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Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

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Two New York Times-bestselling authors unveil new research showing what meditation can really do for the brain.

In the last twenty years, meditation and mindfulness have gone from being kind of cool to becoming an omnipresent Band-Aid for fixing everything from your weight to your relationship to your achievement level. Unveiling here the kind of cutting-edge research that has made them giants in their fields, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson show us the truth about what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it.

Sweeping away common misconceptions and neuromythology to open readers' eyes to the ways data has been distorted to sell mind-training methods, the authors demonstrate that beyond the pleasant states mental exercises can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting personality traits that can result. But short daily doses will not get us to the highest level of lasting positive change--even if we continue for years--without specific additions. More than sheer hours, we need smart practice, including crucial ingredients such as targeted feedback from a master teacher and a more spacious, less attached view of the self, all of which are missing in widespread versions of mind training. The authors also reveal the latest data from Davidson's own lab that point to a new methodology for developing a broader array of mind-training methods with larger implications for how we can derive the greatest benefits from the practice.

Exciting, compelling, and grounded in new research, this is one of those rare books that has the power to change us at the deepest level.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published September 5, 2017

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About the author

Daniel Goleman

308 books4,729 followers
Author of Emotional Intelligence and psychologist Daniel Goleman has transformed the way the world educates children, relates to family and friends, and conducts business. The Wall Street Journal ranked him one of the 10 most influential business thinkers.

Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was on The New York Times best sellers list for a year-and-a-half. Named one of the 25 "Most Influential Business Management Books" by TIME, it has been translated into 40 languages. The Harvard Business Review called emotional intelligence (EI) “a revolutionary, paradigm-shattering idea.”

Goleman’s new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, argues that attention — a fundamental mental ability for success — has come under siege. Leadership that gets results demands a triple focus: on our inner world so we can manage ourselves; on others, for our relationships; and on the outer forces that shape our organizations and society itself.

His more recent books include The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence - Selected Writings.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 502 reviews
Profile Image for Leland Beaumont.
Author 5 books31 followers
July 27, 2017
Two giants of science journalism and neuroscience research, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, collaborate to separate fact from folklore about the benefits of mediation in this important, factually intensive, and readable book. Their research has been guided by the idea that: “Some of what you know about meditation may be wrong. But what is true about meditation you may not know.”

Fair warning to hippies and new age practitioners; this is a well-researched book about science.

In 1970 Dan travelled to Bodh Gaya India where he met an elderly Tibetan monk, Khunu Lama. Dan was so impressed by the monk’s attentive, peaceful, and compassionate qualities that he returned to India later that year and studied with the esteemed Maharaji Neen Karoli Baba.

Three years later at Dan’s encouragement, Richie and his wife Susan traveled to Dalhousie India for a ten-day meditation retreat with S. N. Goenka, a teacher with whom Dan had earlier studied. By the third day of the retreat Richie had learned to overcome intense pain through mental discipline. He became convinced that powerful methods that transform minds in healthy directions could be learned.

While both were Harvard University students in the early 1970s, they shared an interest in meditation. Despite sober warnings from their advisers to resist the lure of mysticism and avoid the career ending path followed earlier by Timothy Leary, they both chose to study meditation-related topics for their Ph.D. dissertations. They have been good friends and life-long collaborators in the practice of meditation and scientific study of contemplative science ever since.

During the several decades of their collaborations, these researchers have debunked the false claims of charlatans while scientifically confirming the surprising yet subjective reports of many skilled meditators. Their collaborations have engaged: Ram Dass, Krishna Das, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Matthieu Ricard, Mingyur Rinpoche, and the Dalai Lama.

The varieties of contemplative practices described collectively as meditation rival the wide range of athletic activities described collectively as sport. These include: mindfulness, compassion, attention, insight, loving-kindness, monitoring thoughts, deconstructing and reappraising pain, integrating experiences, and other methods and outcomes. They recognized the importance of clearly differentiating among these varieties of mediation to allow careful study.

They continually improved research methods, including: determining the total lifetime hours of meditation practice of each person studied, use of comparison conditions by the control groups in each experiment, rigorous operational definitions of mindfulness, and other experimental disciplines. They dismissed studies that did not meet their strict standards for scientific research so they could to draw more reliable conclusions.

As suggested by the book’s title, they emphasized the distinction between short lived mental states and enduring mental and physical traits. They recognized that “After the high goes, you’re still the same schmuck you were before.” They endeavored to study extremely positive altered traits. “It is not the highs that matter. It is who you become.”

Many chapters end with a concise summary of the key findings of the chapter conveniently presented “In a Nutshell”. These findings include: 1) experienced Zen practitioners can withstand higher levels of pain, and have less reaction to pain, 2) loving-kindness meditation increases the likelihood practitioners will provide help to those in need, 3) as little as ten hours of mindfulness meditation over a two-week period strengthened attention and working memory, 4) long-term practitioners can deconstruct the default narrative we interpret as our “self”, 5) mindfulness training can decrease production of cytokines—the molecules responsible for inflammation, and 6) combinations of mindfulness and cognative therapy are well-validated treatments for some mental disorders. While meditating on empathy a yogi master with a remarkable 62,000 hours of mediation practice was able increase his EEG signature of empathy by 700 to 800 percent compared his levels at rest. Gamma wave EEG activity, which occurs for only a few seconds when novices attain a satisfying “A Ha” insight, can be sustained for minutes at a time by the most experienced yogis.

As research continues, the authors are enthused by the possibility of validating attainment of many positive altered traits. These include: generosity, ethical conduct, patience, concentration, wisdom, and others. The authors boldly envision a world where “… by transforming our minds we could improve not only our own health and well-being but also those of our communities and the wider world.”

The book ends with a helpful list of resources for the study and practice of mediation and extensive reference notes.

