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Shamatha Project

Under the direction of CMB principle investigator Dr. Clifford Saron and Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace, the Shamatha Project is exploring how three months of intensive training in the practice of meditation affects cognition, behavior, and physiology.

Overview of the Shamantha Project



http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/labs/Saron/shamatha-project/overview/shamatha_saron_with_hhdl-0.jpg

Meditation offers many benefits to mental and physical health. The Shamatha Project, the most comprehensive study of meditation to date, investigates the psychological and physiological processes underlying such benefits. In a randomized, controlled study, we studied how intensive meditation training affects how people think and feel. We employed cognitive and perceptual tasks, emotional provocation, questionnaires, and physiological and biochemical monitoring to assess people’s skills and behavior before, during, and after long-term, intensive meditative practice.

I. The Study Design

We randomly assigned 60 healthy people with prior meditation experience to an intensive 3-month meditation retreat or a control group. The control participants later had a 3-month retreat as well. Laboratory assessments of all participants were obtained before, during, and after their retreats and at various follow-up points. In retreat, participants received instruction fromB. Alan Wallace in meditative practices designed to promote relaxation, refine attention, and develop compassion and kindness toward others. Participants practiced alone about 6 hours a day over the 3-month period.

II. Overview of Current Findings

Initial results show that intensive contemplative training sharpens and sustains attention, enhances well-being, and leads to less judgmental, more empathic emotional responding to the suffering of others. Additionally, the training was linked with pro-social emotional behavior and important physiological markers of health. 

Attention. How was attention improved? Participants in both retreats improved in perceptual sensitivity, assessed by their ability to discriminate minute differences between lines of different lengths. These improvements held at least 5 months after the retreat for people who continued with meditation practice. Also, those receiving training better sustained their focus in the same task as the retreat progressed.

The capacity to inhibit responses also improved with training, as indicated by participants being able to withhold their responses to a visual line stimulus when the line occasionally appeared shorter in length. This improvement predicted other benefits, assessed by questionnaires assessing positive and negative ways of relating to self and others.

Emotions and Well-Being. There were robust improvements in psychological well-being over the course of the retreat – improvements that endured at least 5 months after training. According to self-reports of daily mood, participants in both retreats experienced increases over time in well-being and an enhanced sense of awe.

Participants also engaged in laboratory tasks about emotional functioning. They viewed film scenes of violence from a recent war, depicting both the perpetrators and the victims of violent acts. Analysis of unobtrusively video-recorded facial expressions displayed while participants viewed these scenes revealed more expression of sadness, which we interpret as relevant to compassion, in the retreat group compared to the control group. We found different ways of emotional responding to suffering in the two groups, in ways that suggest less aversion and more engagement in those who went through the retreat.

Biomarkers. We assessed some health-relevant biomarkers that might change as a result of meditation training. One of these, telomerase, an enzyme that protects genetic material during cell division and enhances cellular viability, can be suppressed in response to psychological distress. Blood samples obtained at the end of the retreat revealed that telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants (vs. controls) and that telomerase activity was related to meditation-induced changes in well-being.

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Research Team

The Shamatha Project involves a collaborative team of over 30 investigators and consulting scientists from universities across the United States and Europe.

Principal Investigator:
Clifford Saron, Ph.D.

Contemplative Director:
Alan Wallace, Ph.D.

Senior Investigators:
Emilio Ferrer, Ph.D.
Barry Giesbrecht, Ph.D. (UC Santa Barbara)
George R. Mangun, Ph.D.
Erika Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Phillip Shaver, Ph.D.

