— There’s good news and bad news in the science world this week.
On one hand, scientists tell us there’s evidence suggesting humans are becoming more stupid over time. That’s bad news.
On the other hand, different scientists report that people with heart disease can lower their blood pressure, experience less stress and reduce death risk by practicing transcendental meditation. That’s good news for heart patients.
There’s also good news for those without heart disease. A third group of scientists reports that meditation techniques may have a beneficial effect on brain function that continues even after the meditation session ends.
Assuming all this news is correct, we may all be gradually getting stupider, but if we meditate, we don’t have to be upset about it. Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Item 1: Dr. Gerald Crabtree, a medical doctor and developmental scientist at Stanford University, argues that mankind reached his intellectual peak 2,000 to 6,000 years ago and has been in gradual mental decline ever since.
Dr. Crabtree’s conclusions appear in the recent edition of the journal Trends in Genetics. Evidently, Dr. Crabtree links humanity’s intellectual downhill slide to the historical point at which “we started living on farms.” (It’s really beside the point, and I hesitate to mention it, but Dr. Crabtree hails from Potrock Hollow, W.Va., which boasts a population of 13. This probably has nothing to do with his belief in the brain-numbing effects of farm life.)
Dr. Crabtree and some of his colleagues cite genetic studies suggesting mutations in our DNA tend to lower our intellectual abilities but these declines are masked by advances in technology and medicine. He predicts this trend will continue leading to further “dumbing down” of our species.
Item 2: Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, studied a group of 201 African-Americans diagnosed with heart disease. The subjects were divided into two groups. One spent at least 20 minutes a day at home practicing heart-healthy behaviors such as healthy meal preparation, exercise and nonspecific relaxation techniques.
The other group engaged in two 20-minute transcendental meditation sessions. They were evaluated at six-month intervals. The study lasted more than five years. The meditation group suffered fewer “primary endpoint events” (I assume this means death). Their overall blood pressure was significantly reduced and they reported less stress and anger.
The study was headed by Robert Schneider, M.D., director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa. The results are published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation Quality and Outcomes. (It’s really beside the point and I hesitate to mention it, but Dr. Schneider is also the Dean of the Maharishi College of Perfect Health in Fairfield, Iowa. The fact that this college is named after Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who built a vast financial empire promoting the benefits of transcendental meditation, probably had no influence on Dr. Schneider’s study or its findings.)
Item 3: Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston University, coordinated studies conducted by a number of research centers to determine beneficial brain function changes in subjects following an eight-week meditation training program. Another group attended an eight-week education course. Thereafter, the subjects’ brains were studied by functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Those completing the meditation program displayed decreased activities in the right amygdala — that portion of the brain known to be important in processing human emotions. According to Gaelle Desbordes, research fellow at the Athinola A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General, and a corresponding author of the report, “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”
The study concludes that meditation may produce enduring beneficial emotional effects, such as improved emotional stability, reduced response to stress and decreased depression. (It’s really beside the point, and I hesitate to mention it, but everything about this study appears to be on the up and up).
Let’s summarize: Our grandparents were right, each generation seems to be getting stupider than the last. But if stress over the situation causes heart problems, and if you’re African-American, you can cope with this depressing situation by practicing transcendental meditation. But you don’t have to be African-American. You can reduce your stress levels about humanity’s declining intelligence by practicing any form of meditation.
In preparing this column, I delved into the ancient roots of the word “stupid.” It comes from the Latin “stupidus” which means “stunned or numbed by shock.” If that’s what it means, as a student of the news, call me “stupidus” every day. I gotta go meditate.
Mike Hinkle is a columnist for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.