This important book is well researched, well argued, and well written. Sound arguments based on valid logic and representative evidence are presented with a narrative flair resulting in an enjoyable read. Interesting stories and rigorous research meld into this readable and authoritative treatment of an important and enduring topic.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,588 followers
August 31, 2019
I have some mixed feelings about this book. I loved Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, so I thought this one would be equally good. This book about meditation is very informative. But it is not as much about meditation as about research on meditation. Let me explain.

Goleman emphasizes that although there has been a ton of research investigations into the benefits (or non-benefits) of meditation, most scientific studies are frighteningly deficient. Researchers often do not understand meditation or the range and variety of different meditation techniques. Moreover, it is difficult to conduct a good, controlled experiment. And a double-blind experiment is near impossible.

A minimal amount of meditation yields some short-term effects. But long-term, lasting benefits require long-term meditation with specialized approaches. Highly experienced meditators suffer less inflammation associated with stress. Meditation can lower blood pressure. Practicing mindfulness can increase the production of telomerase, an enzyme that can slow down the aging process. While meditation can slow down atrophy of the brain as we age, studies so far do not distinguish between the many kinds of meditation.

Short training classes in mindfulness sessions does improve attention and focus, but the improvements do not last without continuing practice. In a controlled experiment, Zen meditators responded to pain as if it was a more neutral sensation. They also recovered from various types of stresses than non-meditators. But they meditated for many hours over a period of months.

The most interesting discovery described in this book, is that when someone is "doing nothing", there are parts of the brain that are activated, and these parts become deactivated when moving to a highly demanding cognitive task. This finding is very anti-intuitive. Perhaps the reason is that when you are doing "nothing", you are subconsciously ruminating, trying to solve problems.

This is not really a self-help book. There is no guide to how to meditate. But there is a lot of discussion about the many types of meditation, and each type has its own specific benefits. The writing is clear, but to my mind rather dry. If you are doing research on meditation, then this book is a must-read. And, the book makes it clear, if you want to be really serious about learning how to meditation, get a good teacher.
46 reviews6 followers
September 9, 2017

Even though we evolved from Homo erectus more than 1.8 million years ago, our radar system for existential threats is still overactive and keeps sounding false alarms for flight and fight - causing distress to self and others. Look at President Trump: all the power, wealth, beautiful women - but the man is always pissed off. Distresses the whole world.

And look at Dalai Lama. Who would you rather be? This book is about how meditation and compassion have made Dalai Lama's brain different from Donald Trump's brain.

Although I read The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience in early 1990's, for me, Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ was life-changing and I have been a fan ever since.

In this book, with his friend and colleague Richard Davidson, they explore the permanent effects on brain of meditation, compassion, loving kindness and mindfulness. They call them Altered Traits. Enormous changes in emotional brain - amygdala; executive brain - pre-frontal cortex; automatic/habit brain - basal ganglia; and reward/self centered brain - nucleus accumbens.

Some of this material was already covered in his earlier book - Destructive Emotions by Daniel Goleman. Many of you may have seen the functional MRI scan images of the happiest man on earth - Matthieu Ricard - from Davidson's lab. Very impressive. Matthieu attributes all that to compassion and altruism. Buddha learnt the power of compassion in 5th century BC. And Francis of Assisi said in 12th century AD "is in giving that we receive".

Dan & Richie trace their introduction to meditation and eastern philosophy in early 1970s, when they were in Harvard with Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) and Jeffrey Kagel (Krishna Das). They all went to India, learnt meditation from Naeem Karoli Baba and SN Goenka and ended up spending their lives in meditation in a variety of ways.

Davidson is best known for his studies on the brains of Tibetan Monks with fMRI and they explore his findings at length. But also cover the works of Tania Singer, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Amishi Jha, Sara Lazar and others.

Being a long-term meditator with science and medical background, I can see why they get into the nitty gritty of scientific studies with the study design, biases, sample sizes, statistics etc. to establish the reliability or fallacies of research findings. Probably more so because some of the work reported in Destructive Emotions turned out to be non replicable. But for the lay reader, all that makes a dreary read. I read the advance review copy and may be they can tone down technical intricacies in the final version of the book.

Otherwise, it is another great book from Goleman that has the potential to be life changing for some. Especially when you find out the monumental effects of compassion on brain. And if that inspires you to sprinkle a little of that compassion in your daily life, wouldn't that make the world a better place?

Profile Image for Abhiram Moturi.
13 reviews24 followers
January 11, 2018
meh. The idea to study the effects of meditation is great. But there is no real takeaway from the book. Lots of meditation styles are mentioned and it is not clear what each one is. each chapter touches one aspect that meditation could affect but they mention a bunch of studies and so it loses clarity.
Profile Image for Taka.
688 reviews531 followers
November 28, 2017
This book was really timely for me, as, against my better judgment, I was getting a bit frustrated with my progress. Good to know there's hard scientific evidence that progress in meditation roughly follows a dose-response curve (i.e. the more you do it, the better you get). It was instructive to know that different types of meditation have different benefits (and effects on the brain) and reassuring to learn that altered traits take a long time to set in, but they DO set in—it just takes time. Finally, it was simply inspiring to read about the neurophysiology of the "Olympic-level" meditators (Tibetan yogis) who have put in, on average, 27,000 hours of practice, the longest being 62,000 hours (that's 12 hours a day of practice for about 15 years!). Also informative was how Davidson and Goleman divided the expertise of the meditators according to 3 dose-response levels: beginner (up to 1,000h), long-term (between 1,000 and 10,000 hours), and world-class (12,000-62,000h). So my measly 900-1,000 hours of practice puts me on the cusp of the intermediate level, and because some books on meditation (like The Mind Illuminated, sometimes make it seem like a quicker journey than it really is, it was good to know I still have a LONG, LONG way to go (roughly 7-9 more years at the rate I'm practicing to get to the next level). Also good to know was the importance of retreats (the number of which correlated with certain altered traits, like slower breathing and reactivity to stress due to the increase in the prefrontal-amygdala connection).

