Disclaimer: this post is not about dairy. Or about a plant-based diet. In fact, it’s not really about nutrition at all.
So I’m sitting here all calm eating breakfast — well, actually, I’m not calm and this for a multitude of reasons, but I wanted to paint a nice picture for you. But the embellishing of reality stops now, at least in this little nook of cyber space. It would be super strange and meta if I didn’t keep to radical honesty, as the topic of this post is to stay sharp and to see through various statements and claims. And, if we don’t see through them, we can at least apply a healthy dose of doubt and/or critical thinking.
In addition, something that I’ve found to be one of the more valuable tools handed to me during my education is, when reading a statement concerning biological sciences, to always ask myself: is this [biologically] plausible? To be able to answer this for yourself, you often need a bunch of knowledge, and so for myself I often have to speculate quite a bit. Fill in the gaps. But, the main point is: don’t just sit there like a kid being fed dinner by the spoonful.
I feel like that a lot of times. In fact, I feel like that most times that I take a look at my Facebook news feed. That happens approximately 1-5 times per day, pushing toward the higher number when I have things on my to do list that I don’t particularly want to do. The irony of it is, that those things commonly pertain to grad school, and studying something that I didn’t specifically choose myself. Talk about being anti getting a well-rounded education? Hell, I don’t know.
I shall now get to the point of/catalyst for this post.
As I was a bit sad and upset this morning, scrolling through my Facebook news feed while having a slightly disappointing breakfast wishing my grandmother had made it instead, I (because I apparently have ‘liked’ meditation and this article contained that word) stumbled upon an article where the title read ‘Yoga & Meditation can reshape your brain‘.
My initial reaction was yeah, I know. Cool. Glad this is spreading. Then, choosing to actually read the article, the realization hit me for the gazillionth time that the communication between the scientific community and the general public is wrong and faulty on so many levels. This post may turn into an essay — it’s well on the way already. Just a heads up.
Let’s start with the credibility of a statement being judged by the title of the person that utters it. Simply because a neuroscientist says something, does not mean that it is so. If I went to magician school, and said that I spent a day as a raven about a week or so having more or less perfected my metamorphosis skills, would you believe me? I’m exaggerating. Seeing what those who are educated within a field has to say about the contents thereof may be a good place to start, but we have to keep in mind that we’re all just animals with our own agendas.
The article that I linked to really doesn’t say much. Sure, yoga and meditation makes you happier and healthier. But so does exercise, spending time with people you care about, and getting out into nature (to name a few things that may or may not apply to you). Such a statement, therefore, should be backed up by something that distinguishes these practices from another thing that makes people happier and healthier.
Brain volume. (On a side note, I think they mean ‘lose’, not ‘loose’). Yes, you lose brain cells as you age. But some of this reduction in numbers is actually an adaptation to make your brain more efficient; synaptic pruning gets rid of excessive connections that you don’t use anyway and that just takes up space. And, the brain is a system, not a bunch of departments that handle different things in a relatively exclusive way, as the general perception often appears to be. Yes, there are regions that for instance handle your sense of smell and your sensory capacities for different parts of your body, but for the most part you can’t attribute functions to single areas even though it surely is appealing to wish it was that way, for the sake of simplicity.
I guess my general criticism concerns very broad and generalized statements that contain little or no substance. In this article, the point seems to be that yoga and meditation can physically change your brain. Yes indeed! So can a million and one other things! Your brain changes all the time. And so, when amateur (or newspapers, or other sources that are generally perceived as being more legitimate) sites build upon these statements, something new and less anchored to the truth emerges. And, when the (more or less) uninformed reader starts to interpret what they are reading, shit really hits the fan.
This is nicely demonstrated in the comments of the concerned ‘article’, where someone asks ‘What is the science regarding how long one needs to meditate to ensure these benefits?‘
1. No benefits can be ensured. You are unique.
2. You, having the capacity for self-reflection, can via your top down thinking modulate the effects of whatever practice you engage in, to either elevate or diminish the effects thereof (i.e. there is a reciprocal physiological relationship between somatic and cognitive states)
3. Science! Search PubMed and you will find articles that report acute benefits as well as (very) long-term ones. I’m talking daily half hour sessions for decades.
Having said all of this, I want to make it clear that I’m not in any way saying that yoga and meditation do not have effects on the way you think and the way you respond to stress. I’m a huge supporter and advocate of these practices. But it’s just not that simple. I wrote my BSc thesis on the topic, if you feel like a long read, it’s inserted below.
Stay sharp out there, folks.