Altered Traits Summary and Review

by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson
Has Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. It’s easy to be skeptical about meditation. Considering how popular its grown to be in the Western world over the past decades, it’s easy to view it as a fad that doesn’t quite have any real substance. However, there is good news — the value of meditation is actually scientifically backed. Citing numerous studies – some of which were conducted by the authors themselves – understanding meditation from a scientific point of view will satiate lots of curious minds. This book summary explains how meditation can actually help to develop positive attributes that will help you to become a better individual. We’ll dive right in to the specific parts of the brain that are affected by a meditation practice, and explore how we’re able to use this knowledge to grow into better individuals. Anyone can benefit from meditation, from seasoned practitioners to people trying it out for the first time. In this summary of Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, you’ll discover
  • why multitasking isn’t helpful;
  • the implications of a wandering mind; and
  • how meditation can help you better process your emotions.

Altered Traits Key Idea #1: There are two types of meditation: one focusing on one singular thing and one being a non-reaction to thoughts.

When he was a Harvard graduate student, Goleman, one of the authors, traveled to India to learn about meditation. While there are tons of different types of meditation, Goleman was advised by one of his meditation teachers, Anagarika Munindra, to study one found in an ancient text called the Visuddhimagga, or Path to Purification. When you practice this type of meditation, you focus on one single thing. Written in the fifth century, the Visuddhimagga is the principal text of Theravada Buddhism, a branch that is widespread among many Southeast Asian nations. It’s also the source of mindfulness, a teaching that encourages the development of your concentration through focusing explicitly on one thing. Typically, you begin by focusing on your breath. When you first start, it will be incredibly difficult to concentrate on one specific thing because our minds have the tendency to zip back and forth between thoughts. The thing is, though, through practice, your thoughts will begin to calm down, allowing your mind to become so quiet that the only thing you’ll be paying attention to is your breathing. There is also another type of meditation which is based on not reacting to your thoughts. It comes directly from the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, who lived during the sixth century BC. Different from the previous type of meditation, this one pushes you to be conscious of every thought that crosses your mind. The thing is, it’s necessary during this type of meditation to refrain from reacting to them. As soon as your thoughts pop into your mind, it’s important to instantly let go of them, rather than attaching to them and letting them consume you. Over time you will develop equanimity, meaning that it won’t matter whether the thoughts you have are self-hating or romantic fantasies – they’ll simply become passing musings that bear no impact on your core consciousness. No matter which type of meditation you prefer, both are equally respected. The important thing is that you consider which option will give you the most benefits. In the following book summaries, we’ll take a look at what those benefits are.

Altered Traits Key Idea #2: Meditation is able to help reduce your reactions to emotional cues and stress.

Imagine being in an interview with two potential employers who show no empathy or encouragement throughout the interview process. After trying to prove yourself as a valuable addition to their company, they ask you to do a bit of arithmetic: Start with 1324, then subtract 17, then minus 17 again and keep going without making any errors. In reality, this is a form of the Trier Social Stress Test – a psychological test that calculates participants’ reactions to social stress situations. In this test, the heart rates and blood pressures of participants is used to calculate how they handle certain triggers of stress. Actually, meditation is an effective way for participants to grow less responsive to triggers that may come up during the Trier Social Stress Test. In 2012, researchers Paul Ekman and Alan Wallace studied the impact of meditation on lowering social stress levels among teachers. Their research found that after they were exposed to the Trier test, the teachers in the study saw their blood pressure return to normal far faster if they’d practiced meditation. As it turns out, the longer they meditated, the faster they recovered from stressful situations, and these results were effective as long as five months after they received the meditation training. In 2016, the author Davidson replicated the Ekman and Wallace study in his lab, but added some experienced meditators. The first day of his replica test involved the participants spending eight hours meditating before they were to take the Trier test the following day. In comparison to the group of non-meditators, the meditation group produced less cortisol, a stress hormone, when exposed to triggers. What’s more, the group that did participate in the meditation didn’t find the Trier test very stressful at all. Meditation can also reduce your reactions to emotional cues. In 2017, Davidson continued his research with the same experienced meditators through another experiment. This time, Davidson scanned the brain activity of the participants while they looked at images of people who were injured or suffering. He specifically analyzed the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in emotional processing. His research showed that the amygdala of meditators was simply less reactive to those of the non-meditators. The reason for this is that meditators have a stronger link between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain related to planning and other complex cognitive functions. It’s been proven that the connection between these two essential parts of the brain actually lowers the effect of strong emotions, both positive and negative. We read dozens of other great books like Altered Traits, and summarized their ideas in this article called Habits. Check it out here!

