On the 12th of September Project Syndicate published an article called Beyond Homo Economicus by Tania Singer, Director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She leads something called the ReSource Project which calls itself a “unique, large-scale study on Eastern and Western methods of mental training.” The methods promoted by this project are designed to:
enhance attentional control, body- and self-awareness, healthy emotion regulation, self-care, compassion, empathy and perspective taking...Overall the aim of the training is to improve mental health and social skills. It may reduce stress, improve mental clarity, increase life satisfaction, and lead to a better understanding of others’ views and actions.
The article was apparently one of the most read of the many that Project Syndicate posts, having 859 likes on Facebook alone. No doubt there were even more eager followers on the website and via email. Professor Singer isn't alone in challenging the concept of homo economicus – the principle used in traditional economic theory and modelling that humans are rational actors who make decisions based on narrow self-interest. As the discipline of economics increasingly draws on the research findings of psychology and evolutionary biology, new frameworks are being proposed to capture the biases in our decision making, our oftentimes herdlike behaviour and how networks cause knowledge (and emotions) to diffuse through populations. Other research programs such as Professor Singer's attempt to take into account the human capacity for altruism and pro-social behaviour. Entirely new fields are cropping up, including neuroeconomics, social and affective neuroscience and contemplative neuroscience which have found that humans can be motivated by pro-social preferences such as fairness and concern for others’ welfare or rights. So far so good and kudos to laudable research.
The problem is that organisations such as Max Planck, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, the Center for Mind-Body Medicine at UCLA, the Institute for Mindful Leadership, the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition at the Maharishi University of Management and Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute seem to have abandoned established psychological methods such as CBT as a means of challenging debilitating negative thinking to alleviate excessive anxiety and depression and are instead promoting eastern meditation, yoga and mindfulness. The goals are apparently to make people more empathetic and compassionate as well to help them manage their emotions and thoughts - to quiet the so-called 'monkey mind'. Other outcomes promised include greater calm and focus which are meant to make people nicer, more creative, more focused and better leaders. That’s one tall order. Professor Singer's project is classified under the emerging field of ‘contemplative neuroscience,’ which has ‘begun to produce evidence for the plasticity of pro-social preferences and motivation.’ The ReSource Project website claims:
...training programs aimed at boosting pro-social motivation have led to increased activity in neural networks related to positive emotions and affiliation, as well as to reduced stress-relevant hormonal responses and increased immune markers, when participants are exposed to distress in others...such mental training programs make participants more efficient and more focused while improving their capacity to cope with stress.
I agree that we face moral and ethical failings of both individuals and institutions, the latter particularly requiring reform to re-establish trust and foster greater cooperation among constituents. But believing that personal transformation via eastern mindfulness methods is tendentious and problematic. Professor Singer asserts in her article:
given that brains are at their most malleable during childhood, beginning mental training in school would help to create a solid foundation for the kind of secular ethics that would contribute to the development of a more compassionate society. But mental training also has benefits for adults, so businesses, political authorities, and research institutions should collaborate in establishing “mental gymnasiums.”
The methods used by the ReSource Project and the myriad others that teach mindfulness meditation present them as secular techniques, supported by scientific research and, since they’ve been around for millennia, have apparently passed the test of time. The metaphysical underpinning of these methods is seldom revealed to the initiate. This is simply dishonest and irresponsible. Have countries where these methods have been practiced for centuries become more compassionate, cooperative and peaceful than others? Of course they haven’t.
Eastern philosophy is based on the idea that the primary nature of life is suffering and that the purpose of life is its alleviation. Ironically, what often makes people more compassionate (in addition to what nature and nurture set down) is their own experiences of loss, pain and suffering. In the furore over the nursing staff at Mid-Staffodshire Foundation Trust, many called for a change in the culture - to make it more caring. It's very unclear that such a change could even come about without having professional, well-trained, equipped rested and who are supported to the extent that they have the emotional space to be more caring. The structure can have a direct influence on the culture.
I’ve been alarmed by the Harvard Business Review’s blatant promotion of mindfulness/meditation techniques for executives among others promoting the practice; I’ve mentioned this before in earlier blogposts here and here. The Financial Times recently featured an article on the topic, profiling high flying executives who swear by these techniques. It's worrying because highly competitive types like top executives strive to emulate the most successful. Fortunately, at the end of the FT article, reporter John Paul Rathbone remarks, “Meditation may be one way to “go deeper.” Certainly it seems to have increased the willingness of some to explore their interiority. Whether that will make a difference to the ethics of the financial world is an open question.” Indeed.
Another inherent contradiction of the meditation bandwagon is that it often appeals to those in search of a quick fix to a particular problem. In this video, David Lynch gives a long answer to a short question: how can meditation enhance the creative process. This is the instrumentalisation of ultimate reality - a key feature of self-help and New Age (also called emergent, integral or evolutionary spirituality).
What really bothers me is that meditation research centres and consultants seem to indicate that eastern metaphysical techniques are the only if not the best way to reduce cortisol, a hormone related to stress. Walking in nature would have the same if not bigger effect. If a reporter from the FT, a blogger on the HBR, David Lynch or Oprah recommends a technique because successful people swear by it, others jump on the trend, hoping the fairy dust will sprinkle on them. David Gelles, reporting on corporate giants using meditation to lower healthcare costs and boost worker productivity, says what many seem to use as a catchphrase: “it seems that eastern wisdom – stripped of its religiosity and backed by scientific research – is becoming an accepted part of the corporate mainstream.”
When it comes to eastern meditation techniques, we’re really talking about more than psychology, more than mental health. We’re talking about metaphysics and eternity, whether you believe in these things or not.