All in all, good book at the right time.
Profile Image for Steve.
990 reviews46 followers
February 1, 2018
There’s some good information here, about the scientific examination of various types of meditation and the results. Some of their personal adventures doing research are entertaining, and they honestly criticize mistakes they made as young researchers. But while many important scientific principles are spelled out, the authors also continually bring up tiny un-replicated studies with a few dozen participants as if the results are meaningful. Kind of inconsistent. The whole thing was also a little dumbed-down for my taste.
Profile Image for Bernie Gourley.
Author 1 book91 followers
November 5, 2019
This book has been sold under the title listed above as well as the less prosaic title, “Altered Traits.” The switch may represent a lack of confidence that the coined term “altered traits” would catch on, and / or a desire to market the book as broadly as possible.

“Altered Traits” is a play on the more well-known term “altered states [of consciousness.]” The idea being that meditation (as well as many other activities from consuming psychoactive drugs to having a shamanistic drum rave) create a change from the ordinary waking state of consciousness, but what the authors wanted to focus more upon is the long-term and sustained changes that result from extended meditation practice. (Hence, coining the term “altered traits.”) These sustained changes are a prevalent theme through out the book. This makes sense as one of the co-authors, Richard Davidson, is well-known for investigating the brains and brain activity of monks and yogis with extremely advanced practices (tens of thousands of hours in meditation.) Still, the prosaic title, “The Science of Meditation,” may make more than marketing sense because the book does discuss the scientific research on meditation pretty broadly.

Both Goleman and Davidson are long time meditators as well as being subject matter experts in psychology and brain science. This is a major strength of the book. Some scientists are dismissive of practices that have origins in spiritual practices and have blindsides or are prone to oversimplifications because of that bias. On the other hand, that bias isn’t helped by the fact that meditation experts often oversell meditation as a practice that will do everything from spontaneously cure your cancer to allow you to levitate six feet in the air. The authors of this book aren’t afraid to call out such spurious claims, but aren’t dismissive of practices of religious or spiritual origin. The authors also spend a fair amount of time criticizing past scientific investigations of meditation (including their own) on the basis of naivete about the nature of the practices. A major problem has always been an “apples and oranges” grouping together of practices that are different in potentially important ways. There have also been all the problems that plague other disciplines as well (small sample size, poor methodology, etc.) These discussions won’t mean much to most readers, but are helpful to those who want a better idea which studies are gold standard and which are weak. That said, the book doesn’t get bogged down in technical issues.

The book opens by laying out some of the important differences between various meditation practices and trying to educate readers who may either not know much about meditation or may know it only from the perspective of a single discipline. Goleman and Davidson suggest one way of thinking about different kinds of meditation is in terms of “the deep and the wide.” The former being sectarian practitioners who practice specific ritualized practices in an intense way. The latter being more secular practitioners whose practices may borrow from different domains. They present a more extensive classification scheme than this simple bifurcation, making it more of a continuum. Later in the book, they consider ways in which practices might be categorized (e.g. Attentional, Constructive, and Deconstructive) but it’s emphasized that there isn’t currently an agreed upon schema.

Throughout the book, one gets stories of the authors experience in investigating this subject. This included trying to get monks to allow themselves to be studied, even with a letter from the Dalai Lama. It also covers the challenge of trying to build interest in the subject in an academic setting that once thought of meditation as little more than voodoo.

The middle portion of the book has a number of chapters that address particular types of practices and the specific effects they have (and haven’t) been found to have. These include developing a more compassionate outlook and behavior (ch. 6), improved attention (ch. 7), negation of pain and physical ailments (ch. 8 & 9), and meditation / mindfulness as part of a psychotherapeutic approach. The authors repeatedly point out that these practices were never intended for the purpose of treating ailments (mental or physical,) though they do seem to show benefits in a number of domains outside of what the spiritual seekers who brought them to prominence intended of them.

The chapters toward the book’s end focus heavily on investigations into advanced meditators, and the altered traits and brain changes seen in them.

There are few graphics in the book, but it’s annotated and has an “additional resources” section in the back.

I’d highly recommend this book. The authors’ mixed background gives them a good vantage point to provide an overview of the subject, and also allows them to tap into stories of their experiences which make the book more interesting than it otherwise would be.
Profile Image for Kevin.
1,564 reviews34 followers
October 17, 2017
After taking a course about meditation and science I was interested in reading about more scientific evidence on the usefulness of meditation. This book cites many studies and points out studies that were done without rigorous application of the scientific method whose results may be suspect. Balanced and well written.
Profile Image for Molecule.
56 reviews21 followers
January 30, 2018
As a neuroscientist and meditator, I had a great pleasure reading about personal and scientific journeys of Dan and Richie as well as the development of contemplative neuroscience whose pioneers they were. They present current scientific understanding and evaluate research on the topic of meditation through the rigorous scientific lense.
Very well written, with personal stories and insights, vast scientific knowledge and expertise, the book is immensely inspiring to plunge into meditation.
Above all, above giving the meditation scientific background as a support for many traditionally known effects, authors are continuing the path of teachers offering us methods of mastering the art of living, especially in nowadays distracting and hectic world.
Profile Image for Divyansh Gupta.
10 reviews5 followers
February 11, 2021
TLDR; Great review of meditation research, but don't expect a 'how-to' type self help book

This book fully delivers on the promise that its title claims; an explanation of the current scientific understanding of meditation. The most satisfying part about the book is that it holds meditation research to the same high bar as the rest of medicine/biology and does a great job at piercing through the hype generated by poorly designed studies. This is to be expected given that one of the authors (Richie) is the world's foremost authority on neuroscientific research into meditation. Even though the text is rife with study after study of altered states and traits, it never feels too dry, thanks to Dan's effective style of science communication through stories.

What happens in the brain when someone meditates? How do different types of meditation affect the brain? Are there any proven physical or mental health benefits of meditation? How does the brain alter when one accumulates thousands and thousands of hours of meditation practice?