Altered Traits Key Idea #3: You can actually exhaust the brain by multitasking, whereas meditating strengthens our mental abilities.

The modern world is full of situations that involve multitasking. Nowadays, we’re constantly juggling various duties while texts, calls, emails, Facebook notifications, and Instagram photos bombard us in the background. Some try to work on their ability to handle several tasks at once, but it turns out, multitasking is inefficient and mentally exhausting. In 2009, Eyal Ophir, a communications scientist from Stanford University, conducted a study and discovered that the brain is actually unable to successfully multitask. When we try to do too many things at once, our attention actually switches quickly between those tasks, causing us to lose concentration, which means that we end up taking more time in regaining our focus when we switch back to the original task. This research also discovered that people who multitask on a regular basis are easily distracted, which means that they end up using more of their brain when it comes to actual concentration. The good news is, this inefficient multitasking can actually be replaced with meditation, helping to strengthen a person’s capacity for concentration. Psychologists Thomas E. Gorman and C. Shawn Green ran a 2016 study in which they compared the concentration ability of two groups of students. Before the test began, one group of students surfed the web for ten minutes, while the other group meditated through counting their breaths. During the concentration tests, the meditators showed far greater improvement in their ability to concentrate, especially among the students who multitasked regularly. Another study ran in 2012 by Michael D. Mrazek, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, found that spending more time meditating reduced distraction and helped students to improve their scores on grad school entrance exams by up to 30 percent.

Altered Traits Key Idea #4: Meditation has the power to power off the default mindset our brains enter when we do nothing.

When we come to a difficult mathematical equation, we often think that our brains need to prepare before being able to solve it. But when engaged in arduous tasks, many areas of the brain end up deactivating. On top of this, when we do nothing, these same sections of the brain reactivate. This means that when we’re doing nothing, our brains aren’t actually in a resting state. In fact, the brain enters what is called the default mode. Neuroscientist Marcus Raichle of Washington University in St. Louis, made the 2001 discovery that when we think we’re doing nothing, many parts of the brain show high activity. On top of this, while the brain only makes up 2% of our total body mass, it uses a whole 20% of our metabolic energy. Even more surprisingly, it uses about the same amount of energy whether it’s reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or simply sunbathing at the beach. The posterior cingulate cortex and the midline of the prefrontal cortex are the two areas that are activated when we’re supposedly not doing anything. Two of these components make up the brain’s default mode network – where the brain is active during rest. The issue with this is that this default mode isn’t actually healthy and needs to be switched off. Luckily, meditation can help with this. When we’re in this default mode, our brains tend to be unhappily distracted and wandering. Recently, Harvard researchers asked thousands of participants to pay attention to the connection between their level of concentration and their mood. Most of the participants reported that they were actually less happy when their minds lost focus. This is due to the tendency our brains have to revisit our dissatisfactions and anxieties. Through meditation, we’re able to alter its impact on our well-being. In 2011, psychiatrist Judson Brewer discovered that people who meditate regularly showed a stronger link between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network. This connection is developed through meditation, which helps to calm the mind when we aren’t engaged in any type of mentally strenuous activity.

Altered Traits Key Idea #5: Research has shown that meditation can make the brain stronger, but its important to take these results with a grain of salt.