Current Staff and Trainees:

Stephen Aichele
Tonya Jacobs, Ph.D.
Brandon King
Katherine MacLean, Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins)
Baljinder Sahdra, Ph.D.
Manish Saggar (UT Austin)
Anthony Zanesco

Former Staff and Trainees:
David Bridwell (UC Irvine)
Shiri Lavy

Consulting Scientists and Co-Investigators:
Ruth Baer, Ph.D. (U Kentucky)
Susan Bauer-Wu, Ph.D. (Emory)
Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D. (UC San Francisco)
Jens Blechert, Ph.D. (Stanford)
Karen Bales, Ph.D. (UC Davis)
Richard Davidson, Ph.D. (U Wisconsin-Madison)
Mingzhou Ding (U Florida)
Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D. (Stanford)
Paul Ekman, Ph.D. (UC San Francisco)
Elissa Epel, Ph.D. (UC San Francisco)
Paul Grossman, Ph.D. (U Basel Hospital)
Amishi Jha, Ph.D. (U Pennsylvania)
Jue Lin, Ph.D. (UC San Francisco)
Margaret Kemeny, Ph.D. (UC San Francisco)
Synthia Mellon, Ph.D. (UC San Francisco)
Antoine Lutz, Ph.D. (U Wisconsin-Madison)
Charles Raison, M.D. (Emory)
Matthieu Ricard (Shechen Monastery)
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D. (UC Santa Barbara)
Akaysha Tang, Ph.D. (U New Mexico)
Ewa Wojciulik, Ph.D. (UC Davis)
Owen Wolkowitz, M.D. (UC San Francisco)

 

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Publications

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles

Saggar, M., King, B. G., Zanesco, A. P., MacLean, K. A., Aichele, S. R., Jacobs, T. L., Bridwell, D. A., Shaver, P. R., Rosenberg, E. L., Sahdra, B. K., Ferrer, E., Tang, A. C., Mangun, G. R., Wallace, B., Miikkulainen, R., & Saron C. D. (2012). Intensive Training Induces Longitudinal Changes in Meditation State-related EEG Oscillatory Activity. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6:256. [Download PDF]

Jacobs, T. L., Shaver, P. R., Epel, E. S., Zanesco, A. P., Aichele, S. A., Bridwell, D. A., Rosenberg, E. L., King, B. G., Maclean, K. A., Sahdra, B. K., Kemeny, M. E., Ferrer, E.,  Wallace, B. A., & Saron, C. D. (In Press). Self-reported mindfulness and cortisol dynamics during a Shamatha meditation retreat. Health Psychology.

Jacobs, T.L., Epel, E.S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E.H., Wolkowitz, O.M., Bridwell, D.A., Zanesco., A.P., Aichele, S.R., Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., King, B.G., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664-681. [Download PDF]

Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., Ferrer, E., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., Aichele, S.R., King, B.G., Bridwell, D.A., Lavy, S., Mangun, G.R., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2011). Enhanced response inhibition during intensive meditation training predicts improvements in self-reported adaptive socioemotional functioningEmotion, 11(2), 299-312.[Download PDF]

MacLean, K.A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Zanesco, A.P., Jacobs, T.L., King, B.G., Rosenberg, E.L., Sahdra, B.K., Shaver, P.R., Wallace, B.A., Mangun, G.R., & Saron, C.D. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attentionPsychological Science, 21(6), 829-839. [Download PDF]

MacLean, K.A., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Mangun, G.R., Wojciulik, E., & Saron, C.D. (2009). Interactions between endogenous and exogenous attention during vigilanceAttention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 71(5), 1042-1058. [Download PDF]

Shaver, P.R., Lavy, S., Saron, C.D., Mikulincer, M. (2007). Social foundations of the capacity for mindfulness: An attachment perspectivePsychological Inquiry, 18(4), 264-271. [Download PDF]

 

Published Abstracts

 

Rosenberg, E. L., Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., Aichele, S. A., Jacobs, T. L., Bridwell, D. A., MacLean, K. A., Shaver,  P. R., Ferrer, E., Sahdra, B. K., Wallace, B. A., and Saron, C. D. Meditation and the plasticity of emotion: Facial expression and the unfolding of emotional responses to suffering. Invited symposium talk, American Psychological Society Annual Meeting. Chicago, Il. May 2012.

