Overview of the Shamatha Project
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 from 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.