Meditation can calm people and help their focus. But what if practicing meditation can have a bigger impact on us, specifically on our brain cells? Plenty of research has shown that meditation can strengthen the brain. The first evidence for this came from a 2005 study conducted by Sara Lazar, of Harvard Medical School. Lazar discovered through her research that meditation made certain areas of the brain grow thicker. The implications of this in terms of the human race as a concept has yet to be determined, but the study did suggest that parts of the brain were improving. Since Lazar’s initial study, plenty of similar ones have also been conducted. In 2014, neurologist Kieran C. R. Fox from Stanford University meta-analyzed 21 of these studies. Fox discovered that meditation lead to the strengthening of three specific areas of the brain: the insula, the part of the brain responsible for the recognition of emotional and physical bodily processes, the prefrontal cortex, which is essential for focused attention and the cingulate cortex, which helps with self-regulation and impulse control. Then, in 2016, neurologist Eileen Luders from UCLA discovered that with meditation, the brain is able to rejuvenate, thus slowing down brain cell death. Out of the participants who were in their 50s, the ones that meditated had brains on average 7.5 years younger than those of non-meditators. Yet, despite these extensive studies on the effects of meditation on brain activity and well-being, all of these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. While it’s true that Luders’ study showed overall that the brains of meditators were healthier, the participants involved in the study each practiced different types of meditation, including Vipassana, Zen Buddhism, and Kundalini Yoga. The problem with this is that there are extreme differences between all of these forms of meditation. Some forms involve leaving the mind completely open, which means that you leave yourself open to become aware of everything, while others teach you to focus on only one thing. Similarly, there are other types in which you control your breathing, although there are other types that recommend that you let the breath come naturally. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine what parts of meditation are responsible for causing a positive effect on the brain so that we can further study this area.

Altered Traits Key Idea #6: Meditation helps to soothe and reduce the risk of depression.

In western medicine, nobody has yet discovered an adequate response to psychiatric disorders that don’t respond to drugs. Perhaps meditation could help? Some studies suggest that meditation can help to alleviate depression. One study, conducted in 2000 by cognitive psychologist John Teasdale from Oxford University, indicated that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was helpful in preventing depression. MBCT is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that requires the patient to concentrate on one specific thing. Another study set at Oxford University, this time ran by Mark Williams in 2014, had two control groups: one receiving cognitive therapy, the other receiving traditional pharmaceutical treatment. Results showed that MBCT was the most effective when the depression stemmed from childhood traumas. With other types of depression, however, MBCT worked just as well as the drugs. Alberto Chiesa from the University of Bologna ran a study in 2015 which found that patients who did not show improvements from medication did feel better with MBCT. Cognitive psychologist Zindel Segal, also from Oxford, provided further evidence for supporting the positive role of meditation on people with depression. Segal used fMRI scans to demonstrate that MBCT reinforced the insula of patients with depression, which means they could more easily gain perspective on their lives, rather than the usual overwhelming feeling that often came with their thoughts and emotions. On top of this, the research demonstrated that relapses were actually reduced by 35% after MBCT. Meditation can also help lower the risk of depression. Women who are pregnant with a history of depression are especially vulnerable to depression both during and after giving birth. Additionally, they’re often hesitant to take antidepressants during their pregnancies. Luckily, a 2016 study by Sona Dimidjian showed that these vulnerable pregnant women could use MBCT to lower their risk of depression. Furthermore, a 2016 study by S. Nidich in Iowa found that transcendental meditation, a type of meditation that requires a silent repetition of chants or mantras, assisted male prisoners in decreasing their depression and anxiety levels.

Altered Traits Key Idea #7: When you meditate intensely, it can result in increased levels of compassion.