Jacobs T. L., Zanesco, A. P., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., King, B. G., MacLean, K. A., Shaver, P. R., Epel, E. E., Kemeny, M. M., Sahdra, B. K., Rosenberg, E. L., Ferrer E., Wallace, B. A. and Saron, C. D. Effects of a Shamatha Meditation Retreat onWorking Memory Span, Dehydroepiandosterone-sulfate (DHEAS), and Their Association. To be presented at the First International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. Denver, CO. April 2012.

Sahdra, B. K., Bauer-Wu, S., Whitworth, R., MacLean, K. A., Aichele, S. A., Jacobs, T. L., Zanesco, A. P., Bridwell, D. A., King, B. G., Rosenberg, E. L., Shaver, P. R., Ferrer, E., Mangun, G. R., Wallace, B. A., &  Saron, C. D. The first-person experience of intensive meditation training and associations with third-person socio-emotional-cognitive data. To be presented at the First International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. Denver, CO. April 2012.

Zanesco, A. P., King, B. K., MacLean, K. A., Jacobs, T. L. Aichele, S. A. and Saron, C. D. Executive Control and Felt Concentrative Engagement after Intensive Vipassana Meditation Training. To be presented at the First International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. Denver, CO. April 2012.

Saggar, M., MacLean, K.A., Aichele, S.R., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., Bridwell, D.A., King, B.G., Sahdra, B.K., Rosenberg, E.L., Shaver, P.R., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., Mangun, G.R., Miikkulainen, R., & Saron, C.D. Cortical activation changes associated with intensive meditation training are related to vigilance performance. Poster to be presented at the Society for Cognitive Neuroscience annual meeting, San Francisco, April, 2011.

Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., Ferrer, E., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Mangun, G.R., Lavy, S., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2010, August). Response Inhibition Enhanced by Meditation Training Predicts Improved Adaptive Functioning. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Diego, CA.

Saggar, M., Aichele, S.R., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., Bridwell, D.A., MacLean, K.A., King, B.G., Sahdra, B.K., Rosenberg, E.L., Shaver, P.R., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., Mangun, G.R.,  Saron, C.D., & Miikkulainen, R. (2010, July).  A computational approach to understand the longitudinal changes in cortical activity associated with intensive meditation training. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Organization for Computational Neuroscience, San Antonio, TX.

King, B.G., Zanesco, A.P., Bridwell, D.A., Jacobs, T.L., Aichele, S.R., MacLean, K.A., Shaver, P.R., Rosenberg, E.L., Sahdra, B.K., Ferrer, E., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2010, April). Accentuate the positive:  Longitudinal effects of intensive meditation training on modulation of the emotion potentiated startle reflex. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Montreal, Canada.

Saggar, M., Aichele, S.R., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., Bridwell, D.A., MacLean, K.A., King, B.G., Sahdra, B.K., Rosenberg, E.L., Shaver, P.R., Ferrer, E., Tang, A. C., Wallace, B.A., Mangun, G.R., Miikkulainen R., &  Saron, C.D. (2010, January). Training attention: longitudinal changes in cortical activity associated with intensive meditation. Paper presented at the SPIE Human Vision and Electronic Imaging Conference Symposium Presentation.

Saggar, M., Aichele, S.R., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., Bridwell, D.A., MacLean, K.A.,  King, B.G., Sahdra, B.K., Rosenberg, E.L., Shaver, P.R., Ferrer, E., Tang, A.C., Wallace, B.A., Mangun, G.R., Miikkulainen, R., & Saron, C.D. (2009, October). Longitudinal changes in brain activity associated with intensive meditation training. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Chicago, IL.

MacLean, K.A.,  Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., Saggar, M., Mazaheri, A., Ferrer, E,. Rosenberg, E.L., Sahdra, B.K., Shaver, P.R., Wallace, B.A., Mangun, G.R., & Saron, C.D. (2009, October). Effects of intensive meditation training on sustained attention: changes in visual event-related potentials, ongoing EEG and behavioral performance. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Chicago, IL.

