Wisconsin, and a friend, Richie Davidson, has spent a long time with his colleagues creating that. I think what you need to do is to listen to your own response to any particular teachings. You can Google mindfulness meditation, you know, instructions, and you'll be overwhelmed. I think 10% Happier is an app that has a lot of the teachers that have been meaningful to me. There are many different avenues in. But the most important thing is to have some sense of community and a capacity to engage with a real live teacher.
[00:40:24] Soterios Johnson Hmm.
[00:40:26] Clifford Saron And there there are many resources. We could we could put some on the materials for this podcast.
[00:40:35] Soterios Johnson Oh, absolutely. Okay, that'd be great. Yeah. And before we wrap up, what's next for the project and your work?
[00:40:42] Clifford Saron So thank you for asking. We're having just finished this massive data collection. We've got several years of data analysis ahead of us in Quinn Conklin and her group's project. And we're also just beginning to implement another project that's following up on this idea of meditations improving your capacity to engage with suffering. And so we're with Brandon King and Elias Guerra and Savannah Vanderbos and Eric Rosenberg and others. We've got a project that we are beginning to look at how different images of suffering that we're curating you engage with both in terms of eye tracking and physiological responses as a function of different kinds of meditative trainings that have different emphases with respect to paying attention to your experience. And we are pivoting to remote data collection. This was instigated by the realities of the pandemic. And really this is something that technology allows us to do between smartwatches and webcams. We can FedEx laboratories to people's homes. And so many of these trainings now are online. So people come from all over the country or internationally. So you can't even like have people come to your lab.
[00:42:16] Soterios Johnson Right!
[00:42:19] Clifford Saron So you have to have the lab go to them. So we're in the process of of implementing that experiment and that's these two are our big next projects, along with continuing to publish and analyze data all these years later from the Shamatha Project.
[00:42:40] Soterios Johnson Well, that's -- I mean, it's great that you can continue the work remotely and with all this technology that, you know, the work doesn't have to come to a to a a pause because of the pandemic or anything else.
[00:42:51] Clifford Saron Well, what keeps it going is the fundraising that we engage in that allows it to happen. And we're very grateful for our funders and our sponsors and our donors.
[00:43:03] Soterios Johnson Well, Cliff, this has been really an interesting and really great conversation. Thank you so much for coming on to The Backdrop.
[00:43:08] Clifford Saron Well, it's been a pleasure, Soterios. Thank you for having me.
[00:43:11] Soterios Johnson Clifford Saron is a neuroscientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the MIND Institute. He leads the Shamatha Project, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive longitudinal studies of meditation ever conducted. You can find more about his work on our website, ucdavis.edu/podcast. And if you like The Backdrop, check out our other UC Davis podcast Unfold. It breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research, like why songs get stuck in your head, or what real-world engineering concepts you can learn from comic books. Join Public Radio veteran host Amy Quinton for Unfold. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Soterios Johnson and this is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas.