In the online OpEd column of Friday’s New York Times, Barbara L. Fredrickson shared the results of a scientific research study which proved that the Buddhist practice of Mettā can positively influence the health of the human heart. According to Wikipedia, Mettā is the act of feeling tenderly and positively toward everyone and everything, even those that we hate; it is “associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering.”
In her OpEd, Fredrickson has a bipartite agenda. First, she shares the results of her research:
My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.
We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.
The vagal tone is a subconscious process that controls one’s heart rate. I personally think that this study is a great example of how religion and social science can find some common ground. There is certainly a great deal of social value to meditation and spiritual practice–I wonder whether this and other studies will make those who disparage such practices think twice. This study also bridges a lot of ground between notions of physical health v. mental well-being.
The second part of Fredrickson’s agenda in the OpEd seems to me to be more dubious. She questions whether modern technology such as cell phones can negatively affect our social capabilities. This is the OpEd’s opening:
Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?
Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.
As far as I can tell, nowhere in this brief OpEd does Fredrickson offer any rationale for how her study might prove that electronic devices reduce our biological capacity to connect. She uses the following inference to try to prove her point: face-to-face interaction positively influences social gene expression, therefore electronic communication diminishes our social abilities.
I think that this is an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t think that Fredrickson’s study really goes very far in testing said hypothesis. What is needed is further study on how electronic communication affects our social capacity and the expression of what Fredrickson calls “the new field of social genomics.” I suspect that there are many socially positive as well as negative aspects of electronic communication, and that different users are affected differently. Fredrickson’s warning to mothers that they “may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression” seems a little hyperbolic to me, at least without the research to back it up. I’m left wondering whether this OpEd, while wonderful and intriguing, also favors fear-mongering over scientific subtlety.