Despite being a great book at answering these questions, there were two things I did not like about the book. First, the subtitle. It is definitely not a 'how to' book by any means. It puzzles me why they chose to market the book this way, especially considering that there are plenty of self-help meditation books and not enough about the science behind it. Second, throughout the book there is an undertone of how meditation apps are just not good enough for serious practice. That may well be true, but in the last chapter the authors reveal that they have co-founded similar apps themselves. It thus seems to send an overall message that 'meditation apps are not that great, unless they come from us'.
Profile Image for R.
106 reviews2 followers
December 22, 2021
This is the book about meditation for those who want the real talk first, and the folklore, philosophy and grand tour later.

Brainwaves were discovered in the 1920s. Up until then, we have relied on descriptions of language to explain changes in state of the mind. Then a little less than a century ago, we began to see the electrical waves of the brain, and it was inevitable that the slow mapping of this miracle of nature would lead us here, to discussing neuroplasticity, or how one might be able to change the physcial structure of the brain. It has been claimed for all written history that it was possible, but only since the EEG have we had a tool to begin measuring these changes as clearly as one writes down the notes to a musical score.

Aha! Now I have a go-to book that I am comfortable recommending to anyone, from any background, about what meditation really is... and what we really know about it on a biological level, using brain imaging technology (which is surprisingly little, but a lot more than even two decades ago). I grew up in a big city and was exposed to a few cultural varieties of lifestyle that included various forms of this practice. I have struggled through life having a clear conversation with those unfamiliar, and have spent some energy trying to express it in simple and clear ways that demystify it, and expose some of the real changes to the way the mind works over prolonged periods of time. Not long ago, I was active on quora in the meditation section, the only area I felt I could answer a little bit from an experienced side... and found the same thing I have often found. People who want to know it through theory before trying it as an action. People who are trying to argue with it, without trying it, because they were told it was a no-no. People from one tradition condemning those of another. Conflicts between teachers, and generally people grasping for big definitions without taking the small steps of physically trying it. I haven't been much of a 'nightstand buddhist' in life, which is more common approach for those who are completely new to even the cultural contexts... people read book after book on the subject. The book Altered Traits is not about promoting any given tradition, not at all. It's about what the brain does when it uses different practices, over different lengths of time. And whether traditional or scientific, it is this, what happens to body and mind, that the rest of the lore and knowledge is built upon.

Anyway, I think the fact that this book says what I've really wanted to say far better than I could, and sparing me the effort now is grand. I think this may be therapeutic in the same way we could use for a number of topics in life these days... instead of hearsay, or having an opinion, or repeating what your tradition says about it... find out what research has been done, on what topics, how well it was done, and how that relates to the physical body. That's what we all have in common. All our bodies are human bodies. Go to the science, find out how it works, how it can be done better, and where the frontier of knowledge is. A refreshing break from opinions, from what you heard or were taught, but at the same time, providing additional insight into the reality and difficulty of research, that opinion nevertheless shapes our questions, and guides what we look for (and what we miss) even in science. Demystifying the delusion that all science is one system of believe or similar bizarre concepts... after all, it is an ethic, that is either well performed, or provides questionable results. Just like there are scientists that work for Big Tobacco and are paid to swear smoking is ideal for olympic athletes... there are all kinds of claims about meditation that will not gain the international recognition of good practice without some actual honest research. It will resolve paradox, allow a spiritual life grounded in useful tools, and permit arguments based on belief to be dissolved in the open light of inquiry.

It is sometimes taught that all paths are one when it comes to meditation, but both traditional knowledge and the research show that different practices have different results, and the amount of time in one's life that has been collected up has really significant, brain changing results, especially in the long term... in particular changes in pain response, expansion of awareness, reduction of anxiety, and loving kindness. It is the best focus on what has been researched I have seen, and really adds a crucial element to the competitive 'spiritual marketplace' that no one sincerely interested in the topic can afford to be unaware of.

Beautifully written, clear and concerned with fairness throughout, and a reminder that we can all change for the better, without any particularly special tools, simply by taking the time for self care. Meditation has done so much for my quality of life, even the endurance of hardships, and it's hard to imagine life without it. So this book is fascinating, for shedding some light on the physical reasons why.
Profile Image for Craig Werner.
Author 13 books166 followers
February 25, 2018
The core message of Altered Traits is important: meditation (especially the type known as Mindfulness-Based Stressreduction) can help you, but beware of the hype. Richie Davidson runs the gold standard lab for studying the neuroscience of meditation (at my home institution, the University of Wisconsin-Madison) and he's absolutely rigorous in his approach to the claims made for meditation as a cure for more or less everything. One of the valuable things about Altered Traits is its breakdown of what separates meaningful studies from advertising: control groups and the research design that separates variables are crucial. It's still early in what will be a long-term game; as recently as the late 1970s there were effectively no reliable studies of meditation. But several conclusions seem clear: meditation can help manage stress, deal with chronic pain, slow signs of brain aging, improve attention. It probably can't deal with underlying medical conditions (but it can improve the quality of life for those who have to deal with them.) There are some core ambiguities remaining, one of the most important being that the current studies can't define what impacts come from which type of meditation--mindfulness, loving-kindness meditation, or the more advanced forms practiced by Yogis who have mediated tens of thousands of hours.

But it is clear that meditation, practiced consistently, can transform "states" of being into "traits", states of mind that are present even when you're not meditating.

Altered Traits is deeply grounded in science, but it's not written with a scientific audience in mind. Goleman (a science writer and long-time friend of Davison) describes the scientific issues raised, but provides very little detail on the research, preferring to summarize conclusions. If you want more of the detail, you can find it in Evan Thompson's Waking, Dreaming, Being.
Profile Image for Bakunin.
224 reviews218 followers
July 11, 2019
This is the book to read if you are wondering what the current science states on meditation and its effect on the brain. It is also the story of the research around meditation and how it has gradually become more popular among scientist. The book does however attempt to dispel false myths about the wonders of meditation.

I was amazed at how they found out about the default mode network. One would think that the brain is less active when not focusing on a task but this turns out not to be true. The brain wanders easily and is actually more active when we are daydreaming (which is most of the time). Meditation trains the mind to be less active and in doing so lowers the stress hormone (cortisol). Another fact which inspires me to keep meditating is that when the scanned the brain of a man who had been meditating all his life (he was in his 40's at the time) they found that his brain was significantly younger than his actual age. The authors divided test subjects into three categories depending on how long they had meditated. The brain of the long term meditator seemed always to be in the now as one would expect and could therefore more easily focus on one task (like counting your breath). There is so much experience in life we miss because we are not paying attention!

As a seasoned meditator I would warn however against trying to measure how far you've come on the spiritual path by counting hours. This varies a lot depending on the individual and how natural you focus is. It seems, at least for my part, that I have only come a short way given the fact that I have been meditating for 2 years and have attended 6 10-day silent retreats. But, as the authors emphasize, practice is what matters. If you keep practicing, results as bound to come as the Vipassana teacher Goenka says.
Profile Image for Tord Helsingeng.
31 reviews7 followers
February 4, 2018
Great overview of the current science of mindfulness and meditation. The authors have been a part of the contemplative science scene since the beginning, and have developed a discerning eye towards what is hyperbole and badly designed studies in this field.

“Some of what you know about meditation may be wrong. But what is true about meditation you may not know"

Profile Image for Chandana Watagodakumbura.
Author 7 books7 followers
October 27, 2018
“Altered Traits – Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body” by Daniel Goleman (Author of the Bestselling Books on Emotional Intelligence/Psychologist) & Richard Davidson (Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry/Director and Founder of Centre for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison)

“Science operates within a web of culture-bound assumptions that limit our view of what is possible, most powerfully for the behavioural sciences. Modern psychology had known that Eastern systems offer means to transform a person’s very being. When we looked through that alternate Eastern lens, we saw fresh possibilities.”

In “Altered Traits – Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body”, the authors Daniel Goleman (Author of the Bestselling Books on Emotional Intelligence/Psychologist) & Richard Davidson (Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry/Director and Founder of Centre for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) present hundreds of highly controlled and designed research studies carried out around the world to highlight that various meditation practices can be used to change neural connections in the brain to have positive functional and behavioural impacts on the meditator. They reiterate in the text the need to have long hours of quality practice in the order of thousands especially to have a lasting/trait effect. One of the main aims of the authors is to identify the means of using variants of “deep” meditative practices carried out by long-term, full-time practitioners for the benefits of “wider” masses in developing healthy minds/behaviours and overall well-being.

Two of the common attention related meditative practices are referred to as focused-attention meditation and open-presence/attention/awareness (mindfulness) meditation. In the former, the meditator focuses on a single object such as the breadth while in the latter, he/she attempts to focus on whatever that comes to his/her mind such as an emotion or a thought. In these attention-related practices, the meditator constantly keeps track of his/her attention, and if he/she finds attention wandering, he/she uses that meta-awareness to bring the attention back onto the object of focus. The ability to control our attention and develop meta-awareness is crucial for any learning we do – in fact, the main task of any learning is to get our attention on the object of learning voluntarily. The research listed by the authors have shown that we develop our capacities of cognitive control to select an object and focus (selective attention) in a sustained manner ((by reducing mind wandering). Such sustained attention is shown to enhance our working memories that in turn help in creating lasting/long-term memories. Moreover, the authors highlight a phenomenon known as attentional blink, a measure that helps one to develop sharper attention by identifying differences in a series of objects presented (by reducing attentional blink). Long-term meditators also showed the capacities to focus deeply and fully on the present moments, minimising features such as rumination on the past or future with an inverted V level of attention. Another feature they demonstrated was the effortlessness in the capacities to pay attention to a selected item indicating the use of less brain/cortical resources (or efficient use) for doing it

Another useful and common type of meditation is loving-kindness/compassion meditation. These practices are shown to enhance meditator’s capacities to empathise with others when they are in difficult situations. Also, long-term meditators demonstrated a trait of a higher level of preparedness to help those in need or for engaging in the greater good than the meditators with less number of hours. A higher level of activity was shown in the brain’s radar organ of the amygdala for such preparedness in the long-term meditators (with focused- attention meditation, the amygdala activity was reduced helping to minimise mind wandering). Some empathy-related neural firing was also shown to resonate with other body parts such as the heart validating our longstanding belief of having a “good heart” when we are compassionate. Further, psychological conditions such as kindness, empathy and compassion are shown to minimise the impacts of negative ones such as anger, depression and stress thus enhancing the meditators immune system and overall well-being by minimising proneness to inflammation and unhealthy attachments such as cravings (for examples for some food, alcohol and drugs etc.). Usually, the negative psychological conditions are associated with involvement of the so-called default network/mode/self-system of the brain that becomes activated when one is idling or not focusing on any specific object/function, and this default mode is more prone to focus on negative thoughts/emotions one may possess.

One interesting and surprising observation authors made in their research with long-term meditators was the generation of higher frequency (than normal) gamma waves in the brain during their open presence and compassion meditation activities. The main feature of gamma waves is the ability to synchronise many regions of the brain for highly efficient information processing such as generating insights. Non or novel meditators are also capable of generating gamma waves, but they last only for a fraction of a second while for long-term meditators could have them for minutes. Even more, the long-term meditators showed to have gamma waves generated during their sleep indicating a possible state of “awakening” round the clock. Another observation the authors made in their research was the abilities of long-term meditators have open-presence/attention to whatever that comes to their mind, accomplished possibly by the non-judgemental (without rumination on the past and future) way of paying attention. The authors also highlighted the notions of neuroplasticity and epigenetics they validated from their research. The two phenomena relate the brain’s capacity to change (or develop new neural networks while removing unused ones) based on the experience the individual undergoes. That is, we do not want to keep debating on whether a person’s capabilities are a matter of nature or nurture. The notion of epigenetics relates gene expression made possible by appropriate experiences while suppressing some others when relevant experiences are not present. Further, the text brings to our attention that, open-attention/mindfulness and loving-kindness/compassion meditative practices were successfully used in an evidence-based manner for overcoming/healing depressive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) respectively.

“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgement, character and will…an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” William James – Father of modern psychology

As an educator, I see some great insights emerging from this text. One of the fundamental capabilities we need to develop in learners is to get them to pay attention/focus (for content by reading/seeing, presentations by listening etc.) despite there is a tendency for mind wandering, especially for the contents perceived to be difficult. In other words, we need to encourage learners to persevere in engagement in the content/learning until a clearer understanding is achieved. Learners can also be directed to practice paying attention by asking them to focus on their breathing. Also, learners can be encouraged to practice open presence/attention by being open to whatever that comes to one’s mind through reading/seeing experiencing/hearing in a non-judgemental way with an intrinsic motivation to learn or developing an understanding that such practices help one in lifelong learning, developing a growth mindset, resilience to adverse social/personal situations and overall well-being. Here we highlight the fact that most of our learning is implicit (not explicit/formal as in a classroom or within an institute) and we benefit simply by paying attention/being mindful to our experiences/environments indiscriminately. Reading and journaling can be two prominent areas one can apply open presence/attention at one’s own pace. Loving-kindness/compassion meditation practices are some useful means to develop an understanding or positive feeling of empathy and equanimity. These positive emotions would enable learners to maintain a balanced mental state at an appropriate arousal level in the journey of lifelong learning with a growth mindset.

Finally, we need to commend the authors Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson for giving the public a gem of an evidence-based resource that can be used in many applications whether as learners, employees or leaders.
Profile Image for Graeme Newell.
221 reviews56 followers
April 28, 2023
"Altered Traits" by Daniel Goleman presents itself as a scientific exploration of meditation and its effects on the human body and mind. However, the book falls short of its promise and fails to deliver a convincing argument.

One of the main issues with the book is its lack of clarity. Goleman jumps from one study to another without providing a clear connection between them, leaving the reader confused and disoriented. He also tends to oversimplify complex scientific concepts, which can be misleading and inaccurate.

Furthermore, the book suffers from a lack of depth. Goleman spends most of his time summarizing studies and research without delving into the underlying mechanisms that make meditation work. As a result, the book feels superficial and fails to provide a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

A lot of academic writers seem to do this. Their books are a big long report on research studies and fail to coalesce into takeaways that are actionable, understandable and usable by average readers. So much of this book consisted of a critique of research methodology, hardly the most interesting aspect of this topic. This is a researcher’s book about research, not a reader’s book about meditation and the brain.

Another problem with the book is its narrow focus. While Goleman acknowledges the potential benefits of meditation, he fails to examine its limitations and potential downsides. For example, he overlooks the fact that meditation can trigger negative experiences, such as anxiety and depression, in some individuals.

Finally, "Altered Traits" suffers from a lack of originality. Most of the content in the book can be found in other books and articles on the same topic. Goleman fails to bring new insights or perspectives, making the book redundant for anyone familiar with the field.

When I got done reading "Altered Traits," I looked back on the experience and tried to summarized what I had learned. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with a lot. It has fascinating facts, but it simply lacks many actionable takeaways.
Profile Image for Sheeraz.
424 reviews7 followers
March 27, 2021
As I recently started to learn more about meditation, I was curious about any research on the subject. A friend recommended this book, and it's a good overview of some of the evidence of the benefits meditation can provide. I was very skeptical going in given how often the idea of meditation is intermingled with that of the spiritual, crossing over the line of credulity for me. The authors do a good job of separating the two, focusing more on good science and falsifiable predictions. For example, there are studies showing how meditators respond differently to pain (using imaging techniques); studies measuring accuracy of response to a stimulus given distractions; studies investigating meditation as an intervention for depression and so on.

Most of the experiments discussed are well-designed with reasonable control, but there are also a few case studies that need to be taken with a grain of salt (difference in baseline brain gamma waves of meditators withs tens of thousands of hours of practice and a novice). Even with those caveats, there's enough here to convince me of some of the benefits of meditation. If you're thinking about it, but feel doubtful because of the religious underpinnings, give this book a shot.
Profile Image for Thiago Ramos.
19 reviews1 follower
April 20, 2018
Excelente livro para quem quer entender mais sobre os efeitos da meditação na mente, no nosso corpo e como a meditação pode nos ajudar a sermos pessoas mais focadas, mais pacientes, mais bondosas e mais altruístas.


Excellent book for anyone who wants to understand more about the effects of meditation on the mind, on our body and how meditation can help us to be more focused, patient, kinder and more altruistic people.
Profile Image for Ihor Kolesnyk.
435 reviews
March 2, 2019
Є кілька зауваг щодо ангажованості авторів щодо тибетського буддизму, але книгу варто прочитати усім, хто цікавиться медитацією і проблемами її наукових досліджень.
1 review
September 17, 2019
A well earned 4 stars. If you're interested in the science and benefits of meditation, and want to know more then this book is a no-brainer. It's quite detailed about what we know, about how meditation works in the brain even up to a neuroscience level, and the history of the meditation science in general. Great reference material full with interesting discoveries, I would say the actual content does outshine the slower parts of the book. If you want to learn how to meditate then this still can be interesting, but it's not a how-to manual.

On the scale from 'story-driven pop science' to 'in-depth technical science' this book is diligently scientific in the best possible way, at least for me as a science-minded lad, while still having interesting story elements to keep you reading. Goleman makes refreshingly nuanced assessments and conclusions, not shying away from the limitations of the science, exactly like you would expect from a scientist involved in this topic since the very start. It was fascinating to read what it does to the brain, how/why it works, and what the current hypotheses are (and where we need more future research).

Going chronologically through the science's history from birth to the now holds the attention well enough as a way of being introduced to all the concepts and slowly adding complexity. How the science of meditation started out with rudimentary brain tools to measure brain waves, from a discipline where researching meditation was actually strongly frowned upon and was even seen as ruining your career because of its spiritual origins. (Also the curious story how meditation research into mind states was also inspired by the psychedelics research in the '60 in the US before they were banned). Then as later the science and understanding grew rapidly with more carefully designed studies and new revolutionary brain imaging technologies such as fMRI.

The main argument of the book, if you keep meditating then its temporary positive effects become more permanent is exciting science to say the least. As a meditator, which has perhaps only meditated a couple of hundred hours, I feel like it has deepened my understanding and appreciation of the practice, next to reinvigorating my motivation to keep at it.

Above all, it confirmed and underscored its importance and value with solid science. From just a few dozens hours of mindfulness meditation leading to measurable improvements, to meditation masters who have a young brain age statistically in the highest percentiles, recovering rapidly from stress and pain and show remarkable resilience. Sam Harris said it right when he said meditation might be the closest a human can get to a superpower.

4 stars overall as a non-fiction. It had a few points where I did have to push through the drier parts of the book, and I put the book down several times just to process information, but the content was solid and interesting enough for me to keep going through the slower parts.

5 stars for organizing most of the science and history of meditation neatly into a readable and intriguing book.
Profile Image for Magnus Lidbom.
114 reviews53 followers
June 6, 2021
Faith (belief without proof) is unacceptable to me as a basis for important choices. To truly commit to a lifelong meditation practice I need solid evidence that it is worth my time. Personal experience or scientific evidence. Preferably both. The results of my meditation practice so far provides me with the personal experience of early benefits. This book provides the science showing the amazing benefits that long term practice brings.

These two pioneers in the field of contemplative science have sifted out the small percentage of scientific studies on the subject that meet the highest scientific standards. Then they have selected the information that is most relevant to actual meditators and present it in this book.

After reading this book I am more committed than ever before to meditating daily for the rest of my life. If you want to transform yourself into a happier, calmer, better version of yourself you should read this book. It will help dispel those pesky doubt about whether it is really possible, whether you have the ability etc. If you want to know which of the claims about meditation have been scientifically proven and which have not, you should read this book.
Profile Image for Wouter Zwemmer.
501 reviews31 followers
January 12, 2019
Meditatie op niveaus, van diep naar steeds breder en ondieper:
1. Oorspronkelijke vormen bedoeld voor spirituele transformatie van ons wezen. Meditatie als levensstijl: monnik. Meest fundamenteel.
2. Meditatietechnieken los van levensstijl van spiritueel en lokale aziatische cultuur. Kern is nog steeds spirituele zoektocht.
3. Mindfulness, transcedente meditatie. Meditatie aangepast voor toepassing in het westen. Gericht op cognitieve en emotionele voordelen.
4. Gepopulariseerd. Zo breed mogelijk. Enkele minuten met een app achter je bureau. Gericht op betere prestaties (werk) en succes (levensstijl).
5. Wetenschappelijk geoptimaliseerd. Nog in kinderschoenen.

Meditatie is overkoepelend woord voor uiteenlopende vormen van contemplatieve activiteit, net zoals sport naar een heleboel soorten fysieke activiteit verwijst.

Model voor ‘welzijn’:
1. Zelfaanvaarding: positief over jezelf zijn, goede en minder goede eigenschappen onderkennen en aanvaarden, niet-oordelend bewustzijn.
2. Persoonlijke groei: blijvend veranderen en naar volledige mogelijkheden ontwikkelen
3. Autonomie: onafhankelijk denken en doen, vrij van soc druk, eigen maatstaven (in westerse individualistische samenlevingen)
4. Meesterschap: omgaan met complexiteit van het leven, mogelijkheden herkennen en omstandigheden scheppen bij je waarden en behoeftes.
5. Bevredigende relaties: omgaan met anderen, wederzijdse zorg, gezond evenwicht tussen geven en nemen.
6. Levensdoel: betekenis, zingeving

Meditatie beïnvloedt vier neurale routes/ systemen:
1. Stress en ons herstel daarvan. Meditatie verlaagt reactie op stress, versnelt herstel van stress en verhoogt pijngrens.
2. Compassie en empathie. Compassie-meditatie stimuleert verbindingen in hersenen voor geluk, compassie en vreugde. Hoe meer meditatie, hoe eerder de neiging om bij compassie ook tot actie over te gaan.
3. Aandacht. Mindfulness versterkt vermogen om op één ding te concentreren en afleiding te negeren. Meer cognitieve controle en daardoor beter beheersen van impulsen.
4. Zelfgevoel.
Op twee manieren:
1. Gezond lichaam
2. Gezonde geest

Soorten aandacht:
1. Selectieve aandacht: vermogen om je op één ding te concentreren
2. Waakzaamheid: in tijd constant niveau van aandacht handhaven
3. Gerichte aandacht: kleine en snelle veranderingen opmerken
4. Doelgerichtheid: cognitieve controle, ondanks afleiding doel voor ogen houden
5. Metabewustzijn: kwaliteit van eigen bewustzijn in het oog houden

Mythe van multitasken: hersenen multitasken niet, maar schakelen snel tussen taken. Dus taken die aandacht vergen, kun je niet goed tegelijk doen.

Hersenen gebruiken een min of meer constante hoeveelheid zuurstof ongeacht wat we aan het doen zijn. Het lijkt erop alsof hersenen net zo hard werken als we ontspannen zijn als wanneer we ons mentaal inspannen.

