Keep your eye on the ball

Sharon Begley, one of the better science journalists (and science editor for the Wall Street Journal), wrote an article in 2003 called “This Year, Try Getting Your Brain into Shape.” (Sorry for the link to a reproduction; the original’s not available for free.)

The piece details a study at the University of Wisconsin that looked into the neurological effects of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “mindfulness” meditation. What’s remarkable about the study’s conclusions is that meditation apparently increases the firing of neurons in patterns associated with strong positive emotions—whether or not the subject is meditating at the moment such firings are measured.

Begley alludes to other studies of neural plasticity in which it is shown that mere thought about a physical movement repeatedly can affect the brain as much as actually performing the movement. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses some such studies involving sports training; it turns out that making a habit of watching a professional swing a golf club, let’s say, can improve one’s swing somewhat dramatically.

All this makes me wonder, though: What, precisely, is being imagined in meditation? It’s certainly not a movement, and, at least in my experience, it’s not any particular emotional state. That is, one doesn’t sit on a cushion striving for happiness or envisioning a joyful life (though to be fair, some people may do just that). Kabat-Zinn’s brand of meditation, like so many others, is about observing the emotional states that are present, and naming thoughts as they come and go (e.g., “judging, judging”) without taking any other particular mental action.

Or at least, that’s what practitioners say. But Gladwell also discusses the ways that, for example, professional athletes tend to be mistaken when describing the mechanics of their swings, shots, pitches, and so on. In baseball, it seems, it isn’t quite possible to “look the ball into the bat,” as per the oft-repeated tidbit of guidance. Keeping our eye on the ball may be just a story we tell ourselves because the description somehow meshes with our conscious experiences of swinging, even though it does not correspond to physical reality.

Could the same be true of meditators? Could the conscious experience of mindfulness meditation—nonjudgmental observation of thoughts and feelings—be something we work towards only in order to allow or encourage the unconscious mind to do the real work of meditation? If counting your breath or “noticing, noticing” your thoughts as they drift through is akin to keeping your eye on the ball (something that Ted Williams famously swore he was doing), then what’s happening below the surface that leads to neural patterns associated with joy? What allows us to make contact with that ball, despite our flawed description about how we did so?

It would take some research to make anything but the most rudimentary, speculative suggestions, but in the meantime, here’s something of that latter kind (which I would call evolutionary philosophy in order to underscore the distance from any actual scientific practice): In my mind, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that humans and our closest primate ancestors could increase their reproductive success by enjoying simple, somewhat repetitive tasks for some part of the day, all or most days. In other words, if my clan’s primary or sole source of protein is this sago palm, I and my offspring would do well to enjoy grinding its inner layers to a pulpy paste, some part of the day, every day. If I have no sago palm, but the forest where I live is scattered with small animals and the occasional large one, I’d better enjoy the tedium of walking in the woods all day every day, and indeed coming back all but empty-handed most of the time. (I have often thought of the shallow promise embedded in this “most of the time” while playing hand after hand of no-limit Texas hold ’em with the lads.) Given these possibilities for our mental architecture (and I promise to do some research here in the coming days or weeks), it seems also at least possible that the performance of a simple, repetitive mental task (or a physical one—hence the existence of yoga) at more or less the same time daily either in isolation or in a group of people performing similar task could provoke our brains in such a way that they become, well, happy.

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