In the autumn of 2002, a Tibetan monk named Mingyur Rinpoche landed in Madison Airport in Wisconsin. One of the authors had invited the monk to his lab so that he would have the chance to measure the brain activity of a yogi – a master of meditation. The author found that neurological changes were more visible in the brain of a yogi. At the author’s lab, Rinpoche was hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is able to lock onto a person’s brain waves so that it can measure the level of brain activity happening at the time of the study. Meanwhile, a scholar – aided by a translator – asked Rinpoche to practice compassion meditation, which involves focusing initially on feeling compassionate towards people you love, before extending that love to every single living thing in the universe. During breaks from these regular intervals of compassion meditation, Rinpoche was asked to rest. During the study, they discovered that while he was practicing the compassion meditation, the yogi’s brain waves spiked to an unusually high level, which continued for the entire one-minute interval. Typically, these unusually high spikes would only be seen when someone accidentally sets off the EEG sensors. But the yogi didn’t move a muscle. When he was resting, the spikes lowered only slightly, returning to their high levels whenever he began to meditate again. The yogi’s brain demonstrated the power of compassion. In the second part of the author’s study, the yogi’s neural activity was recorded with an fMRI machine, allowing for a more precise look at what parts of the brain that were activated. This time, he was able to see that it was the parts of the brain associated with empathy that was activated. Rather than hitting normal levels when he was, however, activation rose by 800 percent in comparison to when the yogi was resting. This incredibly level of neural activity had never been seen before in science. The closest recordings came from schizophrenics, but these were never voluntary, unlike Rinpoche, who achieved supernormal brain power with intent.

Altered Traits Key Idea #8: The more you practice meditation, the greater the benefits.

There are many different types of meditators around the world. Some of them meditate sporadically, while some go on meditation retreats and practice for thousands of hours on end. For yogis, meditating over a three-year period is nothing unusual. And just like the various types of meditation, there are also various effects for different people. But even meditating just a little bit will help you see beneficial effects. Though most people who meditate in Western society are beginners, they’re still reaping the benefits. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that the amygdala becomes less responsive after only 30 hours of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction meditation. On top of this, practicing for seven hours, compassion is able to strengthen areas of the brain related to empathy and positivity, from pleasure to enjoyment. With the aforementioned Gorman and Green study, we’ve already seen that concentration levels are able to increase just a little bit with only eight minutes of mindfulness. After just two weeks of daily eight-minute meditation sessions, the enhanced concentration resulted in higher test scores. The only problem is, none of these benefits were long lasting unless the meditation method was sustained of a long period of time. Therefore, the more you practice meditation, the more benefits you’ll receive. Once you’ve meditated for thousands of hours, you’ll become less reactive to stress triggers. Through practice, your brain’s ability to regulate your emotions will enhance and your body will stop releasing so much of the stress hormone cortisol. In the long term, compassion meditation results in higher empathy levels, enabling meditators to understand the suffering of others on a more personal level. On top of this, the increased levels of empathy also increase the chances that you might take action to help people in need. As we increase our concentration levels, our minds start to wander less and less. This can especially help people who tend to get caught up in their own lives since it can help reduce their levels of self-centeredness and allow more time for others. There are significant advantages to a meditation practice, and now you know that there’s actually scientific evidence to prove it. Truly, there’s little reason not to simply attempt meditation so that you might start moving toward your own path toward self-improvement.

In Review: Altered Traits Book Summary

The key message in this book summary: For many years, people have practiced meditation as a way of accessing inner peace, wisdom, and tranquility. However, in the past few decades, there’s been an increase in scientific evidence to reinforce the fact that these results are real. Plenty of research has shown that meditating can help improve concentration and empathy levels, while also lowering the risk of depression. Further research is required of course, but it’s safe to say that meditation enriches the brain. Actionable advice: Make time for meditation. So many people claim that they want to meditate, and yet also claim that they have no time to do so. However, this is simply untrue. How much time do you spend on social media each day? When you truly think about it, you’ll likely figure out that you have far more spare time than you might think. Even if you have an incredibly busy schedule, you can always squeeze in some mindfulness meditation. It’s even possible to practice during your commute to work, on your snack break, or perhaps while doing the grocery shopping. It’s all about focusing your attention on the task at hand.   Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Habits