In rust dwalen hersenen af in veelal op ‘ik’ gerichte gedachten, emoties, over zelf en relaties, werk etc. Onze defaultinstelling herschrijft constant de film waarin we zelf de hoofdrol spelen, met name favoriete of juist verontrustende scenes: je ‘monkey mind’. Harvard onderzoek: ‘een dwalende geest is een ongelukkige geest.’ Door je aandacht te richten op iets anders, zet je het dwalen van je geest uit; in extreme vorm met volledige aandacht in hobby’s die leiden tot flow.

Het idee van ‘een zelf’ komt voort uit neurale subsystemen van herinneringen, percepties, emoties en gedachten. Elk apart is onvoldoende om ons een gevoel van ‘zelf’ te geven, maar gecombineerd ontstaat het beeld van een uniek wezen.

Thema’s, doelstellingen van meditatietradities
Eén van de belangrijkste doelstellingen van de spirituele praktijk is verlichting van het systeem dat ons gevoel van ‘ik’, ‘mij’ en ‘mijn’ construeert. Meditatievormen hebben als doel gemeen: loslaten van het voortdurende verlangen van onze gedachten, en emoties en impulsen; heet ‘ontstoffelijking’, leert dat gedachten, gevoelens en impulsen voorbijgaande onbetekenende geestelijke gebeurtenissen zijn. We hoeven onze gedachten niet te geloven, niet te volgen en kunnen ze loslaten. Dit proces is moeilijk. Als je er ervaring mee hebt, worden gedachten als een ‘dief in een leeg huis’: er is niets te halen dus gaan ze weer weg. In cognitieve psychologie heet dit ‘decentering’ of cognitieve defusie: waarnemen van gedachten en gevoelens zonder ons ermee te identificeren.

Tweede universeel thema van mediatietradities: vloeiende overgang van ergens je best voor moeten doen naar inspanningsloos. Aanleren van een vaardigheid is eerst hard werken, en door oefening wordt het gemakkelijker. Vlgs cognitieve neurowetenschap werkt dat ze: eerst is prefrontale cortex aan het werk, waarna diepere hersengebieden (basale ganglia) het overnemen; minder activiteit in prefrontale gebieden is neuraal kenmerk voor inspanningsloosheid.

Er zijn indicaties dat mediteren ook biologische positieve effecten heeft: remt ontstekingsactiviteit, verlaagt bloeddruk, vermindert het enzym telomerase dat zorgt voor veroudering van cellen, veranderingen in hersenen over langere termijn. Maar er is nog veel meer onderzoek nodig op dit gebied.

Donkere nacht
Meeste onderzoek wijst op een positieve invloed van meditatie, maar sommigen krijgen door of in meditatie last van somberheid tot en met depressieve gevoelens: maken een ‘donkere nacht door’. Er is nog onvoldoende bekend hierover, over wie hiervoor gevoelig is, welke omstandigheden of meditatievormen die stimuleren of afremmen, of het wel door meditatie komt of dat het toch al in die mensen zit etc...

Voor mensen in psychische nood kan mediteren helpen bij hun therapie: leidt tot afname depressie, angst en pijn. Liefdevolle vriendelijkheidsmeditatie is heilzaam bij ptss. Combinatie van meditatie en cognitieve therapie is het best onderzocht en onderbouwd. Meditatie is geen vervanging van therapie.

Typologie van meditaties
Alle contemplatieve wegen komen op ongeveer hetzelfde neer: training van de geest, los komen van ontelbare afleidingen in je hoofd, concentratie op een object, adem of een houding.

- Beginners doen meestal aan mindfulness: letten op welke gedachten de geest in en uit gaan.
- Gevorderden doen vaak aan vipassana of zen: gaat over metabewustzijn van processen in de geest, niet over de inhoud ervan.
- Yogi’s doen de Tibetaanse paden van dzogchen en mahamudra: streven naar niet-duale positie die op een subtieler niveau van metabewustzijn tot rust komt.

Andere typologie:
- Aandachtsgericht: concentratie op ademhaling, diepe waarneming, mantra, metabewustzijn.
- Constructief: cultiveren van deugdzame eigenschappen.
- Deconstructief: zelfwaarneming om het karakter van de ervaring te doorgronden. Non-duale technieken die de gewone cognitie te boven gaan.

Profile Image for Vladimir Slaykovsky.
56 reviews1 follower
October 6, 2018
All the findings look too good to be 100% true. I wonder if the methodology of studies mentioned in the book was correct
Profile Image for George Cove.
5 reviews8 followers
February 22, 2021
A necessary overview of the scientific journey that meditation research has taken over the last 50 years. A slightly misleading subtitle "How to change your Brain, Mind and Body" - this book certainly is not a self-help book as that might suggest.
For me, it certainly confirmed that a daily meditation practice reaps benefits particularly over the long term and its reassuring that the science backs up my own anecdotal experience. In this sense, it has strengthened my commitment to the path of meditation throughout my life.
I think the book's flow suffered from the burden of having to back every point up with scientific evidence and repetitious descriptions of experiments. I found this meant that the book could actually be quite boring at times. However, i do accept that this is the nature of a scientific overview and that most of this information is both relevant and important to understand.
December 21, 2017
Esse livro se tornou o meu referencial de excelência para livros de divulgação científica.
Escrito pelos pesquisadores, que todo tempo demonstram um cuidado e rigor detalhado na exposição dos estudos e suas conclusões com a devida cautela e ceticismo que a ciência exige.
São dois pesquisadores que adotaram meditação em suas vidas desde muito cedo e fazem neste livro um apanhado geral sobre o que a ciência sabe até o momento sobre a meditação e seus efeitos.
É um orgasmo expositivo para uma mente analítica que busca calços sólidos e evidencias que possam afirmar alguns palpites que a sua alma vem fazendo. Explico: se algo dentro de você o faz gravitar para o Budismo ou outros corpos filosóficos que incorporem práticas meditativas, este livro é a chancela acadêmica que faltava para apontar que você está no caminho certo!

Vá fundo e comece o treinamento da sua mente, antes que seja tarde!
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