Jacobs, T.L., Epel, E.S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E.L., Wolkowitz, O.M., Bridwell, D.A., Zanesco, A.P., Aichele, S.R., King, B.G., Sahdra, B.K., MacLean, K.A., Lavy, S., Shaver, P.R., Ferrer, E., Rosenberg, E.L., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2009, July). Telomerase Activity is Modulated by Changes in Psychological Well-Being as a Function of Intensive Meditation. Paper presented at the symposium on “Stress, well being and cellular aging” at the annual meeting of the International Society for Psychoneuroendocrinology, San Francisco, CA.

Rosenberg, E.L., Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., Aichele, S.R., Jacobs, T.L., MacLean, K.A., Bridwell, D.A., Wallace, B.A., & Saron, C.D. (2009, May). Intensive Meditative Training Changes Facial Responses to Scenes of Human Suffering. Paper presented at the symposium on “New Findings on Facial Expressions in Health Psychology: Moving Beyond Self-Report” at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, San Francisco, CA.

MacLean, K.A., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., King, B.G., Mangun, G.R., & Saron, C.D. (2008, November). Intensive attention training in concentration meditation leads to improvements in visual sustained attention and response inhibition. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Washington, D.C.

MacLean, K.A., Saron, C.D., Aichele, S.R., Bridwell, D.A., Jacobs, T.L., Zanesco, A.P., & Mangun, G.R. (2008, April). Improvements in Perceptual Threshold with Intensive Attention Training through Concentration Meditation. Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, San Francisco, CA.

Lavy, S., Shaver, P.R., Saron, C.D., & Zanesco, A.P. (2007, May). Gender Differences in Relations between Meditation, Empathy, and Emotion Regulation. Poster presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Society, Washington, D.C.

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News and Media

The Shamatha Project in the news.
Losing Focus? Studies Say Meditation May Help
Time (August 06, 2010) - The idea that meditation is good for you is certainly not new, but scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why meditating so reliably improves mental and physical health. One old theory is that meditation is just like exercise: it trains the brain as if gray matter were a bundle of muscles. You work those muscles and they get stronger.
Meditation Helps Increase Attention Span
ScienceDaily (July 16, 2010) — It's nearly impossible to pay attention to one thing for a long time. A new study looks at whether Buddhist meditation can improve a person's ability to be attentive and finds that meditation training helps people do better at focusing for a long time on a task that requires them to distinguish small differences between things they see.
Visual perception heightened by meditation training
UC Davis News & Information (May 12, 2010) - Intensive mental training has a measurable effect on visual perception, according to a new study from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. People undergoing intensive training in meditation became better at making fine visual distinctions and sustaining attention during a 30-minute test.
Podcast: Katherine MacLean on The Secular Buddhist
Podcast: Clifford Saron on The Secular Buddhist
UC Davis Magazine article on the project: Worth Contemplating
File View magazine article on the Shamatha Project, 2011.
TEDxUCDavis - Clifford Saron - The Majesty of the Present
In his contemplative talk, Clifford Saron examines the physiological effects of meditation. Through his findings he describes the concrete benefits of inward and present minded thinking.
Pacific Standard Magazine - Just Breathe: Confirming Meditation’s Benefits
Plenty of followers swear by meditation to cure a long list of ails. But how does it work? Neuroscientist Clifford Saron, of the University of California, Davis, and a Who’s Who of peers, are spending millions to find out.
Templeton Foundation awards grant for meditation research

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Funding and Support

This research has the support of many generous organizations and individuals.

Fetzer Institute
Hershey Family Foundation 
Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies (Co-Sponsor)
Shambhala Mountain Center (Co-Sponsor)
National Science Foundation 
Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada 
Yoga Research and Education Foundation 
Tan Teo Charitable Foundation
Baumann Foundation
Mental Insight Foundation 
Mind and Life Institute

Grant Couch & Louise Pearson

Caroline Zecca Ferris

Meditation Awareness Peace Research Foundation

Anonymous and other individual donors

 

 

 

 

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Current and Future Projects

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Image Dr. Saron and the Dalai Lama
Picture of Dr. Clifford Saron and the Dalai Lama

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